High schoolers brainstorm the restaurant industry’s future

Photograph: Shutterstock

For a sneak peek at where the restaurant industry is headed, cruise over to ProStartville—though you can forget about finding it via a GPS or map. It’s a fictional town invented for the management portion of the National ProStart Invitational, a contest where teams of high school students compete with one another to see which can brainstorm the most feasible restaurant of tomorrow for an imaginary market of 270,000 consumers. Their virtual dining options embody the future of the business, as envisioned by young people who are being trained to lead it.

The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF), administrator of the competition and the talent-development program behind it, has assigned ProStartville a number of demographic attributes (for example, the median age of the residents is 33, and families constitute 29% of the populace). Students can decide on their own where ProStartville is located and how that influences their restaurant creations. 

The annual event brings together top participants in ProStart, a program for teenagers who opt for training to become tomorrow’s foodservice leaders instead of pursuing a traditional high school education. That’s putting it primly. If it weren’t for ProStart, many would drop out of school, lapse into trouble, or drift rudderless through the schooling required of them by law. ProStart offers an alternative that’s been readily embraced by educators, parents and students themselves.

The program combines classroom time with hands-on kitchen experience and management endeavors true to what the youngsters will encounter as foodservice professionals, such as thinking up a viable restaurant venture. To inject some fun and real-world pressure into the process, teams of students compete with one another in tests of their management and culinary abilities. The tops in each state then head to the national invitational to determine the best of the best.

Because this competition pivots on projections of the future by the individuals who will shape those decades ahead, their restaurant ideas are analyzed by the NRAEF and ProStart’s sponsor, tech company Oracle Food and Beverage. Here’s what was revealed by their just-released study of the winning entries in the 2018 contest. 

It’s taps for fussy fine dining

Most of the concepts hatched by the 46 teams were casual, quick-service or fast-casual operations with an emphasis on speed. Sit-down service was secondary by far to grab-and-go. 

Food trucks in the fast lane

Judges remarked on the number of food trucks brainstormed by contestants, though the entries were amped up from the current generation of kitchens on wheels. One mobile winner, Wings in Motion, was engineered to deliver meals in three to five minutes. The trucks’ ability to relocate wherever consumers congregated was consistent with the larger trend of putting restaurants closer to where the public lives, works and plays.

Revved up farm-to-table

Entrants’ disinterest in fine dining wasn’t accompanied by a lack of enthusiasm for the local sourcing associated today with higher-end independents. A reliance on farm-to-table sourcing was “central” to the entries, according to post-competition study. Here again, the youngsters foresaw the industry moving further in that direction. The entry from West Virginia’s team sported a greenhouse on its roof. Indiana’s team envisioned a restaurant with a full herb garden, not only to provide seasoning and ingredients, but also to scent the air. 

Giving back is a given

The NRAEF and Oracle noted that the youngsters in the competition envisioned their concepts as being integrally involved with their communities. Colorado’s team cooked up a casual concept called Pangea for ProStartville International Airport. Passengers on incoming flights would find an ad for the place on their paper or e-tickets, and every 10th imprint would be a coupon for a 15% discount. Every redeemed coupon would trigger an automatic donation to the American Red Cross. 

Menus break out of the beef/chicken/pork mold

A separate part of the competition pitted teams against one another to see which could come up with the best future menu. One trend highlighted in the follow-up report: a broadening of the proteins envisioned for future use. The most popular ingredient incorporated into appetizers was seafood, followed by vegetables. Center-of-the-plate preparations incorporated such items as quail, game meat and veal. 

Top finishers in the two competitions—management and culinary—were awarded scholarships that they could use to further pursue their restaurant educations. 

The 2019 National ProStart Invitational is scheduled for May 8-10 in Washington, D.C. 

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