Ripples in the restaurant industry are about to turn into waves

The pandemic has accelerated technology, offsite solutions, and the way chefs think about restaurants. These are just a few of the developments that have rippled through the industry in 2021 and are poised to turn into bigger trends over the coming year.

Fry vs. Fry

Eleven years ago Wendy’s launched a new and improved fry, but over the past two years the QSR has returned to the R&D drawing board to give it a makeover. Improved Skin-On Fries debuted in September, with a promise that they would stay hot and crisp longer – a promise that comes at the right time with a greater portion of Wendy’s sales coming from off-site channels. The channel said he would guarantee the quality new fries, replacing them if customers are not happy with their temperature or crispness.

While other chains do not issue guarantees, there is a movement to improve fries in the QSR space. KFC introduced upgraded fries to replace his old potato wedges by adding a side dish that goes better with his new crispy chicken sandwich.

And Krystal launched its new seasoned fries nationwide in September, giving guests a thicker, crispier fry that’s crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. An additional breading on the potatoes provides the crunch.

Soggy, cold fries are one of the biggest consumer complaints about delivery and takeout orders, so expect to see more chains launching fries that stay hot, crisp and cooler during transit.

Take plants in new directions

Plant-based burgers, breakfast sausages and commercially produced chicken fillets have made it easy for operators to quickly and easily swap vegan alternatives for popular items. But consumers who choose plant-based or plant-based meals all or part of the time tend to be concerned with sustainability, and these meat substitutes can be highly processed. Plus, the growing number of flexitarians – those who balance a veg-focused diet with meatier meals – are looking for more creative dishes.

Forward-thinking operators make their own veggie burgers. Meat-centric chain Smokey Bones has launched the Good Seed Veggie Burger made with chia and hemp seeds, sprouts and spices, while True Food Kitchen offers a homemade vegan double cheeseburger with portobello mushrooms, walnuts, beets, kuzu and vegan cheddar cheese on a flax seed bun. This happens even in the limited-service segment, with brands such as Culver and Wendy’s creates exclusive meatless burgers.

The concepts focused on bowls, salads and Mediterranean dishes go the extra mile, offering a wide selection of seasonal vegetables, grains and beans in selected and personalized items.

True, the number of plant-based cheeses, eggs and seafood products on the market continues to increase, as well as analogues of beef and chicken. These may have a place on some menus, but restaurant kitchens are constantly innovating with handcrafted items. Many fine dining restaurants now offer inventive plant-based dishes and even vegetable tasting menus. And Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park is now completely vegan. Look for these chef-inspired ideas that will reverberate in more casual restaurants.

New generation distributor

Contactless ordering and take-out are in high demand after the pandemic. In addition to the current labor shortage in the restaurant industry, vending machines are well positioned to meet a number of today’s challenges.

But these are not your grandmother’s vending machines. The technology allows a wide variety of hot and cold food to be dispensed and makes it easy to log in and pay. Marriott Hotels is testing a new line of vending machines that can replace the free breakfast buffets prevalent in its low-cost properties. These sales operations are actually organized as a wall of self-service kiosks filled with breakfast sandwiches, yogurt, cereal, etc. Snacks and drinks are available later in the day. Customers buy food and drink via Bluetooth connection on their phones.

Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, which officially opened this year, is inspired by the old-fashioned automaton, where customers inserted coins, opened a small glass locker, and collected their hot or cold food. Cutting-edge technology allows customers to order through a smartphone or kiosk, then receive an SMS when their dumplings are ready. Reading a barcode opens the door to the temperature-controlled food locker that contains their order. Brooklyn Dumpling Shop now franchises the concept, with deals signed for locations in New York and Florida.

Hot pizza from a vending machine is now also possible. Basil Street Pizza Kitchen makes and distributes hot pizza in three minutes. In the fall of 2021, the brand signed with sales company Prepango to install the automatic pizza vending kitchen at airports across the United States.

As the workforce continues to challenge operators in 2022, and many consumers are comfortable with contactless orders and new technologies, selling can only grow from here.

The future of robots

Robots are another technological advancement offering some relief from the labor shortage. Robotics powers some of these salad and pizza vending machines, but beyond that, restaurants are using robots to get food from BOH to FOH, deliver offsite orders, flip burgers, mix cocktails and more.

But the restaurant business is a hospitality industry, and many operators and customers appreciate the tactile experience of dining out. While automation works in some types of operations, it is difficult to deliver personalized menu items, wine service, and other experiential items through robots.

Right now, at least. “I think we are really on the precipice of robots starting to be pushed into the industry”, but mass adoption is probably still five to seven years away, Buck Jordan, president of Miso Robotics, told Restaurant Business earlier this year. But the pandemic and labor shortage have sped up automation, and companies that make restaurant robots are constantly scrambling to upgrade hardware and software.

That said, robotics is currently modernizing several processes. Robotic kiosks, a close cousin of vending machines, are being tested in airports, office buildings and other places. Freebirds World Burrito is working with robotics company New Cuisine to install automated take-out stations where customers can order the same food they would get in a brick and mortar location.

There appears to be less consumer backlash against automation, with fast service and food on demand a priority. Delivery robots are perhaps the most widely accepted today. Starship Technologies has partnered with Sodexo and other food service providers to add its robots to a number of college campuses and many more to come, according to the company.

And Grubhub has partnered with Ohio State University to use robots to speed up the delivery of on-campus food and beverage operations to student dormitories. Last month, Uber Eats announced plans to use self-driving carts to deliver orders to Los Angeles, starting early next year. Targeting the same city, digital catering company C3 is also rolling out robot delivery to Los Angeles.

Kitchen incubators feed restaurants

Pre-COVID, restaurateurs were testing new concepts by launching temporary popups. Food halls and ghost kitchens have also proven to be fertile testing grounds.

But massive layoffs and restaurant closings during the pandemic have pushed chefs and operators out of the industry. Enterprising issue launched online restaurants, using Instagram and other digital platforms to recruit customers, publish weekly menus and expedite orders. Most created limited menus based on their specialty, such as pozole, lasagna, and pastries. Many are still going strong.

Other aspiring food entrepreneurs, chefs and restaurateurs saw opportunities to develop something new from scratch. Kitchen incubators started popping up before the pandemic, providing centers with shared kitchen space for budding businesses. Some also offer business development training, packaging facilities, and delivery services.

Last year, these incubators have increased in number and extent. The trend started in big cities, with New York, Chicago, Detroit and LA leading the way. But now places like San Antonio and Indianapolis have shared kitchen spaces to help startups refine and launch a concept.

When Union Square Hospitality’s events division built its new space in Brooklyn, NY this year, designers included several stations for startups in the expansive 33,000-square-foot catering kitchen. Surrounded by seasoned chefs and BOH professionals, these food entrepreneurs have the opportunity to gain hands-on mentorship.

Kitchen incubators are proving to be invaluable springboards for restaurants and catering businesses. As disillusioned workers and operators continue to leave the industry, expect to see more open in 2022.

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Cecil N. Messick