How Restaurants Are Adapting Operations
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How restaurants are adapting operations
A look at how restaurant operators are innovating during the pandemic
A new player is joining the restaurant automation trend
Nala Robotics plans first of several robotically powered kitchens near Chicago in April
A new player is throwing its hat into the robotic kitchen arena as the industry’s demand for workplace efficiency grows.
Chicago-based Nala Robotics is planning to open its first Nala restaurant — a 6,000-square-foot space in the Mall of India in Naperville, Ill. — in April, followed by a second, 3,000-square-foot location in May in Elgin, Ill. A third site is planned for Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood in June, followed by one per month for the rest of the year.
The company is not yet releasing many details about how the system will work, other than that it will use artificial intelligence, machine learning and multiple robotic arms to combine pre-prepped ingredients and cook them in modified restaurant kitchens.
Plans call for the first restaurant to offer about 100 dishes, including about 10 menu items each from 10 different cuisine types, said Ajay Sunkara, president and co-founder of Nala Robotics.
Chicago-based Nala Robotics is planning to open its first Nala restaurant.
The website lists Thai, Indian, Chinese, Italian, Korean, Malaysian, Cajun and Mexican among the restaurant’s capabilities, along with pizza, burgers, fried chicken and salads.
“The possibilities are unlimited,” said Sunkara. “As long as you can put the recipe into the database … you can cook whatever you want.”
Although robotics will handle the actual cooking of the ingredients — which will be delivered to the restaurant fully sliced, diced, and otherwise prepared for cooking by suppliers — humans will oversee the operation and will also package the dishes for takeout and delivery once they are prepared by the robotic arms, he said. Plans call for robotics to eventually perform the packaging function as well.
Nala will have its own app for ordering, and will partner with third-party firms for delivery.
Sunkara and his partner, Vijay Kodali, co-founder and chief technology officer, have been working on the project for three years, he said, and have been testing the robotic system in a lab. They have recruited Michael Tsonton, a former executive chef at Levy Restaurants, as director of culinary operations, research and development.
Plans call for the first incarnation of Nala to feature recipes from social media stars, although the company has not yet disclosed the identities of those who will be contributing dishes to the menu.
“If there is a burger joint in New York that has a great following and wants to expand, we can upload that recipe in Naperville, and customers will get the exact same burger,” said Sunkara.
The Nala Robotics kitchens will operate 24/7, preparing pre-packaged foods for subscription meal plans and for grab-and-go retail offerings when they are not preparing items to order for takeout and delivery, he said. Each location will employ abut 20 people.
Sunkara, a co-founder of Best Brains Learning Centers, a global chain of franchised outposts that offer tutoring and supplementary education for children, said Nala plans to expand the robotic kitchens through franchising.
The effort to introduce robotics into restaurant kitchens and other foodservice applications has been gaining traction in the industry, and some see it as a potential solution to combatting rising labor costs and reducing turnover.
Among the recent initiatives in this area was the November reopening of Spyce, a robotic kitchen in Boston offering bowls and salads prepared on an automated assembly line. The concept had been closed for a year to revamp the menu and operations.
Columbus, Ohio-based White Castle launched a test this past fall of the Flippy Robot On A Rail, or ROAR, technology from Miso Robotics, which has also deployed its robotics in its sister CaliBurger chain and elsewhere.
Jamie Richardson, vice president of marketing and public relations at White Castle, said the test has gone well so far.
“We are getting great learning, and team members have welcomed their latest colleague to be part of the Castle team,” he said. “Our intent from the beginning has been to see how to invest in technology that makes working at the Castle even cooler and more fun, and we’re off to a good start.”
Richardson said the chain has plans to expand the test later this year, although it’s not ready to share specific details.
The technology has been a “win-win-win,” he said, citing advantages for the company, workers and customers.
“It’s great for our learning on how to invest in technology to optimize learning and future operations,” said Richardson. “It’s a tremendous time of creativity, and amazing for our teams to be a part of building tomorrow today.”
