Restaurant and QSR Trends & Outlook for 2024

Like many other industries, the restaurant sector was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with many businesses shuttering doors and many others struggling to make ends meet. Yet this industry also proved itself to be one of the most resilient, even surpassing its pre-pandemic baseline in 2023.

Since the restaurant industry is intricately tied with consumer behavior, part of its success in bouncing back can be attributed to consumers’ renewed interest in dining out and having new experiences, after a long period of lockdown and at-home cooking. 

But another key reason that many restaurants and QSR businesses were able to survive the pandemic and are continuing to succeed today was their willingness to innovate, pivot, and adapt—while staying unwaveringly committed to providing customers with the best possible experience. 

As in most other industries, technology has taken an increasingly central role in the restaurant and QSR sectors, reflecting consumers’ growing dependence on and expectation of technological solutions across every facet of their lives. As such, one key throughline among the businesses that bounced back most effectively is their openness to integrating technology in innovative ways to better serve customers.

Overall, the restaurant industry is well-positioned for continued growth this year, though macroeconomic factors and inflationary pressures have the potential to create challenges. 

Below, we cover the top  trends shaping the restaurant and QSR sectors, as well as everything you need to know to be on the leading edge of this industry’s transformation. 

Restaurant Industry Trends

Embracing Technology and Automation

According to a survey conducted by Square, 100% of restaurant owner respondents reported that automation and technology have improved their business, and over half of respondents plan to increase their spending on technology and automation tools in 2024.

This is for good reason—technological solutions make dining easier, both for customers and restaurants. Mobile ordering is becoming increasingly more ubiquitous at dining establishments and coffee shops, meeting consumers’ desire to avoid queues and unnecessary wait time and helping restaurants stagger their foot traffic and manage demand more effectively. Contactless payments are also even more mainstream in 2024, with customers now being accustomed to systems like Apple Pay and Google Pay that streamline transactions and increase efficiency on both sides. 

Technology is equally impactful on the back-end for restaurants, with vendor management tools helping track stock and make predictions for future orders with no human oversight needed. By automating inventory and vendor management, businesses can protect themselves against supply chain disruptions and unexpected shortages. Additionally, technology can be used to streamline all restaurant operations into a single, centralized system, leading to smarter decision-making and allowing staff to focus on more critical tasks.

Finally, many restaurants are looking at technology capabilities for tasks that have until recently only been done by humans—ingredient preparation, cooking, cleaning, and serving—which could help cut down on labor costs and potentially improve efficiency.

Focus on Sustainability

Sustainability has been a buzz word for many years, but only recently have restaurants started seriously integrating sustainability initiatives into their strategy and goals. In 2024, this is poised to be one of the top trends in the foodservice industry, as 57% of consumers report sustainability as a key consideration when choosing a restaurant. 

This means restaurants are increasingly implementing practices like composting and recycling, using biodegradable takeout containers, and reducing food waste by utilizing “imperfect” produce and matching inventory orders with demand (which automation helps with). Many restaurants are also focusing on vegetarian or plant-based cooking, both to meet growing consumer demand for these options, as well as to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability. 

Embracing these practices is key for restaurants to stay competitive, maintain their loyal customer base, and attract new customers. 

Utilizing Customer Data

According to Square’s survey of restaurant owners, 39% plan to use data insights to better meet customer desires and increase competitiveness. Data analytics can help restaurateurs identify patterns and respond quickly to demands, while increasing customization in the dining experience. 

By analyzing diners’ feedback and reviews, as well as social media and brand mentions, restaurants can adapt the dining experience to fit evolving consumer demands and preferences. In addition to menu customization, data insights about spending habits and consumer behavior can inform marketing strategies, pricing, and consumer relationship management. 

Several companies are emerging that specialize in providing these data insights to restaurants—with great results. Toast is one example, helping restaurants improve customer retention and drive new and repeat traffic. One of their main value offerings is using data insights to create and send email marketing campaigns based on POS data, such as visit frequency and spending patterns, creating a personalized experience for restaurant customers. 

Another example is Zomato Food Trends, a new platform from Indian multinational company Zomato that analyzes data from millions of transactions across hundreds of Indian cities and provides those insights free of charge to the general public. Zomato’s main intention with this offering is to help restaurants in India get access to valuable information, such as demand and supply gaps, price distribution, and demand-supply comparisons for multiple dishes or cuisines—learnings that those restaurants can then use to boost competitiveness and better serve their customers. 

Exploring Alternative Revenue Streams

Gone are the days of restaurants simply being places to grab a meal. Today’s most successful restaurants are turning to alternative channels to diversify their revenue streams and increase their value to customers.

In 2023, 43% of restaurants added new products or services to their businesses, compared to 34% in 2022. This year, 90% reported planning to introduce new revenue streams in addition to their core offerings, as a means of boosting competitiveness. 

A few examples: 

Additionally, we see a growing prevalence of experiential dining, encompassing everything from immersive themes and interactive elements to entertainment and storytelling. This goes hand-in-hand with a rise in pop-up restaurants—which are often heavily tied with social media marketing and word-of-mouth hype—as well as themed dining events and chef collaborations.

