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This week’s 5 head-spinning moments: The whole acorn-and-oak thing

There was a time when grandparents would present Junior or Missy with a shiny silver dollar and the admonishment they bank it as the seed for a Bill Gates-scale fortune. “From small acorns, oaks grow,” they’d sagely explain, harp music swelling in the background.

Fortunately, most of those tight wads are now dead.

But, far less fortunately, their T-shirt slogan lives on. Indeed, it was likely tip-of-the-tongue for any sharp observer of the restaurant industry this week. Some of the oak seedlings they might have spied:

1. Taco Bell breaks through the fourth wall

The gordita giant stepped where no chain has gone before with the inner-office info it shared this week with the public via the media, social and otherwise. In servings as small as140 characters, and always with a dash of sass, the high-flying brand revealed the rudiments of restaurant-product testing, using a new mash-up, the Quesalupa, as the example.

Restaurateurs’ heads might have been turned particularly sharply by the willingness of the chain to queer the test’s results with the psst approach. In Toledo, Ohio, the lone test market for the new quesadilla-chalupa hybrid, Taco Bell confided  “If you don’t love it first, Toledo, the rest of the country can’t have it.”

If that wasn’t enough pressure on Toledo-ites to embrace the product, tweets encouraged fans elsewhere to lean on the guinea pigs. “Toledo has the Quesalupa. If they don’t like it, America won’t get it,” @TacoBell alerted the Twitterverse. It implored the curious to encourage Toledo via a hash tag to give a thumbs-up.

The Yum! Brands chain is also revealing customer comments via electronic billboards along a major highway.

“We’ve never brought this much attention to a test market,” a Taco Bell spokesman told the Toledo Blade.

If this is the beginning of an enhanced transparency, it’s merely a matter of time until Taco Bell reveals that a waffle-taco breakfast sandwich isn’t really Mexican.

2. Check-building, 2016 style

Another potential wave appeared in ripple wave this form when analysts recounted some of the results Taco Bell has shared with them about the chain’s new mobile ordering app. They told the mainstream media that orders placed via smart phones are typically running 20 percent higher than the average in-store tab. A big part of the reason, they said, was the ease afforded by the new technology of letting customers spec extra large doses of ingredients like onions, cheese or sauce—and charging as much as 70 cents for them. 

If the idea continues to work, is there any doubt it will surge into a standard quick-service practice?

3. A gotcha from gun advocates

There’s no humor to this one. In Houston, Texas, an armed man apparently burst into a Chinese restaurant, brandishing his weapon and threatening violence because he’d earlier been asked to leave. A guest drew his concealed pistol and fired at the intruder, killing him as other customers presumably frozen in fear.

Now it's the restaurant industry that may be frightened. Advocates of open carry, whereby any citizen approved to carry a firearm could bring it into a bar or restaurant, have already seized on the incident as proof that guns save lives. It’s stoked their ardor and given them what they’ll likely sound as a watertight argument for their cause. Never mind that even some of them have noted that innocents could have been caught in a crossfire. They’ll be harping on the situation, and lawmakers may give a serious listen and approve arming more guests.

The restaurant industry, which has tried (usually unsuccessfully) to keep guns out of establishments, may find its task that much more difficult.

4. A bad way of employing the homeless

As if restaurants weren’t scolded enough by the public, avid guests of at least one landmark restaurant may inadvertently bring more shame. Rather than wait in line themselves for a meal at Galatoire’s, a New Orleans institution that doesn’t take reservations, patrons are giving homeless people a few bucks to do the waiting for them. 

Reports came to light this week of the indigents earning enough for a few bites by easing the lives of patrons about to drop considerable dollars for a major indulgence. The restaurant has absolutely nothing to do with the practice, but when has the industry ever dodged guilt by association? Just think of the responsibility that has been ascribed to it for litter, obesity and drunken driving.

5. McDonald’s $18,000 retail product

Plenty of restaurant chains sell their sauces and menu signatures for home cooks to use, a sideline that’s become big business for brands like Boston Market, Legal Sea Foods and, as of a short time ago, Chili’s. But few have levied as high a price for the products as McDonald’s is charging in Australia. A big bottle of Big Mac Special Sauce will set you back $18,000—if you’re lucky enough to snag one of the 200 bottles that will be put up for sale on eBay.

Fans who don’t love the sauce that much can settle for one of the 552,000 samples that will be offered Down Under for a mere 50 cents each. Each dose is 25 milliliters, or a tenth of the branded Russian dressing that the expensive bottles contain.

The rare (and limited-time) offer from McDonald’s of a use-at-home food product should garner almost $4 million—all of which is being donated to Ronald McDonald House.

If it’s successful, is there a doubt the chain may try something similar in its homeland—if competitors don’t beat it to the punch?

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