Restaurants offer smaller treats for customers
As traffic increases between lunch and dinner operators focus on mid-afternoon snacks
With more people staying at home due to the pandemic, eating schedules have shifted away from traditional lunch and dinner hours toward more mid-afternoon snacking.
According to a new report from YipitData, the period between lunch and dinner has been growing quickly since the onset of COVID-19. The report, Food Delivery Insights: Virtual Kitchens, Alternative Meats and Daypart Shifts, said the biggest shift in food delivery has been “more ordering in the mid-afternoon daypart [between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.], as customers appear to be spreading out their meals across a larger time frame.”
Whether takeout, delivery or outdoor dining, restaurants of all kinds are addressing consumers’ new afternoon snack habits, often with simple, quick-cooking, affordable and high-flavor items.
“People are working from home and need a break from the house, so a little snack and a walk in the afternoon is a perfect pick-me-up to get through the day,” said Jen Biesty, chef and co-owner of Shakewell in Oakland, Calif.
The Mediterranean restaurant has seen a recent uptick in snack sales in the afternoon, including Spanish Marcona almonds, $4, marinated olives, $5, ham croquettes with roasted poblano pepper sauce, $11, and papas bravas, or roasted potatoes, with a piquillo pepper sauce, $10.
The Psychadilly Grilly, a grilled cheese and mushroom sandwich, from Snacktacular, a new snack delivery concept in Denver.
Biesty said she expects to see further interest in afternoon snacking with the reopening of the restaurant’s outdoor patio in early September.
“I think we will be busy at 3:30, when we open, with people wanting a little pick-me-up snack and drink,” Biesty said. “As they say in Spain, eat and drink a little bit, [but] often, buen provecho!”
Similarly, Canela Bistro & Wine Bar, a San Francisco destination for tapas, has seen a growing number of guests visit its outdoor dining room in the afternoon.
“People are tired of being at home and they aren’t going into the office that much, so they are looking for a distraction,” said Mat Schuster, chef and owner of Canela. “Also, it's less formal and less expensive than dinner.”
Among Canela’s best-sellers are savory bites that go with wine, like flash-fried shishito peppers, which come in orders of $10 and $20, and Spanish ham croquettes in orders of $13 to $26.
To lure mid-day snackers, the restaurant is sharing on social media its $25 Tea and Snacks offer, which includes a choice of a beverage, such as tea or espresso, and four snacks, such as bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with cheese, small sandwiches called montaditos with Serrano ham and fig jam, an East European style of biscotti called mandel bread, and mini cinnamon and sugar churro bites with chocolate.
Snacky appetizers that pair well with the beer are the big afternoon attraction at Brick Store Pub in Decatur, Ga.
The neighborhood gastropub has seen an uptick in afternoon snack and happy-hour traffic of late. During those hours the two biggest sellers are the $7 grit cakes with sausage, a Bavarian pretzel with pimento cheese for $4 and, of course, beer.
While many restaurants are seeing increased snack traffic with existing menu items, others are launching new menus specifically designed to attract the growing number of consumers inclined to eat in the afternoon.
Las Vegas-based restaurant chain Farmer Boys is offering No Brainer Deals, a menu of quick-cooking and affordable afternoon items.
“Our new No Brainer Deals menu items are intended as snacks, light meals, and as options to sample a little bit of everything we have to offer at Farmer Boys,” said Larry Rusinko, the chain’s vice president and chief marketing officer.
French Toast Dippers are among the new No Brainer Deals at Farmer Boys.
It’s the first time the fast-casual burger concept is offering a combination of small-bite menu items designed to be “affordable, fast, and delicious,” Rusinko said.
Among the eight new offerings are portable items such as a bacon, egg and cheese muffin, $3; Crispy French Toast Dippers, $3; Jr. Cheeseburger, $3; and Fried Chicken Dippers, $3.25.
