It’s hard to say whether the House of Representative’s recent passage of H.R. 2575 “Save American Workers Act,” which changes the definition of a full-time workweek from 30 hours to the more traditional 40 hours, is really that much of a victory for the restaurant industry.
Granted, the issues raised by the Affordable Care Act are both complex and controversial, but the pendulum may be swinging more in the direction of corporate social responsibility in the eyes of the public—many of whom could be your guests. For instance, according to a recent poll by Gallop, 71% of Americans are in favor of raising the minimum raise.
This is obviously another contentious issue for restaurants. But remember the hullabaloo about Walmart soliciting donations so its own workers could afford Christmas? And who can forget when Red Lobster got itself in a PR pickle for publicly stating it would cut its employees’ hours in the face of Obamacare?
We all know that employee turnover in restaurants and lodging is disproportionately high (in fact, at almost 63%, it outpaces the private sector by a wide margin), not to mention expensive for the operator. Meanwhile, labor experts like Andrew Sum of Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies, have gone on record saying that even in today’s economy restaurants are having trouble filling jobs because they don’t offer enough hours or high enough pay.
The hospitality industry already has a long-held reputation for being an employer of last resort. It may be time for us to stop protesting so much.
To your success, Dean Small and Danny Bendas
By Deborah Mayne, President, Charles Ramm Associates, Inc.
Design trends—be they fashion, food or interiors—happen in direct response to current conditions, and help address our human needs.
All interiors utilize linear elements to accomplish many effects, and they have since mankind began designing buildings. In most recent times, horizontal lines in interior environments have played a significantly larger role than vertical lines, due to the emotions they play to—horizontals makes us feel secure, and give us a sense of restfulness.
Design is in constant flux, mainly driven by global conditions, events, culture, and even our economy. Perhaps the recent use of horizontal lines results from the global instability we have been feeling, which has had its effects on most of us to some degree or another. Horizontal lines help to stabilize emotions, and most importantly they help connect us visually to the earth.
How an object orients in architecture is a significant design consideration. As global conditions improve, design trends change, and the use of vertical lines and elements begins to emerge more strongly. Verticals lift the mind and spirit and give us a psychological impression of strength and steadiness; a state of equilibrium with the force of gravity, alertness yet simplicity.
Architects and designers use vertical linear elements to inspire awe and in some cases to diminish the significance of human scale, most notably in public spaces. Dining rooms, public gathering spaces and performing spaces lend themselves well to these vertical lines as they reinforce dignity and strength. Use of vertical lines in moderation, combined with angular or curved lines, results in a congenial space of humanized warmth and balance.
Materials and patterns of vertical design are seen with greater dominance now in architecture and interiors; these can be created with wood, stone, metal, glass, tile, fabrics, and even plantscaping, to name a few. Use of these materials with long lines and staggered patterns provides a simple yet fashionable component to the space.
The approach of vertical plantscaping is another current and much celebrated trend today. Living walls are green and functional in that they can be used where vertical space exceeds horizontal surface. These living walls promote immediate air quality as well as a sense of physical comfort with their effects of shade and cooling. A living wall offers a constant state of fluctuation due to seasonal color changes and growth. These walls are aesthetic in nature, with geometric, linear and organic composition. Instant results are essentially provided to an exterior space or an interior environment with a living wall, much like a beautiful painting does to a room. In a restaurant interior, they can even be planted with herbs and other edible plants. This is a trend that’s here to stay for many obvious reasons.
Environments are endless; so too are changing design trends. Our guests respond to all of this, both inside and out.
By Joan Lang
Until recently, a lot of Asian food has seemed out of bounds for all but the most adventurous diners and hardcore foodie types. Dim sum? Fear of chicken feet. Korean food? Funky flavors and smoky grills. Japanese and Thai food have had mainstream appeal for some time now, but between language barriers, location and lack of Western-style amenities, many other types of authentic ethnic Asian restaurants have been intimidating.
