Menus Adapt to Appeal to Nation of Snackers

America is truly a nation of snackers: Adults in this country snacked on ready-to-eat foods more than 200 billion times in 2015, according to consumer research firm The NPD Group.

We snack so much that there are now three snacking dayparts in restaurants — mid-morning, late afternoon and late night — that together make up 18 percent of all restaurant dining occasions, according to NPD. That makes it one percentage point larger than breakfast in terms of number of visits. And that doesn’t count the many times when traditional meals are transformed from a sandwich at lunch or an appetizer and entrée at dinner to a flexible, sharable snack fest, or a lighter meal for the budget- or calorie-conscious.

The latter is happening at Genji Izakaya, a new restaurant serving Japanese snacks that opened on March 1 inside the Whole Foods Market at New York City’s Time Warner Center. The restaurant replaces a bar that served a meal-oriented menu of burgers, fries and the like.

Genji also operates sushi and ramen restaurants at Whole Foods Markets across the country. This is its first izakaya — a Japanese word that translates loosely as “tavern.”

The new menu includes sliders served on steamed buns for $4 apiece, filled with chashu pork, shrimp tempura, spicy chicken or tofu. It also offers quick bites for $3 to $7, including edamame, dumplings, a seared salmon “carpaccio” in ponzu, and a “taco trio” of spicy tuna, salmon and shrimp tempura served in shells of thin soy paper or nori seaweed.

Also available — and quite popular — are mini bowls of ramen for $9, which are about two-thirds the size of $11 full servings at the nearby Genji ramen and sushi restaurants.

Greg Neal, regional operations manager for parent company Genji LLC, said the Izakaya is seeing strong lunch and post-work dinner rushes.

“At lunch they usually order ramen and one other thing,” Neal said. “At dinner they’ll get a snack and a beer, and then maybe order something a little bigger as they linger, as you would at a typical izakaya [in Japan].”

Snacking revenue is on the rise at many restaurants, according to a study conducted in February by Penton Food and Restaurant Group, which includes Nation’s Restaurant News, and sponsored by Mondelez. The study found that 43 percent of restaurant operators saw an increase in revenue from snacks in the past two years, while 53 percent said snack sales were flat. Only 4 percent said snack sales “decreased somewhat,” and none said they “decreased significantly.”

Many operators have responded to the increase in snack food business.

“We take our bar food just as seriously as we do full-on menu items,” said Brian Landry, chef at Borgne, a New Orleans restaurant that is part of the Besh Restaurant Group. “We have lots of outlets where having great bar food becomes very relevant,” he said.

Bar snacks need to be quick, easy and approachable, Landry said, which at his restaurant includes catfish sliders served with a tartar sauce made with both dill pickles and bread-and-butter pickles. The sliders are topped with a green tomato chow chow, a Southern-style slaw that Landry makes by pouring a hot mixture of vinegar, pickling spices and turmeric over diced green tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower and red bell peppers, and letting it chill.

He also does a take on turkey necks, a not uncommon addition to local crawfish bowls. He braises the necks in a traditional French mixture of mirepoix and red wine, chills them in the liquid, and rolls them in crab-boil spices and rice flour before flash-frying them.

“They get incredibly crispy and spicy on the outside, but they’re falling-off-the-bone tender,” Landry said.

The necks are finished with a glaze of housemade pepper jelly.

Landry also taps his bar menu, which he rotates based on what’s available, to use up trim from the dining room menu. For example, he’ll buy whole yellowfin tuna and use the loins for the restaurant.

“But there’s all this other meat on a tuna that we might not necessarily put center of the plate,” he said.

Instead, he cooks it with olive oil, garlic and bay leaves, smokes it over pecan wood, flakes the meat, and mixes it with cream cheese and capers for a spread that he serves with spiced potato chips, crackers or bruschetta.

“It’s a fun way for us to utilize the entire fish, but also to make a delicious snack that people can dig on when they’re having wine or delicious beer,” Landry said.

Dylan Fultineer agreed that snacks should be straightforward. Fultineer is the chef of Rapp Session in Richmond, Va., and its sister farm-to-table restaurant next door, Rappahannock. Both are owned by the Rappahannock Oyster Company, which farms oysters in Chesapeake Bay. The company opened Rapp Session in February to handle the overflow from its high-end neighbor, and to make that restaurant a bit more sedate.

Fultineer creates local, approachable food that people can relate to, like his smoked bluefish dip. He brines the inexpensive fish overnight with salt, sugar, dill, garlic and other aromatics, then hot-smokes it until cooked through. He flakes it and mixes it with crème fraîche, red onion, cucumber, dill and lemon juice, and serves it with saltines. The dip is one of his most popular items, he said.
Most of the bar food is priced between $2 and $8, but Fultineer offers a more substantial $15 oyster roll, which is his take on a lobster roll. He poaches oysters in butter and serves them on a brioche bun that he tops with his own chow chow, which he describes as “sort of a sweet sauerkraut,” and a housemade, fermented, green jalapeño hot sauce.

“Shareable, snacky items” will also be the focus of Columbus Tap, a restaurant slated to open in April at the Fairmont Chicago hotel, chef Atticus Garant said.

The lineup includes trendy “toasts,” including one with crushed avocado, lemon and olive oil vinaigrette, shaved radishes, hot pepper and hydroponic watercress.

Another will be spread with smoked ranch — made by cold-smoking sour cream and folding it with herbs such as tarragon, oregano, parsley and chives into ranch dressing. The toast will be topped with pieces of rotisserie chicken, Nueske’s bacon, lettuce, cured tomatoes, lemon vinaigrette and herbs.

Garant said he is using sourdough and multigrain bread from local Publican Quality Bread for the toasts.

