WASHINGTON — Technology became a lifeline for restaurants during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020, and that trend is expected to continue and accelerate through 2021 and beyond, Tom Bené, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association, said at the American Bakers Association virtual convention held March 22-23.
He discussed trends that have emerged in the pandemic as well as the status of the restaurant industry. Takeout and delivery and the tools supporting that were big.
“Online orders currently make up more than 30% of the market, representing some $100 billion in sales,” Mr. Bené said.
Restaurants have invested more in technology since the outbreak of the pandemic, and several have added online ordering since the beginning of March, including 51% of fine dining restaurants. And nearly all restaurant operators plan to keep some or all of the changes they’ve made during the pandemic, according to the restaurant association.
Ghost kitchens, which serve delivery customers but not on-premises guests, have also gained a foothold during the pandemic.
“We see more and more operators investing in ghost kitchens as a model for the long-term,” Mr. Bené said.
Sales from ghost restaurants are expected to rise by 25% each year for the next five years, or an estimated $300 million in annual sales, according to a Technomics report Mr. Bené quoted.
This past year has been a tough one for the restaurant industry, and he put some numbers to the misery. Sales were forecast to be $899 billion at the beginning of 2020, Mr. Bené said, but actual sales were $659 billion. Sales for this year are expected to rise by 11%, up to $731 billion.
“While this is encouraging, we know we still have a long way to go,” he said. “On the jobs front, restaurants are still down about 2.5 million jobs or 20% below its pre-coronavirus levels. This increases the likelihood that the restaurant industry’s employment recovery will be measured in years and not months.”
He went on to say that 110,000 restaurants, 17%, are closed permanently or for the long-term.
“Unfortunately, the vast majority of those restaurants that are closed were well-established businesses and fixtures in their communities. On average these restaurants have been in business for about 16 years, and 16% of them had been open for at least 30 years.”
But as the nation emerges from the pandemic, business will undoubtedly pick up.
“As we end the first quarter, there is reason to be encouraged,” Mr. Bené said. “The majority of adults say they are not going to restaurants as often as they would like, indicating a huge amount of pent-up demand. And we know that bakery items are an essential element of restaurant and foodservice meals. That’s good news for you as an industry as well.”