Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What I learned at school yesterday

Every semester I’m privileged to address a class at New York’s Institute for Culinary Education, a springboard for entrepreneurs to become restaurant proprietors. My assignment is to provide an overview of the hot and fading concepts of the moment. But I learn more than the students because their feedback provides a sense of the direction they intend to steer the business. And I’m here to attest we’re about to turn back to the classics.

The youngsters use the opportunity to ask me about the concepts that have caught their fancy and what they might like to open after graduation. In recent years their focus has been on the avant garde—places like marshmallow shops, carts of all stripes, a barbecue place that borrows the dress codes of Twin Peaks and Hooters, and a wine shop and bar for Gen Yers.

But yesterday’s class asked about formats like cafes, bistros, wings places, tapas bars, neighborhood pubs and sports bars. It wasn’t as if they were oblivious to how many examples of those concepts are in the market already. To the contrary, they were one of the more informed groups I’ve addressed; they’d clearly done their homework in scoping out the state of the industry and where opportunities might lay.

That research had convinced them there’s room in those crowded fields for a newcomer that could differentiate itself through execution. And they had some definite ideas about how they could do it better.

I was struck by how many times the students mentioned comfort as one of the attributes that would push their ventures ahead of the pack. Novelty wasn’t that important to them.

It was a marked difference in orientation from past groups, but this old-is-new mindset makes sense. The sport-dining sensibility that reached its apex with molecular gastronomy is giving way to a more grounded appreciation of fundamentals—good food in a comfortable atmosphere with friendly service.

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