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2021: A year of innovation for the F&B industry

2021: A year of innovation for the F&B industry

2021 has been a tumultuous year so far, after a frantic 2020. However, the franchised restaurant industry has had time to settle since, and has come up with a number of interesting innovations to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 fuelled global pandemic.

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Words by Raghav Patel, digital content writer at Global Franchise

The main issues that arose in the restaurant market at the genesis of lockdown was that of social distancing and close contact. In an attempt to curb the spread of the virus, governments the world over instituted lockdowns, denying the restaurant industry the ability to operate.

But this industry has always been resilient and able to deal with external shocks. Franchisors and franchisees worldwide began to look for solutions to the problems brought by lockdown, and some are flourishing as a result.

When social distancing was the issue, many restaurants adjusted their processes to allow food to be placed on an area of the restaurant premises where customers would avoid any close contact with employees.

For a lot of legacy franchisors, they have been successfully operating on the same business model for decades. But the pandemic exposed weaknesses left behind by distancing measures, and many responded to this with drive-thrus. They were a relatively low cost, low tech and simple method to allow franchisees to serve their customers once again, but through a drive-thru window.

It’s not just what’s new; older restaurant concepts have been rediscovered and reinvigorated for the modern world. Automats were well-frequented across the U.S. but waned in popularity with the growth of fast-food giants in the 1970s. Taking advantage of the current situation, automats have the potential to re-establish themselves in the fast-food market for the future.

Many of these innovations are here to stay, as they improve customer service and operational management from the perspective of the franchisee.

Curb-side Collection

Since social distancing cannot be achieved with in-person dining, many restaurants around the world moved to a curb-side collection system, placing food in a designated area and allowing their customers to pick it up without coming close to any employees. The Swedish burger chain, Max Burgers, found this to work to great success.

“We have invested heavily in innovative solutions to help solve the needs people were facing during lockdowns. Take-away solutions, home delivery, drive-in, and digital ordering have been part of our business model for years, but the pandemic accelerated the development,” said Richard Bergfors, CEO of Max Burgers.

“We were first among our main competitors to introduce curb-side collection, which means guests can order in-app and then have our co-workers deliver the order outside the restaurant. We also came up with a separate menu with burgers made particularly for take-away; the DeliVery Cheezy burger being one of the most popular. The new delivery solution both facilitated social distancing and pushed us to come up with new innovative and tasty burgers loved by guests.

“Curb-side collection has proven to be popular as delivery solutions increased by 150 to 160 per cent when the pandemic started. However, I firmly believe our new delivery alternatives are here to stay, even as society is starting to open, this is a convenient way for our guests to enjoy our burgers.“

Customers were protected during the worst of the pandemic with safe and easy-to-implement processes, but may have created a new way to enjoy fast-food well into the future.


The automat is a fast food restaurant that serves meals through vending machines, with the first ever automat opening in Berlin, Germany, though the concept laid roots at the advent of the 20th century in the U.S.A. A vending machine would take coins, and the glass flap would be opened to reveal the meal, typically wrapped in a waxy paper. The concept suffered in popularity in the 1970s with the rise of fast food franchises, but has recently made a return in urban centers with the likes of The Brooklyn Dumpling Shop.

“The automat was single handedly the greatest fast food distribution equipment ever designed. The technology we’ve brought to Brooklyn Dumpling Shop is unlike anything seen before, which will allow us to create an Autoflow from a customers’ cell phone, to our POS ordering kiosks, right to our lockers to bring quick serve restaurants into the 21st century,” said Brooklyn Dumpling Shop founder Stratis Morfogen.

“The pandemic delayed Brooklyn Dumpling Shop’s opening by a year, but this was a concept I came up with in 2018. I’m so excited to see this dream become a reality, which has been three years in the making and will now be franchised all over the globe.”

While the automat isn’t new, the novelty of the system will certainly appeal to consumers in addition to the painless ordering and collection process.

Ghost Kitchens

A ghost kitchen is a collective food preparation facility that prepares delivery-only meals and has no seats for dining. Ghost kitchens often include multiple brands working together in the same kitchen, allowing for efficient set ups. COVID-19 has accelerated the growth of ghost kitchens, and there are now 1,500 ghost kitchens across the U.S.A. Camile Thai saw them as the ideal route to expand into the U.S.A.

“This business model allows restaurants to use rapid scale-up and expansion strategies.”

