October 2014 Newsletter

Oct 21, 2014


There’s an old Chinese proverb: May you live in interesting times.
Well, that’s for sure: Ebola, terrorism, the stock market, rising food prices, the weird weather. To say nothing of ongoing uncertainty about the long-term prospects for the economy. Is the consumer mindset improving, or are people still cautious about spending?

This is no time to be taking your eye off the ball. No time to slack off on menu innovation, server training, or keeping your décor fresh and inviting. In addition, it’s certainly no time to be turning your back on what your guests want—as this San Francisco food truck owner has clearly done.

Everything’s got to be on point in this marketplace. We at Synergy Restaurant Consultants can help you with that.

To your success,

P.S. For a look at what one Denny’s is doing to keep it new and fresh, check out this You Tube.

To your success, Dean Small and Danny Bendas

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Fast Casual: More From the “Next Chipotle” Front

By Joan Lang

Google “next Chipotle” and you’ll see all sorts of evidence that the public’s awareness of the fast casual dynamic has reached critical mass.

Indeed, oversaturation in the fast food marketplace and demand for fresher, healthier, more authentic food is behind a growing defection from traditional fast food in favor of the Chipotle/Panera/Five Guys model.

We’ve written about (and been involved with) many of the contenders before, including LYFE Kitchen and other “fast fine” brands. But the precepts of experience-oriented premium quick-service—better-quality fresh ingredients, menus designed for guest customization, Millennial-friendly ambiance that encourages hanging out, and an open-arms attitude toward technology and social media—continue to change the American expectation for quick and affordable dining out.

Here are some companies to be aware of, some of which have been around since before the term “fast casual” was even coined.

Farmer Boys puts a name to the all-prevailing trend to the locally and ethically sourced menu, as practiced by this 79-unit Southern Cali-based breakfast-and-burger chain. With more than 75 items, the selection is more diverse than that of the typical burger emporium—in addition to burgers, there are numerous breakfast plates, sandwiches, omelets and takeout worthy Go Bowls, as well as salads and wraps, sandwiches, and fried fish and chicken plates. Real ice cream shakes serve triple-duty as beverage, snack and dessert. Founded in 1981, the chain began franchising in 1998. Interestingly, Farmer Boys’ “mascot” is a scarecrow, predating Chipotle’s controversial but undeniably heart-tugging animated version.

Zoe’s Kitchen is pulling ahead of the fast casual fresh-Med pack with a newly sharpened “Live Mediterranean” positioning that touts made-from-scratch food that draws from the founders’ Greek heritage. Zoe’s success owes much to the accessible appeal of its menu, which emphasizes foods that are healthy first, Mediterranean-style second, such as pita sandwiches, kebabs and salads, plus sandwiches and fresh sides; convenient pre-packed takeout food, Dinner for 4 meals, and catering hold a special place of pride in the Zoe’s business formula. The Plano, TX-based Zoe’s, which first debuted in 1995, has about 130 company-owned restaurants spread across 15 Southern and mid-Atlantic states.

Backyard Bowls promises “Better Life Through Better Food” in the distinctive form of acai bowls, build-your-own meal platforms based on the trendy Brazilian berry (pronounced ah-sah-EE) which is widely reputed to be an anti-aging superfood. Bowls start with a smoothie-like acai puree, variously topped with granola, yogurt, fresh fruit or vegetables, and honey, to which guests can add a la carte enhancements such as bee pollen, flax seeds and spirulina. There are also breakfast bowls based on oatmeal, quinoa and muesli, as well as “real food” smoothies. With three units in the Santa Barbara area and born of the surfer culture there, the concept is tailor-made for today’s generation of diners who may eschew dairy, meat and gluten—standard ingredients include nut milks and protein-rich hemp, but no animal products save for organic yogurt and honey/pollen (for which agave can be substituted).


Acai Bowl from Backyard Bowls | Photo credit: Flickr user Robert License CC by 2.0
Acai Bowl from Backyard Bowls | Photo credit: Flickr user Robert License CC by 2.0

Named to the Nation’s Restaurant News 2014 Hot Concepts list, Chicago-based Protein Bar anticipated Americans’ interest in high-protein diets with a menu of protein-packed Bar-rito wrap sandwiches, salads, healthy blended drinks and raw juices, and convenient bowls including breakfast, chili/soup, and lunch combinations—much like the diet that helped founder Matt Matros lose 50 pounds. The selection is designed to welcome vegan/vegetarian, gluten-free and food-allergy lifestyles, with an emphasis on food that is quick and healthy, promising nothing less than helping its fans change the way they eat on the go. The fact that there is a location at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s new Shop & Dine development is proof of the concept’s appeal.