Denver-based Snacktacular is a new delivery-only concept specifically targeted at people working from home and craving affordable foods that can be eaten as a light snack, a complete meal or munched on over the course of the day or night.
“I feel the definition of a snack has evolved over a simple bag of chips or French Fries,” said Snacktacular co-founder Lex Mendez. “A snack can mean bringing a whole pizza [home] and, well, snacking on it all night.”
Snacktacular, which launched on Sept. 7, offers a selection of elevated street foods that “You can eat at the dinner table, coffee table, or wherever you eat,” Mendez said,
The inaugural menu includes items such the Psychadilly Grilly, a grilled cheese sandwich with teriyaki-red wine sautéed mushrooms on purple bread made with ube; a chorizo gravy calzone with Mexican queso; and plate lunches, a Hawaiian version of bento boxes, with choices of chicken, skirt steak or ahi tuna served with sides such as macaroni salad made with bits of nori seaweed. All items are priced under $12 and are available for delivery Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“We’re offering something new and kind of fun that’s not just pizza or Chinese,” said Mendez. “You don’t have to be a big baller to enjoy a good meal.”
Desserts adapted for delivery and shipping
Independent operators are packing up and delivering creative treats that travel well
One of the many things consumers are missing these days is the joy of ending a restaurant meal with a chef-made dessert, be it a slice of fresh strawberry cheesecake, a luscious chocolate layer cake or a warm skillet chocolate chip cookie.
According to a recent DoorDash survey, 23% of respondents cited “desserts” as the food they missed most due to restaurants being closed and being difficult to prepare at home.
But how can consumers get their restaurant-quality dessert fix when the pandemic continues to keep on-premise dining closed and delivery and takeout are new the norm? One way pandemic-weary consumers are getting the goodies is from independent operators who are packing up and delivering creative treats that travel well.
Two years ago, Shiana White opened A Haute Cookie, a bakery café in Atlanta that specializes in everything cookie — cookies in creative flavor combinations, such as white chocolate Oreo, strawberry shortcake, and a seasonal white sweet potato walnut; edible cookie dough; brownie cookie dough bars and more.
But when the pandemic hit, closing down the shop’s in-store seating, White pivoted to take out, local delivery and national shippping.
“[I said] let’s figure it out, because I don’t want to close,” White recalled. “It took a bit, then I rocked it out.”
Now, White remains open several days a week for takeout, but closes her shop two days a week just to fulfil shipping orders. Since she started shipping, her sales have increased 40%.
A Haute Cookie’s growth is part of larger trend toward cookies and brownies, which have grown by double digits on independent and chain restaurant menus over the past decade, according to Datassential.
Breadblok’s vegan shortbread cookies are primed for travel.
Similarly, Breadblok in Santa Monica, Calif, a gluten-free bakery cafe, started offering national delivery shortly after its first brick-and-mortar location opened February 2020.
“We knew we wanted to offer nationwide shipping, but the pandemic forced us to look into it much sooner than we expected,” said Celine Charlier, co-owner of Breadblok. “Which is actually a good thing.”
Indeed, Charlier said that online orders now account for about 10% of sales and are growing exponentially month by month. Among Breadblok’s bestsellers is a vegan shortbread cookie (made with coconut oil instead of butter), and almond butter thin cookies.
Part of the appeal of Breadblok’s cookies can certainly be attributed to meeting consumers dietary needs. According to Datassential, vegan desserts appear on 114% more menus than they did just four years ago, and dairy-free and gluten free options appear on 64% and 43% more menus, respectively.
In addition to prepared treats, some operators are delivering parbaked versions of their in-store offerings or bake-it-yourself kits (with necessary ingredients and baking instructions) that sheltering-in-place consumers can finish off at home.
Sticky Fingers Sweets and Eats in Washington, D.C., Doron Petersan's long-standing vegan eatery, is delivering locally and nationwide its cookies, cupcakes, cakes, and bake-it-yourself cookie and brownie kits (all made without dairy, eggs, or other animal products).
