The week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Blurred lines edition

Restaurateurs deserved a pass this week for feeling a little confused on the job. Head-turning developments might have convinced them they were working in a completely different field.

‘This isn’t for “Lion King”’?

The usually thick black line between restaurants and theaters was smudged mid-week by the chef’s clog of Philadelphia restaurateur Jose Garces, who started selling tickets rather than taking reservations to his yet-to-open Volver outpost. To eat in the restaurant after it opens April 16, diners will have to pre-buy a $175-a-head pass. Garces is straying from the model brainstormed by Chicago chef-restaurateur Grant Achatz by leaving out the auction-house element. Tickets to Achatz’s Next restaurants are priced according to demand, so that a chit for a Saturday dinner during the National Restaurant Association convention might be double the cost for a snowy Tuesday night. And tax and gratuity aren’t included in Garces’ charge.

‘Enough with the roller-dog jokes’

It’s no secret that c-stores are trying to snare restaurants’ convenience-driven customers. Recent days brought a reminder that restaurant chains are doing some poaching of their own, though with executives sighted as the prey.

Bob Evans Farms reminded investors that its push for more to-go sales is being overseen by Chief Concept Officer John Fischer, who served until late last year as an SVP of the Kangaroo Express c-store chain.

In February, the parent of Moe’s, Schlotzsky’s and Cinnabon named Steve DeSutter as its new president and CEO, replacing longtime Arby’s veteran Russ Umphenour. Before joining Focus Brands, DeSutter held the top two titles at the Stripes c-store chain, where he also oversaw Laredo Taco Company, the brand’s in-store food station. You’ll know which Stripes feature a Laredo inside because the lines for the handmade tacos start forming before lunchtime.

Meanwhile, 7-Eleven CEO Joe DePinto squarely has a foot in the restaurant business through his chairmanship of Brinker International, the parent of Chili’s and Maggiano’s.

‘Take that, fast-casual’

Retailing wisdom could definitely help the surging pack of full-service restaurants that are striving to beat limited-service places at their own off-premise game. Bob Evans is a head-spinning case in point.

The family chain revealed this week that its $5 takeout options were a hit last year, particularly around Thanksgiving. Sales of to-go soup orders were particularly hot, jumping 9 percent during the most recent quarter, executives told investors. A big part of the business appears to be the sort of homestyle sides that a fast-casual or quick-service restaurant couldn’t offer. They pushed Evans’ total takeout sales 20 percent above the quarterly level of a year ago.

The chain isn’t alone in blurring what had been an operational boundary between full and limited service. As Restaurant Reality Check reported earlier, the five-unit Slater’s 50/50 chain offers a bagged burger special that looks just like a burger-and-fries lunch from Five Guys. In addition to the much-maligned new Italiano burger, Olive Garden features sandwiches and calzones.

Just like home?

Assessments are starting to accumulate of how much damage the severe winter weather inflicted on restaurant sales and profits. But there’ll be no crying in the beer at Brick House, Ignite Restaurant Group’s “man-cave” concept.

“Brick House seems relatively immune to a drop in the mercury,” Ignite CEO Ray Blanchette told investors. “I’m not certain if it’s the warmth of the fireplaces, the next generation comfort food or the Whiskey Winter Punch, but so far, the cold weather has not persuaded the Brick House customer” to stay home. 

Perhaps that’s because the concept blurs the line between dining out and dining in, with lounge chairs, ample sports programming on flat-screen TVs, and someone fetching beers.

There’s more of a disconnect with Ignite’s Joe’s Crab chain, which features patios and a surfside theme as integral parts of the concept. Sure enough, Blanchette said acknowledged that the brand felt the same sales and traffic chills that most restaurants and retailers suffered.

A transparent burger

Necks might have been rotated a degree or two this week by McDonald’s introduction of the Bacon Clubhouse Burger, a marked diversion from Big Mac’s course of prior months. For one thing, the sandwich is priced far above even the “and More” items on the Dollar Menu, with a ticket close to $5. Bargains, like the deeply discounted Mighty Wings, had been the chain’s major lure beforehand.

There’s also the product’s reflection of almost every trend unfolding in fast-food. The bread is an “artisan” bun, not the round sponges the public has come to know as mass-market burger buns.
There’s the nod to mounting quality demands in ingredients like the lettuce, which is whole-leaf rather than shredded, and the thick-cut smoked bacon.

And there’s an accommodation to consumers’ mounting demand for customization. A burger patty is a constant in the sandwich, but buyers can decide whether that’s a beef or a chicken version.

But what snagged our attention is the transparency McDonald’s is demonstrating in describing the product. The website presentation notes that the white cheddar cheese is “pasteurized process,” and the claims of delivering a quarter-pound of meat is based on the pre-cooking weight of the patties.

Apparently the executive team must be grabbing a coffee and snack on occasion from some of the more forthcoming fast-casual chains—after getting their groceries at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.


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