Consider it a symptom of the times. Several of the restaurant world's shrewdest strategists are exploring major changes as they hunt for future opportunities. Who'd have thought McDonald’s would consider a new concept, or a hot dog specialist would try a meal kit?
Here’s a sampling of the surprises.
1. McDonald’s readying a new concept?
Buried in a preview this week of McDonald’s new downtown Chicago headquarters was a tidbit that suggests the resurging giant is about to make the boldest move yet in its turnaround plan. Might it hatch a second restaurant brand as a development option?
The possibility wasn’t dashed by CEO Steve Easterbrook when he was pressed for details about how McDonald’s intends to fill the first floor of the new home office, which is located in one of Chicago’s prime dining destinations, the West Loop.
Easterbrook was quick to say that a restaurant is going into the ground floor. But follow-up questions about the particulars revealed the place might not be a McDonald’s.
“It’ll be a restaurant concept of some sort,” Easterbrook told the Chicago Sun-Times. “As we’ve got more details to share, we’ll share them.”
Experimenting with other growth vehicles would be a reversal of the direction McDonald’s took when it ran into trouble about 15 years ago. At one time, the company owned all or a piece of Chipotle, Fazoli’s, Pret a Manger, Boston Market and Donatos.
2. Tats that talk
Clearly a quest is underway to streamline the process of placing and getting orders from a quick-service spot. This week brought the big news that Amazon is testing a new form of service called Just Walk Out, where the customer takes a sandwich or other food item and exits the establishment without interacting at all with a person. It’s in place at the e-tailing giant’s first quick-service foodservice establishment, an experiment called Amazon Go, as we reported earlier in the week.
Less noticed was an equally radical attempt at frictionless service by Pizza Hut’s operations in the United Kingdom. Delivery units there are providing selected customers with “tattoos”—actually stickers that affix to the patron’s skin—that “talk” to units. If a tattooed customer wants to order his or her regular pie, they take a picture of the tat with a smartphone. An app translates the photo into an order. The customer does nothing but wait for the doorbell to ring.
3. ‘The meal is in the mail’
With meal kits widely suspected of cutting into restaurant sales, some foodservice operations are figuring it's better to join them than try to beat back a phenomenon with that momentum. Cracker Barrel, for instance, added heat-and-serve family meals as a takeout option for Thanksgiving. It’s currently marketing a $109.99 meal for 10 that customers complete at home; the local unit does the prep work, providing a feast that can be prepared in less than three hours.
One of the newest restaurant-kit entrants comes from one of the industry’s most conservative and quirky players: Portillo’s. The hot dog chain has just introduced a subscription meal service, where customers pay $365 a year to have partially cooked meals mailed to their houses every other month.
In January, subscribers will get the Italian Beef Sandwich Deluxe package, consisting of two pans of beef, two containers of gravy and eight bake-and-serve rolls. In March, the shipped meal consists of enough Chicago-style hot dogs for 10 people, a package that’s repeated in September.
A more conventional style of meal kit is being sold in Amazon’s new Amazon Go grab-and-go test concept.
4. Labor organizers’ new trick
Fearful the Trump administration will take employers’ side in any tug of war with unions, labor-friendly forces in New York City introduced a slew of measures intended specifically to put restaurants at a disadvantage. The package includes such familiar industry antagonisms as scheduling limitations and paid leave. But one was truly novel in both its approach and potential damage.
It’s called the Fast Food Empowerment Act, and it would essentially require restaurant employers to deflect a portion of staff members’ wages upon request into a fund for a nonprofit advocacy group. The beneficiaries presumably could include groups like Fight for $15 or Restaurant Opportunities Centers, two active adversaries of the chain business.
The requirement could provide local affiliates of those groups with considerable spending and stability. And yet it slipped into the proposal stage with virtually no attention from the New York media, much less national communicators. After all, what happens in Gotham tends to show up in other cities at some point.