“Sending gifts and direct-to-consumer items was always part of our concept since day one as we wanted to make some of our products accessible to everyone,” said Petersan.
However, since the pandemic began Petersan has seen a large uptick in delivery orders, which typically account for about 30% of sales during the peak holiday season. She attributes the increase to offering all items for direct delivery and on third-party delivery apps.
Chip City uses separated six-packs to ship its bake-at-home frozen cookie dough in nostalgic and unconventional flavors.
In late August, New Yok City-based Chip City, best known for its oversized and gooey-on-the-inside cookies in nostalgic and unconventional flavors (many of which have a filled center) launched frozen cookie dough for shipping across the Northeast.
“Given the pandemic and people from across the country are not able to visit NYC as easily, the team wanted to be able to spread their cookies to a larger audience during a time when people really could use the comfort of a freshly baked Chip City cookie,” said Mindi Sachs, Chip City public relations director.
Chip City currently offers for delivery six packs of chocolate chip and Funfetti cookies, as well as a chocolate lover's bundle (chocolate chip, triple chocolate, peanut butter chocolate, Nutella sea salt, s'mores, and white chocolate macadamia) and a variety bundle (chocolate chip, Funfetti, triple chocolate, cookies n' cream, blueberry cheesecake and oatmeal apple pie). Locals can still purchase fresh cookies, frozen dough, catering platters and gift packs at Chip City’s five brick-and-mortar locations.
Packed for the trip
Desserts can be especially delicate and so indie operators have come up with a variety of packaging solutions for maintaining product integrity and ensuring intact arrival.
For example, Chip City keeps each cookie dough ball formed separately in a specially designed package of six, making it easy for consumers to bake only a few cookies at a time while keeping the others safely intact and frozen in the package.
At A Haute Cookie, White individually wraps her treats in plastic, heat-seals them for safety, and then puts them inside metallic mailers, adding ice packs when needed to keep cold items cold.
While some chefs have to alter recipes to make them more fit for the journey, neither Sticky Fingers nor Breadblok have made such changes.
“The shortbread cookies travel extremely well due to their ingredients and the final texture,” said Breadblok’s Charlier. “The cookies are vegan so the lack of diary allows the cookies to hold up a lot longer.”
To ensure they don’t break in transit, cookies and other baked goods are put in Breadblok’s traditional sustainable packaging: unbleached paper sheets, cellophane bags and recyclable labels.
Rather than changing recipes or creating new ones for shipping, Sticky Fingers’ Petersan only sends existing treats that hold up well. During the holidays, she puts products in reusable metal tins to keep them safe and airtight during shipping.
“We love metal containers for those reasons, but they can be costly and take up a lot of room,” said Petersan. “We believe it is worth it.”
Restaurant developer preps wide rollout of hybrid virtual restaurant model
More hotels and shopping malls are on deck to become hubs for multiple concepts available for takeout and delivery
Multiconcept restaurant developer C3 has been laying the groundwork for the large-scale expansion of its restaurant brands, forming partnerships with malls, hotels and other property owners, as well as with new start-up concepts that it plans to introduce in these spaces.
Sam Nazarian, founder and CEO of C3 (Creating Culinary Communities), said the company is counting on pent-up demand for restaurant dining after the pandemic, alongside continuing opportunities for takeout and delivery.
“Most restaurant companies have scaled back, or shut down, but we have been expanding with the confidence that restaurants are going to reopen, and society is going to come back to life,” he said. “It’s a good bet. It’s a bet on humanity, and on the way in which we are all designed to be around each other.”
Among the latest investments for C3 is a joint-venture partnership with hotel operator Graduate Hotels, through which C3 will install its restaurant brands in the hotels to provide on-site dining, room service, banquet catering and delivery.
The first Graduate Food Hall is expected to open in the first quarter of 2021 at the Graduate Berkeley, near the University of California, Berkeley, followed by expansion to campuses in Minnesota, Arizona and Iowa, said Jack Acland, vice president of finance and strategy at C3.
