January 2012 Newsletter

Jan 24, 2012

Happy New Year!

By now all of you must be hunkering down to see what the next year will bring, whether you embrace the view of some that we’re still stuck in the economic doldrums, or that the situation is finally taking a turn for the better.

One thing’s for certain: Mobility, as in on-the-move cash registers and iPad-based menus, will be more important than ever in the coming year, as our technology guru Michael Reynaga explains.

And the fast casual segment will continue to drive both growth and innovation of a kind we’re only just beginning to appreciate. Take a look at some of the companies we’ve showcased in Fast Casual Concepts to Watch.

And we’ve also got the second installment of Joan Lang’s Top 12 Trends for 2012, covering more of the leading-edge developments including Urban Rusticity, American Taverns and Next-Wave Mexican. One of the most intriguing trends, to our way of thinking, is the way restaurant creators are researching into the past (see History Repeats Itself) to create concepts, décor, service styles and menus, proving that everything old is new again—and there is something new under the sun.

To your success,

Dean and Danny

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Food Trends: 12 for ’12, Part II

By Joan Lang


In last month’s newsletter, we presented the first six of our Top 12 Trends for 2012, from better burgers, hot dogs, pizza and sandwiches to artisan meats and the gluten-free craze. This month: the final six.

7. Rustic is the New Sophisticated

Barn-board walls and dry-aged ribeyes, communal tables and housemade pickles, spit-roasted meats and top-of-the-line cocktail programs: the common thread is urban-rustic. Brooklyn’s new Buschenschank is a case in point, with its Tyrolean tavern atmosphere and its menu celebrating the hearty, comforting fare of the out-of-the-way Alto Adige (fondue, oxtail stew, the bread dumplings known as speckknodel) region of Italy. It’s all part of the anti-upscale restaurant revolution that’s no less attractive to the foodie populace for its lack of apparent sophistication. Many of these restaurants are, not surprisingly, farm-to-table or ethnic or both, bringing a folksy local/sustainable ethos to the world’s indigenous peasant cuisines. Around the country there are restaurants opening like Cotogna, Michael Tusk’s “celebration of rustic Italian cuisine” in San Francisco and Tavernita in Chicago. And Brendan Sodikoff, the chef/owner of Au Cheval, also in Chicago, proudly describes the restaurant as “rough around the edges” and “the opposite of modern,” with a menu that will include bacon steak, potato hash as a bed for the likes of duck-tongue confit, and even a fried bologna sandwich.

8. Retail-Segment Blurring

As if the competition weren’t vicious enough between restaurant concepts, retailers are coming on strong with their own designs on the away-from-home food dollar. Recent research from Technomic, in fact, suggests that consumers no longer see much difference between meals picked up at fast food outlets and those from convenience stores. Small wonder that c-stores and grocery stores are pouring efforts into prepared foods, including Spartan Stores with its $3.99 packaged school lunches and The Empire Hy-Vee in Sioux Falls, which hired a fulltime chef this summer to not only develop recipes but also oversee food displays, conduct demos, teach cooking classes and act as a general resource to shoppers. Meanwhile, City Provisions in Chicago may have the formula to strike back with a concept that combines a retail deli with catering, supper clubs and a dine-in menu.

9. The New American Tavern

Is it a bar or a restaurant? Call it a draw, this newest iteration of the gastropub/bar- and-grill that places equal emphasis on food and beverages, aiming to be a casual neighborhood gathering spot for repeat visits and multiple locations. Often characterized by lots of beer and wine-by-the-glass, serious mixology, and a food menu of small plates and shareables—plus a name that recalls the classic British tied-house—these new-wave “locals” are popping up all over the place:
The Beagle and Jones Wood Foundry, New York City
Plan Check, Los Angeles
Blokes & Birds, Chicago
The Nose Dive, Greenville, SC
Monk’s Kettle, San Francisco
Back Bay Social Club, Boston

10. Next Wave Mex

First it was Sonoran, then Tex-Mex, followed by upscale or “modern Mexican,” and now finally the hipster taqueria and tequila bar has arrived to show gringos what it’s all about: not sloppy enchiladas but sophisticated street-style antojitos (filled with the likes of carnitas and suckling pig) and top-shelf spirits. Richard Sandoval, who along with Rick Bayless helped to pioneer the acceptance of Mexico as a haven for serious cuisine, has Zenga Zenga in Snowmass Village, CO. The northern foodie town of Portland, ME, has not one but three new places for tacos and tequila: El Rayo, Zapoteca, and Taco Escabar. Tacolicious and Mosto recently opened in San Francisco to showcase tacos, tamales, and dozens of different kinds of tequilas. Cantina Feliz and La Calaca Feliz are doing the same in the Philadelphia area. And “Top Chef” Mike Isabella is working on Bandolero in Washington, as we reported in last month’s newsletter.

