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RLC attendees hear the industry's 'new rules'

There are “new rules” to competing in the restaurant industry, attendees of the Restaurant Leadership Conference learned during an opening breakout session hosted by Darren Tristano and Ron Paul of Technomic Inc. They outlined 10 strategies for restaurateurs to consider.

1. Fast-food chains can do gourmet.

Citing Taco Bell’s recent success in working with chef Lorrena Garcia, Tristano noted early questions raised by the partnership. “Is this a play to compete with Chipotle or just a play to improve their [product offering]?” he asked. Regardless, “this has been getting attention and driving people to try the new offer. … They’re bringing in new customers. … It doesn’t matter if they’re Chipotle customers who want the convenience of the drive-thru or people who want to try the [new, higher] quality.”

2. Most restaurants are using Asian flavors.

Tristano said Asian influences are showing up on the menus in more than 750 leading chains. “You don’t have to be an Asian restaurant to offer Asian flavors,” he said. “We’ve seen Mexican cross over. We’ve seen Italian cross over. Today, it’s Asian.”

3. Burrito inspiration is not just an Mexican cuisine.

“We’re seeing the introduction of pasta and rice, Italian and Japanese flavors, all priced competitively,” said Tristano.

4. Beer is the new wine.

In 2012, craft beers drove growth for the beer industry, up 15% compared to 1% for imports and flat growth for domestic brews. “The average Joe is saying, I want better quality; I deserve it.” Tristano suggests providing servers with the training so they know where a beer comes from and what foods it pairs best with.

5. Pizza is not just for delivery.

Made-to-order is the trend. It’s “the Subway model of fresh ingredients going on a pizza and going into an oven that’s going to cook it in 3 to 5 minutes,” Tristano said.

6. Full-service chains are no longer “full service.”

As fast-casual restaurants drive a bulk of the growth in the industry, full-service chains are finding ways to get in on it with smaller locations that include order windows and smaller menus. “Full-service brands can’t grow as readily because of the cost of entry,” Tristano said. With these shifts to a fast-casual approach, “the lines have continued to blur.”

7. Value menu items are no longer just a buck.

Quick-service restaurants “are trying to get away from the $1 menu item and shift toward snacking,” Tristano said. The goal is to serve a dual purpose with slightly higher-priced ($1.19-$1.79) items to keep customers moving through the drive-thru during off hours.

8. Social responsibility is becoming a “must have” strategy.

“Most restaurants should have at least one strategy” to draw an emotional connection, strategies such as seafood sustainability, grass-fed beef or free-trade coffee. “These enhancements … can drive an emotional connection with the brand” for consumers.

9. Operators are getting credit for supporting the community.

Projects such as donating unsold food to a local food bank can serve a double purpose: First, there’s the connection to giving back to the community, and second, a slogan such as “made today, gone tomorrow” sends a message about freshness.

10. Chicken is the new beef.

Tristano noted six major restaurant chains that saw double-digit growth in chicken sales in 2012 and noted the trend is “very well positioned for this year,” as well.

The Restaurant Leadership Conference is a three-day, invitation-only conference for the top officers of restaurant chains and franchisees. The conference is presented by CSP Business Media, the parent company of MonkeyDish.com and Restaurant Business.

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