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The Future of Restaurants

The Future of Restaurants

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With trends being stacked on trends, printed food, chefs trading kitchens — sometimes it seems as though the restaurant world is already squarely set in a future where robot servers and Willy Wonka's three-course meal gum became a reality a long time ago. So where's it all heading? What's next? That's what Food & Wine editor in chief Dana Cowin posed at Panel Discussion: The Future of Restaurants Part of Local presented by The Corcoran Group to Mario Batali, Tom Colicchio, and Magnus Nilsson (of Sweden's Fäviken Megasinet) during the Food Network New York City Wine & Food Festival.

So what is next? Hong Kong, Mission Chinese, locavorism, organics all got several mentions, so too the state of fine dining, and chefs with research teams, but there was less in the way of tightly summarized formal conclusions, and more in the way of free-form conversation. From the sound things, restaurants are going to have to do some pretty crazy things to jump the shark when there are already examples of spots doing whiskey programs, craftbrewing, foraging, pop-ups all at the same time... with T-shirts designed by a skateboarder. "Is there dinner involved in this situation?" quipped Batali at one point. "Everything I've heard so far doesn't sound like anything I'd want to eat."

A few things were definitely clear. One, Mario Batali capacity for zingers and showmanship is unquestionable ("You know what I tell my vegetarian customers? That pig was a vegetarian.") Two, you really have to feel for Tom Colicchio for having lost his restaurant idea notebook after filming in Seattle. Highlights follow.

Colicchio on Über-trendy Restaurants "The problem is that sounds like boxes to check off on a press release."

Batali on the Customer Restaurant Experience "Take away the fluff around it, and what is it? It’s a transaction. People give you money. They expect pleasure back."

What the "American Restaurant" Means and If It's Exportable "You could go to France and open up a place called Frenchy’s and really kick a**," said Batali. "It's the business sense of America that slips by them in these other cultures." And from Colicchio: "Making things your own, that’s the American sensibility. Whether you can export that, I don’t know."

On Four-Start Dining "Just because it isn't the most interesting thing now doesn’t mean things from 10 years ago aren’t interesting," said Nilsson. "There will always be a need for fine dining. The hope is for other chefs to focus on what they love and less on what other people do." From Batali: "Fine dining represents a standard of luxury. it doesn’t have to mean that you’re uncoformtable. Some places sell it to be more significant than the diner. In those situations I become a little more ribald and a little more loud. We should make the guest more significant than the chef and the food. The chef can play in our game, but not be the most important thing in our dinner." Colicchio: "Clearly what’s happened is that the demographic has changed. Younger people are going out to eat and they don’t want to eat in their fathers’ restaurants. Montrachet and Gotham opened downtown 30 years ago and had three stars... that was undeard of. You had to have an uptown address. And things have changed even further. A Ssäm bar would never have gotten three stars 30 years ago. Things have changed, and partly because chefs are creating environments where they want their food."

Colicchio on Dress Codes and Music in Restaurants "I still believe there are customers out there who just want to wear jeans and a T-shirt... who want to hear the music they grew up with, and not hear Sinatra crooning or jazz... and look if people complained about the music, he [Mario] probably wouldn’t play it."

Batali on Increased Cost of Fine Dining "And it's still not very profitable. Del Posto is our least profitable restaurant. It's still a leap of faith."

Batali on What Chefs Want "Chefs want to make delicious food and present it in an environment where people will enjoy it. Chefs fundamentally are generous and want people to enjoy their experience."

On Good Cities for Bouncing Around to Restaurants
Nilsson: "Here is good."
Batali: "Bologna. Hong Kong. I was there on Tuesday. It's very much like New York. There's a decidedly modern Chinese food, but my favorite situation is to be served outside at the plastic tables on plastic tablecloths, where you see what’s being made. You drink large bottles of beer — they have no good wine so you'll be drinking lots of beer — and experiencing a meal is more about product than technique. They just assume the technique is there. Hong Kong is exploding. They do a variation on yakitori, but it will just be the chicken hearts, the inner thigh or the chicken heart. A whole section. Yardbird it’s called."

On Travel and Eating Out
Colicchio: "I haven’t really gone out or traveled in the last four to five years."
Batali: "How about Seattle? You didn't eat out while you were filming there for six months?"
Colicchio: "It wasn't six months it was four weeks... I don’t get out much at all. I got out just recently, but it was the first time I’ve been to a restaurant since June."
Batali: "That’s f*cked up, Tom."

Nilsson on Whether He Has a Research Team "No. That’s me."

Colicchio on Process "When I open a new restaurant I don’t go out. I don’t want to be influenced. I want it to just come from here. It’s impossible not to take a little bit of things from things you’ve seen."

On Losing His Idea Notebook
Colicchio: "Idiot me, everytime I open a restaurant I buy a book, and in June or July when we were in Seattle, working on dishes on way back home I left that book on the plane. It was devastating. We tried to get it back, and couldn’t get it back."
Batali: "That's OK. To lose all that and have to redo it is fun."

Batali on Criticizing Other Restaurants "When you start out, you go to restaurants, you say, 'I wouldn't do things this way, I'd do that differently.' But you realize at a certain point that you're doing this because of a lack of confidence in what you're doing. And you come to a point where you ask yourself if you came to destroy the restaurant or to have a good time and relax with your friends. That’s when you get to enjoy yourself. It’s lack of confidence to take a restaurant apart. That’s a young person’s game."

The Restaurant of the Future

The National Restaurant Association, in partnership with American Express and Nestlé Professional, released its 10-year outlook report on the projected state of the restaurant industry in 2030. The report, "Restaurant Industry 2030: Actionable Insights for the Future," examines key indicators shaping the future of the industry, identifies the most and least likely developments over the upcoming decade, and considers possible disrupters outside the industry that could transform it. The findings are based on input from a variety of restaurant sector experts, futurists, and government statistics.

The restaurant industry is at a crossroads as it finds ways to respond to consumer demand for meal and snack solutions away from home,

Key economic projections for 2030 include:

  • Restaurant industry sales are expected to reach $1.2 trillion by 2030.
  • The industry workforce will likely exceed 17 million by 2030.
  • Total U.S. employment is projected to increase at an annual rate of 0.5% during the next decade.
  • Total U.S. employment is expected to increase 8.5% between 2018 and 2030.

"The restaurant industry is at a crossroads as it finds ways to respond to consumer demand for meal and snack solutions away from home," said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the Research and Knowledge Group for the National Restaurant Association. "Restaurant owners are swiftly adapting across their businesses to meet the wants and needs of guests. The radical transformation of the last decade will change the way the industry operates going forward. It's exciting to ponder how the industry will grow and transform over the next 10 years, and consider how the Association can best support the industry in capitalizing on these opportunities."

