Operations

The year of MrBeast, old timey LTOs and Italian beef sandwiches

See who and what won big in 2022, and the aspects of the restaurant industry that had a terrible, no good, very bad year.
mrbeast burger sober cocktails
Art by Nico Heins via Shutterstock. | MrBeastburger photograph by Joe Guszkowski

With 2022 drawing to a close, it’s time to look back on what was a classic tale of the best of times and worst of times—or in this case, headwinds and tailwinds.

Food and commodity costs kept climbing. Labor costs soared, but even with higher wages, it was a struggle to convince workers to come back to the restaurant industry, and even harder to make them stay.

But 2022 wasn’t all bad. For some, it was a pretty good, not-so-bad, terrific, wonderful year.

Here’s a look at aspects of the industry that enjoyed a boom and those who suffered a bust.

WINNERS:

Happy Hours

As soon as consumers felt comfortable to gather again, happy hours were the first order of business. And it wasn’t just about getting discounts. Restaurants got creative with attractive drinks and snacks. Sober sipping has grown in popularity, and low-buzz or alcohol-free options abound. Chorizo-wrapped dates and a NAgroni (for no alcohol) with zero-proof gin, Ghia, Lyre’s Aperitif Rosso and orange peel? Yes, please, and let’s have two because we can (even though we’re driving).

Retro LTOs

Taco Bell brought back the Mexican Pizza, a dish your grandma used to love, and it sold out in about two weeks. McDonald’s generated much buzz by announcing the McRib’s “Farewell Tour.” Wendy’s brought back its Pretzel Bacon Pub Cheeseburger. Apparently, everything tastes better when mixed with a touch of nostalgia, especially if both Dolly Parton and Doja Cat are fans.

Social media stars

In the chain restaurant world, there was perhaps no greater celebrity than MrBeast. His real name is Jimmy Donaldson, but his YouTube persona was the inspiration for a virtual burger brand that launched in 2021. And in 2022, MrBeast Burger became a brick-and-mortar concept in New Jersey. That move followed the announcement that the virtual brand had reached 1,700 outlets by midyear, raking in an estimated $100 million in revenue.

MrBeast wasn’t the only social media star to go brick-and-mortar. Dylan Lemay, another social media star, also opened an ice cream shop in New York City called Catch ‘N Ice Cream, where scoops are tossed in the air for customers to catch. YouTuber David Dobrik opened a pizza parlor in Los Angeles.

People over 25 may have no idea who these influencers are, but that doesn’t seem to matter.

Italian Beef

Slow-cooked beef, sliced and piled high on a French roll and topped with giardiniera has been a Chicagoland favorite for decades, but the rest of the world also fell in love with the sandwich after watching the Hulu/FX series “The Bear.” The series was about a fine-dining chef who comes home to run his family’s Italian beef-slinging restaurant after his brother dies. It’s a story about grief, coming to grips with the past and identity. But it’s also a terrific (and shouty) portrayal of a restaurant kitchen and changing a staff culture.

Oh, and there’s that roast beef. Google searches for Italian beef sandwiches more than doubled. Companies that ship nationally, like Buona Italian Beef and Portillo’s, saw huge demand.

Eatertainment

The pandemic shutdown forced some to sound the death knell for the eatertainment sector. But the niche came bounding back with a slew of concepts mixing food and drink with games and playtime. Golf concepts were popular, with TopGolf and Fairway Social expanding and Puttshack landing a $150 million investment. Punchbowl Social founder Robert Thompson has moved on and into pickleball with the new Camp Pickle. Dave & Buster’s acquired the food-and-games chain Main Event. The darts-focused Flight Club has been expanding. Battle and Brew in Atlanta combine pub food with video gaming. It’s time to play.

French Toast Sticks

To-go food was much in demand in 2022 and that meant taking breakfast on the road. French toast sticks became the must-have menu item. Burger King had them for yonks (since 1986) but this year they appeared on the menu at Wendy’s, Sonic, Roy Rogers, McDonald’s and Jack in the Box.

TikTok marketing

It took a minute for restaurants to figure it out, but TikTok became the social media platform of choice for many brands, particularly those hoping to reach Gen Z and their younger siblings. Whether in partnership with TikTok stars or creating their own content, restaurant brands are finding ways to get attention. TikTok has replaced Google as a search engine of choice for GenZers, for example, and more than half of TikTok browsers aged 26 to 41 say they ordered from a restaurant after seeing a video on the platform.

LOSERS:

The 15% tip

Remember when that was standard? Now payment technology at many restaurants offer options that start with 18% at minimum, or even 20%. Sure, sometimes there’s a custom option that would allow consumers to use the 15% tip, but who’s going to do that when the server is standing right there watching?

Robots

It was a good year overall for automation, but some robots were relegated to the junk pile. DoorDash in July said it would shut down Chowbotics, a division that made Sally the salad-making robot, because it had not met internal benchmarks. Chili’s also paused its test of server robots (named Rita).

On the other (robotic) hand, however, White Castle earlier this year said it would expand its Miso Robotics fry-cook robots (“Flippy”) to another 100 restaurants. And Chipotle Mexican Grill this year began testing a robotic tortilla chip fryer named, of course, Chippy.

Federal assistance for restaurants

Through much of 2022, small and independent operators held out hope that Restaurant Revitalization Funding promised in 2020 would be released. About $180 million of the original $28.6 billion was held back. About 177,300 applicants were left without funding. In late November, the Small Business Administration released another $83 million, which was to go to about 169 applicants.

Attempts earlier in the year to convince Congress to add funding to the pot fell on deaf ears. Lawmakers were convinced that the restaurant industry had recovered just fine without their help—which was news to the many independent operators still teetering on the edge of survival.

But there is some hope for 2023: Legislation proposed in December could provide a special tax break to small restaurants whose RRF applications were shelved.

Beyond Meat

For a time, both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods were the pioneers to watch, ushering in a new era of meat alternatives that brought many consumers to the plant-based table. But Beyond Meat’s shine seemed to dull somewhat this year after McDonald’s tested the product for its McPlant burger, but declined to add it to the menu. The company’s stock plummeted. There were layoffs at Beyond Meat’s Los Angeles headquarters. Top executives, including the CFO and COO, departed and one was arrested after allegedly biting someone on the nose in a fight.

Meanwhile, Impossible Foods became the “indulgent” burger favored by a growing cadre of plant-based fast-food concepts. And a flood of other meat and seafood alternatives came to market, such as Tindle, Sweet Earth, Hooray Foods, MyForest Foods and others.

It remains to be seen whether Beyond Meat’s unfortunate year is a reflection of how the larger plant-based movement is faring.

Gas-fueled restaurant kitchens

The idiomatic expression “cooking with gas” used to mean things were working well, but that was before climate change ruined everything.

Out of California comes a growing movement to ban gas appliances in new building construction. The goal is not only to reduce reliance on natural gas, but also to reduce emissions. Gas appliances produce indoor air pollution, even when turned off, which has been linked with higher rates of asthma in children. Natural gas burned in homes is estimated to cause about 10% of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the state is working toward 100% clean electricity by 2045. The alternative? Induction cooktops. But many restaurant operators say it would kill certain concepts, like those that rely on wok cooking or tabletop grills.

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