Better-taco concept Rusty Taco got validation of a different sort when it was bought into by wunderkind wings giant Buffalo Wild Wings, which has had its own land-office success by concentrating on one menu item done to the nth degree. Amid a plethora of growth-driven fast-casual taquerias now emerging, nine-unit Rusty Taco stands out for the relative authenticity of its menu (i.e., tacos filled with items like picadillo and brisket) and the availability of what the Dallas-based concept proudly describes as margaritas “made with cheap tequila and fresh lime juice.” With Pizza Rev already in its investment stable (and growing quickly as a result), BWW is clearly betting on fast casual to give it more headroom to expand.

Synergy Restaurant Consultants has deep expertise in the area of fast casual concept development and operations.


Waste Not, Want Not

By Joan Lang


Photo credit: Flickr user petrr License CC by 2.0
Photo credit: Flickr user petrr License CC by 2.0

The numbers are absolutely mindboggling. According to a study conducted at the University of Arizona, restaurants in the United States throw out something like 135 million tons of food a day, or as much as 10 cents on every dollar of edible goods purchased, in part because of the growing trend toward fresh, on-demand menu concepts. The really shocking part: That study—representing some of the most recent comprehensive research available—was conducted in 2005. What can 10 years of fresh menuing have done to those statistics?

Not only can most operators ill afford that kind of waste, but an increasingly savvy customer base is becoming more aware of the problem. After all, according to the Food Marketing Institute, households are responsible for most of the country’s food waste, at 44%, followed by restaurants (33%) and grocery stores (11%).

Despite garnering some heat in the press for making waste a low priority, the restaurant industry is taking the lead in addressing the problem. Darden concepts has been working on the problem for more than a decade, with such programs as Darden Harvest (food donations), organic recycling, and more. Forward-thinking fast casual concepts like Snappy Salads are building sustainability and green practices such as landfill diversion into their business plans.

Five Michelin-starred chefs from France staged a Dustbin Banquet for 5,000 to call attention to the issue.

Here are some things you can do to reduce food waste in your operation, remembering that it’s not only good for food costs but also for the environment:

• Carefully rethink portion sizes. In the larger scheme of things, it may not necessarily be a good thing that guests know you as the place where you can’t possibly finish an entrée.
o Monitor the amount of food that comes back to the kitchen on plates, even if it’s packed into doggie bags (which may sit in the back of a guest’s refrigerator before ultimately being thrown away). Consider resizing accordingly
o Other options include offering half- and smaller portions, including selections for both younger and older diners. (Table 24, in Orinda, CA, even has two sizes of children’s menus, because “littles” not only eat differently but are also bound to eat less than “middles”)

• Get rid of garnishes that are unlikely to be used or eaten, like the tired leaf of kale and orange slice that decorate so many plates. Have servers ask guests if they want fresh lemon or tartar sauce.

• Get a better handle on forecasting and purchasing procedures in order to reduce the amount of unnecessary food coming in the back door—maybe you don’t need that standing weekly order for asparagus

• In a related vein, organize food storage to encourage rotation and easy access, as well as tighter inventory. Too often, food can get lost and overlooked in a poorly organized walk-in.

• Make full cross-utilization of food a goal—and a creative challenge. Just to use one common example, leftover bread can be repurposed in many interesting and profitable ways, beyond crumbs and croutons.
o Thick slices of day-old brioche can be used to create bostock, a sweet breakfast pastry from France—or adapted as a savory snack or starter

o In Italy, the first of the season’s olive oil is made into a fettunta, or “greased slice.” At Nico, in Chicago, the concept has been turned into an entire profit-building menu signature
o Cut leftover sliced bread into slim slices, brush with oil and seasonings and bake, to serve as a garnish or finger food

• Commit to landfill diversion through source reduction, composting, recycling of spent oil (which also addresses energy costs) and other efforts.

o There are commercial composting machines that can “digest” waste into valuable black gold in just 24 hours, without the smell and mess normally associated with compost

• Wherever possible, practice nose-to-tail cookery, a newly trendy form of whole animal usage that actually stems from traditional farm-based peasant cooking. The idea of using everything can also be applied to fish (“fin-to-tail) and even vegetables (“root to stalk”).

• Look into food donation programs such as local food banks or City Harvest, which helps build a sense of community.
It’s no accident that many of these initiatives are two-fers, in that they’re also good for your brand’s image—all the more reason to consider implementing as many as possible.

10 Great Little Ideas

Success in the restaurant business is built on a lot of different parts—the big things, of course, with menu, décor and service, but also a lot of little things, like sales builders, brand differentiators, cost tweaks, and more.