The Definition of "Restaurant" Will Change as Cff-Premises Continues to Drive Industry Growth

Over the next decade, technology and data will become a greater focus for restaurants as they adapt to growing consumer expectations in the on-demand world. Guests will expect a seamless digital experience and want their preferences known at each interaction with a restaurant. As off-premises traffic and sales continue to accelerate, consumers will place a heightened importance on experiential dining for on-premises occasions. Areas to watch include:

A greater proportion of meals will no longer be cooked at home, lending to the continued rise in delivery, virtual restaurants, subscription services, and grab-and-go at retail locations.

With slower labor-force growth, restaurants will continue to compete against other industries for talent, making recruitment and retention vital to success in the coming decade.

  • Consumers may grow increasingly loyal to third-party delivery apps, impacting loyalty to individual restaurants.
  • Governments are likely to impose further regulation on third-party delivery.
  • Drive-thrus could need to accommodate interactions with self-driving vehicles.
  • The restaurant of the future will be smaller in size. Smaller restaurants could incorporate more automated kitchen equipment and the typical kitchen layout may change.
Nutrition and Sustainability Will Drive Menus

Sustainable sourcing and transparency will continue to grow in focus for consumers over the next decade. In order to remain competitive, restaurants will need to adapt to evolving dietary restrictions and consumer preferences. Food trends and menus will naturally evolve to reflect the increasingly health-conscious, ecological mindset of the consumer. Areas to watch include:

  • Single-use restaurant packaging, including in delivery, will evolve.
  • Artificial intelligence with knowledge of cooking techniques, food chemistry, recipes, and alcohol could produce unexpected new culinary and beverage experiences.
  • Advanced genetic knowledge and the rising incidence of lifestyle diseases are likely to create growing demand for meals that provide specific health benefits to diners.
The Restaurant Workforce is Changing

Population growth at an expected annual rate of 0.7 percent between 2018 and 2030, accompanied by changing demographics in the next decade, are expected to lead to an average labor growth rate of 0.5% annually between 2018 and 2028. With slower labor-force growth, restaurants will continue to compete against other industries for talent, making recruitment and retention vital to success in the coming decade.

Artificial intelligence with knowledge of cooking techniques, food chemistry, recipes, and alcohol could produce unexpected new culinary and beverage experiences.

Restaurant employers will adopt career-focused mentalities as operators enhance retention by offering benefits and long-term career paths to success. Key statistics and areas to watch include:

  • The number of adults in the labor force 65 and older is expected to reach a record high of 16.1 million by 2028.
  • The number of teenagers in the labor force is expected to decline to 5.1 million by 2028, its lowest level in 65 years.
  • Operators will automate more routine back-of-house tasks to enhance productivity and efficiency.

"Deconstructing possible trends and innovations of the next decade will help both large and small-business owners in the restaurant industry anticipate their greatest challenges," said Riehle. "With these actionable insights for the future, restaurants will remain an integral part of the economy and a cornerstone of every community across this nation."

Download the full Restaurant Industry 2030 report at

Make classic Luby's recipes at home

A Luby’s worker brings out fresh trays of main course dishes foir lunchtime customers at a San Antonio Luby’s. Last week the Texas cafeteria chain announced it was putting its business and assets up for sale in an effort to pay off $35 million of debt.


Meatloaf is one of the popular dishes at Luby's restaurants. The recipe is included in the "Luby's: Recipes and Memories" cookbook.

Luby's, 730 FM 1960, is shown Friday, Dec. 28, 2018, in Houston. This section of FM1960 is also named Cypress Creek Parkway.

Melissa Phillip, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer Show More Show Less

Baked Fish Almondine from Luby’s.

Luby's Restaurants Limited Show More Show Less

Luby's macaroni and cheese.

Courtesy photo / Courtesy photo Show More Show Less

Recipes for many of Luby's best loved dishes are included in the "Luby's: Recipes and Memories" cookbook.

The recipe for Luby's carrot and raisin salad could not be easier.

Luby&rsquos, the cafeteria restaurant that is a beloved Texas institution, has been hit by the changing ways America eats and the downturn in restaurant business during the coronavirus pandemic.

The struggling chain recently announced it was putting its business and assets up for sale in an effort to pay off $35 million of debt.

Though the company said it would keep some of its restaurants open while it seeks a buyer, the announcement threw into question the future of the brand that was founded in San Antonio in 1947.

The news undoubtedly left Luby&rsquos fans both saddened and sentimental for LuAnn platters built on the restaurant&rsquos fried fish, roast chicken, chicken-fried steak or grilled liver and onions. Luby&rsquos roster of comfort-food dishes includes classics such as meatloaf, pot pie, pork chops, macaroni and cheese, carrot and raisin salad, and ice box pies.

Over the years, the Houston Chronicle&rsquos food section has printed Luby&rsquos recipes, most of which were included in the Luby&rsquos cookbook, &ldquoLuby&rsquos Recipes & Memories: A Collection of Our Favorite Dishes and Heartwarming Stories.&rdquo

What the Restaurant of the Future Will Look Like After COVID-19

The restaurant of the future will be quite different. As restaurant brands evaluate their post COVID-19 strategies, they will be forced to adjust, on the fly, and try to satisfy new consumer expectations while driving as much revenue as they can. How will they do this? What will restaurants look like?

There is no common blueprint available for the restaurant of the future. Footprints and designs will vary by concept. Many concepts are simply set up to be congested in order to maximize revenue. This made total sense with costly rents and the high cost of build-out. Not only that, consumers in the pre-COVID world embraced restaurants as a place to hang out, to work, and to socialize. That also may change.

Now, with social distancing and a general fear of infection, we will see significant behavioral changes from consumers. And operators will be adapting to a safety-first mantra. We can expect to see significant adjustments to dine-in floor plans, the addition of no-touch ordering and payment systems, queuing, new takeout options, menu simplification, SKU reduction, labor productivity, and so much more.


But, if you had a blank slate, and could design the restaurant of the future, what would it look like? Many operators, especially larger brands, have begun to think about this. The footprint will be quite different depending on the segment, menu, location, and customer base. Using insights, experience, previous predictions as well as some “forward thinking,” we have designed what could be the restaurant of the future.

Here are 15 components that we see as crucial to the “Restaurant of the Future.”

Hands Free Everything. The safety of employees and customers will be paramount to success. “Hands free” will include doors, hand washing, toilet flushing, lights, trash receptacles, condiments, fountain beverages, menu ordering, and much more. Providing no-touch solutions will be essential for the restaurant of the future. Consumers will expect it and even demand it.

Frictionless Ordering and Payment (Dine-in & Off Premises). Frictionless ordering and payment has many great advantages for the consumer and the operator. Yes, the consumer is doing all the work, which is a good thing for operators as it reduces labor and streamlines the operation. But they are also avoiding touch points, putting in the order that they want without any time pressure or worrying about errors, and their paying for it by credit card in advance. The operator simply must get the order right when they make it.

We have already seen the growth of pre-ordered curbside pickup, but there is also the potential of making drive-thrus strictly pickup and eliminating cashiers. Overall, efficiencies for the operator and the consumer will be dramatic.