All that’s changing. Much of this has to do with realities of immigration. Second- and third-generation Asians are now well embedded in the American culture, many of them having been born into or drawn to the restaurant life. Take Michael Wang, for instance, the second-generation restaurant-family scion behind Foumami Asian Sandwich Bar in Boston’s Financial District. This tightly branded package sits at the junction of two megatrends (premium sandwiches and a fast casual format) and mixes it up with age-old cooking techniques (Korean-style barbecue marinades and the flaky Northern Chinese bread known as bing).
Or Jason Wang, who co-owns New York’s Xi’an Famous Foods with his father, David Shi, and has propelled the intriguing Northern Chinese menu from its hole-in-the-wall Flushing Chinatown beginnings into trendy neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The full-service Biang! has also joined this food-fanatic’s powerhouse.
Still others are helmed by Caucasian entrepreneurs who love Asian food and see an a tremendous opportunity in making it more accessible to a broad spectrum of diners. Which brings us to ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, Chipotle and Steve Ell’s widely publicized—and well-capitalized—foray into the contemporary Asian-fusion market.
Not surprisingly, the fast-casual niche has seen an explosion of Asian-food translations, enticing a broad spectrum diners with a familiar model of self-service ordering, friendly décor and service, mainstream menu touches like beverages and desserts, and relatively low-risk prices. The fast-casual format also lends itself to pictorial menu boards that make ordering easier.
Many of the most interesting translations of Asian cuisine into the mainstream are occurring at the hands of a new generation of chef-owners, many of whom have become celebrities in the process. Mai Pham was one of the first high-profile restaurateurs to understand the value of marrying authentic Asian food to a more approachable overall concept, at her original Lemon Grass Restaurant (opened in 1991) and now with more casual Lemon Grass Grill and Star Ginger Asian Grill & Noodle Bar.
Then there’s Bill Kim, who has fused his Korean heritage and impressive classical culinary training (Charlie Trotter’s, Susannah Foo) into the extreme popularity of Urban Belly, and the more casual Belly Shack and Belly Q, all now part of the Cornerstone Restaurant Group. Belly Q’s sleekly designed quarters and reservations-only Grill Tables turn the intimidating Korean-style barbecue model into a more modern and appealing communal experience.
And James Syhabout (who made his bones at the upscale Commis) has opened Hawker Fare in Oakland, CA, specializing in street-food inspired dishes from Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Patterned after a Southeast Asian rice bowl shop, the concept give its owner an opportunity to play in the guest-friendly under-$10-a-plate ballpark. After a fire shut down the restaurant last year, Hawker Fare emerged stronger than ever with a full liquor license and a new dinner menu featuring Northeast Thai-style specialties meant to be shred “family-style.
Here are a few more examples of the contemporary Asian fast-casual trend.
• Wow Bao: Lettuce Entertain You’s cheeky six-location “hot Asian buns” concept is snack food for the new millennium with cross-cultural dumplings, potstickers and low-cal combos
• With two locations in Southern California, East Borough promises “Fraiche Vietnamese” with elevated versions of such Vietnamese favorites as pho, spring rolls, salads and banh mi
• Also in the Los Angeles area, Take a Bao serves up righteous rice bowls, savory salads, slurpalicious noodles, tempting sides and delectable desserts”—plus the namesake bao steamed buns stuffed with everything from panko crusted fish to pomegranate steak
• San Francisco’s Bamboo Asia offers Fresh Asian Combinations in the form of a trio of separate stations dispensing custom-made versions of Japanese, Indian and Vietnamese bowls, salads, sandwiches and sushi
• Ping Pong Dim Sum in Washington, DC, aims to familiarize diners with this traditional Chinese tradition by applying the seasonal, sustainable, vegetarian and allergy-friendly take on dumplings and other snacks; there’s even a menu section for beginners
• In Cedar Park, TX, PhoNatic tackles more than just the pronunciation challenge with its sleek décor and surprising authentic menu of Vietnamese appetizers, noodle soups and even beverages like the soursop smoothie
A recent article in Forbes confirmed the mainstream validation of a trend we’ve been noticing quite a bit in the past few years: gourmet grilled cheese. Although the Forbes piece focuses on concepts that specialize in grilled cheese and grilled cheese only, such as The Melt (which is included in the article) and Roxy’s (which isn’t), the whole grilled cheese resurgence brings up a lot of interesting questions.
