1. How can operators build a lasting following if they don’t take reservations?
Almost every restaurant operator will tell you how important regulars are to business. (During an interview a few months ago, a West Coast operator said off-the-record that repeat guests make up about 40 percent of his sales.) Yet there are a number of buzzed-about, trendy spots that don’t take reservations. Yes, it’s annoying to customers who don’t like to wait (a.k.a. impatient millennials), but it’s more than that. If there’s always a wait to get a table, how can an operator build a base of regular customers? Take Chicago’s Au Cheval, for example. The wait for its well-publicized burger almost always exceeds an hour. Most millennials I know go once or twice to experience the burger, and then they’re done. So what happens when the hype eventually dies down?
2. Does justifying a price hike upfront make it more acceptable to diners?
My favorite breakfast spot, Egg Harbor Café, is a well-known chain for anyone from the Chicago suburbs. During a trek to Egg Harbor this past weekend, I noticed a sign taped to the front of the hostess desk (which doubles as a cash-register station): There’d be a temporary $1 upcharge for egg whites due to the egg shortage. First of all, my dining buddy had no idea there even was an egg shortage going on. While it surprised me that it’s taken this long for the news to trickle down to some people, since it’s been in industry news for months, it was more surprising to see a chain telling people upfront exactly why they’d have to pay more. Saying it was temporary gave the signs almost an apologetic tone. And based on orders I heard from the tables around me, diners seemed okay with the temporary inconvenience.
3. Why are small plates hitting entrée prices?
Small plates and shareables definitely are a trend that’s still gaining steam, especially among millennials. From snacks to tapas to appetizers-for-dinner and charcuterie, small shareables are great for the demographic that loves to turn dining out into a shared experience with their friends. However, of late, the prices for small plates seem to be skyrocketing. Why are these plates—meant to be a few bites—all of a sudden being priced well over $10 each? While my group of friends used to go out for tapas and appetizers often, the men in our group (older millennials, aged 29-33) refuse to go that route anymore. For them, it’s not worth the cost. They’d rather just order an entree-size portion for the same price.
4. With all this talk of veggie-centric and root-to-stalk cooking, why are side portions still so small at many high-end restaurants?
There’s a lot of mention of veggies moving to the center of the plate and side dishes becoming more prominent. Yet in practice, that doesn’t seem to be the case. At a recent dinner at a trendy Chicago restaurant, I was pumped about a dish that touted heirloom carrots, roasted broccolini and fermented black beans as part of the menu description. But when my plate came, there were two florets, some artfully placed greens and a black smear that I assume were the beans. No matter how beautiful or artistic the plate looked, it was not enough to designate anything of substance. If the menu description makes it sound like there are going to be loads of veggies, a small arc along the edge of the plate is not enough. Because in practice, making food look like art is not as important as filling my stomach.
5. What’s making so many techies enter the food game?
It was a pretty novel idea when the founder of a camcorder company launched a fast casual called The Melt back in 2011. His high-tech grilled-cheese chain has grown to 13 units in California. And now, it seems that a number of other tech and Internet innovators are throwing their hats in the foodservice ring. Many of the folks behind nonrestaurant restaurants such as Sprig are tech guys, not restaurateurs. The more you think about it, the more sense it makes. The whole idea behind Sprig and Maple and others like them is the development of app-based service. So these tech guys are creating a new app platform. They can find people to do the food part. So as we move more and more towards frictionless, tech-heavy service in the restaurant industry, are more techies going to join the competitive field?
6. How tough is it to anticipate the opening crowd?
Who’d have thought that when White Castle opened its first unit in Las Vegas in January, it’d be so slammed it’d have to shut down for two hours to restock, do some cleanup and allow workers to “catch their breath.” And while I’m sure David Chang expected his new fried-chicken fast casual to draw a crowd, I doubt he expected to have to shut Fuku down for two days after Week One to readjust to the demand. Another, Naugles in southern California, also had to shut down after its grand reopening. While all three openings get some pre-opening buzz, these operators clearly didn’t anticipate that the crowds would exceed their resources. On the flip side, there also have been opening flops—friends and family show up, and that’s about it. So what does it take to figure out who is going to show?