Flexible Seating and Portable Barriers to Accommodate Social Distancing. Squeezing patrons into a restaurant will not be part of the new normal. We have already seen some states allowing only 25 percent of the previous dine-in capacity as restrictions ease. Although this is may be short-term mandates, we expect that using space creatively to maintain distance and maximize seating will be top of mind going forward. For instance, a community table meant to seat people together will still exist, but dividers will be installed to separate groups as needed. In addition, booths and banquettes will move to flexible tables and chairs that could create mini areas for friends and families to congregate. Outside seating, wherever possible, will become part of the standard “floor plan.”

Handwashing Stations. Hands-free handwashing stations for customers will become part of the norm of any restaurant. That along with sanitizer areas, will send a clear message to the customer that the restaurant truly cares about their safety. Running out of soap or sanitizer will be a clear message that you do not care. An employee will have to be responsible throughout the day for “sanitation maintenance” in the restaurant

Menu Simplification with Ready-to-Innovate Ingredients. The 80/20 rule has applied to most restaurant menus, but we have continued to expand menus and bring in ingredients that take up space and are used infrequently. During the COVID-19 pandemic, operators have been forced to shrink their menus and have stuck with their best-selling items, which in many cases, has been the comfort foods that their customers crave. Operators will continue to be innovative and build points of differentiation, but they also need to keep an eye on simplicity. Producing fresh guacamole in an Italian casual-dining concept will not be feasible or prudent in the future. Menu and SKU simplification will make it easier for the consumer to order, easier for the operator to place and receive orders, easier to execute at the restaurant, and will provide the opportunity to shrink the restaurant footprint.

Cross Functional Staff. Segmentation of staff throughout the restaurant will be changing. Some positions will remain specialized, but most will require the need for multiple competencies. Imagine a fast-casual restaurant with double drive-thru pickup, curbside pickup, and limited dine in. Multi-faceted team members pass food through a window, bring food out to curbside or deliver pre-ordered items to a table. Kitchen staff will also need to be multifaceted in their responsibilities. This also simplifies training and scheduling which has a direct impact on efficiency and profitability.

Flexible Kitchens. Kitchens will become more compact and highly productive. They will be designed to be modular so that expenses are kept to a minimum when doing a significant menu change. With added dayparts and off-site options, operators will be servicing customers through-out the day without the volume of “mad rushes” we have come to know in the past. Off-site sales will be a larger percentage of the business and may require a separate kitchen. In some cases, two identical production lines will exist where there is flexibility to close one during slower periods. We see this happening in new double drive-thru operations.

Remote Storage. Part of the path to greater profitability in the future will be to reduce the size of the footprint in “A” locations. To do this something has to go. Moving dry storage to a remote storage facility to service multiple restaurants in a single market, at a less costly rent location, can accomplish this.

Voice Activated. We will begin to see more voice activated everything as we continue to eliminate no-touch. In the kitchen, equipment such as microwaves will be using voice commands. For consumers, ordering, payment, communication with servers, fountain beverages and condiments may convert to voice activated. In the restaurant of the future, touch screens will become “no-touch-screens”.

More Dayparts and Off-Premises Options with Curbside Pickup. The post-COVID consumer will be looking to eat at times during the day that provide a sense of comfort and safety and that may mean eating more at off peak times. Many of those times will be “fringe” periods. Instead of having a lunch rush from 12-1, we may see more people eating lunch at 11 or 2. Afternoon and early dinners will become more popular and takeout, curbside, and delivery make this more convenient. The restaurant of the future must be designed to be flexible and be prepared to service guests throughout the day.

Double Drive Thrus and Order/Pickup Areas. Where dine-in was the norm and takeout orders were set up on make-shift racks in the restaurant, the restaurant of the future will be designed for maximum flexibility. Consumers will now need a parking spot to place and pay for their orders on their apps. They can’t be expected to do this before arriving at the restaurant anymore. They will then wait for their order to be delivered to their car or join the drive-through line when they are texted the order is ready.

Drive-thru lines will be for pick-up only. No ordering at a window, no credit cards, no cash. There will need to be clear signage and identification for the customer as they will be doing a lot of the work. The operator simply needs to execute.

Friends and Family. Customers will want to gather in groups but will be more cautious. Restaurants will need to provide multiple options for this to take place. Creative approaches for dine-in including private reserved areas, cooking demos and specialty dinners, and tastings as well as other interactive events. A new approach to supporting friends and family at home will also become important. Those groups that want restaurant quality food, but not at the restaurant will rely on the restaurant’s guidance to have a stress-free gathering at home. That means a meal kit picked up at curbside with a video or recipes and a phone number of someone who can help guide them if they get stuck.

Air Quality Systems & Technology. Most restaurants circulate hot and cold air through ductwork. Installing an air purification system will reduce airborne and surface contaminants which will control bacteria, viruses, and pollutants. Monitors can be installed in the restaurant to track key air quality parameters that most affect the comfort and health of your customers. And these systems must be promoted to the customer as knowing they are there will have a dramatically positive impact on the customer experience.

Sanitization and Directional Signage. The expectations of the guest regarding sanitization will start well before they enter, pick-up or have their order delivered. There can be no “bad days” when it comes to how a parking lot, windows, restrooms or overall restaurant looks and feels. Clean will be assumed, and sanitary will be required. Customer will have a very low tolerance for overt signs of uncleanliness. Employees will need to look (masks and gloves) and act appropriately and sanitization practices including periodic disinfectant fogging will become the norm. Where we had sanitizer “around” because we were supposed to, we will now need to have clear signage identifying locations of hand washing and sanitizer stations.

Brand Ambassadors. Customers will be relying on more than just managers for answers on the many things that will drive a great experience. All employees will need to be trained to service the guest, but we see a new role—the brand ambassador. Brand ambassadors will be like the hotel concierge of the restaurant. They are personable, greeting people and answering questions and promoting additional revenue ideas. They can also do double duty and be the sanitization monitor for the restaurant and ensure standards are being maintained. This role may start as a cost but ultimately can become a revenue producer.

The Restaurant of the Future is coming soon. There is a strong desire among consumers to get back out to restaurants and to be with friends and family again, but this will be done slowly and with caution for the foreseeable future. Our collective COVID experiences are changing our expectations and behaviors. We already see how this has changed restaurants. The restaurant of the future will need to be different and designed to address both the consumer and operator needs of the new environment. The restaurant of the future will be innovative and exciting. We look forward to seeing how the creativity of our industry adapts to the new normal.

Tim Hand and Bruce Reinstein are partners with Kinetic12 Consulting, a Chicago-based Foodservice and general management consulting firm. The firm guides multiple best practice projects and forums, and works with leading Foodservice suppliers, operators and associations on strategic initiatives. Their previous leadership roles in restaurant chain operations and at Foodservice manufacturers provide a balanced industry perspective. Contact us to talk: [email protected], or [email protected]

The Restaurant of the Future 2.0: Off-Premises, Simplification, and the Evolution of Dine-In

Operators can win with a more efficient model that provides consumers with options not available pre-COVID-19.

