Roy Choi Talks Building a Humane Business

Roy Choi, along with business partner chef Daniel Patterson, wants to change the perception of fast food in the country while serving an underserved population. He spoke at Recode’s Code Conference with Eater editor-at-large Helen Rosner about the future of Locol, the fast food restaurant with locations currently in Watts, Los Angeles, and West Oakland. Although his motivations are altruistic, he doesn’t sugarcoat what it takes to build a sustainable restaurant brand that actually makes money — and Locol isn’t there yet. More thoughts and commentary, plus the full video of his chat, here.

Lunch May Be Dying, But Breakfast Is Booming

Lunch got a lot of attention in the Wall Street Journal last week: according the them, the restaurant lunch is dead, but delivery is growing. Is everyone just getting takeout? (McDonald’s did just expand its UberEats delivery coverage, so…) The mounting evidence is undeniable; the way we eat as a society is changing and this shift in lunch culture is the strongest example of that change right now. But it’s hard to determine the cause-effect here. Are restaurant lunches dying because technology-enhanced delivery is growing, or is delivery growing in popularity because restaurant lunches seem antiquated? The two may not be connected that directly, according to the piece, which also cites lower grocery costs and more Americans who cook and eat at home. Throw in the pace of the typical American workday, and it’s a big surprise that the lunch industry is an industry at all, honestly. The lunch slump didn’t just happen; restaurants have been dealing with it for a while.

Breakfast, though? It is growing in the restaurant industry, according to a recent Eater piece. The same research firm that supplied the WSJ lunch-slump evidence above noted that breakfast was the only meal that has seen growth. The evidence in the article, while largely anecdotal, likely resonates with city-dwellers who have seen breakfast restaurant options increase over time. (And have embraced kale salad as a breakfast food, apparently, according to the piece. Not sure about that.)

If restaurants are seeing a slump at lunch, it makes sense to go where the money is. All-day dining is a growing industry trend; it’s not so strange to consider the breakfast-dinner restaurant the new normal.

Moving to the ‘Burbs

The last original print issue of Lucky Peach just arrived in my mailbox, and it’s focused on the suburbs and the food of the 1980s and 1990s — from fast food like Wendy’s and Burger King to Waffle House and mall food courts. (The issue dives far deeper than the suburban chains of my youth, but this is where I’ve found my own nostalgia.) Beyond the headlines about the food that was the introduction for many of us into restaurants and dining, the suburban U.S. might be the place we should now be looking for restaurant trends. According to The Brookings Institution, suburban growth has outpaced American cities for the first time in seven years.

While the lunch-breakfast data above comes from nationwide surveys, much of the anecdotal evidence we cite comes from cities; places where people gather to go to restaurants, places where delivery companies focus their energy, places where more independent restaurants dominate food culture, not chains and fast food. (This San Francisco-based newsletter under the umbrella of a New York-based company isn’t exactly an exception, either.) A small, but growing, shift in growth from cities to suburbs indicates that not all of the news is going to happen in the city and not all of the dining trends are going to come from there, either.

Whoa, Is Fast-Casual Over Now, Too?

Last week, C+T covered the changing casual dining industry as sit-down chains like Red Robin and Applebee’s work to inject technology into their operations and change the way they do business to meet the demands of the 21st-century consumer (including those millennials, it seems). Now, according to one restaurant industry consulting firm, fast-casual sales have plateaued over the last year. The research cites a few factors for the slump over time, including over-saturation. More importantly, though, could be the price point. Efficiency, automation, and speed are creeping into fast-casual (there’s a great WSJ piece about this happening at Panera) while more technology and better ingredients are totally changing the fast food industry. (McDonald’s and KFC have both recently announced initiatives to improve the quality of their food sourcing; Wendy’s has been extra vocal about its fresh-never-frozen beef.) When the lines between formerly-hyped fast-casual spots like Chipotle and Panera are blurring into the equally tech-savvy and newly sustainable ingredient-friendly fast food like McDonald’s, a lower price point is an easy way to make a decision about where to dine.

Amid All the Changes, Fast Food May Come Out on Top

So far we’ve learned casual and fast-casual growth is slowing, no one goes out for lunch anymore, and the suburbs are making a comeback. This has to be good for someone, right? Turns out, fast food has seriously changed with the times, and is poised to take advantage of technology and automation in ways that might equal big things for its future. Entrepreneur writes, “According to a McKinsey & Company analysis, 73 percent of the activities workers perform in food service have the potential for automation.” And that actually could be good news for workers, as the piece notes, since restaurants that have increased automation seem to be employing more staff, not less. Those who follow the money are into all of this technology, too, lauding mobile ordering and automated kiosks as massive improvements to the restaurant industry that could mean big money for investors.

Interestingly, the food isn’t at the center of the industry optimism here. Fast food hasn’t ever been just about the food. Sure, there are favorite items and secret menus and cult favorites (and, somehow, the Fillet-O-Fish), but fast food is predicated on convenience, and technology is an obvious extension of that.

Digestifs

  • Restaurants aren’t winning over consumers, as “intent to return” scores fall — Nation’s Restaurant News
  • Meet PieShell, the crowdfunding site for food startups — Forbes
  • Denny’s introduces mobile ordering, with Facebook messaging coming soon — Engadget
Photo Credit: Chef and entrepreneur Roy Choi wants to open Locol restaurants in underprivileged communities across the country. Courtesy of Locol