Operations

What we're putting money on for 2024

In this season of attempting to peek around the corner to see what's ahead, here are the predictions from the editors of Restaurant Business.
The migrant kitchen. | Illustration by Marty McCake and Nico Heins

It has been a year of keeping our collective fingers to the economic wind to see which way the consumer mindset is blowing. So much so, our fingers are getting chapped.

Where will the winds blow in 2024? Here is the annual look into the crystal ball from the editors of Restaurant Business. From a potential IPO to sweet-sour flavors, here’s what may be ahead for the New Year.

Jonathan Maze, editor-in-chief

Tepid sales ahead. A year ago, I gave out my predictions in haiku form. I was roughly half right. I said restaurant sales will increase but be tougher to come by (yes); labor costs will be better (they are) but third-party delivery won’t be as strong (only slightly correct) and there will not be an IPO (thanks a lot, Brett Schulman). 

Which means I was far more correct than economists were in predicting a recession, given that just about all of them thought we’d be in an economic downturn. But boasting about being better at prognosticating than economists really isn’t saying much. 

So, take any of these predictions with a giant grain of salt.

Let me start with the easiest one: Restaurant sales will be tepid as the consumer adjusts to higher prices. Some brands will thrive while others will struggle. Bankruptcies will be more common as some of those struggling brands run against debt maturities. 

Now for a hard one: Subway will eventually get sold to Roark Capital. But only after Roark agrees to divest Inspire Brands, which it will do via IPO.

Peter Romeo, editor-at-large

A tempest in a tip jar. Tipping spread like a spilled cup of coffee across all industry segments last year, leading to what the pundits dubbed “tipping fatigue.” Yet the practice is likely to draw considerable fire in 2024, at least as a way of tempering the labor expenses of full-service restaurantsOrganized labor is hellbent on making it the year the tip credit began to disappear, state by state and city by city. 

Drives to kill the employer concession are already underway in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio, Arizona and parts of Maryland. The Supreme Court of Michigan is deciding as you read this if the employer break will survive in that state.

Efforts to eliminate the tip credit are likely to crop up as often in the coming year as proposals for a $15 minimum wage have for the last decade. 

Patricia Cobe, senior menu editor

The migrant kitchen. The influx of refugees from Central and South America will have an influence on menus. The natural path for migrants is through restaurants, and once these newcomers get clearance, they can start working in kitchens in various positions. Staff meals prior to service—also called “family meals”—familiarize cooks, chefs and other team members with their culinary traditions and ingredients. When restaurants adapt these for the menu, they will pay homage to their roots. Venezuelan arepas and Salvadorian pupusas are two portable foods poised to become the next taco. 

Sweet heat evolves into sweet-sour heat. Hot honey was all the rage in 2023, flavoring everything from pizza to breakfast sandwiches, chicken wings, cocktails and salad dressings. Spice company McCormick singles out tamarind as its Flavor of the Year and combines it with pasilla chiles in a new seasoning. Combined with heat and a sweet ingredient, such as maple, fruit, sugar or honey, tamarind adds another layer of complexity to flavor profiles that can work in both savory and sweet applications.

Joe Guszkowski, senior tech editor

DoorDash will buy Instacart.DoorDash will buy sluggish rival Instacart and cement its status as the go-to local delivery app. 

DoorDash will be coming off a year in which it continued to rack up transaction and revenue growth and saw its stock price nearly double as a result. Much of its growth came from non-restaurant businesses like grocery stores.

Instacart, meanwhile, has seen its share price decline by almost 25% since going public in September. Its order growth has flattened this year, and investors are skeptical about its ability to keep growing amid fierce competition from DoorDash and Uber Eats.

Given Instacart’s struggles, DoorDash could potentially get a good deal in an acquisition. In return, it would get access to the millions of consumers that use Instacart as well as the 600,000 gig workers who fulfill its orders—not to mention a decisive position at the top of the food delivery world.

Lisa Jennings, executive editor

The long-predicted prediction finally arrives. For years, end of year predictions have included the rise of robots and automation. But this time, for real, we are seeing those predictions come to fruition with restaurant formats that are almost entirely automated—with collaboration from humans, giving rise to the term “co-botic” concepts.

Sweetgreen in 2023 opened its first Infinite Kitchen restaurant with an automated makeline, with a second scheduled to open in late December or January and as many as nine more planned in 2024. Company officials are very high on early results.

Meanwhile, rival Chipotle is also testing an automated makeline, that could make it through the stage gate process by next year. Former Chipotle CEO Steve Ells is developing his own automated concept dubbed Kernel, which is scheduled to debut in New York City in January.

The Cali Group and Miso Robotics, who brought the world the burger-flipping robotic arm Flippy, in December also opened an autonomous restaurant called CaliExpress by Flippy in Pasadena, Calif., indicating that Flippy is climbing the corporate ladder.

For years, the industry has been speculating how consumers will react to such technology. Soon we’ll actually know.

This story is part of Restaurant Business' look back at 2023. Click here to read other year-end coverage.

 

 

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