A parental warning is required for this week’s review of arresting developments from the restaurant world. If you don’t want to read about sexual shenanigans in the trade’s good ole days, how much of a premium guests put on dining room nudity, or some customers’ obsession with cup features, we’ll see you next week.
Everyone else—lock the door, pull down the shades and get reading.
Restaurateurs’ diminished sex life
Long before there was Tinder, the best bet for a hot hookup might have been working in a new restaurant, suggests Keith McNally, the 65-year-old creative force behind such New York City dining institutions as Balthazar, Pastis and Odeon. He penned a tongue-in-cheek article in The New York Times this week in which he laments how much fun has been stripped out of the restaurant business during his 41-year tenure. Not the least of the losses, he says, was the opportunity to get lucky.
“Sex among the staff has also gone out the window,” McNally writes. “Well, not entirely. But as an owner, I’m legally bound to pour cold water on the idea the day someone new is hired.”
As for himself, “If in 1975 I’d been discouraged from consorting with the opposite sex, I’d probably have left the restaurant profession for a more promiscuous one. Politics, perhaps.” Instead, he met his two wives on the job—“not simultaneously,” he assures the reader.
The occasion for writing: The New York Times had run an article several days earlier about how daunting the development of a restaurant can be in the city. McNally wrote to concur, recounting how he’d sworn never to do it again—until he had gotten the idea for his new place, Augustine.
A nude restaurant lasting more than three hours
The hottest restaurant format of 2016, beyond any doubt, has been the dine-in-the-buff pop-up (and, yes, we’re tittering as we write that). The handful of places have done boffo business during their limited runs. London’s clothing-optional Bunyadi, for instance, sold all of its seats in hours, and had a waiting list of 46,000 would-be nudists.
Not surprisingly, Bunyadi proprietor Seb Lyall has decided to open a permanent version of the restaurant. Like the place that opened temporarily this summer, it will allow guests to choose where they want to dine—in the clothed section or the naked area, where they can wear a robe and still meet the dress code.
In the pop-up, patrons could choose either a vegan (“as naked as the diners,” according to the restaurant) or a nonvegan prix fixe meal for the equivalent of $85.
A dine-in-the-nude restaurant has yet to open in the United States (outside of nudist camps), or at least as far as we know. But we’ll keep looking.
‘Rack’ as in ‘antlers’
Among the jaw-dropping sales disclosures of the week was the report of how Arby’s new venison sandwich fared in its debut. A three-day run of the deer meat sandwich had to be cut short in the kickoff market of Nashville, because the participating restaurant ran out of supplies within five hours.
The inventory isn’t deep. The Nashville unit is one of only 17 Arby’s stores nationwide that will offer the sandwich. Its allotment was 250 venison steaks. But the unit learned that patrons were driving as long as an hour to get one.
The limited-time product is aimed in part at deer hunters—apparently bad ones.
What’s in a cup
The annual bitching about Starbucks’ holiday cup design has started early this year, in part because there could be two episodes in 2016.
In case you’ve forgotten, the coffee chain landed on the naughty list last year by switching to a red cup and omitting any Christmas-y icons such as snowflakes or tree ornaments. Incensed patrons accused the brand of yielding to political correctness and playing down traditions that may not be shared by non-Christians.
This year, the green cup is back, or at least for now. But it features drawings of people instead of holiday icons, sketched in one continuous pen stroke to emphasize unity and diversity, according to the chain.
Once again, that’s not sitting well with all consumers. The complainers want the chain to use a red cup, convinced by last year’s experience that it’s a more Christmas-y color. And they’re still pissing and moaning about omitting reindeer, Santas or any of the usual holiday icons.
They could get their way, to some extent. Amid coverage of the presidential election and world events, some media have broken a story about mysterious boxes appearing behind the counters at Starbucks units, marked with a warning that no peeking is allowed. Pundits say the cartons likely contain a second holiday cup, and probably a red one, though there’s been no confirmation from WikiLeaks.
Indulgence is relative
An erosion of guest traffic has convinced many restaurant operations to throw a stronger spotlight on their value offerings, but that doesn’t necessarily mean cheap food, as Joe’s Crab Shack is proving.
The seafood concept has been hurting more than many casual chains during the current downturn, with guest counts down nearly 10% in the third quarter. To win back patrons, it recently removed a signature promotion, an all-you-can-eat-crab deal on Wednesday nights, and replaced it with an offer of unlimited shrimp, a less costly option.
Management sounds more excited about a deal that’s currently being tested in fewer than a dozen stores, a bounty with a flexible price tag. On certain nights of the week, patrons can order a seafood bucket that starts at $17 and goes up from there, as determined by what they want to include. The choices include different types of crab and other shellfish.
With that customization, the bucket is selling at an average of $24, the per-person average check at Joe’s. But the offer is being perceived as a deal, and that’s showing in traffic gains, said Bob Merritt, CEO of parent company Ignite Restaurant Group.