One of the realities bemoaned during this week’s FSTEC conference, a TED fest of sorts for restaurant technology mavens, was the increasing difficulty of staying current. Advances of significance are coming so quickly that just keeping up is a dizzying feat.
Here’s a salve for that neck pain. Knowing even sharp-eyed industry watchers occasionally blink, we collected these snapshots of restaurants moving with the times—or purposely digging in against the currents.
Here are five dots that easily connect to show where we are.
1. Next standard restaurant feature?
Almost unnoticed this week was an indication of how restaurants are adjusting their interior layouts to exploit the off-premise sales boom. The neon arrow was Buffalo Wild Wings’ announcement to investors that company stores will add “hot boxes” this quarter as part of a new takeout push.
The casual chain didn’t reveal details while participating in a financial conference this week. But the context suggested the boxes will be holding devices to keep food hot until it’s picked up by customers.
A setup like that is already in place at a Little Caesars in the chain’s home state of Michigan. Lockers in the restaurants keep pizzas hot until the customer uses a combination to unlock the devices and retrieve their takeout pies.
About half of Buffalo Wild Wings’ 1,247 restaurants are operated by the franchisor.
2. The restaurant meal plan comes of age
Prognosticators have said for some time that restaurants will eventually follow the lead of subscription services like Dollar Shave Club or innumerable wine clubs and offer what amount to meal plans. Instead of selling customers one lunch or dinner at a time, operators would offer a week or month’s worth of meals in one transaction, ideally with the payment made up front.
As the National Restaurant Association noted at its annual convention in May, there’s already consumer demand for a program like that; two out of five diners are willing to pay in advance for a subscription meal service, according to a survey conducted by the association.
This week, just such a plan announced it will be expanding throughout the United States after getting an infusion of $20 million in capital. MealPal sells a meal subscription that entitles the buyer to takeout lunches and dinners from participating restaurants at a price that works out to $6.49 to $6.99 for dinner and $5.99 to $6.39 at lunch.
The customer can choose from a variety of restaurants each day, but every establishment offers only one item for lunch and a single option for dinner. Essentially, patrons peruse the list of restaurants rather than a menu.
The food is also available only for takeout. Patrons can skip the line and payment function since the costs are covered by the plan.
MealPal says more than 1,000 restaurants have already signed up to participate.
3. David’s shot at a David-turned-Goliath
Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich turned heads this week with a cheeky challenge to his counterparts at bigger quick-service chains: How about they all eat their respective kids meals for a week and then compare notes about the experience? It was an easy gauntlet to toss—Panera’s kids meals are actually just smaller portions of what’s offered to adults by the 2,043-unit chain, so the risk of chicken nuggets overload was nil.
Still, Shaich got a taker, albeit from a true David. The CEO of Garbanzo, the 25-unit Mediterranean fast-casual chain, pledged to have his whole executive team eat the concept’s kids meals for a week. Like Panera, the upstart operation’s offerings for children consist of smaller portions of what’s offered on the regular menu.
The acceptance from James Park also included a counter-challenge. He suggested that both brands donate $1 for each kids meal that’s sold during the weeklong challenge period.
Shaich has yet to respond publicly.
4. That other act of nature
As restaurants pick up after hurricanes Irma and Harvey, more assessments of the damage to the industry are coming to light. Buffalo Wild Wings, for instance, revealed this week that the storms cost it about $3 million in lost sales and about 15 cents in profits per share. Cracker Barrel has also warned that it lost about 15 cents in per-share earnings.
But Cracker Barrel also reminded investors that the hurricanes weren’t the only recent natural phenomena to affect business recently. The solar eclipse in late August also had an effect, modestly raising traffic by putting more travelers on the road as they dashed to better viewing points, executives noted.
Most of Cracker Barrel’s restaurants are located along major highways.
5. Retro publicity stunt
Social media has outstripped print and broadcasting to become the most common form of restaurant marketing, but some operators aren’t forsaking the ever-trusty publicity stunt. Witness the news arising this week from Dallas, where the nine-unit Flying Fish casual chain is snagging attention with a gimmick built around Big Mouth Billy Bass, the kitschy talking fish that graced many a man cave two decades ago.
The mechanized novelty looks like a prize bass mounted on a wall plaque. But a subtle switch prompts the fish to turn toward anyone admiring it and belt out a song.
Flying Fish has decided to preserve the popular Father’s Day present by offering customers a free fried-catfish meal in exchange for a Billy Bass. The fake fishing trophy is then mounted on a dining-room wall.