Investing In Community: What Does the Future of Small Business Retail Look Like?

Oct 14, 2022

CDA CEO, Lauren Chipman, recently spoke at The FED experience –– an invitation-only event that brings together everyone involved in foodservice, from operators, dealers, and consultants, to restaurant designers, architects, chain development executives, and more for two days of networking and interactive thought leadership discussions. This year's theme was "The Future is Now," which included presentations in a TED-Talk-style from expert speakers across the foodservice landscape, as they shared quick, concise and on-trend thought leadership. The event featured both back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house decision-makers with key learnings about the future of the foodservice equipment and design industries. The following blog post was adapted from Lauren's presentation at the event.

While the fog of the pandemic continues to lift, business recovery on Main Street and Central Business Districts show new data points for a strong rebound, even in the face of inflation. Small businesses truly are the lifeblood of the US, with two-thirds of net new jobs in the United States and 44% of US economic activity.

Even though we anecdotally think of big box stores as taking the lion’s share of consumer dollars, the numbers are indicating that people are still shopping small. Main Street businesses remain positive in revenue forecasts with well over 50% of business owners expecting revenue forecasts to increase, even in light of the current economic environment.

Convenient Mobile Access

In exploring explanations for this behavior, it’s important to look at an emerging Dispersion Economy and the changing geography of workers. The Dispersion Economy follows an era defined by globalization and digitization, and is described as the distribution of products and services over a wider area where and when they are needed most. This results in the bypassing of gatekeepers, removing unnecessary friction and cost. With over 58% of all Americans having the ability to work from home at least one day a week, our home offices have morphed from private spaces to main spaces, and workers have the ability to frictionlessly order goods from their phone, pick it up down the street from their house, and be back at 'work' in just a few minutes.

On average, it will take someone about 66 days to develop a new routine and, when you think about the length of time since the pandemic started.... We're looking at over 900 days. That is a lot of time for the public to adopt these new ways of living! Throughout the last two and a half years, we are all well aware that customer habits and expectations have changed and continue to be part of the restaurant landscape. These key points are familiar to all of us by now; however, it would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge them as required to ensure a successful customer experience.

The convenience of mobile ordering has quickly led to wide-spread adoption from customers, with 71% of diners utilizing the technology on a regular basis. It is our role in design, architecture and operations to ensure that the customer journey is clear both on site and in the restaurant, presenting a seamless mobile experience that is continued in the physical environment.

When considering how that mobile order/order ahead experience is procured, recent surveys show that diners are three times MORE likely to pick up their order as opposed to having it delivered. This is due to a number of factors including delivery cost, wait time, and an understanding of how third party delivery financially hurts restaurants.

Paired with the growth of mobile ordering, loyalty programs have also gained popularity, with 94% of diners reporting that they are part of at least one loyalty program, ensuring greater repeat customers. And finally, outdoor dining is here to stay! The correlation between eating outdoors and health-safety is indelibly linked in customers' minds and we must find ways to extend the outdoor experience in climates that don't allow for dining al fresco year round.

Conscious Consumption

As we move into considering how restaurants can support the community, consider "Conscious Consumption” –– buying practices that are driven by a commitment to making purchasing decisions that have a positive social, economic and environmental impact. In a nutshell, it’s the fact that customers are buying into businesses both big and small that lead with their moral compasses, without compromising the well-being of workers, animals or the environment for financial purposes.

With the climate crisis looming and growing steadily day by day, diners are realizing that conscious consumption can curb the effects of human waste and pollution. Your customer wants to know that you share an investment in their community and that they can feel good about where their money is going. 

Climate change is here, from the heat waves and wildfires on the West Coast to the recent devastation of Hurricane Ian in Florida, these environmental emergencies are not only occurring closer to home, but are rapidly increasing in frequency. The public wants their local restaurants to acknowledge the change that is happening and to adjust accordingly with 43% of customers willing to pay more for restaurant takeout that prioritizes sustainability efforts. With the increase of takeout and delivery orders, we are seeing a proliferation of waste and 56% of people prefer restaurants that use eco-friendly packaging. Finally, 68% of customers believe that restaurants should have processes in place to avoid waste.

So the question is, for the work that we do, what is the designer or architect's role in supporting sustainability? The answer is how we communicate the brand’s values to the public and the types of materials that we use. Looking here at one of our recent projects, Next Level Burger is America's first 100% plant-based burger joint.

