Restaurant Executives Dish On What To Expect In 2020

Food & Drink

Had you told me just a few years ago that I’d be able to have a Chipotle burrito delivered to my house, I would have thought you were crazy.  

Or that McDonald’s was actively learning my drive-thru ordering habits, just like Amazon knows my shopping preferences? Or that I’d be able to book a hotel room in The Bell: A Taco Bell Hotel & Resort.

Or that I’d be able to try the Colonel’s 11 herbs and spices on a nugget that looked and tasted like chicken, but was actually made of plant-based ingredients?  


I’ve been covering the restaurant industry since 2010 and I’ve never seen a year filled with as much transformation as 2019. According to a number of restaurant executives, 2020 will be like 2019, but on steroids. Digital orders alone are projected to triple by the end of next year, for example. Here’s more of what we can expect from some of the biggest brands in the space.  

Continued acceleration of technology

McDonald’s spent hundreds of millions of dollars beefing up its technology in 2019, including the acquisition of AI company Dynamic Yield, which is expected to be in place in nearly every U.S. restaurant by the end of the year. Its acquisition of voice tech company Apprente helped jump start a new, integrated, internal group within McDonald’s global tech team called McD Tech Labs. In 2020, the company will start to realize some return on these investments, return it has already generated in other markets.  

“We’ve been laser focused on utilizing technology to build a better McDonald’s experience for our customers and crew across multiple channels like mobile app, kiosks, delivery, menu boards and more,” said Daniel Henry, McDonald’s EVP and global CIO. “We look forward to further leveraging data and technology in 2020 as we continue to cultivate a culture of innovation and elevate the McDonald’s experience.”   

Speaking of data, Chipotle plans to increase its brand relevance through data-driven personalization, according to CMO Chris Brandt. The company won’t neglect traditional advertising channels, however, and plans to increase its presence there as well. Such efforts have made Chipotle more visible and relevant, Brandt adds.  

No doubt, Chipotle, along with Wingstop, were the 2019 poster children on how an intentional, digital-first strategy can yield tremendous results. Wingstop spent part of 2019 rolling out an updated website and mobile apps, and expanding delivery to more than 90% of its system. And, like Chipotle, Wingstop plans to press the accelerator in the new year. 

“Wingstop is currently testing order kiosks, pickup lockers and back-of-the-house technology to supplement our existing efforts, so you can definitely expect our focus on innovation to continue into 2020 as we drive toward the goal of digitizing every transaction,” said Chairman and CEO Charlie Morrison.  

As digital and marketing increasingly intersect, brands will continue to hone in on that overlap in an effort to create more personalized experiences for their customers. This is a critical connection to make in a time when traffic across the industry stagnates. Brands that are best able to capture customers’ attention wherever those customers are will have a significant advantage. Sweetgreen, which has intrigued plenty of investors for its tech-forward approach, plans to continue to lead on this front.  

“As we transform from a traditional restaurant company to a food platform, we want to further our mission of connecting more people to real food. Channels like Outpost, our no-fee delivery service to corporate offices, as well as native delivery, will allow us to meet our customers wherever they are,” said Nathaniel Ru, co-founder and chief brand officer. 

For Wingstop, meeting customers where they are means exploring the gaming space. For Denny’s, that means the growth of delivery through Denny’s on Demand.  

And for Subway, that means continuing its digital push that began earlier this year with a new app experience and the expansion of its delivery network.  

“We’ve focused on a personalized guest experience and we’re most proud of how we have kept the needs of our guests at the center of everything we’ve done,” said Trevor Haynes, Subway’s North American president. “In 2020, guests can expect more of what they love–a customized experience where they can get exactly what they want and when they want it.”  

If delivery continues to be the preferred way guests get that very experience (and, according to some research, it will), then plenty of brands are setting themselves up favorably. Panera, for example, surprised some this year by adding third-party aggregates alongside its successful in-house delivery program.  

“We’ve optimized our brand to meet customers where they are. This was highlighted through expanding dayparts, options (including grain bowls) and access–launching our unique ‘bring your own courier’ model through partnerships with DoorDash, Grubhub and UberEats,” said Dan Wegiel, chief growth and strategy officer. 

Jersey Mike’s will also continue to focus on digital and delivery, building off of its app enhancement in 2019, which included the ability to order ahead. President Hoyt Jones said third-party delivery will also continue to be a growth area for the brand in the coming year, driven by its proprietary point-of-sale integration that includes Uber Eats, DoorDash, Grubhub and, soon, Postmates.  