In our first article, Kinetic12 identified what the “Restaurant of the Future” might look like and reviewed 15 components that we identified as crucial to success moving forward. We now all understand that post-COVID has minimal clarity and the adjustments that have been made to existing restaurants have been, in many cases, defensive but have also allowed sales to improve.

While we have seen some great positive impacts, we have also seen the COVID situation continue. COVID is fluid and it is not going away anytime soon. Some behaviors for consumers have permanently changed while others are in a state of flux. What we do know is that consumers want to eat at restaurants, socialize with their friends and families and want to move on to whatever the “new normal” will be. There are components of the Restaurant of the Future that will need to be standard and others that will be differentiators. There will also be some that will challenge your imagination.

Operators need to adapt now so that in their future they can exceed customer expectations, drive projected revenue, and keep costs in line.

We have taken our original Restaurant of the Future diagram and made some new adaptations. These predictions continue to evolve from our experience, insights and “forward thinking” view. There is, no right or wrong and there are only ideas for everyone to use to conceptualize what their Restaurant of Future will be, both short and long-term.

The Menu of the Future

The menu of the future will need to follow the new behaviors that consumers have adopted during COVID. Restaurant patrons want what “they” want—NOT what the restaurant wants to sell them. Bloated menus that try to be everything to everyone will not be successful moving forward.

If you cannot execute a menu item, do not sell it. If it does not travel well, do not offer it.

Restaurants need to understand what their “go-to” items are. Those are the perceived comfort food items that their customers are craving. Doing variations of those items is a great way to innovate and expand your menu. Family meals and bundles are a natural adjunct to promoting these “go to” items.

You May Not Have All the Answers

No doubt running a successful restaurant or supplier business was complicated before COVID. You do not have to have all the answers. It starts with an open mind and the willingness to listen to others who have ideas that can support industry leaders with the tweaks necessary to be successful in the evolving new normal. Collaboration and seeking help from trusted partners and suppliers makes good business sense.


Contact Kinetic12 to learn more about our Restaurant of the Future Scorecard which quickly highlight the areas in your business that Must Change, Should Change and Can Wait.


Here are 10 key Focus Areas of our updated Restaurant of the Future:


The Restaurant of the Future will require flexibility within the whole footprint of the space. Things will change over the course of the life of the restaurant and operators will need to be prepared for that.

Flexible Kitchens. Kitchens, in the future, will be designed to execute a quality, properly sized menu that is innovative and can be serviced by most employees in the restaurant. Totally scratch cooking will become more focused on RTI (ready to innovate) ingredients that are quality, scratch starters that turn into fabulous, flexible recipes. Kitchens will be modular which will allow for stations to close during certain dayparts as well as be totally replaced (i.e., burritos to stir fry) as necessary with the cost of the change primarily being in the equipment.

Flexible Seating. Social distancing will continue to remain a factor and operators will want to maximize the capacity of their dining rooms. Flexible barriers made of a material, similar to movie screens, that can adjust up or down as needed can take a table of eight down to four 2’s or any combination. Safety for the customer will be accomplished and maximizing revenue for the operator will as well.

Flexible Everything. Before anything is bolted to the floor, the operator must be confident that no changes will “ever” happen. It is essential to build for today but be ready for tomorrow. If you are nimble and can adjust and will avoid the down time that many operators faced when COVID started.

Off-Premises and Portability

Off-premises will continue to grow as a percentage of overall sales. Operators should embrace this change and not fight it. For many restaurants, off-premises became a defensive posture to generate any revenue they could. What they learned is that their consumers have embraced this as an option. It is not meant to replace dine-in, but instead provide quality options to increase frequency. Off-premises has evolved from take-out to a plethora of options to fit each consumer’s specific desires. The Restaurant of the Future will have more than one of these off-premise option:

  • Curbside pick-up
  • Curbside delivery to outside tables
  • Drive-Through pick-up
  • Walk-up pick-up
  • Delivery

To execute off-premises effectively, the menu items will need to be portable, which combines the right food and the right packaging. Serving below standards food for off-premises dining is a stop gap and ultimately only those who flawlessly execute will be able to maintain and grow this business. The size of the off-premises menu should be sufficient to satisfy customer’s cravings, but at the same time be simple enough to execute flawlessly.

Hands Free/Frictionless

Consumers, operators and suppliers are all pivoting and will continue to pivot as the “new normal” evolves. It starts with the customer having the options to get what they want, when they want it without concern for their safety. Self-serve anything may be a concern for the consumer and touchless everything will result in some added costs for the operator, but better efficiencies will reduce costs. Touchless self-serve beverages, condiments, doors, trash, ordering/payment, and much more are here and evolving. The restaurant of the future will require this. Manufacturer partners will be working hard to support this new “touchless” phenomenon if they want to be part of the solution.

The Restaurant of the Future will require technology to make the customer experience safer, faster, and more efficient. The Restaurant of the Future will not have anyone taking orders or payment. The customer will have options to choose what they want, when they want it and then how to pay for it.

APP and Website Improvement. Setting up your APP or website with the ability for customers to order and pay from home or anywhere else provides convenience, speed and efficiency and higher average checks for the operator.

3D Cameras added to Kiosks. Touchscreen kiosks will become no-touch kiosks by adding facial recognition enabled by 3D cameras.

Kiosks with QR Codes and/or NFC chips. Another possible option for frictionless ordering and payment is to add QR codes or chips to download menus with no touch.

Voice Activation. The Restaurant of the Future will use voice activation for placing and paying for orders as well as controlling kitchen equipment.


There will be no value in complexity in the Restaurant of the Future. Setting up systems, menus and processes that are simplified is the foundation moving forward. Differentiating will be crucial to success and keeping it simple and continuing to innovate will be the key to being different.

Simplification. Trying to be everything to everybody is a recipe for failure. Menu development for instance may be driven by defensive moves triggered by competition. Keeping menus simple will result in SKU reduction and from that less ordering, storage, production, waste, and most important, less mediocre menu items going to your guests. The Restaurant of the Future requires efficiencies to maximize sales and keep costs in line.

Differentiation. Why does a customer come to a given restaurant or brand? Once that is understood everything else will fall in line. Taking emotion out of decisions and focusing on the customer increases the potential of success exponentially. The idea of being better has no merit and is strictly personal. Differentiation defines a brand and it may be the small details that a customer identifies with.

Innovation. Great operators and suppliers innovate, but innovation does not have to be complex. It starts with variations on what your customers view as your “go to” products. Collaboration between partners will drive greater innovation with bold products being incorporated into multiple menu items.