Other snackable items include artichokes that he treats like fried chicken — soaking them in buttermilk and then dredging them in spiced flour before frying them. He also plans to make “animal crackers,” a bowl of fried pork cracklings tossed in spice dust that reflects the flavors of Buffalo wings.

According to the Penton-Mondelez study, taste is far and away the most important quality customers are looking for in a snack: 52 percent of respondents said it was the most important characteristic, and 31 percent put it in second place.

By comparison, nutrition was only ranked the top choice by 2 percent of respondents, and 17 percent put it in second place. Most put convenience and price between taste and nutrition.

Nonetheless, Garant said variety is important, and he plans more healthful items to contrast the chicken-fried artichokes and pork cracklings.

They include a braised sunchoke salad with carrot, celery root and an olive oil vinaigrette, as well as charred broccoli with an “umami bomb” vinaigrette made of sundried tomatoes, capers, tomato powder, olive oil and lemon.

He is also planning a dish of roasted romanesco broccoli, for which he rubs the heads in compound butter, roasts them whole, slices them in half and serves three halves with preserved lemon, herbed relish and Parmesan cheese.

STK, a 13-unit steakhouse based in New York City, is taking a more indulgent route with its recently launched “Classic Hour,” which features classic cocktails and, at its downtown Manhattan location, not-so-classic sliders on weekdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Bradley Day, chef of the downtown location, said the slider fillings include crispy char siu chicken with spicy Asian slaw, barbecue pork belly with a cipollini onion applesauce, tempura sweet-and-sour shrimp, and a vegetarian slider made with grilled shiitake mushroom and garlic herb aïoli, as well as a classic with white Cheddar and special sauce.

“Here I think it’s a little bit about variety and speed,” Day said. “It’s very approachable — not too far out in left field.”

Day said the restaurant originally required customers to buy two of the same type of slider for $10, but now it lets them mix and match and add extra sliders for $5 each, although they still require a two-slider minimum.

It’s not uncommon for people to buy slider tastings, Day said, which is one of each, and share them with a group.

*Abridged from an article by Bret Thorn at [email protected]

Trending Tables for Spring

Consider The Bellwether, a Los Angeles gastropub with food that defies categorization. On the menu, there’s tempura cauliflower with mostly Thai flavors (chile, basil, fish sauce), Italian meatballs, and Octopus from the Eastern Mediterranean (with tabbouleh and preserved lemon). The Progress in San Francisco takes a similar global approach with its duck fried rice, rabbit with prune romesco, and a sunchoke roti with ranch dressing.

Many trendy restaurants this spring reflect chefs’ and their customers’ growing comfort with food from different parts of the world. Even restaurants that appear to have a specific cuisine in mind take advantage of the increasingly global American palate to blur lines: You would expect Tredici Enoteca in Philadelphia to be straight-up Italian, but the wine bar has a Mediterranean tasting board with hummus and falafel.

Atlanta seems to be on an Asian kick this spring, with chef Ford Fry dressing his tuna crudo with Thai herbs and fried shallots and Jed Hidinger using fermented shrimp broth with her rabbit — not to mention Guy Wong’s “Vietnamese brasserie,” Le Fat.

Then there are thematic mashups that might seem surprising at first but reflect the colonial past of the cuisines they represent. Indonesia was a colony of The Netherlands for centuries, and so the Dutch-Indonesian fusion at De Quay in Chicago makes sense. The small Indian state of Goa was long occupied by Portugal, and so you have the eclectic-seeming food of Oporto Fooding House & Wine in Houston.

Of course there’s plenty of regional American fare at trendy restaurants this spring, particularly southern food, and particularly fried chicken or riffs on it, such as the fried chicken coq au vin at Little Bird Bistro in Portland, Ore., or that same restaurant’s chicken-fried trout.

Also in Portland, there’s fried chicken with steamed clams (why not?) at Taylor Railworks. Soco in Orlando, Fla., has chicken-fried New York strip. Taylor Railworks, although southern in spirit, mixes things up considerably: Its chicken and dumplings comes with lobster dumplings, edamame and soy butter.

*abridged from an article by Bret Thorn at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

Five Marketing Ideas to Keep Your Restaurant Top of Mind

With more than one million food service locations across the United States, restaurateurs don’t have to be reminded that they are vying for business in a fiercely competitive marketplace.

While industry pundits routinely state that food quality, service, and value must all remain top of mind in the daily struggle for share, they also maintain that an operation must have a strong and comprehensive marketing plan that will keep it high on the short list of today’s hungry consumer.

But with so many choices out there, how do you cut through the multitude of competing messages to ensure that your restaurant will stand out ?

This article explores key trends.

1. Mobile — why phones mean business:

Today’s consumers are on the go. It’s no surprise that the main resource for restaurant decision making is their phone. How can you make sure they choose your restaurant? Search is essential.

Consider this:

Google searches for “near me” have increased 34 times since 2011 and nearly doubled since last year, 80 percent of them come from mobile.
Half of all diners search for a restaurant within an hour of going.
(Source: Think with Google)

How can you make search engine optimization (SEO) work harder for you?

First, make sure you have the right terms on your website. Menu items are key. You’ll want to list them so that if someone searches for a type of food in the area, your restaurant comes up. You’ll also want to make it easy for your customers to find you. That’s why it’s vital to have location information listed on all of the most important publisher sites. There are a variety of services that accomplish this — making it easy to put all the information local consumers are searching for on top local listing sites, search engines, review sites, and mobile apps.

What else does this mobile trend mean?

Staying top of mind also means staying on top of email. According to recent survey results, 51 percent of emails are opened on mobile devices. Over 80 percent of consumers say it’s “extremely important” to be able to read emails on a smartphone. So if your email marketing isn’t mobile-friendly, you are missing out on business. Even if your emails aren’t being opened, the subject lines and presence in your target’s email can serve as an effective reminder when it’s time to eat.

