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The Future of the Fast Food Industry

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What will fast food restaurants be like in the next century? Will they be much the same as they are today? Many new ideas are being tested right now. Some of them will probably be used in the future while others will never be used. Will there be robots in restaurants? It could happen. McDonald's is already testing robots in some of their restaurants. Will fast food be served faster than ever? Drive-thru service is getting faster now with double window service and with some chains using one window for cash and the other for food service. Will there be a lot of new chains? If so, what kind of products will they be selling? Recently, there has been an explosion of frozen yogurt and charbroiled chicken chains. Probably some new products will capture public attention in the years ahead.

The distinction between chains is not as obvious as it once was, as menus are being diversified to please more people. For example, you can now buy chicken at hamburger outlets. By looking at some of the changes that are occurring now in the fast food industry, you may have a better idea of what fast food restaurants will be like in the future.


There is no longer any reason for a fast food chain to pass up an ideal location just because the lot is too small and can't hold a full-size restaurant. Fast food chains are now building some mini-restaurants and drive-thru-only units. These small units are very efficient. Mini-stores are also appearing in nontraditional areas for fast food restaurants.

Drive-thru only stores: The Central Park fast food restaurants are truly mini-stores. The stores take up only about 144 square feet, which is about the same amount of space that most fast food restaurants use just for storage. Space is so tight that only six employees can squeeze into the kitchen of these double-drive-thru stores. Two of the crew, work the cash register, another grills the burgers, and two work at tables dressing and wrapping the hamburgers. The last employee handles fries and drink orders.

The P.D. Quix stores are factory built. When they arrive at a location, they are completely ready to go. Only the utilities have to be connected. Then if the location does not prove to be a profitable one, the store can easily be picked up and moved to another spot. Customers can use the drive-thrus on either side of the restaurant or the walk-up window. Service is very fast-usually only 30 seconds because the menu is limited. There is no room for customers to sit in either the Central Park or P.D. Quix stores because the stores are all kitchen. Both of these chains will expand through franchising.

Mobile stores: Besides the mini-stores that can be picked up and moved, there are now some mobile fast food stores. These stores are buses which have kitchens. They can be sent to wherever crowds are gathering, like ball parks, air shows, football games, and fairs. This "new" concept is actually an old one, derived from the traveling lunch wagon of the 1800s.

New store locations: Mini-stores are appearing in shopping mall food courts, which may have several fast food stores sharing a common dining area. They are also being tucked into small spaces in department stores and airports.

Let the Customers Serve Themselves

Many people may not realize that they are now doing quite a bit of the work in fast food restaurants. Many fast food restaurant chains are converting to self-service options. Customers are putting together their own salads at salad bars. At Wendy's they are serving themselves hot and cold buffet food from the Super Bar. At other restaurants, customers are serving themselves at beverage bars and sundae bars. This trend to more self-service is inspired by the current shortage of labor as well as increasing labor costs. Besides, customers seem to like being able to select what they eat.

Easing the Money Crunch

You are out of cash and want to eat out at a fast food restaurant. That used to be a real problem. However, fast food restaurants are beginning to solve this problem in different ways. Some are accepting debit cards, which means, the price of the meal is subtracted from the customer's bank account. Others have installed automatic teller machines (ATMs) in their outlets, while some are beginning to accept credit cards.

Although it is possible to buy food with plastic at only a few outlets right now, the wave of the future may be cashless meals in fast food restaurants. Customers like the idea of being able to eat fast food when they don't have the cash. Furthermore, restaurants like the idea of not having to have as much cash on hand for security reasons.

Companies Are Getting Together

Many fast food companies are combining their products. For example, Mister Donut has become a franchisee of Tastee-Freez in Minnesota, Florida, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. This means that Mister Donut has the right to sell Tastee-Freez, and the chain is putting the ice cream in some of its doughnut shops.

The idea of one or more franchises under one roof increases the diversity of what can be offered on the menu. According to Restaurants USA, several well-known chains have combination units. The Mint Casino in Las Vegas offers items from Burger King, Haagen-Dazs, and Godfather's Pizza. Other combinations include Dunkin' Donuts and Popeye's and various combinations of the Dunkin' Donuts, Pizza Hut, Church's Fried Chicken, and Roy Rogers concepts.

Fast food chains are exploring other combinations. Forbes reports on Days Inn installing Wendy's units in some of its hotels. Fast food restaurants are also pairing up with gas stations and convenience stores. Other combinations are sure to become realities in the years ahead.

Nutritional and Environmental Changes

Fast food companies are now jumping aboard the nutrition bandwagon. Many are cutting back on the salt in their products and switching to pure, cholesterol-free vegetable oil for frying. The chains are trying to meet their customers' interest in health and nutrition. For example, Hardee's is now cooking all its fried products in all-vegetable oil. For customers who want to avoid fried foods altogether, many chains are now offering prepackaged salads and salad bars.

Fast food companies are also publishing pamphlets with nutrition information for their customers. At Arby's, customers can find out how many calories are in the Regular Roast Beef Sandwich, potato cakes, and other menu items. They can also discover such nutrition information as the amount of protein, cholesterol, sodium, saturated fat, and carbohydrates in Arby's food. Long John Silver's publishes a similar brochure.

Fast food restaurants are changing not only their concepts in cooking, but also their dining room environment. Many fast food companies have extended their dining areas with glassed-in areas that provide a greenhouse atmosphere. The decor has also become more important in these restaurants. Fast food restaurants are creating dining areas to equal other restaurants so that their customers who want to linger can do so in an attractive atmosphere.

Industry Experts View the Future

How do people in the fast food industry view its future? Christopher Raab, director of marketing at Tastee-Freez International, says people talk about the increasing number of fast food concepts and a glutted market. He believes that competition and diversity are healthy and that consumers and savvy marketers win. Raab points out that today's life-style is taking people out of the kitchen and putting them into restaurants. He thinks that as long as busy America stays that way, the future of fast food is secure.

Peter Tsuleff, franchise director of the Spaghetti Shop, sees fast food restaurants starting to offer more personalized service. He feels there will be crew members working the dining area, not taking orders but serving the customer who is already seated. The workers will bring the customers such things as more coffee, water, ketchup, or an extra order of fries.

Roger Rendin, field director of human resources at Burger King, feels that there will soon be more automation in the fast food industry because of a labor shortage. He foresees products being assembled automatically due to the changing population: there will be a need for more workers, and yet there will be fewer people to fill the jobs.

Employment Opportunities

The hospitality industry represented by 15 foodservice associations launched a program in 1986 to draw attention to employment opportunities in restaurants, hotels, and supplier companies. The first phase of the program, entitled "Ours is a Special World," was aimed at current restaurant and hospitality employees. The purpose of this phase was to build morale within the industry. It was hoped that the program would bolster foodservice employees' pride in their jobs and in the foodservice industry.

The second phase of the program, which was initiated in 1988, was targeted at potential workers in the fast food industry. This phase of the program was designed to celebrate career opportunities in hospitality among current and prospective employees and among the public at large. Ads for this phase of the program point out that the hospitality industry offers employees "a fast career track, on-the-job training, the chance to meet new people every day, room for individuality, and scheduling to fit your style." The last phase of the campaign is targeted at raising overall consumer awareness regarding the hospitality industry and the career opportunities it offers.

In commenting on this campaign, National Restaurant Association President and Chairman of the Board Michael J. Grisanti said, "The hospitality industry now employs 10 million people and is growing rapidly. Through the 1990s, foodservice alone will be the largest retail employer in the economy, and the number of people involved in lodging continues to increase. That means we need people and can offer them rapid advancement and rewarding careers."
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