Tuesday, December 27, 2011

'Next Stop: Last Century'

Restaurateurs must’ve had their hearts broken this holiday season. All they found under the wrapping paper were iPads, flat screen TVs and the latest smart phones. What they really wanted, judging from recent news stories, was a time machine.

Not just any decades-jumper, but one that can take them back as well as forward, to the days when counter servers wore peaked paper caps. They want to capture the magic that made Hot Shoppes and A&W the dominant chains of their day. Why else would they be opening a new chapter for the brands?

In case you missed the particulars, Marriott Corp. is planning to open a Hot Shoppe in a Washington, D.C., hotel in early 2014. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it was a cross between a soda fountain, family restaurant and fast-food joint, serving up shakes, fries and burgers to the generation that’d parent the Baby Boomers.

It was also the foundation for the Marriott hospitality empire, which was originally known as Hot Shoppes, Inc. Founder J.Willard Marriott started in business as a restaurateur, first as an A&W franchisee (more on that in a minute), then as the builder of the Hot Shoppes chain (beginning in the late 1920s), and then as architect of the Big Boy system, which operated under a slew of regionalized names (Shoney’s, Frisch’s, JB’s, Abdow’s, Azar’s, etc.) Hotels would come later, largely under the tutelage of Willard’s son Bill, who’s about to retire.

Hot Shoppes gave more than the Marriotts a taste of the good life. At a time when full-service restaurants were largely upscale joints, it provided a way for workers and the lower middle class to have someone wait on them. My mother often recounted how she’d occasionally get a milk shake at a Hot Shoppe when she was studying to be a nurse in Washington, D.C., during World War II. She’d say it with the wistfulness of someone who’d just had tea with the Queen.

Hot Shoppes would plug along as a curiosity, a bit of nostalgia making too many concessions to the times, until 1999. Marriott has apparently decided that a 25-year gap without a Shoppes is too long.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that a new chapter also opened this week for the brand that preceded Hot Shoppes in Marriott’s business model (the first store was converted from Willard Marriott’s A&W franchised unit). A&W has been quietly plugging along, gaining and losing stores, for eons. For a long while it shared resources with the likes of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, serving as a co-branding partner for those sister Yum! Brands holdings.

But now A&W is on its own again. The brand was spun off to franchisees right before Christmas. They’ve vowed to grow the business, in part by taking advantage of A&W’s heritage. No doubt they’re looking to cruise back to happier days and bring that popularity back to the current day.

But that’s not the only time travel the industry is pursuing. As Restaurant Reality Check reported earlier, P.F. Chang’s hopes to get a glimpse of its future via a new one-of-a-kind bistro in southern California. The restaurant is intended to serve as a lab for how future stores will operate, right down to their menus and serving style (i.e., a heavy reliance on small plates).

Chang’s isn’t the only chain that’s asking itself, How can we anticipate what’s next for the brand if our test site is a facility built for today?

As some of Yelp’s citizen-reviewers have noted, BJ’s Restaurants has opened a downscale version of its signature concept, called BJ’s Grill. Management has stressed that the smaller riff is meant to be a testing ground for such futuristic touches as new technology, not a prototype.

Indeed, some of the features under scrutiny seem far afield from the current-day BJ’s. Yelp posters noted that the menu has a decidedly Mediterranean bent, with kabobs and hummus on the bill of fare.

The idea of building a futuristic unit is hardly new. Houston’s, the upscale chain whose restaurants sometimes operate under the Hillstone name, also runs an outlet called R&D Kitchen. As the name implies, the restaurant is a little more on the edge than a Houston’s.

Apparently it’s already given the time machine a try.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Zombies & other missed opportunities

So much attention is focused on the year ahead that some crucial here-and-now issues are being overlooked. Where, for instance, are restaurant zombies?

