2024 Industry Outlook

Explore the future of the restaurant industry in 2024 through key predictions provided by experts from Restaurant Business, Nation’s Restaurant News and FoodService Director

January 16, 2024

Sample Image of Chicago Skyline
What’s on tap for the foodservice industry in 2024? Our recent Early Access Online Learning Series webinar, “Ask the Editors, Restaurant Show Edition: What to Look Out for in 2024,” brought together industry experts for a wide-ranging discussion covering finance, restaurant format trends, menu innovation, tipping, unionization and much more. Here are five takeaways: 
General industry: Bad news and good news
Flat consumer traffic, a challenge for operators in 2023, is expected to persist as long as consumers believe that “restaurants are getting more expensive,” according to Jonathan Maze of Restaurant Business. Yet, despite these concerns—and the fact that restaurant prices are outpacing the current inflation rate—there’s hope on the horizon for operators. “The good news is that costs are coming down,” says Maze, “we see labor [costs] easing and food costs continue to ease. The margins are actually improving as a lot of these prices start working their way through.” Now, it’s simply up to operators to reinvigorate their customer base. Maze notes, “consumers are resilient. It’s just up to operators to get consumers excited about dining out.”
Co-branding: Ready for a comeback
One potential strategy to reinvigorate customers? Co-branding. Nation Restaurant News’ Leigh Anne Zinsmeister notes that the proliferation of virtual brands during the pandemic has fostered a newfound openness to “creating a variety of menu items in the one kitchen,” making co-branding an ideal solution. She anticipates, “We’ll see a lot of co-branding with sister brands and brands that are owned by the same parent company. Instead of it being a virtual brand, you just slap the other branding onto the front of the same building.” It’s a great marketing tool, she adds, as instead of choosing between two cuisines, customers can “go to the same place to get something that makes everybody happy.”
Fast casual: Primed for automation
After enduring years of labor struggles, 2024 is poised to be the year when fast casuals fully embrace automation, predicts Lisa Jennings of Restaurant Business. Faced with the “pressure of high wages,” it appears operators simply have nowhere else to turn. “[This] will be the year that we see automated restaurant concepts that are going to be proving out a model,” she says, citing salad chain Sweetgreen’s recent opening of two automated locations. Despite ongoing debates on automation in hospitality, Jennings warns against expecting the trend to slow down: “Within five years, I think the restaurant world, or at least the limited-service space is going to look very different.”
Menu trends: Mushrooms, sweet heat and more
Trends move fast, but some endure: Patricia Cobe of Restaurant Business highlights five sure-fire hits for 2024. First up is mushroom-based “meat,” providing a less processed alternative to other plant-based fare. Following closely are mocktails featuring coffee and tea as primary mixers, signaling the emergence of “next-gen zero-proof drinks.” Cobe anticipates the continuation of the “sweet heat” flavor trend, along with the “board” trend, as “seacuterie” (smoked and cooked seafood) boards begin to gain momentum. Finally, Cobe expects to see “a lot of limited-time offers (LTOs) in the pipeline for 2024” as operators aim to attract customer traffic through exclusive lower-priced, seasonal or unique menu items.
Tipping: A nuisance and motivator 
With “tip fatigue” and regulation at its height, restaurants will accelerate their “quest” for an effective non-tipping salary model this year, says Peter Romeo (Restaurant Business and FoodService Director). “People [want] a model that will still motivate employees, still provide a great income, but without all the aggravation and regulation and risks that come given how intense tipping is regulated on the state level and somewhat on the federal level,” remarks Romeo. What that model looks like and whether it can prosper beyond full service is still a bit of a mystery, but operators have an ally: unions. “Tipping has become the cause of the moment for organized labor,” says Romeo, though so far, its elimination in certain regions hasn’t led to the increase in salary unions had hoped for. The saga continues. 

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