Ah, Paris: City of Lights, bastion of haute cuisine… place to sample a Big Mac? If you want to know how the iconic American burger giant adapts itself to the demanding Parisian marketplace, read the excellent article by our associate Mandy DeLucia, who visited the French capital on a recent reconnaissance for a project with the Synergy team. She came away with a distinct impression that the Americans could learn a thing or two about le hamburger from the French.
In other news, the restaurant industry continues its recovery, with the announcement that, for the first time ever, spending at U.S. restaurants and bars has overtaken supermarket spending. The surge is led by the 25- to 34-year-old cohort, which underscore’s the market’s need to stay relevant to the Millennial juggernaut.
It’s also led by dine-in traffic, rather than takeout, according to NPD’s Foodservice Summit Dine-in Study, which reveals that consumers of all ages are going out to get out, embracing more social activities after several years of “grabbing and going, ordering delivery or eating at home.”
And in a related development, Technomic reports that casual dining is back on the growth track, but that chains both large and small—rather than independents—are driving the improvement.
An American in Paris
By Mandy DeLucia, Synergy Product Coordinator
A recent assignment brought the Synergy team to Paris, world-renowned as the birthplace of haute cuisine and refined tastes. This reputation for elevated culinary traditions and the café culture sets a certain expectation in the minds of foreign visitors, so it came as some surprise to our team when a local recommended that we visit a “McDo,” the local name for McDonald’s.
McDonald’s has been in the U.S. headlines recently—most notably for the efforts of its new CEO to turn the Titanic chain around by streamlining the menu and aligning its offerings to contemporary expectations. More than one Parisian informed us that McDonalds had embraced the French culture to connect with locals, a “Glocal” strategy that allows a global company to address the needs and wants of the local market.
A visit to a location near the Arc de Triomphe highlighted the efforts the company has made to fit French expectations. The first, and perhaps the most surprising, change is that their logo features the golden arches against a deep green background instead of red. Throughout Europe the McDonald’s logo uses the hunter green base, a change that was made in late 2009 to highlight the company’s commitment to reducing its environmental impact.
Once inside the restaurant, we were greeted by a barista standing at a separate counter from the main service area who was surrounded by pastries and macarons. The dedicated drinks and sweets counter was called the McCafe, and it featured a modern design of dark woods and creamy surfaces. The beverage ranged from iced tea to milkshakes and espresso drinks, and the pastry case glittered with a beautiful display of baked goods, both American and French in origin. Cannelles, citron tartes and macarons sat comfortably next to muffins, cheesecake and chocolate chip cookies, a sugary marriage of cultures wrapped in pretty bakery boxes. The separate McCafé addressed the needs of the local population by adapting to the coffee and café culture in France, which includes a very strong daypart for restaurant sales in the mornings and late afternoons, and allowed them to compete with Starbucks for that business.
Moving past the McCafe into the main sales area, we encountered sales kiosks that handily provided service in 6 languages, accommodating the tourist traffic to Paris. The kiosks were easy to use, with touch-screen technology that allowed you to browse the menu at your leisure. While perusing the offerings, we found a petit bagel choice in the snack category as well as a Croque McDo and a side of cherry tomatoes. The salad category offered a fresh pasta salad with arugula and mozzarella as well as a beautiful potato salad. These elevated offerings matched the interior, a mix of modern materials and traditional artwork that made the restaurant feel more fast casual than fast food. Booths were upholstered with a rich caramel leatherette and the chairs were reminiscent of an Eames design.Ordering was simple: Insert a paycard and tap through the POS system to assemble your selections, adding customizations where offered. The machine took payment and dispensed a receipt with an order number that would be called by staff when the order was complete.
Online orders could be completed through the kiosk in the same way, and the service counter was divided into number ranges, which made it clear where to wait for your meal. Of course, if you did not want to order at a kiosk, there was still the option of ordering from a person, but the kiosk reduced the ticket and queue times by allowing foreign visitors to order in their own language with visual guides throughout the process.
The packaging was simple and very attractive, with the salad coming in a container reminiscent of the salad shaker days of McDonald’s U.S., and the ingredient list reading like a quality statement that spoke of fresh eggs and superior semolina. The Croque McDo was slipped into a white paper bag printed with brown ink featuring charming illustrations that spoke to the contents of the sandwich and that also included a quality statement about the ham.