Plans call for rolling out the concept to most of Graduate Hotel’s 28 locations by the end of the year, C3 said in a statement. Graduate operates hotels near college campuses in both the U.S. and the U.K., and has plans to add eight more hotels by the end of 2022.
Nazarian described the partnership as a “50-50” financial relationship through which C3 will share costs and revenues evenly with Graduate Hotels. C3 will have use of the kitchens, banquet halls and other foodservice-related spaces, will allow C3 to offer its growing stable of restaurant brands not only to the hotel guests and staff, but to Gen Z consumers on college campuses, as well as though delivery to nearby residents and workers.
C3’s model will be to have its kitchens execute its range of virtual brands in addition to the brands that have a brick-and-mortar presence on site.
“We have taken a huge position in real estate over the last 12 months, and those will be the restaurants of the future, because they are not just the traditional restaurant brands in one location,” Nazarian said. “They are a brand with six or seven others in the back.”
In addition to C3’s current roster of concepts — which include Umami Burger, Krispy Rice, Sam’s Crispy Chicken, Plant Nation, EllaMia, In a Bun, The Other Side, and La Gente Tacos — C3 is also planning to unveil 17 new partnerships with other concepts during the next 90 days, Nazarian said. Those will include both acquisitions and joint ventures, and will add to the portfolio of concepts that C3 will be able to plug into its various planned locations, both virtually for delivery and as brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Many of these new concepts that C3 is bringing on board are local, chef-driven fast-casual brands that have a handful of locations in a market and are seeking to expand to reach new customers and new markets, but may lack the capital or the resources to do so. C3 offers the scale and relationships with property owners that will enable these brands to grow efficiently, whether it is in hotels, shopping malls or C3’s own food halls, Nazarian said.
Tying all these concepts together is C3’s new mobile app for ordering and customer relationship management, called CitizensGO, which is expected to be unveiled with a splash later this month. The app will facilitate the ordering of food from the multiple concepts offered at each C3 location, which Nazarian said will appeal to groups such as office workers, college dorm residents and families with multiple preferences.
In addition to its planned expansion in Graduate Hotels, C3 also has been in talks with Accor, which is an investor in C3 and operates more than 5,000 hotels worldwide, about opening restaurants at some of its properties, and has also been working with another hotel group that has more than 200 locations on a similar type of relationship.
C3 is also planning to expand into shopping malls — Simon Property, the largest mall owner in the U.S., is also an investor in C3.
Nazarian said it was too early to discuss details about the potential rollout in the Simon-owned malls, but said he expects those to roll out during the next 24 months.
“That will be a very powerful way we will be getting those brands into the suburban and core urban environments,” he said.
Similarly, Nazarian said he sees food halls as another important opportunity for the company to expand its brands into communities. The company’s 50,000-square-foot Citizens food hall near the Hudson Yards area of Manhattan, which will include two full-service restaurants in addition to a selection of C3’s fast-casual brands, is one of 15 food hall locations that the company has secured for development.
“Food halls are kind of at the center of the hub-and-spoke of our model of growth,” said Nazarian. “They are a great way for people to experience all of our brands.”
For all of its locations, C3 uses data analytics and competitive information to determine the optimal combination of concepts it will open at each site. In many cases, the company will be providing access to concepts created by its chef partners, such as Dani Garcia and Masaharu Morimoto, that otherwise would be unavailable in those markets, Nazarian said.
At the Graduate Hotels, up to six different brands will be offered, said Acland. Each location will employ between 11 and 14 employees, who will have been cross-trained on each of the concepts offered.
Investments in kitchen modifications at the Graduate Hotel locations will be minimal, he said, although some upgrades and specialized equipment may be needed, as well as the technologies that will connect to its ordering systems.
He said the economics of operating in the hotel spaces would be comparable to the economics of operating out of ghost kitchens.
“We carefully design our brand concepts to be adaptable to all kitchen formats, whether it’s hotel, commercial ghost kitchen, or otherwise,” he said.