Taken one by one, recent developments in the restaurant business could be dismissed as mere curiosities, if not fodder for late-night talk show hosts. But viewed as dots in a pattern, the incidents signal potentially gulp-worthy trends—some ominous, some bizarre, but all meriting a second look.
Here are the trend signals that turned our heads.
1. Introducing ‘meal sharing’
Authorities in the Canadian province of Alberta shut down a business this week that should have had restaurateurs hyperventilating. It was the latest sign that a significant new threat to the business is arising, stoked by the social impact and financial success of Uber and Airbnb.
An internet-based service was matching consumers who didn’t want to cook for themselves with fellow consumers who were happy to play chef and crank out a meal in their kitchens—for a price, of course. Cut out of that setup are restaurants. Ditto for health inspectors who guarantee the safety of commercial kitchens, which is why the business, Scarf, was shut down.
The development could be dismissed as a one-and-done situation if it weren’t for earlier news stories, including ones that ran on RestaurantBusinessOnline.com.
In California, a woman is being tried for selling ceviche via Facebook. A page on the social media site was serving as a forum where amateur cooks could sell their specialties to consumers who didn’t want to pay restaurant or supermarket prices for ready-to-eat foods. Authorities swooped in, offering to drop charges of operating illegal kitchens in exchange for a $235 fine, one year’s probation and 40 hours of community service. The ceviche specialist opted to stand trial, where she could get jail time if convicted.
As we’ve reported, a New York City venture called Umi is using an app to bring citizen cooks and adventurous consumers together, directly paralleling how Uber and Airbnb function. The service is backed in part by Danny Meyer (one of the co-founders is his daughter) and the founders of SweetGreen.
2. Employers as political guides
It’s now an article of faith that restaurant employees want to work for a business exhibiting social consciousness. The new proof of employers’ community awareness, brought into practice by last week’s election, is a communication from the company about where it stands politically.
Starbucks has often turned its cafes and corporate meetings into political forums, so a letter from CEO Howard Schultz to all employees on Nov. 9 was not much of a surprise. The Hillary Clinton supporter, already being cited as a possible contender for the 2020 Democratic Party nomination, offered platitudes on mutual respect, tolerance and optimism.
A later communication came from Danny Meyer to every employee of Union Square Hospitality Group, his benchmark-setting indie group in New York City. He offered six specific recommendations for making peace with Donald Trump’s election as president, and noted the therapeutic effects of hugs and interacting with tail-wagging dogs.
And then there was the missive from GrubHub’s chief. Read on for his uh-oh moment.
3. Bad delivery?
The CEO of GrubHub, a frequent delivery partner of restaurants, really dropped the soup in his emotional post-election outreach to employees. The email from Matt Maloney has already triggered damning media coverage and attempts to mount a boycott.
Maloney sent a message many took as a declaration that Trump supporters were not welcome to work for GrubHub. After blasting the president-elect for “demeaning, insulting and ridiculing minorities, immigrants and the physically/mentally disabled,” Maloney said he would have fired the presidential victor if he’d been on GrubHub’s payroll.
“If you do not agree with this statement then please reply to this email with your resignation because you have no place here,” Maloney wrote.
After hitting the send button, the executive walked back his comments, to use an oft-heard campaign term. He issued a companywide email on Nov. 10, asserting his message had been misconstrued and that he was only affirming the company’s commitment to inclusion and tolerance. Trump supporters could collect their paychecks without fear.
4. LTOs are flowing
Drinks have always figured into restaurant chains’ promotional menus, but beverages are becoming the limited-time offer of choice, even for non-holiday periods. Consider, for instance, Shake Shack’s LTO strategy for 2017.
“Our new plan for 2017 is to highlight a trio of shakes every season, with exciting new seasonal variations which will sell at a 50-cent premium to our classic shakes,” CEO Randy Garutti told financial analysts.
The retro chain is currently promoting shakes that taste like pumpkin pie, Christmas cookies and a chocolate-peppermint mix.
Garutti also noted that chicken sandwiches will play a large role in the burger chain’s LTO schedule.