Friday, June 22, 2012

What's happening in the restaurant business

What kind of days are these for restaurants? It’s time to take a quick pulse check.

Concept-o-rama: Not long ago, you would’ve been hard-pressed to name a new restaurant concept that deserved more than a yawn. Most were just scaled-down versions of a struggling brand looking to cut its costs and facilitate expansion.

Today is a different story. Starbucks alone has three ventures in the works that could probably survive on business from rivals checking these potential Next Big Things. The chain just revealed that it plans to open a Tazo “tea bar” in Seattle this fall to showcase 80 signature teas, available straight or in custom-blends. For those of you keeping store, this is in addition to the La Boulange bakery chain, which it intends to grow outside of the Bay Area, and Evolution Fresh juice bars, only one of which is currently open.

Here’s another one for the new-format list: Pret A Manger is working on a suburban version internally christened Pret Local. Insiders describe it as more of a traditional fast-casual concept, where customers will be presented with their orders instead of having to grab the salads and sandwiches off shelves.

Experienced operators wouldn’t be hatching new market entrants if they weren’t confident the consumer demand and supply of capital were there to foster growth.

Indulgence is on the surge: Consider the tourism lure that Philadelphia flycast onto the internet yesterday. Not one bargain was touted. Nor did the announcement play up Independence Hall or the city’s other historical attractions. Instead, the hook was a chance to sample milk shake after milk shake at the city’s dining outposts.

Or if you prefer something a little harder core, literally, there was a run-down of the ice creams, frozen yogurts and other frosty treats that a visitor can sample.

It was food tourism in a 16-oz. cup.

Restaurants 2, puritans 0: Establishments in two temperance zones could soon have an easier time of slaking customers’ thirst for something stronger than birch beer. Utah’s legislature voted this week to grant 90 more liquor licenses to restaurants in the Mormon stronghold. Remember, this is the state where you can’t mix drinks in the open because the seduction of making an Old Fashioned could lead kids down the wrong road. Ninety licenses in a state that measures 85,000 square miles isn’t going to change the culture, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, outdated restrictions on drink promotions continue to be beaten back. Hayward County in California’s Silicon Valley voted yesterday to allow restaurants and other alcohol servers to drop the price of drinks between 4 and 9 p.m. You can even feature live music! But dancing remains verboten.

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