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“LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR BAD FOOD”

December 2021 Roundup: Trends for Restaurants

Marketing

Jocelyn Chan

DEC 10, 2021

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It’s widely understood that the December holidays – Christmas to New Year’s Day and everything in between – is a huge opportunity for restaurants. It’s a big chance to push business over the top. Customers are in the mood to celebrate and drink, and dinner outings, events, and bar tabs alone can bring in a ton of revenue. Guests are also likely to dine for longer, and continue buying food and drinks well into the night. At its peak in the last decade, diners spent over $92 billion at restaurants during November and December, according to the National Restaurant Association.

All of these spending habits were anticipated and time-honored expectations, until March 2020 when we officially entered into a pandemic. Suddenly, a usually predictable holiday season became very unpredictable. The National Restaurant Association reported that 86% of restaurant operators had lower profit margins compared to pre-pandemic levels, and only 6% report having higher profit margins in 2020. As of January 2021, seated diners from online, phone, and walk-in reservations decreased worldwide by 63%. Restaurants had to shift their entire dining experience to delivery and to-go models.

But 2020 is behind us, and we’re bouncing back in 2021. Brands have shifted and adapted and people are back out and in a festive mood, making up for lost time. Things are almost back to normal in some cities, giving restaurants the opportunity to do what they wanted to do in 2020 but couldn’t. That or they’re stepping up their holiday delivery game. 

Holiday 2020 Lookback

Holiday 2020 was the first holiday season of the pandemic. Many folks were unsure what to do but were still determined to celebrate, and many wanted to celebrate with a restaurant meal despite the pandemic. Here’s a look at what restaurants pivoted towards in light of a new dining model. 

Takeout and Delivery Skyrocketed.

No surprises here, but definitely at the top of the list of last year’s biggest dining trends. Prior to the pandemic, 80% of fullservice restaurant traffic was on-premises, and in March 2020, restaurants were forced to shut down on-premises dining. In what’s likely the fastest pivot in industry history, focus quickly shifted to takeout and delivery. 

Shift in Menu Items.

Because of lockdown restrictions, gatherings of three to five people were the most prevalent, and of these, 47% had intent to order their entire meal from a restaurant. Brands were offering festive menus geared to these smaller group sizes and were developing them so they could make well with a smaller staff. These items also had to travel well and be what customers craved. 

Bonus fact: a third of off-premises customers (ages 21+) say they included an alcoholic beverage with a takeout or delivery order since the beginning of the pandemic – and they’ll continue to do so in the future.

Gift Cards.

In 2020, ​​there was a spike in restaurants of all sizes launching gift card-specific promotions to generate sales. According to the National Retail Federation, 56% of consumers purchase gift cards during the holidays — with restaurant gift cards as the most popular category. 

Many brands launched seasonal promotions that encouraged gift card purchases. For example, modern-Mexican restaurant, Boloco, offered a free meal item for the purchase of a $50 gift card to drive incentive. 

Gift Cards are popular gifts around the holidays for restaurants.

Image Source: Restaurant Dive

Our Predictions for December 2021

While 2020 was a year unlike any other for the foodservice industry, it accelerated trends and created room for innovation in 2021. The industry’s resiliency, innovation and commitment is unwavering, and it’s exciting to see what’s still to come. Here are some of the top things that brands are doing this year that are trending upward. 

Loyalty Programs to Increase in Popularity.

The holidays offer restaurants a chance to build loyalty. A lot of diners during the holidays will be first-timers, so if you provide a memorable experience, it’s more likely they’ll return. Customer loyalty programs essentially reward repeat customers – these can include free menu items, discounted meals, or even access to off-menu items like exclusive events and services. 

A 2020 loyalty report found that 78% of customers are more likely to continue spending with businesses that have a customer loyalty program – which continues to trend upward in 2021. Make sure you're highlighting your loyalty program on your website and throughout your social media all year long, but even more so in December. This year, Garden Catering is offering a 20% bonus when you purchase a gift card of $50 or more.  

Garden Catering is offering a gift card promotion for the holidays.

Image Source: Garden Catering

Restaurant Meal Kits & Take-Home Experiences.

