This week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Going one step further

Restaurateurs are the worst sort of horse thieves, swiping competitors’ ideas, menu items and talent with the bravado of mafia lieutenants. Instead of damning the copycatting, consumers warm to it because a light-fingered operator typically refines a looted innovation for the sake of differentiation. Soon a new trend emerges, often more powerful and engaging than the one from which it arose.

That tendency to push things further was evident this week, particularly in these five instances.

1. From secret restaurant menus to secret restaurant rooms.

You knew the Macarena was done the minute your uncle danced it at a family wedding. Hurtling similarly toward uncoolness is the secret menu, a way of letting customers feel like insiders and invitees to a special clique. Now everyone knows how to order the unlisted items at In-N-Out, Chipotle and even McDonald’s.

A restaurant in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown area is experimenting with what may be the next step. As the coolest customers of Brass Tacks are aware, that wall with the fireplace, next to the rest rooms, is actually a disguised door that leads into what insiders know as “the make-out room.”  Patrons often discover it when they lean against the mantel while waiting for the facilities. The set-up is not dissimilar to the faux bookcase that hid a secret bathroom at the now-defunct midtown Pop Burger in New York City.

Brass Tacks' secret love nest can also be rented for parties and events. It has become a signature of the place.

2. From display kitchens to interactive kitchens. 

London’s ascension into a topnotch restaurant city has the side effect of fostering trends that drift to this side of the Pond. Just ask any fan of Starbucks’ new Flat White or the purveyors of the Champagne and hot dog joints that are cropping up in the Colonies.

The next import may be the interactive kitchen, a sort of chef’s table for everyone. Counter seating and tables are moved into the kitchen, a garlic clove’s toss from the cooking line, and some establishments even provide aprons for guests to assist in the prep work. To temper the traffic and lesson the chances of collisions, chefs rather than servers deliver the food.

In other instances, the set-up is like a vintage U.S. coffee shop, with fixed stools under a counter that abuts the kitchen. But the grub is fine-dining caliber, and the dishes are served by chefs in whites, not a wisecracking waitress named Marge. This is big-ticket stuff.

A major part of the attraction is the opportunity to converse with the kitchen crew, a step beyond merely watching them work in a display kitchen.

The trend is already rippling onto these shores. Being able to speak with the person who cooked your food is an integral part of the Vapiano and ZED451 concepts.  Travail Kitchen and Amusements has already aped the concept to a considerable degree, with planks serving as tables that abut the kitchen area and chefs doubling as servers.

3. From frequent-guest points to Starbucks’ “currency.”

Almost unnoticed in last week’s announcement of the head-turning deal between Starbucks and the Spotify music service was a preview of the next-generation loyalty program. But it was the favored topic of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz when he appeared this week at a financial conference in New York City.

As part of the New Age giants’ agreement, Starbucks will encourage customers to join Spotify Premium, a paid service that provides them with perks a Spotify “lite” user can’t get. One of the incentives will be a reward of “stars” that can be redeemed at Starbucks outlets for food and beverages. In essence, signing up for Spotify Premium will earn consumers freebies at the coffee chain. The credits can only be cashed in at a Starbucks.

The credits aren’t provided to Spotify free of charge, Schultz explained.  Starbucks is selling them to the music service “at a wholesale level, which will provide Starbucks with a new source of revenue,” he said. The dollars aren’t “going to move the needle,” he added, but they’re found revenues nonetheless.

The needle will show more movement as Starbucks seeks other consumer-service partners, which the chain is actively doing, Schultz suggested.  “This is the beginning of leveraging the ubiquity of Starbucks,” he said.

4. From Yelpers to professional restaurant critics.  

From the first time a customer slammed a restaurant on Yelp, operators have decried the unfairness of being reviewed by shmucks who wouldn’t know a sauté from a satay. A hopeful sign emerged this week of restaurant criticism shifting back to the pros.

Facebook has lined up five big-time media—Bon Appetit, Eater, the San Francisco Chronicle, New York and Conde Nast Traveler—to provide their reviews of restaurants included in the social media site. Citizen-reviewers can still leave feedback about their (presumed) experiences at a place, but consumers shopping for somewhere to eat can also see what an educated diner thought of the candidates after multiple visits.

It’s a high-five moment for the industry’s legion of Yelp haters.

5. From conqueror to restaurant promoter.  

The terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq, a.k.a. ISIS, isn’t oblivious to the appeal of dining out.  The organization issued a press release this week to tout the variety and quality of restaurants available to residents of Mosul, one of its key strongholds. Pictures and descriptions almost suggested the enemy of the Western world was planning a Mosul Restaurant Group.

Observers say the move was an attempt by the brutal conquerors to demonstrate how much kinder and gentler life in the city has become since the militants seized it.

Never mind that women can’t eat in the same dining room as men, who are expected to pray at the required times, and that the places’ overseers are still brutally murdering nonbelievers.  The shawarma is excellent.


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