The look of the new restaurateur

future guy

Sit at the old one’s feet, Grasshopper, and learn of the fearless men and women who charged into the restaurant business long, long ago to make their fortunes, armed with little more than an idea and blissful ignorance of the risk.

Some were brilliant marketers, able to bewitch customers with the new and untried. Others could make an oak plank taste good. Still more were true visionaries, sensing a social shift that spelled opportunity.

But many, young one, were bums, scalawags and potheads, too lazy for the hard work of high-seas piracy or effective confidence schemes. Seeking an easy alternative to jail, military service or an opportunistic marriage, they fell into the business and made a killing because the industry was still the Wild West back then—growing by leaps and bounds, underpopulated and accepting of concepts that would have been laughed out of a strip mall today. Eighty percent of success was the result of just showing up, as a comic of the times put it.

Ah, you raise your hand to ask a question. This is the first stop on your path to enlightenment, and you no doubt want the roadmap to Jedi knighthood revealed to you! You’re wondering, what will it take to be a successful upstart in the restaurant business of tomorrow?

As we say here on the mountaintop, oy vey.

Start with enlightenment in the field hailed by the Harvard Business Review as the sexiest career zone of the 21st century: data science. (We strongly suspect the HBR staff didn’t date much.)

Unless you realize “standard deviation” is not nearly as salacious as it might sound, you’ll be lost. David Overton was drumming in a band when his parents asked him to help with their business, a failing bakery-cafe called The Cheesecake Factory. Overton discovered he could differentiate between a menu hit and a certain bomb by merely taking a bite. What he called a golden palate left no need for a single spreadsheet. Each of his restaurants now averages more than $10 million a year in sales.

But the age of the superpower might be behind us. Today’s killer discipline is how readily a human can digest a pile of data and arrive at the insights that say, “Do this, not that.”

It’s indicative that many of the leading meal kit purveyors, those potent new rivals of restaurants, hire far more data scientists than they do chefs. Picking ingredients and preparation are less important than pinpointing precisely what consumers want, and giving it to them in exactly the form they want it. The added value is anticipating what they want to try, even before they feel that yen themselves. The new skill will be predictive menu making, not responsiveness to consumers’ prevailing tastes.

But that’s not the only way science might trump art in tomorrow’s restaurants. A year ago, restaurateur training’s calculus course would have been Technology 2.0, an immersion in everything from new POS systems to kiosks, apps and high-speed ovens. Now that’s a 101 curriculum.

The new honors program is Robotics. We’re still in the stage where an infinitesimally small number of restaurants have a fully formed robot concept brought to them, and they say yea or nay to using it. If the cyborgization of the industry continues at its current pace, though, automatons will be as integrated into operations as plumbing and electrical wiring. The leaders who wield that phenomenon to the best advantage will be the ones flying from concept to concept in their robot-piloted private planes.

These are all good things, Restaurateur of Tomorrow. The industry is no longer the land grab it once was. Now it’s all about building sales and engineering out unnecessary costs.

But those realities are going to require a new sort of leader—someone less Indiana Jones and more Stephen Hawking. The era of the cowboy might be dead, but long live the data scientist with robotic yearnings.


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