Email marketing services, like Constant Contact, make it easy to use attractive, mobile-friendly templates that can bring your restaurant brand to life. They also enable flexibility so your other locations can edit them for local flavor.

2. Local events — more than just music:

Events are a strong draw for restaurants. From live music nights to birthday parties to one-of-a-kind neighborhood experiences, they are a useful way to bring in new and familiar customers. They are also a great way to add a local feel to a restaurant chain. Events will give your customers a good reason to try you, remember you, and keep coming back.

Your online marketing platform is an efficient way to promote events. There are services that can not only promote your event, but also turn events into a powerful business tool:

Event emails give you a reason to be in your customers’ inboxes and help you gain awareness.
Event landing pages help you track responses — capturing who’s registered and who hasn’t for targeted follow up.
Search and social help you gain visibility — social sharing of the event is a wonderful way to spread the news and increase exposure.
Event data can show you what locations or events are pulling in the best numbers. You can use that insight as an incentive or guide for other locations.
3. Relevant content:

Keeping your customers engaged requires a conversation. This is where content can help create an ongoing dialogue. There are many resources to help you develop content. From third-party sources and agencies to online marketing companies, there are a variety of ways to create content that can reach your customers and keep them interested in your restaurant.

Engage diners with new menu items, specials, promotions, and news through email, social media, and more.

Content is essential to creating a consistent brand — helping customers get to know your voice and reinforcing what to expect during their dining experience. Content is another effective method for adding local influence to your brand. Restaurants should provide a certain amount of content that can be customized for local outreach. Custom-branded templates are an easy way to create a cohesive brand look while also allowing flexibility for local adjustment.

4. Social media promotions — spreading the word:

Photographs of amazing food. A comment about a great meal. Clicking yes to attending a restaurant event. Shouting out a great deal. Restaurant experiences have naturally become an everyday presence in social media. How can you help spread the word?

Leverage your existing content that is being sent through email and post it on your social platforms: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more.
Choose a platform like Hootsuite that allows you to preschedule your content. Remember, you want to have a continuous conversation with your customers and keep them interested, so having a plan for content is critical.
Have a great offer? Gate your offer so prospects need to connect with you to take advantage.
Content can get buried on social media. Only a small number of your followers may see your organic posts, so paid advertising on Facebook is an ideal combination to get maximum exposure. And now, thanks to services that can pull your email content and contact lists into Facebook, accomplishing this is easier than ever.
5. Loyalty programs — devotion is good for your bottom line:

According to a CX Pulse Study, the frequency of brand interaction builds loyalty and advocacy: 87 percent daily, 64 percent weekly, 49 percent monthly and 33 percent a few times a year. This is why loyalty programs are a crucial way to talk to your favorite customers and deepen the relationship so they keep coming back to your establishment. Some key ways to make loyalty programs work for you:

Make it personal. Your customers want to feel special. So make sure you communicate with them on their special days such as birthdays and anniversaries. This is a great way to build engagement and remind them where they should go to celebrate.
Loyalty saves. Coupons and discounts still remain an effective way to reward your most frequent customers and encourage repeat business. Tracking redemption will show you the offers that are working the best. Use the data to follow the success or improve future efforts
Loyal can be casual. Now that it’s easy to track who your top diners are, you don’t need to have formal loyalty programs. It can be as simple as tracking their purchase history and tagging frequent customers within your email platform so you know who’s eligible for loyalty deals. With a system like Constant Contact, you can add as many tags as you’d like to send customers more targeted campaigns.

* Abridged from an article by  – Constant Ron Cates and is one of the country’s top email and social media marketing experts. 

Fast Casual Taps Sales Opportunity With Self-Service Beer

Zpizza International Inc. may have cracked the code on boosting alcohol sales in the fast-casual segment by putting bartending in the hands of customers.

The Irvine, Calif.-based chain is one of a growing number of fast-casual concepts experimenting with self-service beer technology. Other concepts on the West Coast include gourmet hot dog purveyors Dog Haus and Brätworks, as well as Blast 825 Pizza.

The model is based on relatively new technology that some contend could be a game changer in attracting craft-beer-loving Millennials.

Many fast-casual chains carry craft beer and wine in bottles and cans, but the limited-service model can inherently hinder alcohol sales beyond one drink. Customers are less likely to get back in line for a second drink, and workers are often too young to handle alcohol, or are not trained to upsell. As a result, few concepts within the segment have put much effort into alcohol sales.

Zpizza, however, has transformed three units into Zpizza “tap rooms,” which feature a beer wall with 10 to 20 taps. Each restaurant offers a unique collection of local craft brews on draft, said Chris Bright, president of Zpizza.

After their IDs are scanned, customers can open a digital tab and pour their own draft, paying by the fluid ounce. That allows them to taste an ounce or two of different options before they settle on a “long pour.” If they want a second drink, they can get it themselves without having to wait for a server or table runner.

Some traditional Zpizza units offer beer and wine in cans and bottles, as is relatively common in fast casual. But those units typically see only about 2 percent of sales from alcohol, Bright said.

“It’s very difficult to generate liquor sales in a fast-casual environment because consumers are reluctant get in line again to order a second glass of wine or beer,” Bright said.

The self-service format eliminates that obstacle, he said.

At tap room locations with the beer wall, alcohol sales have reached as high as 20 percent, Bright said. “It’s a big winner in that sense.”

And where traditional Zpizza locations do about 75 percent of sales in takeout and delivery, tap room units see 75 percent to 80 percent of sales from dine-in business, he added.

The 95-unit Zpizza has three tap room locations and six more in development. “It’s our growth platform,” Bright said. “Going forward, our focus will be on building tap rooms only.”

The tap room concept has given the brand a jolt of growth at a time when build-your-own pizza concepts with flash-baking ovens are stealing the fast-casual limelight, Bright said.

