These are the Bar & Restaurant Trends to Watch in 2020

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We asked several of our contributors and 2020 Nightclub & Bar Show speakers what trends they expect to take hold next year.

Each industry expert revealed what trends they’re watching for 2020, and some of their predictions may surprise you.

Below you’ll find the bar and restaurant trends to watch next year, organized into our Five Pillars: Operations, Marketing, People, Food & Beverage, and Guest Experience.

1. Operations

Homan Taghdiri, co-founder of supergroup consulting firm Invictus Hospitality which also includes Michael Tipps, David Foss and Mark Alan Diaz, expects bar interior design to make a shift in 2020.

“We see the dark and mysterious side of the bar world transforming into a little lighter and more upbeat environment with more vibrant colors,” he says. “That speakeasy trend—that took over the industrial trend—is winding down and moving towards fun and sexy.”

Operator, strategist and author Doug Radkey, president of KRG Hospitality, agrees that the speakeasy as we know it may be on its way out next year.

“Instead of a secret bar with a hidden entrance like at a speakeasy, in 2020 you will start to find multiple small, more intimate bars placed inside of larger venues allowing guests to retreat to a more detailed, hyper-focused ‘bar’ to order a drink,” says Radkey. “For example, a venue that has a tequila-focused bar, a bourbon-focused bar, and a vodka-focused bar within itself, allowing staff to home in on their education and specialize in one spirit, ultimately elevating the on-premise guest experience.”

Restaurant Coach, contributor and Nightclub & Bar Award-winning author (Industry Book & Author of the Year, 2019) Donald Burns expects an even more dramatic changes regarding restaurant operations in 2020.

“I feel we are approaching a restaurant apocalypse in the coming year,” Burns predicts. “Restaurants are opening at a faster rate than the market can support and this over saturation is a bubble that is going to bust. How can you avoid becoming a statistic of restaurant failure?”

Burns has identified one type of restaurant in particular he feels will rise in popularity—and profitability—next year and beyond.

“Perhaps your concept could be better served if you were a ghost? Don’t knock the idea of the rise of ghost (or dark) kitchens! These locations are going to be the new restaurant of the future,” he says. “Kitchens United has raised over $100M in funding to expand their ghost kitchen sites across the United States. With rising wage demands and a decreasing-quality labor pool, this is the perfect model for expansion or a new startup.”

Burns points to the ghost kitchen as a natural evolution of food halls, commissary kitchens and food trucks to support his prediction.

“Imagine having a restaurant that serves food through an online platform only and you just need a few culinary staff to pull it off—talk about low overhead and high profits! This business model is primed to take off in 2020,” he says. “Kitchen commissaries have been around for some time for food trucks. Ghost kitchens are the next evolution of that idea. The model is a great one to think about if you even want to test out a new concept in a market. You can get a good feel for demand without investing a lot into a brick-and-mortar location. That could mean the difference between making it or not.”

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Regardless of the type of operation, Radkey predicts that responsible business practices will become even more important in 2020.

“Sustainability won’t be just about the end product or single-use plastics within the industry as we move throughout 2020. As the rainforest, climate change, and plastic oceans continue to dominate our news feeds, consumers will—and in some cases already have—start demanding sustainability throughout a restaurant or bar’s entire supply-chain ecosystem,” he says. “Operators will start looking at their choice of vendors, delivery logistics, equipment efficiency, use of ingredients, and material choices within their décor to ensure they’re meeting both the needs of the environment and the wants of their guests.”

2. Marketing

With tech developments seemingly coming to market every day, it’s understandable to always be waiting for the next big marketing tool. However, entrepreneur, reputation management educator and consultant Todd Collins thinks what will really evolve is messaging, not necessarily apps and platforms.

“The weight that awareness is having on the consumer’s decision making. Still many restaurant owners are investing into the omni-channel avenue of advertising with the old-school way of messaging, i.e. sending direct mail menus instead of personalized invitations to visit the establishments that can be tracked from an ROI Standpoint. Direct mail isn’t dead—the messaging is.”

3. People

Multiple Nightclub & Bar Award winner Erick Castro (Industry Podcast of the Year and New Bar Concept of the Year, 2019) predicts a front-of-house service transformation.

“Of the trends I see rising in the industry over the next few years, I would say that the line between server and bartender is going to continue to blur, with bartenders doing floor shifts and bars not having any dedicated servers at all,” says Castro. “With bartenders on the floor, the level of cocktail knowledge and service on the floor grows exponentially. Although many bars have already been doing this for years, I see more and more bars moving in this direction in the years to come.”

