Starting during the latter half of the past decade, consumers for the first time spent more than half their food and beverage dollars at restaurants. Nonetheless, NRA statistics reveal that restaurant sales in the 2010s experienced their slowest percentage growth since at least the ’60s, and the 2020s are likely to see slower growth than before the Great Recession. Restaurant employment, which hit 15.3 million workers in 2019, is expected to gain another 1.6 million employees by 2029 despite a tight labor market and gains in automation. That increase is considerably slower than the past decade, which saw an additional 3 million workers.
Still, there’s no indication the industry will contract, and there’s little doubt that competition and foodservice channels will keep expanding as operators battle for consumers and their dollars.
“The greatest wars in the world will be fought in the foodservice industry,” says Gary Stibel, founder and chief executive of New England Consulting Group. “Food will be everywhere,” he says, due to ongoing channel migration, potentially getting to the point that “you’ll be able to buy a meal at any furniture store.”
In fact, the basic paradigm of what constitutes a restaurant “is rapidly evolving,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the NRA’s Research and Knowledge Group. “From the consumer’s perspective, there are more options than ever, and those will only expand to meet their needs,” Riehle says. “There is a blurring of channels that will only continue to grow.”
No one single factor will impact restaurants in the 2020s more than technology, which will result in added convenience for consumers and in saving time, costs, and labor for operators.
“The influence of technology is only going to get more pronounced, and we will see technology influence every aspect of restaurant operations,” says R.J. Hottovy, a restaurant analyst with Morningstar, a Chicago-based investment research firm. “It is the big thing.”
Technology improvements will affect the back of the house with kitchen equipment and point of sale, as well as the front of house and drive-thru lane with smart menuboards, voice-recognition systems, mobile-order-and-pay solutions, and off-premises integration.
Consumers, employees, and employers are continually getting more comfortable with technology, and that’s not likely to abate, as tech-savvy Gen Z and, eventually, upcoming Generation Alpha members supplant millennials as the driving demographics.