January 2013 Newsletter
Happy 2013—many people we know are glad that the difficult past year is over and are looking forward to fresh opportunities in the months ahead with renewed optimism. And of course, there will also be fresh challenges.
An article in USA Today in December about America’s disappearing restaurant chains. It’s a tale of success for many first-to-the-market concepts (TCBY, Blimpie, Bennigan’s), followed by increasing competition on the part of newer, flashier players, and then the long painful decline into irrelevance and worse.
With the market heating up again and an incredibly robust number of truly innovative new restaurant concepts coming online—particularly in the booming fast casual segment—we can expect to see a lot of older and more established chains struggling in the coming year.
But a decline is not inevitable in these situations. Established brands can and do undergo evolution and growth, through menu changes, décor refreshes, new services and other forms of adaptation. And Synergy Restaurant Consultants will continue to do its part in helping to make those things happen.
To your success,
Dean and Danny
By Joan Lang
This past year was one of galvanic changes—and 2012’s got nothing on 2013. In the following paragraphs, we detail a few of the game-changing developments we’re following for the coming year.
In today’s foodservice market, it seems there’s no such thing as oversharing. Culinary adventuring and the desire to taste more launched the trend to sharing and sampling; the recession and the need to cut back on spending cemented it in place.
Now we are seeing menu after menu selection deliberately positioned for sharing and participating, including meat and cheese plates, appetizer combos, fondue, chips-and-dips, pizza and more. And like most menu items these days, the more customizable these shareable specialties are, the better.
Even as critics start to grouse about value, mainstream chains are getting on-board, like burger specialist Red Robin with its Garden Fresh Hummus Plate and mix-and-matchable Jump Starters; and Yard House with its extensive selection of snacks. (Not coincidentally, can you say “enhanced beverage sales”?)
You can thank Roy Choi and his iconic Kogi Korean-style tacos for the newest wave of cross-cultural tacos—itself the second salvo in a boomlet of authentic Mexican taquerias that took place half-a-dozen years ago.
Tacos are the perfect vehicle for fillings and flavors of all kinds, endlessly customizable and affordably priced, even when they’re filled with artisanal ingredients like heirloom pork belly and housemade pickles.
The new Salvation Taco in New York City, brainchild of the Spotted Pig’s April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman, is a case in point, with its housemade “tortillas” (including chickpea and naan) as a delivery system for such bi-cultural fillings as roasted cauliflower, sweetbreads and braised lamb breast.
The new Antique Taco, in Chicago, has the same M.O. with its “market Mexican fare,: including tacos filled with the upgraded likes of tempura fish and sriracha tartar sauce, plus baskets of snacks, masa flat bread and horchata milkshakes.
Classic American, with a Twist
Fried chicken, mac-and-cheese, burger-burgers-and-more-burgers. These favorite American comfort foods just keep getting more popular, especially in the hands of audacious young chefs who are putting their own twist on these classics.
Partly it’s due to younger diners, who are just learning about the pleasures of dining out. And partly it’s due—yet again—to the economy, which has put a high price on taking a risk. For an operator, putting your stamp on a familiar classic makes it that much easier to sell.
Boke Bowl, a hipster-friendly ramen restaurant in Portland, OR, is home to the incredibly popular Thursday-night Boke Bird, featuring brined, par-smoked and fried Korean-style chicken served family-style. Los Angeles is having a bit of a mac-and-cheese moment with options ranging for down-and-dirty bbq sides to the four cheese-roasted shallot-and-jalapeno version served at The Hudson.
And in the meantime, the burger trend just keeps on rolling, from Subway’s Angus Melts to the obligatory elevated burger (often made with custom-blend beef, lamb, pork or portabello mushrooms) on every chef-driven menu.
Speaking of familiar with a twist, here’s a category that will never be the same again. Chef-driven, sandwich-specializing concepts have elevated this once-prosaic lunch food to the stratosphere, with high-impact ingredients from the fillings to the breads, condiments and accompaniments.
