I Have Seen the Restaurant of Tomorrow, and It Scares Me

The world is turning into one giant drive-thru.

Burger King of the Future
Burger King of the Future.

 Restaurant Brands

One of the sad consequences of the Covid-19 crisis is that the automobile has become the ultimate in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Christine Hauser and Judith Levitt wrote in the New York Times:

"The role of the automobile has been reinvented in the coronavirus era. Once just a way of getting from one place to another, the car has been turned into a mini-shelter on wheels, safe from contamination, a cocoon that allows its occupants to be inside and outside at the same time ... Mobile safe distancing has generated a new way of life — a society on wheels."

And now we are beginning to get an idea about how this will affect the world of design, as Burger King unveils its restaurant of the future, pictured above, "designed for enhanced guest experience in COVID world."

Autogrill in Italy
Autogrill in Monepulciano Italy.  Jespajoy in Wikipedia

It's a drive-thru on steroids, looking more like a border crossing than a restaurant. It also reminds me of those classic Italian Autogrills that are like bridges over the highway.

I wasn't quite sure how it all worked with the kitchen upstairs; I thought perhaps they drop the food order through the car's sunroof, or given what everyone is driving these days, they might just drop it into that vestigial pickup bed. But they explain in the press release:

"One innovative design option features a suspended kitchen and dining room above the drive-thru lanes configured to reduce the building footprint, making it ideal for urban driving cities. Drive thru guests have their order delivered from the suspended kitchen by a conveyor belt system, and each lane has its own pick-up spot."
dining out in the 50s
Drive-in restaurant in the 50s.   H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Another option is a throwback to the 50s, updated to the modern tech era, where one parks their convertible "under solar powered canopies, place their orders through the BK® App by scanning a QR code at their parking spot, and have food quickly delivered to their cars." No word on whether the delivery person will be on roller skates.

Burger King Rendering
Burger king solar panels. Restaurant Brands 

It's all a completely touchless experience; even the few people who might walk up instead of driving get their order through an automat-style window inside the very small pickup area or through special doors: "Mobile and delivery orders can also be picked up from coded food lockers facing the exterior of the restaurant. The food will come straight from the kitchen to the pick up lockers." And if you do want to eat in the restaurant instead of in your car, you have to do it outside. "One design option replaces the traditional indoor dining room with a shaded patio featuring outdoor seating for guests who prefer to dine on-premise."

The CEO of Restaurant Brands, which owns Burger King and Tim Hortons, explains in a press release that the world is changing:

"We took into consideration how consumer behaviors are changing and our guests will want to interact with our restaurants. The result is a new design concept that is attractive to guests and will allow our franchisees to maximize their return."

They are very careful in the video to show green walls and lots of solar panels, but the fundamental truth of it is that the restaurant of tomorrow is completely designed around cars as PPE, around touchless experiences, around plastic wraps. Back in the New York Times, Peter Norton explains how this will all benefit a certain kind of customer, at the expense of the others.

"There is the old cliché of the white suburbanite in what they think of as a dangerous neighborhood: They roll up their windows and lock their doors. In most cases, it is a response to a perceived danger. But there are also troubling implications; one is that 'safety is something we expect you to buy in the form of an expensive machine that is not sustainable and not affordable to everyone.'"

There is not even a walkway across the parking lot to get to that walkup window; if you aren't in a car, you are taking your life into your hands. This is something we have to get used to when we go to the Restaurant of Tomorrow, the Grocery Store of Tomorrow, the Amazon Pickup Everything That Is Sold In The World of Tomorrow: If you have money, you drive.

It's a World of Tomorrow with more cars, more parking, more plastic, and more driving as we all move around in our metal and glass PPE bubbles.