Predictions for 2021: Will things be better or worse?

RB editors take turns prognosticating on the coming year and what is in store for the restaurant industry.
Illustration: Restaurant Business staff

The past year will likely prove to be the most eventful in the restaurant industry’s history, as Restaurant Business detailed in our annual series of year-end pieces.

But what will next year look like? RB editors decided to tap into their inner-Nostradamusses to give their predictions for the coming 12 months, looking at technology, finance, operations, fast food, casual dining and, of course, sales.

Be sure to bookmark this page and then check back in a year to see how right—and wrong—they were.

Jonathan Maze, editor-in-chief

Drive-thrus will be big as takeout continues to take over and more types of concepts will add them.

Come on. Drive-thrus are already big, Jonathan, you need a better prediction than that.

OK voice in my head, how about this? Business will be better in 2021 than it was in 2020.

Well, duh, business can't get much worse ... the industry will probably finish 2020 about 20% lower than it was the year before, a decline so ridiculous it has no historical precedent. Do better, Mr. Editor-in-Chief. Have some guts.

OK, fine. Industry consolidation will pick up speed this year, driven by a growing sense that bigger is better in a post-pandemic world in which the fast-food business in particular is dominated by costly technology. Will we see another Dunkin-sized deal? Probably not. But it would hardly be surprising to see another major deal involving one of the 10 largest chains. Does that work voice inside my head?

Yes. Now go get yourself a chicken sandwich because that will also be big next year.

Talk about obvious ...

Peter Romeo, editor-at-large

Look for a major rebound from eatertainment concepts and other places promising a rich experience. After lifting meal after meal out of a takeout or delivery box, consumers are going to want forms of entertainment and a sense of submersion when they dine outside the home in safer times. There are only so many meals you can eat while parked in front of the TV.

A year from now, prohibitions on restaurants selling alcohol to go will be viewed as the equivalent of blue laws--anachronistic regulations that are as outmoded as pay phones.

Marijuana will finally be legalized for recreational use on a national basis, and that's going to foster the rise of a whole new segment within the restaurant industry. Just as speakeasies grew into restaurants in the 1930s and afterwards, places specializing in cannabis cooking and indulgence will make the world a mellower place.

Patricia Cobe, senior editor

Menu innovation will ramp up. Many restaurants had to put R&D on hold as they streamlined menus and focused on takeout and delivery in 2020. Chefs and menu developers are eager to get back in the kitchen and try out some of the new flavors, ingredients and cuisines they've had to put on the back burner. Will they play it safe and just tweak those ubiquitous chicken sandwiches with a new condiment, or add another cheese variety to their mac 'n cheese? Or will restaurants launch new dishes that are truly fresh and unique? Stay tuned.

"Shop small and local" will spur restaurant customers as it did retail consumers. The devastation to small, independent neighborhood restaurants has been monumental this past year, and dedicated diners want to see them survive. Many Americans have also become more aware of the need for social justice in 2020, and this movement will motivate them to support those mom-and-pop eateries and restaurants operated by immigrants and people of color.

Alcohol to go will become permanent. States relaxed the rules during the pandemic and no catastrophes happened when restaurants began offering cocktails with carryout orders. Mixologists whipped up some excellent bottled cocktails and cocktail kits, and consumers are enjoying practicing basic bartending at home. It's a win for restaurants too, as these alcohol-to-go programs added a new, much-needed revenue stream.

Joe Guszkowski, senior editor

Don't be surprised to see a significant delivery slowdown at some point. I think there's a real pent-up demand to dine out that's going to outweigh a lot of people's desire for convenience, at least initially. When restrictions lift and people are comfortable again, they're going to return to restaurants in a big way, and probably in groups, replacing delivery occasions with on-premise ones. I don't see delivery ever falling back to its pre-pandemic levels, but a reality check is in store.

Delivery companies will continue expanding their reach. We already saw this happening in 2020, with Uber Eats acquiring Postmates and moving into delivery of goods of all kinds. DoorDash is doing the same, and hinted at a move into the broader realm of e-commerce in its IPO filing. But the key area of development to watch is restaurant operations. DoorDash invested in a delivery-only concept called Burma Bites in the Bay Area and did not rule out similar agreements; it could be just a matter of time before the delivery giants start building their own restaurant brands.

Google will become a key ordering channel. It seems obvious: The pandemic has ushered in a lot of first-time digital customers. Not yet loyal to a particular third-party app, Google is likely the first place they'll go to search for a restaurant. Why not allow them to place an order while they're at it? Chains like Burger King and Panera are already integrating with the tech giant, allowing customers to order directly from Google search or maps. Expect more chains to follow.

Heather Lalley, editor

Fast casuals will continue to shrink. More and more fast-casual chains will shrink their footprints, potentially doing away with dining rooms to make way for pick-up windows and drive-thrus.

Independents will need to be renaissance concepts to survive. No more can they count on dine-in traffic to sustain them. Independent restaurants in 2020 and beyond will need to do a bit of everything: Safe on-premise dining. Robust to-go and delivery programs. Add in some curated experiences like cooking classes or virtual wine tastings to bring in supplemental revenue. Creativity and nimbleness will continue being key to future success.

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