Change is inevitable. It’s a cliche we were all familiar with prior to the pandemic and the arrival of COVID-19 has only accelerated change for the foodservice industry. That’s because the industry must always change to meet customers’ ever-evolving demands, including updating menus and service styles.
Customers value receiving their food fast, hence the development and ongoing expansion of quick-service restaurants. Customers want what they perceive as home-cooked food quality, without the need to do the actual cooking themselves, hence the creation and expansion of casual dining. Before long, customers developed a taste for higher-quality food delivered quickly and at a lower price point than casual dining. This phenomenon was the gate to the fast-casual restaurant boom.
As if these shifts were not enough to consistently shake up an industry, 2020 sent everything into overdrive. Consumer preference for not only what they eat but where, when and how they eat it, all evolved faster than anything the industry had ever seen before. Indeed, the industry went from the drive-thru to overdrive.
When all is said and done, the coronavirus will subside, but the need to quickly adapt to meet, or beat, the needs of the customer will remain a key ingredient in the success of any foodservice operation. In order to future-proof a restaurant for unknown factors that will certainly come, the industry’s approach to restaurant design must continue to evolve.
Specifically, designers should consider adopting a kit of parts approach that will allow the operator to quickly and efficiently adapt when necessary. Doing so will allow operators to evolve with technology and customer expectations over time.
This plug-and-play approach — I like to refer to it as the Tetris approach because of the way it relates to the popular video game by the same name —is an idea I am borrowing from the manufacturing sector. This flexible manufacturing system approach represents a production concept that easily adapts to changes in the type and quantity of the product being made.
Remember, a kitchen is a miniature manufacturing plant, where a food order serves as the final product. The idea that restaurateurs can easily swap stations within a quick time frame (think 20 to 30 minutes) or less and begin to offer completely different offerings can be a big benefit to some concepts. This concept is not isolated purely to BOH operations. This principle can apply to all areas of restaurant design.
The one-size-fits-all approach — or the 100% custom-fitted back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house workstation designs — have become somewhat archaic. Restaurateurs need to be able to design their restaurants to adapt and change as quickly as the times. With the plug-and-play methodology, nothing is ever fixed to the ground. All workstations should be flexible enough so staff can quickly alter the space by swapping equipment from another area.
In the front-of-the-house, flexible seating will become key. Despite booths being a preferred choice of the past, the idea of being able to combine or separate tables represents an easy approach to providing flexible seating. The idea of being able to bring in a mobile carryout bagging station that becomes necessary during peak periods but is put away during other times represents another example of plug-and-play design.
The workstation pictured here is an example of a concept that adopted the plug-and-play approach. During busy times, staff wheel the dedicated bagging station to the front of the house and use it to bag and stage orders. The back of the house is the same, too.
When Wendy’s first began testing its breakfast offering, the chain would do the same: wheel out the breakfast station, which consisted of equipment and products unique to the daypart. When the daypart offering was complete, staff would wheel away the station and continue serving its more traditional menu.
The plug-and-play approach can help all restaurants, regardless of their menu, with their approach to service or even live up to the vacillating needs and demands of customers of different demogrpahics, regions and type. As motivational speaker John Maxwell said, “Change is inevitable. Growth is optionable.” I say, “Change is inevitable. Capitalize on it.”