Consumers need to know the options they can choose from.

Ringing in the new year usually brings a wave of resolutions and commitments from people to better themselves. No one could have anticipated that ringing in 2020 would also bring a global pandemic that, among other things, devastated the restaurant industry. Companies that only offered dine-in experiences found themselves shifting to take-out models to try and keep the lights on.

Many parts of the restaurant experience have been irrevocably altered, including the otherwise iconic menu. The reusable menu has gone the way of the dodo, but consumers still need to know the options they can choose from. What types of menus are popular in restaurants today?

Adding Family Dinner Options

One thing the pandemic added to restaurant menus was the family meal. Instead of ordering individually for each person, one person could order a single meal designed to feed anywhere from four to eight people, depending on the restaurant and the kind of foods they serve. These have become a popular takeout option for families looking to change up their menu a bit, and those craving takeout meals but who are looking for a cost-effective way to scratch that itch.

These menu additions may have been the product of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they will likely stay as part of the regular offerings of many of these restaurants.

Opting for Single-Use Menus

Before the pandemic, reusable menus were the most common way to decide on a meal. These were easy to clean, easy to update if necessary, and lasted longer than plain paper menus.

When the COVID-19 pandemic rolled around, a simple wipedown wasn’t enough anymore. New sterilization techniques were required, and that meant this menu needed an upgrade—or rather a downgrade.

Restaurants, whether they were still offering dine-in services or not, swapped their reusable laminated menus with single-use paper ones. These could be discarded or recycled after a single customer, or taken home or packed into takeout orders. These may continue to be the norm, at least for a while as the industry rides out the end of this pandemic, but they won’t be around forever.

They’re not sustainable—even if they’re printed on recycled paper—and they generate a lot of waste. They’re a useful tool for the time being, but companies worried about their carbon footprint will need to look for more eco-friendly alternatives.

Making Things Digital

Digital menus and touchless ordering also took off during the pandemic. The biggest benefit of these menus is that the only thing the customer touches is their keyboard or smartphone at home.

There’s no need to spend money to print disposable menus or find a way to sufficiently sterilize existing ones. Many fast-food restaurants already use large digital menu cards, installed above and behind the main counter, because it enables everyone in the restaurant to read the menu at once.

Another big benefit of digital is that it’s incredibly easy to update. If a specific item is suddenly out of stock because of increased demand or the supply chain issues the restaurant industry experienced during the pandemic, it just takes a few keystrokes to mark that item as out of stock or take it off the menu entirely.

Plus, with the fact that these digital menus eliminate the need for additional sanitation methods, it’s easy to see why these have become so popular during the pandemic. Unlike disposable menus, these will likely remain a constant after the pandemic has waned.

Go Big or Go Home

Investing in large digital menus is an option, but it isn’t always affordable, especially for small businesses. Another large menu option—one that is popular with food trucks or outdoor spaces—is the magnetic menu board. These are less expensive than digital menus but provide many of the same features.

They’re large enough that people can see them throughout the restaurant. You can easily take down items that are out of stock or adjust pieces as necessary. The only thing the digital menu has over the magnetic menu board is the ability to update or change information remotely.

Restaurants that have switched to magnetic menu boards may find that they like this new model, keeping it long after the pandemic is over. Many restaurants that utilize rustic aesthetics, such as craft breweries or themed spaces, may prefer these lower-tech options as well because they better match the aesthetic of the space.

Facing the Future of the Restaurant Industry

The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for the restaurant industry—and for the global population as a whole—but it has also led to a number of surprising innovations that will continue to shape the industry moving forward. Menus are just one part of the equation, but they will be an important piece to consider when working to keep a restaurant or foodservice business open as the world navigates this pandemic day after day.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She has over three years experience writing for the food and beverage industry.

Expert Takes, Feature, Menu Innovations