Restaurateurs might not automatically think of a technology and entertaiment conference as a mining ground for ideas. But we picked up on a number of trends impacting the restaurant industry during our coverage of South by Southwest, the nine-day tech and entertainment festival taking place this week in Austin, Texas. Not only were ideas unearthed in the conference’s food-focused SouthBites programming track, but also from a few unexpected sources as well.
One thing speakers kept coming back to: Modern companies need to move even faster to meet the demands of today’s consumer.
1. Companies are rolling out ideas even faster
The need to be nimble was a common theme in multiple discussions during the conference.
Restaurateur Brandi Key of Clark Cooper Concepts, which operates six concepts in Houston, says her group operates under the 75 percent rule. “We always have [ideas] that are 75 percent ready. If we have the right property or real estate space, we can jump on it,” she said during a panel on restaurant survival.
Chef-restaurateur Jose Andres said he plans to grow his vegetable-focused Beefsteak concept from its current two locations to 100 in the next four or five years. “We raised about $1 million in December; that gives us room to move quickly in the next two years,” Andres said. He admits he’s testing the market—one of Beefsteak’s next outposts will be in a traditional mall food court—and he’s finalizing the concept. “I don’t know if I will close in four or five years, and then I will be here to talk about failure—and that’s OK,” he told the crowd.
2. The path of adoption for trends is shorter
In a panel about tracking food trends, a representative from Whole Foods noted that brands are adopting trends much faster today. The conventional curve that tracks trend adoptions, from emerging to peak to declining, may become less important. More companies—including large brands—are trolling for trends that are just beginning to rise or sticking with trends on the downslope, if they’re working. “It’s no longer linear,” said one of the panelists from Whole Foods. “Trends can come from anywhere.”
Among the emerging trends singled out by the panel: Korea as an influence across different industries; algae as an ingredient; and the connection between food and beauty—in other words, touting the beauty-boosting benefits of ingredients or dishes as a new angle on health.
3. Acquisitions will be the go-to way for large brands to catch up
A trend with implications both for larger restaurant brands and smaller startups, acquisitions may pick up as companies strive to capitalize on forward-thinking trends.
During a “Fortune 500 Incubator” discussion in the McDonald’s Lounge at SXSW, representatives from large companies noted, “Every Fortune 500 has thought of everything, but can it execute on it?” Another panelist said he expects to see “a lot more acquisitions as companies try to catch up.”
Where should big brands look for these ideas? “A culture of curiosity is important,” said one panelist. It’s about “a desire to go below your pay grade and get down in the trenches to see how people [and small companies] are solving problems.”
One such CEO who may be doing just that: McDonald’s Steve Easterbrook made an appearance, himself, at the conference.
4. Just don’t get out too far ahead of the consumer
While every speaker at the conference had a forward-looking view of the foodservice industry—and some were way out there with discussions of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and facial recognition for payments—several also noted a need not to get out too far ahead of the guest.
“Smart brands play in multiple spaces,” said Lucie Greene, worldwide director for J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, during the session, “Culinary Innovation: Tracking the Trends.” Nike has NikeLab, a line of cutting-edge exercise clothing, but it still sells black leggings, she noted. “You want to have your pantry, but still want to have some fun things in there.”
During a session on payments in the fast lane, McDonald’s U.S. Vice President of Digital Julia Vander Ploeg outlined the future of mobile and cashless payments with representatives from both Visa and Square, which provides technology to allow vendors, such as food trucks, to accept payments on their smartphones or tablets. But “Adoption rates are still relatively low across most industries, and we’re no different than that,” acknowledged Vander Ploeg. There are still approximately 20 million merchants that aren’t able to accept credit cards, and cash is still king, the speakers noted. “At the end of the day, it’s all about removing as many points of friction to allow customer to do what they want to do,” said Vander Ploeg.