OK, so here we are: restaurants are beginning to re-open (maybe prematurely, maybe not) and we are all scared to death. We are fearful of a virus that is still out there, still scoping us out, still waiting to strike again, and we are not prepared for that. We are fearful that 25% or 50% capacity in our restaurants will not allow us to survive – so, what’s the point? We are fearful that customers will not return and customers are fearful of what is waiting for them as they venture out with loads of trepidation. And we are fearful that everything will be different and we don’t yet know how to define “different”.
Yep, I get it – we are all in the same boat – fear of the unknown. The natural inclination is to play it safe, to try and bring everything back to where it was pre-pandemic. This is our comfort zone, this is what we know, this is the space that everyone can jump back into and not lose a beat. Let’s bring back the same menu, let’s try and make service like it was, let’s keep the same pricing model, let’s set-up our kitchens as we did just a few months ago with the same staff and the same skill set. Wouldn’t it make sense to not rock the boat any more – to get into our rhythm and put on a familiar face – this is, after all what out customers expect and want – right?
It’s interesting how last month everyone was proclaiming that everything will be different when restaurants open again, that what we knew will not suffice in the near future. So what did we do to prepare for wholesale change over the past three months? Did we invest in ideation sessions, did we look to other industries that were forced to change in recent years, did we seek advice from knowledgeable experts in our and others industries, did we take a hard look at fixing some of the issues that have plagued us for decades? I am not positive, but I have yet to see any real future thinking and strategic planning in this regard outside of how to social distance, how to incorporate more take-out options, and discovering what new sanitation procedures will be in place at least until a vaccine is developed. Where are the exciting future thinkers in the restaurant business – you know, the disruptors, the ones that force us to scratch our heads, the ones who piss us off, and make us wag our fingers saying: “You can’t do that.”
Why can’t we just return to “normal”? Well, for one thing – normal really wasn’t that great for restaurants – was it? Rents were getting out of whack, ingredient costs kept inching up, finding employees was increasingly difficult, many skilled workers were underpaid and under appreciated, profits were too low if present at all, failure rates were very high, and banks – well they just don’t want to invest in a very fragile restaurant business. So – why do we want to return to that – especially with the addition of new protocols brought on by the pandemic?
John F. Kennedy wrote:
“For time and the world do not stand still. Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”
Think about that for a minute: “Change is the law of life.” In other words, whether we like it or not change is inevitable and it will occur with us, or without us. To fail to change at a time when the door has been opened for the possibility is a lost opportunity that may never come your way again.
Since the early days of restaurants we have acknowledged and embraced a way of doing business that, for all intents and purposes, has not really changed at all. If we allow ourselves to slip right back into the same model then we must accept the fact that all of the problems that I listed will not only remain, but will intensify. Where are the future thinkers who want to seize the opportunity to re-imagine, to re-invent, and to disrupt what we have accepted as “the right way” for generations?
Where are the Steve Jobs, Elon Musks, Bill Gates, Dan Barbers, Helen Turleys, and Peter Senge prophets who would turn the restaurant business upside down and find a new way of doing business – a way that is innovative while maintaining all of the feel good parts of our business – the hospitality, the gathering, the beautiful food, and celebratory environments that bring people to restaurants for nourishment, entertainment, and cheer? Let’s just pretend that this was just a bump in the road, a moment in time that we can quickly forget and move back into the groves of the highway that we left for a short period of time. Does this make sense to you?
Lincoln gave us clear words of advice:
“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
As I walk down the street and see lights begin to shine in those restaurant dining rooms that were vacant for three months, as I watch the dust being removed from table tops and masked employees begin their sanitation routines, as I see cautious vendor drivers and hesitant cooks don their masks and take those first steps into restaurant kitchens, I am just perplexed. What are they stepping back into? Hell – what compelling reasons will bring guests back into those restaurants to dine? Is it convenience, the need to just get out and live again, or an opportunity to re-ignite a love of food and service? Will those guests venture out into the unknown just to find what they had experienced before? Will the benefits outweigh the risk? Really folks – have we thought this through?
As Lincoln alluded to: we have a responsibility to tomorrow – this is basic and important. Avoidance will never allow us to move forward as an industry and come out the other end – stronger, better, and happier. This is a time for future thinking, this is only scary if we fail to see the excitement of positive change.
Buckminster Fuller was a visionary, future thinker, designer, educator and inventor (developed the geodesic dome as an example) who outlined the exact situation we are in right now:
“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.”
If we (the restaurant industry) fail to embrace the opportunities that the future can bring, then we are likely to be left behind. If not you, then someone will; if not now, then when; if you ask why, try asking why not.
Ask yourself some foundational questions as a starting point:
- How can we better serve the needs of our customers?
- How can we build a more conducive work environment for our employees?
- How can we build a new level of excitement for dining out?
- How can we build new, compelling experiences that will bring customers back time and again?
- How can we make restaurants more profitable while allowing them to be cost accessible to a broader population?
- How can we build a restaurant industry that is friendlier to the environment?
- How can we enhance our relationships with the source of ingredients and improve the integrity of our food supply?
These and other questions can and likely should be prods to stimulate our train of thought, to excite us about the possibilities, and to engage a spectrum of stakeholders to play a role in making the next generation of restaurant experiences a reality NOW. It can start with you – NOW IS THE TIME!
We know that there are dreamers and there are doers and it is rare to find individuals who possess both abilities. This is why we put teams of people together. Visionaries/futurists are essential individuals who make us “think different” (as Steve Jobs asked us to do) and attack the problems of today to help find the right solutions. Let’s not fall back into our comfort zone – we can’t afford to do that. Build your team, ask the questions, encourage dialogue, and put aside pre-conceived ideas about how it “should be” – think more in terms of how it “could be”.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Embrace the opportunity to make it better