So when the economy hit the skids, I started thinking about what could quickly change. What behavior have we adopted as a society that could quickly go away without a lot of pain? One of the first things I thought about was casual dining…America has been eating out a lot in the last decade, and I figured that could vanish pretty fast. The NYT reported as much this morning in this story.
In the last recession, there were scores of stories of small restaurants in San Francisco packing it in because they didn’t have enough customers to earn the bills. Then I started thinking…if these guys are hurting, what’s going on with The Olive Garden? (One of my darkest secrets is that I worked at an Olive Garden for a year of my life in undergrad. It was truly hell on earth, but I guess we all do things we’re not extremely proud of in college…)
Ironically, the year I spent in that place has payed me back in spades for the things I witnessed there (or didn’t witness). The thing about casual dining is that it’s built on the same principles as large-scal food production, it’s all about consistency and convenience. The restaurants would like to tell you it’s about an ‘experience’, but if customers were really interested in an experience they wouldn’t be heading toward a chain restaurant for dinner – they want a sure thing and they don’t want to have to do the dishes.
The problem is that building these restaurants became sort of an arms race for coverage. There was never one new restaurant opening up in a neighborhood, there would be five. Which also meant it would be hard to hire a capable staff, which meant it was hard to deliver quality service, which meant business wouldn’t sustain, which means they needed to open a new store for more growth…If you think about this race for coverage, I guess it’s not too surprising they estimate 20,000 establishments will close.
Well, that’s a lot of high-volume, highly designed food service real estate opening up, I wonder how someone could capitalize?