Restaurant operators remain stuck in a rut, dealing with the same list of recurring challenges: slow traffic, labor  issues and accelerating real estate costs. Adding to their roster of woes are disrupting entities such as Whole Foods, now under the Amazon umbrella; and cashierless Amazon Go stores, which attract would-be restaurant diners with lower prices, home delivery, more convenient payment methods and other perks. And with customer-facing technologies such as mobile app ordering, third-party delivery providers only make the future of the industry cloudier than ever before.

When trying to decipher the restaurant of the future, perhaps a look to the past is in order. Many believe the future rests on the tried-and-true industry cornerstone of providing true hospitality.

“I strongly believe that the nature of our time dictates not just what the restaurant of the future is or might be, but what it should be,” says designer Steve Starr, president of starrdesign in Charlotte, N.C. “Our society in general is moving away from human connection, and I truly believe that a lot of the divisiveness that we see today is due to a lack of or diminishing personal connection.”

Starr believes that the more labels for people and things continue to grow, the closer we will get to dehumanizing people or assigning them second-class status. “Where I think this affects restaurants is that the restaurant — in various forms throughout history — has always been one of the main places for people to connect with each other,” he says. “Restaurants — or taverns or church basements or whatever form they took — are where people met. You see it in every culture and civilization; people gather around food. That said, I think the restaurant industry has a unique opportunity to take a more active role in bringing people and our society back together.”

A noble task, for sure. In the still up-and-coming tech-to-table restaurant world, Starr believes it’s important to think about how new technologies can support and enhance the human experience but not replace it. In essence, it’s all about how restaurants and operators might use and leverage technology to improve their operations so they can free up more time and attention while focusing on the important stuff: good old hospitality and customer service.

“Have you ever met someone who is self-employed or works out of their house?” Starr asks, noting that the solitude of that style of work can drive a greater need to be around others during off-work time. “The social connection is not a psychological requirement, it’s actually a biological requirement. People need social interaction — we always will.”

Starr believes two very distinct dining occasions — one being social and the other being convenience — don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Even with an increasing demand for delivery, that shouldn’t come at the expense of hospitality and service, Starr says. He points to the example of Red Robin, which tasked staff at the host desk with handling all delivery orders rather than adding an extra employee or a team of employees to do that work. “Sure, they had an increase in delivery sales, but they also had more frustrated dine-in customers walk away when they couldn’t get seated quickly and efficiently,” he says.

service

Nicky Kruse, strategist with The Culinary Edge, a San Francisco-based restaurant consultancy and operator, shares similar views when it comes to the balance between automation and hospitality.

“While automated kitchens and robots allow for wins on so many levels in terms of consistency, labor and speed, the challenge for restaurants is how do they not lose that value of human touch?” asks Kruse. “Instead of switching everything to automation, we advise our clients to do so where it makes sense. Too much automation can make a restaurant feel too austere.”

Some fully automated operations function without a restaurant space at all. Take Zume Pizza, for example, which only offers delivery via its virtual restaurant in Mountain View, Calif. Co-created by restaurant developer Julia Collins and serial entrepreneur Alex Garden, former Shake Shack and Microsoft Xbox alums, Zume Pizza was one of the first to use robots in its stores to cook pizza using mechanical arms.

When customers place an order, a team of proprietary pizza-making robots and culinary experts work collaboratively to prepare each pie at the company’s central kitchen. There, pizzas bake in an 800-degree F oven before moving to the food delivery vehicle where it continues to bake in a custom-designed oven for three and a half minutes before arriving at the customer’s door. The technology, Zume Pizza execs say, also prevents the need to add preservatives or other chemicals to prolong the quality of the food after cooking and during transport.

Starr offers another example of automation. While McDonald’s added self-ordering kiosks, Chick-fil-A decided to go another route, giving tablets to drive-thru assistants to “line-bust.” That meant taking orders directly from the customer and at the same time using a tool that could send orders directly to the kitchen. This allows the chain to maintain its focus on customer service while also enhancing operations.

Future Factor: Efficiency

Increasing efficiencies will always be part of the future.

“The move to a smaller footprint, maximizing wall space and using technology and equipment to fill every nook and cranny in your four walls has been one of the biggest changes for us,” says Marc Jacobs, partner at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE), Chicago. He points to LEYE’s Beatrix restaurants in particular as becoming “smarter” in terms of design and equipment.

In the back of the house that means combi ovens for more flexibility as well as a blast chiller to conduct more batch cooking safely. Efficiency can also come in large sizes, such as industrial-scale cooking equipment like tilt skillets that prepare everything from braised meats to stir-fries and big batches of stock, soup and sauces.

At Beatrix’s larger, almost-open location in Oak Brook, Ill., additional hand sinks cut down on the steps staff will need to take. Also, as the brand shifts from third-party providers to building its own delivery service, separate zones were created in the kitchen to designate space for packaging food specifically for delivery and takeout. That might mean more counter space, shelving and undercounter refrigeration for holding dressings, condiments and other add-ons, as well as zones for allergen-friendly cooking.

“Another big change we’re focused on is getting more meal periods out of one space,” Jacobs says. “We’re not just interested in lunch, we also want to grab the breakfast, brunch and dinner daypart crowds because it’s a greater win for the restaurant overall.”

At Beatrix, ample charging outlets, Wi-Fi, brighter lights and flexible seating in the form of high-top tables, shared tables, traditional tables and couches help make the space work friendly during the morning hours. At lunch the lights go down just a touch, and in the evening they get even dimmer while the music slightly increases in volume.

“We have guests that might come for coffee and a meeting in the morning, come back for lunch and even stop by for a to-go dinner, all in one day,” Jacobs says.