“The growth in ghost kitchens over the course of the pandemic provided many benefits to new and existing businesses. The concept of a ghost kitchen is that they are a single location used to facilitate food preparation for multiple restaurants, to maximize efficiency and profitability. Ghost kitchens have the potential to solve real challenges for their restaurant customers, as there are massive benefits on the economics, setup, and ideal use cases,” said Brody Sweeney, CEO of Camile Thai

“This business model allows restaurants to use rapid scale-up and expansion strategies. Additionally, these restaurants can reap the benefits of lower rental costs, decor and renovations - in comparison to the traditional brick and mortar style restaurant - and engage in a more competitive pricing strategy.

“Of course, technology plays a crucial role in implementing ghost kitchens effectively. While all orders received come from online channels, such as websites, apps, or third-party delivery providers, an additional integrated technology system is required for accepting these online orders, processing payments and overall efficient kitchen management.”

Ghost kitchens provide flexibility and a low-cost operating model; budding franchisors will see this as the ideal way to make forays into a new market, and larger restaurant franchisors will see it as an attractive addition to their current offering.

Free meals for frontline workers

Front line workers have borne the brunt of this global pandemic. They have often had to thrust themselves into dangerous situations as their job demands, with little relief. Many franchise food operators saw this as a chance to give back to the community and help their neighbors make it through those times together. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit has given out huge numbers of free meals and donated proceeds of the sales of limited edition products to front-line workers.

“We always enjoy donating meals to frontline workers and first responders. We believe it’s important to support and celebrate those who put their lives on the line every day. We’re proud of the success of our First Responder Pack and Tribute Big Yellow Cup promotions,” said CEO of Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, Laura Rea Dickey.

“We’re even more proud that that success allows us to give back through the Dickey Foundation to support local first responders across the country. In 2021 The Dickey Foundation has committed to more than $130,000 in grants to local first responder agencies in communities where our owners and guests live and work.”

Companies today are expected to help local people in times of need, and this in turn keeps them at the forefront of their community in better times.

Heated lockers

Heated lockers seem like a no-brainer in these times. They allow someone to make an order, arrive after the meal is ready, and still collect a hot, fresh meal – socially distanced, too, if that is the need of the hour.

KFC has already trialled a non-heated system in Japan at four locations, and is making plans to introduce it to more in the future with the aim to increase automation. Rise Southern Biscuits and Righteous Chicken has gone a step further and heated its lockers.

“The heated locker system initially helped us in reducing guest and employee interactions during the pandemic, but shortly after we implemented the system, we analyzed initial data and saw near-immediate ROI from the locker installation,” said Rise Founder and CEO Tom Ferguson.

“The lockers are glass cubicles stacked on top of one another, each equipped with its own heating system to keep food piping hot. They’ve helped us improve consistency and convenience for our guests and allowed our employees to perform their jobs more effectively since orders can easily be placed in and picked up from the lockers, still hot and delicious, five minutes or an hour after the order is placed.”

“The heated locker system initially helped us in reducing guest and employee interactions during the pandemic”

While the impetus for such a change came from the pandemic, it is likely that more restaurants will incorporate similar processes into their systems since it provides consumers with a superior experience and franchisees a more efficient way of serving customers.

Immune boosting foods

The past year has put our health sharply into focus, and mainly the strength our immune system. Our built-in self-defence system requires the correct nutrients and intake to keep it functioning at a high level, so it can keep us free of illness and disease. Many in the industry now include ‘immune-boosting’ meals on their menu, which they claim can support and revitalize the immune system. One such franchisor, Koibito Poke claims its food can aid in just that.

“With the growing demand for healthier food options in a fast-paced world and increased consumer awareness about what they are feeding themselves and their families, the Koibito Poke concept offers something for every diet that won’t compromise your immune system,” said Todd Stottlemyre, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Koibito Poke.

“We offer a complete selection of food choices, such as natural fish selections and vegetables with the highest vitamins and minerals at the rawest form, that are specifically focused on boosting the immune system.

“Koibito is a franchise for entrepreneurs looking to own their own business who also want to be a part of a winning team that has a proven track record where they feel good about the high-quality product they are serving their customers.”

Consumers have been made more conscious of their health this year and have turned to healthier eating and drinking options, and likely won’t lose interest in this trend.

Jon Taffer’s Safe Dining System

Jon Taffer, the star of Paramount’s Bar Rescue and hospitality industry expert has developed a new franchise concept, Taffer’s Tavern, that is centered around providing all guests with an equally enjoyable experience, whether dining in-store or ordering to pick up. In collaboration with Carter-Hoffmann’s heated Pick Up Cabinet and Perfect Company’s technology solutions, Taffers Tavern offers a relevant solution to current problems in the restaurant industry, as well as a vision of how they can be in the future.

