Customization 2021: Adapting to personalization in the year ahead

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Customization, perhaps more than any other topic in foodservice, has been in a constant state of evolution. From the early days of “have it your way” and "white or wheat?" the approach has been ever-changing. And over time, new challenges have popped up: cross-contamination, lifestyle trends and ingredient allergies, to name a few. Operators pivoted by finding new ways to offer modifications and customization without disrupting service.  And then the COVID-19 pandemic came knocking, and many operators found themselves without the capability to customize. Survival and safety took precedence, and with good reason.

How customization has shifted

Curation over customization

Diners may think they want to build their own creation, but this can easily backfire when non-complementary flavors come together poorly. Operators recognize the need to guide guests toward a curated offering.

Alternatives for health-conscious diners

Customization has evolved for health, dietary and allergies, as much as anything. Alternatives like meat-free, dairy-free, and lower carb have grown in popularity over the last several years and show no sign of stopping. Allowing swaps offers the benefit of inclusivity to meet a variety of diners’ needs.

Hyper-personalization shelved for now

Pre-pandemic trends included gastronomic experiences far beyond the norm, like offers of tailoring dinner menus to guests’ DNA profiles. As the current normal has settled in, operators have paused the added-value offers and placed their focus elsewhere, like outdoor dining areas and proper distancing between tables.

How to customize now: Tips and takeaways:

Choose curation over customization: 

Consumers are experiencing decision fatigue, and when ordering online, too many choices can become overwhelming. Make it simple by focusing on curated options, family-worthy bundles and suggested combinations that complement one another.


  • Build-your-own options are intimidating with global items, so offering fewer, more manageable choices may put guests at ease.
  • Consumers are sensitive to price right now. Rather than tacking on fees, offer different price options and allow guests to build their meal bundle. Think of it as a modern-day mix-and-match menu.

Offer choice with limits: 

The emphasis on value is pronounced right now as consumers manage their stress into the new year. Balancing price, quality, and quantity will continue to be important in 2021. Rather than reverting to menus of the past, take stock of the year ahead. If a limited menu worked, stick with it and add in a few choices. If choices add stress to the kitchen team, collaborate on the choices that feel possible.


  • Streamline menus: Survey ordering habits from 2020 to understand how the menu can be simplified. From there, define opportunities for customization and easy add-ons to build checks.
  • Mix in choice: Learn from the mix-and-match strategies of successful fast-casual chains.
  • Merchandise bundles: Interest continues to grow for family meal bundles that offer customization, with 78% of consumers stating they would like to see mix-and-match options. Explore build-your-own bundle menus as an offer to guests1. 


Reimagine catering and takeout

While takeout and delivery ramped up in 2020, catering programs were pulled way back. In fact, two-thirds of operators suspended their offering. In 2021, there will likely be opportunity to feed groups differently as people find new ways to gather.


  • Offer a reimagined version of catering to maintain the revenue stream and meet consumers where they are.
  • Customization might be an expectation, but choice can be overwhelming when ordering online. Organize the menu by the bestsellers and help diners focus.


1 Datassential, 2020

This post is sponsored by Custom Culinary