We used to talk about the restaurant of the future like it was something out of The Jetsons. Robot waiters, conveyor belts of appetisers, drone delivery, meals prepared in seconds, lab-grown meat – it was exciting and optimistic. 

Then the pandemic happened and, suddenly, it seemed like restaurants had no future at all. Now we find ourselves in a weird limbo: we’re still in the middle of a pandemic but things have been worse for the restaurant industry than they are now. We can afford to feel cautiously optimistic and dream of a future again.

But what does that look like? With consumer behaviour and social mores irrevocably changed, what can you expect when you step into the restaurant of the future? 

Off-premise dining

Ordering in has long been considered inferior to dining out. You don’t dress up, no one waits on you and there’s generally no sense of occasion. However, almost two years of lockdown have changed patron expectations – now they prefer to order in and avoid the risk of eating in public. On-premise dining will not disappear but evolve into a niche experience in cosy settings that mimic at-home comfort. Ghost kitchens (restaurants with no seating that are collection- and delivery-based) will grow with time.

Frictionless transactions

Since we started social distancing, the incidence of diseases spread through close contact, such as the flu and common cold, has gone down. It is in the interest of public health for establishments to encourage less contact between patrons and staff and one way this might play out is through completely frictionless transactions. This could be as simple as introducing mobile apps that patrons can use to make reservations, order meals and pay before they’ve even entered the restaurant. Digital menus and tables with embedded touchscreens, which are currently a novelty or gimmick, could be the standard in future.

Smart kitchens

These won’t be the robot-run smart kitchens we used to imagine. The new smart kitchen of the restaurant of the future is focused on safety. These smart kitchens will use data and AI to assess equipment, trace ingredients’ journeys and benchmark sanitation. They’ll be able to send real-time updates to head chefs, floor managers, owners and patrons about any concerns or potential risks the system has identified. This will improve trust and reduce anxiety for patrons while also helping restaurants manage any possible liability.

Open-air restaurants 

Adequate ventilation will continue to be essential for in-person gatherings. And if restaurants don’t want to limit their capacity too much, they might have to pivot to fully al fresco restaurants. These could be seasonal restaurants that are only open half of the year when it’s warm or pop-up restaurants with no permanent premises. It’s a risky business model but if patrons continue to dine mostly at home, the craving for a one-of-a-kind dining out experience will drive a new market focused solely on special occasions and Instagrammable moments. 

Meal packs

One experiment that proved surprisingly popular during the early days of hard lockdowns was the idea of selling prepped meal packs that patrons could cook at home. It was the closest thing to having that lamb shank you love from that one place. It allows patrons to interact with their food in a new way and also discover some of the secrets that made their favourite dishes so delicious. 

Now, imagine if all restaurants introduced this option. You can either dine in and have the meal prepared for you or get a meal pack and challenge yourself to match the chef’s version. It adds an interactive reality TV element to it where patrons feel like they’re on an episode of Netflix’s Nailed It!. It’s a concept with the potential to attract hordes of food influencers.

A return to normal?

If a couple of hypotheticals work out exactly right, is there a chance that restaurants will return to normal and get back on their trajectory to The Jetsons? Yes and no. Yes, packed restaurants with seated patrons touching menus and paying with cash can become normal again if we eliminate Covid-19. But no, that won’t undo the paradigm shifts the pandemic has caused. 

Food safety concerns won’t go away, consumers will still expect white tablecloth restaurants to deliver to their door, and the convenience of contactless transactions will only become more attractive as the technology matures. So, even the establishments who prefer to keep it traditional will have to keep some of the lockdown quirks to keep up with consumer expectations.

Are you prepared to become the restaurant of the future? You can start by reading our guide – 5 Strategies to Future-proof Your Restaurant.