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Archive | Restaurant Trends and News

Keep up to date on restaurant and food service industry news and trends, from serious analysis to more lighthearted fare.

What Kind Of Website Is Hurting Restaurants The MOST??

SURVEY IS OVER.

5 years ago Facebook was in its infancy.  Twitter was a year away from conception.  Yelp was no more than the apple in the eye of a creative Silicone Valley entrepreneur.  And Groupon was still 3 years away from development! In 5 short years the restaurant marketing landscape has changed.  These sites and many more have changed the way the game is played – and many restaurateurs have had both good and bad experiences trying to keep up with the unrelenting pace of technology.

That’s why The Back Burner wants to know: which websites are helping you?  Which are hurting your business?

Take the short, 1 minute survey and tell us what you think!

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Is The Restaurant Dead?

You know the old saying: “desperate times call for desperate measures.”  The past two years have certainly been a rough time for the food service industry, and even though things are looking up now, the lean times have left an indelible stamp on which way the industry is trending.

In lean times the most efficient restaurant is the most likely to survive, and increasingly restaurateurs all over the country have taken to moving their operations outside of the traditional restaurant setting.  This trend has been propelled by many more factors than just the economics of opening and maintaining a traditional restaurant space, to be sure. But it’s undeniable that the downturn got a lot of influential chefs in the industry to start rethinking the fundamental assumptions of the business, like spending inordinate amounts of money to develop and stock a full-blown restaurant. This has resulted in some revolutionary ideas that have since become some of the hottest trends in the business, like the Kogi Taco Truck in L.A. and the “underground” fine dining movement that germinated in San Francisco and has since taken the country by storm.

Now a growing number of chefs are thinking short term when it comes to defining their next project, and stripping all the trappings of a concept down to the bare bones.  A great example was featured in The New York Times recently: What Happens When is a restaurant that opened last week on a nine-month lease in New York’s SoHo district.

Conventional wisdom says it’s pure folly to sink a ton of cash into a location that won’t be around all that long.  But everything about What Happens When is unconventional.  Used furniture, a short-stocked bar on a mobile cart, and replacement flatware in drawers beneath the tables are all ways in which this restaurant plans to save cash.

In addition, the building in which the restaurant plans to reside has been condemned, so rent is cheap (at least by New York standards).

The short lifespan of this restaurant has a certain freedom to it – with low overhead and a Spartan setting, What Happens When can focus on what’s truly important – the food.

So is the traditional restaurant, with a carefully groomed dining area and state-of-the-art kitchen, dead?  As more and more restaurateurs find new and creative venues to showcase their food, the conventional restaurant will certainly seem like more trouble than it’s worth.

As long as customers continue to enjoy the idea of stripping the dining experience down to the food at the expense of atmosphere, keep a careful eye on how restaurants in more traditional spaces compete with these leaner and much meaner upstarts.

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The Holidays Are Coming: Is Your Restaurant Going To Give Back?

The Holidays Are Coming: Is Your Restaurant Going To Give Back?As the holidays approach, giving back to the community is something that should be important to any business, and not just as a shameless marketing ploy.  Being authentic about your business’ involvement in charity is something that only time and commitment can communicate.  Having a genuine passion for charity work is a huge plus, and well-run businesses of any type aren’t shy about showing it.

But all too often it’s easy to get swept up in busy schedules and the hectic day-to-day effort that comes with running a restaurant.  It’s not that you don’t have the passion, it’s that you don’t know where to start.  Here’s two ideas for jump starting your involvement in the community during the best time of year: Christmas.

Hold a food drive. This is a great way to get butts in seats, engage your customers in the charity work you’re doing, and do something a little more meaningful than writing a check, all at the same time.  The concept is pretty simple: give a percentage point discount off the final bill for every pound of non-perishable food your customers bring in during a designated dinner rush.

This concept is great because it works on so many levels.  Customers are happy because they feel like they participated in the event, plus they get a discount.  You get to make a big show out of weighing the goods and talking about how much food you collected for needy families.  And underneath it all, feeding hungry people at Christmastime is truly a worthy cause.

