As concepts fight for a foothold in the crowded restaurant industry, determination to be on the cutting edge drives many decisions. These 10 groundbreakers all pushed the envelope during the last 12 months in terms of both design and operation, bending traditions and blurring lines within their typical space to set new directions.
S&M Sausage and Meat
The restaurant-market hybrid trend, highlighted by giants such as Eataly, is getting a more focused update. The evolution is well-illustrated by S&M Sausage and Meat, a butcher-restaurant combo from Scott Slater, founder of the Slater’s 50/50 burger chain. And it doesn’t stop with the food, on offer over the counter or at the table. Slater is running a company with the goal “to be creative and discover new ways—some good, some bad—of doing things,” he says.
He describes the retail side of the concept (accessible from the restaurant or a separate door) simply as a deli counter with uncooked sausages, housemade bacon and charcuterie. There also are some farmers-market-type wares such as private-label sauces and other local goods for sale.
What sets S&M apart from some of the other butcher-restaurant hybrids emerging in many hipster-friendly cities is its frictionless service style on the restaurant side. Aiming for millennials who “demand a [complete] service experience” and yet want to be in control of the level of interaction they have with staffers, Slater developed a card system that takes control out of servers’ hands and gives guests the reins. “It’s different than any other dining experience,” he says.
Customers not bellying up to the full-service Swine Bar can go the fast-casual route at S&M. They place orders up front at the “concierge desk,” then are handed a set of color-coded cards and directed to seat themselves at one of the communal tables. It’s those cards that tell servers, internally called “experts,” what the guest wants at any given moment—be it the answer to a question or frankly to be left alone.
- A guest displays a teal "Service" card to let the staff walking around know he wants some assistance, whether it's placing more orders, refilling drinks or anything else.
- A white "Welcome" card invites servers to come greet the customer and explain the S&M Sausage and Meat system.
- A tan card says a guest is ready to close out his bill; to make the process quick and seamless, diners leave a tab open at the concierge desk when they initially place orders.
- A black “Scram” card tells servers to back off—no service necessary.
Purringtons Cat Lounge
What began as an “Is this for real?” headline on blogs is gaining legitimate traction. “Animals and snacks under one roof is an idea that is very much in demand in cities across the country,” says Kristen Castillo, owner of Purringtons Cat Lounge. While she admits that cost and local rules are challenges, she thinks the model, with adoption as part of its mission, will be able to stand the test of time. People seeking furry companionship, even if only for an hour, isn’t going anywhere.
By design, Purringtons has found a way around the veto vote from consumers with allergies or those with kids too young to behave in the space housing cats—people can see the cats without actually touching them.
Health department rules mandate that animals not enter any food-prep areas, so cat cafes have separate areas for food purchase and cat interaction. At Purringtons, there’s a seven-seat counter in the food area that looks through a large window into the cat lounge. So while customers ordering their snacks to-go can take them into the lounge (for $8 per hour), others still can enjoy snacks with live cat action.
And what implications might the proliferation of cat cafes have for the future of other animals in restaurants? Dogs formally trained as service animals already are welcome in restaurants without question. But as emotional-support animals gain the right to board planes, as stated by the Air Carrier Access Act, could restaurants be next? “There is still the issue of our strict health codes here in the U.S. that will probably not be changing any time soon,” says Castillo.
New York-New York Hotel and Casino
The Las Vegas consumer has changed. No longer content with being holed up in one venue for all of their entertainment, lodging, dining and shopping needs, tourists now are cherry picking their Vegas experiences from a variety of different sources—and The Strip is shifting in kind.
“There is a definite tendency for modern customers to use the entire Las Vegas Strip landscape in putting together an evening of fun and entertainment,” says Tom Ryan, chief concept officer at Consumer Concept Group, parent of Tom’s Urban, a casual-dining concept that opened its third outpost at the end of December in Las Vegas.
New York-New York is trying to capitalize on that movement in its redesign, with the help of some big-name brands. But it’s not with the high-end shops casinos have banked on in the past to attract consumers—rather, it’s in using affordable, accessible food concepts.
