The disruption of fast-food culture in America is imminent. If current trends are any indication, fast-casual dining may eventually replace traditional quick-service eateries, which struggle to win favor with more health-conscious and persnickety generations. It’s karma for what quick-service chains did to the American diner.
Experts predict that fast-casual restaurants — the middle-ground between traditional fast-food and table-service restaurants when it comes to price level, style, service, and food quality — will only become more commonplace in the near future. One can only imagine how these places will evolve over the next 25 years, but current trends may offer clues.
People of the future will most likely see fewer humans and more computers operating their favorite restaurants, according to Jeremy Julian and Gary Stotko, also known as the Restaurant Technology Guys. As executives for restaurant technology company Custom Business Solutions, Inc., the duo spends a lot time convincing restaurant owners to get with the times or potentially lose business — a dichotomy that will drag restaurants deeper into the digital age.
"[Restaurant] owners are seeing that if they don’t adopt technology, they will have to raise prices."
"Owners are seeing that if they don’t adopt technology, they will have to raise prices," Julian said. Julian and Stotko agreed that in order for restaurant owners to adapt to changing culture, wage policies, and technology, they will have to start making use of digital-age tools like big data, omni-channel marketing, and wearable technology. This means a world where chains can store all kinds of data about individual customers by being ever-present in their digital lives and learning their needs and wants.
With this insight — plus statistics, research on current trends, and help from an environmental and graphic designer — Eater attempted to imagine what fast dining might look and feel like 25 years from now. Join us on a visionary tour of it.
An Imaginary Glimpse into the Future
The year is 2040. Innovative millennials are nearing their 50s, eco-friendly Generation Z is stepping out of its prime, and the marketing world has set its eyes on high schoolers and college grads, aka "Generation Alpha" and all its quirks.
You are standing outside one of your city’s newest fast-casual sandwich and pasta shops. Your companion has been to this chain a number of times and leads the way.
As you and your friend step through the automatic doors and into the dining area, you immediately notice the fusion of contemporary design and earthy eco-conscience: Walls seemingly made of plants, bamboo counters, cork floors and solar powered lighting, all accentuated with colorful strobes of LED lighting. You would be impressed had you not seen this shameless attempt to appeal to Generation Z’s eco-friendly sentiments a million times in similar restaurants. What is more soothing is the cacophony of dining room chatter and strange electronic noises, competing with energetic rhythms of classic hip-hop.
Your companion retrieves a smart pad (formerly known as a "phone") from a pant pocket, and unlocks the screen. "Welcome back," a message reads. It’s from the restaurant’s rewards program, to which your companion, like many others these days, is a member. You look up to try and find the small black "beacon" reading your friend’s smart pad and delivering the messages. "You’ve earned 10 points! Get 50 more and earn a free sandwich!"
It’s time to find a seat. As you walk toward the back of the restaurant where the tables and booths are, you can’t help but notice the service kiosks to your right. You have flashbacks to the mid-2010s, when constant protests over minimum wage policies drove more fast-food places like McDonald’s to adopt self-service kiosks.
You realize that the strange electronic sound you heard earlier is coming from the row of kiosk screens, where several antsy young professionals are ordering or paying for quick meals.
Protests over minimum wage policies drove fast-food places to adopt self-service kiosks.
One young woman standing in front of a kiosk waves her smart pad across the screen. "Thank you! Your credit card has been charged!" The number 34 appears on the screen.
The woman brushes past you and heads toward a green, moss-covered wall lined with roughly 50 small compartments. You recognize these as automat-style "cubbies," made popular 20 years ago by groundbreaking manless food chains like Eatsa. The woman walks up to the compartment labeled "34," and taps the screen/door. The compartment door slides open, and the woman grabs the brown paper bag inside.
You and your companion have reached your seats at a table in the back of the room. You begin to sit before your friend stops you. "It’s dirty," your companion says. You look down and see a table covered in crumbs.
Your friend taps the table surface, a digital screen, which suddenly awakens from a digital slumber. Your companion taps the table again, this time touching a button that says "clean." Within seconds an employee wearing a name tag that says "Jaime" scurries over to the table. Jaime is armed with an aluminum spray bottle and cloth. You wonder how long Jaime’s job will exist, what with 90 percent of restaurants these days being operated remotely in corporate computer labs, and the average in-store staff size dwindling to three to five employees. You realize that Jamie’s is one of the few low-tech minimum wage jobs that exists — and reminisce about your first fast-food job in high school.
Ninety percent of restaurants these days are operated remotely in corporate computer labs.
You then notice the neon green wristband Jamie is wearing. It’s vibrating and glowing as he wipes down the smart table. A few seconds later, the worker looks at the smartwatch, which is now flashing "Table 7." You say "thank you" as Jamie rushes off to wipe down table #7 — wherever that is.
"What do you want?" your companion asks while placing her smart pad on top of the table. The smart table comes to life again: "Welcome back! Here are recommendations based on your last meal."
You let the table know your friend isn’t here alone this time by tapping your side. The screen divides in two and a menu appears. You start swiping the surface of the table, browsing through the restaurant’s selection of organic, whole-wheat pastas and fresh "artisan-style" sandwiches that are sustainably made with local ingredients. You smirk as you remember when "artisan" used to mean hand-crafted, instead of what it designates now: elegantly assembled dishes by robotic kitchen appliances programmed to mimic the recipes of famous chefs, and designed to cut back on labor costs.
As you tap several options to examine the nutrition information and ingredients, you also realize that most of the options have been customized to cater to your friend’s vegetarian diet, so you proceed to search for the restaurant’s full menu. After a while, you and your friend are ready to lock in your selections.
"How would you like to pay?" Your pal waves the smart pad over the table. The menus disappear and new screens appear. You watch in boredom as a news anchor begins announcing the day’s top national headlines. Sensing your boredom, your friend swipes left. A series of trivia questions appear. This time you swipe left, revealing some sort of game of Battleship.
You notice the charging station next to your table and decide that now would be a good time to charge your smart pad. You plug the pad into the solar-powered universal charging dock and continue playing.
"How would you like to pay?" Your pal waves the smart pad over the table.
After five minutes of table-side entertainment, your table alerts you that your food is ready. The number 21 appears on your side of the screen. You walk over to the green wall and look for compartment number 21.
Your sandwich and drink appear to be waiting inside the small box. You tap the compartment, but the door doesn’t open. Instead a message appears: "Download our rewards app and save $2 on your next meal." Instead of tapping "No thanks," you wave your smart pad over the screen and feel it vibrate as it downloads the app. The compartment door slides open, and you remove the tray inside and head back to your table. You spend the next hour enjoying your meal, playing trivia, and listening to the sweet, sweet sounds of hip-hop and old-school EDM.
"Ready to head out?" your companion asks while signing out of the table. You both head to the recycling area near the grassy compartment wall and dump the mostly paper trash into solar-powered recycling bins.
As you exit the building, you feel your smart pad vibrate. "Did you enjoy your meal? Please rate your experience!" It’s a message from the app you downloaded at the cubby wall, most likely triggered by the data-tracking beacon you saw earlier by the entrance. You give five stars, thank your friend, and head home, not realizing that this high-tech fast casual restaurant is already planning your next visit — with your favorite meal, entertainment preferences, and best friend in mind.