On the menu

Personalizing the guest experience extends well beyond a fancy new app or robust delivery platform. Customers also want a menu evolution, and the demand for plant-based offerings makes that abundantly clear. UBS forecasts the plant-based meat market will grow by 28% a year and reach $85 billion by 2030. It should therefore be no surprise that restaurant brands will continue to embrace the offering.  

That includes KFC, which was the first brand to jump into the plant-based chicken space, a bold move that generated 2 billion media impressions.  

“We had an extremely successful test launch of Beyond Fried Chicken with our PR activation at a single Atlanta restaurant in August, and our plant-based chicken sold out in under five hours,” said CMO Andrea Zahumensky. “We were blown away by the response, as well as the feedback on this menu item from consumers.”  

As such, the company will “continue deepening [its] relationship with Beyond Meat” in 2020, Zahumensky said.  

Carl’s Jr. was one of the first major brands to adopt the plant-based trend, launching its Beyond Famous Star in January 2019. The product became the brand’s most successful burger launch in two years, with 6.7 million sold to date, according to Patty Trevino, SVP of brand marketing for CKE Restaurants. The company was also the first QSR to introduce a CBD-infused item with its Rocky Mountain High: CheeseBurger Delight test in Denver. 

 “We sold out in one day and drove positive sales across the system timed to the launch,” Trevino said, noting that the company will “continue to push boundaries in 2020.”  

Denny’s also had a plant-based milestone in 2019, becoming the first brand in the family dining space to partner with Beyond Meat, while Subway identifies its Beyond Meat meatball sub as a highlight alongside other culinary innovations like its Halo Top milkshakes. Subway will continue to evolve its menu in the new year, testing new ingredients in select markets and promoting new offers that deliver on value, Haynes said.  

Off the menu

Some brands are prioritizing other parts of the business for 2020. Pizza Hut, for example, is going to expand its round pizza box, first tested in October in Phoenix. The box, created by Zume, is designed to keep pizza hotter, fresher and crispier, and also uses less material, so it’s more sustainable. 

“This year we took a step forward with innovation and tested new concepts like a revolutionary round pizza box, which has been the most innovative packaging we’ve rolled out to date,” said Nicolas Burquier, chief customer and operations officer. “We see a lot of growth in the round box concept and are looking forward to rolling it out in additional markets beyond Phoenix.” 

Meanwhile, Subway is going to continue its restaurant remodels, with plans to have nearly half of its U.S. locations in the new design in 2020.  

And, as the tight labor market continues to pose a challenge to the industry, Sweetgreen will continue to build on its employee benefits. In 2019, the company updated its parental policy to five months fully paid for all mothers, fathers, adoptive parents, foster parents and “others with new additions to their families.” 

“We believe it is our responsibility to lead the way given the U.S. is one of the few countries that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents,” Ru said.  

Cultivating a loyal employee base will also continue to be one of Taco Bell’s focal points. In 2019, the brand introduced hiring parties nationwide and awarded a record $4.6 million in scholarships to students and team members. Rob Poetsch, senior director of global communications and engagement, said the brand will continue to bring “unexpected good” to its people in 2020.

Other brands, including Jersey Mike’s and Just Salad, will be focused on growth. Jersey Mike’s expects to build more than 200 stores next year, which means it will also step up its training program to ensure consistency across its expanding system.

“In 2019, we conducted over 2,400 training classes with nearly 15,000 attendees and our goal is to break that record next year,” Jones said. “With high expectations–Jersey Mike’s was voted America’s favorite sandwich brand in Market Force Information’s 2019 QSR study–we are committed to regular training for our teams.” 

 Meanwhile, New York City-based Just Salad debuted in Florida in 2019, with plans to open five more locations (about 13% of its current system) throughout South Florida in the next six months.  

“Expanding to Florida was a big moment … and that’s just the beginning,” said Sandra Noonan, chief sustainability officer.

As is part of its DNA, Just Salad will also focus heavily on sustainability initiatives moving forward. That includes throwing its weight behind the zero-waste-to-landfill movement by promoting composting and reusables.  

“In 2020, we will expand our food-scrap separation program, which is already live in our kitchens, to front-of-house. We also want to expand and update our reusable bowl program,” Noonan said. “Reducing our carbon footprint is a key focus and we took an important step toward that in 2019 by replacing grilled steak with Beyond Beef Meatballs.”  

Finally, Denny’s will mark the New Year by stepping up its multicultural marketing efforts.  

“I truly believe that brands choosing to proactively embrace diversity and inclusion as a source of growth and producing marketing efforts that represent the natural diversity of their customer base will be able to establish an authentic, lasting connection with consumers, building brand loyalty and ultimately driving sustained growth,” said Chief Brand Officer John Dillon. 

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