The Food and Menu Trends of COVID-19, and Why They Might Rejuvenate Casual Dining

A ‘Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity’ Emerges Out of the Pandemic.

Photo Courtesy of Pixel-Shot.

Think of it this way. Could you throw a dinner party for 100 people with 24-hour notice? What if you had zero idea how many people would show up? Could be 50, might be 300. Sounds nonsensical, but it really isn’t all that different from the stop-start-stop-start expectations placed on restaurant operators during COVID-19. The process isn’t like flipping a switch. And fresh food doesn’t sit on a shelf like retail products do.

This has forced a lot of restaurants to get lean, reduce inventories, and develop menu items executable with skeleton crews. In the National Restaurant Association’s State of the Restaurant Industry Report for 2021, 63 percent of fine-dining operators and roughly half of casual and family-dining restaurants said they have fewer items on the menu today than before coronavirus.

Naturally, given the off-premises DNA, the trend was less dramatic in limited service, where half of operators kept their menus about the same. More than 60 percent of restaurants surveyed said they plan to keep offerings where they are in the coming months. Meaning, these smaller menus could have lasting power.

Back in June, Darden CEO Gene Lee said COVID opened a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for some. A chance, “a lot of us had been waiting for,” he said.

Lee was referencing the Olive Garden and LongHorn parent’s efforts to streamline menus, processes, and procedures during the crisis. Lee called it “the most prominent and the most significant thing we’ve done.”

“And that’s forever,” he said.

This is often a slick slope for restaurants, especially those with generational equity and strong core demand. You don’t want to cede share simply because you took a menu classic off.

But, of course, everything has trade-offs. Lee said COVID helped illuminate this challenge a bit. Consumer habits of late shed light on menu favorites people couldn’t live without. Want to know what someone really craves? Take it away.

So Darden paid devout attention to what guests started ordering when they either made the trip back to dining rooms out of quarantine, or decided to give takeout a shot. “That’s been the biggest insight—that some of what I would call the superfluous menu items that are on our menu that one out of 100 people were buying when they were coming in, just aren't important, and most of those created the complexity in the kitchen,” Lee said over the summer.

“I think that's what's going to be the lasting change. It's going to have significant impact two years, three years, four years from today.”

Both Outback and Darden spoke to the ancillary benefits. Lee said Darden sliced a lot of prep work that will never go back in. Outback CEO David Deno echoed that. Also, the steakhouse enjoyed “record low levels of waste” over the back half of the year thanks to a more efficient menu design released in September. In terms of four-quarter adjusted performance by cost category, COGS was 60 basis points favorable, year-over-year, thanks to that cutback, the company said.

In another example, Red Robin sliced options more than a third, which the company said led to more than $2 million in annual savings.

Broadly, Outback adopted a similar stance as Darden. The new menu is steak forward, with a nod toward value with lower-priced appetizers, like its famed Bloomin’ Onion. A balance of paring down yet also accentuating brand affinity. Can casual chains actually emerge from COVID stronger in their identities than before? Did the crisis helped erase some of the “all-things-to-all-people” pitfalls brands fell into around the Great Recession, when they began to chase millennial customers?

Bennigan’s CEO Paul Mangiamele explained the trap.

“People always say, ‘We’re going back to the basics.’ Well, never leave them,” he said. “Never leave your basics, because it brought you to the party in the first place.”

Yet there is a caution point. “Those of us in casual dining have to be very, very careful now,” he said of COVID changes. “… There are [brands] cutting back portions, raising prices. And then failing to deliver the value that their brand is supposed to espouse. They’re only going to find themselves in more trouble later on.”

Put another way, restaurants cutting back should do so without changing what they stand for. Look at it as an opportunity to become a stronger and more focused version of yourself, rather than an excuse customers might accept because life is full of them during COVID.

Tom Cook, a principal at consulting firm King-Casey, suggested operators conduct a TURF Analysis to determine the shortest list of menu items to satisfy the vast majority of customers. “Streamlining your menu will speed up back-of-house menu item preparation time, reduce inventory levels and improve customer ease and speed of ordering,” he said.

Operators can then use menu operations analytics and item complexity ratings to further streamline. This could entail simplifying the preparation of certain items and eliminating those determined to be too labor intensive.

From the Association’s survey, here’s a look at the number of menu offerings now compared to pre-pandemic.

Family dining

  • More menu items: 5 percent

  • Fewer menu items: 47 percent

  • About the same number of menu items: 48 percent

Casual dining

  • More menu items: 5 percent

  • Fewer menu items: 53 percent

  • About the same number of menu items: 42 percent

Fine dining

  • More menu items: 7 percent

  • Fewer menu items: 63 percent

  • About the same number of menu items: 30 percent

Quick service

  • More menu items: 9 percent

  • Fewer menu items: 35 percent

  • About the same number of menu items: 56 percent

Fast casual

  • More menu items: 12 percent

  • Fewer menu items: 34 percent

  • About the same number of menu items: 55 percent

Coffee and snack

  • More menu items: 12 percent

  • Fewer menu items: 38 percent

  • About the same number of menu items: 50 percent

And what about six months from now?