Hey, what’s the little idea? Consider something like one of these:

1. Red Robin’s 20-year-old Bottomless Fries concept—which has since expanded to include endless servings of healthier side dishes such as cole slaw, sweet potato fries, steamed broccoli and side salad—does a number of useful things. It reduces waste because the truth is that most people don’t actually eat all of this plate-covering item. It provides a customer touch point each time the server returns to the table with a “refill.” And at a time when chain restaurants may seem interchangeable to many guests, it allows the burger concept to be “that place where you can eat all the fries you want.” Not bad for such a low-food-cost item.

2. There’s nothing new about promos and discounts, but that doesn’t mean yours need to be boring.

• Base a special menu on an epic culinary R&D trip, as Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco does with its Thursday night American Road Trip menu.

• Mile End Deli in Brooklyn nods to the age-old Jewish tradition of Sunday night Chinese food with its specially priced family-style “Sunday Chinese” menu.

• Make like an old-fashioned department store and stage a January White Sale promotion, marking down all “white goods” by a certain percentage: chicken, veal, pastas, potato side dishes, white wine, gin and vodka drinks. Rather than being a simple discount, it’s fun and creative and could turn guests on to new menu offerings they wouldn’t normally try.

3. At Cotogna and Quince, Michael Tusk’s side-by-side restaurants in San Francisco, spring means it’s time for the annual Sidewalk Smallwares Sale, where gently used plates, glasses, silverware and other tableware are set out on sidewalk tables so neighbors, customers—and not a few startup restaurateurs—can buy such upscale brands as Heath and Rosenthal for $2-30. The annual event helps clean house and finance necessary replacements, but it also reminds attendees that the restaurants are there; in fact, many pop into Cotogna to sample the new brunch afterwards.

4. Calorie labelling may be a headache for many operators, but for trendsetting Modmarket, key nutritionals are printed right on the receipt, where customers can see what their meal cost them in more ways than one. The strategy helps the Denver-based chain—which, at 12 units, isn’t even required to provide this information—make no bones about its healthy fresh menu positioning.

5. It’s been done before but bears repeating: Slow nights like Monday are a great time to offer half-price deals on wine, by the glass or the bottle. Even if it means selling vino at cost (and it probably doesn’t), the move brings out customers and gets them spending on dinner or small plates as well.

6. Speaking of wine, subscription wine clubs not only reward affluent and sophisticated guests for their patronage, but they also build loyalty and repeat business—especially if you offer discounts on wine purchased in the restaurant—and may even help increase buying leverage, rounding out case orders to meet a minimum buy. They also allow the beverage team to taste and test new wines on some of your most educated palates, who will be most anxious to provide feedback.

7. Oysters have that reputation, and with both demand and supply growing, why not make them the centerpiece of a romantic Date Night special, offering $1 oysters with the purchase of bubbly by the glass or bottle to couples, who may very well end up staying for dinner or coming back another time. Of course you do it on a slower night, like Sunday or Wednesday.

8. Make friends with parents and help groom the next generation of restaurantgoers by giving a discount to well-behaved kids. Other guests will thank you, too, especially if you promote the reward on the menu and your website, so the little darlings cooperate from the moment they sit down. Come to think of it, there are hotels and restaurants that also offer classes in manners for kids.

9. The popular breakfast for Sunday Supper at Brenda’s French Soul Food in San Francisco came about by accident because people were still lined up for breakfast when the place closed at 3 p.m. on Sundays. So now the breakfast/brunch menu stays in force all day, with the addition of more substantial items like Hangtown Fry (a traditional San Francisco oyster-and-bacon egg scramble), Shrimp & Grits, and sandwiches and burgers after 5 p.m. The strategy not only pleases late-rising locals, it also adds several turns during what used to be the Sunday afternoon to early evening dead zone.

10. Half-portions of pasta are fairly common in Italian restaurants, but how about smaller-size portions of other foods, including more traditional protein-based entrees? It doesn’t necessarily mean lower average checks: Anything on the menu that can easily be served in a smaller portion, from salads to fish to chops (a half-rack of lamb, for instance, or a 5-oz. serving of grilled salmon) could be a welcome temptation not only for the value-conscious, but also for dieters, older children, seniors, or even people who want to create their own “small plates” or sample additional items.

Turn to Synergy Restaurant Consultants for more business-building ideas.

Tip of the Month

Looking for more information about reducing food waste? Here are some resources:

We Hate to Waste
End Food Waste Now
USDA Food Recovery and Donation portal
Food Waste Reduction Alliance
Sustainable America
Green Restaurant Association