February 2013 Newsletter

Feb 19, 2013


The foodservice economy is picking up steam, and not coincidentally so is Synergy Restaurant Consultants. The marketplace added more than 4,400 units last year, for a 7% total increase. And here at Synergy, we have signed on for several exciting new projects—including concepts in the barbecue and sports bar niches —and we will be updating you about these in the coming months. We have also been called upon to provide brand “freshening” services for a number of clients, both new and existing. And we have added several new professional partnerships with leading foodservice experts, significantly expanding our ability to serve our clients.

Perhaps the best news, however, is that the industry learned quite a lot from the recession. A growing number of established chains have done the vitally important work of redesigning their prototypes and refining their menus to attract a broader audience. Ambitious entrepreneurs have launched an unprecedented number of truly unique new concepts, particularly in the booming fast casual segment.
And everyone has learned how to tighten their belts against rising costs without sacrificing quality.

It all bodes well for our collective future.


To your success,

Dean and Danny

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The “Vegetable-Forward” Menu

By Joan Lang

No, not vegetarian; vegetable forward.

It’s a sign of the times. The ever-increasing cost of animal proteins like beef and even chicken, coupled with a fascination for the local, the seasonal and the fresh-from-the-farm, has given rise to menus that pay much more than lip service—a salad or two, a few side dishes—to vegetables.

Restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen, with its foraged plants on the menu, and Eleven Madison Mark in New York, where chef Daniel Humm has famously ground carrot “tartare” tableside, have put the focus squarely on vegetables.

As Noma’s Rene Redzepi himself has said, “The dimensions of flavors you find in vegetables are so much more exciting than [those of] the three or four animals we eat all the time.”

Trend prognosticators are already proclaiming 2013 The Year of the Vegetable., an online restaurant deal resource, polled more than 100 restaurants in all segments to see what operators thought would be important trends this year. Vegetables having a more prominent position on menus ranked No. 2 on the list (after healthy menu options.

Kale and beets seem to be on every other menu. Hooters has added salads. A whole new, er, crop of quick-casual restaurants like Snappy Salads and Pitfire Pizza is replacing burgers and fries with Corn and Okra Stew and Brussels Sprouts and Bacon Pizza. Meanwhile, chefs with access to any land at all, even a rooftop, are growing their own vegetables.


Pitfire pizza | Image credit: Flickr by hellfroze
Pitfire pizza | Image credit: Flickr by hellfroze

• Justin Cucci, chef/owner of Root Down and Linger, in Denver, put in an 800-sq.-ft. on-site Root Garden that provides heirloom tomatoes, beets,kale, chiles, herbs, zucchinis and sunflowers (used for their seeds) for both gardens. Guests at Root Down can sit on the patio and view the garden directly, while they enjoy seasonal specialties like Carrot & Gorgonzola Salad with arugula, frisee, Marcona almonds, carrot leaf pesto and Sauvignon Blanc dressing, and Roasted Beet Risotto with Forbidden Black rice, goat feta, Parmesan, candied walnuts and citrus sauce

• Brick-oven pizza chain Bertucci’s has been steadily broadening its appeal into a more full-menu concept under new executive chef Jeff Tenner, in part thanks to such seasonal, produce-driven new items as a roasted vegetable antipasto, Brick Oven Beets with Blue Cheese, and Roasted Butternut Squash Pizza. A new concept, called 2 Ovens, is set to push the produce envelope still further

• In its newly relaunched Marinas Restaurant, the Bernardus Lodge in Carmel Valley, CA, offers chef Cal Stamenov’s take on “farmed and foraged” ingredients in such seasonal dishes as Smoked Eggplant Agnolini with cherry tomatoes, Manchego and pimente d’espelette; Chilled Garden Cucumber Soup with Maine lobster, minted yogurt, compressed watermelon and cilantro; and Wild White Sea Bass with Di Cicco broccoli, baby spinach and Meyer lemon puree

• The menu at Fresh to Order, a quick- casual chain based in Atlanta, touts freshness and health through a variety of fruit and vegetable items. Current specialties include a spinach salad laced with strawberries, raisins and seasonal fruit; a fig and blue cheese salad with candied walnuts; a grilled vegetable panini; and a variety of multi-use condiments and relishes, such as Roasted Corn Peanut Relish and a citrus- and-ginger Asian Slaw

