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4 Things You Can Learn From Restaurant Chains

4 Hot Restaurant TrendsBig operators like Chili’s, Applebees, The Cheesecake Factory, and others are always looking for ways to improve taste and customer experience while increasing efficiency.  These companies spend a lot of money every year in research and development, and studying the trends that come out of the big chain restaurant’s R&D can be very informative.

Here are four trends on the rise in the food service industry:

1.  Maximizing ingredients. Inventory control is vital to managing what is typically the second largest monthly expense for any restaurant: food.  The more inventory you have, the harder it is to control, and that is the idea behind using the same ingredients in multiple menu items.  That makes purchasing, regulating temperature, and managing First In First Out (FIFO) practices much, much easier.

2. Diversifying menus. Culinary fusion has long been the norm in fine dining, and now this trend has gone mainstream.  American diners have been exposed to a much more diverse range of ethnic foods than ever before, and restaurant chains are bringing in new and exotic flavors and styles because their customers are much more familiar with the world’s cuisine.Jumping on the Gastropub Bandwagon

3. Jumping on the gastropub bandwagon. The success over the past two decades of “gastropubs,” or beer pubs that also serve high quality menu items, has grabbed the attention of menu developers for large chains.  It’s also changed customer expectations when they see a menu.  Potatoes, meat, and other standard pub fare isn’t good enough anymore, and many chains have responded by offering an increasingly diverse and higher quality menu selection.

4. Sweet & Spicy and Sweet & Salty. Adding a kick to new menu items has become a popular trend as chefs expand the flavor horizons of their guests with unique combinations.  Contrasting flavor combinations give simple menu items like salads or appetizers a fresh tasting kick.

These trends seem to reveal a food service industry that reflecting the times in which we live: unprecedented globalization and cultural integration has opened the palates of the average American diner, and if a restaurant can bring fresh takes and flavors to classic dishes, that’s a recipe for success.  Of course, figuring out how to do that while managing to keep inventory under strict control is how you make money here.  Finding that balance is any restaurateur’s challenge, and mastering it is the key.

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Sardines: Sustainable AND Delectable??

Sardines Can Be A Sustainable Seafood OptionSardines don’t exactly evoke thoughts of fine seafood to most Americans.  Instead, many think of tin cans packed with greasy, mushy fish and some kind of sauce.  Growing up, I only ate sardines on camping trips, and then only reluctantly.  I doubt anyone would look at sardines on the menu and think “That looks good!”

But in fact fresh sardines can be delectable.  Long a favorite fish on Mediterranean menus, sardines can be grilled and then served with lemon and olive oil, mixed with pasta sauces, baked, or braised.  Americans on the west coast are rediscovering the lowly sardine since local populations have made a comeback in places like Monterey Bay.  During the 1950s, chronic overfishing caused the collapse of the fishery, and sardines have taken years to recover.  Now fish merchants are selling sardines to local restaurants at a brisk pace.

Customers who try sardines will be surprised by the taste and happy about the abundant omega-3 fatty acids, which are a very healthy addition to any diet.  But the best part about sardines is the sustainability of the fishery.  The sardines living in the waters off the Californian coast are carefully managed, with only three short fishing seasons allowed every year, and the fish has been certified sustainable by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.

That means restaurants can get the best of all worlds: marketing a great tasting fish that comes from a sustainable population and is healthy to eat.  As other once-popular fish selections like orange roughy, swordfish, and grouper decline because of overfishing and mercury contamination, once snubbed fish like the sardine start to look much more appealing.

Consumers value healthy, “green” menu choices.  And while the sardine probably won’t hit menus nationwide, the story is an encouraging one.  Surely more smart menu choices like the sardine await restaurateurs willing to look.

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Man Blames 9 Foot Tapeworm on Chicago Restaurant

After eating a fish salad at a Chicago restaurant, in which he claims the salmon was undercooked, a man developed a nine-foot-long tapeworm.  The restaurant denies they are responsible for the man’s unwelcome gastronomic guest.

