For those of us in the restaurant industry, the economy is still showing a “best-of-times/worst-of-times” personality, and that’s been hard on consumers, many of whom are still feeling pretty cautious about their finances. But according to the National Restaurant Association, 2015, should see an improvement in the dining-out public’s mindset.
Fortunately, that hasn’t tamped down enthusiasm among operators, who are opening up the kinds of exciting new concepts that we try to feature every month in our newsletter.
In this issue, Synergy project coordinator Mandy DeLucia takes us on a tour of the Anaheim Packing District, one of a clutch of new urban gathering places that are opening in cities around the country, offering up a worldly mix of food and food-related retail offerings as part of a lively multi-use mix. (We covered some of these earlier in the year, too, in the article “Market Dynamics.”)
We’ve also got the latest on the Korean food boom, and a look at how some savvy operators are using social media to up their branding games.
Happy holidays, and here’s to continued success,
Dean Small and Danny Bendas
By Mandy DeLucia, Synergy Project Coordinator
With contemporary diners informed by the growing swell of food-related media—the scores of blogs, websites, magazines and television stations dedicated to foodie culture—standard food courts are being supplanted by destination-dining food halls.
Inspired by the eclectic charm of veteran urban food centers like Chelsea Market in New York City and The Original Farmer’s market in Los Angeles, savvy developers are re-defining the food court and incubating new concepts to produce a rich dining experience beyond the city center. By reducing their footprint and sharing a roof and common space—in some cases including back-of-house facilities like prep space and storage—new foodservice operations can reduce their start-up costs and share in the success of neighboring eateries by gaining visibility. The “veto vote” is moot when there are options to suit multiple palates, price points and dietary needs, especially when the space is anchored by an appealing central dining area.
The Anaheim Packing House draws its name from the site, a former citrus packing plant within easy distance of Disneyland. Developed by Shaheen Sadeghi, a visionary with two other hip retail and dining complexes under his belt, the Packing House delivers a playful and engaging environment and a carefully curated group of eateries. The central staircase doubles as a performance space and seating area which is filled with natural light from the skylights in the vaulted ceiling. Strands of natural-fiber ropes descending from architectural beams are studded with air plants and anchored in pots of ivy, creating a living Jacob’s ladder.
Communal seating upstairs includes tables painted to be functional backgammon and checker boards, inviting guests to linger. With a nod to the building’s origins, a vintage tractor sits amid the tables, and stair risers are papered with a photo detail of orange trees. A display case at the base of the stairs filled with faux oranges includes the painted phrase “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” The central staircase is ringed by a viewing gallery which encourages people-watching, with fixed trays for holding drinks and snacks at regular intervals around the railing paired with stylish stools.
Each concept at the Packing House has a well-developed and distinct brand identity, and the brands were thoughtfully located throughout the space, with consideration given to which concepts worked well next to each other. All dayparts are served, with Cafecito Organico delivering caffeine while the adjacent juice bar, Lemon Drop, serves up fresh-pressed juices and smoothies.
Diners create their own food adventure amid the variety, perhaps by starting with a drink at the Hammer Bar, situated on an elevated platform on the upper level, then moving to another spot for a first course. Diverse menu offerings encourage “team eating”; each member of the group orders from a separate concept, then the group meets at a communal table for sharing and sampling.
While some concepts, like The Chippy, have no seating of their own, Kettle Bar, located in a cozy corner of the lower floor, features table service and full bar framed by gleaming copper. The menu features Southern specialties, from cioppino to gumbo, prepared in steam kettles in an exhibition kitchen which is glassed-in and adjacent to the communal space, giving passersby an excellent view of the show.
Clever design features highlight the cooking process at the various concepts, and it might just be the sight of the beautiful piles of freshly sliced ribeye at The Kroft that inspire the ever-present queue for meaty sandwiches and luxurious poutines.
Food halls like the Packing House elevate the experience of communal dining by creating an environment that entertains as it nourishes. As diners become more sophisticated and as amateur food photography in social media becomes a badge of insider knowledge for guests, we can expect to see this trend continue.
Look to Synergy Restaurant Consultants for help with your exciting new foodservice concept.
By Joan Lang
With its fiery flavors and pungent condiments, Korean food might have seemed like a stretch for mainstream innovation as recently as a decade ago, but that was before Roy Choi of Los Angeles’ game-changing Kogi Korean BBQ-to-Go made the “Korean taco” a household word, and before the Spicy Kimchi Burger made it onto the pages of Better Homes & Gardens.
