Where does a forward-looking restaurateur scout for true innovation? Increasingly, overseas. Finding bold, truly head-turning ideas is easier when the field of possibilities is expanded to the entire globe. Plus, the U.S. restaurant business seems absolutely fuddy-duddy compared with the daring markets of other continents, particularly Asia. Notions straight out of Star Wars are a modern-day reality in places like Japan.
Consider these examples of how far afield some international operations are going to be novel, even if they’re flying the flag of familiar, conservative U.S. brands.
McDonald’s space station
The unit is actually ground-based, but the departures incorporated into the menu and design leave no doubt that this set of Golden Arches is really out there. It’s so different that the restaurant doesn’t even sport the traditional McDonald’s name. It’s called McDonald’s Next.
The upscale touches include latte art—images of the Peanuts cartoon characters etched into the foam as a matter of routine, a twist that doesn’t fit McDonald’s usual grab-and-go mindset.
The burger toppings available at the Hong Kong unit are also a far cry from pickles, cheese and mustard. You can get asparagus on top of your quarter-pounder, or opt instead for a custom-made salad a la Sweetgreen. As with any mixed-to-order salad concept, the unit showcases the ingredients in a glass-fronted display. Customers move down the line to build their meal in classic Chipotle style.
Remember, McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook has promised to transplant winning menu, operational and marketing ideas from one geographic market to another. Might some of the innovations of McDonald’s Next appear in U.S. stores?
Thanksgiving every day
An addition to the London dining scene plans to set the new standard for menu simplification: Customers’ options will be limited to turkey, turkey and more turkey. And only roasted turkey at that.
Strut and Cluck is promising to combine the North American protein with flavorings from “our eastern Mediterranean heritage” to provide a twist on family favorites. According to the planned restaurant’s website, free-range birds will be marinated for 24 hours, then slow-baked until the meat is almost falling off the bone. Before the turkey is served, it gets a second heating in a charcoal oven.
The concept was tested in a popup restaurant in November, when we Americans deplete the national turkey crop for Thanksgiving. The permanent Strut and Cluck is slated to open this spring.
The self-serve restaurant
The integration of apps into customers’ ordering experience goes to new extremes at a new place in Beijing called Renrenxiang. There’s pretty much nothing to the place but a kitchen, some speakers and the seating. Guests input their orders and pay for their meal via a smart-phone app. The information is channeled back to the chefs, who prep the meal and trigger an announcement system that calls the patron to pick up the food. There’s no human interaction at all, even for on-premise dining.
Sushi with some sexism
Finally, a concept that focuses on female employees without turning the spotlight on particular body parts. Part of Nadeshiko Sushi’s marketed distinction is its unchallenged claim of being the only sushi bar in Japan with an all-female team of chefs.
That’d be the equivalent in Japan of having a Hooters in the U.S. staffed only by male servers.
The concept has been attacked by more conventional members of the industry, who contend the women impart a bad taste to the raw fish by trying to do work that’s meant for men.
The place likely couldn’t buy publicity of that caliber and volume, especially in appealing to younger customers who may not agree with the conventions their elders revered. It’s a way of turning gender bias into a benefit.
Germs vs. Bill Gates
Innovations for combating food contaminations are likely to flow from the United Kingdom to the United States (and everywhere else in the world) because of an initiative Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates is funding at the University of Nottingham.
The research is focused on the radical notion of introducing microbes into food sources to protect people from other microorganisms. Bacteriophages—the Borg of the viral world—would be used to free foodstuffs of harmful bacteria like E.coli and salmonella by invading the single-sell organisms and reconfiguring the DNA so they turn into harmless viruses.