After eating a fish salad at a Chicago restaurant, in which he claims the salmon was undercooked, a man developed a nine-foot-long tapeworm.  The restaurant denies they are responsible for the man’s unwelcome gastronomic guest.

The man is, of course, suing.  In general, however, scientists are concerned with a growing trend across the world: tapeworms are multiplying.  The phenomenon is mostly blamed on the new popularity of ceviche and sashimi in the West.  Tapeworm larvae resides in fish meat, and if it’s eaten uncooked, it can result in the parasite multiplying in whoever ate the infested fish. It is recommended to eat only cooked fish to avoid picking up an unwelcome house guest.  If you are going to eat raw fish, make sure it comes from a reputable restaurant and watch for symptoms resulting from parasite infestation: weight loss, a lack of energy, etc.

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Fish Fraud: Tempting, But Definitely Not Worth It

Customers love ordering good fish when they go out to eat.  Species with powerful name recognition like orange roughy, grouper, and salmon are great sellers on the menu and can be found in restaurants across the country.  But are consumers getting exactly what they pay for?  Some fish species, especially those with a light white meat, can be interchanged fairly easily without the knowledge of the customer.

It’s an age-old trick in the food service industry, and a recent undercover report by local television stations in four cities found that mislabeling fish species may be more prevalent than anyone imagined.  The practice has been dubbed “fish fraud,” and it has been an ongoing problem.  A study from the ‘90s revealed that 37% of fish served in restaurants was mislabeled.  And many industry experts believe the rate has gone up since then.

The most recent spate of reports about fish fraud were conducted by Scripps television stations in Kansas City, Phoenix, Baltimore, and Tampa.  The most common mislabeling involves farm raised tilapia and catfish sold as grouper or orange roughy and farm raised salmon sold as wild caught salmon.  Naturally, the farm raised species cost a restaurant pennies on the dollar compared to coveted wild species.  The restaurants in these four cities were busted after undercover reporters conducted DNA tests on samples of the fish they were served.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to regulate fish served in restaurants.  Enforcement of fish fraud violations have been described as lax at best.  Of course, the embarrassment of being caught on local TV is a powerful reprimand for any restaurant, but the opposite draw of making huge margins by charging $20 or more for a fish entrée that costs $2 – $3 a pound makes even the risk of getting caught seem small.Salmon

From a pure business point of view, the short term gains that come from making a high margin through mislabeled fish entrees is more than offset by the risk to your restaurant’s reputation.  As I have been emphasizing on this blog for the last few months, and what has been emphasized in the restaurant industry in general, is that customer loyalty is what gets restaurants through tough economic times.  And fish fraud doesn’t tend to build loyalty.  Sometimes it’s much better to take the long view when it comes to the reputation of your establishment.

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Menu Trends: Native American Fry Bread

Native American Fry BreadIn tough times, people always rely on familiar, basic foods to get them through.  Trends in the restaurant industry so far in 2009 have borne out this truism.  For Native Americans, the equivalent of chicken soup and hamburgers is Indian fry bread, a staple in their diets for 150 years, dating back to the days when they had little else to eat as they were driven from their lands by settlers.

A local restaurant, though not in Boulder, is the subject of this Spotlight article because Native American cuisine is such a unique and relatively rare phenomenon.  Tocabe restaurant, located in Denver, has taken Indian fry bread and built an entire menu around this simple, but tasty traditional food.  There are fry bread soft tacos, pizzas with fry bread dough, and powdered fry bread for dessert.

What is Native fry bread?  The traditional blend included flour, salt, lard, and water cooked in oil.  Tocabe has updated the recipe and addressed health concerns by substituting canola oil for lard and flash frying rather than deep frying the bread.  The result is a lighter, sweet bread that has greatly reduced trans fats.

There has been some controversy within the Native American community over the celebration of fry bread.  After all, it was the only food American Indians had left after losing everything to the expanding American nation, and it was given to them by their oppressors to boot.  To young Natives like the owners of Tocabe restaurant, however, fry bread’s place in the history of their people is firmly entrenched, and whether it got there as a result of good or evil is beside the point.

