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Dec 31

It's almost the end of the year, so it's time for you to look at the numbers and see who in the restaurant industry will be ending 2021 with a win.

This year's winners were determined by pandemic tailwinds. Changes in the political and regulatory landscape also played a significant role. These six groups reaped the rewards.

Steak chains

Higher-end restaurants that offer experiences and food were the most affected by the closing of dining rooms in March 2020. These same restaurants rebounded the best when the doors opened up and customers were able to celebrate with a good meal.

LongHorn Steakhouse and the Capital Grille have been Darden's recent stars, while Texas Roadhouse has done well and Ruth's Chris. Fogo de Chao's phenomenal sales have prompted it to file for public listing (again).

This win has been somewhat temperated by the fact that beef prices have risen in the second half of the year. Steakhouse margins have been squeezed and price increases are being forced. However, most of these chains are confident that inflation will not affect their customers.

College athletes

Restaurant marketing departments found the NCAA's decision to let student-athletes make money from their likenesses to be a significant one.

Four chains announced sponsorship deals with athletes just weeks after the June rule change.

Many Southern-based restaurants like Raising Cane's and Bojangles have teamed up with college football players from their local markets. Louisiana-based walk-ons was perhaps the most innovative: Through its Walk-On of the week program, the chain of sports bars has signed agreements with dozens of athletes who were able to make their teams without the need for a scholarship. This includes a 63-year-old Reinhardt University golfer.

Tech companies

The technology in restaurants started as a small ripple many years ago, but it quickly became a tsunami in 2020, largely out of necessity. This wave has continued to grow into 2021, and it appears to be growing as more restaurants embrace technology for all sorts of reasons, including to reach more customers and to learn more about them, and to combat a severe staffing crisis.

Investors saw this and began investing in tech suppliers. More than $5 billion was already in the restaurant tech sector as a result of investments, IPOs, or acquisitions, some of which came from large names like Squarespace, IBM, Oracle, Squarespace, and the Jonas Brothers.

Two major tech companies, Olo and Toast, went public in this year's market. They cited the ongoing transformation of restaurants into a digital-first sector. Presto was also planning to go public.


2021 could be remembered as a landmark year for unions, especially in the restaurant sector, which is notoriously hostile to organized labor.

Unions had won a few small, but significant victories in restaurants by the end of the year. The largest was December when employees at a Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y. voted to have their union-represented. (As of this writing, six Starbucks employees were still waiting for permission from the National Labor Relations Board to hold union votes. A seventh was also awaiting the decision of the board on a contested vote.

Workers at the 21-unit Colectivo, and four-unit Darwin’s were among those who voted to unionize. Meanwhile, Burgerville, a regional chain, reached its first agreement with workers after 3.5 years of negotiations.

The Biden administration has welcomed this new wave of organizing.

Chipotle shareholders

"Wall Street’s favorite restaurant" saw its share prices rise in 2021, posting quarter after quarter of eye-popping numbers.

Chipotle shares topped out at $1,958 in September, making it the most expensive restaurant stock. Since 2006, its price was $42 per share. It has risen more than 3,900% over the past year.

This has been done by the burrito chain with a strong focus on digital sales via its mobile app, loyalty program, and drive-thrus "Chipotle". Under CEO Brian Niccol, the chain has been active in developing limited-time menu items. This includes the highly-popular smoked brisket. Chipotle's challenge going forward is to surpass its record-breaking performance from last year.

Chicken wing lovers

Consumers are often encouraged to choose from more options. How many chicken wings can Americans actually eat?

Wingstop and Buffalo Wild Wings are no longer the only ones who can sell popular poultry parts. They are now available at Fazoli’s.

This item's popularity has been driven in part by the explosion in delivery-only virtual brands. These wing vehicles are a great choice for delivering to sporting events or parties as they travel well and can be used for deliveries. Here's a shortlist of virtual wing brands launched in 2018: Cosmic Wings, Applebee's, Wings of New York (Nathan's Famous), Jailbird(Dog Haus), Toss 'Em Wing factory (Bubbakoo's Burritos), Another Wing (“DJ Khaled”), UD Wings (“Udonis Haslem”) and so forth.

Popular acquisition targets include chicken wing chains. In 2021, WingZone and Native Grill & Wings as well as Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza & Wings all were snapped up.

(All this occurred, by the way, as wing prices were increasing to levels around 50% higher last year.

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