As 2014 rolls to a close we are reflecting on what an interesting time it’s been. Even before the passage of many minimum wage initiatives earlier this month, the foodservice industry has proved itself not only a resilient source of jobs but also a promising career pathway for hundreds of thousands of American.
Meanwhile, new concepts including robust fast-casual brands are changing the way guests think about convenient, affordable, quality-oriented dining, while a spate of high-profile revamps and new concepts among established players reveal just how much energy there is in our industry.
One of the most notable aspects of many of these new and refreshed concepts is the idea of the open kitchen, where the people who cook the food can interact with the guests who order, proving the freshness and cooked-to-order customization of food today. And so it’s interesting to note that recent research that this trend also incents the kitchen staff to make better food when diners can see them.
And we’ve also got a couple of articles for you here, about mobile technology, new-wave street food, and the importance of brand identity.
To your success, Dean Small and Danny Bendas
By Joan Lang
We live in an upwardly mobile society—technologically speaking at least. The numbers are pretty astonishing:
• There are more than 327 million cell phones in use in the United States, outstripped only by China and India
• 90% of the American population owns a cell phone and 58% own a smart phone; that’s growing fast, as devices become more affordable and 3G and 4G networks advance
• 45 million Americans use their phone as their primary device for internet access
• Mobile devices account for 55% of internet usage in the U.S.; apps made up 47% of internet traffic and 8% of traffic came from mobile browsers
Not surprisingly, this has had—and will continue to have—a huge impact on the restaurant industry. According to a recent article in USA Today, more than one-third of respondents in a National Restaurant Association survey said they would be more likely to use restaurant tech than they would have been just two years ago—for online ordering, for redeeming loyalty rewards, checking wait times, and even for paying checks.
And while the trend may be driven by Millennials, make no mistake: All demographic groups are in on it.
It goes without saying that if you haven’t done it yet, your website should be optimized for mobile, preferably through responsive design which adapts to multiple devices, so that guests can view the menu and other details, link to driving directions on a map, and click-to-call the phone number no matter where they are. Social media integration is another common feature.
More brands are going the route of dedicated mobile apps, which can feature anything from the simplest info (store hours, contact, etc.) to sophisticated geolocation functions (finding the nearest location of a chain, for instance), interactive nutrition, games and more.
Convenience-oriented diners, particularly Millennials, are starting to look for online/mobile ordering, and brands as diverse as Subway, BJ’s, and Olive Garden have implemented the service—to say nothing of to all the restaurants that outsource to companies like GrubHub and Seamless.
Despite concerns about fraud and privacy, one of the latest wrinkles in the game is mobile payment—led by Starbucks with its own dedicated mobile wallet, which links to the company’s rewards program. Like the declining balance in a college meal plan, the much-emulated app allows a customer to prepay into an account for future use, saving credit card information to facilitate the easy reload of funds.
Mobile payment will be the wave of the future for many brands, and mobile-payment solutions like Square, PayPal Here and the new Apple Pay are already making this service more accessible to businesses.
Some of the most recent restaurant industry mobile moves accomplish other things as well:
• In a move to combat long wait times, Outback Steakhouse has introduced Click Thru Seating, which allows guests to put their names on a wait list using a mobile device, and then use it to check their progress in real time
• Taco Bell’s new mobile app—and its now-infamous pre-launch social media blackout—includes not only ordering and prepayment, but also access to exclusive app-only offers and gifting
• Pizza Hut’s Xbox 360 online delivery app has succeeded in moving more than $1 million dollars’ worth of pies
• Upmarket restaurant operator Mook Group uses its iBeacon app to identify and award personalized, discretionary perks to regulars, VIPs and others while these guests are right in the restaurant
But while such sophisticated mobile-tech advances might seem to be the provenance of big chains and other multi-unit operations with deep pockets, my neighborhood Thai place has a wicked little online ordering function that incorporates nuts-and-bolts like hours, the menu, favorites and previous orders, coupon input, and the ability to pay with a credit card. Do I use it whenever I get takeout—even when I really have a taste for pizza? You betcha.
For more information, check out the infographic Technology on the Menu.
