This week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Ideas Mel Gibson might love

Good news for the kangaroo lovers among you: This week’s head-spinning moments delivered the strongest dose of Australian culture you’ve likely sampled since “Crocodile Dundee.” Who’d have thought the birthplace of the Bee Gees and Olivia Newton-John would emerge as the hot source thus far in 2015 of new restaurant ideas?

But see what we mean. A few jaw droppers closer to home are stapled onto the list for those with an aversion to koala bears or Iggy Azalea.

1. Starbucks’ head-scratcher of a new product

What is it? Technically, it’s called a Flat White, a latte variant imported from Down Under that Starbucks added this week to its permanent hot-coffee menu. The drink is the rage in Australia, but as news reports and online discussions attested, some customers in the United States were puzzled as to why. Isn’t it just a cappuccino or traditional latte with a dab of additional milk froth?

Still, anecdotal evidence suggested the Australian import is selling well on these shores, though Starbucks has yet to divulge any results. But what’s also telling: The Flat White has been on the market at least three days, and no other chain has knocked it off yet. In this business, not turning competitors’ heads is a head-spinning development unto itself.

2. No clown, no arches, McNothing

A Flat White is hardly the only U.S. coffee innovation to hail from Australia. McDonald’s McCafé drink line was conceived in the former British penal colony. Which makes the chatter this week about McDevelopments there all the more intriguing. Some units there operate as McCafés, without the full McDonald’s name. Now the chain is moving further away from its identity by revamping one McCafé into a chic new format called The Corner by McCafé, with no mention of the McDonald’s name except on the staff’s nameplates.

That’s only the start of what’s different about the unit, one of four new “learning labs” the chain is setting up to see how McDonald’s can be less like McDonald’s. Unlike a McCafé, it serves a lot more than coffee and snacks. The Corner’s menu changes daily, and includes chipotle pulled pork and Moroccan-spiced chicken. The burgers are custom-made.

The speculation holds that McDonald’s is testing acceptance of the alias with an eye toward retrofitting U.S. stores with the new format, or at least some elements. It’s not a bad bet, given that the struggling chain has expressly said it’s eying other initiatives in Australia to see if they can follow Hugh Jackman to widespread acceptance in the States.

3. Patron as pizza partner

An innovation put in place by Australian Domino’s units this fall is starting to attract the attention of Wall Street because of the idea’s financial potential. Under the Pizza Mogul program, consumers can propose a new variety of pizza to Domino’s Australian leadership. If the officials agree the pie has sales potential, it’s put on the menu and the innovator is paid a sales royalty.

The idea is enough of a head spinner to figure into the recommendation this week from Janney Capital Markets analyst Mark Kalinwoski to buy Domino’s stock. He cites the program as an example of the chain’s bent for innovation and notes it “could make its way to other markets eventually.”

4. What’s in your wallet?

Even if that Australian sales initiative is transported to the States, it’s likely to undershoot what has to be the biggest success of the holiday season. Starbucks likely had heads spinning this week like a shorefront weathervane when it revealed that one of every seven Americans was given a Starbucks gift card during Christmas, Chanukah or Festivus. That’s business already booked, and the opportunity to turn 46 million gift redeemers into regulars using their own money is akin to having an uncashed lottery ticket.

5. Post-holiday shopping

It started as pure speculation: The new parent company of Burger King and Tim Hortons is calling itself Restaurant Brands International. Could the inclusion of “Brands” be a subtle hint that other restaurant chains could be added to the fold? A “yes” was sounded by a few Wall Street celebrities, particularly Bill Ackman, the activist hedge-fund manager who’s forced profound strategic changes on Wendy’s and McDonald’s. His Pershing Square Capital Management owns 19 percent of RBI. He suggested publicly that another acquisition is possible.

From there, the snowball grew. The financial press noted that BK’s former owner and a major shareholder of RBI, Brazil-based 3G Capital, is basically a dealmaker. Others noted that a pizza concept would be a good fit for the new company, which has breakfast and burgers covered. Might Little Caesars be in play? Or even Pizza Hut, an underperformer for its current owner, Taco Bell parent Yum! Brands? Neither RBI nor any of the suggested targets has said anything publicly. But the speculation rages on.

Bonus head spinner: Strangest coffee flavoring ever, mate

And, of course, it’s available right now in Starbucks’ Australian stores. An astute visitor spied a bottle behind the counter of coffee-flavoring syrup clearly marked “Cheese,” as a stolen snapshot shows. But before Aussie foodies started spitting out their Flat Whites, a sage with insider knowledge revealed via the internet (so it must be true) that the syrup is actually a cheesecake flavoring that’s used to top a new indulgent Frappucino. The supplier apparently couldn’t fit “cheesecake” on the label and used what seemed to be a reasonable shorthand. Except in the age of ingredient transparency, when customers want to know exactly what’s in their purchase.


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