December 2011 Newsletter

Dec 20, 2011





The end of the year is upon us, and that means all the annual wrap-ups, best-of’s and best guesses for next year are being published. With this month’s and next month’s newsletter, we’ll be sharing some of our collective thinking on what the important food trends will be in the coming year, based on what we’ve been seeing, hearing, tasting, and drinking in the last few months. The list runs from the ongoing importance of menu items like burgers and pizza to the new fascination with nose-to-tail sourcing.

And we’ll continue with more trends next month. In addition to food trends, we’ve also got some ideas for increasing your beverage sales at a time when many customers are saying “Just water, please.” Creative nonalcoholic beverage items can represent a significant source of incremental sales and lasting customer satisfaction. And if you care about your corporate culture—and you should—make sure to read out colleague Morreen Bayles’s article on how to create a good one.

Wishing you all a safe, healthy and profitable holiday season.

To your success,

Dean and Danny

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Food Trends: 12 for ’12, Part I

By Joan Lang


This is the time of year for reflecting on what’s happened in the past 12 months, and looking forward to the possibilities for the next 12. For many of our peers, that means predicting what some of the food trends will be for 2012. Here are Synergy’s.

The Big Three: Burgers, Dogs and Pizza These value-laced favorites have proven themselves to be blank canvases for the creativity of operators—and the seemingly unending craving of consumers.

1. Burgers: As stripped-down “better burger” franchises like Five Guys and Smashburger continue their march across America, new players are keeping the pressure on.  B.A.D. Burgers/Breakfast All Day charges into Manhattan with its huge and trendy menu (Chicken-and-waffles! Five kinds of burger patties! Dozens of a la carte sauce and toppings options!). Coal Burger in Scottsdale bases its burgers on the coal-fired ovens that made parent company Grimaldi’s Pizzeria famous. Not to be outdone, established chains are ramping up their burger offerings: witness Whataburger’s new Green Chile Double, which ran systemwide as an LTO earlier this year.

2. Hot Dogs and Sausage: Where hamburgers go, hot dogs follow, joined by sausages reflective of the growing interest in charcuterie and other housemade meat products. Brats, bangers, even bologna are getting the handcrafted treatment: Kupersmith, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—a project of eight School of Visual Arts students—emblemizes the trend with a mix-and-match menu  of housemade sausages and crafty suds.

3. Pizza: Neapolitan, Provencal-style, grilled, wood-fired, coal-fired, round, square, deep-fried. Topped with everything from fried eggs and Benton’s bacon to handmade mozz and heirloom tomatoes, artisan-style pizzerias are sprouting up everywhere there’s 00 flour and a customer base. Serious Eats’ exhaustive/obsessive weblog Slice is getting a real workout staying up with the volume.

4. Sandwich Generation Hasta la vista, ham and cheese: You’ve been edged out by everything from Vietnamese banh mi and Italian porchetta sandwiches to gourmet grilled cheese and media noche panini. The sandwich category is attracting serious chefs with ambitious culinary philosophies who want to make their food more accessible to time- and wallet-challenged food lovers. Take Charles Kelsey of Cutty’s in Brookline, MA, who has channeled his CIA education and 12 years of experience working at upscale restaurants into a quick-casual concept that dispenses the likes of the Spuckie (a muffaletta-like mélange of fennel salami, hot capicola, mortadella, mozzarella, and olive-carrot salad on ciabatta) and the Ham Pimento (Niman Ranch ham, Southern-style pimiento spread and sweet pickles and baguette).

5. Butchers Get Star Status

The whole nose-to-tail cooking thing (housemade salumi, heritage pigs, and crispy pig tails) has reached its natural next step in the whole “craft butcher” movement, in which many of the meat cutters are or were chefs. The new Butcher and Larder in Chicago, for instance, is run by husband-and-wife chefs whose resumes include some of the Windy City’s finest restaurants. In New Orleans, John’s Besh’s Cochon Butcher not only supplies his other restaurants, but also serves as both a retail and restaurant profit center in its own right. In a reverse move, Prather Ranch Meat Co. is opening a restaurant adjacent to its shop in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. And the uber-hip Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn has begat not only an onsite general store, but also the nearby Marlow & Daughter for grass-fed beef, humanely raised pigs, and all kinds of sausage—the skins are even sent to a tannery to be turned into sustainable leather tote bags.

