Monday, July 20, 2009

MIA: Something new

Send out an A.P.B. and snap on the Bat Signal. Some scoundrel has run off with the restaurant industry’s love of innovation. And it looks as if it might be an inside job.

The authorities have their suspicions about the culprits. They’re looking for glassy-eyed numbers fiends who wield machete and scalpel with equal zeal, slashing costs the way hopped-up jungle guides would blaze a trail.

But the real scourges are the accomplices—the CEOs, marketers and ops specialists who know better than to stifle new ideas. Instead of nurturing green shoots, they’re standing by while the bean counters prune anything with an expense. It’d be like a dairy farmer trying to offset a dip in production by feeding the cows less silage.

You can only hope the cut-and-kill mindset will be arrested. Here’re the questions that should be put to the innovation throttlers during the interrogation:

Where are the new concepts? Except for a few upscale riffs on established brands—think The Whopper Bar, Baja Fresh’s new dinner-focused prototype, or Baskin-Robbins’ new cafes—we’ve seen virtually nothing in the way of new restaurant ideas from the chains. That’s an historic shift, especially for casual dining, where the big brands were always scouting the hinterlands for The Next Big Thing.

Everyone agrees that this is an unprecedented time that could forever change the business. Isn’t it foolhardy to think that yesterday’s concepts are going to meet tomorrow’s tastes?

Ironically, we did see a new entrant in the market in early July. Unfortunately, it’s something called Crazy Girls Café, a strip club that also serves food. There’s a novel notion.

Where are the aha! moments? Consider this obvious one: Craft condiments. Soft drinks, a staple of the business, are being reconsidered as the public shifts to options promising more uniqueness, character and quality. Smaller, highly crafted brands are gaining favor.

The same dynamic holds true in the beer business. Would any new restaurant not offer a craft brew today, if not a beer that can only be purchased there?

So why not ketchups and mustards? Why aren’t we seeing the proliferation of high-craft selections with different flavors and consistencies? There’s a burger boom underway. Why not a ketchup craze?

For a glimpse of what might have been, look at the barbecue-sauce and marinade sections of your local grocery. There are more options than what you’ll find in the salad dressing aisle.

The exception that underscores the non-trend is Ketchup, the multi-outlet concept of The Dolce Group in California. The restaurant features five house-made ketchups to accompany its heavily local menu of comfort foods with contemporary twists.

Where’s the urgency in casual dining to come up with something new? The innovations of the last two years could be summed up as sliders, $9.95 filets, micro-brews, mini-desserts and better full-sized burgers. Whoa.

Why isn’t the sector at least staying current with the trends? For instance, other than Seasons 52, is any concept addressing the fresh and local trend? Organics? Or even green? Name one chain that’s as active as the fast-feeders are in greening their facilities.

Clearly the economic climate is taking its toll, stifling creativity that could distinguish an operation. But the real lost opportunity may not be evident until conditions improve. By that time, many established brands are going to regret that they weren’t trying yesterday to come up with what’ll fly tomorrow.

No comments: