Monday, April 26, 2010

A thaw in big-chain thinking?

Slowly but audaciously, big restaurant chains are starting to address the public’s interest in localized ingredients and preparations.

You can see it in two high-profile introductions of the past week: Cheesecake Factory’s relaunch of its burgers as regionalized “Glamburgers,” featuring ingredients associated with a particular place, and Applebee’s debut of what it describes as “neighborhood-inspired Realburgers,” with flavors ascribed to three local preferences.

No, these aren’t products made with West Virginia ramps or Jersey peaches. A cynic would say the burgers embody culinary clichés of certain regions—pulled pork as a topping on Cheesecake’s Memphis burger, for instance, or the hoagy roll used for Applebee’s Philly Burger, which is dressed with the standard cheesesteak fixings.

But at least the big systems are trying to get away from their One Bland Taste Fits All myopia, an orientation that’s clearly less feasible today. Cheesecake is actually using goat cheese and arugula on its Sonoma burger. By big-chain standards, this is bold stuff.

Connecting an ingredient or item to a region, or using components actually sourced locally, isn’t completely alien to the chain market. Small systems like Burgerville and Smashburger have been doing it for some time. As RestaurantRealityCheck noted last fall, New England’s D’Angelos and Papa Gino’s now use cheeses from Vermont for a number of their selections. Louisiana officials were delighted when local Outback Steakhouse units decided to stick with locally caught shrimp.

But those noble efforts were undertaken on a relatively small scale. Bigger chains just couldn’t overcome the logistical issues, much less the need to be one thing to all people. That coast-to-coast consistency is viewed as absolutely necessary when you’re spending millions of dollars to advertise via national media.

The new endeavors of Cheesecake and Applebee’s are hardly bungee jumps off that safe ledge. But they may signal a change in the hoary thinking that a chain should offer what works for its well-grooved systems, instead of serving what consumers want.

No comments: