Restaurant tech readies the reset button
Record inflation and a dramatically different investing environment signal changes ahead.
About a year ago, Wendy’s said it would open 700 units in the next five years with ghost kitchen operator Reef. Now, Wendy’s says it will open 100-150 units by the end of 2025 with ghost kitchen provider Reef, most outside the US. It also plans to close some current locations. It’s indicative of the current state of restaurants and restaurant technology; restaurants are starting to notice changes in the way people are spending money, and everyone is prioritizing parts of the business that work as opposed to fast-paced growth at all costs. (I consider Reef to be a restaurant tech company given technology is what allows ghost kitchens to proliferate.)
The latest government numbers show inflation is slowing, according to better-than-expected results shared on Wednesday. The consumer price index, a measure of the average change in what people pay for things, was flat compared to June. (Economists were expecting a small but meaningful 0.2 percent increase.)
That’s cool, but prices are still up 8.5 percent over last July. People — though not necessarily the stock market, apparently — say they’re feeling the crunch. Stories from independent restaurants, commonly used as an example of inflation in communities, are everywhere. They’re trying to offer customers more value, or adding temporary “inflation surcharges” to offset costs without raising menu prices. Plenty are raising menu prices, even reluctantly. It’s happening from New York to Charlotte to small-town Texas and beyond.
Big chains see it, too.
It’s earnings season, when public companies are required to share information about how their business performed over the past three months. It’s a great occasion to hear from company leaders, who are legally obligated to share all sorts of details — though admittedly their analysis of the situation can feel callous, at times. (Remember, we’re talking about food, and, given the aforementioned statistics, the stakes are high.)
For example, Chipotle’s CEO told investors and analysts that, “The low-income consumer definitely has pulled back their purchase frequency. Fortunately, for Chipotle, that is not the majority of our customers.”
Leaders from other large corporate chains shared similar analysis: lower-income consumers are looking for value, not combos, at McDonald’s. At KFC and Taco Bell, diners are getting “more cautious.” The parent company of Applebee’s and IHOP say that more affluent guests are coming through their doors in search of value. Experts refer to this as “trading down.”
These challenges aren’t hitting big delivery companies, not yet, anyway.
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