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The week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Shock & awe edition

Warning: This report contains material that some anal retentives could find disturbing. The truly rules-bound may be susceptible to cold sweats and fits of nausea. Restaurant ultra-traditionalists are advised to seek medical attention at the first thoughts of Armageddon. Those not afflicted should refrain from incessantly blurting, “This isn’t your father’s restaurant business!”

Olive Garden makes the late-show rounds

In a trifecta George Clooney couldn’t match, Olive Garden landed premium attention this week from David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien. Can Ellen Degeneres and People magazine be far behind?

Two weeks ago, the Italian concept was being mocked as an anachronism. Suddenly, it’s cooler than Bono.

The 180 was triggered, of course, by one of the boldest publicity stunts ever to turn the heads of restaurant patrons, a $100 offer for all the pasta the bearer could eat at Olive Garden for a seven-week stretch. Only 1,000 of the passes were offered, and solely online, and the sale was announced only a few hours before it commenced.

In the ensuing commotion, all of the cards were sold in about 45 minutes, and a heated secondary market arose on eBay, where the tickets were resold for as much as $300.

This from a chain whose most notable past stab at coolness was adding an Italian hamburger to the menu.

Executives acknowledged that the goal was to draw the attention of today’s frequent restaurant guests, no easy task when so many consumers think of you as a place for old fat guys and white-haired women in track suits who smell of baby powder.

On any buzz gauge, the needle was just this side of a Grammy wardrobe malfunction. Even when a complication arose and the Darden-owned chain decided not to honor passes that had been resold on eBay, Olive Garden drew good ink. It suggested that people who had bought the passes from the original owner wouldn’t be left linguiniless, and invited them to contact the chain directly.

No wonder it drew the sort of late-night ribbing—and publicity—that’s usually reserved for Justin Bieber.

Burger King and a different sort of buzz

If there’s still doubt the limited-service sector is crossing the line into casual dining, Burger King is stomping it out in New York City, where a franchisee reportedly won approval this week to open a store with table service and a beer menu.

The chain has already moved in that direction with its Whopper Bar riff, where patrons can sip a beer while they eat at what looks like a circular bar. But the service is still limited. New York’s Downtown Express reported that franchisee Rob Powell intends to provide full table service in the upstairs dining room of the unit he intends to open in the Financial District.

The move follows the announcement of a new full-service Fuddruckers format and the addition of a floating server at Noodles & Company.

Starbucks’ double take on skin art

The National Restaurant Association suggested this week that restaurants are having a tougher time of finding employees than they did a year ago, a possible reflection of the improving economy. Starbucks apparently wants to be sure prospective hires won’t bypass the chain because they can’t look and dress the way they want.

Employees were told this week that the next deliverable in Starbucks’ pledge to improve associates’ lives is a reconsideration of the chain’s personal-appearance code. Specifically, the home office may update clothing regulations and drop a ban on visible tattoos. 

A chainwide memo also reportedly raised the possibility of a “food benefit.”

Some Chipotle employees aren’t feeling the love

Chipotle’s sales and stock price ($671 a share) reflect the fast-casual chain’s blissful relations with customers and investors. Things aren’t quite as lovey-dovey with some employees, as events this week attest.

One of the most dramatic neck rotators in recent memory was the forced closing of a Chipotle in central Pennsylvania by disgruntled employees. They walked out of the unit on Wednesday, leaving a sign on the storefront that slammed the place as a “borderline sweatshop” where profit mattered a lot more than people. Given Chipotle’s New Age sensibilities, that’s a powerful criticism.

Chipotle told the media that the malcontents were a small minority of the store’s crew and that the outlet reopened within a few hours.  The walkouts included at least one manager.

“Hot Beverages Now?”

Krispy Kreme Doughnuts wants to be known as a beverage brand, CEO Anthony Thompson told investors this week. He called that redefinition “one of my top priorities,” and explained that it’s a function of “attachment.”

“Consumers are coming to Krispy Kreme focused on doughnuts and we’re excited about that, we’re happy about that and we want people to continue to come for that very reason,” Thompson told financial analysts. “The opportunity, though, for them to come in and purchase doughnuts and a beverage, that’s our big opportunity.”

He noted that the chain is testing frozen lattes, and is aiming for more at-home consumption of Krispy-brand coffee through a sales trial of ground coffee at Sam’s Clubs.

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