This week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Trade-up time

Let it be noted that a wisp of sanity descended on the restaurant industry this week. After years of watching higher-aiming concepts outperform the market, operators of all stripes palm-smacked their foreheads in epiphany. Why don’t we give higher quality food, service and ambience a try?

Hadn’t they ever been to a Starbucks? Didn’t they know that cheap and fast don’t quicken pulses the way cues of quality and cachet do today? Haven’t they noticed that yesterday’s luxury product, be it a Lexus or a 27-inch TV, is today’s mainstream choice? 

They’re missing what this week’s head-spinning developments signaled: We’re entering an era of trading up. Consider the evidence.

1. A Starbucks for 1-percenters?

The high-end coffee market has been the turf Starbucks claimed as a homestead since Day One. But customers of a new beanery in London might think twice about sending even their servants there. To frequent SL28, you have to be a dues-paying member. The fee to belong is about $20 a month, for which you get three free cups of java. The fourth and subsequent doses of caffeine, along with any other delectable, will cost you more. If you have to ask how much, this probably isn’t a place for you.

The coffee shop is meant to be a clubhouse where members can sip a latte instead of a Pimm’s Cup. It is set in a cooperative office complex where entrepreneurs and aspiring masters of the universe share support services. They automatically become members, though anyone can apply for acceptance. It is believed to be the world’s first members-only cafe.

2. Disney’s F-ticket dinner experience

Bringing the family to DisneyWorld has never been an inexpensive endeavor, but now things are getting downright, well, Goofy. A restaurant set to open any day in the off-park recreation area now known as Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) will sport prices more fitting for Las Vegas than for a family resort in Florida.

An eight-ounce filet, served Oscar style, is $53. A bone-in New York strip steak is $52.

Entrees that feed more than one person should come with a loan application. The restaurant’s signature seafood combo goes for $160, though it’s billed as sufficient for four adults. A tomahawk rib chop, tipping the scale at 32 ounces, sells for $115.

Appetizers are in the $17-to-$21 range.

The bargains are the kids’ meals: $10 for mac and cheese.

3. McDonald’s McTrade-up mania

New CEO Steve Easterbrook has made good on his promise to embrace change and give more products a try. To date, the items in trial are either a nod to local tastes (bourbon-flavored burgers in Kentucky, mini-Bundt cakes in San Diego, Old Bay Spice-flavored Filet-O-Fish in Maryland) or a clear trade-up to higher quality components.

News leaked this week of McDonald’s plan to resurrect its third-of-a-pound Angus burgers in early May for a limited run, with a high-end price of around $5. But that wasn’t the only upstream move to be noted.

Mark Kalinowski, the enterprising restaurant analyst-slash-newshound for Janney Capital Markets, reported this week that McDonald’s is offering a new Buttermilk Crispy Chicken in several markets. The battered, deep-fried filet is an option for the chain’s various chicken sandwiches and salads.

Earlier, the Kalinowski News Service had reported that an Artisan Grilled Chicken filet was also in the works.

The test-kitchen tinkering follows the addition of Chicken Selects, a higher grade of chicken nuggets. The Selects are strips of whole-muscle chicken breast.

4. Fancy fries

One of the products McDonald’s appears loath to upgrade is its French fries, a standard-setter for the whole industry. Competitors, spared that heritage, are considerably less hesitant about tinkering with the fast-food staple.

News broke this week of a test by Wendy’s of a highly spiced loaded-fries option. The version is spiked with ghost peppers, the sinus-clearing Indian fireballs, and topped with cheese. For a 50-cent upcharge, the fries in any combo meal can be upgraded in the test stores to the ghost-peppered fries. They sell a la carte for $2.89.

Carl’s Jr. is taking a more European approach. The regional chain is testing a loaded fries option that was concocted to suggest a pizza. The fries are topped with mozzarella, tomato sauce and pepperoni slices.

5. Better doggie bags

The upgrading of restaurant choices for humans is nothing compared with the trend in pet food. No longer does the family dog have to settle for a can of meat byproducts and filler. Indeed, a study issued this week shows that canines are eating restaurant food on a regular basis. In 1 billion take-out or drive-thru transactions a year, the order includes something specifically for the family pooch, according to Relevation Research.

Restaurants may not be aware of it, but a significant portion of what they pack in the to-go bag will be eaten by a customer on four legs. Yet few offer more for the canine customer than the occasional Milk Bone biscuit. 

Might we see the day when restaurants try to entice customers with high-end choices for their dogs? As the owner of four greyhounds, I’d bet on it.


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