11. American Regional: Southern and Barbecue

Way down south there’s flavor, comfort and authenticity, all things that are welcome just about everywhere. Thus the wave of openings in traditional barbecue and soul-food wastelands like Boston and San Francisco, which has seen a regular boom of Southern/BBQ restaurants in recent months, from Tupelo and Southpaw to the upcoming Dancing Pig and Hops & Hominy. “Top Chef” fave Tiffani Faison has had an instant hit in Boston with her new Sweet Cheeks Q, with roves the barbecue belt with ribs, brisket, pulled pork, classic sides like hush puppies and broccoli-cheese casserole plus a whole shelf full of small-batch bourbons. Other winners in the Southern hit parade on menus all over the country include pimento cheese, shrimp and grits, fried chicken (with or without waffles), pork belly, sweet tea, oysters, muffaletta sandwiches, gumbo and fried green tomatoes.

12. History Repeats Itself

Whether it all started with research into Speakeasy-era cocktails or authentic regional American foods, one of the latest-wave food trends is a look back at the classics with an eye to a contemporary twist. One of the most high-profile by far is America Eats Tavern in DC, José Andrés’s painstakingly researched paean to the history of American food, from “Vermicelli Prepared Like Pudding, Philadelphia, 1802” to “Shrimp in Grapefruit Cocktail, Irma Rombauer, Joy of Cooking, 1931”; if you only follow one link in this article, click on this. The brand-new Saloon in Somerville, MA, is styled as a pre-Prohibition-style tavern with small plates, brown drinks and old-timey atmosphere. And in New York City, there’s One Mile House, paying tribute to the days when the Bowery was a jumble of saloons (pre Prohibition that is), with such immigrant-chic fare as pierogies, matzo balls, and schnitzel sliders, plus scads of cocktails and interesting tap beers. And the owners of Torrisi Italian Specialties, which has already broken ground with its reverential Italo-American paesano pre-fixe menu, spent hours poring over the New York Public Library’s extensive collection of historic menus preparing to morph their original restaurant into an Olde New York mashup.

If you need help keeping your menu on-trend, contact Synergy for more information.


Technology: Going Mobile in 2012

By Michael Regynaga, Senior Project Manager


Ah, 2012! If sci-fi movies have taught us anything, it’s that the future we once dreamed about is finally here—give or take a flying car and personal jetpacks.

But don’t let the lack of flying cars bring you down; in fact, everyone in the hospitality industry should be excited, because the industry as a whole has never been quicker to adapt to advances in technology.

For the past decade we’ve had the luxury of being able to get information when we wanted it, no matter where we were, thanks to mobile devices. We could book airline flights, order a pizza, or even send Grandma a bouquet of flowers all from the screen of our smartphones. And now the restaurant industry has adopted mobile devices as a viable option to replace current versions of the common POS system.

Many restaurants are experimenting with using mobile devices as menus and cash registers. In addition there’s an influx of third-party mobile platforms that work in conjunction with standard POS systems. These systems can be used to “dress up” tableside ordering devices to highlight menu items through the use of interactive graphics. Some restaurants, including Stacked, use an iPad as an interactive menu to allow guests to customize their food. At Stacked, guests can “drag & drop” toppings onto burgers to create their own culinary masterpiece, and then send their creation straight to the kitchen when they’re ready to order. The result is an increased check average and a speedier throughput for the restaurant.

Using technology isn’t just limited to increasing sales. Systems like the ISISPOS are an example of how a little innovation mixed with current technology can help reduce startup costs as well. Using an iPad as the primary terminal device, ISISPOS will allow staff to clock in/out, place orders, and carry out transactions with an easy-to-use interface. In addition to the mobility of using an iPad to carry out daily functions, the ISIS back-office system runs on a hosted web-server that can be accessed from anywhere there’s internet access. This allows mangers to view real-time sales information, conduct payroll, or perform a void from anywhere through their smartphone or computer. Currently being used in more than 150 restaurants, ISISPOS has helped restaurants lower their IT start-up costs by 60-70% over traditional systems.

Although we’re standing at the forefront of a digital revolution within the restaurant industry, one thing will remain certain: Technology, no matter how amazing, can never replace the genuine hospitality that a person can provide. Technology should be used as an amendment to service, not a replacement.

For more information on how you can incorporate technology to help your restaurant’s business please contact Synergy Restaurant Consultants.


Fast Casual Concepts to Watch

By Joan Lang


It’s no secret that there’s a lot of action in the fast casual segment right now, as upscale quick-service chains like Five Guys, Chipotle and Panera grab the growth away from more traditional fast feeders like Burger King, Taco Bell and Subway. In fact, while many experts expect a still-moribund restaurant economy for 2012—Technomic forecasts 2.5 percent nominal growth and zero real growth in 2012—the fast casual arena is predicted to be a lone bright spot.

