What a week we all went through — the tension surrounding the election, the excitement of the outcome, but also the record numbers of COVID cases in Michigan and the nation as a whole.
I hope you’ve caught up on some sleep, that you are healthy, and that you’re looking forward to what comes next. The times, they are a changing, as Bob Dylan sang, and that’s definitely true for restaurants.
Adjusting To A Small Box Restaurant World
We lost our neighborhood Wendy’s in 2019, before the pandemic hit. It was generously described as “sketchy.” But if you were starving after a movie or a concert, the drive-thru stayed open late and you could get fries or a Frosty.
Because so many places have closed the past few months, I was surprised recently to see some activity around the empty Wendy’s building. A painting crew was up on ladders, and being me, I swung by to chat with them.
They told me they were part of a crew that Wendy’s sends around the country to maintain its locations.
In this case, they were removing vestiges of the aging Wendy’s brand from the building, and they also were giving it a coat of paint and doing some other repairs.
Did that mean the building would be sold, I asked? No, Wendy’s might put another franchisee into the location, the painter replied. If so, the building would be updated so that it complied with whichever health restrictions were in effect.
That could easily mean fewer seats — or no seats inside, he said. It could be a drive-thru only Wendy’s (which for all intents and purposes, it was, anyway).
Only a few days later, QSR Magazine wrote about that shift in this story. The CFO at Wendy’s said the company has “a new appetite to look at drive-thru only restaurants.”
Last week, we talked about places that have adapted to serve without dining rooms.
But, there also will be new places that are designed without them. In fact, it is already happening.
Smaller footprints = more customers
When I lived in Boston, I liked to drive out Route 9 to a vast outdoor mall with a variety of national retailers, such as Nordstrom Rack, T.J. Maxx and Cost Plus World Market. (I’m still waiting for an occasion to wear the Ralph Lauren evening gown I bought at the Rack for $20.)
Along the way, there were Dunkin’ Donuts outlets that sat directly across from each other — one facing east bound traffic, the other facing west bound drivers. The westbound side also had a Starbucks.
Only, this Starbucks was much different than others around Boston. It was a drive-thru only Starbucks — essentially, a box with an order screen and a drive-up window.
While you could sit outside with your beverage, you weren’t expected to linger. There were only a few tables and no seats inside.
Well before the pandemic, Starbucks was already shifting to a model where people would get their drinks and leave.
In 2018, it stressed that it wanted to speed up the time people spent in its drive-thrus, which was longer than Dunkin, Tim Horton’s and even McDonald’s.
Obviously, that plan could promise higher volume, but it also broke with Starbucks’ reputation as a substitute for indie coffee shops, where one latte bought you hours of time in a comfy chair or at a work table.
The trend has a name: small box restaurants.
It isn’t completely new: if you have a Checkers or a Rally’s where you live, you know that their restaurant part is basically a kitchen. And, it’s a concept that many drive-ins have used for decades.
Think about the A&W restaurants which still use carhops, like the one I wrote about in Dexter, Michigan. And Sonic restaurants are much the same: while there are some sit down Sonics, they’re mainly a drive-in and drive-thru proposition.
Transformation via shipping container
One of the most innovative concepts in small box restaurants is using shipping containers. The shift was spotted by an executive at PODS, according to this story in QSR.
During the early months of the pandemic, restaurants rented PODS containers to store excess inventory, like indoor tables and chairs and kitchen equipment that wasn’t in use.
Then, Chip Colonna, PODS vice president of national accounts, noticed that one restaurant client cut a hole in the side of a pod, and turned it into a drive-thru window.
The restaurant prepares and packages carry out meals inside for customers, then staff enters the pod, and hands the bag of food out the window.
Biggby Coffee is doing something similar. It has been trying to increase the availability of its drive-thrus, which it found did strong business during the first months of shutdown.
Before the pandemic, it had devised a way to put two shipping containers together, and add them to the exterior of one of its stores, creating a jury-rigged drive-thru, rather than a brick and mortar one.
Here’s how it is installed: a truck arrives with the containers, a crane lifts the parts off, and the containers are bolted into place. The new space is hooked up to electricity, and the Biggby outlet can be serving coffee in 48 hours.