Moreover, instead of burying famed chefs deep within the walls of the casino, as was once the norm for hotels on The Strip, New York-New York is lining its street-facing side with buzzed-about fast-casual and casual-dining spots, including Tom’s Urban and Shake Shack. “Tens of millions of people walk The Strip annually, so it’s no surprise that casinos and hotels realize that putting enticing, interesting and attractive concepts Stripside is good for both business and image,” says Ryan.
It’s all part of a larger plan: New York-New York parent, MGM Resorts, is in the process of developing The Park, a full outdoor dining and entertainment district, slated for 2016.
Known brands in Vegas
A day after it opened in Vegas, White Castle tweeted, “Due to overwhelming demand #whitecastlevegas is currently closed for maintenance and to restock. We will let you know when doors are reopen!” That two-hour hiatus gave workers relief from crowds. One White Castle VP told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that it sold burgers at a rate of 4,000 per hour for the first 12 hours straight.
Small, suddenly, is a big thing. It only makes sense: smaller restaurants are more efficient, so why not maximize profits by shrinking a concept? But that’s only one reason why chains are taking the approach to extremes and unveiling a new generation of miniature outlets. Smaller footprints also mean less space to rent, which can translate to less-pricey build outs. Plus, why dedicate precious room to cashier and counter space when mobile ordering and payment can move much of the transaction to customers’ smartphones?
While full-service chains such as Denny’s and Famous Dave’s are launching mini sister concepts—The Den and Famous Dave’s BBQ Shack, respectively—fast casuals, including two of the industry’s most watched, also are thinking small.
The coffee giant’s express-format stores, the first of which is set to open soon in New York City, will offer a “concentrated” menu and few frills such as seats or bathrooms. Essentially, the units will be production-pickup hybrids where busy customers can retrieve lattes and espressos they’ve ordered and paid for via their smartphones. The concept is “a direct reflection of how our customers are interested in both accessibility to the brand as well as speed and convenience,” said Cliff Burrows, president of Starbucks’ U.S., Americas and Teavana divisions, in a statement.
The build-your-own chain is scouting locations to debut its pint-size stores, which CFO Paul Hartung has characterized as a “really, really small” place to grab a burrito and perhaps a limited number of other items. Seating can be sacrificed, because about two-thirds of Chipotle’s transactions are to-go. Here, convenience is the hook, and a smaller store helps in that regard. And there’s little concern about blurring the brand’s perception, Hartung has said, because Chipotle’s core characteristics now are so familiar to the public.
LQ Chicken Shack
Instead of letting some dead space near the hostess stand go unused, Charlie McKenna turned it into a moneymaker. The chef and owner of Lillie’s Q, a high-traffic barbecue spot in Chicago, converted the area near the front of the restaurant into LQ Chicken Shack, a takeout-only window that opened in September. “I’m not just a chef,” says McKenna. As an entrepreneur, I have to find ways to make more money.”
The decision on what to sell from the window was easy for McKenna, whose smoked fried chicken already was popular on the restaurant’s menu. Plus, it’s relatively quick to prep, he says, since the method of cooking the presmoked chicken requires less time than cooking a raw bird. To not bog down the already-slammed kitchen, he added a cook and carved out a separate kitchen in the basement just for the window, treating it as an entirely separate concept. “People can eat our food and not necessarily eat barbecue,” he says.
Figuring out how to get the to-go orders to the window without interrupting the flow of the restaurant was trickier, but McKenna found a system that works: food is boxed in the kitchen and brought up behind the bar. A runner then brings it to the window.
The biggest benefit of adding the takeout window? “I don’t have to pay any more rent,” says McKenna, who describes LQ Chicken Shack as an incubator within his existing restaurant. “I have a different restaurant and can grow sales with this new concept,” he says. “If it takes off, maybe I’ll open a storefront for it nearby, and [the window] can be the next trial concept.”
Other concepts with separately branded windows
- Formeto's: The old-school Italian restaurant in Chicago also houses Nonna's, a grab-and-go sandwich window.
- Hearth: A modern American restaurant from Chef Marco Canora in New York City, its window concept, Brodo, sells broth to go.
- Tavern on the green: New York City's reconcepted icon added a takeout window for coffee, smoothies, snacks and sandwiches when it reopened last year.
Pop-ups, once spontaneous and rebellious in nature, have found steadier footing of late in concepts like Intro. Still present is the opportunity for chefs to test out funky dishes, preview an upcoming concept or build up a following before launching their own brick-and mortar restaurants. And foodies still can delight in a taste of something exclusive and fleeting.
