January 2015 Newsletter

Jan 27, 2015



Happy 2015! The new year brings more opportunities, and more challenges (for instance, this news that while customers are dining out more frequently, their spend per occasion is falling).

But let’s focus on the opportunities. With the coming of age of the Millennial generation, the restaurant industry has the opportunity to serve a guest who is well-educated and adventurous about food, but looking for a fun, casual and social experience—and that’s just the kind of restaurant we’re seeing more of these days.

We also have delicious ingredients and flavors that are both higher in quality and more readily available, thanks to wider distribution of everything from imported cheeses to locally raised produce.

So cheers to us all and good luck in the coming year. And in the meantime, read our predictions for what will be happening in food and beverages in 2015, and do not fail to read our associate Brad Miller’s analysis of the eight things we tell ourselves about our operations that may not be true.

Food Trends 2015

By Joan Lang, Editorial Director

Every year the National Restaurant Association releases its annual “What’s Hot” culinary forecast, prepared in conjunction with the American Culinary Federation. For 2015, many of the same trends we’ve been seeing for the past several years continue to occupy the thoughts of the country’s chefs and operators, including local and sustainable sourcing, and healthy menu options. Along with customization, these are the game changers, the overarching themes that have impacted the industry in a variety of sweeping ways. Within these new “givens,” however, there’s still lots to talk about:

Clean and Simple Food

Sure, there’s sous vide and nitrogen-spiked ice cream, but many chefs and operators are turning the twin mega-trends of local sourcing and consumer demand for healthier option into menus that emphasize clean ingredients and simple preparation techniques. According to a recent SmartBrief poll, in fact, 79% of respondents revealed that they were focusing on pared-down menus or ingredients lists to offer “clean and simple food,” a development that also makes operational sense. It also means more housemade ingredients and fewer processed foods.

All-Inclusive Menus

Customers have so many dietary requests nowadays, between food allergies, health concerns, lifestyle issues, religious restrictions, and plain-old taste preferences. For many operators, the key to maximizing sales and keeping guests happy is to provide as many options as possible, including gluten-free items, vegan/vegetarian choices, alt-products like soy and nut milk, and selections that satisfy both waist-watchers and comfort-food seekers. Case in point: Denver-based Modmarket Farm Fresh Eateries, where the typical menu is filled with tempting offerings that run the gamut from a Chipotle Steak Sandwich to a gluten-free Wintergreen Salad to a vegan Sesame Tofu Plate.

Food with a Story

Farm-to-table, Fair Trade, artisanal, hand-crafted. From coffee and lettuce to burgers and desserts, customers—especially Millennials—respond to ingredients, house specialties and even entire menu concepts that have a backstory and a sense of place. Calling out the where and when of food speaks to its authenticity and quality, promising better value and an enhanced experience. Though “organic” and “imported” still have their value, here are the stories that really count now:

• Fresh
• Seasonal
• Specific farms or producers
• Housemade
• Local
• Natural
• Sustainable

Superior Sandwiches

The sandwich segment continues to evolve in a signature direction, as evidenced by operations as diverse as Yum Brands’ Banh Shop, with its mainstream versions of Vietnamese sandwiches and other “Saigon street food,” to the Pastrami Project smoked-meat specialties of Blue Cow Kitchen & Bar in Los Angeles (from the team behind Mendocino Farms Sandwiches & Marketplace). It all adds up to higher quality fillings—many of them sustainably sourced—artisan breads, housemade condiments, and a general approach whose cheffy innovations rival the care and planning that go into traditional entrees.

Bar Creep

As fine dining has become more accessible and upscale chefs move into more casual dining models, the lines between bar and restaurant are blurring. Many restaurants have expanded their bar business with profitable specialty cocktail programs, and added food at a more affordable price point courtesy of sophisticated bar bites and small plates. There is even a whole new category of gastropub-influenced eatery serving “brew food” to support the growing thirst for craft beer. For example there is Alden & Harlow, in Cambridge, MA. Is it a bar serving ambitious food, or a restaurant with a robust bar scene? The guests who pack the place every night certainly don’t care, as they wash down their Chicken Fried Rabbit and Grilled Cauliflower small plates with $12 cocktails.

