The 5 Biggest Restaurant Food Trends to Watch in 2021

2020 has certainly been a year like no other for the industry. Through stay-at-home orders and extended shutdowns, restauranteurs had to be nimble and creative, relentlessly searching for new business avenues and strategies to keep their businesses afloat. Now that 2021 is only weeks away, we are making predictions on what the new year will bring. Here are our top 5 food and restaurant trend predictions for 2021 and beyond.

Off-Premise Purchases Will Continue to Dominate

Off-premise dining, such as take-out, curbside and delivery, have grown significantly this year as quarantines, restrictions and mandated shutdowns forced restaurant owners to look for alternative ways to cover the loss of in-dining sales. Consumer behavior has also shifted, many preferring contactless options and off-premise dining than dining in. With the industry’s recovery expected to be sluggish, some even estimating that the full recovery could take years (1), there’s little doubt that this trend of off-premise dining will continue to grow in 2021.

For example, a study conducted by a consumer insights company Sense360 found that more than half of consumers used delivery during the pandemic either by third-party or direct ordering since COVID-19 began (2). According to Danny Klein, Director of Digital Content at Food News Media and publisher of QSR Magazine, operators are learning and adapting their businesses by investing in direct or self-delivery. As opposed to third-party services, self-delivery allows restauranteurs to “control the experience and keep the fees down” (1). It is also a more cost-effective option for customers, which can help the self-delivery services grow in the long run.

The demand for drive-thru services has also grown because of the pandemic. According to a study conducted by the NPD Group, drive-thru restaurant visits increased by 26% in April, May, and June quarter and represented 42% of all restaurant visits. Surprisingly, this rate did not fall when restaurants began to reopen in July (3). On the contrary, drive-thru services have been “skyrocketing, and lines growing longer despite multi-lane concepts,” said the report. “Drive-thru visits still increased by 13%, the highest visit increase among the service modes of on-premises, carry-out, and delivery” (3).

Thanks to this trend, there has been no shortage of pandemic-inspired drive-thru concepts cropping up all over the nation (4). Here are some examples of creative minds at work: multi-lane drive-thru windows, dedicated pick-up windows for mobile and food delivery orders, orders delivered to vehicles, and our favorite—car dining accommodations such as overhangs, shades and dedicated parking spots.

Meal Kits

Meal kits first started to get more families cooking at home. In 2021, that market will grow as meal kits provide all-in-one solutions for families staying at home and wanting easy, healthy and delicious meals. Katey Davidson, MScFN, RD, a member of Healthline’s Nutrition Team, says one of the reasons why people like meal kit delivery services is because “most of the prep work like grocery shopping, measuring, and cutting is already done. For a busy person who usually eats take-out during the week, this makes eating healthy much easier and convenient” (5).

Another reason people are turning to meal kits is that most of these companies offer ways to make healthier, more sustainable food choices. According to Davidson, the most popular meal kit companies such as the Daily Harvest, HelloFresh, Purple Carrot and the Good Kitchen all provide ways in which customers can enjoy nutritious and delicious foods that are either local, unprocessed or plant-based (5). A focus on local foods, sustainable practices and special diets has helped many of these companies gain favor, particularly in younger generations where they hold high value.

Fast-food chains are now also developing their own meal kits. Chick-fil-A, for example, started selling Chicken Parmesan Meal Kits in May (6). The meal is good for two people, featuring breaded chicken, garlic lemon pasta, marinara sauce complete with Italian-style cheeses. Even Dunkin’ Donuts has released their own DIY Donut Decorating Kit.

We have already seen significant growth in the meal kit delivery services during the pandemic, but there’s still good room to grow in 2021, considering that more people will be looking to dine off-premises and at home. Other ways meal kits are being delivered are through meal kit technology platforms such as Dailykit (7, 8) and through open marketplaces where high-end restaurants can sell meal kits to customers via intermediary companies such as Chef Meal Kits (9).

Mobile Apps and Data

Customer loyalty and rewards mean everything in this new information-driven age. In 2021, restaurant operators will be looking for new ways to reach and acquire online customers, with an aggressive focus on acquiring new mobile app users (1). “Restaurants are battling for digital supremacy as COVID rages on,” wrote Klein (10). In his new article about restaurant technology, he referenced a report from Incisiv, a marketing research firm based in New Jersey, how digital sales are expected to comprise 54% of limited-service business within the next five years (10, 11). With the rising popularity of mobile ordering, carry-out, and curbside pick-up, operators will have to engage the customers in the digital space.

