Restaurant traditions fell faster than guest counts this week. Even menu boards disappeared in one instance—along with bartenders, all-inclusive pricing, and the god-like aura of an industry superhero.
Add an effort to protect operations from the latest distracting fad, and you have an undeniable swerve from business as it’s been.
We promise this’ll make sense if you just read on.
1. What to do about fidget spinners
If you don’t know what they are, snap off the Walkman and give a listen. Fidget spinners are the biggest distractions to seize the public since "Candy Crush" hit app stores, and that’s posing a challenge for restaurants: How do you keep the staff from playing with the gizmos instead of serving the customer?
The spinners amount to flattened tops—devices, usually cloverleaf-shaped, that spin on ball bearings with a touch of a finger. As they rotate, a design might appear. But the intrigue is keeping the toys spinning fast, regardless of the surface or angle of rotation.
By design, they’re mesmerizing. Indeed, some proponents say they have a therapeutic value, helping children burn off excess energy so they can concentrate when need be. But the last thing a back-of-house employee needs is another drain on his attention and energy, or at least that’s what chef Eric Ripert decided when he saw an employee playing with a spinner.
The chef of New York City’s famed Le Bernardin confiscated the device and declared a zero-tolerance policy via Twitter and a sign posted in the restaurant’s kitchen. “YEP CONFISCATED,” he told his followers, along with a smiley face.
2. Dan Barber isn’t bulletproof, either
Few chefs enjoy as much esteem from fellow restaurateurs as Dan Barber, the proprietor of New York City’s Blue Hill and its suburban cousin, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. His use of local ingredients in inventive ways, along with the sheer caliber of his cooking, have earned Barber the reverence of customers and peers alike.
Yet, as the keen-eyed learned this week, a halo is no protection against the complications of being an employer in New York City. Blue Hill reportedly agreed to pay $2 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that alleged the restaurant illegally managed a tip pool and the proceeds from a catering service fee. The accusations were fairly technical. For instance, ineligible staffers allegedly participated in the pool.
Each of the 250 complainants will be paid roughly $5,000.
Blue Hill admitted no wrongdoing in agreeing to the settlement. It’s an echo to what’s happened to a growing collection of New York’s outstanding restaurants, including Per Se and Gramercy Tavern.
3. Out-innovating Chipotle?
If Chipotle had patented its service model, where customers move along the production line, glancing up at a menu board to decide what they want custom-assembled, it never would have run into financial problems. The setup has become the standard for fast casuals, whether they’re selling Asian food or pizza.
The downside of the system is the pressure some guests feel to decide quickly instead of leisurely perusing the possibilities. That’s why some noggins might have been spun by the revelation this week from Zoes Kitchen that it’s trying a different approach.
Test units have started providing customers on line with handheld menus. “That gives them the time and the patience to actually review the menu without the pressure of standing in a line and having the consumer from behind kind of push,” explained CEO Kevin Miles.
The limited changeover has not been without its issues, he admitted to financial analysts. “Our existing consumer struggled at first, trying to understand, OK, there is a handheld menu versus where is your old menu,” Miles said. But “overall, the handheld menu has been received well, specifically by new customers.”
4. Yet another twist on the fast-casual format
Meanwhile, the PizzaRev chain is also experimenting with tweaks to the fast-casual model. A store slated for Las Vegas will reportedly feature a self-service bar area, where patrons can draw their own beers.
Details are sketchy, but the setup sounds similar to one that’s used by a competitor, Zpizza, where patrons use a radio-frequency identification (RFID) device to activate a tap and have the charge automatically deducted from a preloaded amount.
5. More about-faces on tipping
News arose this week that more converts to a no-tipping compensation model for servers have switched back after giving all-inclusive pricing a try, leaving few examples of places that have made the alternative work.
Little Bird Bistro, the Portland, Ore., hotspot run by Gabriel Rucker and Andrew Fortgang, had its servers start accepting tips again early in the year, with little notice. The restaurant’s sister operation switched back a year ago.
Rucker and Fortgang told local media that patrons couldn’t get past the higher prices that an all-inclusive, no-tipping model necessitates, even if they spent less when you looked at the total outlay. It’s the usual reason given by restaurants that have dropped gratuities and then gone back to tips.
Urban Lodge in Sauk Rapids, Minn., similarly revealed this week that its six-month trial of a no-tipping policy has ended without a permanent changeover.
Proof no tipping can work is still readily coming from Union Square Hospitality Group, where Danny Meyer and his team have now spread the practice to several of their restaurants. They attest the approach has greatly eased the problem of finding back-of-house personnel because the pay disparity with front-of-house staffers has closed considerably.