Zpizza has long offered healthful pizzas, pastas, salads and sandwiches with all-natural and preservative-free meats, organic tomato sauce and mozzarella made with milk from grass-fed cows. Customers order at the counter, but the chain uses deck ovens that cook pizzas in about eight minutes, slower than the new build-your-own-pizza upstarts.

But now the extra time is beneficial, as it gives Zpizza customers a chance to explore the beer wall. In some locations, wine on tap will also be an option.

Zpizza uses the iPourIt system, but there are a growing number of self-service beer options for restaurant operators.

At a recent National Restaurant Association conference on technology, Josh Halpern, vice president of national retail sales, on-premise and military, for Anheuser-Busch in the U.S. said his company is going after the fast-casual segment in a “big way” with self-service equipment.

Anheuser-Busch partner DraftServ is working with sports arenas and cruise ship companies around the country to install self-serve taps.

Full-service restaurants are adopting the technology as well, but the trend is particularly ideal for fast casual, where concepts have limited square footage, and consumers embrace the opportunity to control their dining experience, said Joseph McCarthy, co-founder of iPourIt.

How it Works ?

Self-service beer offers a revenue boost without the need for more labor, McCarthy said.

With iPourIt, once a customer gets their ID checked, they can open a tab tied to a credit card. Typically, users must preload a certain amount to get started, and they can add to their tab as they go. Customers then receive a wristband or card that uses radio frequency to recognize them at the tap and measure their pour. They can try as many beers as they like, and they only pay for what they pour.

Since the iPourIt system is digital, McCarthy said there is a huge opportunity for collecting data about customers, their age and purchase habits. There is also an opportunity to link with loyalty programs to let users know what’s on tap at their local unit.

Fundamentally, the trend is being driven by the explosion in craft beer, which represented close to $20 billion in beer sales in 2014, McCarthy said.

“There are now over 4,000 craft brewers in the U.S., the highest point ever, and there has been a huge explosion in the products and styles of beer available,” he said.

At Dog Haus, the wide craft beer selection was a perfect match for its gourmet hot dogs, said Quasim Riaz, a partner in the Pasadena, Calif.-based chain.

“Beer goes so well with our food. It’s great that we can take our beer as seriously,” Riaz said.

Two units within the 11-unit chain have the iPourIt system, and franchisees are watching to see how it goes.

The first location with the system opened in Santa Ana, Calif., about six months ago. The second, in Fullerton, Calif., opened in early November, so it’s relatively new, he said.

Traditional locations offer beer and wines in cans or bottles. Some pour draft beer in the back of the house, he said.

But the self-service model offers the potential for improved throughput, with customers pouring their own beer as they would a soda.

The model also has a built-in opportunity for upselling, Riaz said.

As customers try three or four options, those tastes offer incremental sales opportunities that inevitably lead to the selection of a higher-priced product. Customers are more likely to buy a more expensive beer that they know they like rather than taking a risk on an unknown, he said.

“Having a happy customer is something we all strive for in this industry, and if the consumer is able to sample a beer and decide if they want it, they’re happier,” he said.

One consideration: In addition to the investment in the system, which for iPourIt is about $1,200 per tap, operators are required to pay a fee of 1 cent per ounce to iPourIt, which amounts to about 16 cents per 16-ounce beer, cutting into margins.

No Tipping

Tobi Miller, co-founder of the Brätworks build-your-own hot dog chain, said customers like the fact that they don’t have to tip at self-service beer concepts.

Brätworks is opening a unit in Redlands, Calif., with a 12-tap craft beer wall this winter. The original Brätworks opened in San Bernardino, Calif., with beer in bottles and cans, and two more units are in development in Southern California, Miller said.

Miller, who is also a franchise operator of Yogurtland, the self-serve frozen yogurt concept, said he loved the fact that self-service beer allows him to get just the amount he wants, even if it’s just a taste.

The Redlands location will be the brand’s first standalone unit, and a bit larger, at 2,500 square feet. The company is in the process of launching a franchising program, so self-serve beer could become a component that could attract potential operators, Miller said.

For Blast 825, a fast-casual pizza concept operated by Fresno, Calif.-based Milano Restaurants International Corp., self-service beer is also in test.

The company is scheduled to open a new Blast 825 Tap Room prototype in the coming weeks in San Luis Obispo, Calif., with about 20 taps of craft beer, along with four or five wines on tap.

“We have to evaluate it,” said John Ferdinandi, CEO of Milano Restaurants International. “But we think it will enhance the overall experience for the customer.”

Ferdinandi said the key will be whether the model will work in a setting with faster service, where table turns are vital to unit economics.

“We have to balance the idea of sitting and enjoying a few beers, maybe while watching a game, with patrons who are in to get a quick pizza,” he said.

One benefit Ferdinandi sees is that the onus of a bad pour is on the customer.

“If you have a server that isn’t pouring correctly or wastes beer, that’s on the owner’s side to absorb,” he said. “But if the customer doesn’t pour it correctly, it’s on them.”

Bright of Zpizza said they give customers who pour incorrectly, with too much foam, an opportunity to top off.

Zpizza’s first tap room location opened in Sacramento, Calif., about a year ago. So far, customers love the interactive nature of the beer wall, he said.

“It’s a very communal environment, where people come together and talk about what they’re tasting,” he said. “That really keeps them coming back to the beer wall, as opposed to the somewhat mundane act of going up to the counter.”

Will self-service beer and wine become as ubiquitous as self-serve soda fountains?

Bright said it depends on the concept.

“I don’t know that fast casual will go to that format in droves. There has to be a culture around craft beer that fits with the concept. It can’t be an afterthought,” he said. “You have to be committed.”