“When I created Taffer’s Tavern, I built a business model that included a clearly defined expectation and protocol for each restaurant when it came to safety,” said Jon Taffer, founder of Taffer’s Tavern.

“That became known as The Taffer’s Safe Dining System. Concurrently, I created the Kitchen and Bar of the Future that was held to these same strict standards.

“At the bar, all glassware is cleaned using CO2 glass frosters to instantly chill and sanitize the glass upon contact. And with to-go and delivery being so important right now, my patrons and delivery drivers don’t even have to enter the restaurant to retrieve orders via our thru-wall contactless pick-up cabinet. To name a few. My goal was to make Taffer’s Tavern the safest restaurant franchise brand to date, and with our safe dining system in place, I believe we have accomplished that.”

Technological solutions appear to be the best way to safeguard customers against unclean practices and Taffer’s Tavern has invested heavily into this concept.

Legacy brands introducing drive-thrus

Drive-thrus have typically been the only option to purchase any food from any fast-food outlets since the start of the pandemic since they already satisfy the requirements of minimal contact and social distancing. Established fast-food chains have operated successfully without drive-thrus for years and had no real need for them, until now. Cinnabon recognized the need for drive thrus and wasted no time in introducing them, to serve customers and keep jobs.

“We know that speed and convenience have been the new luxuries in the QSR industry”

“Our Cinnabon customers in Egypt are some of the most loyal to the brand in the world. We know that speed and convenience have been the new luxuries in the QSR industry. We are thrilled to be working with UBF to open the first Cinnabon drive-thru in the region,” said Beto Guajardo, president of Focus Brands International.

“When our customers seek a destination location to indulge in our ooey-gooey world famous cinnamon rolls with a friend or a family member, our cafes are available to deliver a warm and welcoming experience. But when they are seeking a ‘grab-and-go, I might take it home’, the new drive-thru choice is meeting that customer on their terms for the experience that they prefer.”

Innovation and changing with the times are important. Brands must cater to the specific needs of their customers, in this case, giving them a drive-thru option to quickly and safely purchase the food they want without stepping foot inside a store.

Limited edition marketing: Generating a buzz

Streetwear brands have made use of limited edition drops for a long time to great success. Brands like Supreme can find its limited edition releases selling out on the day they become available. The brand benefits from the sales to start with, but the huge buzz generated by the outsized demand always means people are left wanting for more. It’s both an excellent form of marketing and if maintained, can grow to be a useful source of revenue. Pizza Hut is the latest restaurant chain to release its own line of merchandise, called ‘Pizza Hut Tastewear’.

“We’re so excited to give our biggest fans a chance to show off their pizza love through fun, trending streetwear-inspired pieces that are still classically Pizza Hut,” said Lindsay Morgan, chief marketing officer, Pizza Hut.

“From the bejeweled pepperoni chain to the classic red cups, our team thoughtfully crafted the details to give fans nationwide a fresh way to show off their Pizza Hut love.”

This merchandise collection marks the latest stage in the ‘Newstalgia’ campaign and may encourage others to create similar marketing campaigns.

Co-branded locations: giving consumers a choice

Consumers enjoy the convenience of having all of their favorite brands in a single location, giving them all the choice they need. Some restaurant brands have been restrictive with their locations over the years, with some only opening in malls. However, in the last year, the parent companies of some franchisors have decided to open co-branded sites, giving consumers extra choice and reduced, shared operating costs. Auntie Anne’s and Jamba are two brands that benefitted from co-branded sites.

“Consumer research shows that our guests want access to Auntie Anne’s outside of the mall. While we were already underway with identifying ways to enhance our brands’ accessibility, the study results confirmed our strategy to co-brand this location with Jamba,” said Brian Krause, chief development officer of Focus Brands.

“Considering how the pandemic has changed consumer preferences, we recognize the importance of building our off-premise offerings and evolving our development capabilities to provide franchisees with additional opportunities, including co-brand locations that have potential for enhanced revenue.”

“Auntie Anne’s has become synonymous with malls and airports, but for some time we’ve been looking for opportunities to grow outside of those traditional locations to give our guests greater access to a brand they love,” said Kristen Hartman, specialty category president of Focus Brands.

Giving consumers all the choice they want, in all the locations they want is a strong way for a brand to grow during these slightly leaner times.

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