Below is Section 2 of the Restaurant of the Future (Contact Kinetic12 for Section 1):

Community and Events

We see the future of in-house dining as still unclear but we predict the Restaurant of the Future will have limited indoor seating. On the other hand, outdoor seating has been more successful. We see great potential to drive greater visit frequency and significant revenue by creating an outside seating experience which includes a small stage showing movies, individual entertainer, culinary presentation and more. Seating will be flexible tables that can seat a table of six or multiples of two. You can order and pay at the table with the table number acknowledged. Orders are brought out to the tables via “curbside seating.” Touchless trash, handwash/sanitizer stations and more will focus on safety and sanitation. Heaters and misters will make this area usable most of the year.

Staffing and Roles

Doing more with less will be the mantra of the Restaurant of the Future. There cannot be excess staff and the team will need to be cross-trained to be able to execute with precision and efficiency. A great team member will be rewarded based upon station certifications and their level of productivity and adherence to brand culture. With the elimination of order taking and payment, the operation becomes simpler. The layout of the restaurant will allow for opening and closing of stations based upon levels of business. A brand ambassador can be appointed for each shift to communicate with guests and staff, make sure that safety and sanitation are in play and fill in anywhere that there is a bottleneck. They will be certified in each station.

Safety and Sanitation

Safety and Sanitation will need to come first if a restaurant is to be successful. The consumer will dictate it and it will become a key element in their choice of a restaurant regardless of the quality of the food and service. Handwashing/sanitizer stations will be easily accessible for both customers and employees. Keeping everything touchless will limit the possibility of safety issues. Getting lax on safety and sanitation will have a tremendous negative impact. Processes and procedures including a cultural component will be required. Using proper chemicals and disinfecting regularly is paramount. Telling the story of safety and sanitation will also be an important element of an operator’s success.

Addition of Technology. There is now technology to monitor hand washing of employees as well as other cleaning processes to ensure that compliance is being met.

Air Purification. Pre-construction solutions can help negate issues.

3D Camera Technology. This technology can reduce the number of items and surfaces customers must touch. Other customers are the ones who create the biggest issues and trust in the operator is dictated by seeing issues and fixing them.

Maximizing Space/The Footprint of the Future

Delivery only “ghost kitchens” are hot right now. We believe that the Restaurant of Future will be multi-faceted and can be the size of a ghost kitchen but offer flexible options that will allow the customer to have more of a say in the process. Not everyone wants delivery and in fact, many have become accustomed to curbside where they can get restaurant quality food that is safe and picked up at a specific time. Footprints will allow for total flexibility based upon the location which could include some outside seating and limited entertainment and bar business.

New Ways to Drive Revenue/P&L Management

Revenue opportunities for operators continue to evolve. Where it used to be dine-in or take-out, there is a whole new world to drive sales, but it requires forward thinking and avoiding going back to “what was.” Optimization of the physical space and cross-functional staff throughout the day will produce the greatest rewards. Off-premises is here to stay, but there are twists to make off-premise more inviting. Curbside delivery to outside tables is a great option. Imagine a seating area where there is a movie, culinary presentation or musician entertaining your guests and they sit at a picnic table with barriers and they place and pay for their order and have it delivered to your table number. Frictionless dining outside with entertainment and a limited bar menu along with hands free amenities. There is a lot of potential in the Restaurant of the Future.

The Restaurant of the Future is evolving

Consumers want to go out and are looking for ways to socialize. Restaurants remain their best option, but their behaviors have changed, and operators must adjust their operations to reflect these new habits. There is so much opportunity to be creative and develop more customer loyalty.

Safety and sanitation will remain at the forefront, but a new and exciting guest experience can be generated and should be part of the “new normal.”

The Restaurant of the Future will be exciting. It will be more efficient and will provide consumers with options that were not available to them pre-COVID. Different is better than better and the Foodservice industry needs to embrace what is next.

WHAT NEXT: Restaurant of the Future 2.0 Scorecarding

What to do next? Suppliers and operators must prepare for the future today by understanding how the industry is evolving and immediately make changes to their business models. Kinetic12 has built a scorecard for assessing and understanding the Restaurant of the Future and can help by guiding your management team through an assessment to identify where to start. We will identify those areas in your business that Must Change, Should Change and Can Wait.

It’s time to pivot and focus on the opportunities represented by the Restaurant of the Future.

Bruce Reinstein and Tim Hand are partners with Kinetic12 Consulting, a Chicago-based Foodservice and general management consulting firm. The firm works with leading Foodservice suppliers, operators and organizations on customized strategic initiatives as well as guiding multiple collaborative forums and best practice projects. Their previous leadership roles in restaurant chain operations and at Foodservice manufacturers provide a balanced industry perspective. Contact us to talk or learn more about the PIVOT PLAYBOOK and the 85-page comprehensive insight and solution report on the impact that COVID is having on our industry. [email protected], or [email protected]

1. Meal Kits From Chefs

A year ago, meal kits had been left in the dust as consumers tired of strict subscription models, packaging waste and the amount of actual kitchen labor they required. Then the pandemic sent everyone back to the kitchen, and meal kits once again seemed like a good idea — so good that chefs got into the game. Diners, hungry for a taste of their favorite restaurants and willing to do what they could to keep them in business, made them a hit. These new kits range from a $475 roast-duck package (from Eleven Madison Park in New York) and a $159 mail-order goat shoulder for six (from Stephanie Izard of Girl & the Goat in Chicago) to less expensive options like the $21 double-stack burger for two (from H&F Burger in Atlanta) and a plethora of taco kits from Los Angeles. Can restaurant-meal subscription services be far behind?

Chapter 5: Takeout is Here to Stay

Historically, restaurants have operated with slim margins. Even the most successful ones often don't make enough to save money for tough times. Now, with capacity restrictions, and no bar seating for the foreseeable future, restaurants may have to offer more than just dine-in service in order to survive.

Rene Redzepi is almost universally considered one of the world's great chefs. His restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen has reached number one in the world rankings four times. During a recent interview on the podcast Take Away Only, Redzepi made it clear restaurants need to find alternate revenue stream in order to ensure financial stability.

"His comment was really smart," said Erickson. "He was asked if he needed to open Noma Ferment or Noma Pizza, and he was like 'I should've opened it five years ago'. I think that's a really true statement. We've all seen how fragile restaurants are and we have not had an infrastructure that allowed us to save money for s***** times. We need that."

When Noma did re-open recently, it did so, at least temporarily, as an outdoor burger joint and wine bar. Closer to home in Seattle, Canlis' Drive-Thru turned out some thousand burgers a day before the restaurant transitioned to its ultra-popular family meal delivery. Even when Canlis can welcome diners inside again, their delivery service will likely continue.

"I think that there are some lessons learned from this time and I think there&rsquos some elements of what we&rsquore doing that we&rsquoll continue to do," said Canlis chef Brady Williams. "People want an enriched home experience and they feel safe in their homes so I can see takeout and delivery continuing to be a portion of what we do, especially as you&rsquore not allowed to gather in larger groups anymore so a whole portion of our restaurant, private dining, is going to be affected by that."

