7 Things Successful Restaurants Will Do in 2021

January 19, 2021 | blog | By Julie Ondrusek

As we turn the corner on the most destructive year for restaurants in a century, those that survived are looking hopefully toward strong rebounds in traffic and revenue in 2021. With coronavirus vaccines being distributed across the country, there is certainly light at the end of the tunnel. But considering the vaccination process will run at least until summer, restaurants still face one if not two or three more quarters of limited in-restaurant dining and certainly off-peak revenue.

Last year, whether it was QSR, casual dining, pizza, or some other kind of restaurant, the ones that endured the pandemic were adaptive, nimble, and inventive, pivoting quickly from shutdown to whatever they could do to survive. Those that successfully navigate 2021 will have to continue leaning on those practices. But after 20 years helping more than 20 restaurant chains and franchisee groups build and promote their brands, we know it takes more than great advertising and marketing to really move the needle. We believe there are seven other key things that will help restaurants not just survive but thrive in 2021.

Focus on experience.

In 2020, hungry consumers didn’t shift to drive-thru, curbside pickup and delivery because they wanted to. If they wanted food from their favorite restaurants, those were the only choices they had. Diners crave the in-restaurant experience. It’s a huge part of why we eat in restaurants and it’s something we are all desperately missing. That’s why now is the ideal time to focus on and perfect your dining experience.

Now — while old customers are still coming back and before new ones find you for the first time — spend some time looking at every aspect of your dining experience and improve any areas that could be better. If you’re a QSR, what does your dining room look like? Is it old and beaten up, or sharp and impressive? Is it clean? What about the bathrooms? What’s the interaction like between your frontline staff and the customer? How efficient is the drive-thru?

If you’re a restaurant, what’s the drive-up experience like at night and during the day? What is your greeting and seating sequence like? Interaction with the waitstaff? The bathrooms? The menus? The music and spacing and lighting and décor that set the tone for a $30, $50, or $100 night out? These are all things that inform the experience side of dining out. They’re also the reasons why, pre-COVID, the majority of your business wasn’t “to-go.” People want the experience only you can provide.

To that end, the most important reason to focus on experience may be that your next wave of customers is obsessed with experience.

According to a 2019 Forbes article, Gen Z (those born between 1996 and 2010) hold $44 billion worth of buying power alone and more than $600 billion when you factor in the influence they have on their parents. Far more than material things, Gen Z values memorable experiences and they are willing to pay for them. Make your dining experience something special and they will come. Then, they’ll tell everyone they know about it.

Lean into what you do well.

Across the country, diners who are locked down, quarantined, or simply trying to limit their exposure are longing for their restaurant favorites. Whatever it is that you do well, make sure you’re delivering the best version of those things every time to remind lapsed customers why they’ve missed you so much during the pandemic. If burgers, chicken, or pizza are your thing, take extra care to deliver everything hot, fresh, and right. If it’s salads, don’t serve lettuce browning on the edges with missing ingredients. If fantastic service is part of your story, inspire your team to deliver that level of service even when there are only five tables for the whole night. Right now, restaurants don’t have as many daily or nightly chances to impress their customers as they had pre-COVID. Take advantage of the orders you get and overdeliver, especially on the things your customers love.

Mix in something new.

While you’re focusing on delivering what you do best, don’t forget to give your customers something new as well. Now is the perfect time to try some great new menu items you’ve been considering. Where practical, and while you have a more manageable number of customers, consider sampling. Have a new appetizer, or dessert? Offer a little taste to the customers dining in as an extra special thank you for coming in. On the experiential side, now is a perfect time to update your look, repair anything looking tired, remodel the bathrooms, or experiment with music and lighting – especially if you’re in an area that’s limited or locked down.

Something new gives your customers a sense of excitement and signals that you are standing strong.

Test your food and packaging to see how they travel.

One of the great triumphs and failures of the COVID shift away from dining in-house has been how restaurants adapted to a predominantly takeout model. This has been especially true for casual dining restaurants that traditionally haven’t had the to-go volume that QSR and pizza chains deal with every day. In many cases, the speed and efficiency required to fill an exponential increase in to-go orders has caused order errors, poorly packed food and beverages leading to spills and leaks, and customers getting food that was cold, wrong, or that looked horribly unappetizing. If you haven’t tested your to-go packaging and process to see how your customers are receiving their orders, do it. Order to-go from your competitors to see what they are doing. Find other brands that do to-go well and “be inspired” to adjust your own process and packaging. All the advertising and good intentions in the world don’t matter if the end product arrives cold and in shambles.

Double down on dancing with the ones who brought you.

Without question, the pandemic has been incredibly stressful for restaurant owners. But right behind them are the restaurant workers whose lives and livelihoods have been thrown into chaos. The servers. The bartenders. The cooks and the kitchen staff. And it’s not just the financial impact that’s hurt. Like the owners, restaurant workers are missing their customers. They are missing serving their friends and longtime patrons and creating a special experience for those visiting the restaurant. As owners navigate 2021, the smart ones (and the best leaders) will increase the care they give to their staff – praising them, inspiring them, feeling their anxiety and disappointment, and answering it with their own empathy and vulnerability. “We’re in this, and will get through this, together” are empty words without the actions and consistent reassurances to support them.

Look for impactful ways to surprise and delight.

There is never a down side to surprising and delighting your customers and that is truer now than ever before. When the pandemic was in full bloom last spring, one restaurant we know added a special “two-bite” dessert to every to-go order. Another brand started adding a quick hand-written thank you note in every bag. When people were allowed to dine in again, chefs and GMs increasingly made their way out of the kitchen to thank guests for their patronage. As diners return, or continue picking up curbside, to-go, or through the drive-thru, think of ways you can surprise and delight them, even if it costs a little more. Extra fries. A free dessert with a large order. A coupon for a FREE favorite on the next order. Those little moments and gestures may not seem like a lot, but they’re meaningful, they’re special, and, in many cases, worthy of talking about on social media and in conversations with friends.

Embrace the power of “Thank You.”

Saying thank you is the simplest thing any of us can do. And yet, too often, it goes completely unsaid. Don’t underestimate the power of “thank you” both with your customers and with your staff.

Simply hearing the words “thank you” makes the hearer feel valued, seen, and appreciated.

Thank you is personal and it means more to the people who support you than you might imagine. “Thanks for coming in!” “Thank you for your support.” “Thank you for all you do.” “Thank you for working so hard to make us look good.” “Thank you for reminding us that as hard as this pandemic has been, better days are coming and they’re starting, right now.”

There’s an old saying in our world that’s more relevant now than ever: “Nothing kills a bad product faster than great advertising.” As consumers return in 2021, they’ll find a market full of hungry competitors. If you’re covering the basics better than your neighbor, chances are you’ll come out on top in 2021.

Thanks for reading.

JULIE ONDRUSEK is partner and director of client services for  LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency and a top Dallas advertising agency for digital, social, mobile and user experience. For more about challenger branding, advertising and marketing, leadership, culture and other inspirations that will drive your success, visit our blog BARK! The Voice of the Underdog and catch up on all of our posts.

For more about LOOMIS, or to discuss how we can help your company succeed, CLICK HERE

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Julie Ondrusek

at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


We challenge underdog brands to think differently. We help them find their voice, and urge them to blaze new trails to make sure they stand out from the pack. Whether you need an agency of record or support on a project, we are here to help you win.