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.

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