Operators strive to attract both staffers and customers with “cool” ideas that set their concepts apart. But what does it take for an innovation to stand out as well as make sense for business? We present 50 smart, trend-forward ideas that have hit the restaurant industry throughout the year.
1. Choose-a-size menu options
Instead of crafting separate dishes for shareable snacks, individual entrees and family-size meals, Joselito Casa de Comidas restaurant in Washington, D.C., offers its entrees in three portion sizes—tapas, half portion and full portion—at tiered prices. Guests can craft the meal however they’d like.
2. Guesswork-free mocktails
Often with mocktails, servers ask the guest’s flavor preferences, giving the bartender free rein as well as taking up their time. The Grocery in Charleston, S.C., doesn’t list mocktails on the menu, but inquiring guests are handed a printed menu with four options, named for their flavor profiles, for $5 each.
4. Fine dining at a discount
Thomas Keller, the celebrated chef-owner of Per Se in New York City, has launched an effort to “usher in a new generation of fine diners” with his 30 for 30 Dining Experience. The limited-time promotion provides half-priced prix fixe meals—$175 a head for seven courses versus $325 for nine—to patrons under 30. Thirty tables are set aside in the dining room for the deal.
5. Chuck E. Cheese’s adjusts for autism
Select locations of the kid-focused pizza chain open two hours early on the first Sunday of the month for Sensory Sensitive Sundays. The events, which are geared toward children with autism and other special needs, feature reduced lighting and noise and specially trained staff members.
6. Summit on staffing
About 800 Dunkin’ Donuts franchisees and staffers gathered for the chain’s first People Summit in April. “It was dedicated to discussing best practices for recruiting, hiring, managing and motivating employees, as well as addressing the unique needs of a millennial crew member,” CEO Nigel Travis said.
7. Streetwear style
White Castle added a competitive edge in attracting talent by modernizing its uniforms. The chain partnered with a New York fashion house to tweak its logoed blue tees to look more like clothes people might wear outside of work. Working with the same designer, White Castle rolled out a line of branded consumer gear—similar to Taco Bell’s branded clothing partnership with retailer Forever 21.
8. Cocktail-like coffee drinks
To help upsell its coffee drinks—sold for $5.25 to $6.25—Five Watt Coffee in Minneapolis incorporates ingredients more likely found behind the bar, including bitters and simple syrups. The coffee drinks all have specialty names, such as Gin Basil Smash, giving them more of a craft cocktail feel.
9. Group goal-setting
Every crew member in the Arby’s system, from franchised stores and corporate operations alike, participates in Brand Champ, a half-day education program intended to focus everyone on the same mission, even if their paths are different. Participants are taught how to set goals not only in their jobs but also for their lives or careers outside of the business. “We spend about half the time
talking about goal setting,” says Chief People Officer Melissa Strait. “This is where they’re starting their work life. We think it’s important to help them to start setting goals for the rest of their lives.”
10. Arby’s has the meet-and-greets
About once a quarter, Arby’s CEO and its chief people officer spend a full day with every new support services team member to communicate who the brand is and what it stands for. The executives meet with the new team members as a group for dinner, making time for one-on-one interactions.
The executive attention helps make the new hires feel special and demonstrates how Arby’s values permeate the organization from the top down.
11. Free meal for not-quite-right applicants
San Francisco-based Dabba, an international-fusion fast casual, is sensitive to the city’s sharp cost of living and considers it part of its mission to fairly compensate workers. Even candidates who don’t make the team after the first round of interviews are compensated for their time with a coupon for a free meal.
12. Kid critics
To promote its Enlightened Entrees—and get an honest opinion out in the public—BJ’s Restaurants and Brewhouse videotaped kids trying the dishes, offering unfiltered feedback and guessing ingredients. “Their facial expressions, empty plates and candid remarks tell you everything you need to know,” said EVP and CMO Kevin Mayer.
