The restaurant industry is all about grabbing opportunities. Seldom has a week provided so many head-turning illustrations of that resourceful streak.
Here are five ways operators are trying, in decidedly unconventional fashion, to capitalize on the trends.
1. Chipotle’s tie to a vegetarian concept
The iconoclastic chain recently backed away from another diversification almost as soon as the speculation began. This week turned a flashlight on a little-noticed indication that management may still see opportunity beyond its namesake brand and two upstart ventures, Pizzeria Locale and ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen.
A recap for the benefit of those who blinked: At the end of March, Chipotle patented the terms “better burger” and “betterburger,” acknowledging that its opportunity sensors had pivoted to the mother of all quick-service segments. An experiment might be afoot. Then, two weeks ago, it confirmed the trademarks had been allowed to lapse, suggesting a change of heart.
Throughout that process, Chipotle co-founder Steve Ells had quietly kept his options open. At this week’s Menus of Change conference at the Culinary Institute of America, attendees were reminded that Ells is a partner in a recently opened New York City restaurant featuring food with a real difference: Nix, a vegetarian concept.
The restaurant, the brainchild of chef and Dovetail owner John Fraser, is far closer to fine dining than the fast-casual market where Chipotle has made its mark. But so was Pizzeria Locale before Ells and his team had Chipotle buy into that venture and democratize it. Three Pizzeria Locales are now open.
2. Tapping a new meetings market
Restaurants that sit empty during the day are discovering there’s a way to squeeze money out of the unused tables. They’re turning rent-sucking vacant dining rooms into daytime offices and collaboration spaces for freelancers and small-business operators who need someplace other than their homes to work and hold meetings.
Upscale places that are usually closed for lunch are working with a tech startup in New York City to rent the tables and seats in Uber fashion. People looking for a momentary place to work or meet pay a monthly fee to use space inside one of the participating restaurants. Food typically isn’t offered, but electrical outlets are. The restaurants make their money from a cut of what members pay the service, which is called Spacious.
Participating places like DBGB and Public aren’t the only restaurants that are exploring new ways of landing small-meetings business. Starbucks has just inked a deal to give users of Microsoft’s popular Outlook email system the ability to book a table at one of the coffee chain’s branches for a small meeting.
The economics behind the arrangement were not disclosed.
3. Bare facts about the latest all-naked restaurant
Restaurants that allow guests to dine in the buff have, um, just popped up in London and Australia. But apparently there’s enough sameness in the appeal to prompt the most recent bare-assed venture, a temporary place in Japan, to give the formula a twist. When The Amrita opens next month in Tokyo, entry will be limited to the svelte and toned. Anyone adjudged to be overweight will be turned away, according to management.
Nor will the naked cheeks of someone with a tattoo be allowed to occupy one of the restaurant’s seats.
Customers are informed of the policies when they make a reservation. They pay for the meal at that time, but management reserves the right to turn them away at the door if they prove plumper than the rules allow (i.e., no more than 33 pounds above the recommended weight for someone of their size).
Another house rule: All cell phones have to be stored in a lockbox.
4. Alternative to the display kitchen
The Tilted Kilt breastaurant chain is turning a brighter spotlight on its bar and brews in the just-revealed new design for the concept, but the kitchen will be showcased in a different manner. Part of the visual package is a new Crew Cam, where patrons can watch the back-of-the-house team prepare their orders.
The bar of the new prototype is located in the middle of the dining room, and the beer taps have been moved to the edge of the bar so they’re right in front of patrons. Bottled beers are stored in glass-front coolers, and USB ports have been embedded to encourage patrons to surf while they sip.
Other features include pool tables, dartboards and beanbag toss games.
5. Slap that app?
While chain after chain rolls out version 2.0 of their propriety smartphone app, more signs suggest that tech may be leapfrogged by alternative means of interacting with customers. Wingstop, for instance, revealed last week that customers can now place takeout orders via Twitter and Facebook’s instant-messaging system, Messenger. Both platforms are already used by Domino’s, and Burger King is experimenting with Messenger.
With the Big Two social media channels doubling as order-placement systems, customers no longer have to exit their Twitter or Messenger app and fire up the one for Wingstop, executives of the chicken chain explained.