"Private parties of 70 just ain&rsquot going to be the thing when we turn the economy back on so we&rsquore going to have to think creatively," said Canlis. "I think that&rsquos what&rsquos cool about this season, actually. Everything is up for renegotiation."

A number of chefs I talked to admitted they fought against offering takeout in the past. Why? Making food that actually tastes good after sitting in a cardboard box is a real challenge.

"The best that food is going to get is immediately when you turn the heat off on that sauce pan," said Clevenger. "That's as good as it's going to get. Every minute after that, it's what we say dying. It's getting worse and worse."

Clevenger is the chef and owner of General Harvest Restaurants. He believes the new reality for his restaurant group will focus heavily on takeout.

"I'll admit it, I've never been great about to-go stuff. I've always fought it. I didn't think it traveled well. I hated the idea of it in a microwave, eating leftovers. Blah, blah, blah," he said. "Ultimately, if that's what the guest wants, to eat something at home, who am I to tell them no? That's really unfair. So what do I need to do? I need to come up to that challenge and say, 'they want food to-go, I'm going to give them the best freaking experience they've had'. If you take that approach you'll be fine. It's not about reinventing who you are. It's about understanding what the guest wants and that changes."

While takeout is one option to generate additional revenue, it's certainly not the only one. Tarsan I Jane went from offering 20-plus course tasting menus to experiential dining at home.

"We decided to do these takeaway experiences. We're calling it the Foolproof Paella Meal Kit," said Alia. "We foresee doing this for some time because we think there is always going to be that need for something cool at home."

At least in the immediate future, 'going out' won't be the normal - it will be seen as a special night out, a much bigger deal than it used to.

"I do think longterm, as people tend to work more permanently from home, that experiential dining will be the normal," said Douglas. "We already saw it at Hot Stove Society where we couldn't keep up with the demand of people wanting to get together and gather as a group and share an experience that was work-related, yet still a ball and team building."

At Ballard's addo, chef and owner Eric Rivera is known for his dining experiences, elaborate multi-course menus, often with fun, crowd-pleasing themes. Now, he provides guests with. whatever they need.

"You have to create channels within your business in order for [guests] to buy from you multiple times," he said. "You essentially have to be something from the bottom end, a convenience store, a grocery store, a restaurant and then the delivery aspect and plus, plus, plus. We have some guests who like a little bit of luxury. We have a lot more that are in the middle range, but we also have people who are very conscious or are on a fixed income now with unemployment or whatever else. So I'm very conscious of that too. I can't sell them a $65 thing, I have to sell them a $9-$10 thing and be very competitive in what they're willing to spend for lunch or dinner. I don't necessarily want to do all the things we're doing right now because it's very expansive, but if we're getting the sales it's our job to execute and give that to the guest because that's what they want. So, it's a very different mentality of hospitality."

It's time to take care of small businesses — not just big businesses

Although the Restaurant Act is part of a hot political controversy — as Congress and the president play the blame game on why they can't reach a deal on coronavirus relief legislation — Zimmern said he actually got involved in this cause months ago, in March, when he and a few dozen other restaurateurs realized how perilous things looked for their industry due to pandemic lockdowns and restrictions. "The idea was we wanted to have a group that solely focused on policy change and lawmaking on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., sufficient to assist the most important group of businesses in America that is traditionally overlooked any time we have a recession or a catastrophe — natural, man-made, doesn't matter. And that's the restaurant industry," Zimmern explained. "However, historically, when you look back at the last three big economic bailouts prior to March of this year, the restaurant industry is overlooked. Much smaller, less impactful, less important business genres get relief. They're dwarfed by our size."

Zimmern believes it's unconscionable that the cruise industry has gotten bailouts in the past, while local restaurants have been neglected. "If you think about a small town in northern Minnesota, population 5,000, there might be two hardware stores. But there are many restaurants of all different types. And so, the contributions to the fabric of society, from Main Street, USA and small towns, to our fancy restaurants in big cities, is a vital, vital industry. And most importantly, because of the vast majority of employees we have, and the 5 percent of GDP that we represent, we should be given relief first, not the cruise ship industry," he said. "They've gotten the bailout every single time before us. They carry almost no employees. They pay almost no taxes. They all are offshore companies. It's horrific!"

Restaurant marketing strategy, design and internal systems will evolve for independents and chains alike in the coming year, says Doug Reifschneider of Chief Outsiders.

Historically, restaurants, especially pizzerias, have been slow to adopt innovative technology. The pandemic changed that. It’s no surprise that the adoption of technology is what kept many restaurants afloat during the pandemic, and the acceleration of that adoption saved others. Based on necessity and a will to survive, restaurants in every sector of the industry have been pivoting to meet customer expectations.

In 2021, restaurant marketing strategy, aesthetics, and internal systems—for independents and chains alike—will evolve, and technology and robotics will become commonplace. Here’s a look at 12 trends to keep in mind for the coming year.

Healthy Chains Will Replace Closed Independent Restaurants.

1. Chain restaurants will rule. Seven of ten restaurants are owned by individual operators, most of whom are independent, according to the National Restaurant Association. Unfortunately, independents have seen the most recent closures, and if 10-15 percent of all restaurants permanently close during the pandemic, the healthy chains will become dominant. Chains will increase unit growth to fill the void left by closed restaurant locations.

2. Independent restaurants will learn. New independents will arise out of the ashes. The new wave of restaurateurs will learn from the recent crisis and will focus on sustainability of operations by leaning hard into delivery, take-home, curbside pick-up, contactless payment and other enabling technology.

Marketing Strategy Will Adapt.

3. Messaging will become increasingly important. All restaurants will need to understand their consumer and know the new customer journey better than ever before. Every brand will also need to nail their brand proposition. If they don’t, all ads after the pandemic ends will be about digital ordering and delivery. Digital channels may be a convenient benefit, but if every restaurant offers the standard digital channels, those digital channels will not be unique to any one brand.

4. Operators will need to think locally. Independent restaurants and chains alike will finally make the management of local marketing channels a priority. Restaurant brands and independents have leaned heavily on email and social media to communicate with their best customers and guests during the pandemic. Being found by consumers who live, work, or drive by your locations will be incredibly important. Independent restaurateurs must take control of their Google My Business (GMB) account and local listings. If you’re not “top of find,” you will perish.

5. Digital advertising will become high-priority. Whereas TV was a big part of the advertising mix for national chains and larger regional chains, the shift to off-premise will force restaurant brands to lean much more heavily into digital advertising channels than ever before. The shift will occur because restaurants will be able to more easily track conversions from online visibility to online orders as a key metric. The brands who do continue to use TV will determine how to make outcome-based TV buying work.

Internal Systems and Restaurant Design Will Evolve.

6. Heightened cleanliness will remain a necessity. Serve-Safe and other entities that train restaurant employees to prepare and handle food will proliferate, and the constant disinfecting of communal surfaces, such as counters, door handles, tables, chairs and condiment containers, will become the expected norm.

