The risk of neck strain for keen-eyed restaurant observers was doubly high this week, the result of a freakish propensity of recent grabber moments to arrive in pairs, if not higher multiples. That meant three servings of gall about restaurants’ seating tendencies, two new signals of how the business is evolving, and two more restaurant-chain bankruptcies.
Here’s a review of the double (and sometimes triple) doses.
Complaint gaining venom: Restaurant packing
At least three major newspapers ran an opinion piece this week from a food critic who’d reached the stand-up-and-holler point with how restaurants are seating guests. In his opinion, the tendency of shaving off a few inches between tables to pack in a few more settings has gone beyond the point of tolerance.
“Like airlines, restaurants seem to be trimming personal space in an attempt to pack in more customers, and this at a time when the average man and woman are 30 and 26 pounds heavier, respectively, than they were in 1960,” wrote Tom Sietsema, food critic for The Washington Post.
Armed with a tape measure, he checked how much space was left between tables in several of his home city’s restaurants. The typical gap was a foot, Sietsema found. In one instance, he found only 10 inches separated one diner’s seat from the chair of the person at the next table.
He labeled the tendency “the latest trend I loathe in restaurants,” and noted such negative side effects as guests eavesdropping on each other’s intimate conversations.
The piece was picked up by The Chicago Tribune and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
This week’s bankruptcies
The roster of restaurant chains that can’t cover their bills grew appreciably in recent days. Last week brought the bankruptcy of the company that runs Joe’s Crab Shack and Brick House Tap + Tavern, Ignite Restaurant Group. This week, Chapter 11 filings came from smaller operations: the eight-store Square 1 Burgers & Bar group in Florida and seven-store Original Soupman, the New York City-based concept made famous by the “Soup Nazi” episode of “Seinfeld.”
Neither was likely keeping Panera Bread or Starbucks executives awake at night because of the competitive threat. Yet the filings temper the notion that small operations have an advantage over lumbering giants because of greater agility and adaptability. A shaky model is a shaky model.
New ventures from established operations
But the industry’s third-largest casual-dining chain wasn’t the only veteran operator to unveil a new venture conceived for the times. Union Square Hospitality Group, operator of such landmarks as Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, ran help-wanted ads this week for a second pizzeria, this one called Martina, a takeoff on the group’s first pizza place, Marta.
The presumably smaller outlet will feature fried snacks, beer, Champagne and antipasti, in addition to thin-crust Roman-style pizza, USHG specifies in the Craigslist ad.
Meanwhile, the 48-unit Russo’s pizza chain took its new fast-casual format out of the oven. Chef Russo’s Pizza Kitchen is built around an oven and prep area. Seating is limited. Both takeout and dine-in customers can watch their meals being prepared.
Investors get a heads up
Two full-service operations, including the mighty Cheesecake Factory, made the unusual move this week of alerting investors midquarter about some scuttlebutt they might be hearing on the Street.
In Cheesecake’s instance, management warned that same-store sales for the second quarter are likely to be down by 1%, the result of what they called “heightened volatility.” Sales were up and down, signaling a sense of financial uncertainty among consumers, said CEO David Overton. He also noted that bad weather had chased some customers off the patios of restaurants, hurting volumes.
A few days earlier, the operator of the Bravo and Brio Italian chains issued a bullish heads up to investors about the brands’ recent performance. “We continue to see sequential quarterly sales improvement in our core restaurant base and remain cautiously optimistic that we will see that improvement continue as the year progresses,” said Brian O’Malley, CEO of Bravo Brio Restaurant Group.
But the communication ended with a notice that Bravo Brio had asked a lender for a pass if the company can’t meet certain credit obligations near term. The creditor had granted a limited waiver, and was working with the company on an amendment to the credit agreement, Bravo Brio said.