6. Gluten-Free Gets a Jolt A recent article in the New York Times entitled “Should We All Go Gluten-Free?” shows just how mainstream the disinclination to eat gluten has become—a trend that savvy restaurant operators have not failed to note. In fact, according to Technomic, menu items billed as “gluten-free” increased by 61% between 2010 to 2011. Nowadays, many independents and chains alike sport special menus for celiac sufferers and the gluten-averse, including pizza and pasta concepts like Biaggi’s. Bakeries specialize in gluten-free cupcakes, websites like list restaurants around the country appealing to the gluten-sensitive, and with sales of such products topping $1.6 billion last year, according to Mintel, there’s no doubt that consumers will learn to expect this option more and more when they dine out. Get busy and get the wheat out.

Be sure to check our newsletter in January for Part II of the Food Trends article.


Pour Profits, Instead of Just Water

By Joan Lang


The recent “Beverages at Foodservice” study released by the NPD Group put numbers to a trend that many operators have known implicitly for quite some time: In an attempt to hold the line on expenditures, many consumers are ordering water instead of soda and brewed coffee. In fact, according to NPD, while traffic declined a relatively moderate 1% over the past five years, sales of these profitable but discretionary beverages are down a more significant 6%, representing more than 2.7 billion servings. And that’s some real coin.

The concurrent relative growth of other nonalcoholic categories, including smoothies, specialty coffee and even tried-and-true iced tea, indicates a targeted solution to the problem of customers saying: “Just water please.”

As Synergy’s Dean Small states in this article from Fast Casual, “When a guest buys lunch, they want a beverage, and if you don’t have a creative beverage strategy, they’ll not buy one or trade down to something basic.” That thinking is even more true today as the languid economy struggles into its fourth year.

If you haven’t branched out past the standard-issue beverage offerings of coffee-tea-or-cola, then you’re not doing your part to leverage a powerful source of profits and customer satisfaction. And remember that some people order tap water because they are avoiding calories and caffeine, so you need to take that into account as well when you offer options.

Iced tea and coffee, juices, flavored lemonade, and espresso-based specialties are obvious choices for building beverage sales, but here are some additional ideas for turning on the tap—for profit opportunities.

• Housemade sodas – Remember the old soda fountain? At their simplest, carbonated beverages are nothing more than fizz and flavor, and many clever operators are taking advantage of that fact by utilizing their soda gun or a cartridge-based carbonation system to create their own housemade sodas. At one sixtyblue in Chicago, the extensive beverage list includes housemade sodas flavored with the likes of cara cara orange, pineapple and elderflower, priced at $5. Making sodas in house opens up a range of flavor frontiers, from familiar root beer and chocolate to more exotic products like fennel-cardamom, many of which are designed to be more food friendly than standard cola or lemon-lime.

• Local and regional specialties. The age of artisanship has led to a revived interest in local and small-batch bottled sodas and other beverages, whether traditional favorites or newly minted. At American Eats Tavern, José Andrés’s newest creation, in Washington, DC, the selection of nonalcoholic possibilities includes Moxie from Maine, North Carolina’s Cheerwine, Boylan’s cola and diet cola from New Jersey, and other old-fashioned regional favorites that fit with the restaurant’s American-heritage menu format.

• Seasonal beverages. The possibilities for seasonal offerings go beyond hot beverages in cold weather and coolers in summer. Coffee specialists like Dunkin’ Donuts display considerable genius with hot and cold options that tap into seasonally popular flavors like Gingerbread or Iced Peppermint in December and Tropicana® Orange & Blue Raspberry in the summer. The fact that these season-sensitive beverages respond so well to promotion is absolutely no coincidence.

• Special-teas. The world of tea is, if anything, even more prone to geekdom than coffee, with hundreds of different varieties that tea lovers are rushing to sample. From the fairly standard categories of black, green, and oolong to super-specialized products like exotic flowering white tea, chai (a category of spiced tea beverages), rooibos and other herbal teas, tea-like infusions like hyssop, matcha (a finely milled green tea popular in Japan), and lapsang souchong (smoked tea), this is a category that can educate and delight for a lifetime.

• Customized specialties. A recent SmartBlog on Restaurants post heralded the age of customer specification for beverages, just as build-your-own pizza and mix-and-match sandwiches have put food menus in the consumer’s hands. If you have syrups, juices, bitters and other flavorings on-hand for specialty coffee, these increasingly available products can also be offered as add-ons to other types of beverages, from steamed milk and hot chocolate to lemonade and old-fashioned phosphates. In addition to providing more flavor for the customer, these additions can support premium or a la carte pricing.