By Joan Lang
Americans have had a long and satisfying relationship with street food, from pretzels and lemon ice to hot dogs—in fact, the famous Chicago Hot Dog, arguably the country’s original fast food, was invented by an enterprising street-cart vendor who boosted up the value of a wiener by topping it with the equivalent of a salad to create a more balanced meal in a bun.
And so it is with the iconic market snacks and street food fare of other countries, from the elote (corn on the cob) of Mexico to the steamed palm hearts and kanom buang crepes of Chiang Mai, Thailand. These traditional specialties have fueled the working classes for ages: fast, delicious and affordable. And they serve as great inspiration for a new generation of hip food concepts here.
Some international street food specialties—like Belgian frites and Middle Eastern falafel—have already made their way to our shores. Others are arriving fast and furious, in the form of restaurants owned by second-generation entrepreneurs and widely traveled American chefs.
Many of these “Street Food 2.0” concepts fit into the fast-casual model—not surprising since they emphasize convenience and affordability. Mexican street foods, with their corn-based carriers such as tortillas and sopes, were among the first to undergo a mainstream QSRtranslation, but South of the Border street foods still have plenty of room to grow.
In addition to quality-oriented fast-casual taco shops like Chronic Tacos and White Duck Taco Shop, accomplished chefs like Alex Stupak are experimenting with upscale versions of street food favorites, at New York City’s new Empellon al Pastor. Meanwhile, Richard Sandoval has turned the corn-based street snacks known as antojitos into specialty fare at many of his restaurants, including Tamayo, Maya and La Biblioteca de Tequila.
But the street food trend is happening to other ethnic niches. Shachi Mehra, formerly the chef of London’s upscale Tamarind restaurant, has opened Adya, located in the much-anticipated Anaheim Packing District multi-use urban gathering place in California. Adya (which means the origin of the five senses) offers the “fresh Indian flavors” of traditional chaat snacks, as well as tandoor-cooked kebabs, pavs (a kind of filled sandwich roll, described as Bombay-style spicy sloppy Joes), griddled-wrap kathi rolls, curries, and cooked-to-order breads, upgraded with ingredients like Laura Chenel goat cheese, seasonal organic fruits and vegetables, and a creative wine and craft beer list. There are also daily specials, many of which are vegetarian, like the rest of the menu. Thalis (combination lunches) and other attractively presented food items are served on lightweight metal plates, as they would be in India, and the bright, contemporary space includes a glass-enclosed kitchen surrounded by counter seating.
In fact, a field trip to the Anaheim Packing District project represents a tour through some of the most exciting interpretations of international street food in the country. It’s home to 20 different restaurants and food merchants, including Pop Bar (handcrafted gelato, sorbetto and yogurt on a stick); The Kroft (poutine and market-inspired sandwiches); The Iron Press (beer and waffles); Crepe Coop (made-to-order crepes); Black Sheep Grilled Cheese Bar; and Sawleaf Café (Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and pho), as well as Wheat & Sons artisanal butcher shop, Buy ‘n Bulk spices and nuts, a juice bar, coffee roaster and more.
Verts Kebap, a red-hot new fast casual in Austin, celebrates the Berlin-style Middle Eastern doner kebap (or kebab), a gyro-like Turkish lamb specialty that’s cooked on a giant vertical rotisserie and then served wrapped in flatbread with vegetables like tomatoes, onion and cucumber. Launched by two former UT Austin business school grads, Verts Kebap plays off the street food’s healthy, fresh perception, with a nod to contemporary customization demands with a mix-and-match variety of formats (wrap, salad, traditional bread), proteins, veggies and sauces. There are nine locations in Texas, with more on the way.
Belly Shack, in Chicago, is chef Bill Kim’s ode to Korean street food, with an assist from his Puerto Rican wife, Yvonne. That means red curry pork Meatball Sandwiches, Korean BBQ Beef with steamed buns, the Belly Dog (a hot dog topped with egg noodles, pickled green papaya and togarashi fries), and Quinoa Ssam Sandwich (a vegetarian and gluten-free lettuce wrap filled with black beans and Asian pear-fennel kimchi). There’s wine and beer for the neighborhood crowd, as well as Vietnamese iced-coffee and Korean sodas.
