The future of restaurants? Brace for competition

Lines continue to blur between restaurants, convenience stores and grocery, said the panelists at Sunday’s Signature session of the 2019 National Restaurant Association Show.

Randy Edeker, CEO of supermarket chain Hy-Vee, recalled a customer who recently presented him with a complex and ever-changing mission—one that represents the desires of many of today’s consumers:

“I want you to be what I want when I need you,” Edeker said the woman told him. “If you’re not, I’ll go somewhere else.”

That requirement to be agile and always evolving is central to the future of foodservice, agreed panelists representing restaurants, grocery and the convenience store industry Sunday during the Signature session of the 2019 National Restaurant Association Show, moderated by the Association’s president and CEO, Dawn Sweeney.  

And, increasingly, that agility comes in the form of restaurants thinking like c-stores and grocery stores, and c-stores behaving like restaurants, they said.

“We all compete here for share of stomach,” said John Cywinski, president of Applebee’s. “What’s coming from Hy-Vee and (c-store chain) Wawa—breakfast lunch, dinner and late night—it’s impressive, and we don’t take that lightly. It makes it tough for us when we’re trying to slug out 2% to 3% growth annually.”

The lines continue to blur, with even c-stores investigating third-party delivery as another form of convenience.

“We’ve been successful” with delivery, said Chris Gheysens, Wawa’s president and CEO. “We’re delivering well into trade areas where we don’t have stores.”

Applebee’s, meanwhile, expects its off-premise business to make up a quarter of all sales in three years. But there’s just one hitch: Franchisees need to be able to make money off delivery orders,” Cywinski said.

“The current economic model is not sustainable the way it is set up,” he said. “It needs to evolve.”

Whether diners of the future have most of their meals and snacks delivered or consume them on-premise, one thing likely won’t change, the panelists said. Hospitality and solid execution will remain at the core.

“I’m as optimistic about our future and about the industry as I’ve ever been,” said Tim McEnery, founder and CEO of Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants. “There is so much innovation opportunity in our industry to come. … But it has to be done with great discipline and focus on the fundamentals.”

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