Across industries in the U.S., labor productivity has effectively doubled over the past 30 years, according to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the foodservice industry has been among the slowest to grow, at about 80 percent below the national average and ranking just below the post office and just above the mining industry in productivity. The food and beverage strategy firm Aaron Allen & Associates points to one culprit holding the industry’s productivity back: restaurants’ slow adoption of new technologies. The company says the next five years will be more disruptive to foodservice operators than the past 50 years have been, and slow adopters of technology are likely to be left behind. Specifically, technology is making the restaurant experience more and more frictionless for customers and operators alike: Once a consumer gets used to ordering his favorite take-away meal with merely a couple of taps on his phone, then automatically earning loyalty points redeemable for this item at the times of the week when he craves it most, he won’t want to give up that experience. Similarly, once an operator is using tech to monitor everything from the most popular menu items to the functionality of appliances, she has time to focus on providing better customer service, connecting with staff or even scaling up the business. While these updates can be difficult to transition to for an older operation used to managing business more conventionally, restaurant startups are launching with this technology already embedded into their business models ― and it’s giving them a clear advantage when competing with more established brands.
Food packaging technology is evolving so fast that it’s making plastic cutlery seem almost quaint. A startup called Planeteer LLC, for example, has taken on the challenge of packaging waste and developed a variety of cutlery that isn’t merely compostable but also edible. The company has created a spoon that it promises will hold its shape for 25 minutes in hot soup and 50 minutes in a cold dessert, The Spoon reports. Planeteer cofounder Dinesh Tadepalli said it is vegan, all-natural, rich in protein and composts in days if not consumed. The company will be presenting its product at the Smart Kitchen Summit’s Future Food Competition in October.
At a time when sugar continues to be in the crosshairs when it comes to the American diet, sugary drinks are becoming not only more plentiful at large restaurant chains but also sweeter. That’s according to new research from Harvard that was recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The research, based on the analysis of beverage offerings available at 63 quick-service, fast-casual and full-service brands between 2012 and 2017, found that the number of sugary drinks climbed by 82 percent. Further, the sweetness of drinks increased too: Among newly introduced sugary beverages including sodas, fruit drinks and sports drinks, the number of calories per drink increased by 50 and the average amount of sugar reached 63 grams, approximately double the American Heart Association’s recommended daily sugar threshold. Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and warnings from medical associations are creating downward pressure on sugar levels in the beverage industry, but in the meantime, restaurants have an important role to fill in providing flavorful drinks that don’t pile on the extra sugar. Think craft seltzers, fruit-infused waters, herbal teas and kombuchas as stand-alone options or extra ingredients that can add interest (but not all of the sugar) to your beverage lineup.
The restaurant kitchen continues to evolve -- and Zume seems to have created a new category that blends a restaurant kitchen, food truck and virtual kitchen. The company recently announced that
the brand &Pizza will use Zume’s mobile kitchen technology to expand their brand in new markets and test new menu items. But as The Spoon reports, Zume’s strength in predictive data analytics may be what helps it transform the pizza brand’s possibilities. Its technology currently considers data points such as days of the week and school calendars to predict what kinds of pizza will be ordered and from what locations. So ostensibly, &Pizza will be able to prepare pizzas at a central facility, store them in their mobile kitchen (which can position itself where orders are likely to be placed), then bake and deliver the pizzas once orders start to come in. Delivery drivers will have shorter distances to drive and can therefore make more drop-offs and keep food fresher because it hasn’t had far to travel. Zume opened up its data platform to additional cuisine types last year, so other restaurant concepts can adopt its model and customize their own mobile kitchens accordingly.
