What Does the Future of Dining Look Like?

September 18, 2020

When thinking about the world’s most well-known futurists, whose names come to mind first? George Orwell? Faith Popcorn? Nostradamus?

For me, it is always Hanna-Barbera, the production company behind the 1960s cartoon show “The Jetsons.” The series introduced the world to flying cars, moving walkways, video chat, and even robot vacuums. Talk about clairvoyance — those cartoonists had it in spades.

Dan Wheeler, Whalburgers

As a career food-service guy, my favorite Jetsons prophecy, of course, was the AI-powered drive-through assistant at the Spaceburger Drive-in. Who would’ve thunk it?

It’s no secret that the impact of COVID-19 on the restaurant industry has been devastating — perhaps more so than any other industry. It’s estimated that over 30 percent of all restaurant locations may close permanently, and one out of every five currently unemployed Americans was laid off from a food-service job. When you include the network of agencies, contractors, and suppliers providing products and services to restaurants, the toll is even greater.

Of course, just as COVID-19 has exposed many fundamental challenges with the restaurant industry (the incredibly narrow margins, the plethora of over-leveraged concepts, and the poor economics of third-party food delivery, just to name a few,) it has accelerated disruptive innovation as well…and brought us that much closer to the Spaceburger Drive-in.

I’ve worked in multiple marketing, innovation, and strategic roles throughout my food-service career and never have I seen the broad-reaching impact and furious reinvention we are currently experiencing—forever changing long-established dining traditions.

Take “date night” for example. What will that look like in 2021 and beyond? 

Well, it’s highly likely the percentage of date night meals that are delivered or picked up and brought back to the home, rather than eaten inside an establishment, will continue to rise steadily. In many cases, those meals will be prepared in a cloud kitchen without a storefront. Those who are still wanting to get out of the house for a sit-down meal in the foreseeable future shouldn’t be surprised if their choices are either a table for two on an outdoor patio or a self-contained indoor area with plexiglass partitions, George and Jane Jetson style.  

Here’s my take on other restaurant trends and concepts that should flourish (and a few that may not survive) in our new COVID-influenced world:

A few things are here to stay:

  • Concepts with strong digital foundations. (Think: Domino’s and Wingstop.)
  • Brands that focus on cleanliness and customization. (Think: Sweetgreen and Blaze Pizza.)
  • Companies with a genuine concern for their communities and the environment. (Think: Starbucks and Chipotle.)
  • Contact-free everything (i.e. interior and exterior doors, menus, payments, trash, restroom fixtures, dispensing systems).
  • Ready-to-go offerings (in addition to expanded drive-through and curbside pick-up options, expect more meal kits and pre-packaged meals and snacks to-go).

But others are going away:

  • High-touch environments where containing viral spread is difficult. (Think: salad bars and play spaces at fast-food chains.)
  • Establishments that over-rely on business travel. (Think: undifferentiated high-end dining and steakhouses.)
  • Segments that were already teetering on the edge of profitability and relevance. (Think: family buffets and 80’s fern bars.)

Going out to eat is right up there with hugging friends and watching live sports as the activities Americans miss most, according to recent polls. There’s no doubt the restaurant industry will come back stronger than ever. It is just as likely it will never be the same.

Just as we are already making calls on our wrist watches and enlisting robots to clean our homes like The Jetsons foretold, the reality of getting all our daily nourishment from a simple pill may not be too far away either. As Hanna-Barbera would say: “Be sure to tune in for the next episode!”


Dan Wheeler is a consumer-centric design thinker specializing in marketing, innovation, and building high-performing teams. He has worked with brands like Dunkin’, JM Smucker, Campbell’s, and Best Buy. 

This piece is a part of the Fall 2020 special issue of IL’s magazine, which collects advice and insights from 25 contributors. Read the full “Innovation Matters More” magazine.