This intentional focus on the quality of ingredients is a response to the increasing public demand, especially in Europe, for real food. The French website, translated, mentions that they source their potatoes from Belgium and that their “ground beef is 100% beef, 43.6% from French cattle. At all steps of creating the hamburgers, strict hygienic regulations were followed.”
Our group ordered the Big Mac, perhaps to double-check that we were indeed in a McDonald’s, and not in some new trendy European chain. The packaging featured a minimalist illustration of the sandwich that led some to wonder if it would taste as expected. It did. It seems that the U.S. business could take some tips from its French cousin.
The Flavor Front: Take the Bitter with the Sweet
By Joan Lang, Editorial Director
Look up the word “bitter” in any dictionary, and you get the impression of an acrid, disagreeable sensation. But as Joni Mitchell sings in “Case of You,” it’s the bitter and the sweet that make love wonderful. The same could be said of food and flavor. And as the American palate seeks more diverse flavor, from the heat of chiles to the salty punch of anchovies, we’re falling in love with bitterness.
Many other cultures appreciate the bitter qualities of food and drink, especially among them the Italians and Asians. Think of Campari and Aperol, those uniquely Italian aperitifs that have become increasingly popular in craft cocktail bars—as-is or in cocktails like the Negroni—or vegetables like broccoli rabe and puntarelle, a beloved chicory that signals the coming of spring in Rome. The Chinese prize the bitterness of foods like, well, bitter melon, and Asian food in general is about balancing the flavor elements of salty, sour, sweet and bitter.
Bitter foods stimulate the appetite and intensify the characteristics of other flavors, especially sweetness. Think dark chocolate, one of the most seductive foods around right now, or kale, without which no menu would be on-trend. These ingredients are flagrantly, deliciously bitter.
Aromatics and Condiments
– Olives, olive paste, mustard, horseradish, capers, anchovy paste, Worcestershire: The list of flavor boosters that have a touch of bitterness in them goes on and on. Unusual ethnic condiments like Filipino banana ketchup and preserved lemons are upping the ante on complex, bitter-accented flavor.
Behind the Bar – Beers, aperitifs, mixers and other drink ingredients are legion for their bitter flavors, from India pale ale to Campari, tonic water to Angostura bitters. The Italian category of amari, which includes vermouth, has become very trendy lately. And many serious bartenders are making their own bitters to accent signature cocktails. In fact, a refreshingly hoppy beer or a properly made cocktail are all about keeping bitter in balance.
– Anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave for the past few years knows that dark chocolate represents one of the hottest food trends, in desserts, beverages, candy and other delectables. With its superpremium image and well-publicized health benefits, dark chocolate varieties include semisweet and bittersweet chocolate and other high-cacao-content products. Bitter cocoa nibs add texture as well as flavor. In addition to its obvious role in desserts, chocolate is indispensable in many Mexican mole sauces, with their mysterious, musky background notes.
– A number of citrus fruits exhibit easy-to-love bitter qualities. These include grapefruit, bitter orange, citron and kumquats. The zest (peel) and oil of almost all citrus imparts a refreshingly bitter kick to foods.
Coffee and Espresso
– In addition to their role as beverages, coffee and espresso—in both brewed and powdered form—are being used in marinades, ribs and sauces, and in desserts like tiramisu.
Herbs and Spices
– Certain herbs and spices have an appetizingly bitter edge. These include cilantro, coriander, paprika, mustard seed, cumin, fennel, caraway, and epazote (a Mexican herb with a resinous, almost medicinal flavor)
– Arugula, watercress, dandelions, endive, radicchio, escarole and such trendy new leaves as tatsoi and mizuna (both members of the mustard family) bring both texture and a pleasing bitter bite to salads. Use with an assertive dressing and flavor-forward ingredients like shallots, mustard and sherry vinegar.
– Although bitter tea can be unpleasant to drink, the beverage does have an edgy astringency that many people find appealing. When deployed as a flavoring, assertively flavored teas can be used for smoking and brining foods, adding a lively touch of bitterness.
– Many bitter-edged “ethnic” and niche vegetables are becoming more popular as side dishes and in other specialties. These include broccoli rabe, kale, collards, mustard greens, turnip and their greens, and Brussels sprouts, as well as Asian greens such as bok choi and gai lan. Radishes can also be pleasantly bitter, as well as peppery. Robust flavors like garlic, anchovy, olive oil, salt and chiles help temper and balance the bitterness in sautés, soups and other applications.
