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This week’s 4 head-spinning moments: Creeper (and creepy) trends

No trend is harder to spot than the creeper, a current that crawls across the industry at the pace of an arthritic snail. Suddenly, or so it seems, it’s everywhere. Think of the better-burger movement, or how sushi went mainstream. It can be the trend spotter’s equivalent of failing to notice the frog is being slow-cooked until the water is actually boiling. 

The week’s head-spinning moments suggest it’s time to lift the pot lid and see why the hopper’s sweating.

1. Assistance animals run amok

There’s outright insanity on this front, manifested in dual ways, no less. First are the repeated but still head-turning instances of restaurant staffs refusing to accommodate patrons who are accompanied by a service dog. How hard is it to see the golden retriever is wearing a bright red coat emblazoned with “Service Animal”?   Yet stories arise this and every week of the customer with a special condition being given the heave-ho because dogs aren’t allowed in the restaurant. 

Strangely, dogs seem to be welcomed in the newsrooms of local papers, because that seems to be the bumped guest’s next stop.

But that’s nothing compared with the head-swelling expansion of what beasts can serve as service animals. Dogs? Okay. The occasional ferret? Meh. A miniature horse? You’re okay in Beaver Dam, Wisc., where the law expressly permits the working version of that critter to accompany a master in need. But leave the kangaroo at home; the city council voted unanimously there to forbid recognition of that sort of hopper as a service animal. A woman had brought a baby ‘roo into a McDonald’s, which apparently called the police.  Government action was required.

2. Restaurant week’s follow-up act: Cocktail weeks

The idea of using the restaurant-week model to showcase an area’s restaurant bars and standalone watering holes has cropped up here and there, but now the prevalence signals near trend-dom. Arizona is already promoting its fifth annual addition, to be held next February. The festival is not to be confused with Arizona Beer Week.

Discounted drinks will be showcased in Portland, Ore., in October.  Baltimore’s first cocktail week concluded in March, right after the inaugural drinkfest for Madison, Wis. Ads are running now in the greater New York City area for the Big Apple’s version, where primo cocktails will be sold at participating establishments for just $4.

Restaurant weeks are usually pitched as a way for locals to try restaurants that they’ve noted but not yet frequented. Cocktail weeks are being pitched to a broader audience, or even nationally. Arizona, for instance, sweetens its pitch for mixology enthusiasts by noting that they can sip without first shoveling snow, which might not be the case in other areas come February.

3. Public’s mounting peeve: Premature plate removal

A Washington Post blog has touched off a wildfire of grousing on the internet about a problem I’ve never heard a restaurateur mention as a service issue in 31 years of covering the business. Who knew the mistake of removing the empty plate of one guest in a multi-person party would trigger such murderous talk? The instigator, Wonkblog author Roberto Friedman, cursed it as “the most annoying restaurant trend happening today.”

Apparently he stoked emotions that many other diners have been tamping down for years. A number loosed their long-bridled resentment on a comment section of the San Francisco Chronicle, venting about the pressure they feel when they’re not finished eating but the plate of someone else at the table has already been taken away.

Consumerist.com posed what must be the existential question on many restaurant guests’ minds, given the volume and shrillness of the grousing: “Why have restaurant waiters become plate-snatching vultures?”

And with good reason, according to the Post. “Without my permission, restaurants have abandoned, or simply overlooked, a classic tenet of service etiquette,” Friedman wrote. “Rather than clear plates once everyone at the table has finished the meal, which has long been the custom, servers instead hover over diners, fingers twitching, until the very instant someone puts down a fork.”

He’s right to blast to practice, of course, though the outcry doesn’t seem to fit the lapse. And who knew it was an epidemic?

4. Barbecue is building into a tsunami

It’s the next fro yo, better burger, sushi, fast-casual pizza, small plates, craft beer or whatever other big trend has shaped the business—combined into a movement on the brink of being labeled a mega-force.

The onslaught is unmistakable if you stop and look. Concepts devoted to one or another type of barbecue are cropping up like Republican presidential candidates (the ones we’ve been encouraged to watch as emerging stars: Martin’s, Dreamland, Rudy’s and Bono’s.)

Meanwhile, mainstream concepts are co-opting the surge in popularity by adding products that fit their operations without the need for retrofits, like digging a pit outside. This week, for instance, McDonald’s started testing a pulled-pork sandwich, an item Burger King added last week as a limited-time offer.

Potbelly has a retro theme, so it’s not as much of a reach to chalk a similar item into its menu. The situation is different for Pie Five, the fast-casual pizza spin-off of Pizza Inn.  Yet it has its crust in the water, too, with a new pulled-pork pie announced this week.

Pigs are clearly enjoying a newfound demand, and not as service animals.

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