You’ll notice a common theme in these restaurant-trend predictions from the mind of a harried mom: convenience. Several, in fact, center around the car—more drive-thrus, in-car payment options and delivery. Dedicated parking spaces for online-order pickups were a good first step, but expect car-centric conveniences at restaurants to continue. I’ll even go so far as to declare 2016 the Year of the Car in the restaurant industry. Who’s with me?
A drive-thru revolution will come to fast casual
One argument had been that fast casual’s made-to-order, often customizable model is too slow to satisfy consumers’ need for speed at the drive-thru window. But now other forces are putting a drag on transaction times, forcing consumers to be more patient and (maybe, just maybe) resetting expectations. Topping that list: chip-enabled credit and debit cards, which swap a simple swipe for a push-and-pause motion, adding precious seconds to the transaction. Why not counter that unavoidable time-suck with a new convenience hook: better-quality food without having to leave the car? With few fast casuals currently offering drive-thru service, it’s the perfect time for franchisees to pounce on the opportunity. And it’s a proposition sure to draw quality-minded moms on the run.
Worth noting: News of the “mom’s valet” at QSR-plus chain Chick-fil-A has recently caught consumers’ notice. The service, available at more than 150 Chick-fil-A units, according to a Huffington Post article, lets parents who request valet service order and pay at the drive-thru window (while the kids are calmly strapped in their car seats tapping away at their electronic games), before parking and ushering the family inside to eat. Meanwhile, a restaurant employee sets up a table with their orders and enough seating so they can just come in and plop the family down, easing the experience.
Fast-casual pizza chains will reimagine delivery
Since the beginning of time (or at least the invention of phones) food delivery has been synonymous with pizza. With fast-casual pizza chains topping the charts—three of RB’s Top 10 fastest-growing small restaurant chains were of this ilk—and delivery being seen as growing sales booster across segments, it’s only a matter of time before these white-hot concepts figure out how to reinvent pizza delivery to capture even more sales.
Currently several such chains, including Blaze Pizza, are relying on third-party delivery services such as Postmates to drop off their pies. But I’m convinced they’re just biding their time while cooking up some faster, smarter, more futuristic form of delivery that let’s them keep those delivery dollars in-house while exerting more control over the quality of the product from store to door. After all, pizza has a reputation to protect, and I’m looking for (read: challenging) these fast-casual pizza power brokers to innovate the delivery process in the coming year.
Deals aimed at penny pinchers will snag parents
Days after the New Year, Restaurant Business wrote about the new class of meal deals at QSRs—promoting discounts on multi-item combos over dirt-cheap one-offs. But while operators may be targeting snackers and bargain hunters with such offers, they’re sure to also sweep up families in the net.
You say I can get a bacon cheeseburger AND four chicken nuggets plus fries, a drink and a cookie for under $4? Watch me make that into a meal for two kiddos with small tummies: The burger and half the fries go to Child No. 1, leaving the nuggets and the rest of the fries for Child No. 2. And the cookies and soda are mom’s reward for some money-saving savvy.
Apple will rev up Apple Pay and CarPlay
Long promised, Apple CarPlay’s in-dashboard convenience is only now starting to roll out to consumers in new car models. But with the car being the last remaining gap in the smartphone’s whole-day domination, it seems those efforts are only likely to ramp up. It also may be the missing piece to finally get consumers to use Apple Pay, the feature they downloaded to their new iPhone over a year ago but only use for 1 percent of retail transactions. If drivers begin to embrace smartphone integration in their cars, restaurants ought to be poised to capitalize on the convenience. And with the car being the center of the soccer-mom universe, moms could be a natural adoptee—if the user experience is a breeze.
Have-it-your-way marketing will (finally) target children
At least in my house, the youngest family members are requesting Chipotle and MOD Pizza—concepts that let diners custom-build their meal—more often than traditional fast food these days. Not because they’re being steered toward one or away from the other; they’ve grown up on kids’ meals with a side of toy for years. Now it appears they’re just into something different: choice. After a day of listening to teachers and doing chores, such restaurants are one of the few places kids get to freely exert their own opinions—heaping barbecue sauce, cheese or bacon only on their pizzas, if it’s what they feel like that day. So don’t be afraid to show families a little more love, or offer the occasional reward for familial loyalty.
QSRs will reconsider toys
Seriously, are restaurants even trying anymore? The recent crop of kids’ meal freebies is little more than clutter—or worse. Remember this CNN headline last June: “WTF? Parents Say McDonald’s Minion Toys Are Cursing”? And certain places continue to try banning the giveaways: A suburban New York county has swept up Happy Meal toys in its new law nixing children’s products and clothing containing harmful chemicals.
Kids still gravitate toward toys with their food, but at least one study shows that operators have the power to use that pull for good. According to a spring 2015 American Academy of Pediatrics report, kids were 300 percent more likely to opt for healthful meals (in school) when they were offered toys or small prizes, such as stickers. The news is a win for foodservice operators, children and parents—including the harshest kids’-menu critic, Michelle Obama.
Two words: Dog cafes
Of course, we can’t forget those four-legged family members. 2015 may have been the year of the cat cafe, but dogs also got their due, winning the right to beg at their owners’ feet on restaurant patios in New York. However, in cities where cold weather makes dining outside a limited-season activity, it’s time dogs get to come inside, too. If sipping Brazilian coffee alongside a Persian cat makes sense, why not let customers sidle up to a Labrador with their latte?