In fact, kimchi (healthy fermented or pickled spicy vegetables, usually cabbage, radish or cucumber) has become a trendy artisanal staple, to be made in-house in restaurants just like pickles and ketchup—it’s even being used in cocktails. And gochujang may be poised to become the next sriracha. Indispensable in Korean food, this savory and pungent fermented is made from red chili, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt; it’s delicious in otherwise non-Korean recipes for wings, barbecued ribs and other meats, rice and noodle dishes, and as a table condiment with a bit of kick.
Other Korean foods that have skipped the tracks into mainstream familiarity include barbecued meats like bulgogi, spicy Korean-style fried chicken (which gets its crispiness from a special batter), and the iconic bibimbop rice dish.
It’s true that traditional Koreatown barbecue joints and other “ethnic” Korean restaurants can be an intimidating place for non-Koreans, even still: brusque, noisy, full of unfamiliar sights and smells.
But like other second- and third-generation immigrants, Korean-American entrepreneurs are merging the bold flavors and healthy yet distinctive profile of Korean cooking with Western amenities, such as English-language menus, friendly service, comfortable décor, and Western-style beverage programs.
Some very high-profile chefs have helped to lead the charge, including not only Choi—who parlayed his food truck fame into a number of restaurants and a TV show—but also David Chang, Bill Kim and Edward Lee. Make no mistake: they are cooking for American diners, adventurous ones, to be sure, but mainstream nonetheless.
A lot of it looks like what used to be called fusion cuisine, with Korean specialties like bulgogi merged with familiar ingredients like pork belly. The emphasis is on making this ancient and exciting cuisine more approachable for modern Western diners.
• At bopNgrill, in Chicago, you can have it both ways: a rice-based Bop Plate topped with the likes of chicken katsu, bulgogi or tofu & kimchi, or a Signature Burger, mostly with such Western toppings as cheddar cheese, onion rings, bacon or truffled mushroom duxelle. In any case, the Kimchi Fries (topped with caramelized kimchi, cheese sauce, bacon, scallions, sesame seeds) have become famous
• CJ Foods, a California distributor of Korean food ingredients, has opened a fast-casual restaurant called Bibigo (meaning “to mix”), with three locations in the LA area specializing in mix-and-match bibimbap, the traditional Korean rice bowl topped with meat or tofu, vegetables and sauce, and traditionally mixed with lots of red-chile pepper paste
• New York Kimchi may have a fairly traditional menu except for the burgers and cheesesteak sandwiches (japchae noodles, barbecued meats, warming stews and hotpots, tartare-like yook hwe) but the emphasis on convenient delivery and office-party catering is distinctly midtown Manhattan
• Likewise, Rice Bar in Washington, DC, is also about the metro need for a quick lunch that can be ordered online and picked up in 10-15 minutes. The menu includes noodle soups and rice dishes, as well as a Chipotle-like “build-your-own” bibimbap and soup platforms that allow guests to specify the rice or noodle of their choosing, and as many a la carte vegetable and protein toppings as they want, from walnuts and corn to egg and hot & spicy chicken
• Chi’Lantro, a truck that plies the streets of Houston and Austin, touts “Korean + Mexican fusion”: tacos (filled with bulgogi, soy vinaigrette Korean salad, cilantro, onion, and salsa; quesadillas (caramelized kimchi, bulgogi, cilantro, onion, Chi’Lantro salsa, “magic sauce” and sesame seeds); Seoul Burrito (caramelized Bulgogi, soy vinaigrette Korean salad, fried egg, cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, cilantro, onion, Chi’Lantro salsa, lime-buttered rice, and sesame seeds), plus a rice bowl, a Korean burger, and kimchi fries
• San Francisco’s Namu is appropriately SF hip, calling out the farm-raised local ingredients, small-batch sakes, and New Korean American cuisine of the three chef-brothers who own it. They have their own farm to supply Asian herbs and vegetables, a truck, and a brick-and-mortar restaurant that features three categories Cold (pickles, oysters, tartare); Plates (dumplings, chicken wings) and Comfort (stone pot of rice and vegetables, the omelet-like okonomiyaki). And it all started with a hot dog truck in Golden Gate Park
• Burnt Rice Kitchen, in San Jose, has a menu that runs from the authentic (mandoo potsticker dumplings and duk bak ki fish cakes) to the flagrantly cross-cultural (Kimchi Po’ Boy and Gangnam Style Phylly sandwich), plus Happy Hour and football night. The drink list is a special triumph of multiculti fusion (sake mixed with Red Bull; pitchers of white peach soju; Ommegang craft beer)
• Danji, in New York City, casts itself as a Korean-style tapas restaurant, with both Traditional and Modern categories of shareables, such as haemul soondoobu jji-gae (spicy seafood soft tofu stew); bulgogi beef sliders (spicy pickled cucumber & scallion salsa); spicy ‘K.F.C.’ Korean fried chicken wings (honey, garlic, four chilies); and kimchi bacon chorizo ‘paella’ with fried Jidori hen egg
•Among the “coastal cuisine” specialties served at The Pearl, in Nantucket, the menu has featured such things as Korean Braised Chicken Steamed bun with fuji apple kimchi and pickled cucumber; ‘KFQ’ Korean Fried Quail with scallion, sesame, radish and kimchee pancakes; and a Ssam Plate of Sizzling Pork Belly cooked on a hot rock and accompanied by “dynamite bbq” and traditional condiments.
