June 2014 Newsletter

Jun 24, 2014


Winter may have been tough on businesses (not to mention agriculture) in many parts of the country—persistent heat and drought in the West, snow and cold weather as far south as Atlanta—but things are looking up for many sectors of the restaurant industry as foodservice spending returns to pre-Recession levels. It’s not just the top of the market, either; the rising fortunes of companies like Denny’s and Cracker Barrel are pointing to improved economic health in the middle class as well.

Our industry has always been adaptable and resilient, adjusting menus and price points to respond to rising food and labor costs and fluctuating consumer demand. Case in point is the growing fast-casual sector, where big chains and upscale chefs and operators alike are developing concepts that answer the call for quality and convenience at a value price point; see our story this month for some of the latest evidence of this game-changing “polished casual” trend.

We’ve also got a call to action from our associate Karen Brennan on the importance of paying attention to the “experience economy,” where the whole package offered by any given concept is crucial, beginning with the food.
Finally, with the arrival of hot weather, it’s time to make yourself a refreshing Gin & Tonic and read about seasonal summer cocktails.

To your success, Dean Small and Danny Bendas

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“Polished Casual”: The New Revolution in Fast Casual

By Joan Lang

Karen Brennan’s excellent article on the “experience economy” hits the nail on the head about the new breed of fast casual restaurants—she calls them polished casual—and it’s the truth behind why so many established companies and entrepreneurial chefs are weighing in with their own versions of the quick-service upgrade. Elevating not only the food but also the entire guest experience package in a brand spinoff seems to be the right formula for success in this marketplace.

Grilled steak laab bowl Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen | Photo Credit Flickr User T. Tseng CC by 2.0 License
Grilled steak laab bowl Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen | Photo Credit Flickr User T. Tseng CC by 2.0 License

Chipotle may have invented the model, and now Chipotle is digging even further with the ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen concept and the new Pizzeria Locale, which collectively give customers fast-casual versions of all three of the “first generation” ethnic concepts (Mexican, Asian and Italian).

But Chipotle’s not the only long-timer playing in the bigger, better quick-service sandbox. Taco Bell is working on a spinoff called U.S. Taco Co. and Urban Taproom which represents a logical extension of its hugely successful premium Cantina Bell platform in challenging Chipotle and appealing to more sophisticated consumers. Though the company is keeping details close to the vest, observers are predicting two models, one of which will capture imbibers with an extensive collection of beers and a buzzy beer milkshake.

Meanwhile, Taco Bell sibling KFC is sidling into Chik-fil-A territory with Super Chix, which a pared-down menu specializing in sandwiches, boneless tenders with mix-and-match sauces, fries and newly-trendy frozen custard. Tellingly, the new concept eschews its KFC connection in all its branding. With irons in multiple fires, the chicken giant has also opened KFC Eleven, with its amped-up menu that includes such of-the-moment offerings as salad, rice bowls and flatbreads.

As if that weren’t enough evidence that YUM Brands is in experimental mode, the company has recently launched Banh Shop, an Asian sandwich shop in Dallas that will sell variations on the iconic Vietnamese banh mi.

And Pizza Hut is dabbling with upscale notions such as display kitchens, customized pie builds, interactive ordering , and better-quality products, such as the new Firebaked Style Flatbread Pizzas, while Sbarro does upscale with its new Pizza Cucinova platform.

Legal Sea Food is working in the opposite direction, scaling down to conquer with Legal Crossing, the first in a line of standalone casual eateries designed to cater to individual markets where a full-scale LSF would be inappropriate. Next up, Legal Oysteria, with an Italian coastal vibe, which will join the stable that include Legal C Bar and its abbreviated but classic “seafare” menu. While these are not fast-casual concepts per se, they certainly follow the trend of creating a brand that’s more accessible to a wider variety of consumers, focusing on value as well as quality and an overall experience.

Fox Restaurant Concepts , a multi-concept, mostly full-service restaurant company with notable strength in Arizona, has recently opened Flower Child in Phoenix, which promises retro-chic “healthy food for a healthy world” in the form of salads, vegetable and grain plates, and whole-grain wraps. Vegans and vegetarians can order many of these items as-is, while omnivores have the option of adding grass-fed beef, natural chicken or sustainable salmon.

Fast-casual and casualized fine dining also hold great appeal for white-tablecloth chefs with their eyes on bringing their food to more people—and the huge paychecks attendant with chainable concepts. Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich are just the latest in a long line of name brand chef/restaurateurs (Bobby Flay, Danny Meyer, et al) experimenting with better burgers, with the new B&B Burger & Beer, in Las Vegas. Brad Ogden, who made his James Beard-winning bones with restaurants like Campton Place and Lark Creek, has opened Funky Chicken in Houston, with his son Bryan (way to get the family in the business, Dad). And Cathal Armstrong, of the highly rated Restaurant Eve in Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, VA, now has Eamonn’s, a “Dublin chipper” dispensing fish and chips and other fanciful fried foods, including fried Snickers bars.

Need help with your fast-casual idea or concept? Contact Synergy Restaurant Consultants.