Late this summer, the Mediterranean fast-casual brand Cava opened its first innovation kitchen, a technology-driven effort designed to collect and analyze consumer tastes and trends in real time – without the time-consuming hassle of organizing focus groups or experimenting with new menu items in test locations. Cava isn’t the first brand to launch such an effort and it’s further evidence of the increased pressure restaurant operators face to innovate their menus and to get them right each time. Even if you don’t have state-of-the-art technology to help you fine-tune your menu, you can still innovate your menu well if you start with the problem you’re looking to solve. Are you looking to improve the quality of your off-premise options? Increase your dine-in traffic? Then let that question drive your decisions. Chefify advises operators to keep several factors in mind when making menu changes. First, be able to back up your prices with market research and an understanding of what your guests will enjoy and are willing to spend for a particular product. Next, make sure your new menu items are extensions of what you already do well – not overeager attempts to follow the latest trends. Third, be clear about your ingredients and list them so guests (particularly those with food allergies) can make the best choice for themselves. Fourth, make sure that if you need to cut food costs, focus on your less-essential ingredients so you’re not sacrificing the quality of the core ingredients that make your restaurant appeal to guests. Finally, opt for a minimal, easily understood menu that allows guests to make decisions quickly when they’re hungry and allows you to both minimize your food waste and improve your order accuracy.
Hummus is a menu workhorse. It can help you deliver on-trend spices, serve as both a condiment and a main attraction, and add interest to a broad range of different dishes. Flavor & the Menu suggests it as a base with such ingredients as eggs, onions, pickles and harissa oil. Its versatility also helps it add depth when added to sandwiches, as a base for grain-and-vegetable bowls or meat skewers, and even as a salad dressing.
As the bounty of local summer produce begins to wane in many areas, your cooler can help you store favorite items and draw out the season. Make sure you’re storing ingredients in a way that maximizes your available space and keeps the contents fresher for longer. FreshPoint suggests that you make the most of the cooler space you have by storing items not in the cardboard boxes they arrived in but smallers containers that fit more snugly in your cooler. Order splits instead of full cases, particularly if you have a smaller cooler. Remove items that don’t need to be refrigerated, such as onions and root vegetables. Finally, the cold air in your cooler flows from the back to the front, making certain areas of your cooler colder than others, so make sure you store items where they are happiest – berries and carrots at the back, cucumbers in the middle and apples and melons at the front.
As delivery ramps up, are drive thrus on the way out? Minneapolis may have set a precedent recently by banning the construction of new drive thrus in the name of health and safety: The city wants to cut back on vehicle noise, idling and traffic and make sidewalks safer for pedestrians. Existing drive thrus in the city will remain intact, however.
From the clattering of dishes to the blaring of music to the loud conversations of guests trying to hear themselves over the din, restaurants can be noisy places. It can be enough of a turn-off that guests will avoid your business. (Case in point: There is an app called Soundprint that dubs itself the “Yelp for noise” and allows users to search for restaurants quiet enough to allow for conversation.) If the sound levels in your restaurant bother guests and employees, take some cost-effective steps to lower the volume. Toast suggests minimizing the scraping of chairs on the floors by using felt pads on chair legs. Keep music at a level where people can have a conversation without shouting. Use textiles to absorb noise – curtains, tablecloths, area rugs, and soundproof panels on walls and ceilings can all help. Finally, keep noisy food preparation equipment in the kitchen, or if you have an open-concept space, consider installing a transparent barrier between guests and food prep areas.
Consumers demand fresh food — but that can lead to food safety challenges, especially when fresh produce is a key feature of your menu. But there are steps you can take to protect the safety of your food supply and enhance safety protocol within your restaurant. As Restaurant Dive reports, a string of romaine lettuce contamination incidents led Chipotle’s new CEO, Brian Niccol, to attack food safety from several angles. First, the brand developed a field leadership team of food safety managers. They oversee five to 10 restaurants and train managers how to run a restaurant with an emphasis on food safety. The company also revamped its supply chain team, introduced quarterly food safety training, developed a “focus prep” team to limit the number of people preparing food, and transitioned more cooking tasks to a central kitchen where food safety could be more closely monitored. Finally, they focused on retaining employees so that food safety knowledge had a better chance of accumulating on staff. The efforts appear to be turning results around for the brand, which generated revenue gains of nearly 9 percent last year, according to earnings data.
Making do with less-than-adequate kitchen equipment can lead to a safety issue for your staff and guests, impact your restaurant’s performance and consume excess energy. Does any of your equipment require frequent servicing or parts replacement? Does your chef have to adapt his or her use of equipment to avoid injury? Is there equipment that can save space in your kitchen by accomplishing multiple tasks — or save on energy? (For example, a piece of kitchen equipment like a countertop food steamer that uses less water than a basic model could potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the product.) Checking your tools against the NSF’s Certified Food Equipment list can help you identify effective and efficient replacements of kitchen equipment and tools that aren’t serving you as well as they could.