Kruse also sees this concept of day-to-night dining growing. “We try to create spaces for customers so they’re welcome at any hour of the day,” she says. “The design has to be flexible to allow things like a bar that serves craft coffee in the morning, tonics and kombucha on tap in the afternoon and cocktails at night. Even menus need to be more fluid, as diners seem to prefer more savory flavors earlier during the day and want more options at lunch and dinner.”

These concepts tend to reflect more open, airy spaces that mimic the fluid nature of the menu as well as a broader use of mixed materials. “We recommend woods, soft neutrals and metals that can transition from day to night,” Kruse says. In the back of the house, there might be a need for more cold storage space to hold more food throughout the day.

“It’s all about restaurants trying to get the most dollars out of their spaces,” Kruse says.

Restaurant Odyssey

Restaurant designers, specifiers and operators who think at least a few steps ahead of their time and stay open to new ideas and business models have a far greater chance of future success. The year 2020 may prove a watershed moment for restaurants, much like the invention of the drive-thru in the ’70s, convenience food in the ’80s, big brands in the ’90s and the recession that came in the early 2000s.

Ghost or virtual kitchen spaces are one component coming more into focus as a part of restaurant operations in the near future. Modeled after the many bicycle-based delivery-only restaurants in Thailand and China, these commissary kitchens theoretically could — and are beginning to — house multiple delivery-only restaurants via a centralized vehicle hub and delivery service.

Joseph Schumaker, FCSI, a kitchen designer, consultant and founder of foodspace+co in San Jose, Calif., paints this picture of the ghost kitchens: “You could take a commissary or shared kitchen space, put four or five restaurants in them, create a van hub, add a third-party delivery service, and now you have a ghost kitchen.”

He’s essentially describing what Uber Eats and other third-party delivery companies have already done investing in the concept of virtual restaurants that enable customers to order a meal from a restaurant that has no front of the house. The Uber Eats platform specifically allows a sandwich shop, for instance, to offer other types of dishes like soups and salads without a hint of change to its current operations. In addition, Uber Eats has invested heavily in artificial intelligence and heightened algorithms to learn patterns and make restaurant and dish recommendations to users based on their ordering
history and personal tastes.

Food delivery

In 2017, Grubhub invested $1 million in New York startup Green Summit Group that has since launched nine virtual restaurants from one kitchen. Consumers order dishes from virtual restaurant brands such as Butcher Block, Milk Money and Leafage simultaneously, through the same app, chef and kitchen.

DoorDash has also gotten into the virtual restaurant game with DoorDash Kitchens, a 2,000-square-foot commissary in San Jose. This has enabled restaurateurs, for example, Benjamin Seabury to offer upscale pizza through his delivery-only concept, The Star, without putting a damper on food costs, space and operations at his other restaurants.

Companies like DoorDash won’t deliver from three different restaurants to your home or office at once. “This just builds off of the idea of ‘frictionless’ service, that people want food and delivery in these circumstances in an easy-as-possible method without a lot of barriers, not unlike what Uber did for transportation and Airbnb for hotel booking,” Schumaker says.

There’s a similar solution now for office workers looking for one delivery of multiple foods. EAT Club, which operates in the San Francisco/Bay area and Los Angeles, partners with different caterers and restaurants to offer delivery through one venue.

From a restaurant/chef perspective, ghost kitchens offer a far lower cost of entry, similar to food trucks and food halls. “Why pay crazy real estate prices when you can work out of a cheaper industrial kitchen for less rent and less overhead and share the infrastructure and simultaneous delivery?” Schumaker says.

These emerging restaurant brands differ greatly from the design-forward, chef-driven independents focused on brick-and-mortar spaces and experiences, Schumaker says. At the same time, delivery-only concepts also stem from chef-driven restaurants looking to get into delivery by going through a commissary or ghost kitchen hub rather than pump everything out of one smaller on-site kitchen space.

A true restaurant of the future, therefore, might be a beautiful brick-and-mortar location or a handful of those with secondary commissary kitchens for delivery-only foods and concepts. Or, depending on real estate, maybe it’s one brick-and-mortar space with an upfront a la carte kitchen for dine-in and a back-of-the-house production kitchen for delivery.

The other part of all this, Schumaker notes, is the apparent delivery battle, with Grubhub, Uber Eats, DoorDash and other third-party delivery services struggling to get exclusive contracts with restaurants. “We’re probably a decade away from that battle being won,” says Schumaker, who adds that he wouldn’t be surprised if in the future a family might be able to order food from a restaurant or two as well as grocery food items, all from the same service. He speculates it could originate at a warehouse where half of the space houses delivery-only restaurants or ghost kitchens and the other half houses consumer packaged goods. Taking the idea even further, maybe there’s a warehouse like this per community to dial up efficiencies in the logistics.

What if, Schumaker continues, all this gets delivered via autonomous vehicles, drones or something along those lines, where customers simply scan their faces, retinas or thumbprints to unlock their “lockers” and retrieve their products, and then pay with a stored credit card or other mobile pay, or even bitcoins or other cryptocurrency.

Maybe the autonomous vehicle or drone even has the capacity for deep learning to manage and analyze its own customer data, preferences and even currency, like a digital restaurant franchise, of sorts, Schumaker suggests. He credits industry peer Mark Freeman, the brainchild behind Microsoft’s visionary foodservice program (and FE&S’ 2017 Hall of Fame award winner), and his team for some of these forward-thinking ideas, and for being one of the first in the industry to test out drone delivery years ago.

“What if the vehicle had its own business, where it would know to pay a percentage back to the company after it reached X number of dollars or to drive to a repair shop after X number of miles?” Schumaker adds. “Oh, and since it’s an autonomous vehicle without a person on board, why can’t it deliver craft cocktails to your doorstep to go along with your ghost restaurant food?”

The ideas are endless.