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The Restaurant Of The Future

The Restaurant Of the FutureThe Restaurant of the Future is in Holland, but at first glance it doesn’t seem like anything special.  It just looks like a cafeteria, with a salad bar and long tables.  But there are things going on in The Restaurant of the Future that make this nondescript cafeteria very different.

For one thing, surveillance cameras are everywhere.  Customers sign a waiver before entering that acknowledges the fact that their behavior will be observed and used for scientific research.  Each person is weighed with their tray of food at the cash register.  And the remnants are analyzed to see how much was actually consumed.

This restaurant is actually a partnership with a Dutch university, and their research has revealed some interesting things about the habits and tendencies of restaurant patrons.  Women who are with other women tend to indulge more than women who dine with men.  Groups of men tend to compete to see who can stuff themselves the most. And in general, Monday meals are much lighter than Friday meals.

This ongoing research has started to drive “food service science,” or the concept that an exact understanding of consumer behaviors can not only help restaurants grow sales, but improve service and satisfaction as well.

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The Boy Wonder Chef

greg-grossmanAt the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago earlier this month, Greg Grossman, a promising new chef, impressed show participants with his cooking demos.  He has open invitations to work in the kitchens of some of America’s top chefs, including Grant Achatz and Eric Ripert.  He also has a book and a TV show in the planning stages.

Those accolades are great for any hot new chef, but in Greg Grossman’s case, that isn’t the most amazing thing about him.  The most amazing thing about Greg Grossman is that he has achieved this much success and recognition at 13 years old. Grossman grew up on Long Island in a well-to-do family, and he was exposed to culinary excellence from a very young age.  He was soon dabbling in his family’s kitchen, trying to recreate the fine dishes he tasted while dining out with his family.  By 11, he had his own catering business.  And now, at 13, he is poised on the edge of celebrity chefdom. As everyone is saying these days, keep an eye on this kid.  He is going places, and I’m sure we will all be hearing a lot more from this boy wonder in the near future.

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Restaurant Stocks Beat The Rest of the Dow

Restaurant Stocks Are Rising FastAs I noted in a blog post earlier this year, restaurants, especially high end ones, get hit hard in a recession.  Eating out is a luxury, not a necessity, to most people, and it therefore becomes one of the first to go when people start watching their pocketbooks.  Luckily, when those same pocketbooks start seeing the light of day again, restaurants are also one of the first businesses to see them.

This phenomenon seems to be occurring this month, and hopefully it’s not just a blip in an otherwise bleak economy.  Consumer confidence is up for the third month in a row and is now higher than it’s been for some time.  Of course, it’s still lower than peaks seen in 2006 and 2007.

With that rising confidence has come a jump in the Nation’s Restaurant News index of top restaurant stocks, which saw a healthy 3 month climb that culminated this week in a great performance that beat the rest of the Dow.  Once again, these stocks are still down from last year and have seen no gain overall yet this year, but the steady gains made since February lows are certainly encouraging.

The higher consumer confidence is, the more likely consumers are to spend, and the food service industry is usually one of the first places to enjoy increased consumer spending.  Restaurateurs can only hope the worst days are behind them and look forward to a decent summer.

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Menu Trends: The Rise of The Cuban Sandwich

cubanAfter about a century, the Cuban sandwich is finally getting its due respect.  The sandwich was first developed in Florida for the purpose of feeding hungry cigar factory workers, and the cigars are probably more responsible for the sandwich’s namesake than any connection with the long isolated island nation.

What is a Cuban?  It’s roast pork and ham served with Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles on big slabs of ciabatta bread.  What makes this sandwich so tasty is the flash grilling in a Panini grill that melts the cheese and turns this sandwich into a toasted delight.

The Cuban has been circulating on the brew pub and steakhouse circuit for a few years now, but recently it has made the jump to fine dining, with some increasingly creative interpretations and presentations.  The vitality of the Cuban, and its versatility, has endeared it to many chefs looking for new menu additions.  Its simplicity is also a strength, giving chefs a strong foundation on which to develop their own masterpiece.

From a worker’s lunch to the Peninsula hotel, the Cuban has come a long way in the past 100 years, and the sheer pleasure of eating a good Cuban will probably ensure its continued presence in all kinds of restaurants for years to come.

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“Zion Curtains” Come Down In Utah

The liquor laws in Utah have always been bizarre.  From requiring membership in “private clubs” to drink local microbrews to no Sunday beer and liquor sales to limiting beer to 3.2% alcohol content, the requirements placed on restaurants, bars, and liquor stores have always been more stringent than in other states.  But the barriers state senator Michael Waddoups asked state liquor commissioners to require in restaurant bars were just too weird, even for Utah.

