Just as everyone was making their predictions for 2020 this time last year, a certain black swan event came along and caused a bit of a stir. 

The pandemic accelerated the inevitable march towards more tech in every area of the restaurant – something people were predicting.

Restaurants either embraced technology and survived, or didn’t. 

Some full-service restaurants managed to pivot and find a way to offer their multi-course meals for delivery. Many quick-serve and fast-food restaurants thrived using delivery and drive-thru channels. 

Digital solutions that helped restaurants alleviate customer safety fears and adapt to restrictions boomed and tech providers scrambled to offer new products to get restaurants on board. Technologies like digital menus, QR codes, contactless ordering, and payment at the table suddenly became the norm.

Trending concepts like virtual restaurants, ghost kitchens, and delivery-first brands went from quirky ideas on the horizon, to headline discussions, as the industry looked at ways to adapt and survive.

What we saw less of was the fun stuff like robotic cooks and waiters, AI-powered ordering systems, and drone delivery, as the industry focussed on getting through a tough year. 


What’s in store for 2021?


Now that the dust has somewhat settled, let’s take a look at what the future holds in 2021. What are the trends that will continue and what will go back to the way it was? What does the future look like for restaurant ordering and delivery tech?

The general consensus is that it can't be worse for restaurants than last year. 

Without wishing to tempt fate, the smart money is on strong growth in the first quarter of 2021. Experts are predicting 20-25% growth compared to last year. But they also see a decline from 2019 numbers, saying that it will take a few years to return to pre-pandemic numbers.

Assuming we don’t see any more world-shaking events like a total collapse of financial institutions or an internet blackout, we should be optimistic. 

Consumers are embracing online ordering, curbside pickup, and delivery. And diners are looking forward to returning to normality. Restaurants, if they didn’t realize it already, have seen firsthand the need to invest in technology or be left behind. Tech is going to play a huge part in the restaurant industry recovery. 


Woman picking up her takeout order


Takeout is king

One of the most striking features this year was the huge growth of the takeout market, with many more restaurants adding delivery and pick-up channels. Some of these restaurants were already on delivery platforms, but many had not considered takeout as a viable option for their type of establishment. 

Many customers that joined Deliverect in 2020, having not previously offered delivery, told us that the results from delivery and pick-up orders were so good, they would continue using the channels even as dining rooms reopen and things return to how they were. In fact, many are so grateful for takeout orders helping them survive, they are looking at how they can expand upon this and incorporate delivery channels into their long-term strategies.

Other restaurants that had always considered takeout channels important had a similar experience relying on delivery and takeout throughout 2020.

Overall then, we should expect takeout to remain a very important channel even as restaurant dining rooms reopen and things return to normality.


Dessert in a box


Changing delivery order preferences

Given that delivery and takeout, in general, are going to be so important in 2021, it’s worth looking at the details and seeing how consumer demand has changed the way restaurateurs think about delivery over the last year and how this will play out in the future.

As many people were stuck indoors and were looking for comfort, there were some interesting trends in delivery orders. Meal kits had a renaissance, especially as full-service restaurants looked at ways to package up their fancy multi-course meals for customers to enjoy at home. 

And restaurants also found more creative avenues to boost revenue, offering online cooking classes, craft activities kits for kids, and other novel ideas. Larger family meal orders were up too, and there was more demand for desserts and sides on delivery menus.

During lockdowns and restrictions on movement, many people realized how easy it was to get their groceries delivered, and many will continue to do so. Another trend in grocery shopping has been a focus on buying local and supporting small businesses. 

Over the last year, many restaurants pivoted into becoming akin to grocery stores, as a way to earn some extra revenue where they could. Many restaurants may continue to offer retail items for delivery and collection. 

We can expect a hangover of these habits in the coming year, even as dining rooms return to normal.


Takeout food


Craving for contactless or a desire for more human interaction?

A lot has been made of the new normal. We are told that even when the pandemic has passed, nothing will be the same and we will all want a contactless experience, eliminating dirty cash and replacing handshakes with awkward elbow bumps.

But is this really what people want? After a year of isolation from family and friends, and face masks limiting the enjoyment of fresh air and facial expressions, surely what people will want is to go back to normal and have more of the human interaction and contact that has been missing.

However that dilemma plays out, it’s clear that contactless technology and minimizing human contact is on the agenda for restaurant operators. One compromise that we are likely to see is technology trying to offer the normal restaurant experience while also minimizing contact

Technology that eliminates close contact like digital menus, tableside ordering and payment apps, and self-service kiosks are all likely to be more and more common.


Kitchen staff prepping hamburgers for delivery or takeout


Ghost kitchens

With the associated technology getting better, huge levels of investment, and the explosion of off-premise dining, ghost kitchens are set to smash it in 2021. It’s not the ideal model for all restaurants, but as more and more foodie entrepreneurs and restaurant chains realize the benefits offered in terms of efficiency, savings, and the ability to quickly adapt to changing consumer preferences, we will surely see even more growth. 

Ghost kitchens will help cash-strapped entrepreneurs get a start in the industry. And may take a chunk of the market share lost by the restaurants hardest hit by the events of 2020, namely full-service restaurants.


Robots enter the restaurant

2020 saw the roll-out of actual robots in the kitchen. After debuting in Boston, robotic kitchen start-up Spyce has plans for expansion into new areas.

Meanwhile, Flippy the robotic chef is being rolled out at White Castle and CaliBurger. The robotic arm has thermal sensors for eyes which it uses to determine when burgers need to be flipped and when they need to be removed from the grill. It can cook the perfect burger, place it on the bun, and even let human colleagues know when to start related tasks for maximum efficiency.

AI and automation are also coming to the front of house, with McDonald’s rolling out smart menu boards and even Voice AI at its drive-thrus and finding success in terms of waiting times and average order value.

Expect to see more automation in every part of the restaurant in 2021. AI and robotic machines will work alongside human workers more and more until the machines eventually rise up and take over. Sorry, I mean, this will cut costs for operators and improve work-life balance for restaurant workers.


Food ready for pickup in the kitchen


Omnichannel is the new norm

2020 showed restaurant operators the importance of an omnichannel strategy as so many restaurants took menus online, interacted with customers through new avenues, and opened up new channels to take orders and payments.

Omnichannel is distinct from multi-channel in the way the channels are integrated. In an omnichannel restaurant, customers move between channels seamlessly, getting a consistent experience whichever way they interact with the restaurant. Data flows seamlessly through the system so it can be put to good use throughout the business, from better personalization and precisely targeted digital marketing, to improving customer service in the restaurant.

We will surely see more restaurants waking up to the importance of an integrated approach.  Omnichannel has to be the strategy of the modern restaurant in 2021. Customers are demanding convenience and an excellent experience whether they’re ordering online for curbside pickup, booking via an app and dining in, or ordering from a third party for delivery.


Is your restaurant ready for 2021?


Whether our 2021 predictions are 100% accurate or wildly off, one thing’s for sure, we’re going to see technological advances and change in 2021. 

Restaurant operators need to stay ahead of the game if they want to come out on top.

If you’re looking to make positive moves and adopt an omnichannel approach, Deliverect has all the tools and support you need to easily add and manage multiple delivery partners.

So, if you’re ready to reach new customers and add revenue streams in 2021, book a demo to see how easy it is to get started.

Sam Sinha
December 7, 2020 by Sam Sinha

Freelance B2B Food & Restaurant Tech Writer