While 2020 was a trying year for the foodservice industry, it did usher in new and growing concepts. As we look forward to next year, there is no doubt that some of these ideas and other innovations will continue making their way into various spaces. From casual dining and schools to QSRs and c-stores, below are key foodservice and restaurant trends for 2021 that you should consider implementing.
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- Mobile Technology
- IoT & Data Retention
- Innovative Delivery & Pickup
- Robotics & AI
- Touchless Solutions
- Improved Safety Protocols
- Enhanced Menu Items
Like most businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated mobile technology in 2020. Naturally, this will continue to be one of the biggest foodservice and restaurant trends in 2021. That’s why you should find ways to enhance your mobile experience on the web or with an app. Below are some potential mobile solutions to explore:
Paperless Menus: Many establishments, especially in the fine and casual dining spaces, should look at transitioning to paperless menus via an app or mobile site. But what are the benefits to digital menus? First, they eliminate the need to sanitize laminated paper menus. Second, they can serve as easy ordering tools from the table. Customers can browse the menu from their phones once they’re seated and click on links to place their orders, which can be sent directly to the POS system. These mobile menus also can help upsell other menu items by offering recommended sides and beverages.
Rewards: Retail has mastered the use of apps when it comes to rewards and special offers. This can be something smaller restaurants or education- and corporate-based dining could master in 2021. If you already have a loyalty program, make sure it’s a mobile-friendly one. Ensure you have an app that sends push notifications with QR codes or digital coupons, so they can easily redeem offers when placing a mobile order or paying in person.
Quickpay: This is another mobile trend that has grown in the last 10 years but hasn’t been completely mastered in the foodservice space. Restaurants, cafeterias and other dining venues that haven’t implemented quickpay should hop aboard in 2021. It’s crucial that multiple payment apps, such as Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay, are available to cater to multiple mobile users. Just make sure your current POS platform can support it. You might need to upgrade or update software before rolling quickpay out.
Back-of-House Maintenance: While the front of the house is crucial, don’t ignore ways to use mobile in the back of the house. POS systems and smart equipment sometimes use mobile apps to retain data and send alerts, detailing everything from equipment usage to customer information. Also, when it comes to maintenance there are useful apps for scheduling maintenance and ordering replacement parts. For example, Parts Town’s mobile app allows equipment operators or service technicians to quickly identify and purchase replacement parts, reducing potential downtime or inefficiency.
IoT & Data Retention
Internet of Things, or IoT, is one of the fastest-growing forms of tech and will only become more prominent in foodservice. IoT helps digital devices communicate with one another over internet connection, allowing everything from POS systems to kitchen equipment to work in sync with one another without human intervention. While the initial investment could be costly in the short term, the benefits of IoT technology could have long-term gains for your business.
In a December article for Restaurant Technology News, Parts Town’s Senior Director of Ecommerce Joe McQuaid wrote that businesses should focus on a couple of small elements when initially implementing IoT. He suggested using cameras in the front and back of the house that send video feeds into your IoT platform and real-time alerts to users via reports or text messages. These synched cameras can help enforce prompt service, react to a customer’s mood and regulate social-distancing and safety protocols.
McQuaid also said that IoT can manage cooking modes, temperature settings and service alerts on multiple pieces of kitchen equipment. The operator or manager could have reports, prompts and other alerts sent to their phone via text messges. Data retention is a major selling point of IoT and smart equipment. For example, Server’s touchless dispensers capture real-time data to make equipment more efficient and let businesses make more diligent and cost-effective decisions.
“That data is used for alerting, usage, preventative maintenance and user-interface communication,” said David Maroun, Vice President of Sales at Server Products, on a November episode of the PartsCast.
“[A] Server dispenser is able to communicate back to either the operator or the user interfacing with the product to give them important information back,” he said. “A lot of times this is valuable to larger chains. It gives them better intelligence to make smarter purchasing decisions with supply chains based on usage. It allows them to measure outage and consequent customer experience as a result of that.”
Maroun also pointed out that data goes to a platform where information can be presented at a high level to a corporate headquarters and granular to a specific store. This type of technology could prove to be a major point of emphasis in 2021 as restaurants and other foodservice establishments look to improve their bottom lines.
Innovative Delivery & Pickup
For 2021, delivery and carryout will still be king as more and more customers have grown accustomed to the convenience it provides them. To keep up with the ever-increasing demand, many innovations and technological advancements have been developed to not only make the delivery and ordering process easier but also generate income during uncertain times. Here is what you can expect:
Ease of Third-Party Apps: At this point, Grubhub and DoorDash have become household names, and as contactless delivery becomes more utilized, the need to keep up with demand makes using these third-party applications a no-brainer for many. These third-party apps not only are convenient for the operator and the customer, but they also allow for greater exposure to a wider range of potential new customers that may have never heard of your business. On top of that, services like DoorDash have options for self-delivery, which allow you to use the platform without the commission fees and utilize your own staff. With that in mind, now is the time to seriously look into using a third-party delivery system to meet that demand in 2021.
