As it often does, the road back begins with food.
Menu trends changed dramatically in 2020 versus 2019 thanks to a rise in online ordering. From fine dining to quick service, customers sought simple and comforting options. Restaurants rushed to meet those demands while also trying to balance cost and labor, simplifying menus for better off-premises execution, and adapting items so they could travel.
Increased appearance on menus in 2020
- Sandwiches and wraps: 21 percent
- Burgers: 10 percent
- Pizza: 9 percent
- Salad: 7 percent
- Seafood: 6 percent
- Pasta: 5 percent
- Fried chicken: 5 percent
- Desserts: 5 percent
- Bread: 4 percent
- Barbecue: 2 percent
When it came to dine-in menu trends, Upserve saw plenty of overlap with online ordering. But it also observed a guest who wanted to experience certain comfort foods at a restaurant more than at home, particularly ones best eaten fresh from the kitchen, like seafood, steaks, and roasts.
Increase appearance on menus in 2020 (dine-in)
- Seafood: 17 percent
- Sandwiches and wraps: 14 percent
- Steak: 8 percent
- Salad: 7 percent
- Pasta: 6 percent
- Burgers: 6 percent
- Fried Chicken: 5 percent
- Desserts: 4 percent
- Barbecue: 3 percent
- Roasts: 3 percent
Upserve also broke down the highest-selling items by restaurant type to see how they stacked against the overall average. This encompasses in-house and to-go orders, and is in order.
- Bottles of wine
- Tacos, quesadillas, and empanadas
- Chicken sandwiches
- Sandwiches and wraps
- Fried chicken
- Sandwiches and wraps
The effect off-premises (thanks to COVID restrictions) is having on menu trends remains glaring. This likely won’t endure indefinitely when things return to some semblance of normal, dine-in wise, but it does present a roadmap for the coming months. Can a fine-dining spot turn one of its classic dishes into a salad? Can an upscale chain do the same with a sandwich? If there wasn’t a clear menu distinction between dine-in and off-premises before, this could be a good time to prepare for further lockdowns.
Each year, Upserve looks at trending items from James Beard Award-winning restaurants, too, and compares it to the database. Generally, what emerges is new and exciting flavors, concepts, and ingredients that appear a step ahead of the trend pack. In 2020, however, even the most high-end and acclaimed spots turned to simple and satisfying choices.
Family style meals were the top-selling items at JBF restaurants this past year. Fish, chicken, salads, and veggie-based options were the most popular types of meals sold, either family style or otherwise. One reason could be the spike in beef prices seen throughout much of 2020.
Alcohol sales moved toward bottles of wine and cocktails, which as Upserve pointed out, is expected as many of these venues are special occasion destinations and tout menus often accompanied by beverage pairings. So if you’re going to dine out, you might as well buy the whole bottle.
Tickets that featured “tasting menu” as an item made the top 10 as well. This tells us that while simple comfort food is the top trend for 2020, many people are still looking for a special experience, Upserve said.
On to the sales
In Upserve’s base, brands that adopted an integrated online ordering platform, diversified their revenue streams, and relied on hard data to continue adapting consumer demands, fared better than others.
Generally, though, upscale restaurants and bars absorbed the biggest hit, as we know by now. They simply weren’t as equipped to deliver food without a 360-degree customer experience proposition, which made the pricing structure of off-premises difficult. Not to mention trying to get food never designed to travel to, well, travel. And what that did to the presentation, quality, and perception along the way. Bars, naturally, are socially driven gathering venues trying to survive in a time of crowd avoidance.
Here’s a look at market breakdowns comparing March–October 2020 sales to the prior year.
- San Diego: –50 percent
- Denver: –51 percent
- LA: –55 percent
- Las Vegas: –57 percent
- Portland, Oregon: –62 percent
- Seattle: –65 percent
- San Francisco: –71 percent
- Miami: –51 percent
- Atlanta: –54 percent
- Houston: –55 percent
- Nashville: –58 percent
- Austin, Texas: –60 percent
- New Orleans: –72 percent
- Chicago: –49 percent
- Detroit: –61 percent
- Minneapolis: –63 percent
- Providence, Rhode Island: –56 percent
- New York City: –65 percent
- Washington, D.C. –67 percent
- Philadelphia: –69 percent
- Boston: –70 percent
Lean on holidays
The pandemic hasn’t really slowed the holiday rush. Mother’s Day and Cinco de May still reported sales spikes of 306 percent both in-house and for online hoarders. However, since people are coming to restaurants less, Upserve did witness an above-average drop in sales in the 48 hours following each holiday.
There’s a smaller window to capture holiday guests than before. People break quarantine rank, but not for long.
Upserve identified two types of holidays where people proved most likely to dine-in at or order from restaurants—those that are celebrated on the actual holiday and those that are celebrated on an observed day (usually the day before).
