Pub, bar and restaurant trends for 2021

Let's all hope and plan for a better year, which will see new trends as your customers celebrate ever opportunity to get back to normal

The past year has wrought more carnage on the hospitality industry than any other in distant memory. And yet so many operators have shown incredible resilience, adaptability and initiative to support their customers, staff and communities during these difficult times. This year, however, brings a ray of hope in the new vaccines that could be the saving of us all. And as things start to become safer and lockdowns less frequent and strict, things may start to get back to some kind of normal.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, knowing that the vaccine is being rolled out,” says Mark Thornhill, manager of The Inn on the Beach in Hayling Island, Hampshire. “The news has created great positivity within our site. We are all looking forward to getting back to the ‘old normal’ where we can gather, enjoy each other’s company again, bringing us back to a less stressful hospitality environment.”

As we look ahead to this year, and explore the trends from the pandemic that are here to stay, the new opportunities and habits that may evolve over the coming months and how operators can use different approaches to bring about a more successful 2021.

Here are my 7 defining trends for the year ahead

Safety is now a key pillar to success

It is hard to overstate the impact that Covid has had on our approach to safety, both in the workplace and during our leisure hours. Masks and hand sanitizer, social distancing and the frequent washing of hands have all become the norm in our society and rightly so. Habits, once acquired, usually take time to shake off so operators should continue their excellent work in keeping their venues safe for the foreseeable future.

Any venue that has outdoor space would do well to make that space as all-weather as possible. After the smoking ban can into force, many hotels created luxury outdoor areas for their cigar-smoking clientele, extending their stay and increasing their spend by making them comfortable even if they had to be outside. In the aftermath of this pandemic, pubs, bars and restaurants would be wise to do the same.

Celebration: time to catch up on what we've missed out on

During the first lockdown in March, many operators focused on providing customers with standard food as we tried to keep things as normal as possible. By the second lockdown, people were instead looking to the hospitality industry to provide special treats to lighten the gloom. In the first half of 2021 at least, it is likely that going out for a meal or a drink with friends will be a rare event worth celebrating rather than part of people’s regular routines. Operators can create that sense of occasion through special food and drink options on their menus or focusing on sparkling wines and three-course meal deals. By adding adding fun extras and exceptional service into the mix, operators can not only increase the customer spend per visit, it will likely also increase the frequency of those visits.

“Going out used to be seen almost as a refuel,” says Amit Joshi, co-founder of The Jones Family Project, which has two sites in London. “What people ate and drank was determined by how they felt at the time. Now it’s more of a palaver. You have to sit outside, there can only be six of you. The minute it takes more thought or effort, it has to then be something that you want to do. You’re going to spend more money on it and treat it like a treat. People feel lucky to be going out. So we try to make every day special. The day before lockdown, we gave each table takeaway cocktails. The specialness of going out will come back a bit.”

Staying healthy will be a priority for customers, even while out

The pandemic saw considerable changes in people’s eating habits – whether it was the explosion in baking or the desire to eat more healthily to combat the inertia of staying at home all day. With this in mind, healthier options alongside indulgent treats would be advisable additions to the food menu.

It certainly felt like alcohol consumption increased during the lockdowns and, after a year as stressful as 2020, it is unlikely that many people will be getting into Dry January or Sober October and will instead try to retain some Christmas spirit.

However, 2020 also saw a concerted effort by people to look after their diet, something that will likely continue to occur in between the celebratory splurges. A non-alcoholic mocktail range that focuses on health rather than abstinence would work well. Superfood cocktails will brighten up cold winter days, but will also provide people with the ingredients to stay healthy, while delicious but healthy takeaway dishes should also prove popular.

Delivery & takeaway (yes, again)

Pubs, bars and restaurants were quick to adapt during the first lockdown to switch their offer to allow customers to collect and take away their food or arrange to have it delivered. This approach was replicated during the second lockdown as people, increasingly tired of cooking every meal at home, opted to have special meals delivered, or receive luxury dishes that were 80% made and needed only a little effort to ensure a fabulous dinner.

Regardless of what happens in 2021, delivery and takeaway could become a significant revenue driver for operators in the long-term. Not only does delivery enable kitchens to cater for more people than a venue could hope to hold, it is also another way to connect online with a wider audience, as technology and online traffic continue to grow in usage and sophistication. The service that the on-trade has offered in 2020 will stand it in good stead to continue bolstering sales through delivery in 2021.

Customers are more used to using technology

Whether it was online delivery, social media or new apps, venues had to embrace technology in a bid to keep in touch with their communities during the various lockdowns and Tiers. In 2021, operators can now use these technologies and the skills that they’ve developed around using them to better promote their venues, sell their food and drink, and connect with customers. Advances have been made over the last year and people are increasingly comfortable using tech, so this year operators should embrace this and get more tech-minded.

“We introduced an app which has been fantastic to sell a wider range of drinks and food,” says Thornhill. “The trends we have grasped here have been more technology-focused.”

Sustainability is back on the agenda

The drive for sustainability took a bit of a knock during the pandemic, with people wary about reusing things for sanitary purposes. Most masks were single-use only and wipeable plastic was favoured over more environmental options. However, people have not lost sight of sustainability as a critical facet of their lives and as the year went on, more environmentally friendly options began to emerge, whether it was reusable masks or the containers in which food was developed. As they look to exploit new trends like delivery, operators will need to work out ways to do so in sustainable and environmentally friendly ways.

Events all year round!

In Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, they started letting people back into sports stadiums months ago, with the UK having trialled a few thousand people at football and rugby matches as well. The landscape for sports, music and comedy events has changed irrevocably, but the hunger to experience life-changing moments with friends and family in fantastic venues has not.

As confidence starts to return, pubs, bars and restaurants should be looking for safe ways to start bringing back big games on the TV or live music. Caution should be utilised and operators should tread carefully, but offering the things that people loved before the pandemic slowly and safely is sure to be a winner.

“Without doubt larger groups will be in attendance,” says Thornhill. “I do not see the smaller groups remaining a trend. We cannot wait to open the doors fully so to speak. We will be treading very carefully when we’re open without imposed constraints. We will obviously continue with seasonally adjusted menus etc but events will come but at a much slower pace.”

And what about 'good-old' Brexit?

While Covid has hogged the spotlight in 2020, Brexit has started looming ever larger on the horizon, with uncertainty about deals, employment and food delivery not going away any time soon. It’s hard to predict exactly what will happen, but operators will need to be prepared to move quickly and adapt to the changing availability of different foodstuffs and staff members.

“I guess we’ll get a lot more South African wine as opposed to European, which will become more expensive, and I’ve already seen a lot more Australian and Kiwi bartenders like we had back in the 90s,” says Joshi. “Food costs are already going up so the next months will be interesting. Now you have to be bloody good. The number of customers will be less and they’re going to choose very carefully where they go. If you’re a good operator with a good product, though, you’ll be fine.”

The year ahead will bring enormous challenges to the on-trade, but also new opportunities to provide customers with more magical experiences. Many of the trends of 2021 will call back to 2020 – such as safety, healthy eating and takeaway. Some will be influenced by the impact of Brexit or continuing Covid restrictions. But focusing on outdoor spaces, carefully managed events and exceeding expectations with indulgence treats will go a long way to reminding people of how lucky they are to have a hospitality industry like the UK’s and to put this pandemic behind them by having a fantastic night out.

Thinking about offering something a little special this year?

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