Everyone’s talking about Just Eat Takeaway’s acquisition of Grubhub this week, so let’s talk about mannequins in restaurants instead.
At a virtual workshop for The Spoon this week, Max Elder, a Research Director at the Institute for the Future, referenced restaurants that are currently using mannequins to fill up tables left empty by social distancing rules. The example is what he calls a “signal.” Signals are, as Elder explained, “small or local innovations happening today, with potential to grow in scale and geographic distribution.” They are one small thing happening right now that can eventually accelerate into a widespread trend that changes an industry or, as Elder suggested, the entire food system.
The restaurant industry is full of these signals right now as businesses struggle to adjust to the new reality of reduced capacity in the dining rooms, an emphasis on to-go orders, and social distancing guidelines. Some things, like curbside pickup, have already become full-on trends everyone is doing. But plenty of restaurants are innovating on a much smaller scale, whether it’s through a new technology, product, or creative approach to social distancing. See the mannequins example above.
Will all of the signals currently out there in the restaurant industry become widespread trends? It’s too soon to tell, but they all provide some specific, granular detail on about new restaurant experiences and unique ways businesses are working to change the way we eat. In the spirit of that, here are a few noteworthy signals that may or may not become widespread but show us that innovation is alive and well in the restaurant biz.
Gaming gatherings. Fancy a little D&D with your to-go latte? Hex & Company, a board game cafe in NYC, set up an online gaming service to keep customers in touch with its brand (and also probably give them something to do) during shelter-in-place restrictions.
People in glass houses. A shoutout to virtual workshop attendee QQ for bringing this up during the session. A restaurant in Amsterdam is making it safer for diners to eat out by enclosing them in tiny greenhouse-like glass structures while they eat. (See image above.) The concept is compelling because it serves up a unique restaurant experience that’s socially distanced at the same time.
Virtual tip jars. We’ve written about this one before. Out-of-work servers and bartenders can receive Venmo tips from folks they may never have served, thanks to efforts like this one in Chattanooga. The contactless aspect of these virtual tip jars could make the concept at attractive sell even once we’re past the pandemic.
Restaurant relief kitchen. When fine-dining restaurant Alma Cocina Latina had to close its doors because of the pandemic, owner Irena Stein turned it into a relief kitchen for food-insecure individuals around Baltimore. The concept was so attractive it eventually got the backing of José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen.
If eating inside a glass greenhouse or playing Magic the Gathering via your local coffeeshop’s server seems kind of strange, that’s good. One of my favorite moments of this week’s workshop was when Elder said, “Any useful statement about the future should at first seem ridiculous.” As the restaurant industry enters a new era, we’ll need as many left-of-center ideas as we can possibly get.
Another Day Another Grubhub Rant
OK let’s actually talk about Grubhub. Or rather, let’s talk about what Just Eat Takeaway inherits if its deal to acquire Grubhub is approved by shareholders and goes through.
To quickly sum up the news, this week Amsterdam, Netherlands-based Just Eat Takeaway confirmed its $7.3 billion deal to acquire Grubhub. The sale creates a combined 360,000 restaurant clients across 25 countries, and roughly 70 million customers.
Just Eat Takeaway, which is itself a newly formed company, also gets an automatic in with some of the strongest food delivery markets in the U.S., New York City and Grubhub hometown Chicago among them. It gets access to other markets across North America and therefore can take a hefty swipe at U.S. market leader DoorDash, and it will become the largest food delivery service in the world outside of China.
The deal, which is expected to close in the first quarter of 2021, also means Just Eat Takeaway will inherit the many (many, many) highly controversial aspects about Grubhub.
Over the last year alone, Grubhub has been accused of using misleading websites and phone numbers to charge restaurants extra fees, listing restaurants on its site with which the service doesn’t even have a deal with, and it’s stood behind the arguably unethical commission fees it charges restaurants. When he pandemic struck the U.S. in full force and restaurant dining rooms closed down, Grubhub didn’t waver from those fees. It merely offered a vaguely worded announcement about deferring fees for a temporary period, and the company spoke out against the mandatory caps many city governments have placed on those fees.
Uber, a former Grubhub suitor, reportedly balked at these shady business practices, which were one reason among many that deal went south. Just Eat Takeaway hasn’t made any mention of them in official statements or interviews so far, though in an interview with NRN this week the company said it was attracted to Grubhub’s business model. It’s too soon to know what that means for restaurant clients, but it doesn’t exactly instill confidence that things will change.
Unless consumers themselves opt out of using those services. One of the things Elder mentioned in his talk today was that everyone has a stake in the future of food. For restaurants and delivery, that means customers can help dictate the direction of the industry by the places where they eat and and the services they order from. No, every consumer that reads about the above controversies won’t delete their Grubhub and/or Just Eat Takeaway apps. But it’s worth remembering, as we’re forced to redesign the food system, that everyone’s actions, right down to the $5 sandwich order, will have lasting impact on the future of food.
Tune Into The Spoon’s Startup Pitch Session
Let’s end on a non-rant this week by highlighting the wealth of startups out there working around the clock to help change the food system for the better. Next week, The Spoon will host a Startup Pitch Session you can tune into via CrowdCast to see what some of these companies are up to.
For this first-ever Food Tech Pitch Sesh, Better Food Ventures’ Brita Rosenheim and Sansaire founder Scott Heimendinger will judge three food tech startups pitching their products. It’ll be great fun, with lots of constructive feedback you’ll likely be able to take and apply to your own business.
Join us next week, on June 18 at 10 a.m. PST. Register here to save your spot.
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