Even before the arrival of COVID-19, the restaurant industry was being transformed by a variety of forces, in particular the competition for home delivery among UberEats, GrubHub, DoorDash and others. In addition, pop-ups, test kitchens, and food trucks offered unique dining opportunities at a very small scale and for short periods of time. These acts of entrepreneurship were possible because the food service industry is still largely characterized by “permissionless innovation.” The regulatory costs of entry are low, and physical and human capital are fairly mobile, all of which allows people to try out ideas and see what sticks. As COVID-19 has created new challenges for restaurants, even the innovators have to keep innovating to meet the new demands of consumers, not to mention complying with local public health regulations. Often the most valuable sorts of entrepreneurial innovations are not ones that make big headlines but ones that instead make improvements in existing products and services to better meet the needs of consumers.
Two examples of this sort of entrepreneurial innovation are taking place here in Fishers, Indiana. Although both of these innovations pre-date COVID-19, one is well-poised to take advantage of the changes the pandemic has brought, and the other has demonstrated the kind of flexibility that is often necessary for effective entrepreneurial responses to exogenous shocks like a pandemic.
The first example is a company called ClusterTruck. Based in Indianapolis, they recently opened a second kitchen here in Fishers. They are a nice example of innovating on an innovation. One of the problems with food delivery services like GrubHub is that the drivers are not employees of the restaurants, and the restaurants are dependent on the schedules of the drivers when they promise a delivery time. We’ve all had the experience of our order coming much later, or even earlier, than expected, or having food that was no longer hot. The creators of ClusterTruck were, as Israel Kirzner puts it, “alert” to the opportunity to improve that model. One of the ways they did that was by creating a restaurant that is delivery and pick-up only.
ClusterTruck has integrated the food preparation and the delivery process in two ways. First, the drivers all work for them. But they also won’t start preparing your food until they have one of the drivers committed for that delivery. This prevents food from sitting and waiting for a driver to pick up. And without seating, their whole kitchen is geared to competing and preparing delivery orders. It’s not a sideline. It’s what they do. Their app also has several nice innovations. One of those is the ability to order ahead for delivery at a specified time. With in-house drivers, Clustertruck can meet a pretty tight window that way. The other nice innovation is the ability to share a link to your order that allows other people to piggy-back on the same order but pay with their own account. So offices ordering lunch don’t have to worry about Venmo or other ways of settling up. Everyone can order and pay for their own meal but have it delivered together. And to be able to satisfy groups and families this way, their menu spans a variety of cuisines, from a few Asian and Mexican dishes to pub food and pizza.
This full integration from preparation to delivery, along with ordering ahead and the ability to easily order in groups, puts them a step ahead of the other platform-based delivery services. Nonetheless, like every other restaurant, they’ll have to provide good eats if they are going to expand the way they have planned. As the current big wave of COVID-19 will enhance the demand for home delivery of prepared food, their entrepreneurial innovations seem well-positioned to succeed.
The second example of innovation is illustrative of the flexibility that good entrepreneurship demands. COVID-19 has been devastating for local restaurants, as they operate on such thin margins that the loss of business over the last several months has been too much for them to continue. But how to keep a great menu alive in a different form that can work in the world of COVID? One answer comes from the world of test kitchens. This model, which predates the pandemic, is one in which space is created for a small number of counter-service restaurants to share, while rotating the particular cuisines that occupy the various slots. A particular idea might only be there for a few months while the owners try to discover if their model is workable, hence the “test kitchen” concept. This model allows them to share some overhead costs and work out recipes without having to worry about table service or other elements of a full-service restaurant. We have a test kitchen like this located inside a local brewery, which itself is a nice innovation given the mutual benefits involved.
One of the kitchens at our Fishers Test Kitchen is an Asian street food place called Lil Dumplings. It was opened by the chef from Rook, a very well-regarded Indianapolis restaurant, and served mostly dumplings. The full service Rook was a casualty of COVID, however, going out of business earlier this fall. But that loss also presented an entrepreneurial opportunity. The former chef recently switched the menu at his Test Kitchen location over to ramen and steamed buns, and is serving several items very similar to customer favorites from Rook. The test kitchen model gives entrepreneurs who are alert to changes elsewhere in the market the flexibility they need to quickly switch over a menu and meet that new demand. It also provides a cheap way of discovering whether Rook’s dishes are still valued by its former customers. (I can report that they most definitely are!) And doing it with counter service, carry-out, and delivery options makes the whole thing work in a pandemic.
Too often we think about entrepreneurial innovations as being big, grand things like the invention of the automobile or airplane. In fact, most of what good entrepreneurs do is to take existing products and services and find ways to improve them around the edges. Inventing the cell phone is great, but adding a camera on to it gives it an amazing new range of possibilities. Reorganizing the way in which a product or service is provided, as ClusterTruck has done, is one way to innovate, and taking advantage of a flexible production structure to recover some value from a failed business is another. Good entrepreneurs are people who are alert to these kinds of opportunities and take advantage of them to make consumers better off. Creating environments that allow for permissionless innovation of this sort is the best way for policymakers to attract that entrepreneurial energy and thereby improve their communities.
For more on competition and entrepreneurship, see Steve Horwitz’s Liberty Classic on Israel Kirzner’s classic work Competition and Entrepreneurship, new this month at Econlib.
*Steven Horwitz is the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise and Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy in the Department of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. He is also an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA, a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute of Canada, and the economics editor at the Cato Institute’s libertarianism.org. He is the author of four books, including most recently Austrian Economics: An Introduction. He is also the 2020 recipient of the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award from the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
For more articles by Steven Horwitz, see the Archive.