The pandemic spurs 2020’s operating trends

Forced to change how they do business, restaurant operators turned to ghost kitchens, virtual brands, drive-thrus and more.

The pandemic forced restaurant operators to rethink everything about operating a restaurant. Dining room shutdown? Shift to delivery-only. Need to feed families quarantining together? Time to menu some large-format meal packs. Need to feed diners outside in Chicago in winter? Better build a yurt.

Necessity, that well-known mother of invention, sure kept restaurant owners busy in 2020. Here’s a rundown of some of the year’s top trends, sparked largely by pandemic-created needs:

Ghost kitchens. Sure, ghost kitchens were a thing before the pandemic. But the impact of the virus most certainly accelerated their growth. During 2020, it seemed most everybody was opening or plotting a delivery- and takeout-only operation. Ghost kitchens make sense, especially during the coronavirus crisis: They can operate in small spaces and cater to consumers’ growing reliance on off-premise occasions. But they’re not without difficulties, with some operators finding it tough to market a restaurant that has no brick-and-mortar location.

Virtual brands. Sort of a sub-category of ghost kitchens, virtual brands also grew in popularity in 2020. Restaurant operators from indies to big chains launched entirely new concepts out of existing kitchens. Most looked to find concepts that would A. worth well with their current pantry of ingredients and B. meld with the types of foods diners in their area were searching for. As such, 2020 brough a lot of virtual chicken wing concepts, along with some digital-only burger, plant-based and pizza brands, too.

Drive-thrus and curbside pickup. With dining rooms closed around the country, it makes sense that restaurants with drive-thrus would see an almost-instant business boost. Concepts that had never had a drive-thru, such as Shake Shack, made plans in 2020 to open them. Similarly, restaurants that had never offered curbside pickup quickly figured out how to integrate that model into their operations. Now, many chains are adding GPS capabilities to their apps so the restaurant knows exactly when a diner is arriving to pick up food.

Chicken mania. Remember the biggest restaurant story of 2020, pre-pandemic? It was the game-changing Popeyes’ Louisiana Kitchen’s chicken sandwich, which actually launched the year before but whose popularity endured. The sandwich brought in so much business for Popeyes’ that just about every quick-service chain (and plenty of full-service ones, too) launched their own versions. And it wasn’t just chicken sandwiches that captured our attention this year. It seemed everybody was munching on quarantine chicken wings, judging by the runaway success of Wingstop and the large number of chains that debuted virtual wing concepts.

Shrinking dining rooms. When few people are either allowed to dine indoors or feel safe doing so, what’s the point of a restaurant dining room? Some restaurant brands concluded in 2020 they could get by with significantly smaller dining rooms or with no on-premise dining space at all. Fast-casual chicken chain El Pollo Loco, for example, said it planned a new restaurant design that did not include a dining room. And a number of full-service concepts announced plans to grow their fast-casual spinoff brands, including Hooters’ Hoots Wings and Bloomin’ Brands’ Aussie Grill by Outback.

Outdoor dining tents/yurts/bubbles and more. With dining rooms shuttered, restaurants around the country turned to patios, sidewalks and even cordoned-off streets for outdoor dining options. In cold-weather parts of the country, operators had the added burden of trying to keep diners warm so they would actually eat outside. Such endeavors took many forms, including dining igloos, bubbles, cabins, tents, yurts and more.

Family meals. Early in the pandemic, operators realized they could drive up ticket averages while satisfying the needs of cooped-up families by offering large-format bundle meals. Most operators said the family meals performed so well, they expected to keep them around post-pandemic. Restaurants also got creative with DIY meal kits, such as build-your-own pizza or taco options as well as doughnut decorating packs, to give quarantining families some entertainment as well as sustenance.

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