6 Fast Food Trends to Look for in 2021

/ Foodservice Tips, Restaurant Tips / July 20

Fast Food Trends-2021

The foodservice industry has been put to the test in 2020. For fast food restaurants, the coronavirus pandemic caused establishments to rethink concepts, tweak menus and adapt to new measures. As the focus starts to shift to 2021, trends that started years ago will continue to be accelerated and budding innovations will keep growing. From technological enhancements to flexible business models, here are some of the fast food trends to expect in 2021.

Enhanced Safety Measures

Adjusting to the “new normal” requires an emphasis on safety. Taking necessary precautions not only helps mitigate the spread of the COVID-19, but it also shows that an establishment is serious about keeping customers and staff safe. These measures will continue to be a major emphasis in 2021.

Physical distancing is a key factor when it comes to safety. The Center for Disease Control’s social-distancing guidelines require people to be at least 6 feet apart from each other, which is about 2 arms’ length. So how do you keep people safe and spaced accordingly? Below are measures fast food restaurants can take to ensure a safe experience heading into next year:


  • Protective equipment for staff – Make sure your staff is wearing masks, gloves and other protective equipment while working.

  • Signage and markers for physical distancing – Post signage or markers throughout the restaurant reminding patrons to keep their distance at least 6 feet apart.

  • Drive-thru and countertop shields – Consider investing in cashier shields and drive-thru partitions. These help guard customers and staff from germs and other airborne particles when physical distancing isn’t feasible.

  • Pick-up zone for takeout and delivery – Have a dedicated area and entry point where patrons and delivery drivers can pick up orders.

  • Spaced lines – To ensure lines don’t get crowded, add “stand here” decals on the floor so each person is at a proper distance. Make sure they’re at least 6 feet apart.

  • Spaced tables – Space each table, so they’re at least 6 feet apart on all sides. Consider small tables only able to seat parties between 2-6 people.

  • Sanitizing stations – Place hand sanitizer stands in multiple areas throughout the restaurant, so staff and patrons can sanitize their hands. These are best stationed near doors or pick-up counters.

  • Routine maintenance on air filtration systems – Air filtration is crucial for safe indoor dining. Frequently clean and replace air filters to ensure safe and proper air flow.

  • Reduced indoor dining capacity – Please follow CDC and state guidelines closely regarding capacity. Properly spacing tables will likely remove some existing seating in the indoor dining area, naturally reducing the number of tables.

The National Restaurant Association created a restaurant reopening guide in May. QSR and FSR establishments should continue using that 10-page PDF as well as other state and CDC guidelines as resources in 2021.

More Emphasis on Delivery

While there has been a shift to delivery in the fast-food space for a few years, stay-at-home orders and dine-in restrictions caused many establishments to pivot to delivery almost overnight. Even as things return back to normal, delivery should stay a primary focus. As you wrap up the year, start instituting more finite solutions to prepare for 2021.

For fast food restaurants that added delivery in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to evaluate current POS systems or ordering software. Where do your current solutions fall short in terms of delivery? Your POS system not only has to cover basics like in-person payments, orders and inventory, but it also must tackle delivery management tasks like dispatching, routing deliveries and estimating arrival times.

Some establishments also might need to weigh the use of third-party versus in-house delivery, whether they  currently use one or both. While third-party services like GrubHub, UberEats and DoorDash waived or reduced commission fees during the outbreak, there is no guarantee that will last through this year and into 2021. Opting entirely for in-house delivery drivers cuts high third-party commission fees. However, you’re required to reimburse drivers for gas in addition to hourly wages. The benefit of third-party delivery is that it helps eliminate the costs and stress of operating an in-house delivery program and creates more exposure for your establishment.

Heading into 2021, hospitality and restaurant groups should consider consolidating their delivery operations offsite. If the group has multiple fast food concepts located in the same area, it might be wise to invest in a ghost kitchen model. Also known as a commissary or satellite kitchen, this off-premise facility allows multiple restaurants to have delivery orders prepared and cooked away from their individual locations. A ghost kitchen helps each location reduce costs on utilities, equipment operations, reformatting of space and hiring extra staff.

Contactless Curbside & Pickup

As we mentioned earlier, safety is a key component now and heading into next year. Both standard takeout and curbside pickup have been very popular options in response to the pandemic, and it seems like they could stay long term.

One way to make these options even safer is by making them contactless. The concept of contactless delivery has become a new norm since March, allowing patrons to grab orders safely from their doorsteps without interacting with a delivery person. There are ways a couple of easy ways to create contactless models for both standard and curbside pickup heading into next year.

Last year, we mentioned that pick-up cabinets could be a growing fast food industry trend in 2020. They should be even more prominent in 2021, especially with safety remaining a premium. These pieces of equipment are modern twists on the old automats that enjoyed their heyday through the 1950s. Essentially, a customer can order and pay for food online via an app or computer. Once the order is prepared, the food is placed in a refrigerated or heated cabinet compartment and the customer is alerted that it’s ready for pickup. Upon arrival, the patron scans a QR code or types a numeric code on a touchscreen, opening the compartment so he/she can take the order.

A contactless curbside solution also should be a major focus for fast food restaurants next year. Self-driving carts and drones have been tested in delivery, and technology for a server bot was showcased at last year’s National Restaurant Association Show. The Bear Robotics’ Penny Foodservice Robot, one of the 2019 Kitchen Innovations Award winners, created a robot server that brings food and drinks to tables.

Could a curbside bot be on the way in 2021? Well, they’re starting to crop up now.

