In the world of restaurants, bars, and everything consumed with cuisine there are a myriad number of people who attempt to be fortune tellers to the future, so that those who’ve invested their money and time into the business may come out on top in what is a notoriously difficult industry to do so. But, of course, there are so many factors that go into the changes that completely shake this business that serves us all on so many levels, that it’s generally a pretty tricky task to take on.
It’s unlikely that those who lived through the 2nd World War would have predicted that the same model that made it easier to produce cars would be utilized in restaurant kitchens to give us one of our most exported goods in the US; fast food. And those of us who became obsessed with the culinary world as displayed on the brand new Bravo TV show, Top Chef, in 2006 had no idea that our national economy was about to crumble in 2008, which would make way for the rise of food trucks as desirable eateries.
So, while I have no idea what will actually happen in the next 10 years, I will look into my crystal ball that’s filled with the changes that have already begun to take place in the service industry and make some further predictions about what is to come in the way we dine and serve.
There’s no doubt that in 2020, we must accept that the computers will continue to grow smarter and smaller and more and more influential when it comes to business practices–in pretty much every single industry. In restaurants, we use technology for everything from staffing to inventory tracking and supply ordering to scheduling and reservations, and everything in between.
But how does that impact the service provided to the guest? One way is simply with how payments are collected. Restaurants have been using credit cards for years, but now there are many restaurants that have moved to cashless operations. Something that Todd Jones, “The Donutologist” of Cuzin’s Duzin has adopted “To keep theft of cash down.” But it’s a move that lawmakers in New York City, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts have deemed discriminatory and have legislated against. Not that this will slow the progression of the digital age.
For most consumers, however, it’s the online ordering platforms that have made the biggest wave in the last couple of years. From ghost kitchens–those that operate only for the sake of delivery, to the explosion of chef-curated meals and meal kits, to national chains like Dunkin’ and Starbucks putting their storefronts directly in the palm of your hands with their own apps, to the seduction of the delivery boom that brought in the ride-share app Uber and even tempted Bezos into the mix, with the now-defunct Amazon Restaurants. What does this mean for the future of our restaurants?
The Return of the Automat but Make it Shelves.
The very first Horn & Hardart Automat appeared in Philly in June of 1902. Well before the internet takeover, people short on time and in need of an affordable meal could pop in and scan the slots for something worthy of their nickel. From meatloaf to apple pie, your breakfast, lunch, and dinner was as easy to come by as a bag of potato chips from a vending machine. What a modern marvel!
After a good 40-50 years of popular service to the working class however, they grew out of fashion. As the workforce continued to change, employers began to feed their staff in company cafeterias and automats found themselves having to raise their prices to cover new taxes and labor costs while the quality of the food began to decline. The last automat closed in New York City in 1991.
Of course the automation we see today looks somewhat different. And while things may have flipped in why we’re moving back to these automated services, the reasons are essentially the same in that the cost and demands of today’s workforce are vastly different than even 10-20 years ago. So, whether you’re talking about a robot-making salad vending machine or a slew of shelves with to-go orders stacked in their places, efficiency is at the core of all of these ideas. And the promise of technology is the same: convenience, speed, and affordability.
While you may not have a cupcake vending machine or a robot chef in your office place just yet, you’ve probably seen these new shelf-service areas in your favorite Danny Meyer salad chain, Sweetgreen, and other similar quick-service restaurants like Dig Inn, Chipotle, etc. But as the trend of delivery and order ahead takeout continues to rise, with some estimates expecting the industry could be worth over $300 billion dollars in the next decade, established restaurants are adding these shelves to their spaces to try to accommodate the demand for the on-the-go workforce that continues to grow in major cities across the globe.
In order to keep up with these kinds of customers, several of the country’s largest names in QSR have been making drastic remodels, including Krispy Kreme, Famous Dave’s, and Firehouse Subs. We’ve even seen a restaurant rebrand into a tech company, Brightloom, which has now partnered with some of the aforementioned food giants, like Starbucks to navigate this new world where tech and food come together including a pickup system that’s more than just another IKEA shelf.
