Thursday, July 1, 2010

Set a spell--and buy, buy, buy

Restaurants once competed with home kitchens. Now the challenge is shifting to the living room.

Fast-food places wove themselves into the social fabric in part by moving customers in and out before their French fries could cool. The faster the service, the faster the meal could be consumed, the quicker fast-paced lives could resume.

But now the quick-service sector is recasting itself as a place to sit for a spell. New design packages invite patrons to kick back and relax. Sip your cappucino! Surf the net! Check out our new entertainment features! What's the rush, Bunkie? Rest up a bit before resuming the grind.

That about-face is evident in the new prototypes of virtually all the major chains, from McDonald's to Panera Bread, Jack in the Box, Burger King, even Baskin-Robbins and Krystal. Today brought news that Taco Bell is similarly turning part of its dining rooms into a living-room-away-from-home, at least on a test basis. A new store in Baton Rouge, La., will outfit a portion of its eating space with cushy seats and computer hook-ups, so students from nearby Louisiana State University can hang out and study.

Some contend the residential trend in fast-food design was set in motion by Starbucks, which wanted to be a lifestyle destination, not the place to gulp down a $4 coffee. Not surprisingly, the java king continues to outpace all others in positioning its units as away-from-home dens. It's not only experimenting with highly localized cafes, each sporting a unique name inspired by the localation, but also Starbucks-branded units where you can nurse a beer or sip a chardonnay while chatting online.

If any retailer should be worried about the trend, it's Barnes & Noble, a lounge that just happens to sell books. I'd love to see the analysis of how it's come-and-linger strategy has affected sales.

But I think my desire would be second to Taco Bell's at this point. You have to wonder if kids shopping for a $2 meal will want to give their skateboards a prolonged rest.

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