A few examples:

  • Malibu Barbie Cafe, which draws inspiration from the 2023 smash hit movie Barbie, serves a Barbie-themed menu alongside an immersive Barbie world ambiance that includes a skating rink and a gift shop selling Barbie merchandise
  • Alamo Drafthouse, a dine-in movie theater with locations around the U.S., allows visitors to enjoy a restaurant meal while watching a movie in the cinema
  • JOURNEY, a first-of-its-kind NYC dining experience, combines fine dining with theatrical storytelling from Broadway performers

In 2019, the Cheesecake Factory made a $353 million historic acquisition of Fox Restaurant Concepts in order to make their foray into experiential dining. Today, the company is reaping the rewards of that deal and has cemented its leadership position in experiential dining. 

“I believe the Fox Restaurant Concepts was the best thing they’ve ever done. I’ve already talked about this, but they’ve run its course on what they could do on their own, and bringing in somebody like Sam and his team just provides such future development and growth. I know it came at a high cost, but I think they’ll get a return on that investment.”

– Former Area Director, Cheesecake Factory | 2023 Expert Transcript

Shift in Alcohol Consumption

In 2024, more and more restaurants and bars are likely to start offering a wider menu of non-alcoholic beverages, if they are not already. As more and more consumers are becoming sober or sober-curious, there is a much greater demand for mocktails, non-alcoholic wine, and non-alcoholic beer, particularly among the millennial and Gen Z populations. 

This presents a great opportunity for restaurants to innovate and differentiate themselves—creating new flavor combinations and making non-alcoholic drinks just as fun, festive, and enjoyable as their alcoholic counterparts. This both helps them appeal to a wider customer base and helps them better compete with restaurants that haven’t yet made their foray into zero-proof offerings. 

“The rise of nonalcoholic pairings, whether it’s with exquisite teas or artfully crafted juices, signifies a refreshing evolution in the world of culinary experiences, where the harmony of flavors extends to those who seek a vibrant, alcohol-free journey through their dining adventures,” says Laurent Gardinier, president of Relais & Châteaux in France.

QSR Trends 

The QSR industry is an integral part of American food culture, encompassing fast-food chains, coffeeshops, and fast-casual restaurants. QSRs was much less affected by the COVID-19 pandemic than traditional restaurants, as they already had well-oiled systems in place for delivery and takeout. Plus, the fast and easy nature of QSRs’ offering proved particularly appealing during the pandemic when customers were seeking comfort and convenience. 

Today, the QSR subsector is going through an evolution alongside the larger restaurant industry, driven by emerging technologies and shifting customer preferences. Below, we cover the top QSR trends for 2024:

Age of Technology and Artificial Intelligence

Fast-casual and quick-service restaurants nationwide are rapidly turning to technology and artificial intelligence to elevate their front- and back-of-house operations—a trend that is expected to gather even more momentum this year. 

Chipotle, Wendy’s, and IHOP are a few examples of long-running fast-casual restaurants that are introducing AI into their food prep or customer interactions to create more streamlined, efficient, and personalized experiences for customers.

Fast-casual and hugely popular salad chain, Sweetgreen, recently acquired robotic food prep company, Spyce, and is testing the robot’s ability to dispense salad leaves into a bowl more efficiently and precisely than a human can. Additionally, their Infinite Kitchen concept in Illinois operates with a fully automated assembly line, and that location gets on average 50% higher visits than legacy locations.

These AI innovations in the foodservice space are exciting and hold a lot of promise. In a time of persistent labor shortages, AI can replace human workers, and potentially even do better than them by eliminating human error in the ordering or preparation process. 

Yet AI also introduces new complications and potential frustrations for consumers, and it’s still too early to say just how large of a role it will take in this space in the future. Regardless, now is the time for QSRs to start strategizing about how to incorporate technology and AI into their operations, so they can stay ahead of this trend as it evolves. 

Digitization of the Industry

The biggest draw of QSRs for customers is their speed and convenience, which means it should be no surprise that digitization has rapidly taken hold of this industry. Today, mobile ordering, app-based rewards, and ordering kiosks are all elements customers have come to expect when they visit QSRs. In 2024, digitization is expected to take over even more of the QSR infrastructure. 

Many QSRs are working to integrate their online ordering systems with search engines and maps, making it even more convenient for customers to order from a restaurant they stumbled across while browsing on the web. Additionally, mobile apps are fast becoming industry standard as a way for QSRs to build brand affinity with their customers through various perks, loyalty programs, and rewards—as well as a way to collect customer data that can then be used to improve the customer experience. 

Focus on Wellness

Overall, QSRs are becoming increasingly conscious of their customers’ desire for healthier, more nutritious menu items. While the QSR space was traditionally synonymous with fast food, this is no longer the case. More and more QSRs are popping up under the fast-casual category that specialize in quick, convenient, and healthy meals. 

Some notable examples include Sweetgreen, Just Salad, Chop’t, and Dig. And even among legacy fast food chains—McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and others—the addition of more nutritious menu items has been a consistent trend over the past few years. 