Restaurants across the country — including fine-dining restaurants that rely on presentation, ambiance, and overall experience —  have to pivot to provide these things for an at-home experience. For 2021, while there’s more normalcy in dining than last year, the trends still lean strongly towards takeout. 

Restaurant meal kits and take-hoe experiences are popular among all age groups.

In the Restaurant Trends 2021 report by the National Restaurant Association, more than half of adults surveyed say they’d likely purchase a take-home meal kit if it was offered by one of their favorite restaurants. That percentage rises to 75% in Millennials and Gen Z. Consider offering a make-it-yourself dish or upping your takeout game by offering a wine/cocktail pairing with your food, if you aren’t already. 

Meal kits are becoming more popular and many restaurants are jumping on to the trend.

Image Source: Suerte offering make-your-own suadero taco and cocktail kits in Austin360.

The Rise of Ghost Kitchens.

There is a huge focus on chefs and restaurants looking to generate revenue through newer and more untraditional models, the most prominent one being ghost or virtual kitchens. Ghost kitchens are reliant upon another hot 2021 trend that will continue into 2022 and beyond – food delivery. 

A ghost kitchen is a restaurant that only operates out of a kitchen with no dining space. For restaurant owners, this structure means much lower overhead costs, no service staff, and delivery-only ordering, which is a lot more economical. This restaurant trend is changing the way the industry works – customer service and brand management is handled without ever actually meeting the customer.

“I think we are going to continue to see the creation of new delivery-only brands. We started talking about the future of delivery technology and developing C3 almost two years ago, and when we launched in February [2020], it just happened to coincide with the pandemic. With these delivery-only brands, we will continue to see comfort food like burgers and fried chicken because the demand is high and those foods travel well” — Martin Heierling, chief culinary officer at sbe and C3.

Picture of food from Little Sesame.

Image Source: Little Sesame

Restaurant Spotlight: Little Sesame

Little Sesame is a Mediterranean-inspired brand that makes blitzed chickpeas – aka hummus – the focal point of its bowls and pitas. They are committed to building a healthier planet for the next generation, which starts with their food. They believe that growing, cooking, and eating climate-friendly food is the best way we can care for our planet. They have two locations in Washington, D.C and one in Maryland. 

What’s your plan for the December holidays? 

Catering small gatherings, stocking up the shops and grocery stores with hummus for everyone’s holiday table, then taking a break. Giving the team some well deserved time off to refresh and refocus for the new year. 

What are you doing differently this year compared to 2020? 

Getting back to normal-ish? Cautiously bringing the community back together: serving up Little Sesame dinner while continuing to explore innovative ways to bring our food to people where they are and grow our takeout and delivery.

What are you excited about for 2022?

Opening our 3rd Little Sesame shop in Bethesda, MD, expanding our brick and mortar footprint to a more live / work / play geographics. Adding a new flavor of hummus to regional grocery shelves and bringing our grocery-ready line up to 200 new doors by the end of 2022!

Picture of food from the restaurant Sticky's Finger Joint.

Image Source: Sticky’s Finger Joint

Restaurant Spotlight: Sticky’s Finger Joint

Sticky’s Finger Joint is New York’s first gourmet chicken finger restaurant. They blend a classic, childhood favorite with sophisticated pallets with their offer of fun flavor combinations and sauces. Their mission is to create the best damn experience through the comfort of chicken fingers in a fun, inclusive space. They have 12 locations across New York and New Jersey. 

What’s your plan for the December holidays? 

Sticky's has launched 4 weeks of Giveaways with the help of the Lunchbox Studio Team. Any customer who makes a purchase via our app or online ordering is entered to win. Customers can win merchandise, a giftcard or free meals. 

What are you doing differently this year compared to 2020? 

Well, this is the first time we are running the 4 weeks of Giveaways campaign, we didn’t do this last year!

What are you excited about for 2022?

We are most excited to tailor custom messages to our guests that suit their wants and ordering habits. We want to deliver effective messaging to our guests and suggest items that we think they would like based on what they ordered previously or order most frequently.

Conclusion 

Some restaurant trends will never go out of style. Some have only come in the last decade, but are here to stay. With so much industry change over the last little bit — including COVID-19’s massive impact — brands should keep an eye on the latest restaurant industry statistics to thrive in today’s landscape. 

Happy holidays! 

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