Flavors of the Season: Summer Cocktails

By Joan Lang


With the dogs days of July and August arriving in many parts of the country, now is the time to switch out wintertime warmers and whisky-based drinks, to incorporate lighter spirits, more refreshing mixers, and fresh fruit and vegetable elements. In fact, if you’re not changing your cocktail list to follow the seasons, summer is the time to start—especially if you have outdoor dining space.

Even if your staff does not include a bar manager or mixologist who’s adept at creating signature cocktails, there are many popular classic and new-era imbibes to experiment with.

Gin & Tonic

Spain’s obsession with this beloved summer cooler has caught on stateside, turning your Dad’s old highball into a specialty drink made with a growing variety of different kinds of gin, artisanal or housemade tonic, and interesting garnishes and muddles ranging from strawberries to star anise. The selection of G&T’s at Michael Chiarello’s Spanish restaurant Coqueta, in San Francisco, or the D.C.’s Nora hint at all that is possible.


This refreshing category of drinks uses ginger ale or ginger beer to bring a kick to citrus and spirits, such as vodka (called a Moscow Mule) and rum (including the famous Dark ‘n’ Stormy). Like the Gin & Tonic, this category is catching on thanks to wider availability of artisanal carbonated ginger beverages.


The Daiquiri and the Collins – Here are two traditional warm-weather cocktails that are making a comeback. Simply upgrading the spirits-and-sour-mix formula with freshly-squeezed lemon or lime juice, simple syrup, and small-batch or specialty rum (in the case of the Daiquiri) and gin, vodka or rum (the Collins) is enough to set these standards on a new track. But the beauty of both these drinks are their endless versatility to incorporate fresh fruit or juice (such as blackberries in a Daiquiri or honey and peach puree in a Collins) and other ingredients, such as sparkling wine or rhubarb bitters.


Lots of muddled mint and lime plus rum, sugar and a splash of soda create this iconic Cuban cocktail, which can be switched up with the likes of fresh cucumber, berries, mango and more. On a trip to the Florida Keys this winter, I fell in love with the dirty mojito, made with dark rum and Demerara sugar.

New-Wave Highballs

At its simplest, a highball is nothing more than a spirit plus a mixer such as ginger ale or soda water, served over lots of ice in a tall glass. But upgrade the mixer to something like Italian grapefruit soda or housemade tea soda, and/or add another liquor and some bitters, and you’ve got something sophisticated and worthy of premium status.
By the Pitcher – We all know how great a pitcher of Sangria can be on a hot day, but there are many cocktails that also can be marketed in this larger format, including the White Negroni (gin, white vermouth and Cocchi Americano), rum punches, Pimms Cup, and more.

Don’t forget to summarize your wine and beer selection too, with lighter-drinking rose, white wines such as Pinot Gris and Gruner Veltliner, hard cider, and refreshing suds such as summer ales and wheat beers. In fact, craft brewers are making it easier all the time with their own seasonal beer selections.

For more cocktail inspiration, check out this collection of more than 250 recipes from The Food Network.

Winning in the Experience Economy

By Karen A. Brennan, Marketing & Branding Strategy

Synergy just celebrated its 25th anniversary, and it’s clear that the industry has changed remarkably since the company began. The ‘60s and ‘70s had ushered in the modern “fern bar” with chains line TGI Fridays in 1965, Red Lobster in 1968 and Chili’s in 1975. Other seeds of the modern restaurant business—like Subway in 1965, Starbucks in 1971 and Chuck E. Cheese in 1977—also had their impact. These concepts are still around today, influencing how guests view their dining experiences. In a way, it shows us that there is nothing really new under the sun:

• Chipotle used the Subway model of food assembly with fresher, better ethnic flavor profiles (and a little tequila on the side).

• Chuck E. Cheese paved the way for the “eatertainment” trend of the ‘90s, like Rainforest Café in 1994, Dave & Busters (which went public 1995) and ESPN Zone in 1998.

• And what casual restaurant doesn’t aspire to create the “third place” connection and loyalty that Starbucks has been able to engender over the years?

Chipotle’s focus on upgraded food and customized ordering has created a new-concept revolution
Chipotle’s focus on upgraded food and customized ordering has created a new-concept revolution

Clearly, the opportunity lies in variations on the themes. The Chipotle model is being replicated all over, from Chipotle’s own ShopHouse Asian fast casual to Columbus-based Piada Italian and Sbarro’s new Pizza Cucinova, a build-your-own pizza concept.

And while “eatertainment” seemed like a major trend of the ‘90s, it fell a little short, as some operators lost focus on the food and are no longer in business. As Wolfgang Puck’s entry into Las Vegas with Spago showed, it’s about the food, not the entertainment. Puck changed the face of eatertainment by showing that regardless of the entertainment value in the venue, it’s ultimately about the food. In the “new normal” marketplace, entertainment is ‘necessary’ but not ‘sufficient’ to a great dining experience.

Ultimately, restaurants can’t make it without a great overall food experience with the emphasis back on food. Think of it as formula for success in the new “Experience Economy”:

E = MC2

Experience (E) = Meal (M) x Circumstances (C)

• (M) = THE MEAL
– Food
– Beverage

– Service Model
– Physical Plant
– The Fit

And the squared part? As any Einstein can tell you, in the restaurant business that means consistently, every single shift—it’s the exclamation point of the formula.