To sample Tocabe fry bread, visit them at 44th and Lowell in Denver, CO.

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How To Grow Sales With A Commercial Bar Blender

A Commercial Bar BlenderSummer heat has a way of putting your customers in the mood for cool, refreshing drinks.  You already have the standards covered: cold beer, ice tea, and maybe even margaritas or daiquiris, but are you really satisfying your customer’s demand for great cold drinks?

Mixology is the study and development of cocktails, and it has become an increasingly popular field in the restaurant industry in recent years.  The reason for this is very simple: just like a hit special or entree can bring customers in the door, so can a hit drink, especially if it’s something new or takes a new twist on an old favorite.

Old standbys like margaritas, mojitos, and daiquiris are great, but if you take the time to develop an exciting summer specialty drink menu, you’ll find that customers will be enticed to order.  For example, take 1 part margarita, 1 part sangria, and a healthy scoop of ice and create something your customers have never tried but they’re sure they’ll like.

Exotic and fun new drinks can also create some summer buzz for your restaurant.  Use seasonal fruits and interesting liquor pairings to create blended drinks that really turn heads.  And, of course, not all your specialty drinks have to be alcoholic.  Again, seasonal fruits can make an excellent dessert drink for the kids or blend them with an energy drink for a great pick-me-up.  The possibilities are endless.

Of course, the key to your success when it comes to cool summer drinks is a good commercial bar blender or drink mixer.  Bar blenders can handle high volumes of drinks that require ice, which really is a key ingredient for any summer drink menu.  Drink mixers can’t mix ice, but they can handle large amounts of softer ingredients like ice cream, fruits, etc.

Investing in a quality commercial bar blender is exactly that: an investment with a bit of up-front cost.  But nothing advertises your business like some buzz over a popular specialty drink, and once you’ve got those customers in the door and having a good time, the sales will take care of themselves, as will your investment.

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Weird Food: Goat Meat Isn’t Really All That Weird

Goat Meat Is GoodTo most Americans, goat meat sounds like a foreign and unsavory dish consumed in far-off places by people who don’t have many other options.  In reality, goat is the most commonly consumed type of meat the world over, and not just in the Third World.  America is one of the few holdouts where goat hasn’t really taken hold.

Until recently, that is.  There has long been localized markets for goat meat, especially in immigrant centers like New York City and southwestern states where there is a heavy Hispanic influence.  But increasingly, middle class white people in America are discovering goat, or maybe they’re simply catching up with the rest of the world.

What does goat taste like?  It’s somewhere between lamb and chicken, with a distinct flavor that isn’t too gamey.  The key with goat is to cook it properly.  It’s very easy to end up with tough, stringy meat that chews like boot leather and goes down like shoe laces.

Goat that is slow cooked with lots of marinade and spice can be very tasty.  Many ethnic restaurants have added it to the menu as America finally starts to catch on, and the results can be excellent, like pulled goat tacos, Jamaican-style jerk stew, and in rich curries.  The best part about goat meat is that it’s leaner than chicken and has more protein than beef, making it a smart choice for the health conscious.

And for those who are concerned with the industrial-scale production of beef, pork, and chickens, with the accompanying environmental and animal cruelty issues, goat presents a unique alternative.  That’s because goats are usually raised on marginal pastures that are not suitable for other types of agriculture, and they thrive in those environments.  When they are raised on pastures also used by beef cattle and other animals, they do not compete for the same plants, which improves land use and gives ranchers a natural way to control weeds.  No matter what, they don’t end up in a feed lot.

Goat meat may not be a white, middle-class American tradition, but for the rest of the world, it’s a staple, kind of like soccer.  So the next time you encounter goat meat, give it a try and see what you’ve been missing.

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Menu Trends: Smaller Portion Sizes Seen As A Big Value

Menu Trends: Smaller Portion SizesNational chains like The Cheesecake Factory, Chili’s, and T.G.I. Friday’s have rolled out smaller, leaner, competitively priced menu items that are having considerable success targeting two primary consumer concerns: watching their weight and watching their wallets.