7. Restaurateurs will fully embrace digital ordering. Every restaurant, independent or chain, will provide as many e-commerce channels for guests to order food as possible to create a contactless experience. Wing Stop, Domino’s, Papa John’s and Chipotle are doing well during the pandemic because they were positioned to survive in a crisis. Restaurateurs will fail if they don’t learn to embrace digital orders and provide ways for customers to get the food where they want it and when they want it.

8. Off-premise business will continue to prosper. Although consumers are getting used to ordering food digitally and internal and external delivery are expected, the trend may slow after the pandemic ends. Even so, the demand for delivery, take-out, meal kits and the like will proliferate.

9. Dining areas will shrink. Because of the shift to off-premise dining, new restaurants in all categories will reduce the square feet of their dining areas. Existing locations will remove tables and chairs to always be prepared for social distancing. More importantly, many QSR and fast-casual chains have announced new designs that lean more heavily into pick-up and curbside-to-go versus on-premise dining.

Burger King, McDonald’s, Chipotle and others have already announced plans for future concepts. Drive-thrus are king, and dining rooms are shrinking. QSR Magazine published a good piece on Restaurant 4.0 that digs deeper into many options restaurants may adapt to thrive. And earlier in the year they provided a glimpse of the Restaurant of the Future (ROTF).

10. Innovators will find their own way. There will also be creative and innovative individuals and organizations who will buck the status quo. Whether they embrace video dining, reinvent food halls, or return to a cash-only payment model, we will see successful attempts to avoid being trapped by the aforementioned trends.

11. Ghost kitchens will flourish. For example, new and existing concepts will cooperate together to develop ghost kitchens where multiple cuisines live in harmony to satisfy the appetite of urban dwellers, and the virtual food court will become a thing.

12. Technological innovation will keep pushing forward. Independents and chains alike will finally make technology a priority. Even before the pandemic, labor issues—such as worker shortages and minimum wage increases in some areas—were putting pressure on restaurants to do so. Many predicted that some kind of automation will have to be innovated for restaurants to thrive in the future. Enter COVID-19, coupled with a fear of human hands contaminating food as it is prepared, and you get the incentive needed to push the industry to that end. We’re starting to see this with White Castle. They recently debuted Flippy the robot and are in the process of rolling the advanced technology out to an additional 10 restaurants.

Bottom Line

COVID-19 has forced some drastic changes and adaptations upon the restaurant industry that will endure well into 2021 and possibly well beyond. The good news is that the pandemic proved yet again how resilient and awesome the restaurant industry is. After all, people have to eat, and most of us don’t want to eat food from home all the time. People value eating food someone else cooked, especially when it’s pizza! Because, at the end of the day, it’s all about the food and the experience.

Doug Reifschneider is CMO with Chief Outsiders, the nation’s leading fractional CMO firm focused on mid-size company growth. He works with restaurant and retail companies developing comprehensive marketing strategies and practical tactics. More information at

The Uncertain Future of Pop-Up Restaurants

Three months ago, Omar Tate was serving an $150 eight-course tasting menu out of a penthouse event space in New York’s Financial District. The dinner, featuring such dishes called Notes From a Black Pantry and Cart of Yams, was one of Tate’s Honeysuckle pop-ups, which explore and pay homage to the black experience through food and art. Now, Tate is staying in a spare room at his mom’s house in Philadelphia. With multicourse dinners out of the question during the coronavirus pandemic, he’s cooking in her kitchen, posting a menu on his Instagram, and selling dishes to the public for $10 to $12 each. The setting is dissimilar to that of a New York penthouse, but he plans each menu as thoughtfully as ever, still tracing and celebrating black American foodways. Last week, Tate cooked lamb in a pit, serving the meat — marinated in palm oil and smoky from the oak he’d used as fuel — along with pickled vegetables and tart, lemony potatoes.

“All the things that go into what I make still have that same intentionality,” he says. “It was never about the theater of it all, which is the dining room. It’s not about that.”

The pop-up model has long been an alternative for cooks who lack access to the capital needed to launch and operate a restaurant, or who are disenfranchised by the culture and structure of traditional kitchens. For women and people of color in the restaurant industry, who are all too often refused the opportunities and resources that their white male counterparts enjoy, the pop-up model serves to democratize the cooking and sharing of food.

In some cities, pop-ups — particularly those in home kitchens — face legal challenges, but in most, they can operate as long as food is prepared in a commissary or restaurant kitchen. This shape-shifting model isn’t just a second choice for would-be restaurant owners. The fluidity and flexibility of the pop-up allows for a certain kind of creativity — blending art, history, performance, and food into a single dinner, for instance — that the constraints of most restaurants don’t allow.

Without brick-and-mortar locations, deep pockets, or much government assistance, pop-up chefs face unique challenges during the pandemic. But as it becomes increasingly unclear what restaurants will look like in a post-pandemic world, these businesses are also uniquely positioned to meet the needs of local communities, and maybe even offer a vision for dining in the future — if they can last that long.

“The beauty of a pop-up — and I’ve only learned this since I’ve been forced out of [restaurant] spaces because of the current situation that we’re in — is that they are malleable,” Tate says. “They’re kind of like an amoeba.”

For a recent pop-up dinner, Tate slow-smoked lamb legs in a pit. Haamza Edwards

A change of plans

Three years after launching the Vegan Hood Chefs in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, Ronnishia Johnson and Rheema Calloway were ready to turn their pop-up into a permanent space this year.

“As a minority-owned [business], we were looking to use this year as a way to show that we are profitable, in order to be able to apply for capital to reach our ultimate goal, which is to get a brick-and-mortar [location],” Johnson says. The pair, neither of whom had any restaurant experience before launching, started the Hood Vegan Chefs out of necessity. In their predominantly black San Francisco neighborhood, there were no grocery stores in sight, and Johnson and Calloway were confronted by an unpleasant truth: No one was going to come into their community and create more options for healthy living. Opening a restaurant seemed the most effective way to take matters into their own hands and provide fresh food to their neighbors.

Ronnishia Johnson (left) and Rheema Calloway

The dream of restaurant ownership is off the table, for now at least. Like so many other pop-up restaurant owners across the country, Johnson and Calloway are glad just to be breaking even. But in the face of a crisis that has put restaurants on the brink of permanent closure, many pop-up chefs are questioning whether restaurant ownership is the end goal after all.

“We’re putting the brick and mortar on hold. It may not necessarily be what the community needs right now,” Johnson says. “What they need may be [for us] to keep this pop-up sustainable. And that looks like using the money we would have put down on a brick and mortar to possibly build our team so that we have more individuals who are able to pop up at already existing restaurants, to be able to provide food for the community.” Though the Vegan Hood Chefs doesn’t have the capital to expand in the way Johnson and Calloway had hoped to this year, their fresh vegan offerings are delivered throughout the Bay Area once a week, providing customers with trays of prepared grains, greens, and meat substitutes.

