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What’s next in dining: Trends for 2021 and beyond

Published: January 2021

After a year unlike any other, the restaurant industry is entering 2021 ready for recovery. And despite the uncertainty that still looms large, chefs, mixologists and operators are bouncing back with innovative concepts, new menu items and forward-thinking technology to help businesses persevere. 

What’s next in food and drink? Here are the top culinary, tech and business trends you’ll be seeing in 2021 and beyond: 

 

FOOD & DRINK 

In 2020, as consumers weathered the pandemic, comfort reigned supreme, with nostalgic, rib-sticking foods high in demand. This year, as diners seek to ward off the virus and improve their immunity, we’ll be seeing an emphasis on nutrient-dense and plant-based foods.  

And though most of us spent more time in the kitchen last year, we still ordered plenty of global cuisine – perhaps because of the international travel we were missing or because some home cooks find those flavors hard to recreate at home. Prepare for even more globally inspired menu items in 2021. 

Behind the bar, ready-to-drink beverages are on the rise, shedding their sickly-sweet, high-calorie image for no- and low-sugar varieties to appeal to health-conscious consumers. (The hard seltzer category itself is expected to triple in size by 2023!) Following the wellness trend are beverages infused with CBD, nootropics and adaptogens, offering a calming alternative to the energy drinks of the early 2000s. 

 

TECHNOLOGY 

For most businesses, less physical contact has meant embracing technology in new ways, from accepting online orders to connecting with customers through virtual events. Some the-future-is-now solutions include geofencing technology that tracks users on their way to pick up carryout orders, facial recognition systems and drive-thrus that rely on artificial intelligence. 

Bartenders and chefs craving that customer connection turned to social media from the early days of the pandemic, finding new revenue streams through virtual cooking classes, educational events and wine and beer tastings. With chef insights and how-to’s from expert mixologists, virtual events can deliver an experience that just can’t be found on a YouTube tutorial. Experts say these social media-driven events are here to stay. 

Now, more than ever, a social presence is vital for a business’ continued growth. From updates on hours and safety policies to nightly specials, posts that encourage engagement can drive sales and keep businesses fresh on consumers’ minds. But beyond glamour shots of the latest trendy cocktail, younger consumers are interested in brands that take a stand on the social issues most important to them, especially racial equality, as we saw in summer 2020. 

 

BUSINESS TRENDS 

Shutdowns and curfews necessitated quick thinking from bar and restaurant owners who relied on ingenuity and creativity to persevere. Some of those “pandemic pivots” have enough staying power to live on into 2021 – think igloos that extend the outdoor dining season, pop-up “grocers” and to-go cocktails.  

And from fast casual to fine dining, just about everyone made the switch to takeout and delivery. Fast casual concepts and businesses with drive-thru have had a natural advantage, but other restaurants soon caught up with efficient ordering systems and streamlined packaging. 

With the turn to takeout, restaurants have been taking a closer look at how to replicate that dining room quality in off-premise dining. Some have mastered the art of takeout with top-notch ready-to-eat foods available to-go, while others sell take-and-bake meal kits for diners to heat at home – from fresh cuts of meat to pizzas and cocktails. For many restaurants, this type of offering will be an essential revenue stream post-pandemic. 

One trend with pre-pandemic roots is the ghost kitchen, which relies on third-party delivery companies to connect cuisine and customer. Operators can focus solely on the food – freeing up funds that would otherwise go to rent, furniture and waitstaff. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, there are currently about 1,500 ghost kitchens in the U.S., with many more on the way in 2021. 

A rising variation on the ghost kitchen is the virtual brand, which offers delivery through a third-party vendor while leveraging the equipment and employees of an existing business. For established brands, it’s a low-risk opportunity to test out new dishes and reach new customers with innovative concepts.  

Food halls, which bring people together at large, communal tables, seemed doomed last spring. But with enough space for safe social distancing, low startup costs for vendors and a healthy takeout business, they have thrived. And with many of us craving communal dining as we emerge from the pandemic, this is one concept that still has legs. 

Another way restaurants have adapted to changing conditions is by cutting back on their offerings. With a slimmed-down staff and fewer customers, a smaller menu focusing on simple-to-make fan favorites can protect profits and prevent food waste. This approach will be key as restaurants rebound over the next several years – and as sustainability becomes a key priority for the industry. 

 

LOOKING AHEAD 

Though sustainability has taken a backseat during the pandemic, expect renewed interest from consumers in 2021. More than 40% of consumers say they value sustainable practices – from recycling programs to zero-waste cocktails to compostable packaging. In 2020, brands like Panera and Domino’s introduced new environmentally conscious initiatives – and with the issue front of mind for so many, more are sure to follow. 

But what will still be most important for both operators and diners as bars and restaurants slowly rebuild in 2021 and beyond is safety. Even as life returns to “normal,” the after-effects of living through the pandemic will make safety and comfort a priority when making dining choices. For operators, that means those dividers, shields and other contact-reducing measures will remain in place for the foreseeable future. 

Despite the difficulties of the past year, the industry as a whole is ready for slow but steady growth. These trends – and the many more that are sure to pop up in the next year – are testament to the ingenuity that foodservice is known for and a sign that for many in the industry, 2021 is already looking up.  

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