The Restaurant Dive Outlook on 2021

Moriah Solomon. (2021). [Photograph]. Retrieved from Unsplash.

Note from the editor

The restaurant industry will be forever changed by 2020’s economic upheaval.

But now that the dust of the pandemic’s initial chaos has settled to reveal a new year, restaurants are making moves to build on the technology investments and operational changes they made to survive. Going forward, the question is which operators will best leverage the hard lessons learned to grow their traffic, deepen diner loyalty, and stand out in a segment where differentiators of the past like curbside pickup and delivery are now table stakes. 

As experts predict in our "Top Trends" article for 2021, digitally integrating off-premise channels to ensure they are contactless and efficient as possible will be a major focus for restaurants. Connecting these touchpoints with loyalty programs will also be key to maximizing consumer data and learning how to optimize the new restaurant experience for changing diner expectations. 

Consumer demand for speed and new interest in engaging with restaurants outside the dining room has also sparked an arms race among QSRs and fast casuals for smaller store prototypes designed for off-premise, sometimes without dining rooms at all. These models, often equipped with double or even triple drive-thrus, will continue to proliferate in 2021, experts say. 

Casual and fine dining brands will adapt by introducing tableside technology such as QR codes and handheld payment machines to reduce diner interactions with servers and speed up visit times, enabling operators to turn tables more frequently and boost sales. And restaurants across segments will lean on contactless solutions and high-tech cleaning apparatuses when marketing to their consumers to ensure their diner base feels comfortable eating out. 

Restaurants that have adapted well to this new environment will now be looking for acquisition opportunities, analysts say. We spoke to four investors about the types of deals they will be pursuing this year and what their overall M&A strategies will be. 

As restaurant restrictions continue to fluctuate across the country and the industry continues to call for federal aid, 2021 will be another dynamic year. We hope you find this trendline useful as you prepare your business for the challenges and opportunities that 2021 holds for restaurants

Emma Liem Beckett Senior Editor

6 restaurant trends that will shape 2021

Managing virtual brands and stabilizing labor forces could be challenging in the new year, but curbside, drive-thru and ghost kitchens hold strong growth potential, analysts say.

• Published Jan. 4, 2021

After pandemic slump, M&A will accelerate in 2021

From distressed deals to buyouts, transaction activity will be diverse as more buyers anticipate high returns on investment when the industry recovers after the pandemic.

• Published Jan. 21, 2021

4 investor strategies for restaurant deals this year

From private equity firms to special purpose acquisition corporations, all investor eyes will be on concepts that have thrived during the pandemic with strong potential to grow nationally.

• Published Jan. 22, 2021

How restaurants are bringing tech to the table in 2021

Much of the industry's in-store tech investments have gone toward contactless payment solutions or tableside, but operators are also experimenting with cutting-edge air filtration.

• Published Jan. 28, 2021

The Restaurant Dive Outlook on 2021

After a year that turned the restaurant industry upside down, operators are using technology investments, acquisitions and innovative design to stake their claim in a changed environment.

included in this trendline
  • 6 restaurant trends that will shape 2021
  • A look ahead at M&A and investor deals, and what it would mean for the restaurant industry
  • How restaurants are bringing tech to the table this year
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Produced by our team of award-winning journalists, these Outlooks can help businesses navigate the uncertain road ahead in 2021.
Davide Savenije Editor-in-Chief at Industry Dive.