• Frog and Peach, a 30-year-old classic restaurant in New Brunswick, NJ, now under a new chef-owner, does a 4-course Vegetable Tasting Menu that was so successful when he introduced it this summer that the concept has been extended into colder weather with seasonal ingredients like pumpkin, Asian pear, root vegetables and mushrooms

• You would expect an outfit called Field Kitchen to focus on vegetables, and indeed the menu for the Sweet Tomatoes brand “reinvention” features numerous salads (including Hippy Grains & Kale and a Greek salad), plus such “suitable sides” for rotisserie meats as Roasted Squash Ratatouille and Iowa Creamed Corn

Not that while vegetarians and even vegans would be perfectly happy with these menu items, these are not meat-free-zone restaurants, nor are the menus actively promoted to the sprouts set—instead they are thoughtful seasonal offerings that showcase great ingredients and elevated techniques and flavor principles.

What’s not to like?

An Untapped Market: The Food-Allergic

By Lara (“Food Allergy Gal”) Holland, a food-allergic foodie and owner of LaraHolland Food Allergy Consultancy


How many times does restaurant staff hear these words: “I am allergic to____” or “My child has food allergies to_____”? These can be the most dreaded phrases in the industry, because they hold everything up.

That said, catering to the food-allergic or food-sensitive population is a socially responsible way to bring in big revenues and create customer loyalty.

I am a food-allergic foodie who has struggled with food allergies for the last 10 years. Changing my diet wasn’t about losing weight or being “healthy”—it was about saving my life. There is an entire population of people with late-onset food allergies. And like me, they are foodies who love a well-prepared meal, yet now must worry about everything they put into their mouths.

There are 150 million people worldwide with severe food allergies, and 90% of these people are allergic to one or more of 10 specific foods. So what does this mean for the restaurant business? The food-allergic often cook at home, rarely eat out, and frequently bring their own meals to events: They are in complete food isolation land. Granted, there are sometimes vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free options at restaurants, but very rarely do I see menus offered specifically to the food allergic. For operators, this is actually quite exciting, because there is a major untapped market for serving the food-allergic.

In a recent poll I asked: “As a food-allergic or parent of a food-allergic, what would make you eat out more?” Almost 200 people replied, saying, “I would drive out of my way to eat at a place where I knew the food was `safe,’ and where there were special menus and an educated, sensitive staff.” Some respondents added that they would like to see all ingredients be listed on these special menus or easy-to-read labeling so they could select a menu item with confidence.

So why should your food business care about food allergies?

For one thing, there are legal issues to consider. A recent precedent may actually require you to make changes if your business is subject to American with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance.

As of January 2009, the ADA lists and recognizes people with food allergies as being among the disabled. In January 2013, a ruling against a Massachusetts university awarded a food-sensitive person $50,000 because the university was not carrying food she could eat on campus. Additionally, they ordered that all facilities have items a food-sensitive or allergic person could eat and a special location to store them in.

And then there are the revenues and customer loyalty. According to Global Industry Analysts, the market for food allergy and intolerance products has the potential to bring in $26.5 billion of revenue in the next four years. This is an enormous opportunity for food manufacturers, retailers and foodservice operators to tap into their share of a market that will only grow from here. In fact, Whole Foods attributes its 2012 success almost entirely to serving this population.

Food-allergic/sensitive people will be some of the most loyal customers you’ll ever meet. If you truly take the time to understand their needs and make meals they can enjoy without getting sick, they will travel long distances to eat at your restaurant or shop in your store. They write excellent reviews and ask all their friends to join them there.

If you have items on the menu for “special needs” diners, they will likely order it: Overall, the food-allergic are extremely deprived in the food world. If they see a dessert on the menu that they can actually eat, they will have dinner and dessert. If there is an appetizer, dinner, dessert and a beverage made without the ingredients they are allergic to, guess what? Their meal ticket is larger and you get the revenue.

What can your restaurant do to help serve the food-allergic/sensitive safely?

• Get staff trained and certified by a nationally recognized organization. It pays off! I have seen the difference between a certified food allergy staff and a “ServSafe” approved staff.

• Develop certified food/allergy-friendly menus and special request menus. These menus make it easier to serve special-request items more quickly during busy times, ensure safety of food products without triple-checking ingredients, avoid potential lawsuits for making a food-allergic person sick, and increase the confidence of the consumer and the staff.