The flesh-eating un-dead rallied at the end of 2011 to rival vampires as the scary characters of the moment. They’re the stars of cult TV shows (“The Walking Dead”), movies (“Remains”), video games (Plants vs. Zombies), literature (celebrated novelist Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One), and music (the slash-metal band Terrorizer is scheduled to release “Hordes of Zombies” in February).

No longer are zombies thriving on the societal fringes populated by pierced youngsters sporting weird black shoes and heavy eyeliner. New York magazine, a favorite of Big Apple hipsters, recently featured a nine-story special section on surviving a zombie attack (“Know Thy Enemies,” “Should You Stay or Go?”, “Hole Up Here.”)

They’ve even inspired a prank. The billboard-style road signs that highway departments use to warn of detours or construction ahead are being hacked and reprogrammed to alert drivers of an imminent zombie attack.

So where’s the restaurant-zombie connection? No one would dispute that restaurants are as much a part of American life today as sports and having a couch. Zombies are an entertainment phenomenon of our time, but they’ve yet to spill over into the restaurant business as promotional stars, the inspiration for menus, or the foundation for a new concept.

No Snarling Undead Burger. No Flesh & Blood Café. No zombie McDonald’s character.

But this is hardly the only missed promotional opportunity for the restaurant business. Consider the other social phenomena that somehow slipped past without a tie-in, or at least not much of one:

Nigel Tufnel Day: Tufnel, of course, is the fictional lead guitarist of the quasi-fictional band Spinal Tap, the focus of the Rob Reiner mockumentary, “This is Spinal Tap.” One of the movie’s memorable moments was Tufnel’s explanation of why he loved his new amp so much: The volume dial goes up to 11, not 10, as most amps do. Reiner sheepishly asks how an 11 is any different from a 10 if they both represent the maximum output of a similarly powered amp. Tufnel’s defense of 11 led fans to dub Nov. 11—a.k.a. 11/11/11—as Nigel Tufnel Day. But did you see any LTOs geared to the occasion. NO (that’s on volume setting #11).

Ugly sweaters: Actually, this one hasn’t been totally overlooked by restaurants. The Chick-fil-A in Chicago’s Water Tower Place is offering a deal to anyone who shows up with a really, really bad sweater. And D.C.’s Café Saint-Ex hosted an Ugly Sweater Party, where the patrons with the worst knit-job won $50 gift certificates.
Those places were among the few that took advantage of the sleeper Ugly Sweater Phenomenon. There are actually online ugly sweater stores, and “ugly sweater” is quickly emerging as a new category of retail apparel. The movement even has a celebrity spokesman of sorts in talk show host Jimmy Fallon.

But have you seen Ronald McDonald in a red-and-white monstrosity adorned with garish reindeer and Santas?

I rest my case.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Don't let these gems slip past

In the roar of prognostication that erupts every year-end, some of the most intriguing predictions are lost in the din. Sadly, it’s even happened this year with the standout of the breed, the National Restaurant Association’s annual survey-based forecast of trends. Consider, for instance, the finding that 61% of chefs are considering the start-up of a food truck.

But that’s not the only jaw-dropper. One-third of the 1,791 surveyed chefs said their restaurants have a garden that supplies produce. A shift to vegetable and vegetarian options was forecast to be the hottest trend in appetizers during 2012, and No. 30 on the list of 223 expected shifts was increased use of “ancient grains” like spelt and amaranth (and, presumably, faro). That’s opposed to the proliferation of dishes made with quinoa, which dropped to Trend #40.

The spread of beer sommeliers was predicted to be the 58th hottest trend. No doubt they’ll be knowledgeable about gluten-free beer, No. 39 on the ranking.

It’s intriguing that North African or Maghreb cuisine was predicted by the canvassed chefs to be hotter in 2012 than Korean food, contrary to most of the other forecasts for the year. Indeed, I don’t remember another one that mentioned North African food. But they were certainly bullish on Korean and Nordic fare.

