Will the sharing economy eat into your foodservice business?

When you hear the term “the sharing economy,” do you immediately think of Uber and Airbnb? If you’re in the restaurant or food service business, you should also be thinking Feastly, EatWith, or any number of non-traditional dining platforms that have popped up recently, eager to disrupt your industry and take your revenue. Because while the jury is still out (sometimes literally) on the future of the sharing economy in the foodservice business, it must be taken seriously – and focusing on the customer is key.

What is the sharing economy in foodservice?

The first word that describes the sharing economy overall is “growing.” A recent survey by a major business consultancy notes that while only 19% of consumers have participated in what’s also called the P2P or “person-to-person” economy, 72% say they see themselves participating in the next two years. Younger consumers – your future marketplace – are especially excited about doing business this way.

That’s why, instead of making a reservation at your restaurant or calling for carry out, patrons hungry for food and adventure are turning to Feastly, which offers up “rising chefs” cooking at pop-up locations or just private homes. And travelers are booking tiny tables around the globe via EatWith, so they can “Taste the world with locals.”

What consumer desires does it satisfy?

As with ride and room sharing services, P2P dining caters as much to a desire for adventure, authenticity, convenience and control as it does to cost (because dining at a chef’s pop-up isn’t exactly fast-food cheap). Given the nature of the coming crop of consumers, those desires are only likely to expand as market forces, both in foodservice and across the economy as a whole.

Of course, these new, and often part-time, players face some obstacles of their own. For instance, a 59-year-old grandmother looking to help pay her rent by hosting dinners in her own kitchen, found an unwelcome “guest” at her door – a cease-and-desist order hand-delivered by the local health department. Soon she was out of business, and so was Josephine, the digital platform she worked through, which didn’t have enough capital to fight the regulations.

Before you, as a restaurant owner, start heaving a big sigh of relief after hearing that news, you should also hear this: states like California, where the aforementioned grandma lives, are looking at legalizing these services.

How can you fight back?

Regardless of the legal outcome — and recognizing that there will always be somebody trying to disrupt your business – it pays to remember that, just as new thinking can take customers away, it can also bring them back. You simply have to be “the new thinker” in question.

That means constantly innovating your own customer experience. Could you provide pop-ops to boost your profile and creative street cred? What are you doing for special menus (variety keeps any relationship more interesting)? Have you invited special patrons, and influencers, into your kitchen for special chef’s tasting menus? The opportunities are only limited by your imagination – which is exactly what customers are judging you on these days.

Beyond the special events approach above, you can also fight back with new technology that keeps customers coming back, from table-top kiosks that lets people personalize (and speed up) their dining experience, to customized offers that can reach them via a high tech app or a high-touch, custom-printed napkin.

If you want to keep your market away from the sharing economy, now’s the time to get creative, get adventurous and get personal – in short, all of the things that P2P dining is dangling in front of your customers.

PwC: The Sharing Economy
FastCompany: The Sharing Economy is Delicious and Illegal – Will it Survive?
QZ.com: The Sharing Economy for Food is the Latest Thing California May Legalize