Fireworks may have provided the big wows of recent days, but keen-eyed industry watchers likely had their heads turned by subtler sorts of pyrotechnics. While restaurants were trying to exploit a rare stretch of good summertime weather, several key trends flashed like bottle rockets, little noticed despite their profound implications.
Here’s a rundown of recent developments that signal changes in the ways restaurateurs intend to nurture their businesses.
1. New twist in delivery: 24/7
Now that 16 of the top 25 restaurant chains either offer delivery or are testing the prospect, a dash is underway for differentiation. If everyone’s offering delivery, how do you give your option an edge?
Recent developments suggest the answer could be round-the-clock service.
McDonald’s is offering 24/7 delivery in several of its new markets, including Portland, Ore., and Indianapolis, according to local media reports. It’s not clear if stores in those areas are open for 24 hours, or if the restaurants will in effect serve as kitchens for orders delivered by Uber.
Big Mac’s delivery model is also gelling. In Indianapolis, customers using the service pay a $5 fee on top of their bill. Soft-serve ice cream cones and items off the chain’s Dollar Menu are not eligible for delivery.
2. Minimum-wage research scandal
The controversy over setting a $15 minimum wage is nothing compared with the to-do that was sparked by recent discoveries of proponents trying to co-opt research in their favor.
The flashpoint was Seattle, an early proponent of the so-called living wage and thus a test ground of sorts for a $15-an-hour pay floor. The first gauge of the effects was a scholarly-sounding report from the University of California-Berkeley, which found no ill effects to the local economy or employers. Jobs weren’t cut, but workers enjoyed an appreciable upswing in their income and quality of life, the study concluded.
Days later, another report was issued, this time by the University of Washington. It contradicted almost everything the Berkeley report contended: The hike in the wage to roughly $13, a prelude to $15, had already eliminated 5,000 jobs and diminished workers’ hours by 9%. Workers’ compensation fell in total by 6%. The study, drafted by a group of economists, concluded that the detriments of the wage hike outweighed the benefits by a ratio of 3-to-1.
The kicker: The University of Washington study had been commissioned by the city of Seattle and its mayor, a die-hard advocate of the wage hike and an associate of the researchers at Berkeley. It was apparent to everyone that he and his colleagues had rushed the Berkeley study into circulation to pre-empt the second, more respected report.
That suspicion was confirmed when Fox News got ahold of emails showing that the researchers behind the Berkeley study had leaked results to pro-hike Seattle lawmakers so the damage could be controlled.
The result: a flurry of editorials in newspapers across the country, blasting the $15 wage as a threat to working people.
3. Old formats, new tech
Technology’s disruption of the restaurant business hasn’t extended to every player, even in the digitally delirious quick-service market. Brands built on peculiar service setups have trouble integrating breakthroughs like remote ordering or even takeout. Consider, for instance, the hurdles confronting a buffet.
One of the concepts that seemed to be left out in the cold was Sonic Drive-In, an innovator in back-of-house tech. Indeed, the concept was on the cutting edge when it introduced car-side speakers that let patrons order simultaneously from their parked vehicles. How do you preserve that heritage and still move into the era of ordering and paying via smartphone?
The chain has just revealed its solution. In the near term, customers who pull into a Sonic Drive-In’s stall will be able to signal the restaurant via smartphone that they’re a regular customer. They then press the speaker button as usual to place their order. A personalized greeting and suggestions based on past orders will be presented to the patron.
The next phase calls for eliminating the need for a customer to voice their orders. Instead, explained CEO Cliff Hudson, guests can just have their phones beam the order, personalized however they want, while they sit in the stall and await their food.
“It's going to allow Sonic to say to every customer, ‘You can be first in line every time when you come to Sonic,’” Hudson commented. He added that the process will pare several steps from the chain’s signature ordering and serving setup.
4. Straws get blown away
The green-minded movement of the moment may well be an elimination of the plastic drink straw, according to recent developments.
DMK Restaurants, a multiconcept group in Chicago, appears to be the latest operation to stop offering the straws, which are blasted by environmentalists as a potential threat to wildlife. Because the plastic doesn’t decompose, the straws can end up in settings where they might be ingested by fish or animals, a potentially fatal turn of events.
As of last month, DMK switched exclusively to paper straws. It follows the lead of Mario Batali’s restaurant group in New York City, and the Searsucker restaurants in San Diego.
DMK’s move was particularly heartening to antistraw forces (there are at least three major ones) because it operates five DMK Burger Bars. The quick-service burger segment is a still a huge distributor of plastic straws.