Are we closer to the Renaissance?

Around this time last year, I wrote a column titled,Is quick service ready for Renaissance dining?“Two years have passed since the start of the pandemic, and there was no indication that consumer behavior would tilt backwards in the direction of 2019.

As I wrote last year, the societal shift toward increased off-premises consumption of restaurant meals was well established before the onset of COVID-19. At Firehouse Subs, the shift in commerce channels began in 2013 and continued unabated until the onset of the pandemic. Then literally overnight (March 15-16, 2020 to be exact), everyone Meals were taken off the premises for several weeks before we finally started reopening our dining rooms.

Over the ensuing months and years, dining remains lower than it was in early 2020. We’ve seen more growth since I wrote this column last year, and I think that’s the case for many limited-service restaurant brands. In short, a food renaissance doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. I think at this point, the most important question for brand leaders to consider is whether or not eating power is intrinsic to their success.

There are advantages to be gained when transactions shift to other channels, but there are also downsides. Product mix can move in less than optimal directions. Food quality is usually at its best when served on site. The more time a guest spends in your restaurant, the more friendly interaction with your team is possible. Great decor can enhance the experience, entertain and even educate the guest. All of these things have the potential to add value and create points of advantage with your opponents. Excel in these things, and one might think that a competitive advantage will be gained, and an increase in market share will follow.

However, as we get past the third anniversary of the onset of the pandemic, it does not appear to me that the restaurant consumer has pent-up demand to dine in, and operators have prioritized accordingly. Casual food brands continue to report the vitality of foreign trade channels. Restaurant concepts of all stripes have announced downsizing, or, in some cases, outright eliminating their dining rooms. There is an almost universal tendency to drive digital transactions, which are mostly associated with external events. If the industry leans heavily toward improving the experience outside of the workplace, the reason is simple: It’s how the consumer leans. It is where the fiercest battle for market share takes place.

There’s an old-school restaurateur part of me that wishes that wasn’t the case. I want to know my guests love to see them enjoy their meals with their families and friends. If we made a mistake, I welcome the opportunity to make up for it immediately. I savor being able to place a plate of food in front of a guest, and to assemble and serve it with pride. I love things about a restaurant…well, make it a restaurant.

Of course, the chances of excelling haven’t completely faded from view. Eating in a smaller percentage might work, but it’s not an insignificant portion. Over the past three years, with so much attention shifting toward tuning channels off the premises (and rightfully so), I’ve noticed that some restaurant brands have lost a step or two in their implementation. Perhaps my fellow casual eaters will enjoy it. Casual dining certainly has its own challenges and has seen its own shifts in the trade.

But for them, the dining experience is inextricably linked to their brands in a much more fundamental way than limited service restaurants. I imagine they revel in the idea that casual concepts might lose a step or two in their dining room game; It creates a potential opportunity for them to strengthen their suitability, especially if they can pair it with a compelling value proposition. In the end, trends in technology, retail, and consumer behavior may simply prove to be on a path that even the most exquisitely executed dining experience cannot deviate from. But that doesn’t mean the need to excel in the dining room isn’t important.

Eliminate the covered business from a few concepts, and you will eliminate the profit margin of the project. In fact, it may be more important than ever to be great at serving a meal to a beloved guest at your restaurant. It is a part of the business that many operators cannot afford to lose.

Don Fox He is the CEO of Firehouse Subs, where he leads the strategic growth of Firehouse Subs, one of the world’s leading restaurant brands. Under his leadership, the brand has grown to more than 1,200 restaurants in 45 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and non-traditional locations. Don sits on various influence boards in the business and not-for-profit communities, and is a respected speaker, commentator, and author. It was honored by the Nation’s Restaurant News as Restaurant of the Year for 2011. In 2013, it received the prestigious Silver Plate Award from the International Food Processors Association (IFMA).