In Utah, a soda chain called Swig also wanted a way for customers to drive up and get their drinks. It got its inspiration from the shave ice shacks that are everywhere in Hawaii, and which have begun appearing in Utah.
They created a scale model out of cardboard boxes, and measured the area around their stores so that it would fit into parking lots (the addition had to be 500 square feet or less).
Ultimately, Swig welded three shipping containers together, with room inside to fit seven or eight employees. Least anyone worry about sanitary conditions, an alarm goes off every 30 minutes to remind them to wipe down surfaces.
It’s fun to hear about the resourcefulness of these food places, even if the reason that they’re being resourceful is not all that fun.
It also has to give some satisfaction to people who are already doing this to know that others are following their footsteps.
I’m especially thinking of Zingerman’s Roadshow, the vintage Spartan trailer where you can drive up and collect your drinks, food and loaves of bread. Zingerman’s was waaaay ahead of this trend.
Prince Charles, a lifelong environmental advocate, talked about the idea of sustainable fashion in an interview last week with British Vogue editor Edward Enninful. There is a delightful video that I’m sure you’ll enjoy.
And, he spoke about the food world, too.
“I can’t bear any waste, including food waste; I’d much rather find another use. Which is why I’ve been going on for so long about the need for a circular economy, rather than a linear one where you just make, take and throw away.”
What’s pretty clear is that in the near future, small will be beautiful in the restaurant business, whether it’s serving ice cream out of a window as Rob Hess is doing at Go Ice Cream, coffee from converted shipping containers, or collecting your cheese curds from a car hop.
It’s a good short-term solution, and may prove to be a long-term one, as well.
I’m fascinated by the Scandinavian restaurant world. I didn’t get to eat at Noma in its first incarnation, but I hope someday to travel to Copenhagen and eat at the new version.
Likewise, I never trekked to Faviken, the fabled 24-seat restaurant in Jamtland, Sweden that you might remember from shows like Chef’s Table and Mind Of A Chef.
Now, some people think Faviken was just a tad bit precious, and I actually wondered if chef Magnus Nilsson wasn’t getting a little too much fanboy treatment from the culinary elites.
But I was intrigued by his devotion to seasonal food and of course, the thought that went into everything Faviken served. There’s an approach to modern cooking in Scandinavian countries that seems more mystical than elsewhere.
When Faviken closed last year, Nilsson explained that he simply wanted to do other things. And, it’s likely such a small place might not have survived COVID-19, anyway, even though Sweden took something of a laissez-faire approach to the pandemic.
Now, Faviken lives on in a book that’s a combination of recipes and essays about food, hospitality and the natural world. It’s a catalog of every dish that was served there, and there are gorgeous photographs of an intriguing part of the world.
You can get a copy from our friends at Coutelier. They can use a little boost, because Hurricane Zeta knocked out their power and forced them to close for a bit. Faviken would make a great holiday gift for someone who enjoys storytelling as well as food.
Stories I’m Writing — And One That I Wrote Last Year
On the most recent CulinaryWoman podcast, I wrote about my trek to find pawpaws, the delicious mango-like fruit that’s only in season for a few months out of the year.
I got to write about pawpaws for The Takeout, and you can read about their roots as well as sample a delicious recipe for pawpaw creme brulee. If pawpaws aren’t available where you live, you can order pawpaw puree from Bill Nash at Nash Nurseries.
Meanwhile, last week’s political events reminded me of an essay I wrote for ABC Australia in May, 2019. It might be easy to forget now, but many political pundits were skeptical of Joe Biden’s chances when he announced his candidacy.
He seemed too old, too familiar and too tarnished from past scandals. Some women resented him for his treatment of Anita Hill during the Senate hearings, years ago.
However, I knew people liked him, and I knew that it was going to take someone with nerves of steel to challenge Donald Trump.
“Biden may be America's best chance to bring back a much-missed political time, where Democrats and Republicans don't simply espouse public disdain, but actually work together on common causes,” I wrote.
As the kids say, my column seems to have aged pretty well. Congratulations to our president-elect.
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