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What restaurants need to pay attention to in 2021

Here are the hot topics that operators should be keeping an eye on in the coming year.
Illustration: Restaurant Business staff

Traditionally, at the end of the year, Restaurant Business publishes a sampling of emerging restaurants to watch in the new year.

But 2020, of course, has not been like any other year.

That’s not saying there aren’t concepts worth watching. As the pandemic does some Darwinian weeding out of restaurant business models, investors are still finding growth concepts to put their money behind.

Fast-casual chicken chain Starbird received a $4 million cash infusion in December to fuel its growth across California. In November, 83-unit Torchy’s Tacos completed a new funding round and health-focused, value-minded Everytable closed on a $16 million investment deal.

But here are some other hot topics restaurant operators should be paying attention to in 2021:

Vaccine distribution. The reasons to pay attention to this are really a no-brainer. The sooner vaccines become widely administered, the sooner life will return to some version of “normal.” Dine-in suspensions and capacity caps will ease. Consumers will regain confidence in on-premise dining. And, most likely, pent-up demand for restaurant hospitality and social gatherings will spark a major boom for the industry.

Widespread vaccinations will likely have another ripple effect: Restaurants will likely return to having a deep well of teen-age employees, whose parents had kept them out of the workforce because of coronavirus fears.

Airport concepts. Licensing a restaurant concept for airport expansion was traditionally a reliable way to bring in some revenue and build brand awareness. Not so much in a COVID world. Now, those airport restaurants are largely shutdown or seeing greatly depressed traffic. It’s unknown when most Americans will feel comfortable traveling widely again. Might we see brands create more grab-and-go alternatives or duck out of the airport space entirely in the new year?

Suburban swing. Restaurant real estate will no doubt remain a hot topic in 2021. How long downtown cores will remain ghost towns is uncertain. But it’s clear that many office workers, who once frequented nearby fast casuals, will work from home for a good chunk of the coming year. Some might never even return to their cubicles. That has many operators eyeing suburban locations or even ways to do regular suburban deliveries of their food.

Are groceraunts still a threat? Pre-pandemic, operators nervously eyed grocery store chains adding wine bars, quick-service options or even full-service sit-down concepts amid their shelves of cereal and walls of kale. Now, with consumers getting hooked on the convenience of grocery delivery, the relevance of those concepts is less certain. Mega-retailer Kroger, however, did announce its entrance into the ghost kitchen space this fall. So, perhaps, the groceraunt threat still looms.

Diversity/Equity/Inclusion/Access. 2020 is the year that much of the country woke up to social justice issues, spurred by the graphic murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Protests damaged many restaurants around the country. Current and former Black franchisees sued McDonald’s, alleging discrimination at the burger giant. And a number of chains, including Starbucks, vowed to hire a more diverse workforce in the coming years. The events of the summer led to more consumers seeking out Black-owned restaurants. And the James Beard Foundation pledged to mend racial inequities in its awards and advocacy. Issues of racial discrimination, gender inequality and more in the U.S. are long-standing and will take much time to heal. But restaurant operators can expect these conversations to continue in the new year.

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