Monday, December 14, 2009

The hot restaurant concepts of 2010?

Last week I helped some culinary students flag the differences between John Schnatter and Mickey Rooney.

Unless your cable service was down last summer, chances are high you saw Schnatter trying to give a bundle of cash to the current owner of the Camaro he sold in the ‘80s to enter the restaurant business. Schnatter used the proceeds to convert a section of his father’s bar into a walk-up pizza counter. Literally a closet operation, the venture grew to become Papa John’s, with annual sales exceeding $2 billion. Because of Schnatter’s skill at hatching a concept, he could forget a Camaro and buy General Motors instead.

Mickey Rooney, for those of you who don’t recognize the name, was one of Hollywood’s biggest draws during the 1930s. Indeed, he was the George Clooney of his time, at least in terms of fame and screen appearances. But, astoundingly, his round-hotdog restaurant chain never quite caught on during the ‘70s, even though the product fit so neatly on a circular bun.

Efforts to start a restaurant concept have yielded more train wrecks than the film careers of Pauly Shore and Tom Green, combined. Need I mention the failed attempts of Muhammed Ali, Steven Spielberg, Alice Cooper, Johnny Carson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mike Piazza, to name just a few?

Yet the list of aspirants continues to grow, with names like Richard Branson, Rolling Stone magazine and boxer Julio Cesar Chavez added to the roster just in the last month or so.

Because I’ve witnessed so many crashes and triumphs, I was invited last Tuesday to address a class at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education, an often-overlooked contributor to the city’s phenomenal restaurant scene. My mission was to opine on what separates a Schnatter-ly restaurant venture from the Rooney-esque, something very important to the students because they’re all in the process of brainstorming a concept of their own.

Instead of talking in the abstract and risking a symphony of text-message alerts from the kids’ phones, I handicapped what I believe will be the Hot Restaurant Concepts of 2010.

My picks aren’t new to the scene at all. Rather, these are concepts likely to enter the mainstream next year, even if they no longer elicit oohs and aahs from the black-dressed sport diners on the coasts.

Here’s the list, along with a few thoughts.

Places specializing in street foods: This is a surer thing than Tiger Woods having his text messages screened for the next month. Indeed, I can’t understand why it wasn’t on all the forecasts that were pecked out of foodie keyboards in recent weeks.

Street food certainly fits the times. Peasant fare sold in bazaars or along busy thoroughfares is simple, and simplicity (or its fellow traveler, back to basics) was on virtually every list.

The ingredients tend to be fresh—another check mark on the trend inventory—and inexpensive, which holds the price to a level consistent with the current Age of Thrift.

Foods patterned after the street fare of Third World nations also tend to be grilled, roasted or boiled—relatively healthful prep methods that fit the sometimes contradictory goals of being flavorful and better for you.

Finally, we’ve already seen street foods snag interest from a few of the industry’s Mount Olympus set—gods and goddesses like Rick Bayless, Susan Feniger, David Chang, and Ming Tsai. The trend has even merited its own Flavors of the World conference, the foodie equivalent of the Burning Man Festival.

Confidence in this one is high.

Taquerias: A sub-set of the street-food craze, authentic tacos are drawing sufficient attention from big-name chefs and restaurateurs to merit their own Hot Trend designation. Celebrity proponents include Traci Des Jardins, Bayless, and Paul Kahan, to name just a few.

As I’ve noted in this space before, the interest from fine-dining chefs makes you wonder if taquerias will supplant burger joints as their low-end concept of choice.

Burger restaurants: It’s still on my list, but only because of bandwagon-jumping. The ranks of patty specialists will undoubtedly grow, but I bet we start to see some wheezing in this sector, or at least at its pricier end. There’s just not sufficient differentiation, and the novelty of a burger flipped by a Michelin-caliber chef is going to wear off.

This is my pick of Fade of the Year, largely because of the differentiation issues.

Gastro pubs: Indeed, why couldn’t these places co-opt whatever pent-up demand is left for high-end burgers?

But gastro pubs offer so much more, including comfort and casualness, two positives that aren’t going to lapse from fashion anytime soon. They’re also prime proponents of the high-caliber beer trend, which shows every appearance of having legs.

I know, I know: Gastro pubs have been around for years. But watch for a proliferation, particularly in areas inland from the current strongholds of Chicago, Los Angeles and Minneapolis. They’ll become the choice of indulgence.