What are the “day-of-holidays” to watch? Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Eve. Obviously only one remains but it speaks to the future opportunity. Guests want to celebrate these holidays on the actual day, Upserve said. So ramp up staffing accordingly.
“Observed holidays” generally land on a Monday, like Memorial Day or Labor Day. Since many people enjoy a three-day weekend for these and have to return to work Tuesday, these are more likely to be celebrated on the Sunday before.
“Outliers” comprise holidays less predictable since they land on a different day of the week every year. The 4th of July, for instance. It tends to be a notoriously slow restaurant day thanks to backyard cookouts. In 2020, it fell on a Saturday and Upserve saw an increase in restaurant sales on the Friday before, a day many people had off as an “observed day.” Then, sales dipped on the actually holiday.
The company offered three tips to plan ahead of holidays—something critical when spontaneous foot traffic remains fleeting in a COVID world.
Ramp up your marketing efforts
Come up with a special or promotion for each holiday and begin marketing it early to your followers on social media and to your email subscribers. You won’t be able to avoid the 48-hour post-holiday drop off, but you can try to make up some of that lost revenue by selling as much as possible on the holiday.
Schedule enough staff on holidays
With increased marketing efforts, you’ll be bringing in returning guests and new customers alike. Make sure their experience is memorable and up to your standards by having an adequate number of employees scheduled and they will keep coming back.
Reduce staff following a holiday.
Prepare for the 48-hour dip by cutting back to a smaller staff on the two days following each holiday (or give yourself a break and close up for a day or two if you feel it’s a viable option). Also keep this two-day lull in mind when ordering inventory for the week.
What’s working, and what to do
Upserve gathered some success stories and came away with a blueprint.
The first point was online ordering. Those who added the option to operations early on saw less of a drop in sales than those who waited. But looking ahead, it’s something that won’t get shut off by future case waves, winter weather, or official mandates.
“At the beginning, we spent all of our time perfecting our to-go and delivery so that later on this year, if there’s another shutdown, we pull back then slip right into what we were doing before,” Antonio Gudino of Go Fish Sushi told Upserve. His point is clear and simple: have multiple options to rely in.
Next was to invest in marketing and have a clear strategy to lure new customers. Keeping an open and honest line of communication with guests via email, social media, and in person is critical during this time of frequent and unforeseen changes, the company said.
As Neyah White from The Retriever shared, “We built up business by radically changing our offering every week. Really giving the kitchen a workout and keeping our clientele engaged on social media. That yielded huge engagement on our social media, because that’s how we announced everything. Plus, it allowed us to expand our alcohol sales.”
Simplifying or adjusting menus for takeout and delivery was another point. You see this everywhere from local shops to Outback. If you’re going to satisfy lifted off-premises volumes, getting it right becomes critical and a direct tie to whether or not a new customer comes in for dine-in later. Plus, many restaurants are working with tighter staffs, and less margin for error on the P&L, including monitoring food waste. So removing complexity is more than just a buzzword.
The last one was diversifying revenue streams. Like online ordering, restaurants realized they couldn’t keep all of their survival eggs in one basket. Some started serving new types of fare, hosted events, and found new retail options to bolster the bottom line and reach new guests.
Amanda Sullivan, from Canlis, captured the chaos. “What do we have to offer? And what’s safe? We started with burgers. We then did bagels in the morning. Family meal delivery. Then we had the CSA boxes, the drive-in, and the crab shack. It’s been just really cool to see everyone extending the meaning of hospitality in a really difficult time.”
“The 2020 trends in menu items, the way people choose to support restaurants, and the way in which restaurants are run are going to carry into 2021 and, for some, become a permanent fixture in the ways our industry does business,” added Upserve.
And on that note, here are some 2021 hospitality trends to monitor, courtesy of Upserve.
Hospitality is still king
From in-house to to-go, fast casual to fine dining, the key to guest retention is treating every single customer as if they are your top priority. If you can’t speak with them face-to-face, use social media, email, and reach out to online reviewers.
Always keep adapting
Restaurant owners have always been nimble and quick-thinking, but now more than ever it’s important to have better data at your fingertips to make quick decisions and to know when to abandon a strategy that no longer makes sense.
Online ordering is here to stay
It was already on a meteoric rise, but the pandemic has increased guest’s reliability on the feature. It is no longer a nice add-on, but a must-have feature. Restaurants need to be able to strike a balance between using third party sites and native online ordering to hold on to as much revenue as possible while attracting new guests.
Simplify and adapt menus
Family-style meals, comfort foods, and items that travel well for takeout and delivery are going to continue to be best-sellers as dining rooms are closed or working at reduced capacity.
Look outside the box for new opportunities
Diversifying revenue is the name of the game for 2020 and beyond. We saw wine bars start selling breakfast sandwiches and coffee and a famous fine-dining establishment turn itself into a drive-in movie theater. Shifting focus to anything that will make money and retain guest attention is key to surviving the pandemic.