There is a real opportunity for QSRs to now go beyond traditional healthy options like salads, low-carb-substitutions, and diet sodas, and instead, to create innovative products that are brand-specific but ultimately satisfy more health-conscious customers. A notable example of a brand successfully doing this was Burger King’s Impossible Whopper launch, which brought them an 18.5% increase in foot traffic and allowed them to capture customers that previously were unable to partake in their all-meat menu.

Additionally, customers are expecting greater transparency in ingredient sourcing and nutritional information—being able to tell customers a clear story about where the ingredients they are consuming came from and exactly how nutritious they are goes a long way. For example, Sweetgreen is known for displaying ingredients and where they are coming from on large visible boards in all their locations. Similarly, Panera Bread has been a leader in both nutritional and ingredient transparency for years.

“Okay. I think that shifting of the consumer expectation of food that is transparently-sourced and freshly-prepared has only grown, probably growing faster than we expected given the effect of COVID, people eating at home more and delivery being a bigger part of the consumer purchase behavior. I think one big thing is the expectation of quality and transparent sourcing of food that consumers eat. Sweetgreen, I think, benefits from that shift. It was benefiting from that shift before but I think over the last two years, especially given COVID, that’s even more.”

– Former Digital Product and Growth VP, Sweetgreen | Expert Call

More Authentic Customer Engagement and Branding

In 2024, the choice to eat at a particular QSR is about much more than just the type of food served in that restaurant—consumers are increasingly frequenting establishments that have an authentic brand they feel aligned with. These days, many QSRs have die-hard fans that will consistently choose them over other options because they feel genuinely connected to those brands.

One major reason for this is the generational shift that is particularly apparent among Gen Z customers, where they are expecting a bespoke brand experience that is unique and personalized. Their preference for a specific QSR then becomes a part of their identity and image—which means they are much more loyal and more likely to provide free marketing for the brand.

QSR brands understand this and are heavily capitalizing on it in several ways. Firstly, they are using social media to establish authentic relationships with their customer base by leaning into the precise brand characteristics and quirks that make them appealing to their customers. Clever captions, strategic influencer partnerships, and customer giveaways are all highly effective for drawing in a more loyal fan base. As seen in the AlphaSense platform, Taco Bell is a great example of a QSR that has been leaning heavily into authentic marketing and branding through:

This year and beyond, QSRs are doubling down on their marketing and branding efforts, while investing in their customer relationships and differentiating from their competitors. The name of the game is less “appeal to the masses” and more “build your authentic tribe”.

Restaurant and QSR Industry Outlook

Innovation is the word of the year for the restaurant industry in 2024. Whether it’s implementing technology and automation in novel ways, experimenting with new cuisines, or creating unique experiences for guests, innovation is quickly becoming a key differentiating factor among restaurants that manage to delight and retain customers long-term.

Customers are expecting to be wowed and surprised in their dining experiences, so bringing new flavors, new technologies, and new concepts—while also leaning on insights from customer data and consistently aiming to serve customers better—will be key in finding sustained success this year and beyond.

Expansion is another key theme, whether in terms of adding menu items to cater to different palates and eating preferences, or diversifying sources of revenue by adding merchandise or entertainment to the dining experience. Now is the time to push out of the comfort zone, develop new growth strategies, and go beyond what was previously done.

The restaurant industry is clearly in a period of transition, which means there is plenty of opportunity for reinvention and experimentation. Amidst macroeconomic challenges such as lingering inflation, labor shortages, and increased competition, restaurants that are able to lean into the above trends and tap into their unique value offering will be poised for enduring success and growth.

Stay on Top of the Evolving Restaurant Industry

Staying ahead in the restaurant industry requires diligent market research efforts and confidence in decision-making. AlphaSense is a leading provider of market intelligence, including 10,000+ high-quality content sources from more than 1,500 leading research providers—all in a single platform. 

AlphaSense keeps you up to date on all the latest restaurant trends with our premium content sets and unmatched AI search capabilities.

Specific types of content you’ll find on the AlphaSense platform include:

  • Industry reports, company reports, ESG reports, event transcripts, and press releases
  • Restaurant news and trade publications such as Restaurant Dive, Restaurant Finance Monitor, and QSR Magazine
  • Over 1,500 research providers including Wall Street Insights®, a premier and exclusive equity research collection for corporate teams 
  • Expert call transcript library that gives access to thousands of insightful interviews with former employees, customers, competitors, and industry experts across the restaurant and QSR spaces

Our AI search capabilities enable accurate, fast, and comprehensive qualitative and quantitative research, and can mine unstructured data for the most critical insights. These features include:

  • Smart Summaries, our first generative AI feature, summarizes key insights from earnings calls for faster analysis
  • Smart Synonyms™ technology that ensures you never miss a source important to your research
  • Automated and customizable real-time alerts for tracking companies, industries, and potential investments
  • Customizable dashboards and watchlists for monitoring other restaurant companies or topics
  • AlphaSense Assistant (coming soon!), an AI-powered chatbot designed to answer your most pressing business questions, quickly and accurately

Stay ahead of the rapidly evolving restaurant and QSR industry and get your competitive edge with AlphaSense. Start your free trial today.