What restaurants can learn from Reddit, sneaker culture and FOMO

Alexis Ohanian speaks at the National Restaurant Association Show on Saturday. / Photography by Joe Guszkowski

In a 15-minute clip on Saturday afternoon, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian unrolled a series of quick shots on some of the hottest topics in tech these days.

NFT? They are like paper, and “we just invented the papyrus”.

Web3? “Fascinating technology” that could change the way artists get paid for their work (thanks to blockchain).

The metaverse? It already exists. “There won’t be a single metaverse. There will only be places where we spend our time and attention.

His comments have hopefully dispelled some of the mystique surrounding these buzzwords that have worked their way into restaurant owners’ vocabulary over the past year. The bottom line, he said, is that technology will continue to play an increasingly important role in consumers’ daily lives.

“You can guarantee that the digital experiences in our homes will continue to get better and better,” Ohanian said during a keynote address at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago.

TVs will get bigger. Audio systems will become sharper. Food will materialize almost out of nothing. “Press a button on your phone, boom, there’s a falafel.”

This part of the presentation may have left the operators in the audience feeling a bit uneasy. How the hell do you compete with instant falafel? But, said the entrepreneur and venture capitalist, consumers’ continued digital immersion doesn’t mean they’ll stop dining out. It could actually have the opposite effect.

Ohanian knows a bit about restaurant technology. His first startup, My Mobile Menu, was an app that allowed people to order food via text message. Born in the pre-smartphone era, it quickly failed, and was followed by Reddit, considered by its founders as “the front page of the internet”.

Ohanian’s roots are in the online world. (He even admitted to having a wedding in the online game “EverQuest” in his youth. “I was a half-elf bard,” he recalls.) Nevertheless, he said: “We are still a species that needs offline interaction.”

This element of human nature seems to be on display in restaurants right now. Despite inflation and lingering COVID fears, people are dining at levels close to pre-pandemic levels. But Ohanian predicted that this “euphoria stage” of pent-up demand will dissipate. And the ease brought by technology will ultimately raise the bar of what people expect when dining out. “The offline experience needs to be even better,” he said.

That doesn’t mean consumers will only go out to eat for a 10-course meal, he said. A good experience could mean “pure efficiency” in the form of a top-notch take-out operation. The fact is, he said, restaurants need to be “intentional and thoughtful” about why people visit them, “knowing that there is huge competition for attention.”

“Any restaurant that understands this deeply and then invests in it will thrive,” he said.

According to him, restaurants can stand out by taking inspiration from sneaker culture and its obsession with scarcity. Instead of offering new shoes, restaurants could create rotating menus or limited-run items that tap into consumers’ fear of missing out.

“I’m very long on FOMO,” he said.

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