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Restaurant 2.0: “Food-as-lifestyle” is set to change the landscape

4 min read


The following is an excerpt from Paul Barron’s new book, “The Chipotle Effect,” slated for publication in 2012. Visit the website to get the full copy of “The Chipotle Effect.” Reprinted with permission by the author.

If I had to apply a label to fast casual success stories like Panera, it would be “food-as-lifestyle.” That is, for the patrons and the owners of these companies, dining is much more than a refueling stop. It is a holistic part of a complete lifestyle centered on a few essential concepts: speed, convenience, local and personal connection, empowerment through technology and health. The fastest-growing players in the fast casual landscape have embraced those ideas to varying degrees and found ways to help consumers relate to them in new ways.

The businesses that have been most effective in this new space are those that understand that what consumers want almost as much as food is information — information that they can use to exert influence over their food choices and make the greatest use of their time. That means media, networks and technology, but it also means an attitude that leaves typical corporate parochialism behind. Rather than erecting corporate firewalls and then hiding operations behind them, Restaurant 2.0 players show all their cards, saying in effect: “Look, this is how we run things! This is where we source our chicken and this is what we pay our employees!” This attitude understands that the customer remains king, and that ceding some power to the customer via Facebook and Yelp does not make the operators of Chipotle any less in charge. It does make them accountable, approachable and responsive, which is what this new world demands.

What if the world’s biggest restaurant brand, McDonald’s, were to embrace food-as-lifestyle? What could it do with its billions in revenue if it became more like Starbucks? If McDonald’s launched its own information network that informed local consumers about local health and nutrition opportunities, events and promotions, I believe this would change everything. Laugh if you will, but the fact remains that the Golden Arches are the leading fast-food brand to cross over to a healthier brand, according a 2011 survey of 238,000 consumers by my company, DigitalCoCo.

If McDonald’s were to fully embrace healthy choices from the ground up, rather than adding salads and parfaits to its existing unhealthy menu, I believe it would quickly become perhaps the leading food lifestyle brand in the world. That is what will need to happen for these old-guard companies to endure in this age of consumer empowerment, health awareness and powerful technology. To flourish in an era of agile, consumer-aware fast casual powerhouses, old-line behemoths like McDonald’s must disrupt their proven models and reinvent themselves according to today’s new rules.

A new consumer is in the house, one shaped many years earlier by an era of consumer-centric operations. Today she or he is an iPhone wielding, tweet-posting, video-producing media machine. He or she might be pissed off or highly enchanted, but he or she is not ambivalent. What we face today is something that the old-line food purveyors could not have dreamed of: a consumer who has the power to make or break a business, knows he or she has that power, and likes it.

Want more? Don’t forget to read the other excerpts in this series.

And check back next week for another selected chapter from Barron’s new book, “The Chipotle Effect.”

About the author: Paul Barron is founder and CEO of DigitalCoCo as well as founder of and Follow Barron on Twitter @paulbarron.