The week’s 5 head-spinning moments

A mega trend gets more mega

If you doubt the lines between segments are being smudged into invisibility, crawl back into your cave and catch another 4,000 winks. There’s more scrambling underway than you’d see in a Denny’s on Sunday morning.

The latest example comes from Pizza Hut. Headlines trumpeted the brand’s adoption of a new design that allows pizza to be sold by the slice (the breakthrough seemed to be the installation of deck ovens, which any New Yorker could have told them.) The QSR characterized the new look and format as a barge into the fast-casual sector.

But that’s not the end of the blurring. Seldom mentioned was the inclusion of a tossed-to-order salad station in the new prototype. The Hut is not only mustering a defense against the emerging better-pizza sector, but also mounting an incursion into the turf claimed by Tossed, Sweetgreen, Doc Greens and dozens of local upstarts.

Dollars go mega-scale, too

Pick the chain with the highest price tag: P.F. Chang’s, Dave & Buster’s, Chuck E. Cheese’s, or Peet’s Coffee & Tea. If you didn’t guess Chuck E. Cheese’s, then you’re not too quick on the uptake, bunky, because this posting deals only with news developments of the last week. All but the pizza-and-games concept were sold long ago.

But you get the aha moment. The publicly traded Chuck fetched $1.3 billion from a private equity firm, placing the deal at Number Five on The New York Times’ just-released ranking of the restaurant industry’s biggest leveraged-buyouts. Of course, the list only includes acquisitions of public companies. That excluded the change in ownership of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, which Apollo Global Management sold to Roark Capital a few weeks ago—before agreeing this week to plunk down the $1.3 billion for Chuck. Apollo bought the burger chains from shareholders for $1 billion in mid-2010.

The buyout topping the Times’ list: Burger King, which was acquired by 3G Capital for $4.2 billion in late 2010.

The Cronut is trademarked.

Thank goodness. Otherwise someone might have pirated it.

Grant Achatz channels W.C. Fields, and we cheer

The red-nosed comedian famously disliked children, who mercilessly tortured him on camera. In a classic scene from one of his movies, Fields finds one of his young antagonists leaning forward to peer out a door. Seeing no other adults in the room, Fields gives the boy a kick in the butt.

Achatz, one of the world’s most inventive and respected chef-restaurateurs, was accused this week of committing an equivalent act via social media.  A couple had brought an 8-month-old to his Chicago fine-dining landmark, Alinea. Sure enough, the baby started wailing, loud enough for Achatz to hear it in the kitchen. Certainly other guests, each spending well into three figures, were hearing the ruckus as well.

He didn’t ask the family to leave, but later tweeted his discomfort over patrons’ high-ticket evening being wrecked by a couple that didn’t realize a baby had no place in a white-tablecloth establishment. The tweet was mild by any gauge—much more of a deliberation over what to do than a snipe at the child or its parents.

Nevertheless, the post touched off a social media firestorm that landed the chef on “Good Morning America,” where he offered an explanation of his ambivalence and dismay over the whole incident.

Meanwhile, Achatz became a hero to the many restaurant fanatics who view a disruptive child in the dining room as something akin to having the staff use a leaf blower.

1-percenters become scarcer restaurant patrons

One of the more head-spinning insights to come out of Thursday’s 2014 sales forecast from the National Restaurant Association was an observation about upscale households. Homes with an income of $100,000 or more generate 38 percent of restaurant visits, revealed Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the NRA’s research & knowledge group. Households in the $70,000 to $99,000 range account for 19 percent. The numbers of rooftops that fall in those categories have been declining, Riehle said in a webcast, and the survivors are feeling more pressure to limit spending, indicating tougher times for the business.

On the bright side, Riehle noted that one out of every four dollars spent today in restaurants is related to travel or tourism. Spending by business and leisure travelers rose last year, and will remain a bright spot for the industry in 2014, he said.


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