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OPINIONEmerging Brands

Has innovation stalled out?

Restaurants don’t have to be super funky to be groundbreakers.
LQ Chicken Shack

Sara Rush Wirth

This year marks Restaurant Business’ fifth annual 10 Groundbreaking Concepts feature.It’s the fifth time we’ve scoured the industry, looking for restaurants that have the potential to change the game for other operators, making an impact on business as we know it.

We’re not always looking for the newest, most out-there trendsetters—we want to spotlight the concepts doing something differently or embracing trends well. In the past, it’s been difficult to pare the list down. This year, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a challenge to come up with 10. But we did.

This group of smart, innovative concepts represents a wide swath of the industry, challenging traditional labor models, use of technology, menu positioning and more. But what had been a relatively easy task in the past has proven more of a challenge. Which begs the question: Have we gotten pickier after a few years? Or is innovation lagging at a time when restaurant sales just aren’t growing fast?

I’d guess it’s the latter, but with the caveat that the innovation happening is the more practical—dare I say boring—stuff going on. Many operations seem to be in survival mode. And that means a lot of the innovation is small, behind-the-scenes change. It’s not the sexy robot arms or over-the-top prototypes. It’s changes to integrate more into the POS or small fixes to make a menu more delivery-friendly.

With budget concerns top of mind, how are operators prioritizing spending on innovation? So much stems back to changing consumer behaviors. If it seems that consumers want one of two things from restaurants—convenience or an experience—why aren’t more brands thinking outside the box to hit at least one of those?

At the same time, operators turning to innovation are, at least in part, reliant on suppliers to come up with better solutions. For example, automation will continue to make its way into restaurants as a labor solution, but at this point some of the options on the market are more gimmicky than anything.

If sales continue to be a challenge in the future, will innovation continue to lag slightly? Maybe not. We might just have to look at some of the more practical changes going on behind the scenes.

A look back

These concepts, previously named to RB’s Groundbreaking Concepts list, have left their mark on the industry:

Kitchen LTO: One of the first spots designed to function specifically as an incubator for potential growth concepts, complete with growth advisors. 

LQ Chicken Shack: In order to use its footprint smarter, barbecue restaurant Lillie’s Q revamped its interior to add a takeout window to drive more lunch business.

Nonrestaurant restaurants: The onslaught of virtual restaurants forced operators to rethink the dining room, helping kick off the off-premise boom.

Amazon Go: The online retailer launched its grab-and-go spot with a high-tech, labor-limited model.

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