To-Go Cocktails & Pre-Packaged Meal Kits: One way to further streamline the delivery and carryout process is by offering your restaurant’s signature cocktails and dishes as pre-portioned kits. These to-go cocktails and readily packaged meal kits hit it big in 2020 and proved to be an excellent way to utilize your food and drink stock to turn a profit. Kits like these allow customers to make your signature dishes at home using the exact ingredients needed. Similarly, with to-go cocktails, you provide them with the pre-packaged and sealed alcohol and ingredients or an already-mixed concoction. With the popularity of meal kit subscription services like Hello Fresh, the New Year could be a great opportunity to bring this 2020 trend back and give your customers even more options.
Advanced Pick-Up & Carryout Solutions: Even the process of picking up orders is getting the technical touch. While they’ve been growing in popularity for some time, it’s only been recently that advancements like PUC heating cabinets and other technologies allow customers to pick up hot, freshly-prepared food. OEMs like Hatco have manufactured heated food lockers that allow you to store the carryout order in a single compartment that can then be accessed by the customer or third-party delivery person via a special code. This not only diminishes the confusion of which order goes to whom, but it also makes for a contact-free experience. Additionally, equipment like the Chowbotics Sally 2.0 lets customers prep their own fresh salads and other items with no contact, packaging it for safe travel. With the need for contactless carryout growing, investing in units like these will help set your business apart.
Robotics & AI
Robotics are another form of technology that will grow in 2021. Over the last few years, we’ve seen this grow both in the back and front of the house, helping reduce downtime and increase efficiency in a variety of ways. Here are some examples of where AI and robotics could be one of the major foodservice and restaurant trends going forward:
Food Prep & Cooking: Prepping ingredients can be a time-consuming task, but new robotic prep solutions have hit the market in the last couple of years to help. For instance, the Picnic pizza-making robot, which was a main attraction at CES 2020, is an all-in-one system that uses its arms to layer pizza ingredients along an assembly line. It then cooks the pizza in a conveyor oven near the end of the line. Also, California-based Miso Robotics introduced Flippy. The burger-flipping bot that can track, flip and remove burgers from a grill, allowing staff to focus on other tasks.
AI Ordering: Artificial intelligence might sound intimidating, but it actually can be a welcome addition for the foodservice industry. Both AI drive-thru and drive-in systems have slowly made their way onto the market. In Foodservice Equipment Reports’ story about Technomic’s industry forecast for 2021, it cited that Restaurant Brands International is on track to install 40,000 digital screens with the ability to tailor promotions “based on previous order, regional weather patterns, time of day and many other factors.” Nearly 10,000 are being deployed at major chains soon, including Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes.
Delivery & Curbside Robots: While delivery and curbside pickup have been around for years, both became more prominent in 2020 as a safety measure against COVID-19. In 2021, more robots could be deployed as a contactless solution. For example, drones or self-driving bots, such as Bear Robotics Penny bots, DoorDash’s Starship fleet and Domino’s Nuro sedans, can drop off food in a matter of minutes. If these high-tech solutions aren’t in your budget, you always can use a trusty RC car like Best Buy did to deliver orders curbside.
While touchless equipment and devices aren’t a new concept in the foodservice industry, their presence certainly increased in 2020. Touchless or hands-free technology is useful and convenient, allowing for a certain level of safety and caution for frequently-touched surfaces. However, touchless solutions need to be able to easily transition into commercial kitchens since many of the advancements center around everyday foodservice items. Thankfully, these innovations have proven to be simple to incorporate and use. Because of this, touchless tech is sure to hit it big in 2021 as a major restaurant trend as advancements become more frequent. If you haven’t yet made the switch to these innovations, the new year is the perfect time to do so.
Beverage & Condiment Dispensers: One of the easiest and most useful ways to utilize touchless technology in the new year is by swapping frequently-touched items with those that are hands-free (to an extent). Such items include condiment and beverage dispensers, which are often seen in self-service stations, behind bars or in kitchen galleys. Bunn, for example, offers a kit that allows users to dispense coffee and other beverages from a carafe by simply pressing a clean cup against a lever, allowing the user to quickly dispense one-handed. Bunn also offers Tap-kins, which are disposable paper sleeves that fit around a tap dispenser handle that can then be discarded immediately. Additionally, Server now offers a range of touchless condiment dispensers that can dispense a perfect portion with just a wave of a hand.
