How the pandemic has reshaped the future of restaurants


With rising cases of the Delta variant of the coronavirus forcing some restaurants to bring back mask requirements and instate new policies requiring customers to show proof of vaccination, it can be difficult to imagine what restaurants’ post-pandemic future will look like. The past year-and-a-half has brought countless challenges for restaurants, from the early days when restaurant operators were forced to think on their feet as sudden shutdown orders brought dine-in business to a halt, to current struggles with supply and staffing. During the course of the pandemic, restaurants have had to reinvent themselves countless times — ramping up off-premises sales, exploring virtual brands, and rallying around their communities to support people in need.

While many of these changes came out of necessity as a reaction to the times, the pandemic has brought about a shift in the restaurant industry that will outlast the pandemic. Most restaurant operators plan to keep at least some of the changes they made to their operations during the pandemic, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Industry report. In fact, more than 25% of fast-casual and quick-service restaurant operators said they plan to keep all of the changes they made to their restaurants after COVID-19 has subsided.

Whether it’s new or expanded channels for off-premises that cater to lasting demand for convenient meal options or programs that serve the local community, here’s a look at some of the concepts and innovations that are defining the future of food service.

Takeaway is here to stay

Delivery and takeout sales skyrocketed early in the pandemic since they were restaurants’ only means of serving customers while their dining rooms were closed, but many eateries are betting on continued demand for off-premises. Darden Restaurants reported sustained interest in off-premises dining in June even as dine-in sales picked back up, and off-premises sales accounted for 33% of total sales at Olive Garden in the quarter ending May 30. 

Darden has made improvements to its digital ordering and curbside pickup operations to streamline takeout. Countless other restaurants are also making efforts to scale up takeout operations and make it as convenient as possible for customers to get food to go. Chains including Portillo’s, Chipotle, and Jack in the Box have announced plans for new stores that will serve off-premises orders only, and many restaurants have unveiled revamped store designs that feature multiple drive-thrus or expanded parking areas for in-car dining.

Brands take shape without brick and mortar

While some restaurants will take on new physical forms in the coming years, there is also a wave of new restaurant brands that have done away with the need for a storefront altogether. 

Virtual concepts and ghost kitchens were already growing before the pandemic, but the uptick in takeout and delivery orders has kicked off a tidal wave of new virtual brands that is still going strong. Chicken wing concepts have been one of the most popular entry points into virtual brands, with new virtual brands including Cosmic Wings and Wings Out debuting from Dine Brands and Dave & Buster’s, respectively.

Some virtual brands are betting on the continued growth of both on- and off-premises dining by expanding from digital to brick and mortar. Dickey’s Restaurant Brands plans to launch a restaurant next month for the Wing Boss virtual brand it launched earlier this year.

Hotel guests dine in and order out

With travel starting to rebound after people put trips on pause during the pandemic, some hotels are overhauling their food options to be more appealing to travelers. One change we’re likely to see more of in the coming years is hotels adding partnerships with restaurants or delivery services to cater to people who don’t want to give up their food delivery habit while on the road. For example, Resorts World Las Vegas recently announced it is partnering with Grubhub to replace traditional in-room dining with its delivery service.

On the other end of the spectrum, some hotels are stepping up their in-house restaurant game to become dining destinations in their own right by partnering with big-name chefs. The partnerships — which range from permanent restaurants to limited-time dinner series — can be a win-win for chefs who are looking for new opportunities after their businesses were hit hard by the pandemic.

Community support for all seasons 

Despite the difficult circumstances that the restaurant industry continues to face during the pandemic, chefs and restaurant operators were quick to come to the aid of those in need in their communities. This community-focused ethos will continue to be a driving force for many restaurants even after the pandemic has ended. 

After she was laid off in 2020, chef Camille Cogswell worked with the social justice bake sale effort Bakers Against Racism, and now she is working on a community-focused bakery in North Carolina. 

Massachusetts chef Tracy Chang started two non-profits during the pandemic that distribute groceries to restaurant industry employees and serve meals to front-line workers. Chang said she plans to keep serving her community even after her restaurant resumes normal dine-in business. “These communities will continue to feel the impact of COVID even after the pandemic is over,” she said.