Restaurant industry ripples poised to swell into waves

These developments made news in 2021 but expect to see them surge into bigger trends next year.
Illustration by Joel Kimmel

The pandemic sped up technology, off-premise solutions and the way chefs think about restaurants. These are just some of the developments that rippled through the industry in 2021 and are ready to surge into bigger trends in the year ahead.

Fry vs. Fry

Eleven years ago, Wendy’s launched a new-and-improved french fry, but over the last two years, the QSR went back to the R&D drawing board to give it a makeover. The upgraded skin-on fries made their debut in September, with the promise that they would stay hot and crispy longer—a promise that’s especially timely with more of Wendy’s sales coming from off-premise channels. The chain said it would guarantee the quality of the new fries, replacing them if customers are not satisfied with their temperature or crispness.

While other chains are not issuing guarantees, there is a movement to improve fries in the QSR space. KFC introduced upgraded french fries to replace its former potato wedges—adding a side that goes better with its new crispy chicken sandwich.

And Krystal debuted its new seasoned fries nationwide in September, offering guests a thicker, crispier fry that’s crunchy on the outside and fluffy inside. Extra breading on the potatoes provides the crunch.

Soggy, cold french fries are one of the biggest consumer complaints with delivery and takeout orders, so expect to see more chains launch fries that stay hot, crispy and fresher tasting in transit.

Taking plants in new directions

Commercially produced plant-based burgers, breakfast sausage and chicken tenders made it quick and easy for operators to swap in vegan alternatives for popular items. But consumers who choose plant-based or plant-forward meals all or part of the time tend to be sustainability-minded, and these meat alternatives can be highly processed. Plus the growing number of flexitarians—those who balance veggie-focused eating with meatier meals—are looking for more creative fare.

Forward-thinking operators are crafting their own veggie burgers. Meat-centric chain Smokey Bones debuted the Good Seed Veggie Burger made with chia and hemp seeds, sprouted grains and spices, while True Food Kitchen has a house-made Vegan Double Cheeseburger featuring portobello mushrooms, walnuts, beets, kuzu and vegan cheddar on a flaxseed bun. It’s even happening in the limited-service segment, with brands such as Culver’s and Wendy’s creating signature meatless burgers.

Concepts focusing on bowls, salads and Mediterranean fare are moving the needle the furthest, offering a wide choice of seasonal vegetables, grains and beans in both curated and customized items.

True, the number of plant-based cheese, egg and seafood products coming on the market continues to increase, along with beef and chicken analogs. These may have their place on some menus, but restaurant kitchens are constantly innovating with scratch-made items. Many fine dining restaurants now offer inventive plant-forward dishes and even vegetable tasting menus. And Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park is now completely vegan. Look for these chef-inspired ideas to trickle down to more casual eateries.

Next-gen vending

Contactless ordering and grab-and-go dining are in high demand post-pandemic. Mix in the current foodservice labor shortage, and vending machines are well positioned to meet a number of today’s challenges.

But these are not your grandma’s vending machines. Technology makes it possible to dispense a wide variety of hot and cold foods and makes it effortless to connect and pay. Marriott Hotels is testing a new line of vending machines that can replace the complimentary breakfast buffets prevalent in its lower-priced properties. These vending operations are actually arranged as a wall of self-serve kiosks filled with breakfast sandwiches, yogurt, cereal and the like. Snacks and beverages are available later in the day. Customers purchase the food and drinks through a Bluetooth connection on their phones.

Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, which officially opened this year, is patterned after the old-fashioned Automat, where customers inserted coins, opened a small glass cubby and retrieved their hot or cold food. Advanced technology allows guests to order via smartphone or kiosk, then receive a text when their dumplings are ready. Scanning a bar code opens the door of the temperature-controlled food locker that holds their order. Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is now franchising the concept, with deals signed for locations in New York and Florida.

Hot pizza from a vending machine is now possible, too. Basil Street Pizza Kitchen cooks and dispenses a hot pizza in three minutes. In Fall 2021, the brand signed with vending company Prepango to install the automated pizza vending kitchen in airports across the U.S.

With labor continuing to challenge operators in 2022, and many consumers comfortable with contactless ordering and new technology, vending can only expand from here.

The future of robots

Robots are another tech advancement offering some relief from the labor crunch. Robotics are powering some of those salad and pizza vending machines, but beyond that, restaurants are using robots to run food from BOH to FOH, deliver off-premise orders, flip burgers, mix cocktails and more.

But the restaurant business is a hospitality business, and many operators and customers value the high-touch experience of dining out. While automation works in certain types of operations, it is difficult to provide customized menu items, wine service and other experiential elements through robots.

Right now, at least. “I think we’re really just on the precipice of robots starting to be pushed out into the industry,” but mass adoption is likely still five to seven years away, Buck Jordan, president of Miso Robotics, told Restaurant Business earlier this year. But the pandemic and labor shortage have accelerated automation and the companies that manufacture restaurant robots are constantly working to upgrade the hardware and software.

That said, robotics are currently modernizing several processes. Robotic kiosks, a close cousin of vending machines, are in test in airports, office buildings and other locations. Freebirds World Burrito is working with robotics company New Cuisine to install automated takeout stations where customers can order the same food they would get at a brick-and-mortar location. 

There seems to be less consumer backlash against automation, with speedy service and food on demand high priorities. Delivery robots are perhaps the most widely accepted at the present time. Starship Technologies has partnered with Sodexo and other foodservice providers to add its bots to a number of college campuses with many more to come, according to the company.

And Grubhub has teamed up with the Ohio State University to use robots to expedite delivery from on-campus dining operations to students’ dorms. Just last month, Uber Eats announced it plans to use self-driving carts to deliver orders in Los Angeles, starting early next year. Targeting the same city, C3 digital restaurant company is rolling out robot delivery in L.A. too. 

Kitchen incubators nurture restaurants

Pre-COVID, restaurateurs tested out new concepts by running temporary popups. Food halls and ghost kitchens also proved to be fertile testing grounds.

But massive layoffs and restaurant closures during the pandemic pushed chefs and operators out of the industry. An enterprising number started online restaurants, using Instagram and other digital platforms to enlist customers, post weekly menus and expedite orders. Most created limited menus based on their specialty, such as pozole, lasagna and pastries. Many are still going strong.

Other aspiring food entrepreneurs, chefs and restaurateurs saw opportunities to develop something new from the ground up. Kitchen incubators started springing up pre-pandemic, providing centers with shared kitchen space for budding businesses. Some also offer business development training, packing facilities and delivery services.

In the last year, these incubators have grown in number and scope. The trend started in larger cities, with New York, Chicago, Detroit and L.A. leading the charge. But now places like San Antonio and Indianapolis are boasting shared kitchen spaces to help startups refine and launch a concept.

When Union Square Hospitality’s events division built out its new space in Brooklyn, N.Y. this year, the designers included several stations for startups in the expansive 33,000-square-foot catering kitchen. Surrounded by seasoned chefs and BOH pros, these food entrepreneurs have an opportunity to get hands-on mentoring.

Kitchen incubators are turning out to be valuable launching pads for restaurants and foodservice businesses. With disillusioned workers and operators continuing to leave the industry, expect to see more of these open in 2022. 

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