Not long ago, Bloomberg BusinessWeek ran a story called “Fast and Furious,” a look into the processes that undergird the fast food drive-through industry. The article's upshot, besides detailed descriptions of the service and production systems used by today's fast food companies, was that “the drive-thru isn't just a convenient way to fill your car with fries; it's a supreme achievement in American manufacturing.”
Later, the story quotes Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed (formerly of Unilever) as saying, “I think at Unilever we had five factories. Well, at Taco Bell today I've got 6,000 factories, many of them running 24 hours a day.”
Pointing out that foodservice has as much in common with manufacturing models as it does with hospitality service models is not news to our readers. Industrial engineering approaches to kitchen layout and process control approaches to everything from food safety to quality control have long had an impact on their businesses.
Not mentioned in the article is a concurrent trend I found myself discussing more recently with a distributor executive who is an old friend and a close observer of the challenges facing the industry. That is, something important is being lost when quickservice starts to become the dominant mode of dining behavior.
On the one hand, its delivery model certainly meshes well with the up-and-coming generation's habits: its members have come of age in recessionary times. Customers have become dependent on “value meal” bundles and, as my friend pointed out, tend to dislike having to tip for service. Their socialization increasingly takes place not in face to face venues, but via text messages, social networking software and gaming consoles.
But food and foodservice traditionally provided a core socialization venue in our culture, whether it was in sitting around the family dinner table, hanging out at the soda fountains of the 1920s, meeting friends at a casual dining restaurant after work on Friday afternoon or going out on a date to a fine dining establishment in order to impress a new girlfriend. Food was an essential ingredient in many kinds of social activity.
But for those whose socialization takes place in a virtual, digital world, food becomes more of a pit stop, still necessary, but disconnected from human interaction and the social experience itself.
It is not just the casual and fine dining restaurant communities that are concerned about the implications of this trend. One reason many residential colleges have sought to upgrade their dining halls and venues in recent years is a concern that the community-building they see as essential to the educational experience counts upon dining as an important component.
In K-12, pit stop dining does not lend itself to sound nutrition, based as it is on the consumption of energy-dense foods and meal consumption requiring only a few absent-minded minutes.
In employee dining, whether you are talking about institutions like hospitals, manufacturing facilities or financial institutions, host organizations gain much from the socializing that takes place when employees mingle, talk and interact outside of the straight business environment. That's why companies like Google and Microsoft invest in these facilities and in encouraging the social use of them beyond the sheer functionality of providing meal service on their campuses.
There is nothing wrong in catering to customer wants, and quickservice food fills a definite need. This magazine and every reader of it has in one way or another sought to tap this trend, whether by offering more grab-and-go food options, adding fast food franchises in the food court or touting the (many of them very real) advantages of the quickservice model.
At the same time, onsite operators have the responsibility to look more broadly at their customers' and host institutions' needs. In many cases, both benefit greatly from traditional socialization at mealtime. We need to demonstrate — and sell — that value.
Otherwise, pit stop dining will become not a convenience, but a dominant way of foodservice life. And that is not a value I for one would opt for.