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Industry Insiders: COVID-19 Pushes Restaurants to Innovate Menus

Restaurant menus – like so much of society amid the pandemic – have undergone a whirlwind of change in recent months. The coronavirus has required as much, with restaurants having to deal with supply uncertainties and offer items that lend themselves to off-premises dining.

With that in mind, DMA’s webinar earlier this week assessed the future of menus, and projected changes that may soon impact restaurant operators, suppliers and distributors. Technomic senior research manager Lizzy Freier led a panel discussion with Lily Jan, a Cornell University lecturer, and Stephen Loftis, VP of marketing for Firebirds Wood Fired Grill.

“The pandemic obviously has had – and will have – some lasting impacts on menus,” Freier said. “But we’re also going to see some new trends in the year ahead, given the unprecedented nature of these times.”

Tuesday’s event (a link to which can be found here), co-hosted by The Food Institute, examined how menus may evolve in the months ahead, in terms of both cost and complexity.

Jan noted early in the webinar that:

This year has given people a chance to reflect on themselves, [and] I think it’s important to do that for your business, as well. You know your brand, and you know what’s true for your brand. Identifying holes in your menu, and ways to fill those holes, is really important.


While Jan predicted big things on the horizon for unique items like mushroom-based products, Freier said that several trends have already taken root at many American restaurants of late.

Some of the noteworthy trends include:

  • Restaurant operators are simplifying menus, largely due to COVID-related challenges. According to a Technomic poll, 36% of operators plan to adopt smaller menus that focus on core items. It’s worth noting, too, that Datassential research shows restaurant menus shrank by 10.2% during the first year of the pandemic.
  • Many operators are “doubling down on” limited-time” offers, Freier said. According to Technomic data, the total number of LTOs offered at top 500 chains has increased steadily in recent years, from less than 13,000 in 2018 to 16,070 in 2020. LTO growth at top 500 chains was up 9% in the past year.
  • Consumers have become more comfortable with tech ordering during the pandemic. Case in point: in 2020, Technomic research showed 48% of customers at family-style restaurants considered themselves comfortable with the thought of using a tableside tablet to order or pay.


Technomic predicts big things for items like oat milk and plant-based meat in the next two years. The firm expects oat milk to see a 187% growth in penetration through 2023, with plant-based poultry (181%) not far behind.

Freier expects to see more restaurants adopt menu items like “pigless” bacon, as the Rebel Cheese establishment has in Austin, Texas.

The panelists also expect an uptick in menu items such as:

  • Global coffees like Spanish iced coffee and Vietnamese iced coffee
  • Globally spiced fries featuring condiments like sriracha ketchup and harissa mayo
  • “New-mami” cocktails featuring miso, mushrooms or meat stock


Despite their projections, the panelists also said restaurants must be careful to consider their staff’s capacity for implementing such items. After all, many establishments are finding hiring harder than ever and, as a result, have fewer employees than usual.

“During COVID … we didn’t want to overcomplicate operations,” said Firebirds’ Loftis.

“My suggestion for operators,” Jan said, “is make the very best, most consistent menu items that you can, based on the labor situation and supply chain that you have right now.”