As Chain Store Guide winds up its celebration of 80 years in business, it’s interesting to take a look back through the decades and observe the trends that have developed and are still affecting consumers today. Some of the more significant developments include:



From the 1930s until well into the 1950s, most restaurants were cafeterias, traditional diners, or mom-and-pop corner cafés or coffee shops serving American comfort food. Dining out was a luxury for many, and restaurant chains were just beginning to gain a foothold. As Americans became more mobile, baby boomers took to the highways and streets in record numbers in their brand new cars. Companies such as McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC, and many others seized an opportunity to offer a limited but consistent food selection in a convenient fast format. Brands such as Bob Evans and Denny’s also opened their doors for the first time, inviting the newly-returned war veterans and their families to a welcoming full-service sit-down environment.


Food on the Go

Until the mid-50s, most restaurants served food that was consumed using a fork and knife while the diners sat at a table. This style was not conducive to the fast-paced lifestyle that was developing, and the burgers and chicken fast food that were becoming available were just the beginning of an entirely new concept: dashboard dining. The 40,000-location Subway chain began as a single shop in 1965, signaling the beginning of a whole new era in foodservice. It’s difficult now to imagine a world where there wasn’t a Subway on every corner or inside every convenience store. Tacos, burritos, gyros, fish, chicken, sandwiches of all types, even pizza are now hand food that can be bought and eaten on the road.


Casual Dining

Along with the fast-food chains, recent decades have seen the growth of the full-service casual dining chains such as Applebee’s, Chili’s, and Olive Garden. These restaurants typically have a themed décor and food to match, and unlike the older family dining spots like Bob Evans and Denny’s, they almost always offer full bar service. As baby boomers started graduating from college in record numbers in the late 60s and into the 70s, women accounted for an increasingly large part of the workforce:  according to U.S. government numbers, the participation rate of married women jumped from 27.6% in 1960 to 39.7% in 1970 up to 54.1% by 1980. Married women often have families so this movement of women into the workplace began to signal the increasing importance of quality time with loved ones. Unlike the formal luxury dining experienced in the first half of the century, patrons of casual restaurants face no dress code, don’t have to leave the children at home, and can enjoy a full meal at a reasonable price.


Popularity of Ethnic Food

Given the “melting pot” nature of the U.S. population, it’s not surprising that there have always been pockets of ethnic dining, exemplified by Chinatown in New York City and San Francisco, Little Italy in Baltimore, and Little Saigon in various cities around the country. Pizza and pasta made it into mainstream dining after World War 2 as returning veterans remembered their time in Italy. Benihana, a Japanese-inspired teppanyaki restaurant, was founded in the mid-1960s, and Panda Express debuted in the early 1970s. Taco Bell was founded in 1953, and a few decades later, the appetite was growing for food inspired by our southern neighbors. Taco Mayo, Taco Cabana, and Taco Maker all began operations in the late 1970s. Chili’s, Hacienda Mexican Restaurants, El Toro, Azteca, and many others arrived on the scene during that decade as well. Recent years have seen a rise in interest in Greek/Mediterranean cuisine, and we’re starting to see some regional chains develop to meet that demand.


Gourmet Everything

Once upon a time, not that many decades ago, a cup of coffee at a diner was a nickel (or maybe a dime), with free refills! Now a large specialty coffee drink from Starbucks costs $5-6. The first McDonald’s burger cost $.15 and stayed below $1.00 until the 1990s. A made-to-order burger at Five Guys Burgers & Fries now will cost you $4-5. Chicken wings were once considered trash and were thrown away or used to make stock. Thanks to chains such as Buffalo Wild Wings and Wingstop, Buffalo wings are standard party fare and consumed by the millions each year. Cupcakes were the domain of birthday parties and afternoon teas. A single signature cupcake from a specialty chain such as Crumbs costs $4 or more. Even centuries-old staples such as ice cream and cinnamon rolls have been gourmet-fied by companies such as Cold Stone Creamery, Marble Slab Creamery, and Cinnabon.


The Rise of the Machine

In 1999 I attended several seminars at the National Restaurant Association’s annual show regarding the state of the industry and projections for the 21st century. At that time, the point was made that the foodservice industry was finding it difficult to remain high touch and become high tech at the same time. As a result, the industry’s operators were considerably behind the rest of retail in adapting technology into their businesses. Wait lists were maintained on paper and patrons were paged verbally when their names came to the top of the list. Food orders were typically hand-written by the server then carried into the kitchen. The bill was calculated and processed by a cash register. Just over a decade later, customers placed on the wait list now are usually given a paging device that allows them to relax, go elsewhere to shop, or even play games on the device until their name comes up. You’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant of any size that doesn’t have a POS system in place, often connecting front- and back-of-house operations. Chili’s and Applebee’s recently announced plans to install tablets at each table, allowing customers to order and pay their bills without having to wait for a server. The tablets also incorporate games to help keep children occupied before and after dinner. The chains state that they don’t expect staffing levels to be affected by this move, but it’s difficult to consider these devices contributing to a high touch environment.


What changes are on tap for this volatile market? Consumers will continue to seek out the new, the exotic, and the delicious, with the Food Network and The Cooking Channel continuing to whet everyone’s appetite. Sustainable food sources and locally grown products are likely to continue to be in high demand. It’s almost a guarantee that technology will continue to evolve, allowing managers to focus on customer interactions instead of the time-consuming bookkeeping and clerical functions inherent in running a business.


However, despite all the changes in the ‘how’ and ‘where’ of the restaurant business, at its core the foodservice industry has changed little since its early origins – it’s still about people who want to serve their customers good food, regardless of its origins or how it’s prepared. This is one paradigm that will not change.