Any time there is an extreme event in history there are always two camps of people: those that see difficulty and struggle in every opportunity and those that see opportunity in every difficulty. The world has changed whether we are happy with it or not. Entropy has occurred and our system will never go in reverse but rather evolve in a forward direction.
What is the future of the food and beverage industry? How will it evolve? I have read some pretty bleak prophecies from the Atlantic and seen some pretty unappetizing evolutions on Eater.com and they are likely all right and likely very wrong. So, I’ve decided to take a shot at it.
People have learned to cook! This was almost entirely a loss of knowledge for a whole generation…perhaps two. Suddenly people are sharing sourdough pics as much as they used to post their avocado toast. People have discovered grocery stores and CSA’s and local agricultural container gardens are popping up and selling micro-greens farmed in the middle of the city. Online sales are skyrocketing as people shelter in place and senior citizens are finding new comfort online and are retracting old renunciations of video calls and grocery delivery. They adapting for survival both mentally and literally.
Amongst the states beginning to open up slowly like a flower after a rain we are seeing an apprehension. We journey out into the wilderness of our own towns and cities wearing protective face gear, gloves and occasionally glasses or headgear. We feel like space travelers; we are aliens in our previous hangs. The insides of our old haunts have been retrofitted with ceiling height sneeze guards and all the tables have been scattered across the lawn. Our baristas and servers are unrecognizable beneath their masks and we avoid eye contact out of constant, awkward, unease dwelling in the depths of our guts that we do not trust each other and we do not know who is carrying the danger.
We still want to be normal. We still want to see our friends and hug and shake hands when we greet one another. We want to eat without a battery-operated facemask with opening mouth hole. How can we meet friends or just be around people without being nervous or paranoid? How can we have a casual conversation and engage in a chance encounter in a public space and feel safe? Many have turned to Zoom or GoToMeeting for their scheduled meet-up, seminars or Tarot readings and they love it. It satisfies that connection with familiar faces however it is missing the component of chance that comes with a visit to a café. Meeting a stranger, overhearing a conversation and jumping in or having to speak a littler louder and lean in closer because the hustle bustle of lattes steaming and crockery clanging is to loud in the background. Enjoying a shared and spontaneous live experience is part of what makes life and coffee shops and restaurants far more valuable than the food they serve. It is the social connection and creation of community through a few common choices that you all have made to put you in the same place at the same time.
This can all be reimagined in a virtual setting, a virtual café. An online space where you can schedule a private meeting or you can arrive unannounced and see who else is around.
An online platform for people to actually enter a cafe and talk to a live barista and meet a friend or meet strangers in a public setting through the privacy and comfort of their PC or mobile device.
First, the new user will enter through our café doors and can look at the counter, menu and even peer into the dining area to remain anonymous and decide if they want to join. They can even chat with our live stream barista and order coffee or products without taking a virtual seat.
Once the user decides to take a seat they will fill out a five-question form so we can connect them with other participants with similar interests. Then they can choose their seat and choose to: join a conversation, simply eavesdrop or be present while working on their own projects using the environment as background noise and not interacting with anyone.
You can custom your background, set up scheduled meetings with people ahead of time or drop in. Membership is free for first 7 days and then we keep it inexpensive – $3.50 (price of a latte) for a month.
You will see peoples faces as you do on Zoom or you can be in a private corner and only see faces if you scan the space.
There is an online marketplace where you can buy curated products – coffee and brewers for home. T-shirts and stickers to show you are in the club.
Chips, olive oil, tea, chai concentrates and RTD beverages, dry goods and tumblers are all on the menu. Alcohol will join the line up for states where it is legal.
Over time it can be expanded to be an entire village and you can choose different environments to meet in. There can be quests or adventures like finding the rest room or taking a wrong turn and ending up in a different world.
Eventually we can integrate VR and have it be like you are actually at a live cafe. We can impose the users face on their personalized avatar and develop an entire virtual main street with different shops and experiences through a single portal.
Option 1 – LIGHT – this is where the user can simply custom their background and have a meeting or enjoy the ambiance without exploring the entire virtual setting or join in a ongoing conversation.
Option 2 – DEEP – this is the deep dive where the environment becomes more of the purpose and not the meet-up or social aspect.
Revenue Stream 1 – membership monthly subscription – low amount per customer – potential high volume usership
Revenue Stream 2 – sponsorship from participating roasters, retailers, allied products
Revenue Stream 3 – using it as a platform where people can order coffee with the virtual barista and have it made by any participating cafe within 2 miles and delivered. The participating cafes pay a small percentage per transaction.
This is not a fully fleshed out concept with a business plan etc. however it is the framework of a system that could work and still preserve our service industry by bringing the café experience of environment and social interaction directly to the customer wherever they may be.
The true connection and magic comes through when there is a blend of reality with the fantasy. Real environmental diegetic sound along with a live interaction with an expert barista topped with the shared experience of having the same drink as the person your are speaking with through the computer.
Someone has launched a similar concept in the UK providing a virtual pub with board games etc. however they have missed the key component of connecting people, integrating sales of tangible goods with additional revenue opportunities. They also have little market reach so user membership is low which makes it less fun. You always want to go the crowded pub or bustling restaurant for your socializing so it is a better strategy perhaps to team with established brands that have a user base built in.
Always interested to hear your thoughts and perhaps discuss them online over a virtual coffee.