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Archive | September, 2010

Menu Trends: Restaurants Are Introducing A South American Super Crop

Quinoa The South American Super CropThis is a story about how an Incan super crop is starting to take over health food stores and trendy restaurants in the U.S.  The rest of the world is already on board with this mysterious super plant; we’re just now catching up.

What’s so great about this plant?  Well, it doesn’t rot, doesn’t need refrigeration, is a complete protein but is dairy and gluten free, and is rich in important vitamins like iron, magnesium, and riboflavin.  It’s easy to cook and also very affordable.

So what’s the name of this super crop?  Quinoa is a grain from South America that was once cultivated by the Incas.  It’s been around in the U.S. for 20 years, but has only very recently started to gain momentum among professional chefs.

That momentum, however, has started to reach terminal velocity.  Quinoa is very versatile from a cook’s perspective, and its ability to absorb the spices with which it’s cooked means it can be prepared in an infinite number of ways.

Give a chef an opportunity to get creative with a new ingredient that’s hearty and healthy, and you won’t need a second explanation.  That’s precisely why quinoa has started popping up in restaurants across the country.

Quinoa is available in white, red, and black varieties and also comes in flour and cereal form.  I guess it’s not called a super crop for nothing.

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The Birth of Interactive Dining

If you’ve been to The Back Burner before, then you’ve heard me talk about one of the hottest culinary trends of the past year: so-called “underground” fine dining.  This movement started on the West Coast and has quickly spread to most of the major cities in America.  Each version is different, but all underground dining shares some common threads, including multi-course prix fixe meals served in an unusual location that has been temporarily transformed.  These locations are usually kept secret and breaking onto the guest list often takes monumental effort.

Part of the allure and sense of adventure associated with these events revolves around the secrecy and the surprise of enjoying a menu you know nothing about in a place you’ve never known.  But what if you were asked to strap on an apron and get to work prepping veggies and expediting appetizers after you finally got on the list and found the latest secret location?

The founders of A Razor, a Shiny Knife expect exactly that from their guests, and that’s after the $300-per-couple fee for the privilege of attending.  The crazy thing is, guests absolutely love it.  Events put on by this group are part theater, part cooking show, and a healthy dose of modern cooking in its finest form.

Between theatrical performances that educate guests about everything from the finer points of handling a knife to incorporating liquid nitrogen into your culinary arsenal, a beautiful multi-course meal is prepared and served, mostly by the guests themselves.

Combining the interactivity of a cooking show with the adventurous spirit of the underground dining movement has proven to be a potent combination.  A Razor, a Shiny Knife has events booked in L.A., along the East Coast, and even South America.

As culinary pioneers continue to break down the last vestiges of the coat-and-tie dining experience, the reach of modern cooking and all its molecular gastronomy weirdness is starting to reach the masses.  This times perfectly with the rise of the celebrity chef, and the natural extension of this trend is the desire to emulate the likes of Gordon Ramsay.

A Razor, a Shiny Knife has ushered in a new era of guest involvement with their food that will undoubtedly work its way through the entire food service industry in the years to come.

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The Power & Money Behind Drink Sales in Your Restaurant

restaurant beverage trendsThe quantity, variety, and quality of non-alcoholic drinks available in restaurants has grown exponentially in just a few years.  This trend isn’t an accident –  according to a recent study by Technomic, 86% of consumers purchased a beverage somewhere in July 2010.  That’s a lot of smoothies and coffees.

Big chain restaurants have been quick to take advantage of this trend, and it’s meant big successes even in a grumpy economy.  McDonald’s Real Fruit Smoothies sold so fast this summer they had to shorten the promotional period for the new item.  And that’s just the most obvious example – just about every major national chain is doing something with specialty drink promotions and customers are responding.

The beauty of drink promotions is their simplicity.  For independents, coming up with some interesting specialty drinks can be pretty easy and cost-efficient.  Add some aggressive pricing during happy hours and lunch and you’ve got a great way to generate some word-of-mouth buzz with customers.

The traditional strategy of drink promos has been to lure ‘em with great-tasting drinks and hook ‘em into staying for a meal – or at least an appetizer.  But Technomic’s beverage trends study reveals that more and more consumers are going out just for non-alcoholic drinks, and restaurants that cater to this new behavior stand to lock in a solid new revenue stream.

Unfortunately, there isn’t deeper analysis into the beverage-only dining trend (at least not in the free press release), like who  these premium drink consumers are or what time of day they prefer.  That said, it’s probably a safe bet to promo your new premium drinks at lunch and during late afternoon/early evening.

As for the kinds of drinks to serve, two types are by far the most popular: coffee based (both hot and cold) and fruit restaurant beverage trendsbased.  A little culinary creativity can yield some pretty unique drinks in both categories, and if premium (preferably local) ingredients are used, so much the better.

Changing your restaurant’s perspective on beverages from an add-on to the entrees you’d prefer to be selling to a central money-maker in their own right will yield a productive new revenue stream.  Your customers are already making that move, and it’s time for you to follow suit.

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4 Steps For Building An Effective Sustainability Plan For Your Restaurant

Sustainable restaurantsMaking the decision to make your restaurant a more sustainable operation has gotten considerably easier in the last few years.  That’s because as consumer awareness grows there are more and more benefits associated with “green” restaurants.  If you’re in doubt, simply look at the National Restaurant Association’s sustainability efforts, or see how Chipotle has succeeded in a down economy without significantly lowering their prices.

If you’ve set a sustainability goal for yourself, then the next thing you need is a plan.  How are you going to make your operation more sustainable?  What are the areas that can provide the maximum benefit with the least amount of investment?  How do you plan to market your efforts to your customers?  All are good questions, and you’d better have answers before you start spending time and money.

Here’s four steps to get you started towards a greener, more profitable future:

Improve energy efficiency. In most restaurants, this is the easiest place to cut costs with minimal investment.  The added bonus is that you get to tell your customers how committed to sustainability you are after you’ve cut energy bills.  Simple improvements like training your staff to manage equipment efficiently, cutting heating and cooling bills, and investing in energy efficient water heating can make a huge difference.

Of course, every restaurant is different, and the strategies that work in your restaurant aren’t going to work somewhere else.  When you’re making your sustainability plan, identify where you can improve efficiency then estimate how much you’ll save on future bills versus how much it will cost you to implement your plan.

Come up with a program. Another key to a successful sustainability plan for your restaurant is figuring out ways to reduce waste.  Recycling and composting programs are the two most common ways to address this.  Unfortunately, unlike energy efficiency improvements these waste reduction programs are either cost neutral or increase your operating expenses.

That doesn’t mean they don’t provide benefits.  The public relations mileage you can get out of a good recycling or composting program can prove invaluable.  Remind customers you recycle or compost waste.  The local newspaper in your neighborhood is also another great way to get the word out about your program.  Newspapers run stories like this all the time, and it can be great free advertising.

Change your buying habits. You’re a consumer just like everybody else.  The purchasing decisions you make for your restaurant say a lot about how you run your business.  Making sustainable decisions will also make your operation a lot greener.

Some places to start:

Don’t be bashful – talk about yourself! Implementing a successful sustainability plan doesn’t do you a bit of good if no one knows about the hard work and money you’ve invested.  As you put this plan into action, don’t be afraid to tell everyone you can think of about what you’re doing.

This isn’t just a one-time announcement.  Your sustainability plan will likely take some time to implement, and you should turn that effort into an ongoing conversation with anyone who will listen, especially customers.  Use multiple channels ranging from banners in the front of the house to social media to announce your new, sustainable self to the world.

You’ll be amazed how interested people will be in what you’re doing.

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