*Abridged from an article by Lisa Jennings at [email protected]

Restaurant Drink Orders Decline

Consumers are ordering fewer beverages in restaurants. Drink orders have declined 4%, or 2 billion servings, over a five-year period, according to new research from The NPD Group, Chicago.

Behind the trend are changing tastes and cost consciousness, NPD said. In particular, carbonated soft drinks, brewed coffee and milk are falling out of favor. Soda and milk, which account for nearly half of beverages ordered at food service, have lost 4 billion servings since 2010, NPD reported. These beverages, however, are still purchased most frequently of all beverage categories.

Meanwhile, iced and frozen coffees, specialty coffees, frozen slush drinks and tap water and bottled water are growing. Specialty coffees and similar beverages are getting a boost from consumers who make a special visit to purchase the drink or order it as a snack.

Consumers order a beverage 70% of the time when visiting restaurants or other food service outlets, according to NPD.

“Despite recent declines in beverage servings, the fact is that beverages are still an important part of food service visits, whether by themselves or as part of a meal,” said Warren Solochek, president of NPD’s food service practice. “In order to drive beverage orders, food service operators will need to understand consumers’ changing tastes and offer an array of quality beverage choices, including healthy options.”

* Abridged from an article by Monica Watrous, Food Business News

Why Chobani, Nestle, and Other Brands Are Opening Brick-and-Mortar Restaurants

Walk down the aisle of any American grocery store and scattered amongst the usual gamut of brands, you’ll find products from popular restaurants. Taco Bell bottles its famous sauce packets (minus the cheeky sayings). P.F. Chang’s boxes frozen versions of its most popular menu items, like sesame chicken and shrimp lo mein. Marie Callender’s is probably better known for its freezer aisle comfort-food meals than for its actual restaurants, and even cult-loved Texas-based chain Whataburger is now selling grocery store versions of is popular sauces.

But what happens when brands, many of which are grocery-store staples, decide to leap from the aisle to the street — in the form of a brick-and-mortar restaurant?

A number of brands — including Chobani, Nestlé, and Barilla — have made the jump from product to restaurant. Popular Greek yogurt company Chobani opened a café in New York City’s Soho neighborhood in 2012 with, unsurprisingly, its yogurt front-and-center on the menu. Nestlé Toll House Café — which has 145 locations across the United States, Canada, and the Middle East — serves cookies, smoothies, and ice cream, the majority of which are made with Nestlé products.

These branded restaurants attempt to leverage grocery-store items into luxurious, upscale entities. But is it working?

The most recent brand to make the jump is Amy’s Kitchen. The vegetarian frozen food company, best known for its microwavable burritos and rice bowls, is now selling pizzas, burgers, and chili made fresh to order at the company’s new San Francisco restaurant Amy’s Drive Thru. Amy’s director of restaurant operations Paul Schiefer reveals that while Amy’s Drive Thru “uses some of the same supplies, growers, and chefs that had made our frozen food,” the menu is “pretty much from scratch.” For the restaurant, which is completely vegetarian like the frozen food offerings, the team held “over a thousand taste tests of the veggie burger alone, just to get feedback and fine-tune what we were looking to do.”

While restaurants offering grocery-store products is a way to make brands more accessible, these branded restaurants attempt to leverage basic grocery-store items — which are often not considered to be very chic — into luxurious, upscale entities. But it is working? Are these restaurants actually just one big, ongoing marketing stunt? Or are they viable concepts on their own? The answer falls somewhere in between the two.
First and foremost, these branded stores are another outlet for the companies to showcase their products. Shawnon Bellah, the COO of the Nestlé Toll House Café, says that nearly 60 percent of ingredients used — from La Lechera condensed milk to branded water — are Nestlé’s. At any given moment at Chobani’s cafe, there are at least 12 yogurt-based creations — both sweet and savory — on offer. Amy’s Drive Thru sells its popular burritos using the familiar Amy’s recipe, only freshly made. Nestlé’s high-end coffee-pod Nespresso has nine self-described “boutiques” across the U.S. that serve a range of coffee drinks, alcohol, and food. According to Nespresso vice president of marketing Davide Moro, the main focus of the boutiques (a word usually used to denote high-end, exclusive product) are the coffee pods, many of which are the same as what customers can purchase in stores and online. (Unlike Nestlé coffee, Nespresso pods can usually be purchased in “select fine retailers” as opposed to traditional groceries.)

“Anybody who walks by one of our cafés may not be 100 percent aware of the café concept, but there’s a trust factor in the Nestle brand,” says Nestle Cafe’s Bellah. Unsurprisingly, brands then use that trust factor to demonstrate, in-store, different ways the product can be used. While Chobani SoHo’s yogurt bowls feature the same product that consumers can purchase in stores, the café offers a number of yogurt bowls, like the Fig + Walnut (dried figs, walnuts, and a drizzle of clover honey) and savory takes like the Mango + Avocado (mango, avocado, olive oil, sea salt cilantro, and lime juice). Michael Gonda, Chobani’s vice president of corporate communications, also points out that “everything you see has our yogurt incorporated, from the spreads on our sandwiches to our baked goods.” The Mediterranean-influenced restaurant sells a number of sandwiches made on simit, a Turkish bagel-like bread, all come topped with labne — strained yogurt cheese — made in-house from Chobani yogurt. The yogurt is even found in the café’s dessert options, like a rice pudding.

The same goes for both of Nestlé’s restaurants. Moro notes Nespresso uses its boutiques — which can be found in cities like New York City, Miami, and San Francisco — to showcase how its coffees can be transformed into other drinks (the boutiques recently offered a peanut butter-and-jelly coffee milkshake). “You can try the drink in stores… and then we teach you how to do it, so you can do it at home.” Nestlé Toll House Cafés also makes a number of items recombining well-known products: Bellah points to the chain’s Nestle Toll House Frappé, which blends coffee with its popular Toll House cookies. However, while Nestlé Toll House Cafés share the same parent company as Nespresso, it uses Nestlé’s lower-end coffee line, Nescafé instead.