13. Movies on display
To set its decor apart from other restaurants as well as provide a bit of entertainment to guests, Cha Cha’s Latin Kitchen in Orange County, Calif., broadcasts old black and white Spanish Western movies on the wall. There’s no sound, so as not to distract those who don’t want to watch, but guests can see the movie from the bar and parts of the dining room.
14. A week to get stronger
Yum Brands’ corporate employees get to spend one whole week focusing on themselves. During Grow Yourself Week, the parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell hosts more than 30 professional and personal development classes for home office staff in Louisville, Ky. Speakers, such as New York Times best-selling author Dorie Clark, give attendees pointers about personal branding, digital security and unconscious-bias training.
16. Will work for credits
Tuition assistance is just the tip of Chipotle’s education benefits. Employees at the Mexican fast casual also can earn a custom bachelor’s degree at Bellevue University in Nebraska by cobbling together previous collegiate credits and credits earned through Chipotle’s internal training. Designed with workers’ busy schedules in mind, students can complete the program in 18 months.
17. ‘Pot’ brownie buzz
The Freebirds World Burrito chain generated some marketing buzz when it decided to bring back a discontinued dessert, a brownie baked in a tiny pot, for April 20, aka 4/20, the day marijuana aficionados give a nod of appreciation to the indulgence. Because “Pot Brownie” made such a good sound bite, it was used in media throughout the chain’s markets.
18. Pup-friendly takeout
Hutch American Cafe in Chicago created a takeout option for diners with four-legged friends. Customers passing by can ring a bell on the patio; a server will come out to take their order. When food is ready, Hutch staff will bring out the diner’s check and food to them, no need to come inside the restaurant.
19. Driving off-premise sales
Taco Bell and Dunkin’ Donuts partnered with ride apps to boost their off-premise appeal. Earlier this year, Lyft and Taco Bell piloted a “Taco Mode,” which allows Lyft users to request rides that incorporate a taco stop at the chain between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. Dunkin’ Donuts Perks members can order from their nearest Dunkin’ Donuts before getting on the road by clicking on a button within the Waze app to launch the coffee chain’s on-the-go ordering.
20. Late-night happy hour
In addition to its traditional happy hour from 5-6 p.m, Chris Cosentino’s Cockscomb in San Francisco runs a late-night happy hour from 10-11 p.m. to attract hospitality-industry workers as well as night owls looking for discounts. Gemma in Dallas also puts on a “reverse happy hour” from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., with deals on oysters, beer, wine and cocktails.
21. Smarter time cards
McDonald’s started testing fingerprint technology two years ago, swapping out four-digit codes for fingerprints to grant access to its registers. Now, the burger giant is testing biometric time clocks, using fingerprint recognition, so employees actually have to be present to clock in and out.
22. Toast bar
Capitalizing on the toast trend, Blue Spoon in Portland, Maine, offers a toast bar at brunch. The relatively inexpensive offering ($3) includes toppings such as cocoa, honey, ricotta and pickled peppers, allowing guests to build a customized dish without taxing the kitchen with custom builds.
23. Text the president
No, not that president. The 30-unit Taco Mac chain established an in-store program that allows guests to text the brand’s president, displaying the boss’s phone number and information at tables in the restaurant. Diners receive real-time responses, and if a situation needs to be addressed, a call will be made to that location to resolve any issues before the customer walks out the door and potentially posts an online complaint. Of all the feedback, 70% of the texts include positive comments on the brand, says Emily Beesley, Taco Mac’s senior director of marketing.
25. ‘Wok up’ window
Generating traffic from passersby, Imperial Lamian in Chicago sells grab-and-go dishes from its window every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, when weather allows. Dishes—such as pumpkin puffs, barbecue pork buns and fried shrimp won tons—are offered for $3 each.
26. Kitchen roomies save space
Chicago’s Midnight Mac and Cheeserie and the XO Marshmallow Cafe next door are separate concepts, but they share a kitchen. The arrangement allows both to operate with a small footprint, saving on rent. Marshmallow Cafe preps its food ahead, while the mac-and-cheese spot uses the kitchen during service.
