Saturday, December 26, 2009

How Bob Evans almost wrecked my Christmas Eve

A pox on you, Bob Evans Farms.

On Christmas Eve, while I was ardently researching what adult refresher to leave Santa, word broke of a new venture by the venerable family chain. Keep in mind that NORAD, the nation's missile tracking service, maintains a Santa watch on that night, so it’s not as if the world is abuzz with important activity. Yet here was real industry news: The launch of a new restaurant format intended to blunt competition from supermarkets and food shops. For the sake of restaurant journalism and world peace, I was going to have to write about it.

Fortunately, my quest to nail the ideal eggnog-to-rum ratio pre-empted any blogging that night, as did the holiday festivities of the big day itself. But here, finally, is the rundown of Bob Evans’ notable restaurant experiment.

The test restaurant, near the chain’s Columbus, Ohio, headquarters, features a street-facing retail section called Taste of the Farm, according to news reports. Available for takeout are seven complete meals in family-sized portions, as well as Bob Evans-branded pantry items like muffin and pancake mixes. Also available are Bob Evans sausages and other port products.
The section is an adjunct to a sit-down Bob Evans restaurant. The idea, according to the ample coverage of the concept, is to offer consumers a choice of how they want to be fed. They can sit down for a meal, grab something pre-prepared to eat at home, or buy groceries for something they partially prepare.

Brainstorming a concept that gracefully bridges restaurants and the ready-to-eat sections of supermarkets and food shops has been a longtime (and long elusive) goal of the restaurant business.

The quest has assumed new importance in recent years because the brains working for the other side seem to be closer to finding the formula. It’s painfully obvious to restaurants that they’ve lost share of stomach during the recession to retailers. People are cooking more, buying more ready-to-eat meals, or pursuing the middle court of purchasing some pre-made elements and preparing the rest.

It remains to be seen if Bob Evans, one of the industry’s sleepier concepts, can synthesize a potent counterattack.
In the meantime, I’m just wondering if the Taste of the Farm sells eggnog.

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