A Best Buy store went viral with a curbside robot in April, where it used a four-wheeled bot with a basket tied to the top. Less than a month later, there were multiple reports and viral videos of restaurants across the U.S. starting to incorporate the idea. Dallas-based El Palote Panaderia was one of the first places to showcase their curbside “bot,” which essentially was a bin attached to the top of a remote-controlled car.

While there isn’t a robot built exactly for curbside pickup yet, the seed has already been planted. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a robotics company in 2021 take the idea and create something specific to the foodservice space.

Mobile Pay App-Fast Food Trends 2021

Accepting Multiple Payment Apps

Remember when debit cards slowly phased out the idea of carrying cash? Well, now payment apps are slowly phasing out cards, and the entire fast-food space needs to be ready next year.

This isn’t a new concept. In fact, some places like Starbucks and Chipotle incorporating mobile pay options years ago. But with concepts like delivery and curbside overtaking the traditional walk-in and drive-thru models, more QSR and FSR establishments will need to support multiple quick-pay solutions as the next step in their evolution.

If your fast food restaurant lacks mobile payment, research which payment apps to incorporate. Make sure that you have multiple options that cater to different mobile users. Below is a quick list of some popular mobile payment apps and their compatibility:


  • Apple Pay – Only compatible with iOS.

  • Samsung Pay – Compatible on select Android and Samsung devices.

  • Google Pay – Compatible with iOS and Android.

  • Venmo – Compatible with iOS and Android.

  • PayPal – Compatible with iOS and Android.

  • Zelle – Compatible with iOS and Android.

  • Square Cash – Compatible with iOS and Android.

When incorporating these solutions, it likely won’t require additional hardware. Any phone, tablet, laptop or smart device can be transformed into a register. All you need to do is download new POS software. Check if your current POS system is capable of supporting payment apps before looking into mobile-specific solutions. Many existing platforms have all-in-one capabilities, allowing restaurants to simply upgrade their software without having to purchase an entirely new system.

Smart Equipment & Robotic Solutions

The idea of a connected kitchen isn’t a new trend in fast food. Over the last decade, multiple food equipment manufacturers have created units that connect to smart devices via an internet connection. This allows kitchen operators and managers to track a wide variety of cooking data, update menus or cooking modes and keep tabs on equipment statuses and maintenance schedules.

Still, kitchen connectivity is nowhere near its full potential. The integration of Internet of Things (IoT) could play a major role going in a rapidly changing QSR/FSR world. IoT uses an internet connection to let digital devices communicate with one another without human intervention. More fast food restaurants and chain groups should consider incorporating connected equipment in 2021. With accelerated shifts toward delivery and takeout, factors like efficiency, speed and well-maintained equipment are going to be more important than ever.

With smart equipment connected to management and POS systems via IoT, your entire kitchen could work in sync without an operator running the show. For example, an oven could trigger a pickup cabinet compartment to preheat when food is almost done cooking, or a smart refrigerator could alert your inventory management platform to reorder items when they’re low. They also can send notifications to authorized service agents when a repair or routine maintenance is required.

If full connectivity is not an option yet, fast food restaurants could invest in individual smart units to further efforts in automation. There are many pieces of cooking equipment on the market that can automatically regulate temperature, adjust cook times and send cooking data to your smart devices. Some manufacturers even have smart cook-and-hold units that let an operator “set it and forget it,” meaning the food is cooked and stored from the same footprint without intervention.

We mentioned the idea of robots for curbside pickup, but they could be a growing innovation inside fast food establishments as well. For instance, California-based Chowbotics rolled out its Sally 2.0 in October 2019, and it meets some of the safety measures required in our current climate. The machine safely prepares salads, grain bowls and other easy snacks in about 90 seconds from its small, 3-x-3 footprint.

Another prep robot that has caught the attention of the foodservice industry is Picnic’s pizza-making robot. The Seattle-based food automation company unleashed a pizza-prep bot in October 2019, and it turned headed heads at CES 2020. The automated station is an all-in-one assembly line that can prepare an entire pizza, laying down sauce, cheese and all the toppings. The conveyor system eventually moves the pizza to a built-in oven that cooks it in a matter of minutes. More robotic solutions like this and the Sally 2.0 could make their way into the QSR and FSR space next year to help the growing demand for more efficient and safe food prep measures.

Plant-Based & Non-Dairy Alternatives

While safety and tech will be crucial fast food trends in 2021, the industry also should continue to press forward with plant-based and non-dairy alternatives. More major chains have tested and incorporated meat substitutes in the last year. Most notably, Burger King added the Impossible Whooper® to its menu in 2019, and both KFC and Denny’s followed suit in 2020 with meatless alternatives made by Beyond.

While meat substitutes get all the coverage, non-dairy solutions have gained steam with major chains as well.  For instance, almond milk and oatmilk have slowly made their way on fast food menus. In fact, both Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts made headlines earlier this year by incorporating oatmilk to their rotation of dairy-free beverages and creamers.

Many associate plant-based and dairy-free options as items reserved for only vegan and vegetarian customers, but that isn’t entirely the case. These substitutes serve as replacements for patrons with dietary restrictions too. Also, more diners believe there is a negative health and ecological impact by consuming meat and dairy on a daily basis. As a result, they’re trying to change their diets by limiting the intake of both and seeking proper alternatives.

Whatever the reason, there is no harm in broadening your menu options to serve any potential customer. With more fast food giants likely to invest in these alternatives next year, mid-size and smaller establishments likely will follow suit. It’s a very strong possibility that both plant-based and dairy-free choices could be part of the new norm by the end of 2021.

NOTE: This article includes measures and designs to meet guidelines related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please consult the CDC for the latest health regulations as well as state and local officials for proper guidance in your area.


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