Developments of the past week may have barely turned a head on their own, but the larger currents they signify are a different matter altogether. They’re prime examples of—brace yourself—creepers, the emerging trends that unfold in plain view but go unnoticed because of their glacial development. Then, with what seems a leopard’s swiftness, they’re changing the business.
Consider these early indications of waves on the rise.
News leaked this week of Burger King’s plan to use black hamburger rolls next month for a limited-time product called the Halloween Whopper (you can see it here.) The bread is intended to be creepy, but it underscores a creeper trend: The world is shrinking and tastes are homogenizing, at least as far as the fast-food chains are concerned.
The unrelenting pressure to showcase something new, something engaging and unique, has the big brands rethinking the conventional wisdom that outlandish products peculiar to one area of the globe will never work in another. BK has been featuring black buns in Asia for more than a year, to what appears to be considerable success, but there was little expectation it could ever work here. Now BK is willing to give it a try.
It’s hardly alone in that respect. McDonald’s has flatly stated that it will be transplanting strong menu items from one area to another as part of its turnaround strategy. It’s already done it with service formats. So might it start taking reservations domestically, as 31 branches in Sweden began doing this week?
Meanwhile, Wendy’s is also trying tinted buns outside of Asia. Patrons in Australia who order a Gourmet Kiwi Classic burger can choose a black, black-and-white or brioche roll.
Private equity, please
Not long ago, the mere utterance of “private equity investor” would give restaurant-chain executives the flop sweats. The opportunistic buyers were seen as pirates who intended to hammer down costs by throwing overboard many of the things that made a restaurant brand special. Then they’d peddle what’s left to the highest bidder, regardless of its plan for the business.
Now that type of investor is being reinterpreted as a combination of the Red Cross, an indulgent rich uncle, and a brilliant consultant with the paramount distinction of having skin in the game. Restaurant chains are starting to tie capes around the necks of the PE firms and hail them as heroes.
The change of heart was reflected in the announcement last week of CIC Partner’s purchase of a controlling stake in Willie’s Grill & Icehouse, a 17-unit fast-casual concept. "We had been looking to partner with someone to help us take Willie's to the next level, and I can honestly say, we couldn't have picked a better partner," said Jay Barnes, co-founder of the concept.
Not coincidentally, CIC said it had been studying Willie’s for five years before offering to pump in cash. And it quickly indicated that it was not on a strip-and-sell mission. CIC investor Norm Abdallah, a longtime veteran of Brinker International and a number of growth chains, was put on Willie’s board to help plot the concept’s growth.
Making Lemonade out of dumped bakeries
Another telltale sign of the appreciated good a private-equity company can deliver: Rumors surfaced this week that sites of La Boulange, the northern California bakery café chain that Starbucks bought but then decided to shut down, will be purchased by Lemonade, the hot fast-casual concept out of southern California. Lemonade has capital from the buy-in last fall of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the model for many of today’s younger PE firms.
More seedlings of ‘plant-forward’
A fringe movement originally connected with the hemp-underwear set moved considerably farther this week into the restaurant mainstream. The ripplet is known to proponents as “plant-forward” dining, or making vegetables the star of the meal and recasting meat as understudies, if not kicking them off the menu altogether.
The trend already had its marquee stars in Dirt Candy, the highly rated vegetables-only restaurant (“dirt candy” is chef Amanda Cohen’s term for veggies) and Little Beet, a fledgling vegetable-only chain, both in New York City.
The last 10 days brought news of some entries in the American heartland. Jose Andres, Washington, D.C.’s celebrated fine-dining chef, disclosed plans to open a second unit of his Beefsteak plant-forward concept, this time in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the nine-unit Bowl of Heaven acai-bowl chain disclosed plans this week to expand into the Midwest with the opening of a store in Madison, Wis., next month. It’s a college town, granted. But it’s also only a pork-chop toss away from Mars’ Cheese Castle, the Disneyland for fried-cheese-curd lovers.
The indications are strong that plant-forward is moving front-and-center.
A bounceback? Dream on.
Restaurants have known that a single food-safety lapse can put a place out of business. Less appreciated is the damage other kinds of security problems can wreak. With the internet burning negative news into the public’s mind, and Google making sure the memory is ever fresh, the chances of a bounce back from a highly publicized incidence of violence are growing dimmer and slimmer.
A case in point: The announcement this week that the former franchisee of the Twin Peaks in Waco, Texas, would rather sell the site than try to erase associations with the biker-gang brawl that left nine dead.
Twin Peaks had already disenfranchised the restaurant, apparently wanting no connection to the tragedy.