Tuesday, March 13, 2012

This week's chart hits (and misses)

Showbiz celebrities have given us such catastrophic restaurant ventures as Minnie Pearl’s Fried Chicken, Mickey Rooney’s Weenie World (the hot dogs were flat and round), and Johnny Carson’s Here’s Johnny’s. Yet they still can’t leave the business alone.

In case your subscription to People and Us! have expired, here’s a list of recent crossovers into restaurants by rock stars. In some instances, there are things worth noting about their ventures. But in others…well, that’s why they call it the blues.

Gene Simmons, Rock & Brews
The snake-tongued bassist for Kiss is a principal of this new Hard Rock Café-like concept, which debuts next month near Los Angeles Airport. The restaurant expertise is coming from Michael Zislis, though Simmons has (theoretically) had exposure to the industry through his band’s Kiss Coffeehouse. The design will supposedly capture the feel of a concert arena’s back stage, and the menu will carry over the theme with sections like Opening Acts and Headliner sandwiches.
Outside help: Zislis, concert promoter Dave Furano.
Worth stealing: The fleet of flat-screen TVs, now required of anyplace with a beer tap, will feature concert footage and rock clips, like MTV on, um, steroids, not that other banned substance. It might be a welcome change from 24-hour sports.
What should get the hook: The dumb menu names. Desserts called Encores, and apps slugged as Opening Acts? Ugh. That’s so eight-track.

Flavor Flav, House of Flavor
You can’t help wishing the rapper had named the fried-chicken restaurant Worlds of Flavor, just for the entertainment value of seeing the Culinary Institute of America square off with the Public Enemy singer in court (the CIA uses that name for a conference). Dr. Tim Ryan in his three-piece, Flav in his signature oversized clock…but enough what-iffing. The key thing here is that the Flav Master is coming back to the business after his first chicken venture, Flav’s Fried Chicken, died in four months. The new entrant, set to open in Las Vegas, sounds more upscale, and will be inspired décor-wise by—what else?—Flav and his musical career.

Flav has played it close to the clock about the new concept’s menu. But he did divulge this tidbit in an interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek: “FFC is fried chicken and House of Flavor is, you know, a house of flavor.”
Outside help: Book publisher Farrah Gray.
Worth stealing: Flav’s double-flavor breading approach. He revealed that he’ll spice the meat before rolling it in seasoned bread crumbs, yielding what he calls a double dose of flavor.
Hook-worthy: Anything that shows up on the menu with the name, Flavor of Love, the title of his reality TV show.

Beach Boys Good Vibration Restaurant
Few details have been leaked about the concept, which is slated to open in Vegas, like Flav’s new one. The Boys’ hotspot will be housed in Bally’s, and will have a theme built around surfing, girls and cars. Whoa. Who’d have thought such a thing, given the involvement of the Beach Boys.

You have to hope that Brian Wilson, the genius behind the band, will really be involved. It’d definitely add some surrealism. When I saw him perform solo a few years back, his band (the Wondermints) rolled out a huge cake for his birthday. He not only wasn’t aware of his birthday, but that the cake, after it appeared, was for him.
Outside help: Caesars Entertainment, Monsoon Group
Worth stealing: How bankable nostalgia remains. It’s been roughly 50 years since “Surfin’ USA” hit the airwaves. Also, GrubStreet.com's suggestion for the concept's name: Wild Honey.
Hook-worthy: Mike Love, the band’s lead singer. He can be like fingernails on a blackboard when he opens his mouth to do more than sing.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Signs the Apocalypse is upon restaurants

Exhibit A: A Nebraska woman posted an offer on eBay to sell a Chicken McNugget she’d saved from three years ago because it looked exactly like George Washington in profile. The deep-fried presidential lookalike fetched a winning bid of $8,100. But the winner backed out. Now, according to media reports, the seller is considering whether to accept the second-highest bid, a mere $8,000, or to put it on the block again.

Exhibit B: McDonald’s says sales at U.S. restaurants open for at least 12 months increased year-over-year by an average of 11.1% in February, and that worldwide comps jumped 7.5%. That prompted stock traders to sell their shares, citing the disappointing results.

The clincher: A food writer for the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald touched off an online firestorm by reviewing the town’s new Olive Garden. Urbanites (no doubt dressed all in black) posted it on various article-sharing sites so fellow elitists could share the hilarity of a mass-market chain concept being the subject of a serious restaurant review. Some posed the possibility in feedback forums of the review actually being a put-on from The Onion.

But as the reviewer pointed out, with more tact and class than her snobby disparagers deserved, Grand Forks doesn’t abound in restaurants, and locals wonder where they should eat. The 86-year-old writer, Marilyn Hagerty, should get the last laugh. Her well-written and useful column drew 107,000 views in a town of fewer than 55,000 residents. She may not eat at David Chang’s or Grant Achatz’s places every week, but she’s serving her audience.

New restaurant-speak

Two new restaurant expressions are cropping up in insiders’ conversations and outsiders’ coverage of the business. So grab your glossaries and a pencil, because both terms have the ring of possible additions to the lingo.

Fast fruit. You’d see that expression used today, for instance, on a headline about Burger King’s newest burger for the Japanese market, the BK Ringo. The sandwich’s point of difference is the flame-broiled slice of apple that garnishes the burger patty.

But the term could become the broadly applied label for products here in the States that provide a halo of health to familiar fast-food meals—truly a prime objective of chains large and small. Consider, for instance, the apple slices that are now offered by a number of limited-service players as a healthier alternative to French fries. Mandarin orange sections are serving the same purpose for Wendy’s.

And strawberries will no doubt be in the promotional limelight when they come into season in a few months.

Our handicapping of whether this will work its way into widespread usage: 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. But it’ll take considerable time.