• Work with a specialist. Culinary schools don’t teach their students this specialty, and many kitchen staffers don’t understand the importance of the issue. Most Registered Dietitians also don’t get specialty focus training on food allergies and sensitivities. Contact a food allergy specialist or a consultant to help, including Synergy Restaurant Consultants .

• Source alternative ingredients. You can still have regular macaroni and cheese on the menu, but then add a “dairy- and gluten-free mac and cheese” with a little flair and watch sales soar.

For more information on food allergies, log on to Lara’s blog at

Dining and Whining: Dealing with Complaints

By Joan Lang

Yelp App | Image credit: Flickr by brennanMKE
Yelp App | Image credit: Flickr by brennanMKE

Customer complaints have been a fact of life since the first restaurant opened up for business in 18th-century France. But the landscape is shifting fast now that social media outlets such as Yelp and Facebook have come onto the scene, creating a new class of “citizen reviewers” who have been empowered to put their opinions, including complaints, out there on the internet for all the world to see.

Social media has been so empowering, in fact, that it has completely changed conventions: A new service called Reviewer Card makes it possible for reviewers, including Yelpers, to put a restaurant on notice that it may be reviewed, thus ensuring a better level of service, according to the card’s founders. (Ruth Bourdain, the Twitter-born parody mash-up of Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain, immediately and rightly put this hostage-taking practice itself on notice.)

According to the 2012 Tork Report, a whopping 92% of U.S. consumers say they will complain about a negative restaurant experience, most often online. And never mind that some Yelp reviews may be fake. Operators need to take complaints seriously, and they need to ensure that problems in the restaurant are addressed before they become complaints.

The article “Life in the Age of Yelp” which we published in March 2012 still holds true for how to deal with online complaints: Monitor postings, establish policies for responding, and watch your tone and intent if you do address negative comments. Most experts agree that you should respond to online criticisms, either publicly or privately, in a thoughtful and respectful way —which demonstrates to both the commenter and anyone else reading your response that you take your guests’ satisfaction seriously.

There are also best-practice rules of engagement for old-fashioned “real time” complaints, the kind that come directly to the restaurant in the form of food returns, requests to speak to the management, follow-up letters, and the like. In fact, closely monitoring situations in the restaurant that may lead to complaints—such as a customer not eating their food—is especially important now, because being proactive can prevent them from going public later.

• Watch your customers. Are they looking around for a server or sitting for a long time without their food? Are their water glasses empty? Have three different wines that they’ve ordered been out of stock? It’s crucial to address issues like these for the sake of good hospitality, but it’s also a way to prevent a negative experience from becoming a complaint. You should also encourage staff to inform a manager if they see any situations developing.

• Intercede when you see something that’s not right. Let guests know you are aware there is a problem and that you are willing to take responsibility for correcting it as soon as possible. Offer a free dessert after a meal that has taken too long to arrive, or take the bottle of wine they eventually order off the check—and tell them so when the bottle arrives at the table. Chances are good that they will not only feel better about the experience but they will also tell their friends, and give you another chance.

• Keeping a log of problems and complaints and communicating them with all concerned parties (such as the management staff)—either in an actual book or with a digital tool like ShiftNote —can help identify patterns and point up potential problems that need to be addressed in operations. If three sets of customers in as many weeks say the gumbo was too spicy, maybe it is. It also ensures that all stakeholders are up to date.

• Consider using customer surveys. Make a survey available to guests with the check, on your website, or at a service counter. People who fill these out may be doing so because they’ve had a negative experience or are concerned enough to want to let you know what they think. Address any problems that may surface with a personal response and an offer to correct the situation or an invitation to return and give your establishment another chance.

• Realize that guests can feel awkward about complaining face-to-face. There are programs like Talk to the Manager, which allows customers to anonymously text complaints and comments directly to a manager’s cellphone.

• Engage your staff in the process. Employees who value their workplaces and co-workers help build customer satisfaction. Employees who are provided freedom, self-governance, and an ability to make choices about their work are not only more engaged in their jobs, but they are also more likely to address service issues before they become full-blown complaints.

Want more information about customer service issues? Call Synergy Restaurant Consultants.

Tip of the Month

Continuing education is great, but it can cost a lot in terms of both money and time. The Culinary Institute of America offers a number of free online courses through its  site, including such industry-supported eLearning modules as sustainable Alaska seafood, the cooking of Andalucia, and The World Bean Kitchen. There is also a series of four paid online Menu R&D courses conducted each year, as well as videos, recipes and other assets for foodservice professionals.