Industry News
Don't forget about the independent foodservice operator
Gerald Oksanen
March 17, 2020

It seems like major foodservice chains are often at the center of media attention: for example, who can forget last year’s chicken war between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A or Chipotle’s comeback following years of food safety scares? It’s the antics of A-list restaurant chains that seem to constantly create buzz. Yet the majority of restaurants in the US aren’t actually affiliated with corporations; rather, they’re standalone single units. These single-unit restaurants are a vital component of the foodservice landscape, which is why Datassential released a new Independent Operators Keynote Report.

The independent operator’s innate ability to adapt

Currently 57% of restaurants in the country are independent, according to Firefly (Datassential’s universal operator database that tracks over 1.3 million restaurants), and about half them are in urban areas, while a third are in the suburbs. Casual dining has the lion’s share of locations among restaurant segments, with quick service and midscale restaurants comprising roughly a quarter each. One of the advantages these independent restaurants have is the ability to be flexible – they can easily experiment and fine tune their operation as needed. According to our Independent Operator Keynote Report, over three-quarters of independent operators update their menus at least somewhat frequently to stay on top of the latest trends in the industry. On the other hand, larger chains often face hurdles like decision hierarchies, logistic considerations around scale, and long implementation timelines when it comes to updating menus and business practices. 

When it comes to learning about new products in the industry, distributor sales representatives are independent operators’ primary source for information. However, more than a third of them also frequently look to myriad news sources, customers, the internet, food TV shows, industry peers and other restaurants. The ability to quickly act on new information is ultimately what separates the independent from the chain operator.

Economic optimism yields operational improvements

According to the report, nearly three-quarters of independent operators feel confident about their economic prospects in the upcoming year. Many expect to attract new customers, experience increased visitation among existing customers and see check averages climb higher. This optimism has translated into investments poured back into these operations. Just over half of all independent operators have made major financial investments in the last two years and an additional three-quarters intend on making them in the upcoming two. These investments include enhancements like upgraded kitchen equipment, updated decor, and on-trend technology. The bottom line – most independent restaurants find themselves in a good place and have the confidence to make large investments as a result.

The importance of the independent foodservice operator

Restaurant chains innately possess an incomparable audience reach through their numerous locations and ability to execute large-scale ad campaigns. While the little independent café on the corner may make an awesome dish of quesadillas slathered in steak sauce, that dish might never penetrate into our culinary zeitgeist. Still, it’s important not to forget that many of our favorite foods and beverages were first served by independent kitchens before becoming the menu mainstays they are today. The Caesar salad, concrete shake, and lobster roll are all examples of beloved fare that got their humble beginnings at those little places around the corner. So keep in mind that while you might not hear about a single-unit business in tomorrow’s national news, in the near future, you could find yourself eating a new trendy dish that was first conceived in an independent kitchen.

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Gerald Oksanen is a senior analyst at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry.

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