Feb. 1 2021 10:30 AM

A new year alone can’t heal the wounds of last year.

When will you be ready to go out to a restaurant with a group of family or friends to celebrate that birthday, anniversary, or big event?

That’s the question that’s been weighing on the minds of restaurant owners and employees for months now since the pandemic shifted their business models. Though that day may be getting closer for some, especially with vaccinations occurring around the country, the economic bounce back for food service will not be that simple.

At the beginning of 2020, the National Restaurant Association forecast total industry sales for the year at $899 billion, a record high. “Unfortunately, as the result of the pandemic, that is down now to $659 billion,” said Hudson Riehle, National Restaurant Association senior vice president of the research and knowledge group. “That's a $240 billion loss. And it's 27% off of those projected data.

“I think it's important to look at 2021 as a year of transition for the restaurant industry,” he believes. “Because the amount of the loss is so substantial, there's no way in a single year that it can be regained.”

Additionally, Riehle cited that employment in the industry is still down by 10 million people. That makes for another long road to get back to normal.

Instead, it will be a gradual rebuild as restaurant sales ebb and flow, as Riehle illustrated in a Center for Food Integrity webcast. Sales that improved this summer with more availability of outdoor dining have slid back down with colder weather and more business restrictions in some locations.

Fortunately, though, restaurants are at least more prepared now to deal with these limitations. In addition to the obvious changes in carryout options, tools such as online ordering and payment have gained usage. Across the board, restaurant owners say they are likely to continue many of these new models moving forward.

“But the fact is, many of these changes were actually in place in the industry prior to the onset of the pandemic,” Riehle noted. “And the pandemic has basically accelerated the rate of adaptation of many of these.”

Restaurants will need every tool at their disposal to recover some semblance of the sales lost from food not sold in 2020. It won’t be an overnight healing, but with new opportunities available, food service and food producers may be better prepared for future shifts in demand.

Katelyn Allen

Katelyn Allen joined the
Hoard’s Dairyman team as the Publications Editor in August 2019 and is now an associate editor. Katelyn is a 2019 graduate of Virginia Tech, where she majored in dairy science and minored in communication. Katelyn grew up on her family’s registered Holstein dairy, Glen-Toctin Farm, in Jefferson, Md.