Before the pandemic, a majority of the Vegan Hood Chefs’ revenue was generated through large events, all of which have been canceled. The same is true for many pop-up chefs, who relied on large food events and ticketed dinners to provide the bulk of their income. But with no massive overhead costs, and a business model already designed to be adaptable, pop-ups around the country are adjusting quickly.

Until recently, Salimatu Amabebe traveled state to state hosting their dinner series, Black Feast. Each dinner was informed by and centered around the work of a black artist, the art inspiring the menu. The meal was never just a dinner, nor was it a gallery exhibition. Often, the hardest part of planning the events was finding a space where art and food could coexist.

It has been hard for Amabebe to imagine what such an experiential dinner could look like as a takeout-only operation. On a recent Sunday night in Berkeley, California, they decided to give it a try. After planning what would be the first Black Feast event with no communal dining element, Amabebe became weighed down by videos circulating online of the violence black people are facing during the pandemic. Ordinarily, a Black Feast dinner would serve as a way to bring people together over a meal, a chance to process current events or just relax in the comfort of community. With in-person gatherings out of the question, Amambebe had to find other ways to deliver that same feeling through a takeout window.

“What do people need right now, what does my community need right now?” Amabebe asked themself as they planned the meal. The menu that they came up with was inspired by the work of Oakland-based artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, and captured the urgency and frustration of the moment.

Salimatu Amabebe (right) poses in front of the takeout window with artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo. Jessa Carter

Each to-go order was wrapped in a print designed by Lukaza, featuring painted phrases such as “Say her name,” the other side printed with a transcribed interview between Amabebe and Lukaza. Inside the paper wrapping were containers of rich and mellow black-eyed pea and tomato stew, and big slices of ever-so-slightly earthy spinach-vanilla cake with yam buttercream.

With donations from friends and past Black Feast guests around the country, Amabebe was able to give free meals to black customers who came to pick them up. “It was really cool to see that it’s possible to change this model and share food with people, and nourish people in the community. And not all have to come together at the table,” they say.

When Amabebe isn’t planning for the next Black Feast dinner, they sell loaves of bread and jars of Nigerian chai from the takeout window of the building where they’re currently finishing an artist’s residency. As restaurants reopen across the country, and chefs try to work out what cooking for the public again will look like, Amabebe doesn’t really have a plan for the future. “It’s difficult because when you base the model of what you do on community care for others and not on profit, it puts you in a position that is, in some ways, freeing,” Amabebe says. “But also, there isn’t always a specific plan for how things are going to go, and there aren’t a lot of funds to move around. In some ways, it’s easy to shut down: ‘Okay, well, we’re not doing these events.’ But also, what the fuck do we do?”

What comes next

There are fewer barriers to entry for chefs launching pop-ups than for those opening restaurants. There are usually no investors to answer to, fewer overhead costs, and few or no employees to pay. Some of the pop-up chefs I spoke to had not registered their operations with the government, and had — at one point or another — done business under the table, not paying taxes. During a pandemic, the lack of structure that once felt liberating can bring on a sense of uncertainty and anxiousness.

“All of my money was coming from pop-ups, all of it,” Tate says. While peers with investors or savings accounts cushioned by parents or spouses have put money aside, Tate couldn’t plan for a rainy day, let alone an all-out storm. “That was literally my entire financial life and safety net. I was living contract to contract.” Tate applied for a $10,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan, and was granted $1,000. He hasn’t been able to get through to the overwhelmed unemployment application portal.

With no money left in her bank account, Illyanna Maisonet decided to halt her pop-up dinners during the pandemic. The chef and writer (she’s written for Eater on several occasions) ran social media for a popular San Francisco blogger, and in her spare time, she’s hosted Puerto Rican dinners in her small casita — a separate dining space in her Sacramento, California backyard. Maisonet never thought of herself as a brand or a business before the pandemic. Now, it feels like there’s nowhere to turn for help. “I have no hustle because all my side hustles require being outside,” she says. “So [there’s] no money coming in, no income.” The final blow came when Maisonet had to cancel a dinner she had already sold tickets for, and some of her guests refused her offer to deliver meals to their front door. “That was, like, a really good chunk of money. So now I have negative money in my bank account. I haven’t been negative in my bank account since I was in my 20s.”

Solomon Johnson prepares for dinner service. Ryan Soule

Refunding customers right now could force small pop-ups to shut down for good. When Solomon Johnson, the chef behind the Oakland, California-based pop-up and catering company Omni World Kitchen, had to return $13,000 for canceled events, it felt inevitable that he would have to close his business. “I’m on a shoestring budget,” he says. “So after giving back all those refunds, I was almost convinced that I was going to have to completely shut down.” Solomon managed to secure a loan through the micro-loan organization Kiva, which kept his business just barely afloat, as he watched major restaurant chains receive the same PPP loan he’d been denied.

Johnson isn’t in a rush to start delivering plates of food during quarantine, citing concerns about his own health. While in-person events are on hold, he’s taken his business online, looking for new ways to create income. He’s just finished designing a line of merchandise, and completed edits on his first cookbook. “I really decided to think on my feet,” he says.

Meeting diners where they are

While many pop-up chefs express uncertainty about what the future might bring, others are hopeful they’ll be among the first to get back on their feet. When the time comes for restaurants to reopen in New Jersey, Leigh-Ann Martin has one of the most intimate dining spaces in town: Her kitchen table. Martin’s pop-up, A Table for Four — named for the snug table in her dining room where she serves guests — revolves around Trinidadian dishes cooked in her Union City kitchen.

As diners begin to reenter society, Martin suspects they’ll want a level of intimacy that restaurants in the early phases of reopening won’t be able to provide. “If people are going to feel safe enough to leave their home to come out, I feel like they’re going to want to do more than eat,” Martin says. She hopes to offer them an experience that falls somewhere between restaurant dining and eating at home. She’ll send them packing with recipes from the menu she serves, so they can recreate favorite Trinidadian dishes in their own kitchens, until the next time they brave the outside world.

Though his Oakland pop-up remains closed for now, Solomon Johnson also sees a future for his business when Northern Californians reemerge from the shutdown. “I know people will be excited to go out and eat again,” he says. “But the last thing you want to do is go to a restaurant that feeds 150 people. So I think that having a business model structured around smaller, intimate gatherings will probably be very lucrative after all of this. And that’s what I’ve been doing for almost five years now.”

In some ways, pop-ups have become more and more like traditional restaurants over the years, serving food out of restaurant dining rooms or large event spaces in place of home kitchens and front porches. With restaurants still closed in many states, and event spaces and bars unlikely to welcome pop-ups back any time soon, the model has been stripped down to its simplest form. “The future of pop-ups, now that people are paying attention,” Tate says, “is what they’ve always been: Something that pops up somewhere to feed people. And all that’s required is trust.”