When asked why the companies created each restaurant, the spokesperson for each brand could not stop iterating — in terms loaded with brand speak — that the restaurants are meant to bring a “new experience” to customers already familiar with the brands. When a customer walks into one of the restaurants, the product is whisked away from the context of a grocery store, a place that people typically visit during the humdrum of their daily lives. Instead, they eat the product in a way that’s elevated — in the case of Chobani yogurt, it’s served a heavy glass jar, topped with “chef-created” fresh toppings, and covered with a rustic cheesecloth — and all of a sudden, it’s now an experience worth talking about. Essentially, the restaurants are attempting to craft a Pinterest-friendly aspirational lifestyle brand, through a mix of healthy and fresh-looking recipes, well-thought-out design, and luxurious ingredients.

The majority of the branded restaurants feature distinct design that help set them apart from the grocery store. For the most part, the spaces and packaging are Instagram-friendly in the way that their grocery counterparts are not. Chobani SoHo features a large glass windows, rich dark wood, and the yogurts are served in glass containers. Nepresso’s boutiques often feature wall art crafted from the colorful coffee pods and plush leather furniture. Amy’s has managed to give itself a modern and cheery makeover at the Drive Thru. Schiefer explains that the restaurant is contained within a “physically unique building,” which features a solar-panel roof, a water tower replica with the logo in bright blue letters, plenty of light wood, and large sunny windows. While the frozen meal packaging is quite dated — its more likely to appeal to those who love burnt orange and a ’70s aesthetic — the restaurant packaging is rife with bright colors and a bevy of stripes.

The lifestyle angle also allows brands to create and sell items that they can’t necessarily package and put in stores. Chobani created the simit sandwiches for its café, as well as yogurt cups with fresh toppings. Amy’s Drive Thru has a number of restaurant-only dishes, like fresh salads, milkshakes, and fries, none of which have previously been available as a frozen options. And in addition to monthly coffee drink creations, certain Nespresso boutiques also serve wine, and sparkling water, the ultimate benchmark of luxury.

However, just because the item was created for the restaurant doesn’t mean that it can’t end up on store shelves. Chobani uses its SoHo cafê as a test kitchen and “incubation and innovation hub,” as Gonda likes to say. He tells Eater that the company takes advantage of being able to directly interact with customers, testing new ways to serve the yogurt. If the recipe proves popular, it often “ends up on supermarket shelves.” One such item is the Chobani Flip, which is a container of sweetened yogurt, packaged with a combination of “crunchy” toppings that customers “flip” into the yogurt. Gonda notes, that “most of our Flips are inspired by creations at the café.”

Even though Amy’s Drive Thru has only been open less than a month, it has already inspired a new frozen item. Inspired by a customer that would top macaroni and cheese with the brand’s canned chili, Amy’s decided to add a chili-topped macaroni and cheese to its not-so-secret secret menu. While the chili mac “is not an ‘official’ restaurant menu item, it became a popular special request.” So much so that the Amy’s decided “to make a Chili Mac as part of our Amy’s Kitchen range that we are launching soon.”

So are these restaurants actually just one big ongoing marketing stunt? While the companies will say no, the restaurants provide a brick-and-mortar counterpart to a brand’s social media profile — edited, filtered, and presented at just the right angle. It is a version of the brand that really only exists in that one, heavily curated, place. And that’s just how the brands like it — so much so that the companies will continue to open restaurants. Chobani “definitely” wants to build more cafés, Schiefer admits that Amy’s Drive Thru is a concept the company wants to “take further,” Nespresso plans to “continue to open [boutiques] in major cities,” and Bellah reveals that Nestlê Toll House Café is “on track” to open 43 new locations this year.

Grocery-brand restaurants are clearly a financially viable concept and here to stay.

*Abridged from an article by Khushbu Shah, www.eater.com

Mobility is Changing the Way Customers Dine Out

With mobile devices now becoming a rather permanent fixture in our day-to-day lives, it should come as no surprise that the need to stay connected is changing the way customers make their dining decisions. Check out these statistics to see how restaurants are approaching the changing needs of their customers.

* See more at: cbcommunity.comcast.com

Sophisticated Breads Rise On Menus

With many Americans now avoiding gluten, and a growing number of people eschewing most carbohydrates as they follow the paleo diet, bread is less of a meal staple and more of an indulgence. Consumers are also more sophisticated and discriminating, so when they do decide to have bread, they want it to be something special.

Jana Mann, senior director of menu research firm Datassential, said she’s seeing consumers gravitate toward breads that evoke a sense of freshness, that seem premium or are ethnically inspired.

Variety and choices are also important, observed Mark Mears, chief marketing officer of Schlotzsky’s Franchise LLC, which continues to expand beyond its classic sourdough bread to offer other varieties as well.

“Bread is the undisputed foundation of every great sandwich,” Mears said. “Guests are more discriminating than ever before. They know more about food and want to explore new flavor options.”

Apart from adding gluten-free rolls to the menu, Schlotzsky’s has added ciabatta, which Mears said is more suitable than sourdough for cold sandwiches, and thus appeals to some customers who order catering.

The 337-unit Schlotzsky’s, a subsidiary of Focus Brands, also is experimenting with focaccia, flatbreads and pretzel rolls which have enjoyed a rise in popularity in recent years.

Here’s a look at how restaurants are incorporating pretzel breads and four other fast-growing bread types onto menus:

Pretzel rolls:

Other than the catchall term “artisan,” “pretzel” is a fast growing bread descriptor on menus. Pretzel bread not only has an ethnic heritage that appeals to diners; it also has a nice combination of salty flavor offset by mild sweetness that can work across proteins.

