October 4, 2021

Over the last couple of years, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every sphere of society in the U.S and abroad.

Industries have been struggling to keep up since the onset of the virus, and perhaps none more so than the restaurant industry. According to the National Restaurant Association, the industry went down close to $240 billion in sales and millions of employees were out of work.

During the height of the pandemic, restaurants were relying on such tactics as to-go orders only, streamlined menus, and make-your-own meal kits to keep their doors open. Now, as restaurants have been opening back up, what does the future of the industry look like? Let’s take a peek at the projections.

Lance McWhorter, Food Network “Chopped” contestant, Executive Chef & Owner of Culture ETX, and Escoffier Online Culinary Arts graduate“Culture ETX, my restaurant, was six months old when COVID hit. We went into the first shutdown. I was just completely depressed. Completely beside myself. This was supposed to be all those things that you just said: my new restaurant, my episode of Chopped just aired, we just won Cochon 555, and then a month later COVID hits, and everything is dangling by a thread. It was such a time of uncertainty and it was such a stressful time that I either had one of two options: I could sit at home during the lockdown and drink myself to death. Or I could get up and I could go do something.”
Lance McWhorter, Executive Chef and Owner of Culture ETX

Restaurants Are Opening Their Doors

You might be surprised to hear that now can be an optimal time to work in a restaurant. After being cooped up for many months, people have a strong desire to go out to eat. Couples are interested in getting their weekly date nights back. Birthdays, anniversaries, and engagements have become momentous celebrations after feeling a bit lackluster throughout the pandemic.

The restaurant industry was doing very well prior to COVID. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the National Restaurant Association “concluded the restaurant industry has added jobs with annual incomes between $45,000 and $74,999 at a rate more than three times stronger than the overall U.S. economy.” Many restaurant employees felt they were finally making a healthy salary. There were even chef shortages due to high demand and lack of skilled culinarians.

Male manager with tie writing on a clipboard in commercial kitchen

As we round out 2021, bars and restaurants are beginning to boom once again. According to the National Restaurant Association’s State of the Restaurant Industry Report, food and beverage sales in the restaurant and foodservice industry “are projected to total $789 billion in 2021, up 19.7% from 2020.” From January to July of 2021, foodservice places “added a net 1.3 million jobs.” It’s clear: restaurant jobs will recover.

Current Staff Shortages

In June and July of 2021, 75% of restaurant operations professionals said that recruiting and retaining employees was the top challenge facing their business. This number is, in fact, the highest it’s ever been in 20 years of the Association tracking it.1

Walk down just about any main street in the country and you’ll likely see “Hiring” signs in many to most foodservice establishments. Restaurant managers need skilled workers — from front-of-house folks like hosts, servers, and bartenders to behind-the-scenes employees like head chefs, line cooks, and kitchen managers.

But in order for hired talent to stay on board, they need to be able to handle the demand caused by the influx of patrons flying through the restaurant doors. This means being equipped with sharp culinary skills off the bat. It means being able to perform well and maintain composure in times of stress. And it means having the communication skills to work with other employees in the restaurant.

More Facts from the NRA Report

  • Menu prices are trending higher than pre-pandemic, up nearly 4% through June
  • 39 states and the District of Columbia had reopened to 100% indoor dining capacity at end of June
  • Cocktails-to-go are permanent in 16 states
  • Hourly earnings are rising at a pace more than double that of the overall private sector

Other Types of Opportunities

If you’re unsure whether you want to head directly into a traditional restaurant role, there are plenty of related options. Travel is another industry that’s soaring as doors (and airlines) are opening up, so looking into hospitality roles in hotels and resorts, on cruise ships, or at theme parks could provide a new and exciting prospect. With all the postponed weddings and events taking place, working in catering or event management is another option.

Cafe manager and waitress take notes as they look at a laptop

And as many people are balancing careers and at-home schooling, and want someone to come in and take care of the cooking for them. Former Escoffier Chef Instructor Austin Yancey says there were “50,000 private chefs pre-COVID in the US alone, millions worldwide.” Being a personal chef is more relevant now than ever before.

If you’re already a knowledgeable and experienced chef, you might consider becoming a Chef Instructor at an online school like Escoffier, or teaching via other platforms. Imparting your expertise to the next generation of culinarians can make a tremendous impact as well as providing a great career opportunity.

Chef Instructor and Master Baker Colette Christian“I just kept going, working and trying to do better. And when I got to culinary school, I was even more motivated. I think as women, we have to be flexible. You just make another mark, and tell yourself ‘maybe if I can’t slog away in a kitchen, I’m going to get published. And then after I do that maybe teaching is the way to go.’ So I made that happen.”
Chef Colette Christian, Escoffier Chef Instructor

How to Prepare for Life After COVID

Advice for Restaurant Owners

As things ramp back up and customers come in, it’s helpful to keep your options open in case you need to pivot. This may mean continuing to offer a limited menu, keeping up with your to-go order marketing, and even furthering your own skills so you can stay both current and flexible in the industry.

Male Restaurant Manager With Digital Tablet Giving Team Talk To Waiting Staff

Advice for Chefs

For one, stay patient. The world has taken a big hit, and everyone is doing their best to get back on track. If you’re still looking for a chef job, cast a wide net among all those hiring restaurants. If you’re interested in exploring other opportunities that have developed during the pandemic or making a career switch, consider enrolling in a program to build specialized skills to boost your resume.

Advice for Current or Prospective Students

Invest your time wisely. Now is an excellent time to further your career with a foundational culinary education. And you don’t necessarily have to quit your job to do it. Escoffier offers both in-person and online degree and diploma programs.

“Right away, I created some principles that I would live by through COVID. One of the first rules is having a healthy dose of forgiveness. Because this is my first pandemic, I forgive myself, I forgive you. It’s this huge thing people are going through.” Greg Bell, Author, Motivational Speaker, and Founder of Water The Bamboo® Center For Leadership

Want to read more about the state of the restaurant industry? Check out these articles next:

1 National Restaurant Association