The Restaurant Industry in the Wake of a Tech Boom
It’s over a week old, but the recent New York Times Opinion piece, Dinner, Disrupted, contains too many relevant restaurant + technology points to let it pass without comment. So, a few relevant comments:
1. YES. This is my reaction every time someone invokes the David Chang “figs on a plate” comment. This was in 2009, but an appropriate analogy for both the restaurant scene at the time and the way it was perceived by the rest of the country.
2. This statement: “I had been a fool in more ways than I could count, including my delusion that one could think and talk about food outside of its social and economic context.” It’s wonderful to talk about food and food technology at grand scale, full of potential and ideas and good intentions. It’s another entirely to talk about the economics at play behind the scenes.
3. Speaking of economics, let’s not forget what actually makes a restaurant work: the people who work inside its walls. All the innovation in the world won’t save you if your employees can’t afford to live near their jobs and commute to work. (Well, I suppose robots and AI could “save” you, but that’s some dystopian future nonsense I’m not espousing here.) “In a perfect parallel to the tech sector, the San Francisco restaurant industry has the worst racial and ethnic pay gap in the United States, and the average cook’s salary of about $53,000 doesn’t nearly cover the $3,490 average rent for a one-bedroom apartment.”
4. What will happen when the economy slows? You won’t get “bubble-bursting” references from me, but it’s hard to imagine the money at play in the Bay Area today sticking around forever. Which restaurants will survive? The new and flashy and expensive, catering to the tech-set, or the chef-driven, local places that put the SF dining scene on the map in the first place?
5. This: “All these mom-and-pop restaurants that really are California cuisine and that have been here for 30 years cooking for their own community are now filled with patrons they’ve never seen before because of social media and instead of becoming angry or skeptical, they’ve embraced it — that’s the soul of a cook, you never discriminate against the people eating your food nor do you judge them, you are so happy they have arrived. And their food is getting even better.” – Roy Choi, on Los Angeles dining (as opposed to the Bay Area.) This kind of social media discovery and engagement doesn’t happen organically in a place where places compete to be the next big thing on the regular and every opening weekend is filled with the Yelp Elite ticking boxes next to names of restaurants to rate.
What does this have to do with restaurant technology? Well, it reminds us that restaurants are a human experience. Just as we, the patrons, look for convenience and speed and efficiency, so do operators. But instead, operators have to anticipate the needs and wants of their clientele while trying to look for convenience and speed and efficiency. When you have to choose one thing: you please the people. This piece shows exactly how that’s working out. More than anything, it’s a reminder that technology’s influence, whether the idea of introducing new tech into the restuarant system or the way that the outsidetech industry affects the inner workings of a restaurant, needs to be managed against all human aspects of a restaurant. This is a tricky view for anyone interested in technology to maintain, but it’s important.
NoWait Secures Some Yelp Love
NoWait, a startup that allows restaurant patrons to wait in line virtually at restaurants (that don’t take reservations, presumably), just secured an $8 million investment from Yelp — plus a big inclusion into the Yelp process. NoWait will soon be integrated into Yelp allowing restaurant-goers to “get in line” after discovering a restaurant on Yelp.
NoWait is currently in 4,000 restaurants, from large chains to small businesses. And, according to the company, NoWait is a “win-win” for restaurants and patrons, as people are willing to wait longer for a table if they’re not waiting in the restaurant.
The interesting thing about this concept, though, is that it’s not all that different from a regular reservations system — in this case, the digital technology blurs the lines between ‘reservation-friendly” and “no reservations.” When you can reserve your place in line without stepping a toe in the restaurant, does that really mean “walk-ins only”? Curious.
One awesome tidbit buried in the bottom of the Business Insider piece: all NoWait employees have to work at a restaurant’s host stand for at least two shifts.
Food Tech Investment Dollars Down in 2016
It’s up… then it’s down… so is food tech no longer “hot”? The San Francisco Business Times reports that global food tech investment has dropped 20 percent in 2016 so far. This is in terms of actual dollars invested, not the number of investments, which, actually, have risen. The number of investors is up, too. So, to answer the question: no. It is still “hot.”
Square Partners with Upserve for Restaurant Investments
Square Capital, part of Square, Inc. already offers loans to small businesses based on their Square usage, but its network is larger now thanks to a partnership with Upserve a Providence-based restaurant technology company that processes credit cards and provides restaurant customers with data insights into menu items and customer flow. Thanks to the partnership, 7,000 restaurants will have access to Square Capital’s program, which uses a business’s payment data to help determine its creditworthiness.
This model is interesting (and C+T appropriate) because it uses real restaurant data to make big decisions — lending decisions, in this case. Data is an important restaurant-tech topic, because so much exists but it seems we’re in the earliest stages of being able to harness its power. Lots of companies are doing some cool work in the space, so we’ll see what happens next.
- Postmates has failed to make “Uber for anything” cheap and misleads customers about it —Quartz
- An app that lets you buy food that restaurants would have otherwise wasted — Telegraph UK
- Oh, good, there’s a new Soylent product for everyone to talk about — TechCrunch
- How one meal delivery startup is thriving in a crowded market — ChicagoInno