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Wellness, well-being, and restaurant tech in 2020
Welcome to Expedite, a (mostly) weekly newsletter by Kristen Hawley covering what’s important in restaurant technology.
Good Vibes Only
I’ve taken to watching reruns of “Check Please, Bay Area” a gem of a locally-produced food and restaurant show on PBS. On the show, three local diners each suggest a restaurant, dine at each others’ choices, and go on TV and discuss them. Generally, the reviewers tend to be pretty kind, but the other day, an episode that originally aired in 2017 surprised me. It featured Cala, the much-lauded San Francisco restaurant from Mexican chef Gabriela Cámara.
One of the diners on the show that day just did. not. like. the restaurant, which is fine — though I found her criticisms a little unfair (a topic for another newsletter, probably.) But besides its food (which I personally find amazing), Cala is known for its practice of hiring former prisoners as they reenter the workforce. What really set me off was the show participant’s assertion that “just because they hire ex-cons doesn’t mean it’s a good restaurant.” That’s a paraphrase, but you get the point.
Got me thinking, though. Because, you know, I do think that a good mission makes a good restaurant, which makes a good business. I’ll take it a step further: In 2020, I want the restaurants I visit to make me feel good.
This is a technology story — new products are connecting diners to chefs and restaurants. It’s a story about the wellness trend that’s worked its way into everything from dining to vacations to home decor. It’s a story about fair labor. It’s accountability for the real criminals — like what we saw yesterday unfold in New York. (Ken Friedman on the hook for his restaurant’s profits, which he now must share with his victims. Mario Batali under investigation from the New York attorney general.)
Truthfully, I think this feel-good ethos is the undeniable driving force behind most of the change we’re seeing in the industry today and will be the theme that runs through most big changes we see this year.
On January 1, The New York Times ran a piece profiling Rhodora, a “zero-waste” restaurant in Brooklyn — that is, no trash or food scraps go to a landfill. Others around the world are doing this too. Copenhagen’s Amass operates this way, and recently its chef-owner, Matt Orlando, took to Instagram to talk about some of the challenges associated with zero waste and, specifically, the challenges associated with eliminating single-use plastics (like cling film) in his kitchen. The message is long, but ends with a reminder:
“I have not found a way that uses plastic in a cooking technique that tastes better than when cooked without using plastic. Of course, this takes a little more finesse, but isn’t that the best part about being a chef? How do I create more and better flavor? It’s a little more work as well, but it’s always worth it if we can make things more delicious while being responsible along the way.”
I’ll take this back to technology: again, in the Times, a story about everyone’s favorite salad unicorn, Sweetgreen, which has built huge business on wellness and vegetables… and the associated technology that still makes the Sweetgreen experience feel like a breath of fresh air.
“With its prescient mobile technology strategy, the company hopes to become something bigger — much, much bigger — than a boutique urban chain serving arugula to health nuts and yoga moms.”
Welcome 2020, the year of the feel-good business. *Crosses fingers*
What else is happening?
Free stuff — lots of it. DoorDash announced a partnership with Chase that gives many of its credit card holders free DashPass subscriptions (that’s DoorDash’s subscription service; restaurants can opt in to participate.) Earlier this week, Burger King treated Bronx residents to a free Whopper delivered via Uber Eats for “putting up with the Joker meme tourists.” Ok.
Olo is rumored to be filing for its initial public offering this year at a $1 billion valuation. The average consumer may not know Olo, but they’ve probably used it — the company provides software to enable customers to place online orders directly with restaurants. It’s been around since 2005 — yes, that’s even before the iPhone.
Restaurant website service BentoBox released its 2019 Year in Review. A couple tidbits of interest: 65 percent of restaurant website visitors are using a mobile device, and the peak time for visits is between 5:30 and 6pm. (The report has much more on consumer behavior. Worth a quick click.)
In the UK, officials are looking into an Amazon investment into Deliveroo. The Competitions and Market Authority will investigate, saying that the investment may be anti-competitive.
Restaurant criticism in the spotlight. A Los Angeles Review of Books piece posited that restaurant criticism is having a midlife crisis. Many people had thoughts. Pete Wells of The New York Times says the problem is actually with local food reporting. I’m just spitballling here, but I’d say the problem probably stems from support of local food reporting and journalism. It all comes down to the mighty ad dollar. (Can we get some of those aforementioned feel-good vibes over here please?)
Expedite is produced by Kristen Hawley, a San Francisco-based journalist with over six years of experience covering the restaurant technology industry. Previous iterations of this content were available via Chefs+Tech and Skift Table. Thanks for reading.
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