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7 restaurant trends that will define 2022

This story is the first in a series on the trends that will shape restaurants in 2022.

Though many of the market forces that shaped the restaurant industry in 2021 were closely linked to disruption from the pandemic’s onset in 2020, the new year will bring new challenges — and opportunities. 

Unprecedented labor and supply chain pressure will drive most of the restaurant trends that will define 2022, analysts say. This instability will push operators to trim costs by shortening menus and invest in labor-saving technology in order to free up cash for wage increases. 

“Where menus are relatively simple and include fewer options, the opportunity for automation is almost endless,” said Brian Warrener, associate professor of food and beverage industry management at Johnson & Wales University’s College of Hospitality Management. “And five years ago, who would have thought there [would be] such a thing as a robot bartender? … I certainly think this kind of technology marches on. Maybe robots [will] become more capable of doing even more complex tasks and maybe we do see more replacement of people with machines.”

Restaurants will also explore delivery options beyond costly third-party partnerships, and hike delivery menu prices to make the channel more lucrative as off-premise demand holds steady. 

“The actual act of delivering is being operated by lots of different companies that really have no interest in what [restaurants are] doing. They just want to get out there and get their money… you’re trying to be transformational, and they’re being transactional,” said Stephen Zagor, principal of Steve Zagor & Associates and assistant professor at Columbia Business School. “You want to create an experience with your delivery moment. How do you do that?”

Though these forecasted obstacles would be staggering for restaurants big and small, the year may still hold bright spots for business, experts predict. A swath of cheap commercial real estate could allow food halls, which were becoming a popular and profitable format before the COVID-19 crisis, to grow and offer outposts to independents looking to expand.

Increasing diner interest in plant-based fare also poses a robust sales opportunity for restaurants that have yet to offer meat analogues or would like to offer alternatives to proteins that have grown scarce and expensive due to supply chain delays. 

Learn more about the seven trends analysts predict will shape the restaurant industry in 2022:

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More investments in emerging labor-saving technology

As restaurants brace for continued labor struggles, more operators will invest in technology that makes them less reliant on employees, minimize costs and maximize efficiencies, experts said. 

Half of U.S. operators plan to adopt automated, labor-saving technology in the next two to three years, according to a “Global State of the Hospitality Industry” report from Lightspeed. Forty-one percent of U.S. operators also report they are working with less staff than they require, and 87% of operators, owners or managers believe technology adoption has been key to business survival amid the pandemic, per the report. 

Warrener predicts in the near future the restaurant tasks that will be automated by machines will still mostly consist of simple, back-of-house responsibilities like dishwashing. 

“The restaurant industry has historically been very behind technologically,” Jim Balis, managing director of strategic operations at CapitalSpring, said. “I think you’re going to see a lot more with respect to robots. … The best example was probably the coffee space, where it’s a combination of liquids, powders and ice that can easily be executed by a robot or some form of automation.”

Balis said this same kind of technology could be applied to preparing smoothies and bowls, a trend the industry saw gain traction in 2021. 

Jamba, for example, debuted an automated smoothie kiosk in a Walmart store at the end of 2020, and expanded this offering to additional locations last year. Sweetgreen also acquired automated restaurant company Spyce last year, with plans to implement the technology at its restaurants to improve food quality and store efficiency.

“A robot doesn’t call in sick, typically, works on weekends, it’s not having an affair with another employee,” Balis said of the appeal labor-saving technology holds for cash-strapped operators. 

Balis also expects to see more voice-based artificial intelligence at the drive-thru, specifically, since this channel has performed so well throughout the pandemic and continues to see strong traffic. Drive-thru bots can improve throughput and also create upsell opportunities, he said. 

“I [recently spoke] to a company … that’s doing facial technology. So you walk up to the drive-thru, it recognizes who you are and what you’ve ordered in the past, and then you actually pay with your face,” Balis said. “So I think more and more so, you’re gonna see that.”

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Labor and supply chain disruption keep simplification on the menu

Supply chain problems, rising food costs and a lack of available labor have led many restaurants to cut menu items. By the end of Q3 2021, total restaurant menu items offered had fallen 10% from a pre-pandemic high, according to Technomic. As the economic disruption of COVID-19 drags on, it is possible menus will continue to shrink. 

Alec Haesler, a director at Carl Marks Advisors, said it is likely operators will shift between proteins if one protein source is experiencing sustained price inflation or shortages.

Meaghan Brophy, a retail content producer for Fit Small Business, said restaurants are likely to trim menus to simplify production processes for off-premise orders and organize kitchens more efficiently.

Simplified menus are likely here to stay, according to Rick Camac, dean of restaurant and hospitality management at the Institute of Culinary Education. Labor pressure will make it hard for restaurants to reintroduce menu items shed during the pandemic.

“I don’t miss the monster menus that I don’t think we’re going to see anytime soon,” Camac said. “Smaller, tight menus are definitely another trend that are here to stay. I don’t see us all going back to these monstrous, multi-page menus anytime in the near future.”

Shorter menus can introduce labor cost savings and reduce waste. According to the National Restaurant Association’s annual survey of major trends, menu streamlining will likely continue through 2022.

At the DoorDash Mainstreet Strong Conference in October, Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for research and knowledge at the National Restaurant Association, said 8 out of 10 restaurants offering table service had to shorten menus due to supply chain issues, while about 7 out of 10 QSRs trimmed theirs. 

“However, certain commodity groups, particularly the proteins beef, chicken, pork and eggs are running to double digit [wholesale price inflation],” Riehle said. “Looking ahead once again to 2022, it will not be as high. But, in particular, in the first six months, there is no relief.”

Changing customer expectations may also push chains to shorten menus, especially at QSRs. Recent analysis from Oracle indicates customers may expect shorter drive-thru times, and some chains have responded already by simplifying drive-thru offerings. Burger King eliminated some complicated items from its menu to speed up its service after the pandemic triggered a surge in off-premise ordering, which pushed drive-thru times up across the board.

Courtesy of McDonald’s


Major chains fuel plant-based growth, while operators offer more options to save money

Last year ushered in a number of plant-based meat launches at major restaurant chains, including McDonald’s test of its McPlant products (made in partnership with Beyond Meat), an Impossible Foods ghost kitchen partnership with Dog Haus and Starbucks’ test of a 100% plant-based menu at a Seattle store. 

Recent analysis from Peter Saleh, managing director and restaurant analyst at BTIG, suggests McDonald’s plant-based investments are paying off. BTIG estimates that several of the chain’s eight test restaurants sell as many as 500 McPlant sandwiches a week, or roughly 70 per day, compared to BTIG’s initial forecast of about 20 to 25 McPlant sandwiches per day.