As concepts fight for a foothold in the crowded restaurant industry, determination to be on the cutting edge drives many decisions. These 10 groundbreakers all pushed the envelope during the last 12 months in terms of both design and operation, bending traditions and blurring lines within their typical space to set new directions.
Tom Bradley Terminal
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) poured $2 billion into renovating its Tom Bradley terminal into a food destination, revealing the results last fall. With today’s foodie culture driving consumers to seek out unique dining options, LAX transformed the area into a local showcase for restaurants not normally found in this channel. Of the 31 restaurant concepts in place, 18 are first-time airport operators and 17 are local brands. Airports and other nontraditional venues might be an area this type of operator never thought of exploring in the past, but several have found design-forward ways to translate their concepts to fit within the small-footprint storefronts at LAX. While the buildout is still in the works, the lineup thus far includes fast-casual concepts such as 800 Degrees and Umami Burger as well as Starbucks Evening with wine and light dishes. III Forks Steakhouse and Pinkberry are among the concepts expected to open soon.
Teavana Fine Teas + Tea Bar
Can lightning strike twice? Others are watching to see if Starbucks, the undisputed titan of the coffee world, will prove that it can, this time with tea. Since launching the teahouse arm of the retail tea company it purchased for $620 million in 2012, Starbucks has built a steady stream of followers at its first and flagship Tea Bar in New York City, and it has since expanded to Seattle and Chicago. The growth is driven by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who said on a conference call in March that the $90 billion global tea category is “ripe for innovation.” To capitalize on the opportunity, Teavana Tea Bar was designed around the customer experience, doing for tea what Starbucks did for coffee.
Accessible tea experience. Unlike the grab-and-go coffee atmosphere, Teavana’s low lighting, comfy seating and zenlike decor encourage lingering over the drinks. To further distance the two, there is no Starbucks branding anywhere in sight.
Rose. Rabbit. Lie.
Short attention spans are par for the course in sensory-flooded Las Vegas, so operators know putting on a good show is mandatory. Yet amid the Strip’s myriad theatrics, Rose.Rabbit.Lie., which opened in the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas late last year, stands out for its ingenuity and deft knack for straddling the disparate world of restaurant, bar, nightclub and theater. For this retro-meets-grand social experiment, it has curated ambitious food and drinks, as well a vibrant roster of entertainment. The brilliance is in its ability to juggle surprises at every corner of the maze.
A labyrinth of layers. At any given time within the space—which includes a book-filled library, music room with a piano, swimming pool, ballroom and secret retreat complete with vintage bathtub—unpredictable shenanigans are the norm. Cocktails and globally inspired small plates might be interrupted by impromptu tap dancing, while acrobatics often kick off festivities in a late-night dance club.
Fast-Casual pizza concepts are popping up at a rapid rate, which potentially could take a bite into the profits of QSRs. Many of the once-popular national quick-service brands are showing concern about losing their edge as consumers gravitate toward new entrants in the better-pizza market. Fast-casual pizza concepts have become defined as those offering signature and build-your-own individual options, cooked to order in high-speed ovens, according to the 2013 Fast-Casual Pizza Cluster report from Chicago-based Technomic. And the big chains are revamping accordingly.
Pizza Hut is a leader in the change, embracing several key trends in today’s industry, including adding more fresh ingredients and introducing new ovens and interactive ordering. Departing from its traditional model of selling only full pies, Pizza Hut also began testing by-the-slice sales in early 2014 at two locations, catering to the on-the-go customers looking for quick, inexpensive options. Sold for $2 to $3 each, slices are cut from an 18-inch thin-crust pizza, then warmed individually in a deck oven. Pizza Hut plans to test variations of the new model throughout the year before deciding its next step, Al Litchenburg, the chain’s chief development officer, has said.
While other chains have yet to hit the scale of Pizza Hut’s transformation, many of the national brands are making strides to stay relevant. Sbarro joined the fast-casual race in October with an entirely new concept, Pizza Cucinova. Domino's Pizza's long-term strategy for growing its brand includes a new design with a display kitchen. And Papa Murphy's rolled out a new store design that emphasizes freshness.
The new two-unit Sbarro concept serves Neapolitan-style pizzas that are made to order and baked in high-temperature ovens fueled with gas but with wood added for flavor. Prices range from $5.85 to $11.50. The menu is rounded out with salads, desserts, craft beers and wines.
McDonald's Build Your Own Burger
When the world’s largest burger chain cannonballs into the better-burger pool, smaller operators better look out. McDonald’s is dipping its toe into customization, bringing better burgers to the QSR level. After a trial at its Innovation Center in Romeoville, Ill., McDonald’s outfitted this southern California store at the end of 2013 with wall-mounted tablets on which customers can build their own burgers. If the test is replicable, it’ll prove that the model can resonate with a modern, national audience. McDonald’s has built the design to match, adding new hues and swanky seating and light fixtures not common in fast food. But McDonald’s isn’t the only QSR burger concept making strides. White Castle and Jack in the Box are both testing touchscreen, self-ordering kiosks at single locations.