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Castro also predicts changes to staffing and all positions in the house.

“Another trend that I see growing is bars continuing to push inclusivity in the workplace. For a long time, ‘diversity’ has been a buzzword in the industry, but a restaurant with an all Hispanic back of house with a Caucasian front of house is technically diverse,” he says. “However, it is not very inclusive if an entire race is denied guest-facing opportunities in the front of house. Now both staff and guests are realizing that that is not enough. We must continue to push towards inclusivity & stop denying people opportunities that they deserve.”

4. Food & Beverage

Cocktail trends have been catching fire with increasing rapidity, so they can be difficult to predict. However, Doug Radkey and Homan Taghdiri have some thoughts.

“Zero-proof drinks or low-ABV drinks that are handcrafted and full of flavor are going to continue to grow,” predicts Radkey. “I believe they’re past the point of being ‘just a trend’ and will start to drive significant revenue streams for operators in 2020, allowing them the opportunity to charge nearly the same price-point as a spirit-forward cocktail with the right execution and beverage program.”

Taghdiri and the Invictus Hospitality team are a bit more cautious in predicting the rise of zero-proof drinks but note that they appear to be gaining industry and consumer support.

“We also seem to be at the very beginning phases of a ‘mocktail’ trend—which is so early in its infancy that it is hard to tell if this is a quick fad or something that may mold into a solid trend for some time,” he says. “But it is worth noting that the major players seem to be playing with zero-ABV ‘spirits’ to help push this trend.”

Whether zero-, low- or full-proof, Taghdiri and Invictus see the end of days in 2020 for fussy drinks that slow down bar teams.

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“We have seen the ‘mixology’ trend of super-fancy cocktails which take 10 minutes to make on the way out for a couple years now. The classics are making a resurgence as adapted intellectual cocktails that leverage the craft of making drinks to come up with creative and innovative cocktails that are simple, well balanced, and tasty, using three to five ingredients instead of seven to ten. We see a lot of skilled bartenders who have great spirit knowledge coming up with beautiful cocktails which taste amazing but are also simple and easy to make.”

Taghdiri notes that “gin and tequila on the rise,” but predicts that another drink category will take off next year.

“I also see wines coming in strong, and with guests getting educated about different types of wines, the organic and biodynamic wines pushing forward and gaining traction as well.”

5. Guest Experience

Doug Radkey believes that in 2020, independent bar and restaurant operators will fight back against industry disruptors.

“There’s no question that delivery and off-premise dining has disrupted and caused havoc on much of the restaurant industry over the past couple of years—and more so in 2019. The economic models and regulations surrounding third-party applications have recently come under scrutiny by consumers, restaurateurs, governments, and even the delivery drivers themselves,” states Radkey. “While delivery and off-premise dining as a revenue channel shows no signs of slowing down, expect independent restaurant operators in 2020 to change focus and develop their own strategy (online ordering plus delivery) to effectively control costs and improve profitability (no more 20-30 percent commissions) while protecting their brand (better quality control and customer service) and keeping that invaluable consumer data in-house.”

Creating strategies to combat delivery, third-party apps and other disruptors is paramount. However, Todd Collins cautions restaurant operators against overlooking one element of the guest experience that clearly resonates with consumers.

“Convenience above all else,” says Collins. “The average age of most restaurant or bar demos are trending to a digitally connected demographic. This demo is obsessed with convenience and if your brand is not adjusting to that need, your competitor is going to and reap the rewards for the years to come.”

Donald Burns agrees wholeheartedly.

“The guests today crave convenience and are skipping traditional dining in favor of staying in and streaming from their favorite channel (Netflix, HBO, and Hulu to name a few). If fact, they are willing to pay extra to have food delivered on their terms,” says Burns of convenience. “If you have not implemented a delivery program, take-out, or curb-side pickup you need to jump on this now. I have seen restaurants that do 60 percent and sometimes more in delivery. Without it, they would have surely closed their doors. Increased rents are another reason that you can’t wait to increase sales to help alleviate the rising costs of doing business in 2020.”

Check this out: Why Menu Changes are About the Guest Experience

Further elaborating on convenience and the importance of restaurant operators taking control of a delivery and pickup strategy, Burns has this to say:

“Forget mega-restaurants that are 300-plus seats—they are a callback to the days when big chains ruled the market. 2020 belongs to the independent restaurant that can adapt faster. Smaller-sized concepts with fewer seats will be the way to go. Now you might say that less seats equals less guests, so how can you make money? Delivery and takeout!”

Click here to see when these experts will be speaking and what topics they'll be covering at the 35th anniversary celebration of the Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas.

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