Perhaps they’ve been sipping once-banned absinthe, No. 138.

Similarly, pies have repeatedly been touted during Forecast Season as the treats that supplant cupcakes as the hot indulgence of the day. Yet pies finish last on the NRA list, right behind Italian cuisine, which I put high on my personal prognostication list.

The list of trends begins as you might expect, with variations on the local and sustainable boom (the shift to local or sustainable foods accounts for six of the Top 10). You can find a review of those expected currents anywhere. But treat yourself to a drill-down of the list. You may be very, very suprised.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Is P.F. Chang's smarter than Chipotle?

Place your bets and get out of the way. We’re about to see who’s nailed the right future for an Asian restaurant chain, Chipotle or P.F Chang’s.

Unless you’ve been really, really preoccupied with Herman Cain’s political complications, you’re probably aware that Chipotle intends to launch a chain of fast-casual restaurants featuring authentically flavored Asian fare. Management hasn’t shared much information about the early performance of ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, which borrows Chipotle’s serving-line format. But founder Steve Ells has commented that patrons have complained about the spiciness of the food, much as customers did when Chipotle started. He’s proudly cited that pushback as proof the concept is positioned where few ethnic chains have dared American taste buds to follow.

Contrast that push-the-margins approach with the new direction P.F. Chang’s is exploring. The company announced that it’s opening a test lab of sorts today to try the recipes, design features and other elements that will likely figure into its namesake concept’s future. It’s “what we hope to become over the next five to 10 years,” said chain president Lane Cardwell.

Currently under test are seven entrees available only at the new southern California outpost. There’s a roast chicken served with shoestring fries, jazzed up with a Sichuan rub and other Asian touches (the fries are tossed with “crispy sesame,” for instance). But it still sounds a lot like roast chicken and fries, just with a little more spice.

There’s also a steak frites, served with fries, and a double-cut pork chop, which is fast becoming a casual-dining staple.
You can also get Alaskan black cod, Scottish salmon or Alaskan halibut, all served in one grilled entrée. Here again, the spices are Asian, but the foundation of the dish hails from elsewhere in the world.

Indeed, it sounds like Chang’s is trying a more mainstream American approach, perhaps to counter a traffic drop-off that’s been steeper than the slowdown for many grill-and-bar-type competitors. The change in strategy is surprising because Chang’s has always been a bit of a niche player, with a menu that goes far beyond what you'd find in your order-by-number neighborhood Asian joint.

The directional adjustment--and remember, it's still under test--may prove to be a smart strategy. It's just contrary to the body of 2012 prognostications, which almost unanimously foresaw exploration of unfamiliar ethnic dishes and flavors.

Then again, Chipotle might have the better idea. Or maybe authenticity works in the fast-casual market, but not in the full-service arena.

Whatever happens, it’s one of the most marked recent examples of chains moving in directly opposite directions.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Not this pigeon

As I type this, a con man is trying to swindle me because he thinks I’m a restaurateur, and a gullible one at that. It’s the classic big-order scam. If you’re never been the target, here’s how it works.

On Dec. 6, I received an unsolicited e-mail from a David Moore, who said he wanted to place a catering order for 150 grilled-chicken salads for next week, Italian dressing on the side. It’s for his mom’s birthday, he explained. Just e-mail him the bill and he’ll pay by credit card.

The e-mail was addressed to Owner/Manager, and I’m sure I was one of hundreds if not thousands of recipients. Our names were likely taken off some list the sender somehow secured, maybe from a recent industry convention whose directory they snagged. Or he might’ve plucked it from a past blog where I invited readers to e-mail me questions for the conference speakers I was covering. But that’s pure speculation.

In any case, because the solicitation came from a private individual using a Gmail account, it wasn’t caught in my spam filter. Clearly the perpetrator is playing a numbers game.

