Predicting the future is like tossing an ice cube into a Champagne flute on the other side of a pitch-dark room. Sometimes you hear that clink of a direct hit, but the odds aren’t great.
Less aggravating would be deciding what questions from the present are likely to be addressed one way or another in the months ahead, and leaving it at that.
For those who’ve fielded too many predictions already for 2018, here’s that alternative way of anticipating the future. Here are the questions we think will be answered in the year ahead.
What will replace the chicken wing?
The ironclad two-per-bird rule is wreaking havoc on the business, as operations of all feathers are about to be reminded when football and basketball playoffs kick off. As consumers watch the games, they won’t be denied the official dish of fandom, wings served with a dipping sauce. Demand sometimes outstrips supply outright, meaning—gasp!—the fanatics have to make do with analogs like boneless wings, or alternates like nachos.
But none have caught fire among consumers the way Buffalo-style chicken wings have.
The other alternative is paying wholesale prices more typical of steak than scrawny, bony cuts of chicken.
So what’s the solution? What item might customers find just as appealing but far more feasible businesswise for the serving establishment? Stay tuned.
How will the off-premise boom change menus?
Flavor and novelty—the need to offer fresh choices—have been the principles guiding menu development for 30 years. With takeout and delivery now driving industry sales, will those considerations lose ground in the test kitchen to how well a product travels? Or will the task get even finer than that, with a focus on specific properties like heat retention, product integrity, or how easily an item can be consumed at home?
When will restaurants react to meal kit competition?
The obvious reaction to the threat of easy-prep home meals would be to plunge into the market themselves. Yet restaurants have largely remained on the sidelines. Cracker Barrel has had great success with its heat-and-eat holiday meals, but the other “meal kits” offered by chains have really been family-sized servings packed up to go. There’s virtually no prep, as there is with a classic meal kit.
Meanwhile, other food businesses aren’t waiting to see how much of an inroad businesses like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh can make. C-stores are joining supermarkets in offering the kits, as are on-site operations like the foodservice department of University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
When will customers balk at automation?
Ordering and retrieving a meal without any human interaction is already a reality. What’s still looming is that point where a kiosk or app user says, “Ah, to deal with a person again!”
We never got to that point with banks, where ATMs are the established and apparently preferred way of handling routine interactions. But think about calling a help center and working through a telephone tree of canned questions and responses, when dealing with a thinking, hearing, speaking human would have been so much quicker and less vexing.
When will we get to the point where non-artificial intelligence will be appreciated as an enhancement to an experience, a topspin on good service?
Maybe not in 2018, but we’ll see.
How’s Amazon going to challenge the industry?
It’s just a matter of time until the commerce disruptor decides to upend restaurants’ social role as the place to get a cooked meal. The question is, how? Will it go into the restaurant business, opening so-called ghost restaurants to leverage what’s already a firmly established delivery network? Or will it work out some plan that incorporates Whole Foods as the brick-and-mortar piece?
When will third-party services bend on commissions?
If it weren’t for the marketing advantages of being listed on a delivery service’s app, we’d say the discounting would start about Jan 2. Restaurants are certainly ready to stop paying commissions of 20%-30%. As their volumes grow, self-delivery becomes more viable from a financial and logistical standpoint. All they need is a channel that delivers the exposure of a Yelp or Uber Eats app. If texting or voice-recognition bots like Siri should fill that role, restaurants will pull a quick turn away from delivery services, which will have no choice but to cut their rates.
And as the Christmas angels say, hallelujah!