Meat on the Side

The idea that anyone would eat a 16-ounce portion of meat has always been unique to the Western World—unlike cultures like Vietnam, Mexico and Italy where protein is to used almost as a garnish to flavor rice, beans, pasta, vegetables and other plant-based ingredients. But now, driven by chef creativity and consumer interest, menus are shifting the focus onto produce. It’s not a matter of being vegetarian, but rather an acknowledgement that all the wonderful farm-raised fruits and vegetables that are now available can be utilized in more ways than just an obligatory broccoli side dish. In addition to being more seasonal and creatively inspiring, a diet that’s heavy on the fruits and vegetables is more environmentally sustainable and perhaps even healthier. And the fact that produce tends to be lower in cost than protein is great news in a time of rapidly rising food costs.

Sustaining Social Consciousness

From sustainable design to respectful sourcing to community involvement, it’s hip—and good for your brand—to be socially conscious in the restaurant industry. Consumers want it, and so do many idealistic operators. In fact, according to Yankelovich, nearly two-thirds of today’s consumers think they can “make a difference” by doing business with more socially responsible companies, in numerous ways that range from supporting employee quality of life to serving hormone-free meat and encouraging recycling and other green practices. And while sustainability may be a somewhat amorphous state, companies like LYFE Kitchen and Sweetgreen have built their empires on it.

In the Raw

From oysters on the half-shell to steak tartare, some of today’s hottest menu items are no-cooking-required. America’s resurgent oyster industry is feeding a wave of new oyster bars with dozens of different varieties of this trendy bivalve, each displaying its own unique flavor and texture—often referred to by the wine-borrowing term merrier, or characteristics of its place. And where there are oysters there is also drink, which is also part of the reason so many generalist restaurants are adding oysters to the menu mix. In addition, there are lots of other raw specialties around, including tartare and crudo, cross-cultural sushi, ceviche, and the Peruvian raw-fish delicacy known as tiradito.

Artisanal Everything

From European-style bread to farmstead cheese to small-batch pickles to handcrafted cocktails, it’s “artisanal” and “handmade” quality that sells menu items in today’s superheated competitive marketplace—and supports premium pricing. It seems that there isn’t a single category of food or beverage that hasn’t been upgraded and either brought in-house or sourced from artisanal purveyors. From of the latest foods to fall under the spell is toast—how else do you explain the success of The Mill, in San Francisco, which has a Toast menu and sells literally hundreds of orders a day? Like the new wave of ultra-premium artisanal coffee, $4 to $6 buys a relatively affordable indulgence, whatever the economy.

Let’s Do Breakfast (and Brunch)

And so it is with the morning meal, which resurged to popularity in the dark days of the Great Recession, and still allows guests the pleasure of a meal out, without emptying out the wallet. And true to form, that means a better class of eggs, bacon and pancakes, showing an innovative, high-quality approach to the daypart. For operators, breakfast and brunch represent a robust source of business that’s less expensive to produce than dinner, and represent an opportunity to leverage existing facilities, staff and inventory. Small wonder that, according to NPD, sales of breakfast grew for the fourth consecutive year.

Beverage Trends 2015

By Joan Lang, Editorial Director


It’s a great time to be selling beverages. That’s because, in addition to be being one of the most profitable categories in foodservice, wine, beer and cocktails also represent one of the most interesting. And today’s hip, highly educated customer base is thirsty to try them all.

Many of the same trends that are driving food are also impacting beverages, including local sourcing, seasonal menuing, flavor-layering, and artisanal/small-batch/handmade ingredients. These and other trends are expected to help push alcohol sales higher in the coming year, including in the fast-casual sector, where fountain soda beverages once ruled.

