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Bums on seats… Or not as the case may be!

Bums on seats I hear you say. Every restaurant operator wants bums on seats. That may be the case, however I fear we are moving into an age of virtual restaurants, or as it is being called, ‘restaurants without seats and seats without restaurants.’ Here, in Ashley Sheppard’s column for Restaurant Magazine as Guest Technology Editor, he explains his prediction.

In 2015, in response to complaints that its restaurants were too slow, McDonald’s opened a site in New Jersey, America, without any tables or dining chairs. According to a study by QSR Magazine, the chain’s average drive-thru wait time was three minutes, 9.5 seconds, which was its longest average wait time in at least 15-years.  Designed entirely for time-pressed customers and commuters, the new restaurant had both drive-thru and ‘on-foot’ windows, but that’s it. Figures showed that the new concept achieved wait times estimated at around 90 seconds, with sales increasing by 5.7%.

I remember reading this article and thinking what could possibly come next? Then, I came across “phantom restaurants,” also known as “ghost restaurants.” Why? Because no one ever visits them. In 2017, this is predicted to be a huge trend in the US, bringing another dimension to the sharing economy. Inevitably, as with all trends starting in the US, it will find its way here.

Apparently, restaurants without seats and seats without restaurants, goes way beyond the Uberisation of food delivery. If the trend does make its way to our shores, it could threaten what many believed was the restaurant industry’s fool proof safeguard – that to be a restaurant it would need to be built from bricks and mortar.

According to Michael Whiteman, President of the renowned Baum + Whiteman and America’s leading food and restaurant consultant, the threat comes from start-ups and chain restaurants opening their own kitchens in low-rent locations but staffed by professional chefs and cooks. If that wasn’t enough for us to get our heads around, there is also an additional challenge coming from start-ups that employ cooks to prepare food in their own domestic kitchens. Meals are then delivered to the dining rooms of customers – hence where the term ‘seats without restaurants’ was formed.

There are two other sources of competition. The first pioneered by Airbnb unites travellers in search of a local food experience with those able to cook and offer their dining room, a service also available across Europe from VizEat. In the latest development, at Virginia Tech University, Google used drones to deliver burritos to hungry students. According to Whiteman, more than $2bn of venture capital has been invested so far in food-delivery companies, whose number will be consolidated as the field does or as several are bought up by big gorilla tech companies. Some he believes, will be consolidated into the already crowded field of reservation apps.

It would appear that food innovation is no longer the preserve of restaurateurs. Personally, I don’t want restaurants without seats or seats without restaurants. I want bums on seats for restaurant operators, because that’s the only way our industry will continue to thrive.

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