But now, in the hands of veteran operator Richard Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, the pop-up trend, which has taken off across the country, has been translated into a permanent rotating-chef concept.
Intro, which was built in the space that formerly housed LEYE’s Michelin-starred L2O, launched with its first chef, CJ Jacobson of Top Chef fame, in February. While L2O received a lot of acclaim, says Melman, it wasn’t as fun or profitable as he wanted it to be. Today, “people are always looking for something new and exciting,” he says.
He tapped into LEYE’s philosophy of developing entrepreneurs, using an existing space to teach chefs how to turn their ideas into restaurants, with the help of the restaurant group’s senior team. “Our goal is to help develop these chefs into business people,” Melman says. “Chefs are often 90 percent creative and only 10 percent business. We try to shift that so they’re more in balance and become 75 percent creative and 25 percent business.” And he’s piggybacking on another trend gaining steam—selling tickets instead of offering traditional reservations.
For each iteration, Intro’s menu, menu design and uniforms change. The decor also may be tweaked, but changes are kept to a minimum to keep costs in check. “The chefs who work each stint are partners in the restaurant, so we want to be smart about how much money we spend on design changes,” Melman says.
More with Richard Melman
Q: Why is this a better model than traditional pop-ups?
A: In one space, we have a set kitchen team in place, we have a great kitchen with excellent equipment and we have a terrific front-of-house staff and management. There’s a stability and a consistency that a pop-up doesn’t provide.
Q: What are some of the challenges of a rotating-chef concept that traditional restaurants don’t encounter?
A: With every rotation, there is a completely different menu, so we have to make sure our kitchen staff is up to speed. Everyone needs a little time to get to know the new chef and to get comfortable, so there is a period of adjustment.
Q: Is this the kind of concept we could see duplicated anywhere?
A: It’s certainly easier if it’s in a big city with well-known chefs. It’s not hard to open a restaurant, but it is hard to run a restaurant efficiently and profitably. So I can see this concept being duplicated. And then the [true] test is in executing it well.
H-E-B's Table 57
Unlike c-stores aiming to siphon off share of stomach from restaurants by leveraging convenience, supermarket chains are selling themselves as all-in-one dining destinations. One of the most ambitious examples is San Antonio-based H-E-B. In February, it opened the doors to its newest store in Houston, a 91,000-square-foot megamarket that includes Table 57, a 183-seat dine-in restaurant with a bar and patio.
Guests order at a counter from an extensive menu of fresh-cooked burgers, sandwiches, soups, salads, barbecue smoked on-site and more, and waitstaff deliver food tableside. For those without time to sit and eat, Table 57 offers takeout, as well as catering. Plus, it’s got a cooking school attached for wine tastings, classes and private events.
The restaurant, which is accessible from inside the supermarket as well as streetside, is drawing people into the store to stay a little longer and spend a little more. “It’s mostly a lunch crowd during the week,” says Lacey Dalcour Salas, of H-E-B’s public-affairs team. But weekend shoppers also are an important market for the new spot. “We see a lot of customers coming in for Sunday brunch and then doing a large Sunday shop afterward,” she says.
And that, after all, is the advantage these concepts have over traditional eateries. Though they look and act like any traditional restaurant, they have the added benefit of being attached to a grocery store, thus appealing to busy customers looking to kill two birds—shopping and dining—with one stone.
- Marianos in Chicago features sushi bars, oyster bars and wine bars, and it was listed among the city’s Restaurant Week options in 2014.
- Price Chopper’s Bistro Blvd. in Latham, N.Y., boasts 15 foodservice options in its high-end food court, including a deli and a full-service restaurant.
- Fry’s Signature in the Phoenix area has an in-store sports-bar concept, catering to those who have to shop, but can’t miss the big game and a beer.
Garage restaurants, it turns out, are more than just a theme. Increasingly, they’re a solution to an age-old real estate challenge. Aside from the innate character and history of some old auto garages, Brad Creger, managing partner at Rutledge Cab Co. in Charleston, S.C., can name a few reasons why they are becoming popular spots for eateries. “They are usually in good locations,” he says. “[And] they are often overlooked for other uses.” Because of a former life holding cars, garages also have ample space for parking—a plus, Creger adds.
