Restaurant industry 2030 outlook: more automation, fewer jobs gained

Automation, fast-evolving consumer trends to drive change

The National Restaurant Association provides an outlook for the next decade in its Restaurant Industry 2030: Actionable Insights for the Future report. Its predictions create a glimpse into the future of restaurants. It’s apparent that the demand for restaurant meals will continue to increase, but that job growth projections are tempered over the next few years. Significantly, restaurant industry sales rise to $1.2T by 2030, as per the report’s forecast.

Continued demand for off-premises meals will satisfy demand from consumers. However, the report predicts that consumers will increasingly become loyalty to third-party apps and not restaurant brands. Loyalty of the future shifts away from individual brands. “Cloud kitchens will continue to grow, fueled by the expansion of centralized kitchens and the growth of online, delivery-only brands,” said the report.

Smaller growth in restaurant workforce

Job growth may be put at some risk by automation and a slowing population growth between 2018 and 2030. Restaurant labor growth increases only 0.5 percent annually according to the outlook in the Restaurant Industry 2030 report. At nearly the same time, total employment in the U.S. grows by 8.5 percent over 12 years (from 2018 to 2030). By 2028, teenagers in the work force decline by 5.1M, the lowest amount in 65 years, predicts the National Restaurant Association.

As such, the restaurant industry will continue to face challenges in recruitment and retention. Restaurant industry intelligence firm TDn2K and other consultants in the sector have already identified this to be a major differentiator in the success of restaurant brands moving into the future. Those companies that can recruit and retain will create a better experience for guests and retain more market share.


Small restaurants, more automation

Also, as we’ve seen with the advent of Fast Casual 3.0, the restaurant decrease in size over time. Automated kitchen equipment will drive this change, notes the report. The layout of the kitchen and the restaurant will evolve for sure. Polished fast casuals (3.0) are already proving more space for off-premises biz, incorporating pick-up windows and staging areas, and also at the bar. Yet dining areas and total space should decrease.

Polished fast-casual operators expect an increase in consumers that will want the experience, but may often opt for delivery and take-out. These developments synchronize with Restaurant Industry 2030 and its findings.

The development of Fast Casual 3.0 aligns with predictions for smaller restaurants over the next decade. Photo by Eatery Pulse Media.
The development of Fast Casual 3.0 aligns with predictions for smaller restaurants over the next decade. Photo of Chiko by Eatery Pulse Media.

[Related article: Fast casual 3.0 and why it matters]

Automation and AI will influence the kitchen and the drive-thru. Intelligent kitchens provide incubation and a new era of development for the use of artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, cooking techniques and food chemistry will transform eating and dining, and also provide “new (and unexpected) culinary and beverage experiences.”

What’s more, restaurant chains should also strategize how to accommodate self-driving cars in the drive-thru. Let’s not forget DoorDash and Cruise are testing self-driving delivery this year. Also, back-of-house tasks will be automated to increase productivity and efficiency.

“Deconstructing possible trends and innovations of the next decade will help both large and small-business owners in the restaurant industry anticipate their greatest challenges,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the Research and Knowledge Group for the National Restaurant Association, in a statement.

Fast-evolving consumer trends

The outlook also points to an increase in genetic knowledge and awareness of lifestyle-related diseases. For this reason, a trend known as functional eating will become even more popular. More consumers will seek out foods that provide specific health benefits.


Moreover, purposeful eating also increases in demand. Restaurants need to respond to consumer demand for sustainability and eco-friendly initiatives, for example. According to the report, “Sustainable sourcing and transparency will continue to grow in focus for consumers over the next decade.”

Additionally, Restaurant Industry 2030 provides food for thought in the area of menu innovation. No longer can the task only focus on elevating the dining experience based on taste and flavor, but it must respond to consumers’ evolving lifestyles.

The industry is seeing a response from mainstream restaurant chains. An example is Uno Pizzeria and Grill and Chipotle, responding with menus geared to specific lifestyles, including those who are carb-conscious. Yet, first-generation fast-casuals, including Corner Bakery and Au Bon Pain, were early adopters in this regard. They provided dietary guidelines for consumers and organized menus in ways that helped health-conscious customers plan meals.

[Related article: Uno Pizzeria & Grill launches Love All Feed All, a dietary-centric menu]

There are additional insights in the National Restaurant Association’s 2030 outlook, which can be found here.

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