Once upon a time, restaurant innovators focused on the menu as their means of differentiation. But look at today’s innovators and there’s no denying that modes of service are the way of standing out.
Consider, for instance, ZED451, one of the more upscale (and interesting) concepts in the portfolio of Tavistock Group, also the parent of Freebird World Burritos and the ethnic concepts formerly run by eBrands.
The company describes ZED as “a contemporary, internationally inspired steakhouse,” but it’s really a high-end, ultra-high-quality riff on the old Sizzler steak-and-buffet format. Guests help themselves to an extensive spread of fresh, seasonal sides, often with ethnic roots. Included in the spread are salads, vegetables, soups, breads and cheeses.
As you munch what you took, chefs roam the tables with platters of steak, seafood, poultry and game. They carve the proteins for you and explain how it was made, since they were the ones who prepared it.
Servers are still part of the mix. They take and serve drink orders, and presumably clear away empty dishes.
But clearly the concept takes the notion of a display kitchen one step further, bringing the kitchen out to the table to discuss what he or she made for you.
Vapiano, a German chain featuring Italian food, has a similar objective. Like Rich Melman’s FoodLife in Chicago, guests go from station to station for the elements of the meal, charging what they get to a card holding a smart chip. For instance, they can stop at a pasta station and have something made expressly for them. The food is prepared by a “cook-tainer” who converses with them as he or she whips up the serving. The guest brings the food to his or her table.
The U.S. arm of the company describes it as “somewhere between the nicest of fast casual and hippest of casual.”
Of course there’s no shortage of more-conventional entrants in the fast-casual sector, sometimes in decidedly unexpected pairings. Ruby Tuesday is moving away from full service with its development deal with Lime Fresh, a Mexican concept that some might label Chipotle 2.0.
But perhaps the winner in service uniqueness has to be the handful of avant garde places that Technomic has dubbed non-food restaurants. We at MonkeyDish.com prefer to think of them as B.Y.O.F. places, as in have getting the food from elsewhere.
As Technomic’s Darren Tristano explained at our Restaurant Leadership Conference, these new places are basically bars without a kitchen. They encourage you to have food delivered, maybe from a preferred nearby restaurant, or to bring it in from the restaurant trucks or carts outside. Then they sell you the accompanying drinks.
They don’t have to invest in a kitchen or devote space to ovens and the like. Nor do they need the usual venting and exhaust fixtures that render many urban spots unfeasible for a restaurant.
Restaurants without the food. Who’d have thought it? It’s the non-menu menu.