The 10 most innovative dining companies of 2021

From restaurant ordering platforms Tock and Slice to dining innovators like Panera, Chipotle, and White Castle, these companies are feeding the industry with innovation.

The 10 most innovative dining companies of 2021
[Icon: Assignment Studios]

The dining companies on this list are doing more than survive the COVID-19 crisis. They’re setting themselves—and the entire industry—up for future success. Chicago-based reservation management platform Tock is helping independent restaurants offer order and delivery services, while Slice does something similar for local pizzerias. Sensor company OneDine has adapted its technology to help restaurants set up new drive-through services, and New York-based architecture firm Rockwell Group allows them to create outdoor spaces quickly and efficiently. World Central Kitchen and Street Vendor Project have an additional mission: tackling food insecurity. The organizations have helped restaurant workers and food vendors retain their jobs by serving meals to people in need.

[Illustration: Goran Factory ]

1. Tock

For restoring the advantage to restaurants and small businesses battered by the coronavirus

When the fine-dining restaurants on the reservation platform Tock began shutting down their indoor dining venues, the company launched Tock to Go, an online ordering platform that helps restaurants offer pickup and delivery options. Tock to Go, which charges the delivery fee ($5 to $10) to diners instead of restaurants and takes only a 2% cut on orders, offers restaurants a compelling alternative to the onerous terms of other delivery platforms, which may charge 20% or more. As a result, Tock has more than doubled in size since March, adding more than 3,000 restaurants to the platform and expanding beyond its fine-dining base. In October, it partnered with the city of Chicago in October to offer Tock to Go for free to restaurants in low-income neighborhoods to help secure these small business that are so central to the city’s fabric during the pandemic. For more on why Tock is a 2021 Most Innovative Company, click here.

2. Panera Bread

For finding creative solutions for getting coffee, groceries, and meals to customers during the pandemic

Panera created a new revenue model when it launched a monthly coffee subscription service in April. Some 500,000 people signed up. The service also incentivized customers to order other items from Panera, which expanded its delivery options to include select grocery items, such as milk and avocados. The fast-casual chain launched curbside pickup and used geofencing to help branches deliver orders accurately and quickly. When the company furloughed employees at the beginning of the pandemic, it created a job platform to help them find temporary employment at CVS and other organizations facing staffing shortages.


3. OneDine

For adapting its sensor technology to help restaurants set up drive-through services

Previously used on restaurant tables, OneDine’s sensor technology is now a staple in parking lots, letting restaurants without a drive-through setup serve customers who order food and pay for it without leaving their car. OneDine expanded its offerings to let customers order ahead online, text-to-pay, scan-to-pay, and text-to-notify. The company has also offered its services to hotels, airports, event spaces, and stores seeking to adapt to the changing hospitality landscape during COVID.

4. World Central Kitchen

For enabling restaurants to stay open during the pandemic by tackling America’s growing food crisis

As restaurants across the country shuttered, José Andres turned his food relief organization into a lifeline for independent restaurant owners and their employees, while distributing millions of meals to Americans in sudden need. The organization helped keep restaurants afloat and workers employed through its Restaurants for the People project, which pays restaurants to make free meals for families in need. The project is in more than 400 cities across 35 states, including New York, Miami, Houston, Atlanta, Seattle, and Chicago. It has worked with more than 2,400 restaurants to serve more than 11 million restaurant meals and has disbursed more than $117 million dollars directly to restaurant owners. In the city of Oakland alone, the project works with 125 restaurants to serve more than 80,000 meals per week. WCK also fed voters waiting in line at polling stations through its Chefs for the Polls project, which served 500,000 meals at 250 different cities and towns. It continues its relief work elsewhere: for example, helping to distribute food to Nicaraguan communities impacted by Hurricane Iota.

5. Slice

For accelerating the top-to-bottom digital transformation of your neighborhood pizza joint, starting with delivery

A marketing and digital ordering platform specializing in pizzerias, Slice is used by more than 14,000 restaurants. After 10 years, it reached $1 billion in lifetime sales in 2020, and expects to hit $2 billion sometime in 2021. Unlike the major digital delivery networks, which take a cut of the sales, Slice charges a flat fee per order making its relationships with restaurants more equitable. To help its businesses compete against the pizza giants and delivery app networks, it introduced Slice Accelerate, a top-to-bottom digital service that helps customers optimize their menus, create targeted marketing campaigns, and finesse their branding. Another significant development: Slice added its own delivery service last May; 1,500 shops have signed up, with more every month.


6. Chipotle

For shifting to meet customer needs by scaling its digital presence

The fast-casual innovator has had its investments in digital ordering and delivery pay off. Digital sales tripled in the third quarter of 2020 compared with Q3 2019 and Chipotle expects digital sales to double for all of 2020 YoY, topping $2.5 billion. About half of those sales are picked up by customers, an initiative that the company’s investment in “Chipotlanes”—its version of drive-thru, which started in February 2019—helped accelerate. Chipotle now has more than 100 stores with these lanes. In November, Chipotle introduced its first digital-only restaurant, as a reflection of this shift in consumer behavior. The company has also been an innovator in TikTok marketing; its Lid Flip Challenge inspired 110,000 videos in six days last April and they were viewed a cumulative 230 million times in the first month.

7. Rockwell Group

For coming up with an outdoor seating plan that allowed eateries to serve customers on-premise

The New York City-based architecture firm created a modular kit and templates to help restaurants set up outdoor dining spaces on sidewalks and streets, helping them reopen quickly while complying with guidelines. Later during the pandemic, the firm worked with the New York Hospitality Alliance to create prototypes for communal outdoor dining spaces that several restaurants could use on New York’s open streets.

8. Street Vendor Project

For helping street vendors keep their businesses alive, while assisting those in need

This nonprofit supporting street vendors in New York worked with local officials to allow street vendors, many of whom don’t qualify for government support, to make food for New Yorkers who are food insecure. At the same time, it advocated for the rights and opportunities for these workers, making sure they can conduct their business legally. The group pushed lawmakers to lift a cap on the number of street vendor permits available in New York City, persuading them to add an additional 4,000 gradually in the next ten years.


9. Hungry

For making the couch feel more like the bleachers by delivering game-day food to customers’ homes

Catering company Hungry launched an online channel that lets viewers access hour-long cooking sessions with top chefs on their website. Viewers who sign up are sent meal kits with ingredients, and can keep up with the video as they cook. The company also partnered with sports teams—including the Washington Nationals and Texas Rangers—and municipalities to deliver food to peoples homes. Through its sports partnerships, the company created the first stadium-to-home delivery service, getting wings, pizza, and hotdogs to fans watching games at home.

10. White Castle

For hiring the first robot fast-food employee

This year burger chain White Castle hired the first AI-powered robot to work in a fast food restaurant kitchen. The robot, called “Flippy,” is being used to fry up to 11 menu items (from french fries to shrimp nibblers), freeing kitchen workers to make other items and get food to customers faster. After debuting it at a Chicago location in July, the company announced that it would introduce Flippys to ten more locations in 2021. The robot is especially useful during COVID as it limits the number of staff interacting with each other all without decreasing the number of meals prepared.