From the Introduction – pages 6 – 9
Doug Stephen, president of Winnipeg’s WOW! Hospitality Concepts, keen industry observer and the first person with whom I discussed The Next Course, expects we’ll see as much change in the restaurant sector in the coming decade as we have over the past thirty years.
That view is shared widely, with expert consensus that world-changing incidents—rapid urbanization and regular climate challenges, including those affecting food production, along with evolving technological and demographic impacts on the global workforce—are headed our way faster than most of us realize. Additionally, we can expect the acceleration of automation, urban agriculture, cultured meats, alternate (read “insect”) proteins, 3D-printed entrées and drone delivery systems to become mainstream components of the foodservice future—indeed, some already are.
How will these events and developments shape the industry in the long term? And who’s best positioned to influence (or deflect) their impact on sustainable growth for indie cafés, multi-unit systems and everything in between? In my experience, responses to those questions are informed by the scale and level at which one participates in this completely unique business, and one’s perspective on its potential for change.
My point of view has been informed by my post-broadcasting career path, from New York City culinary school, to internship in Mougins, France, to assorted kitchen jobs and back to media as a writer and editor for a national restaurant trade magazine—a great education on how the various aspects of this industry connect. Upon landing in Vancouver in 2000, I fell in with some avid proponents of local, sustainable food systems and soon after started a not-for-profit program—Green Table Network—to help restaurants “go green,” all while building connections with chefs, operators, local governments, manufacturers, trade associations and other early adopters of a more efficient way forward. I’ve learned a couple of core truths along the way, one about the industry and the other about the urban future.
First, while most restaurant operations or concepts do their utmost to differentiate themselves from the competition, it’s safe to say that, behind the kitchen door, they are essentially the same in terms of business model, operating principles, supplier relationships and the like. That’s not to say a fine-dining desti- nation runs the same way as a quick-service kiosk, but it’s more that they’re variations on a theme than they are distinct models. This common ground extends geographically as well; whether the neighbourhood café is in Winnipeg’s West End or New York City’s East Village, the gears in each place mesh much the same way. So, while a globe-trotting “research tour” of dining spots (à la Anthony Bourdain) wouldn’t have been any hardship, most of what I needed to explore for The Next Course is here in my soggy home turf of Vancouver, British Columbia…which leads directly to the second truth, or new reality.
Economists and environmentalists agree that cities and emerging mega-cities (with 20 million–plus residents) are best equipped to meet the tough-slogging challenges of our future, with its unstable climate. This assertion is supported by demographic scale alone: the United Nations predicts that 75 per cent of an estimated 9 billion global citizens will reside in mega-cities by 2050. Therefore, any reimagined or reinvented model restaurant would do well to focus its business at street level, and explore local opportunities for collaboration and synergy to better feed the multitudes within its city or regional limits.
As it happens, not only does the City of Vancouver aim to be the planet’s “greenest city” by 2020, but its regional district of twenty-one municipalities (called Metro Vancouver) has ambitions to rank among global leaders in sustainable urban development. It’s fertile ground for research and development (R&D) into innovative, regionally driven business solutions, including those that benefit the foodservice sector. The city has also been a long-time hub of activity and investment in local and regional food system development, and is home to many expert hands with been-there-tried-that experience. And, for a relatively small place, its vibrant restaurant sector lacks for nothing: from world-class fine-dining rooms to leading-edge farm-to-table bistros to handcrafted pop-up joints to food trucks to homey old-school family restaurants and any other trend or concept you can chow down on. It could readily stand in for its peers in modern metropolitan dining.
Therefore, Vancouver is a more-than-appropriate “test kitchen” and case study for The Next Course. The following pages feature many leading voices in Vancouver’s restaurant sector, along with those of expert consultants, suppliers and manufacturers supporting the entire industry. There’ll also be the occasional “appearance” by a high-profile newsmaker (Danny Meyer, René Redzepi, Kimbal Musk, et al.) and voices from Winnipeg, Manitoba, my hometown, when a family visit provided an opportunity to compare the commonalities of each market.
There’s one proviso to this state-of-the-industry snapshot, however. As with other retail sectors with national or offshore corporate interests, multinational chain restaurants are effectively untethered to the particular challenges of the communities in which they operate (though their franchisees may not be—more on that later). While their substantial operations have impact across all aspects of the industry, the majority of these chains have, to date, rarely participated in the development of local policies or invested in local or regional food systems and infrastructure. Given the indications that our urban future will be primarily locally sourced, multinational operators (save one Canadian upstart) are not part of this discussion, though I hope that, too, will change in the future.
Since that storefront start-up in Paris, commercial foodservice operations have become a vital and increasingly essential element of urban life. With its professional culinary and service standards, the industry is well positioned to thrive and be integral to every healthy, sustainable community of the future.
However, just as we expect more from the other essentials of modern living (housing, transportation, telecommunication, and so on), the restaurant’s core design and business model would clearly benefit from timely innovation and, in the best-case scenario, a collaborative effort with its many stakeholders.
Spurring innovation in an industry this diverse is a complex process, but there is a simple way to start: ask a few good questions. Then ask even better questions as a way to unlock real innovation. In order to answer the big question of “What is the future of the restaurant?” I posed a series of smaller questions to the afore-mentioned leaders in Vancouver’s foodservice industry: chefs, restaurateurs, multi-unit operators, front-of-house specialists. I also asked equipment manufacturers, growers, distributors, and community and civic officials throughout Metro Vancouver and elsewhere.
The two topics that prompted the most discussion are the industry’s primary building blocks, food and labour, with next-generation technologies and community relationships not far behind. As you’d expect, not everyone agrees on the best way(s) forward but, given what’s increasingly at stake, everyone wants to be ready for the next course.