Pretzels are traditionally dipped in a lye solution that causes the outside to brown deeply and more quickly while leaving the inside soft, moist and chewy.

Talera Rolls:

The appeal of ethnic fare also appears to be at the core of the recent growth of telera rolls, the soft, thick carrier for Mexican sandwiches called tortas. Telera rolls are on 245 percent more menus now compared with four years ago — the fastest growing bread in that time period — and 17 percent more menus in the past year, according to Datassential.

Chef Torano of CBD Provisions in Dallas says telera rolls classify as comfort food among Dallas’ large Mexican-American population.“Telera rolls are used here a lot in Dallas because of the demographic,” he said. “It’s very simple to create, but on top of that I think everyone is looking for something they grew up with, something that’s easily approachable and recognizable, and telera is one of the prime examples of that.”

The straightforward roll is made simply with flour, yeast, water and a little sugar and salt, although Torano adds some shortening to his for a softer crust.“It’s great on the griddle, too,” he said.

Los Angeles-based La Brea Bakery has seen so much demand for its telera rolls that it recently introduced a miniature one-ounce version.

Datassential’s Mann said other ethnic breads, from bao buns to Indian breads such as roti and naan, are being used to add slightly exotic character to familiar foods.

“Consumers can’t eat two things they don’t know, but pairing something unfamiliar with something familiar grounds it,” she said.

Conversely, she said some restaurants take familiar breads, like pizza dough, and top them with “all types of crazy ingredients,” whether it’s cheeses or veggies or sauces.

Brioche:

When it comes to premium bread, brioche rules the roost.

This rich, buttery egg bread from France is sprouting up with increasing frequency as a burger bun. But it’s traditionally a breakfast bread in France, according to Lionel Vatinet, chef of La Farm Bakery in Cary, N.C.

He said that although he used to only make this bread — which typically has a minimum butter-to-flour ratio of 50 percent — on special occasions, demand is now so high that he keeps it on the menu regularly.

Doug Taylor, the new corporate pastry chef of three-unit Salty’s Waterfront Seafood Grills, with locations in the Seattle area and in Portland, Ore., said he was hired in part so the restaurants could start baking its own bread.

Taylor said that although brioche is expensive to make because of the high butter content, it’s relatively easy to make and also easy to switch up its flavors. Most bread develops its flavor through slowly rising and fermenting, Taylor explained. But brioche is flavored directly by the fat, and since many flavor components are fat-soluble, brioche absorbs them easily.

Vatinet of La Farm normally flavors his with lemon zest, although for Mother’s Day he also adds dark chocolate and white chocolate. For savory brioche, he often adds thyme, rosemary or puréed garlic.

Lavash – Flatbread:

Relatively new to the trendy bread scene is the Middle Eastern flatbread lavash, which was on 20 percent more menus at the end of 2014 than at the beginning of the year, based on Datassential figures.

Although the term can refer to a variety of different breads, including soft, pliable ones, the type that seems to be catching on is more cracker-like.

Lavash was one of the first bread types Taylor began baking for Salty’s, along with brioche and multiseed, because it can be adapted easily.

“It’s an easy thing to change flavors,” he said. “You roll the dough out paper thin, which gives you a high yield. You can put sesame seed on one, peppers on another, different kinds of salt, poppy seeds [and] mustard seed,” he said. He bakes it in a 24-inch by 12-inch baking pan and then tears it into shards.

CBD Provisions’ Torano also makes lavash, but said that rolling it out is an arduous, labor-intensive process. Instead of including it in the restaurant’s tableside bread offerings, he has relegated it to his charcuterie board.

Rebecca Isbell, pastry chef of Betony in New York City, puts a fusion-style twist on the item, with her pretzel lavash.

“I wanted to give our guests something super delicious — crunchy, salty, kind of sweet and a little bitter, and earthy from a quick spray of lye,” she said.

She uses regular pretzel dough, lets it rise until it doubles in size, then rolls it out on sheet trays flipped upside down. She lets it proof until it triples in size, stretches it paper thin, allows it to dry a bit and sprays it with a 4-percent lye solution. She sprinkles it with fleur de sel and bakes it at 325 degrees Fahrenheit until it’s golden brown and crispy.

“They are pretty epic,” she said.

Walnut bread:

Walnut bread is spreading fast, too: Its menu presence has risen 92 percent in the past four years, according to Datassential.

Part of that spread might be due to the growing popularity of cheese and charcuterie boards. That’s where Florian Wehrli, chef of Triomphe at the Iroquois hotel in New York City, uses it. Triomphe makes a dense rye bread studded with walnuts.

He makes a dense rye bread from the Swiss canton of Valais, for which he uses his own starter and no other yeast. He uses 100-percent rye flour with no wheat added. He kneads it briefly and then adds walnut halves, forms it into loaves and bakes it. He serves it thinly sliced.

“I like it with a little plain butter on top, but with cheese or some charcuterie, with some fat content on top, it’s also good. In Switzerland, we have a lot of good cheese, so it’s perfect.”

Rabii Saber, executive pastry chef of the Four Seasons Resort Orlando in Orlando, Fla., makes a cranberry-walnut bread for his cheese plates. He makes dense bread out of whole-wheat flour and cracked oats, sweetened with a little honey. “It’s a very rustic, country-style loaf of bread,” he said.

“Walnuts are a little bit different than other nuts because they have a little more fat content, so when you mix them in the dough they give it a rich flavor,” Saber said. Like most chefs who add fruit or nuts to their dough, Saber adds the walnuts and cranberries after the bread has risen, so it doesn’t affect the bread’s development.

* Abridged from an article by Bret Thorn at [email protected] , Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary

Wine Trend Spotting – Key Themes To Watch

The wine world, while steeped in tradition, is far from stagnant. Innovations from commerce and culture find their way into wine product development, leading to new experiences for consumers and new opportunities for producers.

