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  • Writer's pictureCullen Heater

The Future of Food: Exploring an Alternative Business Model

Ciudad de Panamá, Panamá

Monday October 12th, 2020

The View from my Window

Millie, the cat, and I take turns staring out of the windows of our 400 square foot apartment. She mostly looks at the pigeons, parakeets, and stray cats. When I look out of my window, I see possibility. I see potential. I see a cluster of 10 or so shipping containers nestled behind the Riba Smith supermarket in Bella Vista. This was Pucci Food Park and throughout quarantine I stared down at it from my window, and wondered about the future of food. My girlfriend, Vicmar, and I were among the first to eat there when they reopened after the lockdown; and, when we returned for lunch two weeks later, we learned that we were the last customers to be served there. Watching the closure of Pucci Food Park in real-time drove home to me the economic consequences of Panama City’s 7-month lockdown. Restaurants are struggling, and the response of the Panamanian government has left the entire industry without an answer.

With new health guidelines mandating distance between tables and limited indoor seating, and customers scared to return to the outside world, we need to start thinking creatively in order to rebuild the restaurant industry. I am not suggesting that I have all of the answers, or that there is only one way to succeed. However, it would be foolish to act as though nothing has changed when the entire world has been turned upside-down. The old model of brick-and-mortar restaurants was dependent upon full dining rooms and fast turnover. David Harris, owner of The Fish Market, which recently moved from its fixed location in Casco Viejo, to a food truck in Costa del Este, spoke to me about his perspective on the changing restaurant industry:

“Some restaurants have the space to be able to continue making money even with the new limitations… most don’t. I think people need to adjust how they operate bc if the new rules make it impossible to be feasible, they need to find a way… either by changing their location to something cheaper or renegotiating rent with the landlords.”

In the new normal, restaurants need to be able adapt to a constantly changing marketplace. I hope to start a conversation among stakeholders in the restaurant industry to find new ways to support each other and succeed together in the post-pandemic economy. Innovation is no guarantee of success, but stagnation is the surest road to failure.

From Discord, Make Harmony

(Author’s Note: to learn more about my three rules for reopening the restaurant industry, click the link and check out my article “Einstein’s Head”)

Fundamentally, I am looking for the answer to one simple question: How do we build a community around food? When all of the different moving pieces of a restaurant work together in harmony, they create an experience that is enriching for both the consumer and the owners. Can that sense of harmony be scaled up to create a mutually supportive community?

The refurbished shipping container-as-restaurant trend isn’t new; it began in 2007 with the opening of Red Fish, Blue Fish in Victoria, B.C., Canada and has since been replicated throughout the world. There are several food parks in this style in Panama City including La 70 and Coco Market in San Francisco, Food Bazaar in El Cangrejo, and the newly designed Food Garden Plaza in Obarrio. Small kioskos and fondas built into shipping containers are commonplace in PTY, and the mercado de artesanía at Cinco de Mayo is housed in a series of containers. However, in light of the new normal, the container park business model deserves to be reassessed.

Food Garden Plaza, Obarrio, opening October 15th. Home of the new La Empanaderia and more!

The modularity of shipping containers provides endless opportunities for different food businesses to work together, sharing costs and generating enthusiasm. However, it is important to note that, in the food park model, businesses should be complementary rather than competitive, working together to generate higher profits for all. In Harris’ experience working with the food park business model, the biggest problem that needs to be avoided is shortsightedness among the business owners, who often “don’t think about promoting the park” and are more interested in “competing among themselves.” This business model only works when people put selfishness aside and begin to work together for the common good. The best way for management to accomplish this goal is for businesses to be focused on fulfilling different needs. Nobody needs to eat three lunches, but I could easily be convinced to order pizza, craft beer, and ice cream from three different vendors.

Additionally, managers and restaurant owners cannot just wait for people to discover them. In order to stand out, restaurants must invest in marketing. “Honestly,” says Harris, “I think the owners of the plazas should invest at least $1000 a month on advertising. It brings value to the place.” You can have the best food and the best location in the world, but if nobody knows you exist it won’t make a difference- that means investing time and money into social media advertising, blogposts like this one, and an easily accessible website. Harris described an ideal food park like this: “Balance well what you have in the food park, but also what the park itself offers, you know… it needs to be comfortable and nice… it has to have a good atmosphere to make people want to stay.”

The indoor/outdoor hyrbid model of the shipping container food park presents an opportunity to create harmony from the discord of the coronavirus pandemic. It is clear from the research that risk of transmission is highest in poorly ventilated, indoor spaces, with high occupancy, particularly when masks are not being used. One of the most important tasks for restaurants in the new normal is to ensure that guests feel safe, comfortable and cared for during their dining experience. The food park provides an open-air space in which risk of coronavirus transmission is reduced and guests can enjoy a more relaxed atmosphere, while still adhering to all of the mandated public health regulations. This model also allows restaurants to make use of marginal land, such as parking lots or otherwise empty space, without the cost of constructing or renting a new building.

The Future of Food

For me, this business model is all about seeing the beauty and potential in something as ordinary as a shipping container. When you realize the endless possibilities represented by this simple box, your creativity can run wild. Nobody knows what the future holds, for the restaurant industry or for any other. Here is what we do know: in order to survive, businesses will have to continue to innovate in order to keep pace with a changing market. This innovation applies not only to outdated business models, but also to antiquated mindsets. It is in everybody's interest to work together to build something new, to create a mutually supportive community based around food. Businesses will grow, communities will be revitalized, and the tourism economy can be restarted if we make an effort to work together. All we have to do is learn to think outside the box.

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