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Why change-resistant operations are winning

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I have a great idea for a video game. Participants use the cameras on their smartphones to snap things they see within a restaurant, like servers taking orders, or a check being dropped at a table. The more ordinary the sight, the higher the point tally.

There’s just one teensy-weensy issue that keeps Hokey Man Yo from becoming the next Angry Birds: In today’s modern restaurants, you’re more likely to spot a Japanese cartoon monster than anything ordinary.  

Covering the business on a daily basis is a constant reminder that the extraordinary is the new status quo. In one brief stretch recently, our website reported on two new robotic restaurants; the astounding popularity overseas of restaurants where guests dine naked; a lawsuit-backed demand that blind customers be allowed to use the drive-thru; efforts in Washington, D.C., and Seattle to limit how restaurants set schedules and when they can hire; and the theft of a dog who served as a cafe’s greeter. 

The great upheaver often is technology. One of the robotic places we covered, Zume Pizza, is aiming to become virtually staffless in time, and it has the high-tech cred to do it (a co-founder worked on a real video game phenomenon, Farmville). If all goes as planned, a robot named Marta will make the pies, and a techno-mate called Bruno will channel them into a truck equipped with 56 computer-controlled ovens that cook the pizzas en route to delivery.

Computers have probably had more of an effect on the restaurant business than any piece of equipment since stoves were invented. Recent weeks brought glimmers of such game-changing capabilities as charging customers a premium for a dining area’s choice seats, altering beer prices in accordance with how much is left in the keg, and, what we foresee as a coming standard, providing service time guarantees.

Much of that activity is coming on the chain side of the business, or from upstarts that intend to become chains (often fueled by that disruptor of conventional restaurant funding, Silicon Valley venture capital). Rare is the multiunit operation of scale that isn’t at least experimenting with ways of allowing guests to submit orders directly to the kitchen, either remotely or within the restaurant. Some already are letting guests program the music in the dining room (with an option to move choices higher in the queue for a fee). Some drive-thrus now have cameras so customers and order-takers can see one another, even if the employee is miles away at a call center.

Clearly the big brands are embracing the extraordinary with more eagerness than their independent colleagues. And that might be the biggest reason to champion conservatism and hang on to the ordinary for a bit.
Perhaps the least ordinary of recent developments has been a reversal of a long-standing sales trend. For eons, according to sales measures and conventional wisdom, chains have been stealing business from independent restaurants. 

Now, researchers and financial analysts agree that the chain sector, and the fast-food market in particular, is turning softer than a marshmallow. Places of uniform designs and menus are suffering a slowdown in growth, with same-store sales flattening or ebbing. Yet demand for and sales of meals prepared outside the home are growing overall. So who’s getting that incremental business?

According to researchers such as Black Box Intelligence, it’s the independent—the one-off that’s focused on delivering quality food and service, the values as fundamental to the business as a napkin. And there’s nothing ordinary about that.

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