CDA's Design and Architecture for Next Level Burger

As you can see in the exterior photo, we are embracing many of those new dining habits, including permanent outdoor dining as well as an exterior pick-up window to ensure a frictionless customer journey for those taking their food to go. Additionally, the brand's commitment to fighting climate change through sustainable food choices is the foundation of their values. In collaborating with the client, we wanted to ensure that these values were front and center. You can see not only the message that by eating at this restaurant you are fighting climate change and doing your part, but that they use compostable packaging and compostable straws. They are doing the work and we wanted to make sure that the brand is getting credit for it!

In addition to caring about climate change and sustainability, customers want to know that the businesses they support are in turn supporting their community. In a recent survey from Culinary Visions Panel, 83% of consumers like to patronize restaurants known for treating their employees well and 73% of customers patronize restaurants that support their local community or causes they believe in. The transparency into the inner workings of businesses and how they treat their staff has been expedited with the continued growth of social media. This is paired with an emotional response and connection to one's community that evolved throughout the pandemic.

One restaurant, Bungalow by Middle Brow, has made this commitment to the community as central to their mission as hand-crafting incredible food and beverage. Located in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, Bungalow features handcrafted beer, pizza, bread and a space for the community to gather together. While architectural nods to the building's industrial past lend a feeling of authenticity to the environment, the team at Bungalow has embraced ongoing dining trends featuring a large covered patio with fire pits to warm guests as the season changes. They have also integrated their online ordering platform for takeout food to encompass in-person dining, allowing staff to engage at higher touch interactions.

Bungalow by Middlebrow, designed by our colleagues at Altus Works

While all of this is exciting (and they have been voted best pizza in Chicago, which is a big deal!), it is their investment in the community that truly makes them extraordinary. One of the first initiatives that Bungalow rolled out after opening was “Community Supported Goods.” Diners have the ability to add a “Community Bread” to their tab wherein they buy a loaf of bread at cost from Bungalow, and that loaf is then donated to a community member in need. Through this program Bungalow has donated over 10,000 loaves of bread throughout Chicago.

The restaurant also has an apprenticeship program for at risk youths ages 18 - 24. This 12 week program not only gives these team members marketable skills to further their careers, but allows them to be part of a team and have support structure through work. During the pandemic, as many businesses pivoted, Bungalow began selling produce and other local farm goods. Retail now takes up a large footprint in the front of the store and is an easy add-on (and upsell) with takeout orders! Finally, the restaurant regularly holds in-person events where they raise money for local education programs, womens' health initiatives and other causes that are in line with their values.

The day-in, day-out commitment that the restaurant exhibits inspires brand loyalty, therefore ensuring a growing customer base throughout the community. But, the question remains: how do you scale something like that?


Everytable is a fast-growing national QSR that focuses on bringing fresh meals at a sliding pricing system to address food inequity across the country. With nearly 40 locations on the West and East Coasts, this brand is committed to making a change in food deserts. The clean modern interior look is the perfect backdrop for the brand's messaging, making it clear what their goals and values are. Each location is approximately 500 - 700sf, with only one or two team members working at a time.

Everytable's sliding scale pricing system is location dependent. Whereas a bowl in South Central Los Angeles may cost $5, the same food in Santa Monica could cost $9. This pricing difference outlines an unusual experiment to address the persistent issue of limited food choices in poorer neighborhoods around the country. The higher prices at the Santa Monica store are effectively meant to offset smaller profits at the other location, making these lower-priced stores more economically viable. This variable pricing is part of Everytable’s Robin Hood-esque foundation to make healthy, fresh food available to everyone.

Another key differentiator from most QSR and fast casual brands is that all of Everytable's cooking is done in a centralized kitchen. To keep prices down, Everytable uses the tactics of large chain operators, building commercial-scale kitchens and managing its own fleet of delivery trucks to get food from the centralized kitchen to its various locations. It also has strategically placed smart fridges for customers to pick up grab-and-go meals throughout the city. To anticipate demand and avoid wasting food, the chain also tracks data about which meals are sold at each location, allowing for less food waste. Better still: anything that's not sold that day gets donated to local homeless shelters.

Although all these businesses have different approaches, their commitment to community is what ties them together. The restaurant of the future needs to be beautifully designed and functionally operational, but it also needs to stand for something.