For years the trend in the food service industry was towards bigger and bigger portion sizes.  The “bigger is better” approach worked as long as customers were willing to pay more for more food.  The financial crisis and ensuing economic downturn turned that strategy on its head, and the restaurant industry is starting to respond.

Independent operators can take advantage of this trend as well.  The best way to implement it is to take perennial favorites from your existing menu and trim down the size and the price, then feature these new items on a special menu.  This approach highlights the new items and gives your offerings a fresh look that will help get customers in the door.

And that’s been the most difficult thing about the current climate in the food service industry: getting customers to actually come out to eat.  A leaner, more affordable menu doesn’t do you any good if your customers stay home because they don’t know about it.  Getting the word out is vital to the success of slimmed down menu offerings.  If marketed right, your new menu should be the reason why customers go out to eat in the first place.

No restaurant can afford to look like they are out of touch with the times, and adjusting portion sizes kills two birds with one stone: addressing customer health concerns and dinner price points.

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Hungarian Pigs Are Cool Again

A Mangalitsa sow100 years ago, a Hungarian breed of pig called Mangalitsa was the preferred pork breed for restaurants across Europe and the eastern U.S.  Over the last century their popularity declined for a variety a reasons.  The Mangalitsa also fell out of favor with pork producers, because they require open pasture and high quality feed, as opposed to common breeds today, which can be raised in small pens on an industrial scale on cheap feed like corn or soy.

However, recently, the Mangalitsa has returned as a favorite in some chefs kitchens, because, unlike most popular breeds, Mangalitsa pork is marbled.  This gives the meat a rich, authentic taste that makes it unique among pigs.  This is good news for the Mangalitsa, because just a few years ago the breed was bordering on extinction, with numbers in the hundreds, as opposed to 30,000 individuals in 1950 in Hungary alone.

At least one farm has imported the Hungarian pig to the U.S., and Mangalitsa pork, previously only available from Spain, has begun to spread to other Western countries.  Restaurants like the Spotted Pig in New York city have begun serving the pork with much success.  Mangalitsa meat fetches a much heftier price than industrial pork, but for customers who value taste over price, the succulent marbled meat of Hungarian pork can be a satisfying experience.

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Wine On Tap. Better Taste, Better Value.

Serving wine on tap gives your customer a much better glass of wine.

Serving wine on tap gives your customer a much better glass of wine.

A few restaurateurs in the United States have turned to some revolutionary ideas to overcome the perennial problem of wine by the glass: oxygenation.  Sticking a cork back in the half empty bottle and returning it to the undercounter fridge  behind the bar is common practice, but not even close to ideal for maintaining the quality and taste of the wine.

This often results in a lot of waste as the dregs of the bottle are dumped out, and the wine that is served is usually low end stuff that’s marked up heavily.  This translates into a very poor value for the customer, and as wine appreciation grows in the U.S., they are demanding better quality the more refined their tastes become.

So what’s the revolutionary idea?  Serve wine from a keg.  Kegs allow wine to be stored for extended periods of time without exposing it to oxygen and therefore compromising taste.  Serving wine at the proper temperature is also important, and wine in kegs allows a restaurant or bar to manage that factor much more accurately.  Most importantly, wine kegs take a lot of the waste out of serving wine by the glass, which means you can serve a better wine at a decent price, which brings better value to your customers.

European restaurants have been serving wine from kegs for years, but wine culture is relatively new to the masses in America.  As American tastes have evolved, the need for mastering the time and temperature factors that affect wine quality have necessarily followed suit.

Any restaurateur with sufficient motivation can convert an existing beer tap system to serve wine as well as beer.  It can get expensive, however.  Whether it’s worth it for your restaurant or bar mostly depends on how discerning your customer is when it comes to wine.  Customers who really appreciate a good glass of wine will find wine on tap a great value, which will justify your investment.  And finding ways to bring an extra level of value is what breeds customer loyalty, which lies at the heart of any successful restaurant.

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