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Expect the Unexpected: Experiential Dining

December 10, 2019

Original content c/o: National Restaurant Association

The counterpoint to delivery? On-premises dining that delivers a true “occasion.”

Restaurant Industry 2030, just released from the National Restaurant Association, forecasts what our industry might look like 10 years out. While delivery and other off-premises dining will continue to gain market share, it has an equally strong flipside: Customers will crave the social connection of the dine-in experience, and they’ll expect a big experiential bang for their buck.

People Dining

Our panel of experts surveyed for the report say restaurants that offer unique experiences will dominate; in fact, the experience may be the most important part of the meal.

That covers everything from super-personalized service and preferential status to unexpected surprises, uniquely crafted food and beverage, and engaging themes. “Ordinary won’t cut it in 2030,” said one panelist. Check out some present-day examples, and a few future predictions from the Restaurant Industry 2030 report:

Robot chefs. It’s started already. A group of MIT students worked with Café Boulud alum Sam Benson to develop Spyce, a fast-casual concept in Boston where the food is cooked by “robots.” The 2030 report states it’s possible A.I.-enabled “chefs” will even develop new flavors we’ve never tasted before.

No menus. Expect more customization. At Austin’s Restaurant Jezebel, diners answer questions about their personal taste preferences and Chef Parind Vora will create plates unique to the table’s palate. (The Japanese have a word for this -- omakase, “I’ll leave it to you.”) In the future, this kind of information could even be data-mined and front-loaded before the visit.

Chef counters. Exclusivity, like getting a seat at chef’s counter, will always be a heady draw. Operations such as The Catbird Seat in Nashville, Tenn., and HIDEN in Miami,  are so exclusive and coveted that a month’s worth of reservations will fill up in mere minutes. Super high-end Anomaly, featured on Tock, keeps its location secret until five days in advance.

Entertaining experience. Spy-themed restaurant, SafeHouse, with locations in Milwaukee and Chicago, requires guests to decipher unmarked entrances, secret passwords, thumbprint technology, and laser mazes. The tables at San Francisco’s Tonga Room and Hurricane Barsurround an indoor lagoon that has regular “thunderstorms” to complement the tiki fare and drinks.

Pop-culture pop-ups. Chicago bars welcome guests to replicas of The Office and SpongeBob’s Bikini Bottom. After the show ended, a pop-up of Gus Fring’s Los Pollos Hermanos from Breaking Bad drew 1,900 people in Los Angeles. In honor of Fleabag’s recent Emmy wins, Amazon recreated the main character’s guinea-pig-themed café for a Los Angeles pop-up.

Fur connection. At Dog Café, Los Angeles, guests can play with rescue pups. At the Wilson in New York, there’s a dog menu, served only on the patio, featuring ribeye steak with grilled vegetables and pan-roasted salmon.

Not-to-be-missed events. NYC’s Katz’s Delicatessen, famous as a film location for When Harry Met Sally, recently hosted a contest in which guests could compete to see who could best reenact the scene with Meg Ryan at the very table used in the film.

Where everybody knows your name: Expect the “Cheers” vibe on steroids in the future. Servers and managers will know customers’ preferences and dining history via wearable digital assistant devices from smart glasses to rings.

“With the continued growth of off-premises dining, we continue to hear our restaurant merchants discuss ways in which they can leverage data to customize and enhance the in-restaurant experience. Creating unique and special dining experiences to draw customers back into the restaurant is a trend we are seeing in the space,” says Curtis Wilson, general manager, vice president for American Express’ National Client Group.

Whether it’s fine cuisine for guests’ canines, ambiance ripped from a movie set, or having maximum facetime with the chef, restaurants are giving consumers ample motivation to announce, “Let’s eat out tonight.”

American Express is a sponsor of the Association’s recently released Restaurant Industry 2030 report.