Friday, January 7, 2011

Sociologists in the dining room

Restaurateurs have to master a slew of jobs if they hope to succeed: Marketer, artist, trainer, buyer, motivational speaker, equipment repairman, even plumber. Now market conditions are requiring them to add a new title to the list: Sociologist.

Economists and politicians have noted during the new-year fit of prognostication that two seismic shifts are our shaking our culture. Both promise to profoundly change who restaurants serve, and how.

Indeed, the impact of one is already evident in New York City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and the other wellsprings of mainstream trends. Experts give it names like “income gap, “ “wage discrepany” and “economic polarization.” Simply put, it’s the tendency of the rich to get richer while the middle and lower classes struggle harder to hold onto what they have.

Fine-dining places have noticed. Many are resorting to the sort of big-ticket indulgences that we saw in the 1990s—astronomically priced meals, decadent specialties and beverages, and high-priced experiences like having the chef devoted for the night to a single party’s service.

Some are installing a mini-restaurant within their dining rooms to serve the financial wildcats who’re collecting six and seven-figure bonuses again. In Las Vegas, high rollers can indulge at Shaboo, a dining room inside BarMasa, an outlet of famed sushi chef Masa Takayama. In Washington, D.C., powerbrokers vie for one of the few seats at Minibar, the exclusive sub-eatery of Jose Andres’ Café Atlantico.

Ironically, that tangent is coming as the rest of the industry veers in the direction of value. The Sonic drive-inn chain recently explained to investors that it was keeping the introductory reduced price of a revamped hotdog, even though the freeze kept check averages flat. Then again, maybe that’s the objective, given consumers’ ongoing propensity to sticker shock.

Consider that even fast-casual chains like Fazoli’s are adding lower priced (and lower calorie) small plates.

A new study commissioned by Tyson Foodservice shows that the five strongest draws for restaurant customers today are all value-related (in descending order, two-for-ones, dollar menus, discounts, price promotions, and full-service restaurants' combo deals.)

All things considered, you can’t help but conclude he industry is drifting toward either end of the socio-economic spectrum, just like society itself.

At the same time, and not coincidentally, some commentators have noted an historic shift in the earning potential of blue-collar Americans. When U.S. automobile factories and steel mills were booming, workers could afford a comfortable middleclass life. Now many of those jobs have disappeared, and plenty of the remaining manufacturing line posts are paying far less. There’s less money left for dining out.

Yet virtually every mainstream fast-food concept would attest that its core user—the legendary superheavy user—is a blue collar male between 19 and 35 years old.

That foundation market may be eroding, which explains why there’s a clear drift in the design of quick-service places toward more residential designs. They’re trying to position themselves as the places where youngsters can comfortably hang out and be entertained while they munch and sip. The settings are intended to make moms comfortable, too.

Both trends are slow moving. The restaurant industry appears to be adjusting quickly. Just ask any sociologist.

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