Forearm & Foot door Handles or Pulls: Not all hands-free products are high-tech; hands-free door handles and pulls are a soon-to-be essential item for any commercial kitchen. Available in various designs that allow users to open doors with their forearm, wrist or foot, these touchless handles and pulls greatly reduces contamination from perhaps one of the most touched surfaces in any kitchen. The best part is that options like the Nemco Clean Getaway Foot and Forearm door pulls are simple to install, which means they can be easily incorporated in any commercial foodservice space. These should definitely be a 2021 resolution for your business.
No-Contact Quickpay Apps: As previously mentioned, quickpay apps are not only convenient for mobile ordering, but they’re also the perfect no-contact way for customers to purchase goods from your establishment. Thanks to apps like Chase QuickPay and Apple Pay, payment is as simple as scanning a QR code or tapping a device. This means no contact for the customer and your staff. While no-contact quickpay apps aren’t necessarily a new innovation, the adoption of them should definitely be incorporated in the new year for ease and safety.
Improved Safety Protocols
While COVID-19 vaccines are slowly being deployed worldwide, Restaurant Business Editor-in-Chief Jonathan Maze wrote that a return to normal might take time in the foodservice space. That means safety measures still need to be top of mind in 2021. You should continue to implement social-distancing measures by spacing tables and line markers at least 6 feet apart. Place sanitizing stations throughout the serving and dining areas as well as in the kitchen and break areas.
There are other measures restaurants and dining establishments should explore. For starters, consider adding new air ventilation systems to help filter germs and harmful particles from the air. Maintenance of your air ventilation and general HVAC system will be crucial too. In a September article for ACHR News, Sean Silvey of Fluke noted that restaurants and other commercial facilities set up routine maintenance schedules to ensure air quality continues to stay safe and clean. Also, make sure areas where physical distancing isn’t possible are safe. For instance, install tabletop, countertop and drive-thru shields to help guard customers and staff from germs or other airborne particles.
In some areas, indoor dining might be restricted through portions of 2021. While you might have ways for serving guests on an outdoor patio in the spring and summer, wintertime is a bit trickier in cold climates. Fortunately, there are some tactics to combat the cold weather. Whether it’s your usual patio space or a small portion of the parking lot, follow similar social-distancing measures as you would inside. However, look into purchasing or renting a tent or canopy as well as industrial-grade space heaters to keep patrons warm and protected from the elements. Also, space a couple of humidifiers throughout the area to help circulate air flow and filter any bacteria, germs or other contaminants.
Enhanced Menu Items
Since 2020 was a year of a great many changes, 2021 is set to be a year where we embrace the new ideas, especially when it comes to food. With the majority of customers remaining in quarantine, many have certainly experimented with various flavor profiles, new menu items and outdoor dining experiences. With all that changes comes a new adoption and appreciation in 2021 of bold flavors and curated dishes for every type of weather. Here are some ways to completely redesign your menu to accommodate these restaurant trends.
Dishes Curated for the Elements: If you’re in an area that still allows safe outdoor dining, but it’s affected by cold weather, then the New Year is a great time to kick off a curated menu. Specifically designed for the elements—especially in colder areas—creating a menu that offers dishes that help warm up customers will help them enjoy outdoor dining and keep the chill away. Consider adding hot cocktails, soups/stew and hearty baked dishes like shepherd’s pie. Not only are menu items like this popular during the winter months, but they’ll certainly keep your braver customers comfortable, full and happy.
Global Palates: With customers ordering in more often, they’ve been exposed to a wider variety of flavors, dishes and regional cuisines from across the globe. Now that they’ve become accustomed to that, they’re surely craving more. Particularly, flavors and dishes from New Orleans, India and Afro-Caribbean regions have become more prevalent on menus and, consequently, expanded the palates of diners. These dishes utilize bright, bold spices, heat and flavor profiles that are unique for the typical North American normal. If you especially specialize in entrees like these, now’s the time to pull out all the stops and incorporate them into your menu.
Growth of Ecologically-Friendly Substitutes: Since the end of 2019, the steady rise in popularity of plant-based meat and dairy substitutes hasn’t stopped, with items like Beyond Meat and oatmilk becoming new staples on supermarket shelves and in chain restaurants across the board. Since consumers are becoming more aware of the impact of commercial meat and dairy production—along with the increased health awareness—adopting these substitutes is easier than ever since you know a good majority of your customers will love it. Much more recently, another newcomer has been gaining significant traction in the protein substitute game: lab-grown meat. While it’s still far from commercial production, it’s certainly making waves, and could soon be popping up as an option on menus.