Michael Voltaggio’s Ink.Sack brings sophisticated sandwiches like Spicy Tuna with Miso-Cured Albacore, sriracha, and mayo to the city of Los Angeles. Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi of Torrisi Italian Specialties and Carbone have opened a paean to the iconic club sandwich with the aptly named Lobster Club on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Four-unit Bruxie Gourmet Waffle Sandwiches has put a neat twist on the sandwich by basing all of its selections on an authentic Belgium waffle instead of bread, from savory smoked salmon with dill cream cheese to sweet Nutella and bananas. As the fledgling chain claims, it’s “street food that’s perfect for breakfast, lunch, midday snack or dinner as well as a dessert or late night treat.”
Competition from All Sides
Anyone who thinks competition is only coming from their own sector isn’t looking at the big picture. To the retail industry in particular, foodservice looks like a high-margin, high-demand business. According to Technomic, for instance, the c-store segment has its eyes on the foodservice prize, which should give QSR operators plenty of pause. And quality-oriented supermarket players like Bristol Farms and Whole Foods have long provided restaurant-competitive ready-to-eat options to time-strained consumers.
A new 49,000-sq.-ft. Publix in Longboat Key, FL, offers an array of specialty and prepared foods, as well as indoor and outdoor dining areas, and serves as a prototype for future development and remodeling efforts for the grocery chain.
Wawa, a c-store chain based in the South, has gone heavily into fresh food, with a comprehensive selection offering both made-to-order and grab-and-go items, from breakfast burritos to a rotation of soups (including family-size). And regional player Sheetz has a menu that rivals that of any fast food restaurant’s.
Quick Casual Goes Ethnic
Call it the Chipotle Effect—many entrepreneurial hopefuls do, as they double down on fast-casual concepts that support global menu concepts and an all-American focus on freshness, convenience, and healthy customizable food options.
• Sataza bills itself as a “unique take on Indian” that features fresh, grilled-to-order bowls, wraps and plates that customers can build from a selection of different bases, proteins, chutneys and sides
• Foumami, in Boston, is a fast-casual Asian sandwich bar that features signature freshly baked Beijing-style “bing” bread with a variety of different fillings (braised brisket, seared-steamed chicken), salads and soups.
• San Francisco’s U-Sushi is all about making this iconic Japanese specialty more approachable with a “you design, we roll” concept that’s brought up to speed with sushi-making “robots”
• Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill is positioned as a fresh alternative to burgers and fries, with freshly made pita and build-your-own shwarma-style sandwiches, plates and salads
Chains Launch New Prototypes
With so many new competitors opening up, older well-established brands are placing their bets on dynamic new building prototypes—and sometimes on new concepts altogether, as in the case of Shoney’s On the Go, a fast-casual version of one of the country’s oldest family-style restaurant chain.
• Taco Cabana has unveiled a more contemporary version of its design, incorporating colorful pink walls, street-life photos, hanging metal lamps and outdoor patio seating
• California Pizza Kitchen’s new flagship in Sunrise, FL, emphasizes the 28-year-old chain’s casual California roots, with lots of earth tones, reclaimed wood and a firepit-equipped terrace
• Domino’s new “Pizza Theatre” proto puts pizzamaking front and center, allowing guests to watch dough being tossed and pizzas being assembled and cooked
• Mall standby Sbarro is moving upscale, with a new logo, cooking method and recipes, and a new prototype scheduled to be unveiled early this year
• White Castle’s new Laughing Noodle touts, of all things, a menu of multicultural noodles like Taco Mac & Cheese and a Spicy Thai-Style Chicken noodle bowl
Fried Food Flies Back onto Menus
Despite all the talk of healthy cooking techniques and more nutritious menu items—and certainly, those trends are here to stay—there’s a growing recognition that restaurants are particular good at one thing few home cooks will even attempt: deep-fat frying.
