Restaurant of the Future – Part 2

Restaurant of the Future - Part 2

By Rose Phillips

In Restaurant of the Future – Part 1, we explored the industry pressures and environmental trends that are impacting today’s restaurant operators, and how future-forward brands are adapting to compete. We concluded with a recommendation outlining three principles that brands will need to nail in order to be successful in the future:

Serve Up Solutions – Answer the unmet needs that matter most to customers and staff

Feed Hearts and Minds – Leverage values and purpose to promote positive change

Craft for CraveabilityEngage Consumers in a dynamic & memorable experience worth repeating

We know there is no one “Restaurant of the Future.” Instead, brands will use a Retail Portfolio Strategy: a flexible, integrated set of modules that work together symbiotically to design an experience optimized for their market and consumer. Instead of the small-medium-large approach, this strategy helps brands meet customer needs in a way that is operationally efficient, scalable, and resonant. While a brand’s portfolio can include an array of experience modules, we’ll focus on just three key themes that are becoming increasingly relevant today: seamless fulfillment, consumption convenience, and memorable immersion.

In September 2019, WD Partners conducted a 588-person study aimed at understanding consumers’ reactions to an array of future-forward restaurant experiences. The following solutions are inspired by what we learned, in conjunction with insights gleaned from trend analysis in Restaurant of the Future Part 1.

The Restaurants of the Future

Seamless Fulfillment

In the future, driving volume will be about meeting customers where they are. In some cases, this means units devoted to production, not on-premise service. By focusing solely on fulfillment, this concept becomes a finely-tuned machine capable of fulfilling orders faster than ever before. How it works: delivery orders within a set radius are routed through a central kitchen, where they are cooked and handed off to drones and delivery runners. The upside is unparalleled efficiency, free of distractions. The downside is that consumers aren’t yet fully comfortable with the idea: in our study, 6 in 10 consumers were fine with the idea of a “ghost kitchen,” but 4 in 10 found it unappealing. Success will be determined not purely by brands’ ability to deliver, but to deliver increased value.

How it Works

  1. Customer texts a friendly chatbot to begin their order
  2. Chatbot combines fitness data and history to recommend meals that fit dietary needs
  3. Robots prepare, cook, and assemble the meal with human assistance
  4. a) Lockers are stocked with orders, allowing drivers to quickly grab them and get back to their car or bike
    b) Drones deliver additional orders

    From our Research: Consumer attitudes about ghost kitchens were more negative than attitudes about delivery-only concepts, despite the similarity between the two.

    Consider: Consumers may be uncomfortable with concept of a ghost kitchen, not the practice itself. Reassure them by delivering outstanding quality, faster than ever.

  5. Vending machines along commuter routes are stocked throughout the day with fresh, high quality meals

    From our Research: 37% of participants were interested in the idea of vending machines, while 30% saw them as a negative.

    Consider: Old style vending machines are out, but operators that can figure out how to offer enticing and fresh customer favorites stand to win share of wallet.

  6. Interactive and photogenic packaging fuels social media hype
  7. Phone displays content like local sourcing information when food is scanned
  8. Sustainable packaging comes with composting instructions

Consumption Convenience

Brands that are focused on delivering convenience and value have been finding success with the small, quick service format for decades. With some future-forward modifications, this concept has strong staying power. And for FSR brands expanding their portfolio, it deserves a second look: it’s a great opportunity to become more relevant for on-the-go consumers looking for speedy meal solutions.

How it Works

  1. Mobile device recognizes customer proximity to restaurant and suggests ordering dinner
  2. Recommends favorite meals that meet dietary restrictions and nutritional needs
  3. Customer personalizes ingredients and portion size, then selects from dine-in or carryout options
  4. Staff are alerted to impending arrival and put the finishing touches on robot-prepped ingredients

    From our Research: An open kitchen with food theatre elements was the second most popular concept tested.
    A robot-staffed kitchen was the least popular, with 3 in 5 participants saying it would make them visit a favorite restaurant less often.

    Consider: With rising labor costs, some automation will be necessary. Operators can strike the right balance by incorporating robotic assistance in the back-of-house with customer-facing food theatre elements in the front.

  5. Carryout meals are placed in lockers immediately prior to customer arrival
  6. An AI-powered slow lane takes drive-thru orders while order-ahead meals are delivered by runners

    From our Research: Two in five participants said a seamless drive through experience would make them visit a restaurant more often.

    Consider: Consumer expectations for convenience will just keep getting higher. Answer the challenge by leveraging technology to anticipate, track, and manage the drive-thru experience.

  7. Dine-in customers that ordered ahead walk in and sit down; staff serve meal immediately. Other dine-in customers place orders on smart kiosks that recommend personalized orders based on known preferences
  8. Interactive smart tables offer games, sourcing info, and nutritional facts
  9. Customer shops unique merchandise from limited-time brand collaborations
  10. Customer deposits used reusable container

    From our Research: Zero waste kitchen was the most popular concept we tested, scoring 16 points higher than every other alternative. More than 65% of customers said that they would visit a restaurant more often if it stopped generating trash or food waste.

    Consider: Wary of greenwashing, consumers are voting with their wallets. Demonstrating real impact will soon be table-stakes. Operators can win by attacking the sustainability problem sooner rather than later.

Memorable Immersion

This experience is not about convenience, speed, or practicality. Instead, it’s the wildly creative flagship where a brand can fully come to life. In our consumer study, most of the top scoring concepts were experience-heavy; an open kitchen with food theatre, an over-the-top flagship, and hands-on cooking classes came in second only to a zero-waste focused concept.

How it Works

  1. Host welcomes customers by name and invites them to explore the seasonally refreshed space
  2. Chef showcases and describes innovative cooking techniques while customers watch and sample

    From our Research: Almost half of participants said that they would go to a restaurant more often if it offered hands-on experiences like cooking classes.
    1 in 2 participants said they would purchase more frequently at a restaurant with an entertaining open kitchen concept.

    Consider: Consumers are hungry for food theatre, but it’s just not practical for customers to enjoy the cooking process in most formats. Take advantage of the opportunity and make it a centerpiece of the experience.

  3. Customers use their mobile devices to order drinks and small plates delivered directly to where they stand
  4. When their table is ready, customers are escorted to their customizable seating space
  5. Customers modify the dining space by adjusting scent, lighting, visuals, and sound to their tastes
  6. Server is alerted to customer needs in order to provide personalized recommendations and service
  7. Menu features local sourcing stories and an entrée tailored to customers’ preferences

    From our Research: A flagship, over-the-top experience, including one-of-a-kind meals for each guest, was the third most popular concept we tested.

    Consider: Consumers investing their time and money in a flagship visit are looking for something unforgettable; give them a memorable, personalized experience that they won’t get anywhere else.

  8. Meal is cooked in an open kitchen with ingredients from the restaurant’s own produce garden
  9. Customers select garnishes from a self-serve fresh herb wall
  10. Leftovers are sustainably boxed with instructions on how to repurpose into a new meal at home
  11. Exiting customers take a meal kit enabling chef-inspired cooking at home


The future can feel uncertain. But by leveraging a deep consumer knowledge, principles grounded in research, and a Retail Portfolio Strategy, your brand can set itself up for long-lasting success.

Rose Phillips
Rose Phillips
Strategist, Strategy & Insights
WD Partners

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