Donate surplus food to the Food Donation Connection. Sponsored by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), the Food Donation Connection takes surplus food from restaurants and gives it to local food banks in a timely way so that it feeds people before spoilage.  The NRA ‘s partnership with Food Donation Connection is a perfect opportunity for any restaurant to get involved with a great cause.

No matter how you decide to give back to your community, make it a priority this holiday season.  Yes, it’s an especially effective method for marketing your restaurant.  But on another level, a well-run charity program has reward all its own.

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Is ZapHour A Groupon Killer?

Is ZapHour A Groupon Killer?Ever since Google tried to buy Groupon for a reported $1 billion last year the buzz has been incessant around the group discount site.  Now, with rumors flying about a public offering later this year and more big tech companies trying to get into the Internet coupon game, it seems that the only people not all that excited about all the hype are those in the food service industry.

That’s because it’s hard to find a restaurant that has good things to say about their experiences with Groupon.  The discounts are steep, the customers usually never come back after they redeem their coupon, and restaurants run the risk of upsetting regular customers when the house is packed with one-timers.

The problems presented by Groupon for restaurateurs prompted a Portland, OR owner to create his own coupon site, called ZapHour.  The site functions a lot like popular travel industry sites like Hotwire.com in that it addresses a perennial restaurant problem: how to get butts in seats NOW, when it’s slow, not on Saturday night, which has been booked for months already?

ZapHour does this by letting restaurants be very specific with their offers.  Unlike Groupon, which decides the discount amount and usually makes coupons redeemable for a full year after issue, ZapHour lets a business owner create deals for a short time frame on specific days that can only be redeemed a certain number of times.

That means if you’re really slow on Tuesday night, you can send out a coupon for that night and try to drum up some quick business.  On Friday, when you’ve got a packed house of full-paying regulars, you don’t have to worry about a bunch of foodie nomads armed with 50% off coupons clogging your tables.

The site has signed on 12 food service businesses in the Portland area so far and has a patent pending for the concept. What have your experiences with Groupon been like?  Would you support a ZapHour concept if it was available in your area?

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The Time To Upgrade Restaurant Equipment Has Come

The Time To Upgrade Restaurant Equipment Has ComeThere’s always some good reasons for upgrading your kitchen’s restaurant equipment: better energy efficiency, better performance, increased ease-of-use, increased output, etc. There’s always an equally pressing reason why you try to get one more year out of that same equipment: money doesn’t grow on trees, and there’s plenty of other costs your restaurant faces.

That’s understandable.  But if there ever was a time to buy restaurant equipment, that time is now.  Food service industry revenue forecasts are up, the newest equipment is more energy efficient than ever, and to top it all off, a recently passed bill will let you write off up to $500,000 in equipment purchases through 2011, meaning you get a tax credit now instead of depreciating bit-by-bit over the next ten years.

Of course, you’ll want to conduct a total cost analysis before you make the decision to buy, but when you factor in all those tax write-offs, that decision can sure be a compelling one.

Get more info about this tax credit here.

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Brazilian Chef Recognized On The International Stage

Chef Alex Atala, son of Lebanese immigrants and raised in Brazil, is himself a blending of cultures separated by huge geographical distances and divergent attitudes.  Perhaps this is why he is perfectly suited to bring the flavors of Brazil to global prominence.

Chef Atala achieved recognition by creating a hybrid cuisine from two very different worlds.  After receiving formal training in Europe, Atala returned to Brazil and began applying the French and Italian techniques he had learned to Brazilian ingredients like banana, maracuja (Passion Fruit), and tangerine. The result has been a refreshing, tropical take on traditional dishes like ravioli, mushroom consommé, and breaded oysters that has earned the rising chef an international name.

The tireless Atala has expanded to a new restaurant, called Dalva e Dito, which opened this January less than a block away from the legendary D.O.M.  The new restaurant features all the best dishes of Atala’s Euro-Amazonian cuisine, served tableside family style, just like a traditional French restaurant. The globalization of culinary techniques, ingredients, and flavors has led to unusual pairings like Atala’s Brazilian fare, with fascinating results.  A new generation of worldly chefs are creating exciting new cuisine that hails from very different cultures.  If the results are as delicious as Chef Atala’s, then the world is in for a golden age in fine dining.