That’s part of the reason for the big fried-chicken boom that’s occurring, and for the growing popularity of fried potato specialties like housemade truffled tater tots and duck fat French fries. On the guest’s part, the thinking goes: “If I’m going to indulge I might as well indulge.”
Other signs that these are frying times:
• New-wave clam shacks are turning out old-fashioned standards like fried clams, hush puppies, fritters, onion rings and more
• Ethnic fried foods like arepas, empanadas, and croquettes are being given the star treatment
By Mark Ladisky, Senior Operations Associate
In 2012 I would estimate that Synergy spent time with more than 50 different clients in the restaurant business, performing a variety of tasks ranging from recipe development to planning and branding sessions and operations assessments for concepts both small and large. The one question that I am asked more than any other is simply some variation of “What is the secret to a successful operation?”
My answer to that question may seem simple, never forget the food. It’s the reason many brands ultimately decide that they need the services of a company like Synergy to help correct the situation—over time and without malice or intent, they have simply lost focus.
It may seem like a silly answer to such a critical question, but in today’s market of highly competitive and agile companies, attention can be drawn away from the whole core business of selling a good product. If you don’t believe that is possible then kudos to you, but it is a fact that there can sometimes be so much attention put on streamlining an operation or a sales metric that a company can unconsciously and in very small increments lose focus on providing a quality food and beverage experience with the necessary hospitality required for that exchange.
The process of forgetting the food is not uncommon by any means; we have identified it in many an assessment report this year alone. We as groups can become so fixated on penny profit improvements and millisecond ticket time changes that we can often forget there is a customer at the end of the process, and they really only care about whether the food and the service were to their expectations.
The cause is hard to identify, because it typically happens over time in a process one of our partners calls “death by a million cuts,” and it usually starts as a part of a cost-cutting measure or expansion effort. If you are currently with a company that has not introduced a new menu item in recent memory, or where there is no current food costing or no proven recipes, then you are potentially on that path.
If you have had discussions about how important it is to use Product X over Product Y in a recipe for streamlining the supply chain because it’s a penny cheaper although it of lesser quality, then you are at risk of losing your way. And it’s time to call a time-out if your company is evaluating the elimination of the culinary department to save on payroll with no plan for alternative development.
We recently had great success with clients who can identify that they have “jumped the shark” in this area of the business, and when they contact us it is often because they don’t realize how far they have evolved from the original standard set however long ago. Making one food change often has a string of attached consequences that may not have been originally anticipated but impact the business in more than one way.
For example, we worked with a barbecue restaurant that for consistency purposes decided to have some of the barbecue produced offsite in a plant. The initial intent of the change was actually to improve and standardize the product, but the unanticipated fallout was that the units no longer had the smell of barbecue because they weren’t producing it onsite when guests were on the premises. Customers noticed—it often came up in reports that the food was “not as good as it used to be.”
Rewinding the clock to the point that the particular decision was made was the solution, and instead of going offsite with the product we suggested they improve store-level training and prepare everything onsite. Initial testing brought food scores up a measurable degree, and the company saved money in the process by buying a raw product rather than a fully cooked one. This also served to lower the carbon footprint of the finished items.
In today’s restaurant landscape it is rarely the case that a restaurant in the casual segment needs a full-time executive chef onsite, and if outsourcing a product is the right solution it is definitely something we will recommend. It’s important, however, to always keep an internal standard for quality and to keep working on an item until it meets those standards. Synergy can help to clearly define those standards and find solutions to overcome any challenges that may present themselves as part of that effort.
One of the best pieces of advice I can offer clients who ask about simple, quick solutions is to suggest an internal quality panel made up of a few key players from objective departments who develop a set of parameters for quality and quality alone, with the ability to send a product or menu item back down the line for reworking if needed.
