Remember “The Chipotle Effect” and the rise of the super customizable, fast-casual-style meal? Various foodservice consultants see something similar on the horizon. We shall call it: “The Curbside Effect.”
As the country emerges from more than a year’s worth of COVID-19 shutdowns and mitigations nationwide, many consumers have not only gotten used to using curbside pickup services; they now demand them.
“We’ve seen a social-behavioral shift in society,” says Khaled Halabi, director of design, Northeast-Central, for Cini•Little International. “With curbside pickup offered by more businesses, why would we want to go through the store and interact with others and wait in line if we can just drive up, pick up our bags and leave? I think we’re going to see more of this in different forms rather than designing ways to keep people six feet apart.” In short, it’s all about three things: convenience, convenience, convenience.
Just as “The Chipotle Effect” impacted design in the fast-casual and other segments, Halabi sees the “curbside-ification” of many restaurants — including chains and even smaller independents — impacting the future of foodservice design in all segments. Future foodservice design, he says, will be less a reaction to the pandemic and more about addressing these changing consumer preferences. “Even if COVID-19 were to be completely gone tomorrow, I’m still going to want the option for curbside pickup,” he explains.
That word — option — is key here. Sure, there might be days when consumers have extra time and want to peruse the grocery store shelves or linger in a cafeteria or servery and see all that’s available before making choices. However, consumers will still want the option to choose from these different service styles. Halabi predicts the coexistence of three main types of serving styles on the horizon or already being implemented for facilities with servery-style feeding: pre-order/pickup; grab and go, and full-service/customizable.
Halabi, who is based in New York, says he has spoken with his clients in the business and industry sector, and while many will take a hybrid work-from-home/work-from-office approach with their employees as businesses reopen, this could fade out in the future. “There are still HR questions that need to be answered; employees can’t just show up or not show up whenever they feel like it,” he says. Consequently, clients won’t want a 10,000-square-foot cafe designed if only 200 people are going to show up. “It can’t be 100% occupancy on one day or maybe 10% another day,” he notes.
Regardless of the number of workers in the building at one time, all workers will likely want at least the option to order and pay for their food ahead of time, and then simply pick up their orders from a designated area without having to move through any lines or even the servery itself. “Delivery and pickup was huge with hospitals during the pandemic when doctors and nurses were so busy,” he says. “They won’t want to go back to the old status quo.”
As a result, designated online ordering (or even kiosk ordering) pickup points will become part of the overall design plan. “We saw a lot of retrofitting of counters of sorts during the pandemic, but that won’t work for the future, and frankly, that can be a hot mess when not designed right,” Halabi says.
Elements of good design for the pickup vestibule or station itself, at the most basic level, can take shape as a counter where staff manually place to-go bags labeled with names. The next level up in Halabi's view is a series of shelves or cubbies with individual bags so it’s easier to see labels. A more advanced option is to install lockers where customers can simply scan a QR code with their phones to unlock the door and grab their bags. An even more sophisticated solution might be in the form of a text sent to customers, not only to tell them when their order is ready, but with the specific locker or cubby number where their bag has been placed. Think of this like a reverse curbside pickup app where the customer would input the numbered parking space they pulled into. This last solution could help cut down on confusion and congregating even further.
“The pickup area can be whatever makes sense for the client, but it should be a very separate place than traditional ordering areas,” Halabi says. “A grocery store wouldn’t offer curbside pickup and then tell you to go to aisle 9 in the middle of the store to pick up your bags.”
Growing Grab and Go
The second service solution Halabi sees for serveries follows a grocery store model in that there might be more refrigerated display cases below the action cooking station. “You might still have the person making sushi and you can order that way, but then you also have a case underneath the station with ready-to-go rolls,” Halabi says. “Every station has something that you can grab and go and this is, again, driven mainly by the fear of people congregating and to offer another convenience for the customer.”
Likely coinciding with the potential increase in grab-and-go options will be a contactless, cashless checkout option. “This has been trending for a few years, but COVID-19 really stepped it up,” Halabi says. Newer equipment on the market has made self-checkout even easier, with barcode readers, scales for by-the-pound items like salad and even cameras that can identify different food items. Again, Halabi sees a hybrid approach; there might be a couple of live cashiers on hand to keep the aisles moving and for those who are intimated by self-checkout lanes.
Full Service Forever
Continuing the hybrid self-service/full-service discussion, one thing Halabi doesn’t see returning anytime soon if at all is a self-serve salad bar. What could happen in the future, though, is the expansion of these made-for-you, Chipotle-esque lines to include not just customizable salads, but also sandwiches, bowls and burritos—you name it.
Besides, some things are better made fresh. “We will likely still see traditional grill or hot stations with someone finishing off a burger for you because prepackaged burgers don’t hold up well,” Halabi says. “Therefore, the equipment in those spaces will stay the same.”