Sound Off: Local Restaurant Owners Discuss Modernization

Welcome to the fifth installment of our Sound Off blog series where we ask industry professionals the same three questions and see what they have to say! This week, we spoke with visionary, local restaurant owners about the evolution of the dining experience. From modernizing the restaurant and menu to industry predictions, these restaurant owners are not afraid to evolve with the times.

The Power Group: What steps have you taken over the past 3 years to modernize your restaurant space, menu, dining experience, etc.?

Jeremy Scott, Tutta’s Pizza: When I opened the doors in the West End I had this idea that I was opening a gourmet dining establishment with a laid back vibe, but what reality showed me was that; in this day and age, most people are into quick service restaurant options. Meaning, we aren’t looking to have a waiter take care of our every need most days. We want to stand in a short line, order our food, sit down, get our refills, and be on our way when we’re done. But the food MUST be good and mindful! Having someone wait on you creates weird anxiety for some people. So I tried to make it as easy as possible to order from us online. I even went so far as to install a kiosk for self-ordering. Over time, we found a really good scenario for our particular situation.

Susan Na, El Rincon Mexican Kitchen & Tequila Bar: In the past 3 years we’ve adjusted our menu from traditional Mexican and Tex-Mex to more of a “modern Mexican” or “new style of Mexican” we’ve created new dishes that are fusion with different culture and things you wouldn’t expect, like our Shrimp Pasta and Mexi Fried Rice. We’ve gone digital with our menus for less contact, this has been a great cost saver and customers love it as well. Our space I feel like it has always been modern, we have a minimal clean style. With Covid-19 we’ve adapted to create more distance between tables so guests have more personal space, we’ve added hand sanitizer stations available for customers as well. We’ve adapted a higher level of cleaning throughout the restaurant

Kyle Gordon, Dillas Quesadillas: Over the past few years we’ve gotten to know our customers better and what they’re looking for in a Dillas experience. We’ve noticed that they value an interior space that isn’t embarrassing to be seen in. We want people to be proud to meet a friend for lunch at Dillas. We’ve done everything we can to source nice lighting, custom furniture and a clean/modern color palette. We have also committed to keeping our walls simple. We don’t over advertise to you while you’re in the space. We feel this cheapens the experience. You’re here – now enjoy! NOT, You’re here – look what else we want to sell you! We reserve the wall space, instead, for interesting graphics, cultural or historical storytelling and community happenings.

We have also committed to being a safe space to bring your family to enjoy a conversation – not watch more TV. We feel like being “modern” is allowing time for a connection away from screens. As far as our menu goes, we want to be laser-focused but also have something for everyone. We do Dillas…but we do them for men, women, boys, girls, vegans, vegetarians, gluten-free individuals, etc.

TPG: 3 years from now, what sort of predictions do you have for the restaurant industry as a whole?

JS: I predict that we will see more of a dehumanization of the dining out experience. As labor costs continue to rise, it does not motivate operators to increase spending on the human factor. Speaking from experience, if I could remove human error, mood swings, inconsistencies and all for the same price; I absolutely would do that. So will many others. Until the robot overlords take-over, we will still have to contend with the human touch concerning our dining experiences. As the economy unravels and COVID-19 still wreaking its havoc, it is anyone’s guess as to what a successful forward plan would be. If I am building out 50 new locations, you can bet I’m putting fewer seats inside and adding more on the outside. Barriers with bulletproof glass to lower physical contact. The sad thing is, how do we keep that “Neighborhood Place” if we lose our sense of the human element…touch.

SN: In three years, I hope that restaurants will go back to normal! I think everyone is looking for normalization, but some changes I predict is that fast-casual will be more popular, there will be more grab and go restaurants available as we become accustomed to staying at home. Alcohol to-go will stay.

KG: I don’t think 3 years brings a tremendous amount of change. You’ll likely see more cloud kitchens/virtual kitchens/ghost kitchens that will fill the need for “generic” delivery food.
In the next 3 years, you’ll see the shift begin, however, I predict bigger disruption in five or more years. The shift to smaller footprints (real estate), more take-out and pick up options, “speed” lanes for D/T vs. online order ahead, and the introduction of location beacons to let the restaurant know you’ve arrived – allowing for a more seamless takeout and curbside experience.

Now let’s fast forward to seven years. I believe the transition to the future will take 7-10 years. This future will include: autonomous vehicles picking up and delivering food, drone pick up and delivery zones (I think this is how we get from 30% to 5% delivery fees from the likes of UberEats), and 5G will allow for much better and more predictive applications that can make your ordering experience for lunch and dinner near touchless.

AI will also be a big component of your restaurant experience. You’ll be talking to AI customer service bots on the phone, you’ll be talking to AI order takers in the drive-thru, you will be influenced by AI based on your previous buying experience. It’s also likely that by that time we’ll have a supply chain from “inner city” indoor farms that can produce fantastic fruits and vegetables indoors and allow more restaurants to offer a higher quality product at an affordable price.

TPG: What sort of shift have you seen since the demand for delivery and to-go has increased?

JS: For my operations, we have always had a very strong “to-go” business. There frankly hasn’t been much change in respect to delivery/to-go demand in that more people are used to it due to shelter in place restrictions.

SN: With to-go orders and deliveries, people are looking for more of a convenience. Customers are requesting more delivery, curbside pick-up, and family meals. People want the level of restaurant food at a fast-food pace.

KG: Necessity is the mother of invention. In this case, necessity was the mother of discovery. An entire population of people discovered how easy online ordering, curbside, drive-thru, and delivery can be.

Once COVID regulations ease up and things get back to a new normal – will consumers continue to leverage online tools or will they backslide into calling in or dining in more often? The writing is on the wall…the shift is an irreversible landslide of innovation that will allow easier access to food where the consumer wants it. Date at the park? UberEats the food there with a drone. Want to stay in? Have Ruth’s Chris at your door in 45 minutes. All of this with virtually no sacrifice due to the option of still being able to go out and experience these establishments gives the consumer options. The demand is there, however, I still see it reaching a plateau. To-go and delivery are great during a pandemic, but we’re social creatures. These peaks will subside when people learn to hug, hold hands and run through a park without a mask on again!