The Sustainable Restaurant Needs Big Chains Right Now

A worrying point that comes up a lot in conversation these days is that sustainability has taken something of a backseat while food businesses scramble to fight the pandemic. So it was encouraging to read this week that burger chain behemoth McDonald’s is continuing its sustainability initiatives and just completed construction on its first “net zero energy-designed restaurant.”

An email sent to The Spoon this week outlines what this “net zero energy” restaurant looks like in practice. The store is located on the Disney World property in Orlando, Florida. Among other things, it includes a solar-paneled roof, photovoltaic glass panels around the building, and an automated energy system and passive ventilation dining-room to circulate air and regulate temperature. There are also interactive elements, such as stationary bikes that produce electricity and tablet games for kids to learn more about sustainability.

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But hold on. Said bikes and tablets aren’t available just yet. McDonald’s said in its email that the new location is open for drive-thru and delivery, but like other McDonald’s stores in the U.S., its dining room remains closed. Florida being one of the new coronavirus hotspots, this will probably be the case for some time.

The biggest takeaway here, though, is not about the tech-forward energy systems in place or even the giant Golden Arches made of shrubbery (see photo). It’s that McDonald’s pushing forward on sustainability initiatives is even more important right now, during a pandemic, than it would have been a year ago.

Why, you ask? Because at the moment, the restaurant industry is collapsing around us. Data from OpenTable recently suggested that one in four restaurants will go out of business permanently because of coronavirus shutdowns. For the ones that remain open or plan to open, the majority of them are struggling to even pay the rent. One can’t reasonably expect them to also use what little margins they have to develop ways to make the restaurant biz less damaging to the planet.

But someone’s gotta do it. Otherwise we’re going to emerge from this pandemic only to find ourselves buried in an inescapable pile of to-go containers and with no clear plan on how to make sustainability cheaper and easier for all restaurants.

That means big chains with billion-plus-dollar digital businesses must continue their sustainability initiatives, pandemic or no. Just like Amazon will invariably influence other, smaller e-commerce retailers, the moves massive chains like McDonald’s, Starbucks, etc. take always have at least some effect on the smaller restaurant players. If the pandemic ever subsides enough to let some of the dust from the fallout settle, a lot of businesses are going to need help pulling their sustainability goals back on track. Those that can afford to need to start writing that playbook now.

Uber Had a Busy Week

On Monday, Uber announced it was buying Postmates for $2.65 billion. The delivery service quickly followed that news with an announcement that it is also is starting grocery delivery in the U.S. as well as parts of Latin America and Canada through its stake in Cornershop.

Put ‘em together and whad’ya got? A lot more competition for Uber to contend with.

The pandemic has blurred some lines between grocery and restaurant over the last couple months. But each sector still undoubtedly has its major players. In the world of restaurant food delivery, that includes DoorDash, which still holds the largest marketshare in the U.S. It also includes Grubhub, which Uber tried to acquire but who instead got snapped up by Just Eat Combined, Grubub and Just Eat will form the largest food delivery service in the world outside of China.

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Over in grocery, Instacart has raised over $2 billion, and the Big Big guys like Amazon and Walmart have robust online grocery services that got many folks through the pandemic.

Uber’s simultaneous moves to expand its reach with Eats as well as diversify with grocery speak to the boost the company is trying to give its food business now that the pandemic has decimated its rideshare business. Uber posted a loss of $2.94 billion for the first quarter of 2020 and also cut staff in the recent past. But its Eats business is growing, according to first-quarter numbers. The Postmates acquisition will give Eats a bigger footprint in key cities like Los Angeles (where Postmates is the number one service). Meanwhile, online grocery is still in high demand, and with coronavirus cases still hitting new records, that demand is unlikely to change anytime soon. Now we’ll have to see if Uber can handle the competition in both the grocery and food delivery sectors.

Automation’s Next Stop? The Ghost Kitchen

Two things the restaurant industry will see more of in the near future: ghost kitchens and automation. And if The Spoon’s fireside chat yesterday is any indication, we’ll see more of both in the same place.

Yesterday, Spoon Editor Chris Albrecht discussed the state of restaurant robotics with Linda Poulliot, CEO of Dischcraft Robotics, and Clatyon Wood, CEO of Picnic. While the group covered a wide range of topics in terms of when and how we’ll see robots in the restaurant, one of the most interesting takeaways was that these machines could speed up the order fulfillment process for many businesses while also ensuring a higher level of sanitization and better ways to keep workers in the kitchen socially distanced.

Wood, who indicated the ghost kitchen market is a lucrative one for robotics right now, at one point suggested a hub-and-spoke model where a machine like Picnic’s could prep food in a central kitchen before sending it out to smaller ghost kitchen operations for final fulfillment of orders.

My bet is that we’ll see more of this kind of efficiency in the near future. While they would never work in a fine-dining setting, where the experience is as much about the food preparation as it is the food, this utilitarian approach to food prep makes sense for quick-service restaurants and delivery-only concepts that are all about making fast food faster.

Spoon Plus subscribers can watch the video recap of this event here.

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