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.

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