• “Healthy halo” beverages. Tea has long been considered a health-giving elixir, and juices and smoothies are another natural when it comes to tapping in to healthy messaging for beverages, but there are other options as well. Natural sweeteners like agave syrup, honey and stevia are supplanting sugar and sugar substitutes in a variety of different refreshers, and fruits and vegetables with purported anti-oxidant powers—like pomegranate and acai—have also become more popular. At LYFE Kitchen, a healthy-foods concept that Synergy Restaurant Consultants helped to develop, the beverage menu includes a variety of healthy beverages both bottled and housemade, including coconut water, pomegranate-cranberry juice, and the Cucumber-Mint Cooler (purified water with slices of fresh cucumber, mint and lemon).

Need help making your beverage menu more interesting and customer-friendly? Synergy Restaurant Consultants can provide a free evaluation.


How to create culture

By Morreen Rukin Bayles, President, Creative Restaurant Solutions


Culture: It’s one of those concepts that is so hard to define because it’s not tangible like an employment application, a training manual, or a performance review.  Culture is not something you can touch, but it certainly is something you can feel, whether it is present or absent.  It’s the fiber that weaves together a team and it’s exhibited in the way managers and employees interact with one another and with the guest or customer they serve.  It’s the energy, attitude, and support evident in these interactions.

Creating a productive, effective culture takes time, focus, and consistency.  Because culture sets you apart from your competition, it’s critical to take the time to thoroughly define it and thread it through all aspects of the employment life cycle.  To create a distinctive culture, use the following tips:

• Start with your organization’s mission, purpose, and value, then define the behaviors required to deliver them 100% of the time.

• Determine the energy and “feeling” for your concept from the perspective of the managers, employees, and consumer.  How will you be different from your competitors?  What unique behaviors must occur to provide this differentiation?

• Identify, by position, the actionable tasks necessary to provide the desired level of service, and include those behavioral components in the job definitions.

• Create hiring tools that identify the type of person who can perform the required tasks while naturally exhibiting the desired behaviors.  This is essential because it’s easy to train the tasks required for the job, but nearly impossible to train the behaviors.  For example, many companies conduct pre-hire assessments that test for their desired behaviors.  Others conduct behavioral interviews where you ask the candidate to imagine themselves in realistic scenarios and see how they would react. Provide training to the professions using the hiring tools to ensure they use them consistently and appropriately.

• Conduct an orientation that exemplifies the culture with every new employee.  Make sure the orientation involves interaction, activities, and introductions to all other team members.  At the end of the orientation day, if new employees don’t feel inspired and welcome, you can guarantee they will turnover quickly.

• Provide training heavily weighted toward hands-on practice and involvement with other team members.  Validate the effectiveness of training with hands-on demonstrations and activities.  Make it as “real-life” as possible.  Allow for flexibility in the number of hours required for training based on the team member’s ability to demonstrate the behaviors and tasks.

• Create an environment based on acknowledging positive behavior.  Recognize and reward managers and employees who foster the culture.  Rewards can be as simple as a shout out at a pre-shift meeting, to a hand-written thank you note, to a small gift card.  It doesn’t have to be much, but it should be given publicly to motivate others to strive for the desired behaviors. How can you identify these people?  Just look at their results.  In an environment where culture is strong and delivered consistently, retention and sales are usually up, while costs and complaints are down.

• Incorporate cultural components into performance reviews and make them just as important as the numeric results.

• Provide advancement opportunities to those who uphold the culture and get the results.

• Conduct culture surveys periodically to assess the reality of the day-to-day execution and perception of your organization’s culture.  Getting feedback from those who have to uphold the culture everyday is priceless.

Yes, all this takes time and effort.  But incorporating these suggestions is invaluable to the organization’s results and retention.  Paying attention to your culture will help to position  you for more profit and long-term success while creating a more enjoyable environment for the people you serve.


Tip of the Month


Have you decided to ramp up your selection of tea offerings? Congratulations: You’ve picked a subject that has kept people fascinated for thousands of years. Tea connoisseurship is every bit as specialized as the fields of wine or coffee, so you’ll need a few resources to get you started: represents the U.S. tea industry through the combined resources of The Tea Association of the USA, Inc., The Tea Council of the USA, and the Specialty Tea Institute.  Learn-About-Tea provides a good basic starting point for learning about the world’s many kinds of tea, their history, characteristics and benefits.

In Pursuit of Tea is beautiful retail site that includes ample information about the culture of tea, its health benefits and brewing tips.  This article on Tea Flavor Profiles from takes a more flavor-based approach to tea selection, and includes links to more detailed entries.