Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
If 2020 was the year of sourdough, gardening, restaurant closures and provisions-hoarding, then I predict 2021 will be the year of recovery, with comfort food to help ease the anxiety, convenience to help navigate the ongoing barriers and a renewed consciousness of culture to help shape a better version of our world.
In uncertain times, we self-soothe with familiar favorites. My favorites are a simple bowl of pasta with San Marzano tomatoes, a vibrant green salad with a nice vinaigrette, or the freshest fish I can find, grilled with lemon, olive oil and parsley. Whatever your comfort, I expect 2021 to lead us back to comfort classics. I cooked through the recovery in the early 1990s, and then again after 9/11 and The Great Recession. Each downturn called for the classics.
A brand that can offer heart and comfort in tough times usually wins. For restaurants to survive, we need to meet folks where they are at right now. For many, it will be in the form of comfort food.
This period of barriers has made convenience paramount. Consumers will continue to demand frictionless experiences as they navigate other aspects of their lives made complicated by remote learning, Zoom exhaustion and drive-by celebrations. McDonald’s announced recently that it was doubling down on the three D’s of delivery, digital and drive-thru. I suspect the business is right to do so, and most brands are launching their own version to meet demand. Those who are slow to pivot are likely not to survive, let alone thrive, in 2021.
But if you were already migrating toward digital, your brand might be positioned to lead the pack when we reemerge. Some might find virtual kitchens a pathway for exponential growth. Others will struggle to balance quality with portability. I suspect QSR with big marketing budgets will thrive in the space. Beloved independents with a cult following fit for delivery might also enjoy an easy road to expansion otherwise impossible with brick and mortar.
Comfort and convenience without a conscious consideration for behavior impact will lead us down the same road of negative results of the past fifty years. Awareness of the true cost of food on personal wellness, community resilience and environmental health will continue to shape food culture in the coming years. Regenerative food systems could take the place of sustainable supply chains. Plant-based food options will likely gain more traction and take center stage in the battle against climate change. I expect demands for transparency and accountability supported by blockchain will begin to show up in food culture. Brands that stay ahead of the curve will be rewarded with loyal audiences. Those that lag will conform or fall out of favor. If you can hit all three of these consumer demand points, your brand stands a good chance to thrive in the years to come.
I don’t have a crystal ball allowing a clear view of the future of things. Like many, I have been mostly wrong during the past year, far underestimating the length of the pandemic. But if I were to bet on this year, I would back those who could deliver on convenience, comfort and consciousness with consistency over time. Sure, there will be space for experimentation. The second half of the year is when we’ll likely see more experiential innovation.
A creative new class quietly incubates fresh ideas while we ride out the winter stretch of the pandemic this year. Like forest regrowth after a fire, vacant restaurants will repopulate with young entrepreneurs holding pent up ambitions and a year of concept refinement. These are the chefs and entrepreneurs I am most excited about. This new class will stand as the creative voice of post-pandemic food culture. We don’t know who they are or what they will do, but out of the ashes, wildflowers will bloom.