The fate of our plates

It’s a thought that’s been bugging me for a while. A constant, inner cerebral nagging that’s hard to shake especially if, like me, you’re wired for eternal existential contemplation. The thought is this: “what does the future of the hospitality industry look like?”.

Now that’s a big question.

And I don’t have the answers.

But having allowed this thought to ping around my head for a while, I think there are some potential outcomes that are worth looking at. So here’s my punt on hospitality in say 2035.

Technology within branded operations, large corporates and eventually low end independents will drastically reduce the need for experienced chefs within the industry.

Everyone knows about the overwhelming lack of talented chefs across the UK. It is not a drum I need to bang. But with forward thinking global industries already talking about automation taking bodies out of the workplace, why should we think hospitality is any different? Right now we are growing meat that has never been an animal, printing food, programming robots to mimic chefs and generally advancing as quickly as humanly possible towards automated dining. As the tech becomes more affordable, business are going to embrace it with open arms. And why wouldn’t they? They’ll offer efficiency, reliability and consistency. The mantra of the profitable restaurateur.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it will take time; and it won’t be the rate of technological advancement that holds it back. It will be the public’s wariness of the unknown. As a society we’ve overcome bigger obstacles and if we leave the marketing departments of the multinationals to do their thing I’m confident that it won’t take much to get Joe Bloggs salivating over a freshly downloaded chicken burger.

Move over “ping and ding”, here comes “press and print”.

99% of high street restaurants outside of London will be branded.

Corporations have taken over the highstreet. Over recent years they’ve eeked over the 50% occupancy mark putting the independent operator in the minority, and with the ever increasing nose bleed prices of prime hospitality real estate it’s only a matter of time before that figure hit’s the nineties. Most single site businesses just won’t be able to compete and will, over time, get pushed further away from where the action is. There are caveats however. In the larger cities there will always be a certain percentage of fine dining establishments occupying valuable retail space, and the mid priced independents will find innovative new venues in which to ply their trade. Until their pop up is certified as “on trend” and they get absorbed by one of the big boys.

You will pay through the nose to eat real food cooked by a skilled craftsman.

As time goes by the public’s tolerance for mediocrity wears thin, as it should, and the days of the weary gastro pub and faux fine dining restaurant are numbered. Sprawling breweries and Pub Co’s will hoover up the crumbs as they fall and once again brands, or their franchisees, will secure vacant spaces like entrepreneurial hermit crabs. However, true chefs, one’s that have developed their craft to the highest level will have the opportunity to charge incomprehensible amounts of money for the experience of dining in a restaurant that cooks real ingredients with traditional techniques. In an expected age of insect based protein snacks and digital cuisine, an establishment that serves authentic classics made by an artisan will be the gourmand’s definition of luxury. This should be the case nowadays but the lack of culinary antithesis means that there is not enough contrast for people to appreciate who and what is truly good.

The “no chefs for the job” issue will change to a “no jobs for the chefs” issue.

With the above thoughts in mind it seems only logical that this is the case. I envisage the more corporate kitchen environments being staffed by people and not chefs. The act of producing the food will be deskilled, with such things as seasoning, timing and general preparation being the responsibility of the technology not the operator. People will be required to maintain, monitor and troubleshoot rather than mentor, develop and train. The few real hospitality jobs available will be highly sought after and will require a higher level of talent than is currently present across the 99% of food led business in the country. A simple case of supply and demand.

The above will cause revolution.

This thought is new. As this is the first time these ideas have made it on to paper I find myself musing on the possibilities. And if there’s one thing I know about hospitality people, it’s that they’re passionate, resilient and tough. If the above came to be then I am sure in my bones there would be revolution. Pop ups and guerrilla dining would be at the forefront of the rebellion, forcing this once noble trade to reassess and evaluate it’s raison d’être. Brands would take note and start devolving their identities, utilising lack of consistency as a marketing tool and ultimately heading toward their foetal proofs of concept.

It may be the cynic in me but I had to laugh at that last part. I can imagine the pitch at the board meeting. Discussing the tolerance levels of the inconsistency, devising a slogan that means “people cooking food” but sounds more progressive.

But no matter what the future holds, at least we can rest assured there will always be someone fighting the good fight and someone who lives for the P&L. That’s no bad thing, these entities feed off each other. The sweet and the sour. My only hope for the industry’s future is that there is balance.

Without that, the future tastes like chicken.

 

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