Nicknamed “Zion Curtains,” these barriers were placed on restaurant bar countertops to prevent minors from seeing alcoholic drinks being mixed.  Nothing was allowed to pass over these barriers, not drinks, not food, not even a napkin or a bill.  Instead, the bartender had to hand things off to a server, who brought things around the barrier to the customer.  Needless to say, out of state customers required a lot of explanations when they sat down and ordered a beer or a drink.

Implementation and enforcement of the Zion Curtains was so difficult that Waddoups was forced to introduce legislation earlier this spring that removed their requirement.  However, the bill wasn’t all concession for the conservative Republican.  New restaurants from here on out will not be able to store or mix alcohol in their bars (which kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?), and minors will not be allowed to linger in or near restaurant bars.  Existing establishments will at least get to keep their bars stocked with a grandfather clause.

At least customers can get their food served straight over the counter again.  Relieved restaurant  owners tore down their barriers with some enthusiasm earlier this week.

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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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The Long Hard Road To Sushi Greatness

Matsuhisa Restaurant in Beverly Hills

Matsuhisa restaurant in Beverly Hills, CA

Chef Nobu Matsuhisa always knew he wanted to be a sushi chef.  From the first time his brother took him to a sushi restaurant in his native Japan, Matsuhisa he has aspired to make people happy with top quality sushi using only the best ingredients.  With 22 restaurants all over the world, and three new locations opening this year in places as far flung as Mexico City, Moscow, and Cape Town, he has obviously achieved his goal on a global scale.

However, this determined sushi chef didn’t find his success easily.  His career started when he was 18 with a seven year apprenticeship in Japan that included three years of nothing but dish washing and bussing.  Afterwards, Chef Nobu travelled to Lima, Peru to ply his trade in his own restaurant.  For awhile he was very successful, and lived comfortably.  His restaurant was popular with the many travelling Japanese businessmen who frequented Peru’s capital, and the city’s location right on the Pacific meant ready access to the finest fresh seafood.

But Matsuhisa’s business partner was more concerned with profits than making fine sushi every day.  He insisted the chef buy cheaper ingredients and reduce his operating expenses.  To Chef Nobu, this was an impossible demand.  He simply wasn’t able to compromise the quality of his work.  For three years they fought over food expenses.  Then he quit.

Sushi by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa

Sushi artistry by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa

After a few years working here and there, Matsuhisa got the chance to open his own restaurant again, this time in Anchorage, Alaska.  He worked tirelessly to make the restaurant a success, and even worked the first 50 days they were open without taking a day off.  He finally shut the doors on Thanksgiving day for a rest.  And that’s when his friend and business partner called in a panic to tell him their beloved restaurant was on fire.  They had no insurance, and Chef Nobu lost everything in the disaster.

After a short return to Japan, Nobu travelled to L.A. to work as a sushi chef in a friend’s restaurant.  It would take him several years to climb out of debt, regain his confidence, and find a restaurant that he could call his own.  Finally, Matsuhisa opened in Beverly Hills, nine years after the fire in Alaska.

Robert DeNiro became one of many Hollywood notables who were also regular customers.  After much cajoling, DeNiro finally convinced Chef Nobu to start another restaurant in New York city.  The two, along with several other investors, have since built the global sushi empire that Matsuhisa now runs.  These days the celebrated sushi chef contents himself with travelling the world and managing his restaurants.  He has finally seen success, and he takes great satisfaction in bringing the world his particular art, expressed through quality sushi.

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Boost Sales With A Free Meal

The Laguna Grill in Long Island, NY

The Laguna Grille in Long Island, NY

An increasing number of restaurateurs are looking to boost sagging sales with value-minded deals to lure customers back into their restaurants.  A particularly successful strategy has been employed by the Laguna Grille in Long Island, NY: a “Bailout Program,” which randomly awards free meals to a table per shift.

The ensuing buzz packed his two locations on a recent weekend and generated some great PR in the local press.  Not only do customers feel that you are commiserating with them about the hard economic times, free meal promos also build brand recognition and loyalty, which in turn can boost word-of-mouth marketing.

Denny’s Restaurants has embraced this hot marketing technique fully.  On Super Bowl Sunday the chain announced it would offer a free Grand Slam breakfast to customers from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, February 3.  Denny’s market share has been slipping in the face of intense competition from fast food chains like McDonald’s and Burger King and breakfast-only chains like IHOP.

The Denny’s gambit was a complete success.  2 million customers showed up for their free Grand Slam, and sales have ticked upward since the promotion.  It was so successful that Denny’s followed up recently with another promotion that gave away a Grand Slam for every one purchased.