From top right: Slaw Dogs’ Reuben Dog; M’s  Black Orchid cocktail; pour-over soup adds a service flourish; the Korean taco
From top right: Slaw Dogs’ Reuben Dog; M’s Black Orchid cocktail; pour-over soup adds a service flourish; the Korean taco

The food must provide flavor experiences and presentations with flair for customers who have become increasingly more sophisticated; the beverage offerings must include surprise and showmanship; the service model is fundamental to how guests enjoy the overall experience including service style and service touches; the physical plant must be engaging rather than merely entertaining; and the experience must fit the venue and the lifestyle of the target guest. In other words, everything counts.

Baby Boomers and Millennials, because of their sheer numbers, are driving restaurant trends, and while baby boomers drove the development of casual dining, Millennials don’t remember a time before Starbucks and the Food Channel. Restaurants are integrated into their lifestyles—they can get quality food with minimal effort at a restaurant, and as a bonus, they can spend that mealtime with friends or family. As we at Synergy travel around the country, we see best-in-class examples of food, beverage, service and physical plant touches every day.

FOOD— With the increasing food savvy of today’s consumers, more and more companies are embracing a culinary culture with more interesting taste experiences and increased food sophistication, including ethnic cuisines and interesting flavor concepts (like burnt sugar waffle cones, food fusions such as Mexican/ Korean, and interesting, quirky builds like Slaw Dogs’ Reuben Dog). Likewise, presentation flourishes such as interesting serviceware and pour-over Tortilla Soup provide just the flair to motivate guests to tweet and Instagram pictures of their food to “share” with their friends (a win-win in today’s social media age.)

Brickhouse Tavern sets itself apart with service | 800 Degrees offers totally customized pizzas, made fresh to order
Brickhouse Tavern sets itself apart with service | 800 Degrees offers totally customized pizzas, made fresh to order

BEVERAGES —Surprise and showmanship in glassware, garnishes and ices (like the Black Orchid Martini at Cameron Mitchell’s M and one-of-a-kind beer flights and wine options) add to the fun of the overall experience. Smoking, muddling, flaming and pouring all create an experience, not just a beverage.

SERVICE— Approaching each patron’s meal as a Guest Journey creates an emotional connection to the brand (and emotional connection is the secret to great branding). A polished-casual vibe allows guests to feel richer than they are, and the fast casual model allows guests to be creative and participate in creating their own food, as they do with the customizable menus at concepts like Subway, Chipotle, Piada, 800 Degrees and Pizza Cucinova. Staff interaction—for example, the way the service staff at Brickhouse Tavern present their business cards when introducing themselves to guests—can seal the deal by making the experience personal, not just a business transaction.

THE PHYSICAL PLANT— Ambience and décor also allow brands to engage customers in their story, and great brands are about story telling. The keys to success are “Is the story authentic, is the story compelling and does the story connect & resonate with guests?”

LYFE Kitchen menu boards echo the concept’s focus on clean, healthy food
LYFE Kitchen menu boards echo the concept’s focus on clean, healthy food

Technology such as Specialty Café’s iPad ordering; lighting such as that at Cameron Mitchell’s M, which changes during the course of the meal; the digital imagery of LYFE Kitchen’s image boards; the freshness cues of the exposed kitchens at California Pizza Kitchen and Tender Greens; and unique seating options like soft seating, outside seating, communal seating (for example, at Brickhouse Tavern, Urban Plates, Panera, Starbucks and LYFE Kitchen)… all of these special touches create an inexplicable something that guests are drawn to on an emotional level. That’s the secret of a great brand and the secret of winning in the new experience economy.

But it bears repeating that the best restaurants focus on the FOOD: Great food is the starting point, with the overall experience being the packaging around that great food. Success = Meal x Circumstance.


Caption The lighting at Cameron Mitchell’s M changes during the course of the meal

The lighting at Cameron Mitchell’s M changes during the course of the meal

Mendocino Farms, a “sandwich market” with locations in the Los Angeles area, puts all the elements together
Mendocino Farms, a “sandwich market” with locations in the Los Angeles area, puts all the elements together

The Top Ten Secrets to Winning in the Experience Economy

#10 Customers are becoming more and more sophisticated
#9 Great food isn’t enough anymore; it is just the price of entry today
#8 Great food demands great presentations—how it’s served is almost as important as what is served
#7 Experience is about the meal and the circumstances
#6 The experience must connect to what guests care about
#5 The experience has to engage customers: What’s the story?
#4 The experience must be authentic or customers will turn off
#3 Today everything counts—from the seating to the sizzle
#2 If restaurants aren’t continuously getting better…they’re falling behind
#1 To win in the “experience economy” and stand the test of time, restaurants must have a passion for great food

Tip of the Month

One of the easiest ways to make your restaurant more sustainable—and to pass that eco-correct message on to your guests—is composting. The National Restaurant Associations shares 10 tips for starting or improving your composting efforts. Click here to learn more.