27. Linked two-toppers
Instead of buying a combination of two-tops, four-tops and tables for large groups, Kismet in Los Angeles stocked its front of house with two-toppers that can interlink to form larger tables when needed. Each one has a leaf that folds up on one side and hooks on the other side, allowing the tables to easily join or be broken down, depending on party size.
28. For millennials, by millennials
In a bid to spur some healthy competition and engage millennial staff, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants tapped its young employees to craft ideas for a new pop-up restaurant. As part of the company’s inaugural CMR Millennial Concept Challenge, three teams of millennial employees—ranging from sous chefs to marketing managers—were paired with corporate mentors and developed prospective concepts that were presented to the group’s leadership team. Concepts were assessed on menu, design, viability, ROI and other factors. Two concepts tied for first place.
30. Friday interviews
To take the pulse of its audience, Cava interviews five guests every Friday. The corporate team selects customers at random from Facebook, Craigslist or Twitter, or talks to customers in outside co-working spaces. Often, the team is asking about changes to Cava’s app, and seeing how easily the interviewee can use the new changes.
31. No sports? No problem
Dave & Buster’s is one of the chains no longer debating what to put on its TVs when there aren’t any live sporting events to play. Now, the chain plays a stream of licensed viral videos, all of which are family friendly and meant to make guests laugh.
32. All that and a bag of chips
Retail brands garner a lot of attention with specialty potato chip flavors, so why not restaurants? To expand on the popularity of one of its famous sandwich ingredients, Potbelly took its branded hot pepper topping (which it also sells in jars) and transformed it into a specialty potato chip, available at its locations for a limited time.
33. A hashtag worth 1,000 words
Taking a hint from the popular social media handle Humans of New York, Panda Express started sharing stories of the #HumansofPanda, focusing on its young, adorable guests. This year, the hashtag took a new turn, spotlighting employees’ lives and experience with the brand. “Social media platforms are direct opportunities to connect with followers and share inspiring stories about our people, brand and values,” says Communications Manager Juliam Lee.
34. Same dish, new vehicle
The Egg Harbor Cafe chain, concentrated in the Chicago suburbs, refreshed one of its eggs Benedict variations as a trendier toast, promoting the altered dish as a new but recognizable option. The Grove Toast, made with the same ingredients previously on its Grove Benny, simply switched out biscuits for toast, leading to only minimal changes for the kitchen. The toast saw sales go up a sizable amount compared to the original. Staff also reported positive feedback, noticing a different and more diverse consumer type ordering the dish.
35. Hybrid restaurant roles
In an effort to staff smarter, fast casual Spin Neapolitan Pizza combined the busser and dishwasher positions. “We call it a bus-dish role,” says partner Ed Brownell. “They are responsible for maintaining the dishes in the back, but they have a headset on and are in communication with the front-of-house manager, and we’ll use them to make sure that we keep the dining room bussed so that we can turn our tables faster.”
36. Signature meal kits
Jackson, Miss.-based Babalu Tapas & Tacos has turned a restaurant best-seller into a take-home win, offering its popular tableside guacamole as a meal kit a few times a year. The kits come with all the ingredients portioned out individually to make the signature guacamole, just like ingredients are presented tableside, with no measuring needed. The kits have been so popular that customers have taken to preordering them when offered.
37. Tossing metal bowls
Looking for an edge when it came to speed of service, the tossed-to-order salad chain Sweetgreen tried streamlining its equipment. Instead of the typical metal bowls that staffers on the line use to mix greens and toppings, a store in New York City has switched to blending the salads in oversized containers that double as the customer’s disposable takeout dish. Using the serving bowl as the mixing container saves time, and it saves some water by eliminating the need to wash the bowls, the chain explained on an in-store sign.
