Thursday, February 2, 2012

Better forecast

With all the post-holiday hubbub, I didn't have a chance to air my forecast for 2012. It's a shame because the task is outrageously easy this year. Every major trend boils down to "better."

Not "better" in terms of business conditions, though the National Restaurant Association yesterday forecast a slightly easier time for the industry in 2012 (apparently I wasn't the only laggard in presenting year-ahead predictions. Until a few years ago, the issued its annual economic preview during December of the preceding year. Now the data isn't released until we've torn the first page off the New Year calendar.)

The byword is "better" because it's the G-string that gets the consumer's dollar these days. Palms get all sweaty when shoppers spy something of truly superior quality at a can-do price. It's as unavoidable as admiring Mitt Romney's hair.

The industry has been jabbering for years about redefining value as affordable quality. This year, talk has given way to unprecedented action. Much of the chain-related restaurant news to date has centered on better food, better service, better environment and better business practices.

Wendy's is upgrading its burgers--again. Taco Bell is "reinventing" the taco and striving to match the quality of Chipotle. Jack in the Box is installing fireplaces as part of a design overhaul. Domino's is hawking artisan pizza and a better signature side.

McDonald's is crowing about a personal connection with the farmers who grow its food. Chipotle's spin-off Asian concept features high-end small-batch beers. Panera Bread is currently promoting salmon.

On the full-service front, Ruby Tuesday is providing fresh bread and tossing its Caesar salads tableside.

The whole gourmet-burger craze is built on the concept of providing what's better. It, in turn, is part of a larger movement by high-end chefs into fast-food, where they hope to make a name (and a bagful of loot) by providing white-tablecloth-quality fare. Late last year the NRA cited that emerging fast-fine segment as one to watch.

The problem is, "better" is relative. What's a notch above the usual today becomes tomorrow's norm. So what will be the new manifestations of better?

--Better sodas. Everyone is infatuated with the fast-casual market, where several of the standouts have spec'd small-batch artisan colas and flavored soft drinks. Skinny Pizza, for instance, offers a fountain version of Boylan Diet Black Cherry soda, a favorite that I've never seen in fountain form before. Expect to see more of those high-craft drinks populating the coolers of limited-service brands, including some of the big names.

--Better condiments. There have been fits and starts in that direction, and the foodservice supplier community is certainly anticipating the process, with better mayo, catchup and salsas already in distributors' warehouses. But that might be only the start.

--Better packaging. When was the last time you said, "Wow, that's a really cool takeout package we're using"? Customers frequent a place because of the food, the convenience or the price. But a truly breakthrough sort of packaging could help in delivering that overall sense of "better."

--Better French fry alternatives. The apple slices are now a standard. Carrot and celery sticks are tight there, too. So what's next? Sweet potato fries are certainly cropping up everywhere (and are rumored to be in test by Wendy's). A personal plea: Please, someone add raw broccoli florets as an option so I can get my sister off my back.

--Better veggie options. I'm talking about new choices from the mainstream chains and brands. It's time to go beyond veggie burgers and sandwiches with the meat omitted.

--Better pizza. This isn't a swipe at Domino's, since I've not tried its new artisan pies. it's directed at all the pizzerias in the eastern regions of the U.S., and New York in particular, that have coasted on the strength of their ovens for decades. They've turned pizza into a commodity, instead of striving to do something different. Like something better than the mass of pie makers out there.

--Better prices on better drinks. I'm not lost in some nostalgic dream about nickel candy bars, but a $12 beer is overpriced, especially when I know it retails and wholesales at a completely different tier. Wine prices are also getting crazy. A $40 tab for two glasses of wine on the way home for work just doesn't make sense.

--Better office catering. I say that as a consumer. More flavorful and extensive choices, please. The portable taco bar is the last innovation I can remember in that realm.

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