The term for having your clientele pinched by some online retail competitor is “death by Amazon.” And nearly every industry squirms at it.
But even though people want everything cheaper and faster and delivered to their door, restaurants keep chugging away (though, as we’ll get into next week, they often pay a 30 per cent commission to food delivery app companies). Unlike with movies, music, television, journalism, and democracy, the digital world has not completely devalued restaurants. People still go out to eat.
Restaurants aren’t totally unique in this. People still get massages even though there are massage chairs. We still go to hair stylists and barbers despite the existence of the Flowbee.
With food, it’s not like you can’t get the product anywhere else. There are grocery stores of various sizes. There is home delivery — of cooked meals, seasonal produce boxes, and meal kits. All these things can be purchased through websites or mobile apps, with zero human interaction.
We dine out because we are seeking more than a commodity or basic necessity.
“People don’t go to restaurants to nourish themselves. They go to restaurants to be with other people — to have experiences,” says Montreal restaurant designer Zebulon Perron.
“Restaurant operators today, particularly if they’re trying to drive customers to come in and sit down, are moving more toward situational awareness, creating reasons for customers to go to restaurants,” says Robert Carter, executive director of foodservice for the market- research company NPD. “Fifty per cent of the population go out every single day to a restaurant. Granted, it’s Tim Hortons for a coffee. But that’s 6.8 billion visits annually, just for a country of 35 million. It’s about that experience overall.”
At the fast-food level of dining, the automation of labour is well underway. In June, after McDonald’s announced that digital ordering kiosks would replace employees at 2,500 U.S. locations by the end of 2017, the company’s stock hit an all-time high.
Fast food prioritizes value and efficiency over quality. So it’s only a matter of time before your Big Mac is cooked by a robot.
However, at the middle and high range of dining, the experience is still the product. What we desire is a brief respite from our daily reality, during which we are treated by chefs and servers as only royalty would be in their homes.
“The fine dining part is almost immune to what’s been happening online and with the meal kits,” says Sylvain Charlebois, professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University. “It’s a different experience. Expectations are different. You’re looking to connect with someone or something. You’re driven by curiosity.”
Those who can afford to eat out not merely for inexpensive fuel but for pleasure do so in search of six things you can’t get at home:
Yes, you have olive oil at home. But not the olive oil that any self-respecting Italian restaurant buys through a private importer. You can buy a steak, a nice one even, at a fancy butcher shop. But not the Japanese black tajima ribeye available at Jacobs & Co. in Toronto. Nor can you find at home the oxheart cabbage poached in crab apple juice at Pearl Morissette in Jordan Station or the pigs raised and served at Eigensinn Farm in Singhampton.
“Ingredients and technique for me goes hand in hand,” says Angus An, chef and co-owner of Vancouver restaurants Maenam, Longtail Kitchen, Fat Mao Noodles, Freebird Chicken Shack, and Sen Pad Thai.
Watching a chef execute the katsuramuki knife technique, in which the blade works around the circumference of a vegetable, and unravel a long, translucent sheet of daikon/cucumber/beet as if it were a scroll, is like seeing a gymnast stick the landing after a triple backflip.
“I often give cooking demos where I tell people where they can procure the ingredients,” says An. “I show them the technique — but at the end, they still say, ‘It’s easier if I come to Maenam.’ To do it properly at home, you will need years of training.”
Even further down the trough, basic techniques enhance the allure of restaurants.
“If you’ve got a signature dish that can’t be easily replicated at home, that’s going to motivate a consumer to eat at your restaurant,” says Carter. “Look at Burger’s Priest. They came out of nowhere. They had a really strong messaging to draw people in, and there were line-ups out the door because people had to try these signature burgers.”
And the Burger’s Priest’s popularity isn’t due to luxury ingredients or fancy equipment. Their patties are just ground beef cooked on a griddle. The trick was in the cooking skill: burgers smashed on the hot metal at the right temperature, for maximum crispness. “But they were just burgers at the end of the day,” Carter says.
Good service is the art of anticipating customers’ needs. A talented server takes your coat, refills your water, sweeps crumbs from your table, pampering you in ways you don’t experience at home (unless you’re wealthy enough to have servants). It is adaptable in real time, meaning that a good server can see, from across the room, if you’re not enjoying a dish and, if they’re on the ball, offer to replace it with something else.
Community and human interaction
“We thought about that before we opened, having the brewery and the kitchen so open,” says Tara Lee, chef and co-owner of Eastbound Brewing Co. in Toronto. “It facilitates conversation. We get people who sit at the kitchen and want to talk.”
In Canada, 28.2 per cent of all households have a single occupant. And plenty of couples with disposable incomes live in apartments with kitchens too small to use.
“We have a lot of condos popping up in this area,” says Lee. “Young couples and social groups in those apartments are asking us for a meeting space. We get a lot of dinners that are family style, passing food to each other. Frankly, I don’t cook that much in our apartment, because the kitchen is so small.”
You probably have a wok at home. Maybe even a microplane or a spiralizer. But you don’t have a tilt skillet, a Rational (that is, a multi-purpose oven from the future that costs tens of thousands of dollars), or a broiler that goes up to 1,500 F. Restaurants do. Not that fancy gear is essential to good cooking — I’ve seen restaurants blast life-changing food out of a four-burner electric stove. But the right tools are part of what sometimes makes restaurant cooking look effortless.
Whether it’s the little sweet arriving with the bill, the special of king crab legs that just came in that night, or ordering a dish because you saw it on someone else’s table, the value of surprise and spontaneity is baked into the restaurant experience.
“People want to be entertained,” says Charlebois. “I never order myself. I let the restaurant order for me. Because I want to be surprised. They will always serve you the best meal that you would never have ordered yourself.”
At the ambitious end of the spectrum, this can be an elaborate tasting menu costing hundreds of dollars. But it can also be as simple as a fortune cookie. One of the all-time marketing achievements, these crispy treats stuffed with enigmatic prophecies have kept customers delighted for years on end. And all for a nickel’s worth of flour and sugar.
In addition to all this, restaurants have become a part of our cultural landscape. Some of them become like an Oscar-nominated movie that everyone is required to have an opinion on — people eat there just so they can take part in the conversation.
Restaurants do face a threat from the digital marketplace. Meal delivery apps, for instance, have taken a bite out of hospitality sales. But there are too many parts of the restaurant experience that can’t be had any other way — because they are intangible and they reach us on a personal level, in a way that simply cannot be replicated at home.
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