The restaurant industry has reached that point again where its members are going far beyond sense and reason to chase a business edge. Those extremes can be tragic, as we’ll see.
But even the harmless departures can leave you wondering, is it smart to pursue an outlandish point of distinction just because it’s sure to snag attention? Is competition once again so keen that you need gimmicks like an all-nude night or rabbits roaming the place to spin the public’s heads?
Then again, there’s undeniable boldness in the leaps afield this week by Sweetgreen, an arbiter of what’ll be the industry’s next direction.
You decide who’s blazing a new trail, and who has simply lost their way.
1. How extremes killed a restaurant customer
Mention food safety to a group of restaurateurs and one is sure to remark that a single slip-up can put you out of business. Mere bankruptcy is probably a dream this week for Mohammad Zaman, who faces both a six-year prison term and the guilt of having killed a customer of his restaurant in the United Kingdom. Zaman was convicted of murder because his extreme greed led him to trade out a pricey component of his curry for a cheap mix packed with peanut powder.
A 17-year-old allergic to peanuts had to be taken to the hospital after eating in Zaman’s Indian Garden in January 2014, but Zaman didn’t change his recipe. Three weeks later, a customer ordered chicken tikka masala to go, and mentioned his nut allergy to the order taker. The patron, who knew food from his job in catering, realized after a few bites that his meal wasn’t safe and tried to vomit it. But his allergy was too severe, and he died.
Among the evidence that figured into Zaman’s trial was an order ticket upon which the server had written “No nuts.” The note was repeated on the lid of the takeout container. Zaman said he wasn’t in the restaurant at the time and didn’t know of the customer’s allergy.
2. Bacon? Sriracha? Not at Sweetgreen anymore
From the tragic to the merely curious: An arbiter of dining fashion signaled this week that both bacon and Sriracha are over. Sweetgreen, the mixed-to-order salad chain that counts Danny Meyer, Daniel Boulud and AOL founder Steve Case among its deep-pocketed backers, gave notice on the internet this week that it has removed the two long-hot ingredients from all of its recipes for the sake of health and simplicity.
Chef Michael Stebner explained that he doesn’t want to game customers’ palates by loading the food with the equivalent of culinary candy—ingredients like sugar, cream and butter. And apparently bacon and Sriracha.
“I’m starting with the best and then leaving it alone — that’s our food philosophy at Sweetgreen,” Stebner said in explaining a move that may well be seen as extreme by Foodie Nation.
3. Taco Bell unwraps another strange one
Simplicity may reign at Sweetgreen, but excess is still the war cry at Taco Bell. Breathless internet reports say the chain that hatched the Waffle Taco and Cap’n Crunch doughnut holes is about to introduce the Naked Crispy Chicken Taco systemwide. In case you missed it during on-and-off tests for nearly nine months, the new lure consists of a battered, deep-fried chicken breast that’s shaped to look like a taco shell.
That carrier is filled with lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese and an avocado-ranch sauce (but no additional meat, and hence the Naked moniker). Astoundingly, research shows the veggie innards have fostered an impression that the taco is healthful, Business Insider reported.
“Dare we say even the creation of the wheel probably seemed a little odd at first until someone said, ‘Ah, that’s really a good thing!’” the website BuzzFeed quoted Taco Bell CMO Marisa Thalberg as saying about the novelty.
4. Never mind naked tacos—it’s the guests in the altogether here
Last night marked the grand opening of what’s believed to be Australia’s first eat-in-the-nude restaurant. It was also the place’s last night, though not for lack of business. Clearly, as we’ve reported before, there is considerable pent-up demand among diners for the opportunity to sip and sup in the buff.
The one-day pop-up was the brainchild of two Melbourne deejays who aired the notion of a bare-ass restaurant as a lark during their program. The station was immediately flooded with phone calls and emails gushing encouragement, so a local restaurateur decided to give the idea a go. The Noble Experiment opened and shut after putting 50 naked butts in seats.
Host-restaurateur Daniel Lemura noted that soup was left off the menu to avert burns, and observed that silverware was dropped an inordinate number of times.
The Experiment was the second telling example in as many months of a clothing-optional restaurant connecting with customers. A few weeks ago, we reported on plans to open a London pop-up sometime this summer called Bunyadi, where the guests will be invited to disrobe before being seated. As of last count, advance reservations were in the 38,000 range.
5. Down a rabbit hole
Now that cat cafes can lick their whiskers in success and at least one entrepreneur is trading up to dogs as the draw, what furry options are left for the restaurateur who wants to provide guests with something novel to pet while they sip a coffee?
An operator across the pond figured rabbits would be the next cuddly critters to draw oohs, ahs and dollars. Bunny Blossom Cafe, a pop-up originally scheduled to open June 5, was already fielding reservations when plans took a bad hop. The notion of using Fluffy and Thumper as guest amenities drew the wrath of animal lovers, who blasted the idea as exploitative. Never mind that the rabbits would be available for adoption.