The 10 Events that Most
Like life itself, the foodservice industry is experienced forward, but only understood backward. And since this business moves fast, rarely noting the innovations that propelled it, I’d like to share a short list of the 11 significant people, places and things that brought us all to the second decade of the 21st Century….
Harvey House Restaurants. He opened his first place in 1876, a month before the Battle of Little Big Horn, and eventually operated the first restaurant chain in America. English immigrant and former dishwasher Fred Harvey proposed a foodservice partnership with the Santa Fe Railroad company in the 1880s to be its exclusive foodservice provider onboard and in the train stations. By leveraging the fleet of speedy locomotives, Harvey’s food was delivered to his operations fresh and daily. Nothing was frozen, and little came out of a can. They served breakfast, lunch and dinner and the menu changed every four days. He originated the “value meal” some 80 years before McDonald’s, created a model for restaurant franchising that is still in use today, and was the first to tell us that “the customer was always right.” By 1886 Harvey operated more than 100 restaurants and 15 hotels over a 12,000 mile area in 11 states. He was also the first to hire women exclusively as servers, whom he called “Harvey Girls”. This was in a time when only men were servers and most women could find work only as teachers, nurses or domestic housekeepers. According to a website dedicated to his achievements, Fred rationalized that female servers were more reliable than male waiters whom he believed had a penchant “to get likkered up and go on tears.” He eventually employed over 100,000 young women at his operations. Fred Harvey died in 1901 at the age of 66, inspiring later innovators like Howard Johnson. Harvey’s namesake operations faded along with rail passenger traffic in the Fifties as the automobile dominated. His company became today’s Xanterra Parks & Resorts.
The US Interstate Highway System. Inspired by the German Autobahn that he observed during WWII, General/President Dwight Eisenhower pushed through the Interstate system in 1956 as both a defense strategy and a way of connecting commerce. It expedited the distribution of goods, services and millions of American consumers across its 46,876 miles. “The US restaurant business is really a Post-World War II industry,” says Boston University Dean Chris Muller. “The democratization of the automobile, family travel, and therefore fast food and the hotel/motel industry, was accelerated by the freedom the highway offered America’s consumers, especially after 1960. Without the Interstate, Howard Johnson’s would still be America’s largest foodservice company.” Goods got cheaper and travelers grew plentiful—and hungry. The US foodservice industry was nothing and nowhere when the Fifties started, and everything and everywhere when the Sixties arrived. That’s why I Like Ike.
Television. When TV first became popular in the early 1950s, the restaurant and bar business suffered. Americans stopped going out to eat, preferring Swanson TV dinners and the novel free entertainment on the tube. Bars soon figured out to buy their own TVs to show the Friday and Saturday fights and the sports bar was born. Necessity is the mother of invention, and TV caused enterprising pizza parlors and Chinese restaurants to invent home delivery. And when Colonel Sanders and Ray Kroc hit on the idea of advertising their regional restaurant chains on TV, an industry boomed.
Greensboro Sit-In. Foodservice was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA for both the wrong and right reasons. On February 1, 1960, according to the Smithsonian Institution website: “Four young African American college students sat down a t a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service. Their request was refused. When asked to leave, they remained in their seats. Their passive resistance and peaceful sit-down demand helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South.” The sit-in continued for weeks, inspiring many other acts of similar civil disobedience. This courageous act occurred a full 3 ½ years before Dr. King’s historic March on Washington, and years before the Freedom Marches, forced school integration in the South and the Selma Riots.
The Drive-Through. Variously credited first to either Wendy’s or a McDonald’s franchisee who was frustrated that military personnel at an adjoining base were not allowed to patronize restaurants while in uniform, this early 70s innovation drove QSR sales skyward; over half of their volume is transacted via vehicles today.
TEFRA, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982. Sponsored by Senator Bob Dole, this federal act affected the full-service foodservice industry dramatically. Prior to its passage, the responsibility for declaring tips was on the servers themselves, not the restaurant. Many operators feel this law instantly repelled a huge cadre of professional and service-oriented servers from our industry who had transformed it, and that the quality of servers and service has never quite been the same. Four years later, the Tax Reform Act of 1986 was also enacted, eliminating 100% business meal deductions causing many a restaurant to fade as quickly as the three-martini lunch.
Food safety, packaging and refrigeration. The innovations in foodservice safety, packaging and design—ranging from canned goods to HAACP to sous vide and takeout–has facilitated less waste, more yield, and higher sales. Recent innovative packaging changed the very nature of menu design and delivery, creating kitchen assembly systems versus prep and scratch systems which saved money and improved quality at chain restaurants. In recent memory, it’s hard to imagine Starbucks success (three billion coffees to go sold annually) without Solo having first invented the lid that allowed seamless portable sipping without ripping.
Segmenting. Sixty years ago there were two kinds of restaurants: coffeshopsor dinnerhouses. Today we have QSR, fast-casual, fine-dining, polished casual, etcetera. In the words of noted gourmand Sly Stone: “Different strokes for different folks, and so on and so on.”
Customer Serfs. The secret to foodservice productivity in 2011? You. To combat rising and unsustainable labor costs in the 1980s, quick-service chains—led by Burger King—eliminated a dining area attendant position and installed strategically placed garbage cans and signage that encouraged patrons to bus their own tables. It caught on and is now standard in 100% of all QSR and fast casual restaurants today. Fountain-beverage vendors took note and surmised that if customers were willing to self-clean, they’d be happy to self-serve, and the dining area fountain beverage dispenser became ubiquitous. This created both “customer serfs” and the concept of patron as productivity partner. Brilliant.
The Internet and Social Media. “On the plus side of the Internet you have on-line ordering, hiring and screening tools, integrated back office systems, expedited inventory and reservations, , direct order entry by either managers or DSRs, online menu viewing, volumes of positive feedback and customer reviews,” says Wayne Vandewater, Applebee’s Executive Director of Training. “On the other hand, a not-so-great guest experience can lead to a discussion thread of five million hits in a matter of days. So much for the days when we worried about one dissatisfied guest telling ten other people.” Once regarded as the sexy foreign cousin of marketing, social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and others went mainstream last year and have been integrated into every foodservice chains marketing budget and strategies.
Tablets. The iPad changed everything and its imitators and competitors will soon make the traditional paper menu obsolete. Why hand someone a static paper-based menu with a photo or two when you can offer a three-dimensional, interactive multimedia merchandising machine that features tantalizing video of each entrée and beverage, featuring detailed preparation steps and ingredients, and upselling? Integrate the right pricing algorithm, and menu prices will adjust based on customer traffic, current inventory, budget goals, or when a customer approaches a preset check average hurdle (“Buy an extra dessert to go and get 1000 bonus points added to your frequent diner card!”). Want a coupon tailored to your tastes for a future visit? Click. Want to pay at the table and leave feedback on your visit? Click. Click. The digital menu pad/tablet may even replace the servers with food runners instead, simultaneously solving two of the industry’s endemic bugaboos: labor and turnover.
Thanks to Tony Gressak, Skip Sack, Doug Coen, Toni Quist, Carl Howard, and Tony Hughes for their expertise and contributions to this article.
An abridged version of this article first appeared in Jim’s column in Nation’s Restaurant News. Follow Jim on Twitter (@Sullivision) or visit his website for free podcasts, videos, training tips, leadership insight, enewsletters and product catalog at www.sullivision.com