Family dining

  • More menu items: 6 percent

  • Fewer menu items: 30 percent

  • About the same number of menu items: 65 percent

Casual dining

  • More menu items: 7 percent

  • Fewer menu items: 31 percent

  • About the same number of menu items: 63 percent

Fine dining

  • More menu items: 8 percent

  • Fewer menu items: 30 percent

  • About the same number of menu items: 62 percent

Quick service

  • More menu items: 13 percent

  • Fewer menu items: 20 percent

  • About the same number of menu items: 67 percent

Fast casual

  • More menu items: 7 percent

  • Fewer menu items: 22 percent

  • About the same number of menu items: 71 percent

Coffee and snack

  • More menu items: 11 percent

  • Fewer menu items: 21 percent

  • About the same number of menu items: 68 percent

Prior to COVID, roughly 80 percent of full-service traffic took place on-premises, according to The NPD Group. It’s why, of course, menu disruption in 2020 leaned heavily toward sit-down brands over those already invested in delivery, takeout, and drive-thru. Fifty-six percent of fine-dining operators said they added menu items made specifically for takeout or delivery. Nearly four in 10 family dining and casual-dining operators said the same.

Percentage of operators who say their menu is more tailored to off-premises than it was before COVID

  • Family dining: 39 percent

  • Casual dining: 47 percent

  • Fine dining: 55 percent

  • Quick service: 34 percent

  • Fast casual: 47 percent

  • Coffee and snack: 36 percent

Percentage of operators who say their restaurant added menu items that are specifically designed for takeout or delivery

  • Family dining: 36 percent

  • Casual dining: 37 percent

  • Fine dining: 56 percent

  • Quick service: 22 percent

  • Fast casual: 27 percent

  • Coffee and snack: 33 percent

Anybody who claims to know exactly how much off-premises business will stick when dine-in returns might have some lottery tickets to sell, too.

Yet it’s pretty safe to bank on elevated volume compared to before, especially if it was less than 10 percent of mix pre-COVID. This will stem from new customers who found the brand, either on third-party apps or via review sites, etc. And also those core users who searched for an outlet to get food from the brands they missed during lockdown. That same customer, while a sure candidate to return for dine-in, might just turn to takeout or delivery now when the occasion speaks to them. They’ve crossed the awareness gap and have confidence in the process. Even if it’s just once a month, it’s still a transaction that was off the map pre-virus.

Generally, this accelerates something that was on the minds of restaurants ahead of the crisis. It’s worth thinking about packaging and portability when it comes to off-premises menu development.

So some of these new, added menu items will likely stick around. If not, thinking through what travels and how it travels is now a tangible part of the day-to-day. COVID lit the ignition on that trend for anybody lagging behind. Other opportunities emerge

With travel discouraged, 77 percent of adults in the Association’s survey said they’re more likely to stay at home and watch on-demand TV and videos than ever. To satisfy restaurant cravings (and maybe relieve cooking duties), 52 percent of adults, including 63 percent of millennials, said they’re more likely to incorporate restaurant fare into their home-prepared meal.

Think dessert, appetizers, even alcohol. A restaurant’s off-premises offerings can get specific, a la carte even, to help guests.

Percentage of consumers who say they’re more likely to stay home and watch on-demand TV and videos than they were before COVID

  • All adults: 77 percent

  • Gen Z: 84 percent

  • Gen X: 79 percent

  • Millennials: 79 percent

  • Baby Boomers: 72 percent

These so-called “blended meals” are on the rise.

Percentage of consumers who said they’re more likely to mix restaurant items—such as a main dish, side, or dessert—into their home-prepared meals than they were before COVID

  • All adults: 52 percent

  • Gen Z: 58 percent

  • Gen X: 58 percent

  • Millennials: 63 percent

  • Baby Boomers: 49 percent

Let’s get into the meat of menus today. Most operators surveyed said their current best-selling food and beverage items were already on the menu before the pandemic. In the full-service segment, burgers and beer were the most popular. Sandwiches and soft drinks lead the quick-service group. Fine-dining operators (11 percent) were the most likely to say their current top-selling menu item was newly added to their menu after the outbreak. That’s understandable considering fine-dining menus were hardly built to travel.

But overall, this speaks to Darden and Outback’s directives. Cutting back a menu does not have to mean reinventing the wheel.

Restaurant operators’ reporting of their most popular food item right now Full-service operators

  • Burgers: 19 percent

  • Seafood items: 13 percent

  • Pizza: 11 percent

  • Steak: 9 percent

  • Chicken items (excluding wings): 8 percent

  • Breakfast items: 8 percent

  • Pasta: 6 percent

  • Mexican food: 5 percent

  • Sandwiches/subs/wraps: 5 percent

  • Chicken wings: 4 percent

Limited-service operators

  • Sandwiches/subs/wraps: 18 percent

  • Pizza: 14 percent

  • Burgers: 12 percent

  • Chicken items (excluding wings): 7 percent

  • Ice cream/cookies/cakes: 7 percent

  • Baked goods: 7 percent

  • Breakfast items: 7 percent

  • Mexican food: 5 percent

  • Barbecue items: 3 percent

  • Seafood items: 3 percent

On the beverage side …

Full-service operators

  • Beer: 29 percent

  • Soft drinks: 16 percent

  • Wine: 15 percent

  • Coffee: 9 percent

  • Margaritas: 6 percent

Limited-service operators

  • Soft drinks: 44 percent

  • Coffee: 25 percent

  • Beer: 8 percent

  • Bottled water: 5 percent

  • Iced tea: 4 percent

When it comes to top sellers, it’s more tried and true than new at this juncture.

Percentage of operat