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Our Definition of a Restaurant Is Changing

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When you hear the word restaurant, chances are one of your favorites comes to mind. Perhaps it’s a farm-to-table spot that made you a kale convert. Or your go-to on nights when you can’t be bothered to cook. Regardless, our definition of a “restaurant” – in terms of what it does and how it looks – is evolving.

In the past year, restaurants have been forced to make major changes to stay open. While 110,000-plus restaurants closed temporarily or permanently as of December 2020, the ones that didn’t shutter had to accommodate shifts in how people were ordering food and where they were eating it. As a result, some restaurants now are more than just a place to get a meal, while others look less like, well, a restaurant.


To adapt to the pandemic, restaurants have upped their takeout offerings and embraced outdoor dining.


The pandemic pivot. Restauranteurs got creative in many ways, redefining their business and the industry in the process. Beyond the obvious pivots – like focusing more on takeout or adding outdoor seating – some business owners took big risks in 2020 that The Infatuation recently celebrated. Among the success stories? A Brooklyn eatery that launched a series of pop-ups; a LA restaurant that added an in-store provisions shop; a Seattle place that started field trips and virtual classes; and a San Francisco spot that started selling meal kits so customers could re-create the restaurant experience at home. 

The pandemic also nudged fine dining restaurants to reassess what they offer. Masa, a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York, started selling $800 sushi boxes, The Wall Street Journal reports. Other previously upscale spots ditched their multi-course menus (which we imagine don’t travel well as takeout) to focus on comfort food, like burgers and fried chicken. 

Takeout, delivery and ghost kitchens. Our switch from dining out to dining in is also shaking up the industry. In the fourth quarter of 2020, 40% of U.S. consumers surveyed by Goldman Sachs Research said they ordered delivery three or more times a month, up from 28% prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

And the food we’re eating at home may not even come from a traditional restaurant anymore. Ghost kitchens – restaurant facilities that make food exclusively for delivery or takeout and have no seating areas – were already popular in places like New York. But the pandemic could push growth further – and ghost kitchens may start popping up elsewhere, like suburbs, Restaurant Dive notes. Meanwhile, celebrity chef ghost kitchens may be the hottest dining trend of 2021, Forbes predicts, while CNBC reports that several chain restaurants are also jumping on the ghost kitchen trend.

So what will restaurants of the future look like? It’s difficult to predict which changes will prove to be permanent versus temporary. Restaurants must figure out how to pull off “contactless chic” to minimize face-to-face contact. And that likely means more tech – related to ordering or viewing menus, for example – will be incorporated in the dining experience, Forbes predicts. Some pandemic trends could stick around, like outdoor dining, alcohol to-go or restaurants that pull double duty as shops. But you may need to say goodbye to buffets and salad bars. 

Finally, it may be time to rethink our definition of a restaurant as some establishments could morph into hybrids that offer full service, takeout, delivery and meal kits, USA Today notes. “Taking orders tableside and delivering food to seated diners is so 2019.” 

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized professional advice. Articles on this site were commissioned and approved by Marcus by Goldman Sachs®, but may not reflect the institutional opinions of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., Goldman Sachs Bank USA or any of their affiliates, subsidiaries or divisions.