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30 Days of Blog

Technological Debt and the Pakistani Restaurant Industry[30 days of blog 15]

This post is part of my 30 blogs in 30 days series. More details here.

The future is grim for restaurants everywhere. David Chang, world famous chef and restauranteur, claims that the restaurant industry will not survive this pandemic. All around the world, restaurants are cutting staff trimming menus, focusing more on delivery and takeout, and as a result of trimmed menus, ever-green and cheaper ingredients. They have also embraced technology more around the world. Not only for customer acquisition and marketing, but also for internal systems and management.

Pakistani Restaurants, as you can guess from the title, have done no such thing. Even in face of crisis that has mostly destroyed this industry as it stands, their solution is to throw more people at it. Our culture is predisposed to casually dismiss seismic shifts, but this can be seen as yet another example of leadership failure. This dearth of innovation is not limited to management, it can be seen in the product as well.

An Example

Today I ordered take-away from a local restaurant. I called ahead before leaving for the pickup. Their web or mobile presence was not easy to get to, so we called. When I reached there, I was asked to take my car to the back alley. The alley was so tiny that I could barely fit my car through. It was also dirty, smelly and overall unpleasant. When asked at the back-gate, I was told to park my car ahead and that they will bring my order to me.

After waiting about 15 minutes, I walked to the gate. Where one employee told me my order was coming. Her ‘office’ was a chair in this back alley with a landline phone. It took another 10 minutes and multiple people telling me my order was coming, for me to get my meal. The good news being that I got the idea for this blog while waiting so long.

The Problem

None of these problems should have happened to my order. The employees were working the same as they were 6 months ago, before the pandemic. The food remained the same(mostly). The problem is management. Manage does not understand that this is not temporary, this is the new normal. You can’t just stick a band-aid on it in the form of land-line intercom and be done with it. Food preparation is a minor aspect of Restaurant business. The main aspects are supply-chain management and service. And this was terrible service.

Unlike the other industries, restaurants do not face that many hurdles in the way adoption. Their consumers are already ordering off apps, and there are few, if any, regulatory liabilities. Why are restaurants in Pakistan so reluctant to make their processes more efficient? Because like all industries, the management of the food service industry is filled with unimaginative dullards, who have been trained by decades of population growth to just throw more people at a problem.

Food Tech

One brand manager for a multi-national corporation once explained to me that margins were very thin in potato chips because of import duties. Perplexed, I asked, ‘But potatoes and oil are all locally produced. How can you guys have import duties?”. It was the flavour-packs. He explained there aren’t any functional labs that can produce flavour packs of a decent quality. Nobody thought that innovating in flavour would be a good idea. Same can be said of the restaurant industry.

The only innovation that we have seen in this space in the past decade is the food and decor is more photogenic, at least on the high-end. Most of it tastes the same. As far as I know, there aren’t any test kitchens coming up with new recipes. No independent experimentation. If it wasn’t for YouTube, most of the high-end restaurants would not exist. This also has wide-ranging cultural impact. Local cuisines have been relegated to the low-end ‘ghetto’, while high-end is ‘cool’ because it is foreign and hence, exotic. The colonist left, but colonialism never left us. However, as Halon’s razor states:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity

The thing that stops them from integrating IT into their management, is the same thing that stops them from experimenting with local tradition; a lack of imagination. You could get away with such thinking before COVID19. This new paradigm will not be kind to the unimaginative and slow. It is high-time we realize that.

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