Friday, October 8, 2010

The food industry's future, in high def

In the course of covering the restaurant business, I routinely hear savants proclaim what sorts of places and foods will catch the industry’s fancy in the months and years ahead. The future they’re sketching bears little resemblance to the one young kitchen talents are already setting out to build.

I say that after listening for three days to the business plans of 21 would-be graduates from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. As a final exam of sorts, the students develop an idea for a business and pitch it to the class. Invited to attend are three industry veterans who act as if they’re prospective investors, asking questions, providing feedback and generally helping the students sharpen their presentations. I was one of the industry elders tapped to play constructive critic.

The students had spent the six-month semester developing their business concepts, and it showed. The lot were brilliant—creative, finely detailed to demonstrate their viability, and decidedly real world, reflecting what the students had learned in the field as well as the classroom.

I won’t divulge any of the ideas because this is an industry of thieves. Then again, most of the restaurateurs I know would have trouble copycatting concepts that pivot on marshmallow, faro, free shots, egg creams, cowgirls, German sailors, and broke hipsters. (If you want an explanation of those elements, contact me and I’ll either pass you along to the student or shed as much light as I can without giving away the idea.)

Indeed, if restaurateurs were looking for ideas to pinch, they’d have found few suitable for their world. The presentations left little doubt that tomorrow’s chefs are choosing food shops, not restaurants, as the galleries for their arts.

More than a third of the pitches I heard dealt with retailing in some way. Several of the concepts were out-and-out storefronts, selling everything from flasks and coffee to Romanian vintages for wine virgins.

Other students aired their intention to sell a retail product via food or specialty shops. One already had an operation lined up to carry her product. Another brought in a gift basket of her wares.

The class’ instructor, the former restaurateur Alan Someck, explained to me that the students had witnessed the rigors of running a restaurant or a high-volume kitchen during their internships and work in the industry. That lifestyle might not hold the appeal it once did for youngsters aspiring to earn lots of green in whites. They were clearly more open to alternative paths, like the food and restaurant-focused web site that one student planned to open.

But the students also seemed to lack the black-and-white attitude of yesterday’s restaurant industry, which saw itself as a world apart from food retailing. The ones who planned to open a restaurant after graduation almost to a person included a retail component in their brainchild. Those stations would sell everything from meat to customized gifts.

Along the same lines, a goodly number of the plans broke out sales projections for catering, even when their signature product wasn’t something you’d associate with that sort of service—drink flights, for example.

And quite a few presenters said they intended to use trucks, carts and stands to offer their products where would-be customers are likely to be, a further departure from the dining-room mindset of past generations.

I have absolutely no doubt that many of the students whose plans I evaluated will be extremely successful in their ventures. They’re going to be tomorrow’s stars, albeit in a much different industry than the one we see today.

1 comment:

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