39. Meat by the ounce
At Meat on Ocean in Santa Monica, Calif., diners can order from the Daily Cut, a menu that offers a wide variety of beef that is priced per ounce. This allows customers to try different cuts or customize a meal from multiple choices. It also gives the option to choose a smaller serving overall, or to add a bit more beef to their existing order, letting them customize both size and price.
40. Sound-canceling sliding doors
Single Thread in San Francisco cooks out of an open kitchen. At the end of the night, though, the restaurant doesn’t want to have its whole team stick around until the last guest leaves to start cleaning. To let staff clean and do other prep throughout the night without disturbing people in the dining room, Single Thread installed sound-canceling sliding doors that don’t detract from the look of the restaurant but allow cooks a more traditional back-of-house space.
41. Cocktail punch card
The Roosevelt Room in Austin, Texas, offers 53 specialty cocktails on its menu. The cocktail bar converted the menu into individual punch cards, complete with the name and ingredients of each. Guests who get all 53 drink punches receive a plaque in the restaurant and a gift.
42. Making an evening of menu tasting
Mediterranean fast casual Cava hosted a late-night, invite-only party to allow guests to try out new menu items, complete with a bouncer and a DJ. The Late Night Test Kitchen guest list included only influencers and chain execs, and featured a mini grocery store, so guests could pack their own to-go bags.
43. Courting Instagram influencers
Prior to the launch of its latest menu, Piada Italian Street Food held Taste Tours in five cities. Participants had to apply online to take part in the preview events by submitting their name, Instagram handle and an explanation of why they are a “foodie.” To further generate hyperlocal buzz, Piada partnered with local drink and dessert vendors and held the events at spaces unique to each city. The result was an influx of social posts, both from social influencers and fans of the chain.
44. Harder-working receipts
Kiosk-ordering concept Birdcall in Denver worked out an efficient way for customers to identify their own orders in the pickup bay:
stickers. They can’t fall off, and each sticker lists the diner’s name and order number, and how many items are in the order.
45. BOH voice tech
Voice technology is enabling managers to check on operations merely by articulating what they need to know. It is being adapted by Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, allowing managers to step away from their computers yet still gauge operational issues such as inventory levels and food safety indicators. All they have to do is ask for the data.
46. Manager on the line
Instead of shoving managers into an office in the back corner of the restaurant, Stacked: Food Well Built puts the manager’s desk in the kitchen. Described by CIO Brian Pearson as a small alcove without any walls or doors, the desks are positioned at the end of the line, so the traffic flow from the line goes right by them. It’s out of sight of guests, but this allows the higher-up to jump in and help right when they see signs of a problem.
47. No more auctioning
It’s impersonal for a server to say, “Who had the double burger?” when delivering food to the table. So instead, staffers at Vine Street Pub & Brewery in Denver get the name of each person at the table to keep track of orders, then insert a paper flag in the meal with the person’s name. This way anyone dropping off the food to the table can use the customer’s name, providing a personal touch, even if they didn’t take the initial order.
48. Goof-free group orders
At Bostwick’s Chowder House in East Hampton, N.Y., orders for large parties on the patio are taken in a modified DIY style. A server hands the group a write-on menu and instructs each guest to check off what they’d like. The server passes the marked-up menu along to the kitchen, sans any errors in translation.
49. Martinis and manicures
It’s not just the permanent restaurant tenants occupying the stalls at Revival Food Hall in Chicago. Twice a month, it plays host to local restaurant Beauty Bar Chicago’s martini and manicure pop-up. Taking over one of the current tenant’s spaces, Beauty Bar is able to promote the nail and cocktail special (also offered at its permanent location) to a wider audience, and Revival drums up promotional attention with limited-time events during its evening hours.
50. Bite-size IPO
Funding doesn’t always have to come from going public or an infusion by big-time private investors. Fatburger’s parent company, Fat Brands, is taking advantage of a relatively new kind of growth strategy: a Regulation A+ initial public offering, also known as a mini IPO, which allows concepts to raise money from their customers and small-time investors.