If I’d played along, I’d have sent Moore a bill, which he’d have paid with a credit card—somebody else’s. Then, right before the scheduled pickup (3 p.m. on Dec. 15, the e-mail specified), he’d have cancelled the order. I’d bet he’d have told me that his mother had gotten sick, or maybe even died.

Then he’d have asked for however much of a refund he was due. But could I send a check instead of refunding the credit charge?

How could I have refused a man who’s mother just died? Besides, I’m too busy with holiday matters to quibble. Just send him the damn check!

I was tempted to play along for a first-hand experience, then turn the matter over to the authorities. Instead, I wrote Moore back, saying I’d like to call him to discuss the order.

To my astonishment, he responded (and this is verbatim, complete with grammar and capitalization mistakes)): “i will like you to know that am hearing impaired so i can only contact you via email so i will like you to email me back with the grand total plus tax.”

Usually, the order-placer is a little craftier, calling a particular restaurant and ordering off the online menu. In my situation, all plausibility was dashed by what was clearly a mass e-mail approach. I may not be the shiniest penny in the fountain, but I couldn’t swallow that someone would casually send a large order to an unfamiliar restaurant. And, of course, I’m not a restaurateur, and my e-mail wouldn’t suggest I’m one.

Clearly the ploy must work, or the scammers wouldn’t bother. It’s like all those unsolicited e-mails that purportedly come from the Sultan of Swami, who needs only a few hundred dollars to claim millions in inheritance, which he’ll gladly share with you.
Apparently the Sultan enjoys a grilled-chicken salad from time to time.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Fast-casual form or substance?

After being kicked in the mints by fast-casual upstarts, a number of full-service restaurants are about to learn why.

To counter the challenge, they’ve trumpeted plans in recent weeks to whittle their concepts into fast-casual versions. So Famous Dave’s now has BBQ Shack. Red Robin has Burger Works. IHOP has IHOP Express. P.F. has two down-market versions, Pei Wei Asian Diner and the just-announced Asian Market—the list goes on and on.

The variations may hale from all sectors, from fine dining (Rick Bayless, with Xoco) to family restaurants (Denny’s, with Denny’s Cafe). But all share the strategy that less is better. Burger Works has a smaller menu. IHOP Express has less service. Virtually all have a smaller footprint.

There’s no doubt that scaled-back service is a big draw for the fast-casual sector, since it spares customers from having to tip. But that 15 or 20-percent saving would mean nothing if the buyer wasn’t getting food of unexpectedly high quality. And that’s where some of the trading-down chains may be deluding themselves.

They’re still working the old fast-casual formula: Food like you’d get in a casual restaurant, sold at a price closer to what you’d pay in a fast-food joint, served at a speed somewhere between grab-and-go and sit-and-order.

They should’ve learned in their market research that much of today’s fast-casual fare surpasses what customers expect from casual chains. Yet the companies hatching fast-casual formats haven’t said anything about the food being better than what the mother brand sells. They wouldn’t dare.

The closest they’ve come is touting the greater convenience and portability of what’s available from the spin-offs. If those benefits were key attractions, traditional quick-service concepts wouldn’t be losing fans to fast-casual.

Instead of standing pat, many of those conventional fast-food sellers are upgrading their menus and designs to compete with the likes of Panera Bread and Chipotle. Like the down-traders, they’re turning fast-casual themselves, but by aiming higher.

So Tim Hortons is testing a variation called Café & Bake Shop. Subway franchisees have more than 20 Subway Cafes open, and Burger King is growing its collection of Whopper Bars. Pizza Inn has lined up $4 million in to build Pie Five Pizza Co., a fast-casual riff that’s generating sales at an annual rate of $920,000, with operating margins of more than 20%.

One of the strange things about this economic downturn has been the boost it’s given to quality. Customers want value, but often that means higher caliber food for an attractive price.

So which fast-casual interloper is better addressing that need, the casual chain that enters the market without a significant food upgrade, or the fast-food specialist that trades up? I know how I'd bet.