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Operations

Off-premise delivers a restaurant identity crisis

As off-premise booms, operators must figure out how their businesses will keep up in 2018.
peter romeo

Let’s review where we are so far in 2018. Ah, why bother. The latest version of Google Maps can probably pinpoint how far restaurants have drifted from their quaint 2017 existence. 

Back in those dinosaur-friendly times, restaurants knew their role in the culture. People served food to other people in a pleasing setting. Then came an identity crisis of Bruce Jenner proportions. People? Pffft. The new imperative is to erase humans from the process, at least on the restaurant side. Reduce any interaction to a fingertip touching a screen. And forget customer face time. Entrust the food to a stranger who’ll hopefully know to look at the consumer while handing over a delivery order. 

Need more proof the industry has been possessed by alien life forms? Grab a seat and consider the evidence. But that could be a problem, given the industry’s newfound aversion to seats. The trend is clearly to reduce on-premise capacity, if not eliminate dine-in business altogether.  Plenty of restaurateurs are betting a kitchen is all you need, and even that can be blasted with a shrink ray, if a commissary is nearby. 

This sounds like an old crab riffing on Andy Rooney. But it’s intended to highlight what should be near the top of restaurateurs’ lists during resolution season, right under “Manage to keep the doors open.”  

The business is being remade by forces bigger than the industry itself, from automation to the acute nesting fostered by Netflix, Hulu and the like. Barreling toward the field are even more forceful disruptors like artificial intelligence and driverless cars. 

The industry is responding with all the force and initiative of a cork lobbed atop a river, bobbing along with the current instead of plying a course. On the whole, it’s not reading the patterns and actively remaking itself for the times.   

If there’s a strong tonic for the business in what are likely to remain bruising times, it’s dropping the marketed passivity of last year and redefining what restaurants should become amid changing realities. The success stories of 2017—McDonald’s, Panera, Domino’s—were brands that anticipated the seismic changes and transformed themselves accordingly. It’s the strongest takeaway from a year that won’t be commemorated by most operators with a smiley face.

So what’s your restaurant going to become? Will it replace the in-home microwave as the quick and easy way to get a meal? Will it essentially function as a kitchen, with convenience trumping all? Or will it be an experience, a welcomed relief for consumers who want to step off the hamster wheel for a few hours? That, after all, has been a key aim of the industry for roughly the last three decades. 

The real hump is finding the right blend, since you can’t take experience out of any transaction, even if it’s merely opening a holding locker to extract a takeout lasagna ordered through Alexa.  

Figuring out how your concept should function in the strange new world of the present is going to be the overriding trend of 2018, regardless of how many prognostications you’ve read. The only thing tougher will be engineering the follow-up transition.

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