Top newsmakers of 2020

The humans, “innovations” and creepy things that sopped up headline ink for the restaurant industry this year.
Illustration: Restaurant Business staff

Most years, a few change agents might stick in memory as definers of the times. 2020 was clearly not one of those, especially for the restaurant industry.  Jaw-dropping developments and historic breaks from the norm seemed to materialize for the business with each turn of a calendar page, each turning a spotlight on a newsmaker. Here, in reverse order of notoriety, are the seven heroes and villains who stood out.

7. Pasqually P. Pieplate
If you’re unfamiliar with Pieplate, two major trends may have slipped past without the notice they were due. One was the wildfire spread of a whole new restaurant model, a variation that promised higher delivery sales with little additional sweat. Virtual concepts—restaurant brands that exist only as listings on delivery apps and websites—were undoubtedly the hot format of an off-premise-centric 2020.

Enter Pieplate, the automaton who played drums in the robotic house band for Chuck E. Cheese’s. According to the games-and-pizza concept’s backstory, Pieplate is also the chain’s pizza chef. That distinction led the chain to use the Italian caricature’s name for its virtual pizza concept instead of associating it with the mother brand, even though pies are Chuck’s signature menu item. The idea backfired when it was discovered there really was no Pasqually’s Pizza & Wings; the food was actually prepared in the kitchens of Chuck E. Cheese’s, whose pizzas aren’t renowned for their quality or appeal to adults. Hence the decision to market pies under Pieplate’s name, a move perceived by some members of the public as a con job.

Nonetheless, sales of Pasqually’s fare soared to 10% of Chuck E. Cheese’s revenues. Suddenly, Pieplate was the embodiment of everything that was good and bad about virtual concepts.

The mustachioed robot is also emblematic of the withering challenges Chuck E. Cheese’s and other eatertainment concepts faced during the pandemic. Because an on-site experience is a big part of their appeal, off-premise business was tough to land. Even with Pieplate manning the ovens, Chuck E. Cheese’s wasn’t able to meet its debt obligations and the chain opted for bankruptcy, one of the more celebrated Chapter 11 filings of 2020.

6. Dr. Anthony Fauci
The restaurant industry didn’t know what to expect when the coronavirus first hit the United States. The business been minimally affected by avian and swine flu. How bad could this one be? Fauci, the nation’s leading public health expert, showed just how bad when he hit the Sunday morning talk shows on March 15 and related how he’d asked President Trump to shut down restaurants nationwide for two weeks. He’d get his wish, not from Trump but from governor after governor, and for roughly two months rather than two weeks.

Fauci made the same recommendation when coronavirus infections spiked after some states eased dining restrictions, and governors acted once again. Onsite-dining shutdowns were a key development for the industry in 2020, and Fauci was clearly an instigator, much to the dismay of many in the business.

5. The QR code
If there were an industry award for Best Comeback, the familiar black-and-white patch, a throwback to simpler technological times, would win hands down. The big operational story of 2020 was the industry’s embrace of contactless ordering and pickup of to-go meals. Restaurants and guests strived to minimize contact with humans and any surface potentially harboring coronavirus. The hero in that situation proved the humble QR code. Used in conjunction with smartphones, it became the industry’s preferred means for everything from calling up menus to alerting a curbside delivery person that you were ready to take your meal.

4. The state governor
Because the 50 state chiefs functioned as field commanders of the nation’s fight against coronavirus, they became must-watch figures for restaurateurs and virtually every other American during the pandemic. Many of the state chiefs convened a televised press conference every day, earning one—New York Gov. and heartthrob Andrew Cuomo—an Emmy and nonstop queries about his relationship status.

The briefings often delivered monumental news—a shutdown of restaurant dining rooms one day, a suspension of tourism into the state the next, an easing of restrictions on outdoor dining the week after that, and maybe a service curfew several months down the road. Not all the news was bad. Governors were the forces who ultimately okayed such concessions as allowing restaurants to sell alcoholic beverages for takeout and delivery.

They were crucial newsmakers for the industry because they typically made the decisions of greatest importance to restaurants—when they had to close, when they could reopen, what safeguards they needed to embrace, and what help they could expect from their states. The governors may not have been popular, but they certainly were influential.

3. Steve Easterbrook
However brilliant Easterbrook may have shown himself to be as a corporate strategist, he was clearly guided by a lizard brain in other aspects of his role as CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company. The least of his infractions, and the one that cost him his job, was having a romantic (albeit sexless) relationship with a female subordinate. Anyone who’s ever been issued a corporate handbook knows that’s unacceptable. And this guy is the highest-profile individual (next to Ronald) of a highly scrutinized public company.

But that was just the start. He allegedly hid additional relations—these apparently physical—with women in the company and even fielded revealing pictures of some via the corporate email system. The corporate email system! He figured his tracks were covered because the shots were forwarded to a personal email address. You don’t have to work in IT to know how ill-founded that assumption was.

The list of alleged wrongdoings goes on and on—all of it public, and all of it alleging misbehavior of the highest sort. Easterbrook not only acted badly, but then tried to protect himself in bumbling fashion. Is this the same guy who led a turnaround of a business that some saw as vulture chow?

It’s still difficult to believe that an individual who showed such fortitude in leading McDonald’s out of a financial mess would prove to have a two-bit moral compass.  But the story was laid out in vivid detail.

2. Donald Trump
Regardless of whether a restaurateur loved or loathed the nation’s 45th president, their business was undoubtedly affected by the commander in chief during 2020. On the simplest level, restaurants operated under new regulatory guidelines on such matters as when a tip credit could be taken for servers’ side work. They also may have felt the impact of his stance on immigration—Rubio’s, for instance, was prompted to discharge 30% of its line cooks because of stricter interpretation of the rules. The fired workers had an average tenure of nine years, and the fast-casual chain cited the mass dismissal when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Trump’s influence was powerfully felt in his handling of the pandemic. History will decide how good or bad it was—and there are zealous advocates for either assessment, restaurateurs presumably included. But nothing affected the industry was much as the health and economic crises that were triggered by the moves Trump did or didn’t make to protect the nation. His actions made him the biggest newsmaker for the restaurant industry in 2020, except for one other player.

1. The coronavirus

The industry had never seen anything like the disruptions that were triggered by the micro-organism. No doubt many of its members hope they never do again. From the night of March 11—when the NBA’s season was canceled, Tom Hanks announced he and his wife were infected, and President Trump declared the situation a pandemic--business-as-usual status was canceled for restaurant owners, employers and customers. Every news cycle brought reports of how life as we knew it had been up-ended. One day, operators were heading into what looked to be an especially prosperous year. A day later, 80% of their sales had typically vaporized—if they were lucky enough to hold onto 20%. And the struggle to build the level back toward 2019 levels continues.

Fortunately, the biggest story of early 2021 may be the taming of the virus through vaccination.

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