For the record, we believe these one-off concepts probably don’t have the widespread long-term appeal of a burger specialist like a Shake Shack or a Bobby’s Burger Palace, in part because grilled cheese doesn’t have as wide a following. The concept works in high-traffic settings like cities (see Little Muenster, in New York City’s Lower East Side), college campuses (the fascinating FeelGood nonprofit association), and food courts (Cheeseboy), but the sandwich itself is too easy to reproduce by the competition. Even Dunkin’ Donuts has jumped on the grown-up grilled cheese bandwagon, after all.
Which is not to say that making a perfect grilled cheese sandwich is the easiest thing in the world. Though beloved by starving artists and busy moms the world over, a great grilled cheese sandwich—like a beautiful roast chicken—is a test of skill, patience and great ingredients. It’s not just the bread and cheese, but also the butter, the technique, the timing, and the little twists and garnishes that separate Mom’s Velveeta special from a bell-ringer like the hot pressed Mozzarella & Tapenade sandwich at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, made with fresh mozzarella, house-made Nicoise olives, and anchovy puree.
Speaking of Cheeseboy, the company released findings from its inaugural American Grilled Cheese Survey that found that 86% of U.S. adults have eaten at least one grilled cheese sandwich in the past year. Of those 2,000-plus adults surveyed, 30% had a grilled cheese sandwich at least once a month, and 27% purchased it out of the home in the past year.
So what is it about grilled cheese? Nancy Silverton tapped into its high-low appeal early on, when she famously turned Thursday night into Grilled Cheese Night with a couple of panini presses set up in the patio at Campanile in Los Angeles, more than 15 years ago. She had the chops to realize that if she loved grilled cheese, so would her customers.
Grilled cheese taps in to the kid in all of us, with its comforting connotations and satisfying blend of easy-to-like flavors and gooey-melty/crisp-buttery textures. (No wonder so many restaurants are capitalizing on the almost universal memory of a grilled cheese sandwich and cream of tomato soups with their own upscale versions, like the three-cheese Grilled Cheese & Roasted Tomato Soup served at Founding Farmers, in Washington, D.C.—there’s even an emerging franchise called Tom+Chee that specializes in the concept.)
Then, too, a grilled cheese sandwich represents a dead-simple way to satisfy vegetarian guests without scaring away omnivores. The sandwich also allows all cheese lovers to tap into the growing artisanal and import cheese scene, from the Cheese Toasties made with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, caramelized onions and maple mustard at Cowgirl Creamery’s Sidekick Café & Milk Bar to Papi Queso’s ultra-luxe Leek and Mushroom Grilled Cheese made with Gruyere and truffled Robiola.
Which brings up the last point about why grilled cheese has captured the imagination of so many diners and chefs alike: It’s almost endlessly versatile and creative.
Here are a few quick ideas for stepping up your own grilled cheese game:
• Add sliced ripe avocado and Green Goddess dressing for ultra-creamy texture, beautiful color and the additional contrast of cool and hot
• The Croque Madame is a French grilled-ham-and-cheese classic that goes over the top with the addition of a fried egg and béchamel
• Offer a Grilled Cheese Sandwich of the Day, or a mix-and-match grilled cheese sandwich special that incorporates different breads and cheeses as well as proteins like bacon and other additions, such as strawberry jam and roasted tomatoes
• Bring back the Patty Melt, a retro lunch-counter favorite that combines the best qualities of a burger and grilled cheese
• Swap out bread for crispy waffles
• Serve grilled cheese open-faced for a variation that can also be menued as an appetizer or shareable, like bruschetta
And don’t forget: April is National Grilled Cheese Month.
Tip of the Month
Every year, global business advisor AlixPartners conducts a survey of more than 1,000 Americans on their intentions and expectation toward dining out. Nearly a third said they expect to spend less this year. For more information about the North America Restaurant and Foodservice Review, click here.