Last year the pandemic changed the trajectory of restaurant industry trends, redirecting behaviors and patterns in ways that are establishing themselves as new paradigms. As challenges evolve and consumer demand returns to pre-pandemic levels, restaurant operators have little time to waste in the coming months to reestablish momentum, especially when a misstep or under-utilized technology solution could drive consumers elsewhere.
We've assembled these forward-looking restaurant industry trends and insights based on data and consumer behavior to help brands and businesses in the restaurant space anticipate new trends and consumer habits as they figure out how to prepare for the coming year.
The pandemic drove people out of dining rooms. While carryout and curbside pickup have returned to pre-pandemic share of visits, drive-thru is still replacing a section of what was once dine-in traffic—a trend that's expected to continue.
Drive-thru traffic surged at the beginning of the pandemic, mostly at the expense of dine-in, which dropped to roughly 5% of share for both fast-casual restaurants and QSR. While carryout and curbside have returned to pre-pandemic levels, at least 10% of what was once dine-in traffic is still at the drive-thru.
Though fast-casual chains are seeing an almost even distribution between drive-thru, carryout, and dine-in traffic, consumer preferences for drive-thru in QSR remain significant, accounting for over 70% of traffic. In fact, some fast food chains, like Chick-fil-A, are reconsidering the dining room completely and opting instead to dedicate staff and logistics to meeting customer needs exclusively at the drive-thru.
Drive-thru will continue to replace some of carryout traffic, so plan accordingly. In QSR, you may want to consider future plans for real estate previously committed to dining rooms. No matter what, if you haven't already optimized your drive-thru experience, now's the time to do it.
Customer demand for food delivery saw a big increase in 2021, with almost half of customers indicating they had food delivered in the first half of the year, either directly from a restaurant or a third-party delivery service. This off-premise dining expansion represents both a risk and an opportunity for fast casual and QSR restaurants, since diners are almost 2x as likely to blame the restaurant over the delivery service for problems with delivery orders.
The good news is diners are 17%-pts more willing to give the restaurant another chance, and despite the risk of issues, 58% of customers also indicate third-party delivery allows them to order more often than they normally would.
But the system is far from perfect. While problem occurrence with third-party delivery has dropped 16%-pts from 2019, 1 in 4 consumers still experience a problem when ordering from third-party delivery services.
Overall, some form of delivery should definitely have its place in your business model, but it's wise to establish best practices—much like the system Church's Chicken implemented—to ensure accurate orders, increasing overall customer satisfaction + making sure your third-party delivery customers stay loyal.
In recent years, digital engagement has become a significantly expanded potential avenue for engagement with current and potential customers in the restaurant space.
Now that QR-scanning is native in most smartphone apps, adoption of this easy-use smart technology within the restaurant sector has grown, with a 1.4x increase since the onset of the pandemic of consumers who have used a QR code in the past 90 days. QR codes have also seen relatively narrow application to-date, so there’s significant room for expansion into other uses like placing orders or making payments. With a strong desire in the industry to expand digital presence, QR codes are one of the best ways to drive engagement with customers or easily share links and apps without clunky URLs or complex instructions.
Customers have bought in big to brand-specific apps in the last few years, too. More than 8 of 10 consumers indicate they have at least one fast-food app currently installed on their smart device, and more than 40% have four or more apps. This technology, and its expanded use, represents an important line of communication directly to your most loyal and engaged customers.
Embrace of these technologies stands to drive customer loyalty so long as you can continue to engage them through rewards and the convenience of online ordering.
Once-new digital channels, like brand-specific apps, are now commonplace and have a wide variety of uses. Engaging with new customers can help turn them into advocates through loyalty offers, and digital ordering and contactless payment methods can both improve operational efficiency and help offset labor challenges while streamlining the customer experience. Lean into this potential to drive loyalty and more frequent visits from your best customers.
Droves of employees are leaving the restaurant industry. As brands struggle to keep up—even experimenting with role replacement through automation like self-service kiosks—employees are making their job decisions based on pay, benefits, and the sentiment of fulfilling work.
Automation has long been a hot topic in the restaurant industry, with an ongoing debate around what work (and how much of it) technology can and should do instead of humans. Some restaurants have started experimenting with using QR codes to handle tasks like distributing menus, while others have been rolling out mobile apps for on-site ordering and piloting customer-driven automated drive-thru ordering. White Castle even piloted a fryer-operating robot at an undisclosed Chicago location in 2020. While technological innovations may drive more automation in the long run, human employees are still an essential part of the industry, so knowing what to do to find and keep the right ones is an essential part of survival.
When asked why employees are planning to part ways from their current restaurant jobs, 22% indicated it was because of pay. Career growth opportunities, the next most popular reply, only saw an 11% response rate. Pay rates are driving flight, and many areas are establishing pay schedules above minimum wage.
When it comes to reasons to stay with their current employer, pay was near the top of the list at 20%, but it wasn't quite #1. The top reason for staying in a current restaurant job went to "fulfilling job or work," with a 22% response rate. In follow-up, 52% of employees indicated liking the people they work with made their work fulfilling. This data would indicate that putting together the most efficient and cohesive team possible makes a difference when it comes to employee retention.
If you aren't prepared to deliver a purely autonomous customer experience in 2022, attracting + retaining employees needs to be at the top of your list.
Pay is the #1 concern, and it makes or breaks employee loyalty, but you can also work to create attractive work conditions through creating a positive environment, improving schedule flexibility, and balancing staff with demand.
Restaurant owners can tell you industry margins are not forgiving even in the best of times, so ongoing supply-chain issues and the highest inflation rate in 30 years is doing nobody any favors.
Unfortunately, the supply-chain issues that wreaked havoc on the food service industry in 2021 will persist alongside higher inflation, and low unemployment will likely continue to put upward pressure on labor costs.
In fact, inflation on the price of food consumed outside of the home was up to 5.3% in October, and market pressures going into the holiday season will likely continue to drive irregularities in product availability.
As these higher input costs persist or ingredients for menu items become difficult to source, it’s an ideal time to focus on the customer experience and find other ways to control costs and deliver value to customers.
Inflation and supply-chain challenges will persist and likely drive additional costs through 2022, so search for other short-term ways to buffer wholesale food prices by limiting menu options, making item substitutions, or minimizing food waste. Add value for customers by focusing on food quality and the quality of the overall guest experience by applying previous suggestions from this report to offset changes in product or price. Making the guest feel like the center of the experience can go a long way towards compensating for higher costs or limited item availability.
The coming year will be an essential transitory period for many restaurant establishments and brands, with restaurant industry trends like customer traffic patterns, engagement + loyalty, and ongoing market challenges all being top of mind.
To help your team prepare, download a complimentary summary of these trends and the data driving them: 4 restaurant industry trends we'll see in 2022.