Zipper. This is the bet-your-house option because it’s so dead-on as a descriptor for the new generation of drive-thrus.

If you haven’t seen them, they work sort of like the toll booths of highways, though with far fewer lanes. When you drive onto the restaurant pad, you can choose one of several drive-up ordering stations. Then the lanes are meshed into a single queue for the pay station, like the teeth of a zipper.

Our handicap: An 8 on this one.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Savory tidbits

Here's a grab bag of news developments and trends that promise to influence the restaurant business near and longterm:

--A history pop quiz: What major city was the first to mandate calorie disclosures on chain menus? How about the elimination of trans fats? And voluntary reductions of salt content? If you correctly answered “New York” to all of the above, and your market hasn’t yet adopted letter-style sanitation scores, carefully consider the statement Gotham issued today.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg told the press today that salmonella cases dropped 14% in New York during the first year of the city's new sanitation grading system. The controversial program requires restaurants to post their sanitation letter grades in windows visible to potential customers. Before it went into effect, operators complained that too much weight would be given to a single visit by a possibly subjective inspector, and that a bad grade would leave a damning impression in the public's mind. Restaurants would be unjustly killed by technical violations that customers couldn't grasp in the first place.

Contrary to those dire predictions, restaurant revenues grew during the first year of the grading system by 9.3%, to $800 million, Bloomberg pointed out.

He also dashed objections that the carrot approach was wishful thinking. Since the posting requirement went into effect, the proportion of restaurants acing their sanitation inspections has jumped by seven points, to 72%, according to Bloomberg.

No wonder, he suggested, that the publicly visible letter grades are favored by 91% of New Yorkers, and that 88% of Big Apple consumers say they factor the posted scores into their choice of a restaurant.

If you don't have a letter-grading system in your area, you might want to start cleaning a space right now on your front window.

--Fear not, those of you who can't get enough of chiseled athletes hawking fast food their trainers may or may not let them eat. The sports star endorsement is very much alive. Witness yesterday's announcement that LeBron James will be the face of Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins in Asia, or that linebacker Troy Palomalu has signed on as a spokesman for the upstart LYFE Kitchen fast-casual concept.

They're the latest in a string of paid affiliations that once put Joe Namath in pantyhose and O.J. Simpson in a flat-out run for airport daylight.

--If you need any further indication that retailers are nipping at restaurateurs' heels, consider that the next generation of WaWa convenience stores will feature display kitchens. And we’re not talking roller dogs.

--The National Restaurant Association had to reschedule its annual mega-convention for 2012 because Chicago double-booked the G8 international economic summit for the original show dates. Yesterday the location of the G8 was shifted to Camp David, leaving lots of hotel rooms likely up for grabs come late May. That crunching sound you hear is likely the teeth gnashing of NRA officials.

--An unusual restaurant promotion will be launched by Starbucks later this week. According to Zacks Equity Research, customers who buy a coffee before 11 a.m. can come back after 2 p.m. for a second cup at half-price. The offer will run from March 8 thru March 11, Zacks said.

--I admit I’m prejudiced, but it’s not easy to accept that a guy named Yorgo Koutsogiorgas is leading a pizza chain, even if it specializes in that deep-dish faux stuff that Chicago tries to pass off as real pizza. Yet there he sits atop Giordano's. At least the company has an Italian name. Maybe Yorgo is known to friends as Luigi or Angelo.

--From the Not All People Should Procreate evidence file: A couple in Maryland didn’t realize they’d left their 3-year-old daughter at a local Chuck E. Cheese’s until a local news broadcast aired a story about how the girl had been found alone in the restaurant, asking the staff for something to drink. The parents were in their home at the time—some three hours after they’d left the restaurant.

--Utah is close to passing a bill that would allow restaurateurs to try an array of wines or spirits before deciding which to stock in their establishments. Sampling is currently illegal in the state, even for wholesale buyers.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Didn't I hear that somewhere before?

Reading Emil Brolick’s plan to revitalize Wendy’s, I kept getting my chains confused. The strategy has been code-named Recipe to Win, which sounds conspicuously to me like McDonald’s Plan to Win.

Ditto for Recipe to Win’s Six P’s component, which calls for an intense focus on people, product, price, promotion, place and performance. It’s just one P more than McDonald’s five P’s, a cornerstone of the Plan to Win (performance is the only P missing from McD’s pod.)

I’m a big fan of Brolick’s and the work he did for Yum! Brands and, in an earlier stint, Wendy’s. But it sounds as if he’s liberally borrowing at least the rubric from the Golden Arches playbook. Granted, Big Mac’s battle plan has been inarguably the most successful restaurant-company strategy of the last decade. Still, you have to wonder if the ultimate mass feeder and a much smaller brand, claiming product superiority, can truly share the same scheme for besting the other.

It wasn’t a surprise, given the attention Wendy’s is devoting to McDonald’s, that Brolick’s charge will all but challenge the bigger burgermeister in ads that air this month. Commercials will focus on Wendy’s premium sandwiches in what Brolick likened to the “Apple vs. PC” commercials the former aired to great success.

“The spot is much more directly competitive against the Big Mac. Now it never mentioned the Big Mac by name, but it's pretty obvious of what we're talking about,” he said.

Among the other tidbits that were revealed during Wendy’s conference call with financial analysts (as reported in a SeekingAlpha.com transcript):

--Each Wendy’s remodel will cost $750,000 to $850,000, with a forecast 15% return on investment, Brolick said. He noted that 10 test sites were given a facelift last year, and 50 will be updated in 2012.

--What may be the industry’s longest-ever menu test, Wendy’s trial run of breakfast, will be expanded to a Northeastern market this year for more learning, Brolick said. He didn’t reveal the market, but noted that the Northeast is one of the nation’s most intense battlegrounds for morning customers.