Monday, February 20, 2012

Concept restaurants of the future?

Restaurant chains are realizing they can’t test-drive the future in vehicles conceived for the past. No wonder a growing number are opening specialized formats that leapfrog over the limitations of current designs, if not their very names and characters. They’re the restaurant equivalent of the auto industry’s concept cars.

California Tortilla was the most recent chain to take that route, announcing plans to open two scaled-down R&D units bearing the name Burrito Elito, which is also the name of the chain’s frequent-guest program. Both will be located in airports, which facilitate test marketing because they host such a broad swath of the consuming public.

BJ’s Restaurants has already generated four months’ worth of results for its R&D vehicle, a single outlet in southern California called BJ’s Grill. The concept suggests that BJ’s core brand may be looking for some tonier design accents, with features like booth seating and less of a sports-bar feel.

P.F. Chang’s has opened its lab in the same region where BJ’s has fired up its Grill. The Asian concept apparently wants to Americanize its appeal a bit; the test site drops the words “China Bistro” from its mother concept’s name, and features such decidedly American specialties as roast chicken with shoestring fries, and Alaskan black cod.

“The new Irvine P.F. Chang’s represents all that we’ve learned in 18 years, and what we hope to become over the next five to ten years,” said Chang’s president Lane Cardwell said at the time.

Those three chains follow the earlier lead of Burger King, whose Whopper Bar is serving as a testing ground for such new menu options as a shareable Whopper.

The parent of the Houston’s dinnerhouse chain also moved in that direction with the opening of the R+D Kitchen several years ago. The crucible for new ideas provided popular enough for the company, Hillstone Restaurants, to open two more.

It remains to be seen if the experiment becomes the expansion vehicle for some of the other concepts looking to do a little time-travel with their brands.

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