Categorizing this week’s most arresting developments in the restaurant industry is tough. Let’s just say they were all Aha! moments that shouldn’t be missed, given what they reveal about the business’s direction. See for yourself.
The next Cronut?
Restaurateurs have been looking for the answer to that question since Dominique Ansel’s croissant-donut mashup became a social phenomenon and the very definition of a crave product. Every morning customers start lining up outside his New York City bakery to wait 30 minutes or more for their two-per-person ration of Cronuts, for which they fork over $11. And that’s if they’re lucky enough to get any; only 350 Cronuts are baked each day.
Now comes word from San Francisco of a similar hit. Baker William Werner is reportedly drawing hundreds of patrons each morning to his Craftsman and Wolves patisserie with a product called The Rebel.
The item looks like a muffin, but the similarities end with the outward appearance. The key point of difference is the runny egg that’s baked into each Rebel. It’s embedded in a savory cheese-flavored cake flecked with sausage and onion. No sugar is used.
Apparently the Rebels are more difficult to produce than the recipe might suggest; Werner is freely sharing the secret formula for the product, without fear of it being knocked off.
The Cheesecake Factory’s hunt for a new business line
Executives of the polished-casual concept had a surprising answer when financial analysts asked this week about the company’s quest for another restaurant concept. Was it indeed looking at a possible acquisition in the fast-casual market?
“Fast casual is interesting to us,” acknowledged CFO Douglas Benn. But “we're also seriously evaluating internally-generated growth opportunities,” and not just restaurant start-ups. Benn explained that the field of consumer packaged goods holds considerable attraction.
“We've always done that with cheesecakes, and we think there's potential to continue to do that by attaching our name to other high-quality products that are consistent with our brand,” Benn said.
While most restaurant chains with a presence in grocery stores merely license the use of their names to a consumer-goods manufacturer, The Cheesecake Factory has only put its name on cheesecakes it produces. It’s no stranger to food manufacturing, distribution and wholesaling.
Technology vs. good ol’ yelling
The Red Robin casual-dining chain revealed this week that technology will be crucial in resolving several of the concept’s production problems. In a fit of candor rarely seen today during conference calls with financial analysts, CEO Steve Carley acknowledged his charge has some operational challenges. The average ticket time has climbed to 55 minutes, meaning guests wait 10 minutes longer for their food than the chain would like.
In addition, the kitchen’s pacing is less than ideal. Activities aren’t being coordinated to ensure all the parts of a meal are ready to be served at the same time. “Right now, the technique we use in the back of the kitchen to make sure an item that takes 10 minutes to cook comes up with an item that takes two minutes to cook is we scream at each other,” said Carley. “What we've learned, not surprisingly, is this is not the most efficient method to do it.”
The outdoor-voices method will be replaced in the near future with a kitchen display system that automatically coordinates cook times for each component of a meal, Carley revealed.
Coupled with a new table management system that should leave fewer seats empty during peak meal periods, the technology will raise sales systemwide by $50 million annually and boost customer satisfaction, Carley forecast. He did not make any predictions about back-of-the-house hoarseness.
Restaurateurs have always been adventurous when adopting themes for new restaurants, but the motifs disclosed in recent days feel like a flashback to the eatertainment boom at the beginning of the century. Need we mention such concepts from that lamentable era as Twins (all the servers were identical twins), Duvet (a bed-themed restaurant where customers ate on mattresses) or our all-time favorite, the Crash Café (featuring spectacular car and train wrecks)?
Among the ventures recently opened or announced were Lebowski’s Bar & Grill, a tribute in the tiny town of Robin, Iowa, to the Dude, the hapless character played by Jeff Bridges in the cult film, “The Big Lebowski.” The menu abounds in items the Dude might have relished, including an oversized burger garnished with onion rings. It apparently does not include a White Russian, the Dude’s beverage of choice for all occasions.
Also announced this week was the development of a Redskins-themed restaurant, Hail Hog Kitchen & Tap, in the suburbs of Virginia, not far from the NFL team’s Washington, D.C. base.
Recent openings include Burgers Anonymous, the second concept to be based on “Breaking Bad” (the new restaurant’s signature menu option is the Heisenburger.) Although the hit TV show is based in the American Southwest, culinary tributes to Walter White have yet to make it to America. Burgers Anonymous opened in Sydney, Australia, and its predecessor, Walter’s Coffee Roastery, is located in Istanbul, Turkey.
Denny’s all-day dinner
All-day breakfast may be new to McDonald’s and a host of other fast-food chains, but traditional morning fare has always been a staple of the Denny’s chain, regardless of meal period. Even today, “over half the entrees we sell are breakfast entrees, regardless of the time of the day,” CEO John Miller told investors.
But, in a reverse of the trend in quick service, sales growth has been driven in part by the development of non-breakfast items for sale all day, explained CFO Mark Wolfinger. “Forty-five percent or higher of our customers come in at all dayparts and don’t want breakfast items,” he explained. Menu R&D has focused on satisfying that demand with new options.
“This was noticeably absent a few years ago, where [customers would] come for breakfast and then stomach the rest of your menu,” Wolfinger continued. “Now people are saying, you are really good all way around.”
Jack in the Box, then and now
Here’s what Jack in the Box CEO Lenny Comma had to say a quarter ago about McDonald’s decision to offer certain breakfast items all day:
“We are not seeing that the breakfast-all-day launch for McDonald’s is overall killing our business.”
Fast forward to yesterday, when Comma addressed what was generally regarded as a remarkably bad first quarter for the chain, which had been outpacing the rest of the quick-service market.
“We experienced the effects of both the heightened competitive focus on value and the impact of McDonald's all-day breakfast, primarily between the hours of 10:30 a.m. to noon.”