One of the first casualties of the industry’s downturn has been predictability. Trends that seemed resolute in better times are now wobbling a bit—for better and worse, as four examples from the past week attest.
Here’s a quick review.
1. Sense in litigation?
Bounty hunters have turned the restaurant industry into a carnival midway: Step right up and sue a set of deep pockets for a prize! Frivolous lawsuits have become as commonplace as guest comment cards—though a lot more costly.
Yet reason prevailed this week, courtesy of the outraged judge who was assigned the legal challenge of Starbucks’ pouring practices. Heads shook in disbelief when a customer sued the chain for allegedly shortchanging customers by putting ice in chilled drinks. An iced coffee listed as a 16-ounce serving actually provided less joe than that—only 12 ounces, to be exact, with ice making up the difference, the plaintiff argued.
Oh, boohoo, responded U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson. Even a kid knows you’re going to get less of the good stuff if you want ice in your drink. “If children have figured out that including ice in a cold beverage decreases the amount of liquid they will receive, the Court has no difficulty concluding that a reasonable consumer would not be deceived,” Anderson wrote.
The suit was dismissed “with prejudice,” in the judge’s words.
2. A fast-casual contrarian
Rare is the modern-day fine-dining chef who isn’t at least considering a down-market shift into what’s called “fast fine”: food deserving of a white tablecloth setting, offered instead in a fast-casual format.
Renowned New York City chef Dan Barber revealed this week that he’s reversing the process at his Blue Hill restaurant. Instead of moving into fast food, he’s bringing hot dogs and fries into a fine-dining setting, all served on a tray.
Granted, the specialties aren’t likely to be knocked off by Burger King. The hot dog is actually a “beetfurter,” a blend of beets and pork, Barber told Gawker.com. It’s served with beet ketchup and fermented-corn mustard.
The “fries” are actually string beans battered in a sourdough and beer combination before frying. Potatoes, albeit an experimental variety developed by Cornell to crisp more quickly, are used for a pizza.
The trayed fast-food meal is being offered at Blue Hill’s bar rather than via table service.
3. A challenger for the innovator’s crown
A ranking released this week of the world’s most innovative companies included the restaurant industry’s recognized disruptors, Chipotle and Starbucks. But they both ranked far lower than a surprising entry from the foodservice world: Marriott International.
Marriott? As in “Courtyards by”? Once one of the most conservative operators in the lodging industry, with a foodservice strategy that leaned heavily on such safe choices as on-property steakhouses?
That Marriott, of course, is a company of the past. Today, its properties are more likely to feature restaurants like Stoke, an open-kitchen facility in the renovated Marriott City Center in Charlotte, N.C. It will be run by local chef Chris Coleman, and Thrillist has suggested the restaurant will be the city’s hottest when the hotel opens in October. The menu includes such items as grilled carrots, blistered tomatoes and a lamb shoulder that’s roasted overnight.
The company’s new AC boutique line promises local mixologists behind the bar, as well as foodservice options from entrepreneurs who participate in Startup Grind, a network of startup companies.
For the record: Marriott ranked No. 23 on Forbes’ list, compared with Chipotle’s 39th-place finish and Starbucks’ 42nd-place listing.
4. Enough with nostalgia
Retro concepts have been a rage, as illustrated by the newfound popularity of Clifton’s cafeteria in Los Angeles, or the reinvigoration of the city’s Du-par’s concept. But a nod to the past can only take a nostalgia-seeped concept so far, as developments this week attest.
Howard Johnson’s was once the industry’s largest and highest-grossing restaurant chain, winning fans with such novelties as clam strips and Welsh rarebit, not to mention 28 flavors of ice cream. It was whittled down by changing preferences and real estate-driven sales to just two restaurants, and word came this week that one of those is closing. The orange-roofed restaurant in Bangor, Maine, will fry its last clam on the holiday weekend, leaving a lone survivor of what was once a 550-plus-unit chain in operation, in Lake George, N.Y.
Meanwhile, the Farrell’s ice cream chain has closed three of its seven remaining stores. The concept is known for its over-the-top ice cream dishes, including the Zoo, a 30-scoop sundae that sells for just under $60 and can feed up to 10 people.
But the real point of difference for the chain is its double dose of nostalgia. The concept embodies an 1890s theme, and many Californians remember it from its heydays of the 1960s and ‘70s, when it was the place to celebrate a birthday or hold a kids’ party.
Farrell's has just lifted the napkin off a new menu, called The Profit Menu, that features such trendy options as soup shots and a chicken-and-waffles dish.
Curiously, Howard Johnson’s and Farrell’s were both formerly owned by Marriott.
This week's head-spinning restaurant moments included a suggestion in court that the "b" in IHOb stood for "bad news for Applebee's." That's just one of the long-shot gambles that came to light as oddsmakers considered the likelihood of restaurants charging into sports betting and who'll win the chain vs. independent bout.