You know the old saying: “desperate times call for desperate measures.” The past two years have certainly been a rough time for the food service industry, and even though things are looking up now, the lean times have left an indelible stamp on which way the industry is trending.
In lean times the most efficient restaurant is the most likely to survive, and increasingly restaurateurs all over the country have taken to moving their operations outside of the traditional restaurant setting. This trend has been propelled by many more factors than just the economics of opening and maintaining a traditional restaurant space, to be sure. But it’s undeniable that the downturn got a lot of influential chefs in the industry to start rethinking the fundamental assumptions of the business, like spending inordinate amounts of money to develop and stock a full-blown restaurant. This has resulted in some revolutionary ideas that have since become some of the hottest trends in the business, like the Kogi Taco Truck in L.A. and the “underground” fine dining movement that germinated in San Francisco and has since taken the country by storm.
Now a growing number of chefs are thinking short term when it comes to defining their next project, and stripping all the trappings of a concept down to the bare bones. A great example was featured in The New York Times recently: What Happens When is a restaurant that opened last week on a nine-month lease in New York’s SoHo district.
Conventional wisdom says it’s pure folly to sink a ton of cash into a location that won’t be around all that long. But everything about What Happens When is unconventional. Used furniture, a short-stocked bar on a mobile cart, and replacement flatware in drawers beneath the tables are all ways in which this restaurant plans to save cash.
In addition, the building in which the restaurant plans to reside has been condemned, so rent is cheap (at least by New York standards).
The short lifespan of this restaurant has a certain freedom to it – with low overhead and a Spartan setting, What Happens When can focus on what’s truly important – the food.
So is the traditional restaurant, with a carefully groomed dining area and state-of-the-art kitchen, dead? As more and more restaurateurs find new and creative venues to showcase their food, the conventional restaurant will certainly seem like more trouble than it’s worth.
As long as customers continue to enjoy the idea of stripping the dining experience down to the food at the expense of atmosphere, keep a careful eye on how restaurants in more traditional spaces compete with these leaner and much meaner upstarts.