By Joan Lang
In just a few short years, social media has gone from being the newest thing in marketing to a must-have strategic component of the branding discipline. And between Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and user-sourced sites like yelp, there are a lot of moving parts to manage and integrate. Knowing what to do with them all takes considerable vision.
It’s crucial to remember that social media is brilliant at brand storytelling—in part because, unlike advertising and other traditional media, it’s a two-way street with customers. And getting guests engaged in helping you tell your brand story can take many creative forms, generating guest loyalty and a sense of “belonging” to the story that’s being shared.
• Mad Greens, the “eat better” fast casual chain based in Denver, does several interesting things with social media. For instance, it posts a Yelp link for each of its unit locations. In addition to offering easy-to-find details about the venue and giving commenters the sense that their opinions are valued, the move helps contribute to the kind of transparency that many experts are advocating as these new media head toward maturity.
Even more compelling, however, is the way Mad Greens brand curates social media content, such as Instagram and Twitter pictures, and streams it on menu boards in the restaurants. Crediting customers for their photos and including them in the very operation of the brand goes to the heart of what social media can do.
• Wendy’s is another company that has been very adept at leveraging social media. With its robust program of LTOs and special promotions (like the much-ballyhooed Pretzel Burger), the chain has plenty of news to spread the word on. In the case of the recent Bacon Portabella Melt comeback, Wendy’s hit upon the idea of using its fans’ own tweets to entice them to come in and try one. The company invited followers to share their small accomplishments via #EarnedIt then recorded the content by a voiceover artist and sent it back to the tweeter: Talk about the social media mantra of immediate, personalized, interactive, and fun.
• Nashville’s trendy Rolf and Daughters recently got a shout-out from the Food Network for its beautiful Instagram feed, which is accessed directly from the bottom of its equally enticing website. Daily posts in both color and black-and-white take viewers not only onto the plates but also behind the scenes into a world of chefs, ingredients, wine and cocktails, and cooking—just the kind of artistic voyeurism that the platform is so effective at. If you’re wondering how to chronicle the “life” of a chef-driven restaurant with strong ties to both the local community and the culinary universe at large, RAD shows you how.
• Luxury hotel chain Four Seasons has used the picture-power of Instagram a little differently, to promote ice cream specialties for virtual ice cream socials on National Ice Cream Day. Chefs at 19 different properties created ice cream treats unique to their locale for the weeklong July event, then encouraged guests to take pictures and post them during “Insta-Meets” held at each hotel. Although Four Seasons has done Ice Cream Day specials before, this year’s social component allowed the brand to get more attention from guests (and potential guests), as well as the press.
But you don’t have to be a big player with deep pockets—or even a good eye for a photograph—to leverage the power of social media. A small brewpub on a busy pedestrian corner in my hometown posted one- and two-word highlights from positive yelp reviews, tickertape-style, all around its street-facing plate glass windows, which could be seen from across the street. And that’s the essence of sharing.
Tip of the Month
Got Gluten Free?
This little cheat sheet from a group that includes FastCasual.com and QSR Web includes a surprising amount of information about demand and the size of the market, common substitutions, and quick tips for starting your own GF program. You might also want to take a look at these menus provided via Gluten Free Guide HQ.