Only a turnip would maintain that the lines of competition are holding fast in the restaurant industry, a business where reaching across traditional boundaries to pluck another field’s ideas is part of the art form. Signs of that inspired piracy were particularly evident this week, along with the proof that other industries are scaling restaurants’ walls to pillage for new opportunities. Here are a few thefts worth noting.
1. McDonald’s has a gold card
Luxury-goods companies routinely loan or give their wares to celebrities as a way of cultivating cachet and high-profile fans. McDonald’s, it seems, has its own perks for VIPs. Actor Rob Lowe revealed this week on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show that he’s one of a few 1 percenters to carry a McDonald’s McGold Card, a pass that entitles him to free food for a year from select units. The card is also reportedly carried by the likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, a McDonald’s stockholder also known as the second richest person in America (Gates being Number 1). However, the ultimate sign of arrival as a McDonald’s customer is awarded more on the basis of familiarity or heroism than stardom.
2. Everyone’s adding taprooms
Local craft beers were once a draw exclusively for independent restaurants, taverns and brewpubs. Now customers will be able to fill up a growler at Fuddrucker’s, the latest mainstream brand to co-opt the attraction. The fast-casual chain’s latest outlet, in Bozeman, Mont., features a taproom studded with local brews, available for on-premise consumption or to be taken home. Cole’s Backyard Grill, the new fast-casual spin-off from the parent of the Bonanza and Ponderosa budget-steak chains, also features local beers, as does the new full-service iteration of Bonanza, Bonanza Steak & BBQ.
3. Truck stops try to shake their greasy-spoon image
One of this week’s head-turning acquisitions was TravelCenter of America’s still-pending purchase of Quaker Steak & Lube for $25 million. The casual-dining restaurants will soon be retrofitted into TravelCenter’s truck stops, the roadside dining options for truck drivers and interstate auto trippers in 43 states.
But that’s not the truck-stop industry’s lone effort this week to upgrade roadside dining by borrowing some pizzazz from the restaurant industry. Two days after TA announced the Quaker deal, it unveiled three other restaurant concepts that will be slotted into certain truck stops. They include a New York-style deli (Metro Deli), a Cajun café (Petro Café) and a southern restaurant (TA Café Express) featuring smoked brisket and chicken-fried steak.
4. Clothing retailers aim higher, too
The other deal of the week was Urban Outfitters’ acquisition of the Pizza Vetri chain and other concepts run by the Vetri Family restaurant group, a James Beard Award-winning operation based in Philadelphia. Follow-up developments indicate that Urban Outfitters intends to become not only a force in the restaurant business but also a player in the new frontier of lifestyle centers. The concepts it plucked from foodservice are the ticket.
CEO Richard Hayne revealed to financial analysts that the company has opened a complex in Austin, Texas, called Space 24 Twenty. The retail-and-dining center will feature an outlet of Symon’s Burger Joint, chef Michael Symon’s ode to the patty, and a Pizza Vetri, along with an Urban Outfitters branch. The businesses are clustered around an open-air courtyard where beer and music will serve as additional draws for students from the University of Texas, which is across the street.
A facility slated to open in a suburb of Philadelphia in 2017 will feature several of the company’s other retail concepts along with three of its restaurant brands, including one of Vetri’s more-upscale concepts.
5. ‘If everyone else does it, why not us?’
Manager-development programs are a staple of industries ranging from retailing to accounting, food processing and hard-core manufacturing. Somehow, despite plenty of feints and a few stellar successes like McDonald’s Hamburger U., the notion never took hold across much of the restaurant business.
That, by all accounts, is changing. Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group intends to complement its discontinuation of tipping with the adoption of a step-by-step career development program for servers. Chipotle offers huge rewards to unit managers who raise subordinates to a skill level where they can become managers. And this week brought news that Popeyes is looking to bolster the abilities of restaurant managers by having a group of franchisees forge a new leadership-training curriculum.
The “early adapters,” as CEO Cheryl Bachelder calls the franchisees, are brainstorming and trying “new in-restaurant management routines,” Bachelder told investors. She noted that the chain will strive to teach leadership fundamentals and will set up a coaching system to get the best out of GMs.