It used to be that “these digital outlets were seen…as incremental levers or ways to reach new guests, especially via third-party delivery,” said Klein. For example, restaurants were trying to funnel third-party users into direct channels by using clever marketing tactics like cost-friendly options like take-out (10). But today, the digital experience will have to be seamless, as well as efficient. This means offering streamlined menu options, contactless delivery, as well as real-time order tracking. According to Incisiv, limited-service restaurants should also provide their guests with additional benefits such as documented safety measures, loyalty programs, offers, promotions and social media integration if they hope to grow their repeat customers (11).

And it seems that most operators agree. Incisiv’s recent survey revealed that 60% of limited-service restaurants already had intent on investing in mobile channels in the future (11).

Integration of AI Technology

The phrase “Restaurant of the Future” used to be reserved for businesses going out of their way to replace people with machines. Restaurant operators had to be careful implementing AI technology into their operations in case it “dehumanized” the restaurant experience (12). What would happen if smart kiosks started to replace waiters and cashiers? Many thought they would lose customers.

The tables have turned now that contactless, touchless have become the preferred way of ordering. Cameras, voice assistants, as well as other AI-integrated technology, will grow in 2021 and years to come as consumer preferences change and demand for more convenience. For example, bot and voice-enabled ordering by Alexa, Siri or Google Home allow customers to place their orders at home and retrieve their orders in a designated pick up location (13). Voice AI can also be implemented in drive-thrus (much like what McDonald’s is doing now) with a machine-learning ability that improves their speed and accuracy based on actual orders and spoken language (13).

Camera technology will also evolve alongside voice-integrated tech. Dragontail Systems, the same system used by Domino’s to make sure that their pizzas were cooked, sliced up and boxed properly, announced recently that their system could now be used to detect important safety measures by making sure staff were wearing gloves and facemasks and monitoring how often a workspace is sanitized (14). Other camera systems, such as one developed in Tyrolabs, are now being utilized to identify their employees via facial recognition, with an added ability to tell whether people are wearing masks (15).

You can be sure that the digitalization of restaurants will become an essential element for businesses, as stated in this Deloitte report (16). Guests will be looking for these three things in restaurants in 2021: convenience, frictionless digital experiences and heightened safety.

Changing Priorities

It used to be that atmosphere, location, variety and novelty mattered most of all when one wanted to run a successful restaurant. That is less likely to be the case in 2021, as shown in this study by Sense360 (17). Their survey of more than a thousand consumers showed that customer perception of restaurant chains had shifted due to the pandemic. For example, the study found that the top 5 attributes that consumers wanted in restaurants were technology, care for the environment, good corporate values, good value for the money, and vegetarian options (17).

While the study indicates that these attributes do not necessarily reflect restaurant performance and profit during the pandemic, it is still an interesting study as it shows us shifting consumer behavior. The survey also supports the idea that 2021 trends will be driven by new tech, convenience and safety. Value will also be a strong driver as many of the population have been negatively impacted by the pandemic.

But what about these two attributes, “caring for the environment” and “offering vegetarian options?” Kishan Vasani, a contributing author to the food & beverage innovation intelligence company Spoonshot, explains exactly why that may be the case (18). “Diets with low environmental impacts are becoming all the rage,” she said. “Interest in sustainable diets increased by 151.7% in the last five years and by 55.5% in the last year alone.”

Surprisingly, the pandemic may also have accelerated this trend. According to Melissa Abbott, VP of The Hartman Group, “the pandemic is forcing consumers to think about the environmental impact they’re causing when they order food with excess packaging and single-use plastics” (19). “Despite higher costs associated with organics and food grown without GMOs, consumers are demonstrating a willingness to spend more for products that are believed to be safer for themselves and the planet during the pandemic.”

As climate change becomes a hot issue in 2021, we can expect climatarian diets to become more prevalent. As a result, restaurants may have to shift their focus away from foods with a high carbon footprint (i.e., meat, cheese and imported, non-seasonal food), upcycling, and increasing food packaging sustainability to slow down climate change (19).


Trends have always reflected consumer behavior, and it will not be any different next year. In 2021, we will see restaurant owners using new technologies and innovations to cater to the growing demand for convenience, safety as well as sustainability. AI is quickly changing the way we operate our business and the momentum for new and innovative solutions will surely create new opportunities for restaurants to succeed.



Contact us at or visit our website to learn more about how we can help your restaurant capitalize on current trends.

Published by Jay Bandy

Restaurant and Franchising Professional. President of Goliath Consulting Group. A restaurant consultancy based in Atlanta, GA

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