Then again, maybe I’m prejudiced. Gastro pubs are the trend I’d most like to see catch fire in 2010, speaking as a consumer.

Restaurant trucks: We’ll undoubtedly see more chefs serving from a wheeled kitchen next year, though I’m far less certain of this trend’s staying power.

Right now, there’s considerable appeal to turning the key on a new truck concept. Consumers like the convenience and typically lower prices of a mobile operation. Operators appreciate the reduced overhead and start-up costs, which in turn allow them to keep their menu prices in check.

But I can’t help but wonder if novelty figures large in the appeal that was evident in 2009. Once you’ve tried the sardine truck, are you really going to build your night around it? And what about the yearning for a dining environment, even if it’s just a table and a chair?

Most of the trucks also specialize in a particular menu item, and history has shown us that a one-trick pony has a tough time in this business. Consider such flashes as soup, muffin, croissant and frozen yogurt concepts. Most were either co-opted or abandoned by a clientele that wanted more of a selection.

The jury’s still out here, though a proliferation of kitchens on wheels should prompt a verdict.

Authentic-food chains: This is a sleeper, an up-and-comer that’s not getting as much attention as, say, Spanish restaurants, or gourmet fried-chicken places.

Perhaps the potential trend is still going unnoticed, a reflection of its limited exposure to date. There are really two proponents of note: Seasons 52, Red Lobster’s high-end little sister, and True Food Kitchen, a one-off that P.F. Chang’s is carefully studying as a possible expansion vehicle.

Both feature seasonal, fresh fare with healthful overtones. Seasons 52, for instance, could boast that its entrees are under 500 calories.

But it downplays that plus to stress the integrity and freshness of its fare. Seasons 52 is the chain embodiment of the yearning for off-the-farm ingredients you don’t have to feel guilty about consuming.

True Food Kitchen, a brainchild of Phoenix restaurateur Sam Fox, goes one step further by featuring organic and natural ingredients. It professes to “nourish body, mind and spirit,” which is music to the yoga-and-couples-massage set.

The brakes on this one are the logistical challenges—finding enough seasonal fare of consistent quality, and doing it at a cost that translates into reasonable prices. But it’ll come, especially as medium-sized agriculture continues to make a comeback.

Whim restaurants: This is a forecast virtually peculiar to me, but I’m more convinced than ever there’s something here.

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, “whim restaurants” is my term for the ventures of high-end chefs who want to do something creative, small scale, and highly spur-of-the-moment. Such luminaries as Thomas Keller and Tom Colicchio are embracing these home-style niche places as a way of featuring the dishes they like to cook and eat themselves, with menus determined no farther in advance than their home dinner plans.

Since I last wrote about Keller’s Ad Hoc and Colicchio’s plan for an extension of his Tom: Tuesday Dinner into a full-scale restaurant, several other whim ventures have come to light. Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle devoted a blog installment to the phenomenon, though he didn’t use my label.

Leslie Brenner, in a blog for The Dallas Morning News’ website, described a whim sort of place, but used the term “guerilla restaurant.” She described a place envisioned by local restaurateurs that will be used to raise funds for charities. The hours and nights of service will be limited, and the chef will vary as readily as the menu does.

The concept may still sound alien to the U.S. market, but it’s already become established in the U.K., where the term “pop-up restaurant” is being stretched to cover places that chefs are opening to indulge their culinary whims of the moment.


Peter Romeo said...

Another example of a "real food" restaurant has just been unveiled. Cleverly, it uses the name Real Food:

gabagool said...

That was EASILY one of the BEST "hot concept" articles I have ever read.

FINALLY, a list that DOESN'T include "local grown restaurants" or "restaurants that are green" or some other BS. Who the heck are being interviewed for these lists, anyways?
Maybe NY or LA, but most restaurant would go BROKE if that was there selling point. In Realworld USA, most restaurants would be LYING about having local grown food than actually spending valuable time, effort and money on something that only foodies would give two craps about, and THAT crap giving would last JUST until the nest "important" trend rolls around.

I TOTALLY AGREE with the truck, street food and the taqueria concepts. Cheap, lots of food, and RECOGNIZED REAL FOOD (for the most part). It not foam, or freezing by gas or some other BS fru fru crap, but real food for people who are HUNGRY for food and NOT attention.

I am a bit surprised however that there was no mention of a reappearence of rotisserie chicken....with a latin flair. Again, cheap, familiar and filling.

Thanks for a great article, and I will be a loyal reader.