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Restaurants Use Nutrition Info To Add Value For Customers

Restaurants Use Nutrition Info To Add Value For CustomersIn a world of discounts, something besides price has to get your customers in the door.  It’s the new reality facing the food service industry these days, and many restaurants have already started devising ways to go the extra mile for customers.

Soon enough restaurants will be required to post nutrition information about each item they serve.  Study after study has shown that consumers prefer to have nutritional information available about the dishes they order – whether that information is good news for their diet or not.

Some restaurants have taken the trend towards healthier menu items and nutrition labeling and used it as a way to add value for their customers.  Moon Under Water, a restaurant in St. Petersburg, FL developed a computer program that allows you to punch in your meal and get back a full report of nutritional data about your choices.

The program doesn’t mean the restaurant’s high-calorie items don’t sell anymore, or that customers have been turned off by the numbers on their favorite dishes.  Instead, putting the program together helped Moon Under Water’s owner find some particularly unhealthy ingredients, like high sodium stocks, and replace them with healthier substitutes.  Many customers were surprised by the relatively low calorie counts of the dishes they ordered.

Mod Market, an eatery located in Boulder, CO, adds nutritional information to the items customers ordered on their receipt.  The restaurant is focused on fresh, healthy offerings, and adding calorie counts to the receipt gives them an opportunity to remind customers what they’re getting (or not getting, in the case of calories) out of a Mod Market meal.

These two restaurants gain two things from making nutritional information an after-meal interactive experience for customers.  First, it’s a way to showcase the menu and reinforce your brand in the mind of the customer.  Second, it gives restaurants a fresh look on their menus.  What items are customers ordering despite the high calorie count (“indulgence” items)?  Which items are customers choosing because they work into their diets well?  This gives you a third factor besides price and taste to rate your menu.

Naturally, providing nutrition information in the way Moon Under Water and Mod Market are doing doesn’t make sense for every segment of the food service industry.  But if you serve a customer who sees a real benefit in knowing the nutritional information associated with the dishes they ordered, providing a creative, interactive way for them to access this information is a great way to  add value to every visit.

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Does The Rise of the Spanish Mean the Death Of French Cuisine?

Does The Rise of the Spanish Mean the Death Of French Cuisine?French food has always been the gold standard in fine dining.  Over the years the fusion of French cuisine with flavors from around the world has bred a culture of ingenuity and dynamism that helped perpetuate French style cooking as the center for culinary excellence.  But recently some trends have started pointing in other directions, and author Michael Steinberger even argues in a new book that the decline of French cuisine will lead to the rise of Spanish fare.

Stepping into the opening void is internationally renowned Spanish chef David Munoz, whose Asian/Spanish fusion restaurant in Madrid, Spain has earned wide accolades and remains booked months in advance.  Munoz is a devout follower of Asian style cooking, and has turned in time at prestigious Asian fusion restaurants like Nobu of London.  The result of his obsession with Asian cuisine is exciting and fresh Spanish style dishes heavily seasoned with the rich flavors of the Orient.

Spanish chefs and new Spanish-themed restaurants have been gaining notoriety in major U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles.  For David Munoz, Spanish cuisine is less about Spain and more about combining flavors from all over the world to create exciting new cuisine.  And maybe the new found trendiness of Spanish food has less to do with the decline of the French and more to do with a new willingness by diners and chefs alike to try new combinations and types of flavors and foods.  In an increasingly globalized world, it seems the domination of the French is giving way to the fusion of the rest of the world’s cooking styles.

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Bars and Restaurants Using Spotters To Increase Profits

Bars and Restaurants Using Spotters To Increase ProfitsA bar spotter, or “nightclub secret shopper,” is a person sent into a bar by the owner or manager to conduct a secret quality control review of bar staff.  Spotters carefully observe bartenders and other employees, watching for telltale signs of theft and misconduct.  Most spotters were once bartenders themselves, and understand the industry and how it works.  Many companies across the U.S. have sprung up in recent years to meet the rising demand of restaurants and bars for spotters.

