There are many questions that people ask with regard to the restaurant industry, but two seem to really stand out in the post pandemic world:

  1. Why should I spend money in a restaurant?
  2. Why would I choose to support a locally owned restaurant?

Let’s begin with some facts about the business of serving food:

  1. There are more than 1 million restaurant locations in the United States.
  2. In 2019, over 490,000 of those locations were independent, privately owned businesses.
  3. 64% of those independent restaurants were “full-service”.
  4. Only 1.4% fell in the category of “fine dining”.
  5. The overall industry employed more than 15 million U.S. workers.
  6. 35% of the overall male U.S. workforce and 65% of the female workforce was employed, at some time in their life, in the restaurant industry.
  7. Nearly 10.4 % of the entire current U.S. workforce is employed in the restaurant industry.
  8. In 2020 the restaurant industry generated $564 billion in sales (down a whopping $330 billion from pre-pandemic numbers), but the expected growth will be significant now that pandemic restrictions are being lifted.  The potential for a return to pre-pandemic levels is very optimistic.

(National Restaurant Association)

Now I mention these statistics because they will help to frame what the future may hold for the industry and those considering a career in kitchens and dining rooms across the country.

Everywhere you look, people are beginning to line up for a return to the good old days of restaurant service.  There is a great deal of pent-up demand and restaurants are struggling to figure out how to gear up.  Labor issues loom large, and it is hard to imagine any major correction, at least as long as unemployment is so low.  Supply chain challenges are not going away as production and logistics catch-up.  Indications are these challenges are larger than was originally thought putting added pressure on restaurant menus. And, although people are venturing out, there is still ample concern over Covid and the threat of another impending surge during the Summer or Fall.  So, with all of this – what’s the good news and how might the small independent restaurant find a way to thrive or at least survive?

Here are my unscientific predictions of a perfect restaurant universe where the strength of the American Independent Entrepreneur rises to the top.

FIRST: It’s all about the employee and the team that an independent restaurant assembles.  Passion, interest in learning, service orientation, personality, and drive will, as always, set the stage for a dynamic team and a successful restaurant.  Ah, but this must be your PRIMARY FOCUS.  There is little reason for previous employees to return to this business if it has no interest in changing its approach towards employee pay, benefits, work conditions, growth opportunity, and investment in learning.  The independent restaurant of 2023 and beyond must be a place that does what large corporations can’t or won’t do.

SECOND:  As large chains and corporate restaurants seek to find solutions through efficiency using technology and dumbing down menus, independents must re-invigorate their commitment to hospitality, person-to-person contact, creativity, and customer experiences.  Touch screen order kiosks, QSR code access to restaurant menus, a resurgence of convenience foods, and even robotics are certainly ways to minimize human error and control costs in the long run, but what does it do for the experience?

THIRD:  Ask everyone you see: “Why would you choose to spend your money in a restaurant”?  It is the ultimate question leading to how you approach business.  People re-acquainted themselves to cooking at home during the pandemic.  They drifted away from the ever-growing NEED for restaurants to support their work/family lifestyle, knowing that in many cases they could prepare a cost effective, time saving, and sometimes better tasting and nutritious meal at home.  Restaurants need to re-establish the essential reasons for dining out that will carry the industry forward after the pent-up demand is met.

FOURTH:  Know that fine dining (as we have defined it in the past) may truly be on the way out.  Remember only 1.4% of those independent restaurants fall into this category; yet this is the segment that receives most of the media attention, the segment that so many young cooks gravitate toward, and where much of the greatest investment took place.  Our customers are far savvier than they were in the past; they know great food and they expect that restaurants will provide it.  They understand quality, they appreciate cooking from scratch, they enjoy attractively presented food, and they are interested in the source of quality ingredients.  What they are less interested are pretentious environments, stuffy service, gimmicks, and absurd pricing.  They expect excellence in product, friendly and sincere service, and the ability to have fun while enjoying a spectacular meal.  The future of independent restaurants lies within the scope of understanding this and building menus and teams that focus on the right direction.

FIVE:  The independent neighborhood restaurant needs to accept that the supply chain of 2019 is not likely to return any time soon.  It will remain unpredictable as everyone tries to figure out what it should look like moving forward.  Restaurants will need to keep their menus fluid, stay away from offerings that are less dependent on seasonality and more dependent on an international network of producers, shippers, and vendors.  Yes, buying local or regional will become inevitable as the smart way to approach menus.

SIX:  Don’t forget what kept you going over the past two crazy years.  Continue to seek out ways to create exceptional experiences through take-out and delivery options.  Think about packaging:  find sustainable solutions, create attractive presentations to match what you offer in-house, and work with vendors on options that can maintain temperature and presentation through effective packaging solutions. 

SEVEN:  Know that one of the oldest sayings in the restaurant business is even more important today; that this mantra is the critical piece of the puzzle that will always separate the independent neighborhood restaurant from corporate chains:

“The handshake of the host can determine the flavor of the roast.”

Good, old-fashioned hospitality was, is, and will always be the essence of the restaurant business and the real answer to that question: ‘Why should I spend my money in a restaurant.”


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

Restaurant Consulting  BLOG

(Over 700 articles)

CAFÉ Talks Podcast