Fast casual is also the segment that defines some of the most interesting menu and design concepts, from healthy, eco-conscious formats like LYFE Kitchen to Pizza Inn’s new Pie Five Pizza Co., which promises custom-made, “handcrafted pizza in less than five minutes.”

Here are some other nascent fast casual chains we’re singling out, for creativity, promise or both:

Fresco Wood Fired Italian Kitchen – Trading off the popularity of rustic Italian cooking, Beautiful Brands (best known for the 84-unit Camille’s Sidewalk Café) is launching Fresco Wood Fired Italian Kitchen, where handcrafted, chef-inspired food meets fast-casual convenience. Designing the concept around the woodburning oven brings a distinctive touch to both the décor (which features and open design and exhibition prep) and the menu, which will include such made-from-scratch pastas as Pasta Santa Caterina (spaghetti with fresh chopped tomatoes, oregano, parsley, garlic, basil, and grated Parmesan); Marinated Chicken Panini with oven roasted tomatoes, arugula, lemon, and Asiago; and Fresco Wood Fired Pizza with pepperoni, Italian sausage, fresh rosemary, and crushed red pepper.

Meatballs – Star-chef Michel Richard may not be the first person to double down on this new-wave comfort food classic, but he’s certainly one of the most high-profile. The toque behind Citronelle has opened the new meatball-centric eatery in Washington, DC, as both an affordable destination (the menu offers lamb, beef, chicken, crab and lentil balls with a choice of sauces and served on hoagie rolls or in pastas and salads, accompanied by the tater-tot-like “spuddies”) and a future franchise vehicle. The counter-service restaurant features an open kitchen and urban-chic dining room with bentwood chairs and marble tables, so it’s a good step or five nicer looking than standard fast food.

Steak ‘n Shake – Another burger place, even in burger-crazy Manhattan? Well, this time it’s Steak ‘n Shake, the iconic Midwestern diner , going fast-casual for the Big Apple. In addition to its signature Classic Steakburgers with “Wisconsin melted butter,” the new flagship counter-service version will feature beer and wine and upgraded offerings like burgers made with ribeye and NY Steak. It should be enough for the irony-loving hipoisie to embrace

Umami Burger – Among the legion of “better burger” concepts that have sprung up in recent years, this seven-unit California-based is one of the hippest, showcasing the DYI gestalt by grinding its own meat, pickling its own vegetables, and even processing its own cheese. Burgers are seriously gourmet (Port & Stilton Burger, anyone) and there’s wine by the glass or bottle and lots of trendy craft and draft beers. The sleek, one-of-a-kind quarters and such amenities as espresso and great desserts make Umami Burger even more appealing. No wonder GQ’s Alan Richman called it The Burger of the Year.

Wow Bao – Lettuce Entertain You’s five-unit “hot Asian buns” concept may not be a high-speed growth vehicle, but it’s become a cult phenomenon thanks to its smarty-pants Twitter avatar, @BaoMouth. As the voice of Wow Bao, @BaoMouth monitors the web for fans and reaches out to them directly, with offers for free bao dumplings, news about the company and even general observations—like whether or not an Emmy award winner’s shoes match her dress. Wow Bao’s brilliantly viral social media strategy also includes online ordering via Facebook (thus ensuring that each customer’s friends also know about the order); check-in giveaways; and a secret-word-of-the-day feature that gets fans back to Wow Bao’s Facebook page every Wednesday in search of deals. In addition, there’s an iPhone app; mobile gift cards; a roving bao truck; electronic ordering kiosks; and even a rotating onsite QR code program good for free samples of the traditional steamed dumplings known as bao.

Zoës Kitchen – The vaunted Mediterranean diet goes mainstream via this 38-unit, Birmingham, AL, franchise, which touts “Simple. Tasty. Fresh.” Food based on such wholesome staples as fresh vegetables, chicken, olive oil and feta cheese. Zoës menu offerings include convenient takeout tubs, Dinners for Four, and boxed lunches, as well as soups, salads, pita and roll-up sandwiches and other light fare. A new program adds gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian offerings to its heart-healthy roster.


Tip of the Month


Many chefs and operators today are taking their inspiration from historic and regional cookbooks and old menus. If that’s a route you want to consider, here are some resources worth considering.

The New York Public Library maintains an extensive collection of old menus, cookbooks, gastronomy guides and recipes

“Old Recipe Books for Basic Home Cooking” is the theme of this intriguing website

Jan Whitaker has spent years researching restaurants throughout history, with results collected in her blog Restaurant-ing Through Histor

These two sites—History Cookbook and—organize content by era, from Prehistoric to modern times