As we become ever-more reliant upon our cell phones and internet tech, it’s likely this will only continue to grow. But, while some places are experimenting with adding delivery or takeout only kitchens, there is certainly a social aspect to dining out that means there will still be a need for these dine-in spaces to remain–for those of us who’d rather not spill their grain bowl all over their laptop. I predict a synergy of the two–perhaps something like what you’re seeing with Mooyah Burger, who’s recently begun to redesign their spaces to accommodate both the additional pick-up orders and their dine-in guests who can create their own seating arrangements whether they’re a party of 1 or 10.
Not everyone in the business is buying into this style of service. Depending on the kind of food you offer, you may be reluctant to serve it outside of your shop. We’ve all had a soggy french fry. In fact, according to a report by Tripadvisor, less than a quarter of their respondents utilize any kind of 3rd party ordering system at all. What did their surveyed restaurant owners pinpoint as the number one trend for the coming year? Sustainability.
Sustainable Beyond the Straw
In 2015, that video of the turtle with a nose full of straw–who was not on a coke-fueled party trip went viral that made us all stop and ask why do we use and toss so many plastic straws. And localities began implementing legal changes within the next 3 years to ban these single-use plastic tools from restaurants and bars. Since then, many businesses have implemented their own plastic straw swaps due to pressures from clientele or their own desire to help clean up the planet. The backlash that’s come, however, is from another group of the population that the restaurant industry already ignores far too often–those with disabilities.
But the question that many restaurateurs are asking now, and will likely continue to do so quite frequently as we move towards a more vulnerable ecosystem, is what else can we do to truly reduce the waste that our business produces? This question is especially pertinent as this pick-up and delivery sector builds steam. Many companies are looking towards more recyclable and compostable containers, but those have their own challenges, including the higher costs associated with their use. One solution may be to allow customers to bring their own reusable containers for their food when taking out. Many people have already adopted this practice when it comes to their coffee and other beverages. But what about takeout from your favorite chinese food joint?
California’s recently become the first state to make it officially legal for restaurants to accept a customer’s own container when buying their food–or packing up leftovers. The bill that just went into effect this year, stipulates the conditions for this kind of situation, which includes sanitation practices so that one person’s dish won’t contaminate another’s meal. As California leads the charge, the rest of the country will no doubt be watching to see how it all plays out–specifically from a service perspective. And finally, in addition to the changing servicewear in our restaurants, many in the business believe that another big change will be in the faces of the people in charge.
Outside of the Oscars, Women are Directing More
As the old guard of the restaurant world ages, dies, or escapes legal charges, there are slowly but surely a growing number of women-led kitchens and restaurants across the country. “Increasing equality for women” is one of the things that Erika Bogner, Founder NYC EVENT PRO is most excited about for the future of our restaurants. Angela Pinkerton, of Che Fico & Che Fico Alimentari in San Francisco is quoted in Food & Wine; “Butcher shops, bakeries and restaurant kitchens helmed, diners and dining rooms in check. It’s the coolest time to be a woman boss. If there’s business to be done, we are most certainly on it, and we are changing the language of it all.”
But what does that mean for the future of service? At the moment it’s too soon to tell when it comes specifically to restaurants in the US, as the numbers are still quite low. According to Grubhub’s Restauranther site, which is a platform dedicated to highlighting women-led food businesses, less than 10% of head chefs are women.
However, we can predict some possible outcomes based on patterns that have been studied in other industries. A Forbes article from March of 2019, looks at one study that includes the following: “Women-led companies seem to be better at inspiring belief in their products or services, leading to more overall employee engagement, when compared to male-led companies.” And anyone who’s had a memorable experience at a restaurant can agree that employee buy-in is key to their own enjoyment.
Plus, in an industry that’s been ruled by a very different and more cutthroat style of masculine leadership, it’s very likely to draw top talent to a business that’s more interested in effective communication, customer concerns, and a product that can deliver on the promise of quality and efficiency. While that can certainly come from a person of any gender, male leaders have often been told to put their bottom line and higher power status above all else. So, as a fellow female, I’m excited to see where the future leaders will take us.