WASHINGTON – As restaurants around the United States figure out what is needed to survive and thrive during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) is striving to provide answers for its members.

In its 2021 State of the Restaurant Industry Report, the association looks at its industry’s current needs, including technology, off-premises eating, labor and menu trends. The report also discusses paths of recovery for chains, franchises and independent restaurants.

The NRA said restaurant and foodservice industry sales fell by $240 billion from an expected level of $899 billion at the beginning of the year. 

The association said 110,000 eating and drinking places were closed temporarily or permanently during the pandemic. Both sectors reported 2.5 million fewer jobs than its pre-coronavirus levels. 

“As we approach the one-year mark of pandemic-related dining restrictions, we know that virtually every restaurant in every community has been impacted. Amid an ever-changing landscape of dining restrictions and widespread closures, restaurants found ways to adapt, keep people employed, and safely serve our guests,” said Tom Bené, president and chief executive officer of the NRA. “While we still have a long way to go, we are confident in the resilience of the industry’s workforce, operators, suppliers, and diners. The year ahead will be critical as we continue to advocate for much-needed recovery funds to help get our industry back on track.”

The major pivot restaurants had to make to survive was investing in off-premises resources. Building delivery and takeout services gave restaurants a lifeline and it has now become a key piece of most businesses. 

The NRA report found that 64% of delivery customers prefer to order directly from the restaurant and 18% prefer to order through a third-party service. It also found that 68% of consumers were more likely to purchase takeout from a restaurant now than before the pandemic.

However, even well-established restaurants that closed showed some sobering numbers. According to the NRA, businesses that closed were had been open on average for 16 years and 16% of them were open at least 30 years. 

Additional data on these businesses include:

  • They employed an average of 32 people; 17% employed at least 50 people before they closed.
  • 72% of restaurant owners who closed for good say it’s unlikely they’ll open another restaurant concept in the months or years ahead.
  • Only 48% think they’ll stay in the restaurant industry in some form in the months or years ahead.

Restaurant workers were also devasted with the restrictions taken to fight the virus. Worforce numbers from the NRA showed 62% of fine dining operators and 54% of both family dining and casual dining operators are 20% below normal on staff. 

“Restaurants were hit harder than any other industry during the pandemic, and still have the longest climb back to pre-coronavirus employment levels,” the NRA said. 

Reorganizing operations for restaurants is ongoing with locations continually updating their menus. The report showed that 63% of fine dining operators and half of casual and family dining operators saying they have fewer items on the menu than before the pandemic.

“Consumers are equally influenced to choose one restaurant over another if the restaurant offers a good selection of comfort foods and/or dishes on the healthier side, but the availability of diet-specific fare such as vegan or gluten-free plays a lesser role in restaurant-choice criteria,” the report stated. “The availability of alcohol to go with takeout orders, however, is an influence in restaurant choice.”

Even with all the changes, the NRA’s data does show that consumer demand for restaurants will be there when they feel it safe. In its survey, the association found that 88% of adults enjoy going to restaurants and 85% of them say going out to a restaurant with family or friends is a better way to spend their leisure time than cooking (and cleaning) at home.

“Restaurants are the cornerstone of our communities, and our research shows a clear consumer desire to enjoy restaurants on-premises more than they have been able to during the pandemic,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research and knowledge group for the NRA. “We’ve also found that even as the vaccine becomes more available and more social occasions return to restaurants, consumers will continue to desire expanded off-premises options going forward.”

The report featured a survey of 6,000 restaurant operators and consumer preferences from a survey of 1,000 adults.