Nikki Freihofer, strategy director at The Culinary Edge (TCE), a fast-food and beverage innovation agency, tracks industry trends to help new restaurants jumpstart their brands while helping existing ones refresh and amplify their menu offerings.
The Culinary Edge has worked with such restaurant chains as Slapfish and Wetzel’s Pretzels, among others. The Culinary Edge also operates its own chain, Starbird, in California. Here are a few of those trends Freihofer’s seeing as of late, and how they impact design and equipment selection.
Plant-Forward Versus Plant-Based
This latest evolution of the plant-based movement is a move away from plant-based analogs mimicking meat toward more use of fruits and vegetables on the menu and in individual dishes, in general.
“One big reason for this is because some meat analog products have struggled in the marketplace, especially as consumers swing toward more plant and vegetable celebration rather than just meat imitation,” says Freihofer. “There is no doubt continued interest in non-meat solutions, but more innovators are focusing on the use of whole vegetables.”
For example, Shake Shack introduced a new veggie burger “that actually has vegetables in it,” and offers a mushroom “burger” option. She also points to a TCE client Greenlane, a drive-thru-only salad concept out of Tampa, Fla., which started up as a way to cater to busy consumers on the go looking for healthier food options. “There’s a growing group of people who want to eat healthy and are looking for a place like sweetgreen, but who don’t want to spend $18 or $20 on a salad and live in fast-paced, suburban areas,” Freihofer says.
The impact on equipment includes more use of ventless cooking equipment for “gentler” cooking of plant-forward dishes, as well as the use of refrigerated salad and sandwich prep tables to hold multiple veggies and plant-based ingredients. Colorful, vibrant interiors with plenty of fresh vegetables on display help indicate freshness and healthiness.
The “Triple Journey” Emphasis
More operators in the fast-food and fast-casual space — and even some in the full-service arena — now focus on the “triple journey,” as TCE calls it. “The days of designing restaurants for one type of guest, the ones who want to come in, order, eat and leave, are over,” says Freihofer. She notes many brands had to retrofit their operations with window pickups and cubbies during the pandemic when dine-in wasn’t an option, but those who are building from scratch today focus on three types of guests: that same guest who comes into order and eat; the guest who orders ahead and picks up; and the guest who orders from a delivery service.
“You should be designing the store and tech stack and equipment suite to suit the needs of all three of these guests,” says Freihofer. “The delivery driver should not struggle with where to go; wayfinding should be very clear.” This also applies to non-commercial operators, too. “It’s a mistake to think that just because you’re full-service or a food hall or campus dining you don’t have to deal with separate pickup or delivery.” Best practices in design these days will consider multiple methods for ordering and pickup.
The new Wetzel’s Pretzels prototype, for example, has pivoted from a mall-based outlet to a street-side concept with different doors and entry points for pickup and dining in and using natural barriers, different floor tiling or patterns and subtle signage that fits in with the brand for wayfinding and queuing. “You don’t want to make people feel like they’re being herded like cattle,” says Freihofer, noting that most brands have dumped those stainless-steel railings from the past.
Equipment/tech stacks these days might include ordering kiosks or more robust, online ordering/POS systems. Pickup areas lined with cubbies or shelving are clearly separated now and are often positioned near or just offset the main prep line to be loaded on the back end.
Space, Function and Automation
As space and labor constraints continue to plague restaurants of all types, brands must be careful about the equipment they purchase. “We’re seeing an explosion in ventless equipment as everyone is trying to minimize spending and footprint,” says Freihofer. “Nobody wants to deal with a hood if they don’t have to.”
Design-wise, “We’re also seeing more brands go with smaller dining areas, which helps open up space for the back of the house and for separating pickup areas.”
She’s not seeing the explosion of robots and highly automated equipment just yet, but “they’re definitely becoming more relevant and more important for certain tasks in the back of the house as brands look to automate more,” says Freihofer, who’s worked with a couple of clients implementing robotic arms for some cooking processes, but “not the point that we recommend or implement those every day to clients. There’s more of a focus on using equipment smartly to displace labor.”
That might be swapping out convection ovens or steamers for a combi-oven or a rapid-cook oven to be able to do more in less space and with more “press of a button” capability. Prep areas are also a place where operators are rethinking their operations and equipment choices. “If you used to have a person cut up carrots, now they’re using a special attachment on the [food processor] to accomplish the same task in 30 seconds, or they’re ordering pre-cut veggies,” Freihofer says. “It’s important to be very intentional about what you make in-house versus purchase. If you are known for your chicken, maybe you bring in the raw chicken and cook that in-house, but you don’t need to bring in dried beans and cook that from scratch.”
Just like tech stacks fit certain criteria, foodservice equipment and design “stacks” these days must meet growing throughput, volume, consistency and quality needs with less labor, energy usage, expense and space inputs.