As in everything in restaurants, savvy beverage programs are all about setting yourself apart.

The Craft Beer Explosion

Which came first, beer-friendly food or great new beers to pair it with? The brewpub and beer-menu trend is developing in lockstep with the explosion in high-quality, highly marketable craft beers.

• Beer styles from around the world, from Belgian saisons to San Francisco-style steam beers

• Flavorful new lower-alcohol “session beers” are offering up a high-quality but more approachable alternative to buzzy extreme brews

• The return of the can, as new technology spurs a lower-cost, retro-chic trend to canned beer

• As with food (think sauerkraut and pickles), refreshing sour beer styles are becoming more popular

Wine for the Times

After the wine-bar craze of the early aughts it might be tempting to think there’s not much happening in the category right now, but think again. The Millennial generation is helping wine sales grow right along with beer and spirits; in fact, nearly one-quarter of high-frequency wine drinkers are in that demographic. And that’s really changing the wine market, making it less pretentious and much more fun. Hello screw-tops!

Prosecco, cava and other bubblies are offering an affordable but festive alternative to Champagne

Wine lists and wine service in general are under the sway of a new generation of sommeliers determined to make wine less intimidating

• The growing availability of New World wines and bottlings from less familiar varietals and regions is providing less expensive and more interesting options—Romanian wine, anyone?

Sustainable, biodynamic and organic wines are also becoming more widely available

• Easy-drinking, affordable wines on tap—cooler than box wines but just as budget-friendly

Spirited Trends

The craft cocktail movement has become ubiquitous in just a few short years, as chains as diverse as Blaze Pizza, Applebee’s, Earl’s Kitchen + Bar, and even Denny’s implement upscale cocktail programs.

• House Infusions and Flavored Spirits: Because it’s all about the flavor, always

• Small Batch and Artisanal Specialties: Craft distilleries have sprung up all over the country and the world, producing everything from rum to gin to rye…. And they’re finding their way into bars of all kinds

• Classics Come Back—Again: What’s old is always new again in the world of mixology, as bartenders continue their search for inspiration. Martinis and Manhattans are being joined by pre-Prohibition specialties like the Aviation, post-Prohibition drinks with a backstory (think Hemingway Daiquiri), and New Wave classics; there’s even a little resurgence in sweet, colorful disco-era drinks

• The Bitter and the Sour of It: Seeking the same sort of balance that chefs strive for in food, bartenders are amassing an array of artisanal and housemade bitters, along with sour elements like vinegar (as in shrubs) and citrus

Punches and Other Large Formats: In today’s sharing culture, it makes sense that oversize shareable cocktails and “punch for the table” would garner news. Some are inspired by Colonial-era quaffs like Philadelphia Fish House Punch

How Low Can You Go

Not everyone wants the alcoholic wallop of a double Martini. Cocktails and spirits that are lower in alcohol allow for a second round and can be more pleasant to drink, especially with food.

• Sherry and Sherry-based cocktails: Particularly where Spanish-style tapas reign, sherry and other fortified wine styles encourage multiple orders

• Drinks based on wine or beer: Beyond the Michelada and Sangria (neither of which lack for popularity, by the way), there’s a realm of traditional and bartender-driven wine and beer cocktails

• Vermouth and Amari: These complex and generally low-alcohol specialties, from once-obscure vermouths to bitter Campari and Fernet, are grabbing attention, alone and crafted into cocktails

• Hard Cider: The original all-American libation is experiencing a renaissance on par with craft beer’s, thanks to its low ABV and food-friendly personality

Bottled, Barrel-aged and Cocktails on Tap: Yes, they’re trendy, but premade cocktails are obviously the bomb when it comes to ease of service

Operational Mistakes—and the Lies We Tell Ourselves About Them

By Brad “Paco” Miller, Operations Associate

Brad Miller brings more than 20 years of experience in the hospitality sector to Synergy. He holds keen expertise in operations, finance, bar and mixology programs, menu revitalization, and FOH efficiencies in both full-service and fast-casual concepts.