The worst thing a bartender can do is give away drinks for free by never ringing up the sale or just pocketing the cash.  Only about 10% of bartenders are caught stealing, however.  Most bar owners get a lot more value out of the other things a bar spotter watches for during their visit, like generous pours on drinks, failing to upsell customers on top shelf brands, and long wait times.

In general, bartenders are making a lot less than they used to from tips as patrons dial back on bar visits.  This has led many of them to try to earn tips in creative ways, like giving customers an extra long pour.  The drink rings up the same for the owner, however, and that costs the bar money.  And if bartenders simply push out well drinks whenever someone orders a rum and coke instead of asking the customer what kind of rum they would like, that’s costing bars money too.

For bar owners, revenue is down as well.  Many have found that the solution, counter-intuitive as it may be, is to spend money on a bar spotter to identify places where thin profits are leaking out.  Hiring a bar spotter isn’t cheap, often running into the hundreds of dollars per visit, but the invaluable information you can gain from having an anonymous person observe your bar staff has proven to be more than worth the cost.

Finding a bar spotting company is relatively easy.  Just type “bar spotter” into a Google search and you’ll find several companies that offer services across the country.

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Why Chipotle’s Food With Integrity Is Good Business

Everybody in the food service industry is talking about locally sourced food these days.  The National Restaurant Association has called local,organic and sustainable ingredients one of the biggest trends of 2010, and consumers have defied logic by proving they are willing to pay more for better quality.

The Mexican-themed chain Chipotle has carved a niche out of the higher end of the fast-casual market by holding themselves to a higher standard the company calls “Food With Integrity.”  Fresh local produce has always been a focus for Chipotle, even before the concept had the widespread appeal it enjoys today. With 900 locations and 2.5 million customers a week, Chipotle’s commitment to quality, sustainable ingredients makes it a driving force in the organic food market.  But perhaps the most important contribution they’ve made to the organic movement in general is the education of consumers. The fruits of that education process can be seen in the loyalty of Chipotle’s customers to the brand, despite the menu’s noticeably higher price point.  The difference in taste and quality has shown consumers the value of high quality ingredients.

Now local fresh organic ingredients has turned into a major movement within the food service industry.  More and more restaurants have started responding to consumer demand, and that only reinforces Chipotle’s leadership role as one of the pioneers in organic ingredient sourcing. Many independent restaurants have marketed locally sourced, sustainable  ingredients on their menus with great success.  If you’re considering adding such ingredients to your restaurant’s menu, keep a couple things in mind:

Tell people about it! Chipotle has done a masterful job of associating their brand name with organic ingredients and local sourcing.  Their customers know before they ever walk through the door exactly how Chipotle sources their ingredients, and those customers don’t even flinch at the cash register. It’s vital that you get the word out about your menu’s organic and locally sourced ingredients.  More than likely those ingredients are going to force you into a higher price point, and when your customers see this they had better know exactly why.  Once they understand the quality of your ingredients (and taste the difference), they’ll accept your higher price point.

Take full advantage of better quality.
Better ingredients means a higher price, but it should also mean a much better taste.  Now is your opportunity to get really creative with your dishes and make sure your organic ingredients really shine. A great way to do this is to create dishes and recipes around a centerpiece organic ingredient.  For instance, if you’re sourcing organic chicken from a local farm, say so on the menu first, then create a dish that perfectly compliments that chicken breast and makes it the centerpiece of the entrée.

Give customers the option. Especially when you’re first venturing into the world of organic ingredients, give customers the option between more traditional fare and your exciting new entrees.  You don’t want to alienate your regulars with more expensive (albeit much better) dishes.  Instead, entice them into tasting the difference with some well placed specials and then watch them convert to your new approach.

The success of Chipotle has proven that customers will buy into the concept of better food for a higher price.  Independent operators can really take advantage of the education pioneers like Chipotle have provided consumers in general to enhance their menu with ingredients that are better tasting, better for the environment, and still great for the bottom line.

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