By Bill Oakey – May 6, 2020
The grand reopening of Austin’s economy scares the hell out of some people. And it is gleefully celebrated by others. Is there some kind of midpoint between staying home and shopping online, versus going out to restaurants and retail stores? Well, maybe there is, if local businesses could pool their resources and develop a new concept. I’ve been pondering this idea with some of the many hours of free time lately.
Try to imagine a giant food court with 50 or so restaurants and food vendors. Instead of being inside a mall, it would be set up in an outdoor area that people could drive to. It would be sort of like the restaurants at the airport, except you would drive up to your favorite one and get your food.
it would be an interesting challenge to design such a layout. It would need to accommodate a large number of cars, without requiring people to spend a long time waiting. There could actually be several concurrent lines of cars – one to enter the overall facility, and other sub-entrances inside the facility for each of the vendors. Architects might be able to come up with a few design options that would work. These would be dependent on the size of the facility. And of course, if the concept is successful, there could be several facilities of different sizes around Austin. These would need to be located away from the dense, core areas of the city.
Options for financing this type of venture could include the participation of large real estate or other companies that could develop the facilities and lease the spaces to the small businesses. One possibility might be to tap some undeveloped land and utilize it on a temporary basis.
It might be fun to have such places where people could go and feel safe. To complement our “Keep Austin Weird” motif, there might be all sorts of creative ways to liven up the atmosphere at these outdoor dining havens. Perhaps we could think of it as a Trail of Bites instead of a Trail of Lights. Video screens and speakers could be installed to provide some entertainment. This could include performances by local musicians.
The businesses could raise extra revenue by including some (but not too much) advertising on the video screens. Corporate sponsors could also participate in various ways with signs and art installations. Some vendors could have a speedy drive-through for people who want to just grab their meals and go. But they could also maintain a separate, more relaxed area for people to come and enjoy the entertainment while they’re eating or while they’re waiting for their food.
If the restaurant concept is deemed to be workable, then perhaps other retailers could set up drive-through stores in a similar type of outdoor layout. The technology setup for both the food and the miscellaneous other retail could be developed and enhanced over time. We could be stuck with the virus for many months, especially if it comes back in the fall and piggy-backs with the seasonal flu.
I can envision a portable device app that customers could use to do pre-orders before they arrive at the facility. The app would specify the lead time required for each type of purchase. For restaurants, there would be simple menus where you could tap on which items to order, along with daily specials that could be changed by the restaurant at will. The non-food retailers could have listings of products to choose from, along with coupons to tap on. A single app could be developed collaboratively and shared by all of the participating retailers. This would make things easier and more efficient for both the businesses and the customers
Some retailers could opt to have separate parking areas, in addition to a drive-through. In the parking areas, customers could request that an item be brought to a safe distance from their car, so they can take a closer look before deciding whether to buy.
This whole idea may seem like a lot of trouble for retailers who wold much rather have their customers come into the stores and browse and buy as they normally do. But these are not normal times. If the grand reopening of Texas leads to a big second wave of the virus, then large numbers of potential customers may choose to stay home. Having a new kind of onsite shopping option available for local businesses might be beneficial. This is especially true for businesses that are too small to maintain a major presence on the Internet, similar to Amazon.
The balancing act between preserving safety and boosting the economy is a tough nut to crack. But Austin should be a good place for people with the right technical skills and business expertise to explore new ways to defeat the silent enemy.