There are many ways to creatively apply a free meal campaign to your own restaurant, whether you’re a small independent operator or a mid or large sized chain:

  • Encourage customers to sign up for your email list and randomly select a monthly winner from new signups to receive a free meal
  • Follow Laguna Grille’s example and randomly give away a free meal per shift
  • Give away a free entrée or appetizer in exchange for filling out an online or paper survey and providing an email address
  • Hold “happy hour” specials featuring a buy one, get one free entrée, appetizer, or drink
  • Have customers bring in a down economy related item like a pink slip, stimulus check, or foreclosure notice to receive a free meal

The best way to leverage a free meal offering is to gather some information from your customer while they take advantage of it.  The more you know about your customer, the better you can target them for repeat business in the future.  And the more you build your base, the more likely you are to survive hard times.

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Should You Cut Costs In Payroll?

knifeMy recent post, “Missouri Legislature Debates Wage Cuts For Servers” sparked some debate about cutting payroll expenses in your restaurant.  Finding places to cut expenses as revenue falls is never an easy endeavor.  And since labor is almost definitely your number one expense, it’s easy to look there first when considering ways to save money.

There may definitely be some places where labor costs can be reduced, such as cutting back employee hours or eliminating underperforming staff.  All businesses look to their human resources department for cost cuts in tough times.  But be careful here, because cutting labor is a task best left to a scalpel rather than an axe.

That’s because the one thing you need now more than anything else is good customer service.  Actually, you need stellar customer service.  When consumers start cutting back, their expectations of service go up, and the only way to get them to spend at all is to take care of them in every way possible.

Your staff is the best tool you have to make sure every hungry customer that walks through your doors leaves satisfied and full.  If you start cutting back on staff to save money, you could start hurting your chances at increasing future revenue.  Overall morale goes down when people are let go because of hard times rather than performance.  And no matter what, customer service will suffer when you lose experienced staff.

Now is the time to focus on fulfilling the needs of your customers even better than before.  If some staff have been a drag on your operation, by all means cut them now.  But look for other ways to reduce costs before you start cutting quality staff.  Your best customers will appreciate the attention, and hopefully maintain their regular visits to your restaurant.  And new customers will be blown away by your commitment to quality service and hopefully come back, even if times are hard.

While Circuit City isn’t in the food service industry, a lesson can be drawn from their experience.  When sales started declining, Circuit City decided to cut staff as a way to reduce costs and boost profits.  It worked for a while.  But then customers stopped coming in altogether.  Circuit City’s rival Best Buy refused to cut back on customer service, and soon customers were flocking to their stores, not because Best Buy’s prices are better or because they have a better selection, but because Best Buy staff were always there to help.

Circuit City has since declared bankruptcy.  Best Buy may not be breaking any profit records, but they’re still in business, and their customers are happy.  Things could be a lot worse.

What do you think about this issue?  Leave a comment below!

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Missouri Legislature Debates Wage Cuts For Servers

In 2006, voters in the state of Missouri overwhelmingly passed Proposition B, an initiative that mandated a minimum wage increase for hourly workers.  Prop B passed with a 75% majority, and after some debate, Missouri decided that workers who receive an hourly wage plus tips were eligible for the pay increase.

Times have changed since 2006, to say the least.  The economic downturn has hit Missouri’s restaurant industry hard, and now the state’s restaurant association is backing a Republican bill to cap hourly wages for tip earners at $3.52, half the hourly minimum wage of $7.05.  A compromise amendment would cap the minimum wage after a planned increase this summer.

Neither servers nor restaurant owners are happy with the bill.  Servers say the cap is tantamount to a wage cut, something they can ill afford in a down economy.  And restaurant owners say their payroll expenses have skyrocketed since 2006, something they can ill afford in a down economy.

Interestingly, the catch in this whole debate is who would actually be affected by the passage of the bill. 

The average server earns $10 – $15 an hour in tips, which means most if not all of their hourly wage goes to taxes, regardless of whether their wage is capped or is raised slightly.  And this bill would not change a Prop B clause that requires restaurant owners to pay their servers the $7.05 minimum wage if they don’t make at least that in a given week.

So servers who claim they’re taking a pay cut aren’t really getting hit that hard since the vast majority of what they make is in tips.  And they’re guaranteed a minimum wage if tips aren’t sufficient.

At the same time, restaurant owners who claim they can’t afford the current wage are not going to get the wage cut they were looking for.  At best, wages will be capped at their current levels, which does nothing to help restaurateurs who blame the current wages and the recession for their problems.

That means Missouri restaurant owners are going to have to look elsewhere to cut costs and increase revenues.  And in the end, looking to cut costs in staff first is probably not the best option on the table.  After all, wait and kitchen staff are what make every restaurant tick, and in the long run, well paid staff means better sales and reduced turnover, both of which translate into more profits.

Perhaps it’s time for restaurateurs in Missouri to look at other operational costs and see how they can streamline their business before they start putting a lot of energy, money, and time towards targeting their payroll.

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