At the recent Wine Vision conference in London, two leading lights in wine trend-spotting: Lulie Halstead, co-founder and CEO of Wine Intelligence and an expert on wine consumer behavior, and Mandy Saven, head of food, beverage and hospitality at Stylus, identified the four trends below as key themes to watch.

Fusion: In the food world, “Fusion” suggests a combination of two or more unique styles to create something new. It appeals to the risk-averse, because it incorporates elements with which people are already familiar.

Numerous speakers at Wine Vision argued that Gen Y is more cautious and less experimental than preceding generations. Halstead thinks fusion in the wine world will rise in popularity because it lets new wine drinkers mitigate risk by building upon their existing levels of trust.

The new Downton Abbey wine is one example. It mashes up a UK television and cultural concept with a U.S.-conceived brand extension into wine—and a Bordeaux wine at that. Plus, the product is slated for major distribution, including retail expansion in China.

Feel-good: The health and well-being craze has reshaped the food and beverage industry over the last decades, and wine hasn’t been immune. Saven cited how wine has been marketed as a health choice through product innovations like reduced-calorie offerings, intolerance protection, and super-fruit enhancement.

Yet Feel-good is a broader term that also incorporates food safety and origin, and both of these are prime concerns in European and Asian markets. Consumers want to feel positive about a company, including its ethics, corporate social responsibility, and branding. Will they pay more for such feel-good attributes? That’s a matter of debate, but momentum is growing, with countries like Sweden boasting 12.7% organic products on their shelves.

In wine, Feel-good also translates into organic, biodynamic, and low-sulfur options, along with the ethics of “drinking local.” It’s also about charitable causes, like the wines from Nomacorc customer One Hope, in which half of all profits are donated to its non-profit partners—totaling more than $1.3 million to date.

Freehold: Content overload is a hurdle for brands trying to gain consumer mindshare. To be memorable, brands must be both distinctive and inspirational. Now, brands must also incite people to share their content with friends and network connections. “Freehold” refers to the mindshare earned when brand touch-points are shared and influence others beyond the initial target.

Gaining Freehold requires brands to develop sharable content—short, memorable and concise—and to leverage cultural icons and themes so the material has broader appeal. This lets brands ignite a community of engagement, enhancing mindshare and stickiness.

Coppola Winery, for example, has used memorabilia and other Hollywood assets from The Godfather to generate interest and drive traffic to their tasting room. And a growing number of wine-related projects are popping up on community funding sites like Kickstarter, which give contributors a stake in the project and rewards engagement with a signed book or a unique experience. Alder Yarrow funded the production of his recent book, The Essence of Wine, via this channel.

Fit: If we think of the wine world as a pyramid, its foundation (and the biggest segment) is value, the middle tier is mass, and the elite pinnacle is luxury. With this model in mind, we can think of Fit as the brand’s suitability to the demands of each tier—its fitness for both purpose and audience—and the effort needed to occupy that niche or expand into others.

But the pyramid’s traditional tiers are becoming more permeable, and younger drinkers are the ones driving the shift. They tend to spend more than their older counterparts on a bottle of wine—when they want a particular experience. In other words, they’re willing to reach from value into luxury when they can get a great price to quality ratio.

Also, although many wine labels aspire to be luxury, the reality is that most aren’t. They need to find ways to acknowledge their strengths and market them to consumers. For example, the subtle and complex concept of terroir isn’t prevalent in the mass and value categories. However, these categories can embrace the idea of a wine style—big and bold, or light and fresh—and address it through a story on a back label. And as in many consumer goods categories, the more simple and relevant the story, the stronger the connection with the audience.

 * Abridged from an article by Katie Meyers, Nomacorc.com

Restaurants Need To Improve Labor Productivity

Labor costs are a growing concern for the restaurant industry. Numerous restaurant company executives are saying that labor costs are an increasing problem. And more operators are saying they’re struggling to find good workers.

Hudson Riehle, head of the research and knowledge group at the National Restaurant Association, said that employee recruitment is a growing worry for operators. According to the NRA, 12 percent of operators in April said that recruiting employees was their top concern.

A year ago, he said, only 4 percent of operators considered recruitment was their top concern.

Employee recruitment concerns have come as restaurants have expanded and added new employees. The industry has been adding jobs at a rapid clip in recent months as operators add new units and expand existing locations.

But that expansion is coming with a price in the form of higher wages. In addition, it has drawn activists pushing for higher wages. State governments are raising minimum wages. And it’s possible, albeit unlikely, that Congress could get in on the act.

The answer for the industry may be labor productivity.

Riehle, at the NRA Show, noted that restaurants average $84,000 in sales per worker. By comparison, grocers average $304,000. Gas stations average $855,000. Both of those industries compete with restaurants for food away from home.

“Going forward, this will have to change,” Riehle said. “If you look at the history of labor productivity in the industry, it has not been good.”

It’s not easy for restaurants to increase labor efficiency. The industry has a significant service element. Many restaurant consumers are looking for high service levels that they won’t get eating at home. Reducing labor can risk that. In addition, the industry has also been generally shy about adapting technology.

But there are emerging technologies that can make restaurants more efficient. Tabletop tablets making their way across the casual dining sector could enable restaurants to ultimately reduce wait staff.

Perhaps kiosks, or smartphone apps, or some other technologies we don’t know of yet could finally improve labor efficiency in the industry. Indeed, McDonald’s executives note that as they work to improve speed of service in their restaurants, they can use technology to accomplish that even while keeping the company’s enormous menu.

If the industry can find ways to improve productivity, it could pay higher wages even while keeping labor costs under control by employing fewer, better workers.

*Abridged from a story in Nation’s Restaurant News, May 2015 , nrn.com