The single-product concept

While many newcomers are clobbering themselves to assemble huge menus that try to be all things to all people, quite a few entrepreneurs are going the time-honored route of picking just one thing and trying to do it right.  Yet the latest crop of single-product specialty concepts—fried ravioli, Japanese cream puffs, drive-thru coffee—tiptoes between peculiarity and downright surreality.

Make that Cereality—a cereal concept that debuted in the summer and opened a second unit last month in Philadelphia. The inaugural unit is part of Arizona State University, but the 1,500-sq.-ft. sequel, while on the University of Pennsylvania campus, is independent. For under $4, guests choose from 30-plus types of brand-name cereals and several varieties of milk, topped with fruit, nuts, and candy, and served up by pajama top-clad "cereologists." Cereality next opens in Chicago.

The Soup Kitchen International concept, started by the man dubbed the Soup Nazi on "Seinfeld," will also scramble to sell a product typically linked to not only a specific daypart, but a specific part of the year as well. Celebrated on the sitcom for his sublime soup and saturnine demeanor, Al Yeganeh plans to branch out from his tiny Manhattan digs. While his soup empire stands at exactly one unit right now, he's seeking to franchise 1,000 in the next five to seven years—and he doesn't plan to mention Seinfeld to do it. "Why do I need him to have his name on my product?" he bristles. "People were begging to sell my soup before he ever mentioned it."

Two other offbeat New York concepts are setting their sights beyond Gotham. Frats Ices serves up sweet (cheesecake, pumpkin, chocolate) and savory (beef, chicken, seafood) fried ravioli, as well as spumoni and ice cream. Something of a regional favorite, the $5-for-five ravioli come with their own dipping sauce. Two Frats popped up in Brooklyn during the last 18 months.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan, there's Beard Papa's, a cream puff shop whose mascot is a pipe-smoking cross between Popeye, Santa Claus, and the founder's grandfather. A Japanese institution that pulled into the city last spring, Beard Papa's currently has three units. While Beard Papa's also sells sorbets, puddings, coffee, and tea, it's the $1.25-$1.50 puffs—flaky dessert pastries with sweet fillings, about the size of a lemon—that Papa's bread and butter. Assistant manager Takuma Ogihara says they'll franchise two more units in New York by the end of 2004, and another 10 across the country next year.

Starbucks-quality coffee with one-third of the wait-time? That's what they're proclaiming at Caffino, a chain of 200-sq.-ft. boxes with both a drive-thru and walkup window. CEO Bob Taft, former president of Au Bon Pain, says Caffino has the edge not only in the pledged 60-second transaction time (Starbucks' is three minutes), but in taste. "Roasting the beans onsite is our main point of difference," he says. With 25 company-owned and franchised stores around Northern California, Taft is now looking at sites in Florida, Vegas, and Phoenix.


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