By Rose Phillips
Robot chefs. AI taking drive-thru orders. Drone delivery. A tech-influenced restaurant industry is no longer a far-off future. It’s here. And it has been brought on by some of the most disruptive industry pressures: labor shortages, time-poor consumers, interest in conscious consumption, and the overwhelming need for an elevated consumer experience.
In part one of two, WD Partners’ viewpoint on the Restaurant of the Future starts with understanding how future-forward brands are solving for today’s trends and setting themselves up for success tomorrow.
Doing More with Less
The industry has a problem: a surplus of doors, a shortage of workers to staff them. Restaurants are multiplying, up 8% since 20111. The problem, however, is that the rising cost of living has made restaurant wages increasingly unappealing. In fact, restaurant job openings are up 40% over the past two years2. Meanwhile, mandated minimum wage hikes are making it difficult for operators to even afford the workers they do find. This year, restaurant professionals ranked difficulties hiring staff a top challenge after high operating and food costs3. When combining these workplace factors, it’s clear restaurants must focus on an exceptional customer experience.
Feeling the squeeze, operators are looking for ways to do more with less, leaning on automation, self-service, and pared-down menus to compensate:
- Creator (San Francisco) uses a robot to cook and assemble its $6 gourmet burgers.
- Holly, the AI at Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard (Denver), takes drive-thru orders so can employees focus on customer service at the window.
- Sevenrooms, a guest management system, empowers FSR employees to provide world-class service by tracking guest allergies, dining preferences, and reservation history.
Leading by Example
Increasingly cause-conscious consumers are demanding that restaurants reduce their environmental impact and are willing to vote with their wallets to prove it. In fact, nearly half of all consumers support local governments banning the use of plastic straws, while two in three say they would pay more for sustainably-packaged fast food4.
Consumers are holding brands accountable for issues beyond sustainability. Some 86% of consumers want brands to take a stand on social issues, and 75% would refuse to purchase a product if they found out a company supported an issue contrary to their beliefs5:
Top brands in this space are increasingly transparent and open about their causes, suppliers and ingredients, giving consumers options that are healthy for body, mind and soul.
- Sweetgreen visits schools to educate about healthy eating, fitness, and sustainability through fun, hands-on activities.
- The progressive Honey Butter Fried Chicken (Chicago) lists its suppliers online, provides sourcing facts on napkin holders, and offers employees access to company finance books.
- Full-service operator Olmsted (Brooklyn) grows ingredients in the restaurant backyard, an area that’s open to guests.
Streamlining the Journey
More than half of Americans say that they never seem to have enough time to do all the things they need to do6. Increasingly time-strapped and accustomed to a culture of on-demand convenience, consumers now expect brands to deliver an experience that’s been tailored with their needs in mind.
Operators are finding ways to deliver on this expectation by removing friction at pivotal moments in the customer’s journey:
- Market leader McDonald’s is rolling out smart drive-thru menu boards that adapts content for local weather, time of day, historically popular items, and local events, helping customers deselect.
- Chipotle’s Lifestyle Bowls make it easier to adhere to specialty diets, removing the uncertainty of diet adherence.
- Duck Duck Goat, a full-service restaurant in Chicago, added a walk-up window with its own kitchen that offers street food-style items not part of the regular menu.
- Chick-Fil-A’s new Louisville prototype will provide delivery and catering services only
Elevating the Experiential Offer
With today’s plethora of ultra-convenient takeout options, it’s possible to enjoy top-shelf food without leaving the couch. But oversaturation of screen time has people craving authentic, sensorial, and social experiences. In the US, spending on experiences is forecast to outstrip spending on things by 33% over the next 5 years7.
Smart brands are capitalizing on this opportunity by differentiating themselves with a level of immersion that only real life can deliver. Some of the most inventive examples:
- Fast-casual Chinese concept Junzi (NYC) features monthly chef-led dinners
- Tree by Naked (Tokyo) offers a theatrical dining experience augmented by VR and projection mapping
- The small, local Blue Hill at Stone Barns (New York), takes personalized service to the extreme. Customers don’t even have to order; instead, a one-of-a-kind meal is created for each guest based what waiters can infer from their interactions
- Cooper’s Hawk now offers travel experiences, like a tour of France’s wine regions, to its wine-of-the-month club members
How can you ensure your brand is future-ready? We recommend the following as a starting point:
Serve Up Solutions – Develop a deep understanding of pivotal moments for your customer and restaurant staff. Craft touchpoints that anticipate unmet needs and differentiate your brand by solving problems that matter.
- Have you identified the most critical pain points (for customers and staff) that could make the biggest impact on the experience?
- Are systems in place to capture and leverage customer or market-level data and preferences?
Feed Hearts and Minds – Restaurant operators can’t afford to remain static while the world changes. At the very least, strive to reduce your negative impact on the environment and society. Tomorrow’s leaders will go beyond by evolving their business models to promote positive change.
- How well aligned are your business practices and the issues your customers care about most?
- Are you actively demonstrating the impact of your efforts at the moments when customers will receive the message?
Craft for Craveability – In an age of immediacy, don’t fall into the trap of commoditizing your brand experience. It’s imperative to deliver a real-life experience that is dynamic, memorable, and sets your brand apart—this is the opportunity to create a lasting impression with every encounter.
- Have you gone beyond functional needs by designing for more powerful emotional connections?
- Are you giving guests a compelling enough reason to choose your brand experience again and again?
The Restaurant(s) of the Future
So where do you go from here? The inconvenient truth is that there is no one "Restaurant of the Future." Today, seasoned operators know that the ideal restaurant experience in an affluent urban core is worlds away from that of a rural university campus. In the past, operators have taken the T-shirt approach with small, medium, and large stores or modified the surface-level aesthetic to fit its locale. Changing customer expectations and industry pressures demand a new recipe for success. The restaurant of the future will use a retail portfolio strategy, a flexible, integrated set of modules that work together symbiotically to serve up solutions, feed hearts and minds, and craft for craveability. A strategic array of offerings, from ghost kitchens to high-service experiences, will allow brands to meet customer needs in a way that is operationally efficient, scalable, and resonates with the most precious commodity of them all — customers.
Stay tuned to the next edition of WayfinD for Part 2 to see the Restaurant of the Future brought to life.