It’s a lot easier and far less expensive in the long run to keep your standards clearly in sight than it is to come back years or decades later trying to find out where things may have gone wrong and try to correct the situation. Saving money is what we all want to do, and shortening ticket times is a definite benefit to any concept. But if you can keep chanting “don’t forget the food” during the process, you and your guests will be happier in the end.
The business world had barely heard of Instagram prior to April 2012, when Facebook shelled out a billion dollars to acquire the cult-favorite photo-sharing site; now it’s one of the fastest-growing social media applications in the world. Instagram is viral, it’s visual, it’s inclusive and interactive, it’s food porn: What’s not to like?
We mentioned Instagram briefly last year in the article “New Tools for Your Social Media Arsenal,” but if you haven’t climbed on board yet, this may be the time. QSR Web recently gave a shout-out to visual content as the top marketing trend for 2013, and Instagram represents one of the easiest and most engaging ways to get visual with your brand. And, of course, food and beverages are one of the top subjects for Instagramming—about 60% of them, according to one source.
Now the company has rolled out a Web browser-based interface to complement its mobile platforms, making it easier to leverage the possibilities. Not surprisingly, especially given the Facebook connection, there is also a growing roster of available services and ancillary resources to support the app, including Statigram, Venueseen, and Simply Measured. (For more information on how to use such resources, click here.)
Starbucks is an early-to-the-party example of how to put the Instagram platform to work in a sophisticated, integrated fashion. Here are some other ways that Instagram is being used in the restaurant world:
• Dude-food website foodrepublic.com has let several high-profile chefs, like Tom Colicchio and Marc Vetri, take over its Instagram, allowing them to spend some time snapping and commenting away in and out of their restaurants. The site also publishes its favorite photos from readers. How about that for “great exposure”?
• Comodo, a Latin American restaurant in New York City, may be the first restaurant with an Instagram menu. Owners Felipe Felipe Donnelly and Tamy Rofe couldn’t help noticing that patrons were snapping away in their new restaurant anyway, so they asked them to upload the photos to Instagram, using the hashtag #comodomenu. A virtual “menu” of pictures is created, and customers are able to easily search the app for a quick glance of the restaurant’s offerings. And anyone who contributed a photo gets instant buy-in, as in “Hey, I took that photo!”
• Report your company news via Instagram by using it as a public relations tool to announce the news visually, including daily specials, profiles of staff members or regular customers, recaps of events, or to take your customers behind-the-scenes into the kitchen. Spy House Coffee, in Minneapolis, uses the app to showcase its baristas, events and contests.
• Reward your Instagrammers. Host preview menus or other special events for loyal Instagram followers, or treat them to a free drink, dessert or appetizer. You can also use Instagram to run a contest, promoted via other social media accounts. For instance, you can encourage patrons to share images from their meal, including a #hashtag so that you can track entries.
• Or do what Ben & Jerry’s did, using Instagram as the platform for a multilayered campaign that asks fans to “Capture Euphoria.” Users snap pictures of what joy looks like; tagged photos are posted to the gallery, and 20 of them will be selected for use in local advertising around the world. The genius of this campaign, created by Silver + Partners, is that it simultaneously engages and rewards ice cream lovers.
• Use multiple hashtags to help your business get found. Instagram lets you tag your photos with hashtags (i.e., #1234, #abcd) so that each photo will automatically be added to a search base. For example, if you post a picture of your popular Cobb Salad and label it with your restaurant’s Instagram hashtag as well as #CobbSalad, people who are in the mood for a salad or even looking for a recipe at home are more likely to find you.
If you’re new to Instagram and want to boost your own photo-taking skills, this article from The Boston Globe is a great starting point.
Tip of the Month
Food Republic is one of our favorite new(ish) sites. Ostensibly designed for a male audience, the site and its associated weekly newsletter are loaded with recipes, drink information, chef interviews, food trends, culinary-travel information, kitchen product information and more—ideal for the restaurant professional of any gender