Many operators like to believe that past successes (or failures) make them immune to mistakes. Mistakes are natural, but recovering and learning from them is crucial. Through many years of listening to restaurateurs, these are the operational “fibs” I hear most often:

1. “Higher sales will take care of my problems.”

You don’t understand your costs: If your food cost is 35% with low sales, it will most likely be 35% with higher sales. Higher sales volume will bring you more cash flow, but unless you create a plan to lower your prime cost (cost of goods, labor and paper), your profits will never grow as fast as you’d like. Remember: If you want to increase your profit margin from 5% to 10%, it can be easier to lower costs by 5% than to double sales (and achieve the same result!).

2. “This drop in customer counts is temporary…this always happens this time of year.”

You’re not reacting to the market: Restaurants can be very cyclical in nature, but unless you have a strong marketing plan with specific tactics, you will always feel that seasonal drop. January may be the best time to introduce a new LTO or hit the social media marketing hard. This also might be a good time to get a couple steps ahead of your competition by offering items that are in front of the latest trends.

3. “I’ll just settle this employment lawsuit and be done with it.”

You don’t have an updated HR plan: You must ask yourself, “Why were we sued in the first place?”, then update your policy handbooks and train your staff. Do your managers have the training they need to avoid problems in the future? Does your restaurant have the right tools (operations manuals, HR handbooks, training manuals) to prevent future actions? If not, history will probably repeat itself.

4. “Raising menu prices will offset our higher supplier costs.”

You don’t have updated recipe and plate costs, and restaurant operations that don’t are “working in the dark.” Knowing your overall food cost is one thing, but accurate plate and recipe costing is integral to any success strategy. Maybe you only have to adjust some portion sizes or change an ingredient to keep your plate cost in line.

5. “Yelp is not that big of a deal.”

You don’t react to negative feedback: Yelp is a really big deal, and you may not like it but it’s here to stay. Don’t let one squeaky wheel affect the rating that you’ve been working on for five years. There are some creative ways to get ahead of bad reviews and win back those upset guests. And never, ever try to cheat the system. Those crafty Yelp programmers have written algorithms to prevent you and your friends from artificially boosting your rating!

6. “I think our operation is efficient.”

It may be time to update procedures (or create standard operating procedures): Standard operating procedures are about consistency and efficiency. Does your kitchen utilize prep charts, pull charts, inventories and line charts? Do your servers follow a sequence of service…every time? Do your managers follow opening and closing procedures? If not, it’s time to update and start saving some labor hours.

7. “Our food is good.”

You have fallen behind the trends: If your food is “good,” you’re in trouble. Your food should be “amazing”—and your service “remarkable.” If you can’t safely say that you serve, hands-down, the best product in town, you’re not competing in this very aggressive landscape. It is time to change. Take a close look at your flavors and plate presentations. Challenge your staff to come up with the next big idea for your menu. Engage your guests for feedback and include them in the process.

8. “I know exactly who my customers are.”

You are not collecting the right information about your guests: It’s not only feedback that keeps us informed about what we are doing right and wrong, it’s collecting data about who your guests are. Data is valuable information. Are you collecting emails, Facebook likes, Twitter information, Pinterest followers? Do you know what your regulars order? Are you utilizing the data from your POS system to track item sales and trends?

Tip of the Month

Want to read more about trends? Check out these prognostications from:

Smart Brief (Parts I and II)
Nation’s Restaurant News (and here)
Fast Casual
Grub Hub
Restaurant Hospitality (and here)
Huffington Post (and here)
Sterling Rice Group
Flavor and the Menu
The NPD Group
Datassential Menu Trends

And for another look at where the industry is heading, read about these top restaurant openings courtesy of Food Republic