Molly Swyers, senior VP of design and communications at Garage Bar in Louisville, Ky., found the same. “The former garage sits on a great corner lot—so great [there’s] visibility and good space for covered outdoor dining, along with more land in front and along the side to create a fun beer garden-type environment.”
Many of the restaurants parking themselves in converted garage spaces are embracing the aesthetic. Chef Jonathan Waxman’s famed Barbuto in New York City is in a garage, so when he decided to expand to Nashville last June with Adele’s, he went the same route. “The reason I think a lot of folks like this type of building is because a lot of garages have naturally high ceilings and a rustic, industrial feel,” says Howard Greenstone, Waxman’s partner and the co-founder and former CEO of the Rosa Mexicano chain. “It takes a lot less design to create a fun, casual environment … typically there’s a lot of clean, open space to work with,” he says.
Garages doors are a big draw for operators, as well. They afford a lot of natural light, says Greenstone. Plus, they make for easier indoor-outdoor dining potential. In fact, Emily Biederman, chief operating officer and Secret Sauce F&B of Steuben’s Food Service in Denver, says it’s the garage doors that make these spaces so desirable. “There is built-in access to the outdoors, and this is also a cool design feature,” she says.
Concepts fueling the trend
- Adele's, Nashville
- Garage Bar, Louisville, Ky.
- Rutledge Cab Co., Charleston, S.C.
- Steuben's Food Service, Denver
- The Yard, Phoenix
- Vinsetta Garage, Berkley, Mich.
Betty Danger's Country Club
Picture eatertainment, and most people think Las Vegas, not Minneapolis. Yet Betty Danger’s Country Club restaurant serves up over-the-top entertainment to rival the wackiest clubs around. “It’s definitely something to see,” said local journalist Nick Halter in a Fox 9 news report. It’s the outlandishness—and total dedication to the theme—that’s generating buzz and getting people in the door, if for no other reason than curiosity. And they’ll have to come back multiple times to see it all.
Self-described as a “country club on crack,” this latest venture from restaurateur Leslie Bock is her response to being denied membership to a private country club. Bock (who also operates Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge and Donny Dirk’s Zombie Den, both in Minneapolis) turned the snub into a 200-seat, real-life caricature of a country club in an old car wash that once housed the original Psycho Suzi’s.
While the plastic animals, pink fireplaces and in-house mini-golf course are enough to grab attention, the biggest spectacle (literally) is the 65-foot pink ferris wheel, which in the summer is billed as a vertically revolving patio.
All of the kitsch aside, it’s still a restaurant. Waiters clad in preppy attire hand over menus tucked inside lifestyle books for diners to choose from an array of “Mexampton” food, a mash-up of Mexican and American comfort dishes. For those not looking for a meal, guests also can pony up to the equestrian-theme bar.
And Bock’s not relying just on the lookie-loos to drive business. To keep regulars coming back, she started a membership program at Betty Danger’s. The perks: unlimited golfing, butt-the-line privileges, lockers for wine and beer growlers and more.
Acme Feed & Seed
Cobranding has gone vertical in Nashville. “While [the setup] was dictated by the building, we knew this gave us the opportunity to create different unique experiences for our customers,” says Tom Morales, owner of Acme’s parent TomKats Hospitality. “It’s proven to be a successful marketing strategy with local millennials,” he says. “They can find a spot that fits their mood.”
Aside from the consumer appeal, the three-in-one approach has operational perks over separate restaurants in different locations. On Morales’ list: an economy of scale, accessible human resources, always-present upper management, ability to cross promote and feed off each concept’s success. “[All] have tremendous advantages, especially in maximizing each opportunity’s potential,” he says.
Still, he’s learned that one size does not fit all. “Our customers come at different times for different reasons, so we must plan and react accordingly.”
- Rooftop: An open-air space with a view of the riverfront and downtown Nashville
- Third floor: The event space, called The Hatchery at Acme, has an open floor plan for holding concerts and music series, and it’s available year-round for event rental
- Second floor: A relaxed lounge is the setting for handcrafted cocktails and sushi; it offers TVs and retro video games, plus vintage living room-style seating for intimate hangouts
- First floor: A fast casual with a funky honky-tonk vibe, this space hosts live music and serves upscale street food and regional craft beers