Be careful where you stand in today's restaurant market, because the ground appears to be melting. Turf that once defined a segment is oozing into other realms, blurring consumers' perceptions of where they can get a certain product and what they'll likely pay. That's good news if you're a fast-food concept catching consumers on the way down, but more reason to whine and thump your chest if casual dining is the ground you've homesteaded. Witness, for instance, the advent this week of fast-food whiskey--available just as a flavoring at this point.
Ribs or burgers flavored with bourbon or Jack Daniels were once the signatures of casual dining. Indeed, T.G.I. Friday's Jack Daniels grill menu was undoubtedly one of the most successful undertakings of its time.
But as of today you can get a Kentucky Bourbon Burger at Carl's Jr. Yesterday, Burger King unveiled its Bourbon Whopper, one of the new sandwiches showcased at the chain's new Whopper Bar, itself a deliberate encroachment on casual dining's turf.
I don't have the prices of the new burgers, but presumably they're a significant step down from the charge on casual dining menus. It's Carl's Six Dollar Burger mentality, carried to the next logical product.
Then again, turnaround is fair play. One of casual dining's big successes in recent years has been the introduction of sliders, the little burgers that were once a mainstay of the quick-service sector. Now the big fast-food chains like Burger King, Jack in the Box and McDonald's are copying the casual dining specialists who copycatted fast-food brethren like White Castle and Krystal, the originators of sliders.
Similarly, casual dining made a grab for traditional quick-service turf when it moved chain by chain into the take-out market, cleverly differentiated from the fast-food variety by the name "curbside takeaway."
Ironically, if the industry was smart, it'd stop stealing ideas in-house and try to, um, catch some inspiration from today's true foodservice successes, the supermarket/takeout shop hybrids like Tesco's Fresh & Easy and Walmart's Marketside. They've hit on some Harry Potter formulas that could make life extremely difficult for restaurants, regardless of whether they're competing on price, convenience or even quality. They're the innovators whose ideas should be plundered--er, complimented, I meant to say, as in imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.