Feed the Fetish for Sandwiches
By Joan Lang, Editorial Director
It’s official: Americans are in the midst of a full-blown sandwich fetish. Luke’s Lobster is bringing its lobster rolls to the Windy City, shouts Chicago magazine! Grubstreet devotes a full spread to the spring’s most highly anticipated new sandwiches, from the Asian Bacon Sandwich to the Three Way Muffaletta! And the New York Times spends untold thousands of dollars on a gorgeous interactive “Build a Better Sandwich” feature that deconstructs sandwiches in a way that gives new meaning to the words food porn. Along with its “Field Guide to the American Sandwich” (a taxonomy of regional sandwiches based on the type of bread they’re traditionally served on), this becomes one of the Paper of Record’s most emailed for that week.
It’s a sandwich, people. Not a new wonder drug or the hottest way to earn millions on the stock market.
But let’s put things in perspective. All kinds of food has been elevated in the past decade or so, from burgers to pizza to tacos. In part this is a result of the increasing sophistication of the marketplace—there’s both a more demanding guest, and availability of better products like grass-fed beef and imported prosciutto—to say nothing of a new generation of innovative chefs who are less tied to the traditional definition of fine-dining.
But this also has a lot to do with the recession, and the transformative effect it had on the restaurant industry. With their backs against the walls financially, chefs and growth-minded operators had to find new ways to attract wallet-strapped consumers, without giving up on their creative vision. Sandwiches offer convenience and affordability, plus the opportunity to upgrade every single element in a way that—when executed correctly—presents one perfect, fully conceived bite. A great sandwich is the very definition of the sum being better than the total of its parts.
That’s why chefs like Tom Colicchio (‘wichcraft) and Rob Evans (Duckfat) are selling the likes of pole-caught tuna with fennel and Nicoise olives on ciabatta, and Overnight Night Duck Confit Panini with pickled apples, herb mayo and local greens. The fact that both of these chefs have ensured their fortunes on these latter-day sandwich shops is not incidental.
In fact, the bar has been raised for good on the sandwich, and the trickle-down effect will continue to be huge (hello, Wendy’s Smoked Gouda Chicken Sandwich on Brioche!).
And phenomenon like:
1. Earl’s Beer and Cheese in New York City, where the concept emphasis is on craft beer but the menu includes a sandwich-like contraption called the Foieco (foie gras, American cheese, french fries, and balsamic-glazed onions on a tortilla)
2. The fried housemade bologna sandwich at Au Cheval, in Chicago
3. At Star Provisions in Atlanta, the addictive Fluffernutter is made with housemade fluff and Big Spoon Roasters artisanal peanut butter on housebaked bread
4. The famous Saratoga Club at Parm in Manhattan is a chicken salad sandwich to the nth degree, complete with potato chips in the sandwich to give it salty texture
5. Now six locations strong in the Portland, OR, area, Bunk serves traditional sandwiches with super-premium ingredients and cheffy twists, like a Pork Belly Cubano and Salt Cod with locally made chorizo, oil cured olives and Italian parsley
6. Luella’s Southern Kitchen brings Dixie classics like authentic Oyster Po’ Boys and a Fried Green Tomato BLT to Chicago
7. Paninoteca by Scarpetto, in Beverly Hills, features a casual sandwich menu including porchetta, housemade roast beef, and house made pastrami
8. The sandwich selection at Red Apron in D.C.’s Union Market includes, among other things, a grilled cheese sandwich made with spicy smoked pimento cheese, and the Choripan, with chorizo made in the in-house butcher shop, avocado, smoked chimichurri, pickled onions and sour cream
9. Bookstore Bar & Café, in Seattle’s Alexis Hotel, features a Reuben variation on its brunch menu that’s made with pork instead of corned beef—spice-rubbed, cured, and slow-roasted, then served with housemade slaw, Gruyere cheese and spicy Russian dressing on rye
10. The many roasted meats that are the specialty of the house at Lo Spiedo (“The Spit”), Marc Vetri’s casual new restaurant in Philadelphia, are utilized in panini sandwiches at lunch, along with such unusual far as a “New England-style” Octopus Roll and a vegetarian sandwich made with celery root Milanese with apple slaw
Tip of the Month
If you haven’t had enough sandwich porn, here’s a list of 50 Sandwiches You Should Eat Before You Die, complete with mouthwatering photos, to build a field trip around. It includes lots of local and regional specialties, like Beef on Weck (Buffalo, NY) and Chicago-style Italian beef, that are worth knowing about for your sandwich menu.