Special Report

20 Ways Restaurants Are Going to Change in 2021 and Beyond

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6. Private dining pods will proliferate

Restaurateurs across the country began introducing this year individual enclosed dining structures as the weather cooled and outdoor dining became more challenging. Also known as igloos, bubble tents, and domes, these pods are typically well insulated against the cold and have air circulation or filtration systems designed to lessen the possibility that they will incubate the coronavirus. Even after the pandemic subsides, some restaurants, especially in cooler climates, might find a ready clientele for the exclusive pod dining experience.

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7. More drive-thrus are coming

Drive-thrus have long been a staple of the fast-food industry, but the pandemic has made them more popular than ever, both because they minimize customer contact with servers and because restaurant owners like the efficiency and safety they provide. Chipotle and Starbucks are among the big companies that have recently stepped up their drive-thru game, and smaller players like Shake Shack and Sweetgreen are following suit. Even upscale establishments are getting in on the action. In October, for instance, the restaurant reservation service Resy sponsored a two-night drive-thru pop-up event in L.A. featuring noted chefs like Curtis Stone and Nancy Silverton.

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8. There’ll be cocktails and wine to go

Laws in most places used to prohibit restaurants from adding a bottle of wine or a couple of Cosmos to pickup or delivery orders. With bars and eating places in much of the country closed either completely or partially since the pandemic arrived, a number of cities and states began allowing establishments to furnish adult beverages along with food. New York, California, Texas, and Illinois are among the states that have adjusted their regulations to permit this. In some cases the new rules are only temporary, but in others, alcohol to go is probably a permanent phenomenon. Some operators are even creating their own liquor and cocktail brands and selling drinks in large formats — like Margaritas by the gallon.

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9. Restaurants will do double duty

In order to remain profitable with their dining rooms closed or restricted, some establishments have gone beyond just takeout and delivery offerings, doubling as food shops, selling staples like rice, pasta, and milk and even do-it-yourself meal kits. Another potential trend is the introduction of virtual cooking or cocktail classes: Buy the materials to go from a restaurant or bar, then head home and follow along online as the chef or bartender shares his or her techniques. If these measures prove profitable, there’s no reason to expect restaurants to phase them out even when indoor dining returns in full force.

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10. You’ll order and pay without touching much

Increasingly, restaurants are introducing automated ordering and paying systems to minimize physical contact between staff and guests. It is now possible to access menus and wine lists with QR codes and pay by credit card or payment app without receiving a printed check. Kiosks and tabletop ordering screens are also becoming popular. The NRA report predicts “an evolving digital ecosystem of apps, services and personal AI assistants.” That doesn’t mean that human interaction is a thing of the past. Restaurants at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, to take one example, send diners who reserve a table and place their orders electronically a video in which the chef recommends dishes.

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