Looking for alternatives to plastic for off-premise food packaging? Increasingly, it’s coming from plants. Corn is currently being used for plastic alternatives ranging from straws to containers, but according to a report in Scientific American, the disposal of the material poses challenges, along with leaving an environmental footprint. It is compostable and not recyclable, so if not sent to an industrial facility where it can biodegrade, the process can take between 100 and 1000 years (versus just a few months). Still, other promising and more easily biodegradable plant-based plastics are being developed from materials ranging from cactus to algae. Some are even designed to eliminate waste altogether. The Spoon reports that the startup Decomer is developing a plant-based capsule containing honey. It can dissolve in coffee, tea, or other liquids at a wide range of temperatures.
When large portions of food are cooling down, they can be havens for bacteria. Cool these foods in smaller containers so they aren’t in the temperature danger zone for too long. That goes for large
cuts of meat too. As Statefoodsafety.com reports, leftover meat needs to be cut up into smaller portions so that it can cool down quickly. Otherwise, it’s too easy for bacteria to thrive and make the food unsafe for consumption.
Hopefully, your employees know to wash their hands after using a restroom. But bacteria lurk in places all over a restaurant: Door handles, money, tablet and smartphone touchscreens, salt shakers and other tableware, computer keyboards, menus, and kitchen equipment and other items such as cutting boards and towels are key culprits. Outside of the restroom, make sure your team has a culture of regular handwashing with soap and water, then alcohol-based sanitizer (as a bonus, not a substitute for the first step). Then reinforce it regularly. It’s easy for even a careful employee to overlook handwashing during busy periods.
As new food trends are identified each year, it seems there is always room for restaurants to use spices to innovate and bring global flavors to a menu. One company to watch is McCormick & Co. Its long history and traditional profile masks a tech-savvy strategy. The Spoon, which included McCormick on its Food Tech 25 list of companies making the greatest impact on food this year, reports that the spice brand’s new partnership with IBM Research AI will help it predict new flavor combinations and enhance old ones. The results may help you enhance your own menu offerings in a cost-effective way.
Digital ordering and delivery have grown 300 percent faster than dine-in traffic since 2014, according to Upserve. Thinking of isolating production lines in your restaurant to better accommodate off-premise traffic? Chili’s is seeing the value of it. The brand changed its kitchen structure to allow for better production-line preparation of menu items, and pared down its menu to include more profitable items. It has generated consecutive quarters of double-digit off-premise sales increases as a result. As restaurant operators contemplate how to adjust their business model to accommodate off-premise sales, companies continue to spring up to offer solutions. While ghost kitchens and cloud kitchens have made headlines, alternatives to those alternative spaces are becoming available. One example is KitchenPodular, a new company that develops modular, portable kitchen kits that contain electrical and plumbing, sinks, a walk-in cooler, and a ventilation hood and offer the option of a drive-through or walk-up window — operators supply their own oven and stove. The kit (each costs an average of $150,000 and ranges from 206 to 430 square feet in size) can be set up in a restaurant’s existing parking lot, on the outskirts of a city as part of a hub-and-spoke structure, or placed in another preferred location. KitchenPodular CEO Mike Manion, who was featured on a recent episode of The Takeout, Delivery and Catering Show, said these kits can provide restaurant with a turnkey solution for isolating production lines and churning out food to different customer bases more effectively. While they may not be for everyone — as The Spoon points out, they’re still facilities that need to be managed and staffed, and they don’t offer any shared labor for cleaning and dishwashing that one might find in a cloud kitchen — it’s another option to consider if you’re looking for a way to adapt on an ongoing basis to new streams of traffic.
It may still sound futuristic, but as artificial intelligence (AI) applications appear in the restaurant industry, you will want to ensure your technology can adapt to enable them. As DineEngine reports, there are a number of AI-enabled enhancements making it possible for operators to improve sales and customer relations. Are there hiccups in your ordering process? A chatbot or virtual assistant can lead someone through placing an order, suggest food based on the person’s preferences and never forget to upsell profitable additions. They can also handle customer inquiries and orders at any time of day or night, so instead of a staff member taking time to discuss a catering order during your dinner rush, your chatbot can iron out the details overnight.
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