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Reinventing foodservice, one bite at time

By Randy Mitchell


Driverless delivery. Ghost kitchens. Takeout everything.


What in the name of Ray Kroc has happened to the world of foodservice?


The industry is emerging from its most challenging year with remarkable resilience and some amazing innovations. An operator friend who owns a neighborhood café put it best: “Foodservice had a full-on freak out. But we found ways to make it work. We always do.”


Here are a few quick content bites that illustrate her point.


 Bite #1: Driverless delivery


Houston is famous for launching astonishing technology into the heavens. Recently, it also became the test site for rocketing pizzas to hungry Earthlings via driverless vehicles. Who is behind this stellar idea? A technology company that masquerades as a pizza chain.


Of course it’s Domino’s, and this is just the latest industry-shaping innovation from the nation’s leader in the pizza category. Domino’s was also the first pizza company to offer mobile ordering and the first to build a digital pizza tracker.


Domino’s driverless experiment is another potential solution to the ongoing delivery dilemma. Foodservice chains and independents have long struggled to find and maintain fast, reliable and affordable delivery options. The pandemic only magnified this issue, and helped fuel the success of alternative delivery sources such as DoorDash and Uber Eats.


There’s even been talk of delivery drones in the future, but it’s kind of hard to imagine a full slab of ribs descending deftly from the heavens to a hungry family below. In any case, it will be very compelling to watch the progress of delivery as restaurant operators continue to evolve their off-premise strategies.


 Bite #2: Ghost kitchens


The concept of ghost kitchens started gaining traction before delivery ever became the necessity. If the term is new to you, ghost kitchens basically contain the equipment and facilities for preparing restaurant meals, but with no dining areas or servers. They exist for delivery or walk-in meals, and are frequently found in low-rent areas to keep operating costs to a minimum. But that model is changing dramatically.


Lately, the ghosts have started appearing in much more populated spaces, such as Walmarts, hotels and even airports. These new locations are often operated by Ghost Kitchen Brands, which is targeting 800 units across the country, according to Restaurant Business.


Which brings up the question, is the original ghost identity still applicable when the kitchen goes mainstream?


 Bite #3: Takeout everything


When the pandemic started, restaurants scrambled to find suitable options for takeout. Traditional hand-held meals were a natural starting point, but inventive chefs soon expanded their menus in unexpected ways. Ideas included meal kits with build your own ingredients, food subscriptions with meals delivered monthly on a regular preset date and time, and even carryout cocktails to bring the party atmosphere home.


Restaurant meal donation programs also gained traction. This allowed diners to support their local restaurants and charities at the same time. Some restaurants offered promotions such as, “Buy two meals, we donate one” to generate more takeout orders.


Perhaps the most intriguing development from the trend is that takeout isn’t going anywhere. In fact, takeout appears to be a permanent restaurant offering post-pandemic. According to a 2021 Bentobox study, 79% of diners plan to continue their pandemic ordering habits. In that same study, 74% of diners cited convenience as the primary reason they will continue to use takeout, and only 25% said safety was a factor in choosing takeout going forward.


What about the lunch crowd? As workers slowly return to their offices, restaurants are sending the message that takeout is ready to serve them again. Even the image of the traditional big client lunch has shifted. Iconic dine-in restaurants, such as Gene and Georgetti’s Steakhouse in Chicago, now offer takeout meals to suit large gatherings and those all-important client lunch bacchanalias.


From “full-on freak out” to a wide-open future, this has been a wild time in foodservice. Thankfully for everyone, the comeback is definitely on, and the industry has discovered new ways to serve its patrons going forward.


In short, foodservice is reinventing itself, one bite at a time.