Rincon Argentina, in Boulder, CO, is all about the empanada,
Rincon Argentino, in Boulder, CO, is all about the empanada, that Latin American “hand pie” that is the ultimate expression of versatility and portability. At At Rincon, that means nine different traditional empanadas and five different open-faced variations, available by the piece, dozen and half-dozen (cooked or frozen for take-home). There are also Milanesa sandwiches, gluten-free tartas (small, corn-based pies), and mini-empanadas, plus salsas like chimichurri sauce and sides.
The most interesting thing about all of these next-generation street food concepts is that the experience has been transformed from a hardcore ethnic adventure into a distinctive niche that appeals to Millennials and other food-loving mainstream diners.
By Randy Lopez, Marketing and Branding Strategy
Like everyone, I like to go to Disneyland. As my kids grew up, my wife and I get away now and then to walk around, get on a few rides (when the park isn’t too packed), and spend a relaxing time. There are some great restaurants and nothing beats a delicious meal at Blue Bayou, inside the Pirates of the Caribbean. Truth be known, we’re annual pass holders—not rich, but that initial purchase of a pass makes you feel like you made another down payment on a car.
One of my first jobs in high school was working at Disneyland. As a “cast member,” I sold burgers and ice cream at the now-defunct Carnation Gardens. Holding five ice cream cones in my left hand while making change in my right gave me a huge start in multitasking which would serve me well when I learned to bartend at Friday’s. I didn’t realize it then but walking through an almost empty Main Street at 6 in the morning or after the park was closed taught me about branding and creating an experience for the guest. That’s because without guests, lights would still be on, ambient music would still be playing, and you could see the detail that went into creating the “happiest place on earth”—without the crowds and distractions.
As a brand builder and consultant, my time at Disneyland and other influential brands, including like Buca di Beppo, Red Robin, and Wolfgang Puck, served me well. More than 30 years later, I still look back on those times and places when considering the elements of branding. In branding, it all comes down to one goal, and Disneyland is as good as any to illustrate that goal: Create a memorable and distinctive perception of your concept or product in the mind of the guest.
How does a single-unit restaurant or chain create the kind of emotional response and brand presence with the power of a huge theme park? Here are a few ideas to consider, gleaned from my time working with Disneyland and other amazing brands:
1. Set the stage. Disneyland was created by storytellers. Walt Disney enlisted studio designers, artists and builders to create his theme park. As a filmmaker, he realized that you need to immerse the guest in the experience; that every detail needed to reinforce the story he was trying to tell. The next time you’re at a Disney theme park, notice the trash bins in every attraction. Shield-sided Fantasyland trash cans support the decor and “brand” of that area, and would never be seen next to a plant-life-painted trash bin placed in Adventureland. For your own brand, does the color and imagery of your logo, menus, and decor tell your story?
2. Fill the senses. Walk into your restaurant. What do you see? Smell? Hear? Touch? When you visit a Disney property you’ll hear a Barbershop quartet on Main Street. Walk further toward the castle and you’ll smell fudge being made at the candy store (notice the small vents below the front windows designed to produce this experience). Does your music mix turn off potential guests with inappropriate choices or volume? Do your guests smell great food being prepared or worst of all, nothing?
3. Tell your story. Lack of a cohesive vision, years of employees and management putting their own “spin on things,” vendors creating menus and signage design as “value-added” services… these can create a disjointed and confusing brand story. The only thing that matters is what your guests think of you, so take a look at your concept and ask yourself if you’re giving them the right tools and messages to describe you to their friends and better yet, create their own memory of your brand experience.
In the long run, you may or may not get to be as big as Disneyland but every strong brand started with one location that told the story well, delivered an exciting and innovative product, and became a brand leader. From logo to menu to the last bite, make sure your brand is echoed in each moment and tells a story.
Let me know your thoughts and contact me if you have any questions regarding your brand or creating one.
Tip of the Month
The National Restaurant Association has assembled a wealth of information in its Health Care HQ knowledge center, including news, state-by-state guidelines, and online tools such as employee notification to help operators adjust to the new rulings.