Embracing technology. On-screen menus allow customers to choose from either an artisan or bakery-style bun; American, cheddar or pepper-jack cheese; and a wide range of toppings and sauces.
Legal Seafood, a chain known for precise uniformity across the brand, has broken its one-size-fits-all mold with Legal Crossing. The casual-dining seafood concept, opened in the Downtown Crossing area in March, is the first in a line of standalones designed to cater to specific markets. Each neighborhood restaurant will embrace the local culture in both design and menu, playing to consumers’ desires for intimate, relatable experiences. This site has an urban, edgy feel, but don’t expect that from the next spot. Still boasting the “Legal” name, Legal Oysteria, on tap for another Boston neighborhood, will feature coastal Italian flare.
Ditching cookie-cutter casual. Anchoring the bar, which comprises about half the interior space, is a large abstract painting of a female torso, a nod to a famed local stripper from years past.
Incubators represent a shift in the industry climate towards collaboration instead of competition. It began with co-branded restaurants and pop-up events driven by chefs working together. Now, undiscovered talent is being tapped. At food halls, owners bring different culinary forces into one common space. In that same spirit, incubators team industry veterans and rookies together. With the mutual goal of developing a successful concept, they set up an incubator—a testing ground for menus, design and audience—that embodies the convergence of their shared ideas, talent and drive.
While it’s always risky to start a new restaurant, incubators have a safety net built in. Before hopping into bed with a concept, those supporting the project (typically financially) fully vet the entrepreneur and their project. Plus, to get it off the ground—and even once it is up and running—incubators tend to be all-hands-on-deck operations. While the brainchild behind the concept drives the bus, mentors are in place to offer advice, support and insider knowledge.
Perhaps the largest example of this type of program is the Restaurant Concept Incubator at Trinity Groves in West Dallas. Industry icon Phil Romano and his investment partners set forth to find young entrepreneurs with a viable restaurant vision, but who possibly lack the space, money and full know-how to make their idea a reality on their own.
Romano’s there to give the green light and the “green” to bring these ideas to fruition. He readily admits that he’s got a special knack for restaurants. But instead of launching more new concepts on his own, his goal is to impart his knowledge and foster new entrepreneurial talent, serving as a mentor to help millennials develop ideas to reach their own demographic.
Kitchen LTO is an incubator within the Trinity Groves incubator. The “Limited Time Only” spot reinvents itself three times a year, with a different chef at the helm each time. Just like the other Trinity Groves concepts, applicants are screened by a selection committee. Then, potential chefs and designers are voted on through Trinity Groves’ website and social media channels, leaving the ultimate decision up to the public.
Turning tables. Every four months, a new chef rolls out their own menu while a new designer puts their stamp on the interior’s transformable elements. Currently, Stefania Morandi’s contemporary design pairs with Eric Shelton’s new American menu for a limited run.
Will KFC Eleven be the struggling chicken chain’s salvation? Amidst increased competition and dipping sales, KFC parent Yum! Brands launched this fast-casual rendition of its national QSR brand in August with a second unit rumored for this year. A fresh new look and menu gave the one-time segment leader a face lift to bring it up to today’s FCR standards. But this jump to fast casual doesn’t mean Yum! is abandoning its quick-service roots. In April, the company opened Super Chix, a QSR focused on high-quality chicken, in Arlington, Texas. Observers remarked at the resemblance to the new segment champion Chick-fil-A.
So long, Colonel. Notably absent from KFC Eleven is any reference to the chain’s beloved mascot; buckets of fried chicken are also persona non grata.
As food halls move into big cities across the country, serving as food courts for those seeking high-end meal options, Eataly in particular has stood out as the food hall of food halls, opening its Chicago unit at the end of 2013.
The new site was so popular in its initial week of operation that it was forced to close down for a day to adjust to the demand. Since then, it’s been routinely jammed with hordes of diners and shoppers, seeing an average of 10,000 coming through the doors every day. What makes it so appealing to the mobs of locals and tourists alike is, in part, the equal emphasis on food service and retail.
It’s also a larger, improved version compared to the first U.S. site in New York City, says operating partner Joe Bastianich. The Eataly team learned lessons from their New York store, making adjustments to improve navigation and tailoring both prices and restaurants to cater to the local market.
One-stop shop. Eataly’s vast open market, with 21 retail departments and 23 restaurants, spans two stories and 63,000 square feet. On the second level, the Birreria room serves up bar snacks and local beers. Cheese, meats and more can be purchased to take home. But if guests want to sample before buying, they can grab a snack or dine at one of the many eateries, such as the I Salumi E I Formaggi counter.
Disney World Food Trucks
Bringing food trucks into Disney World represents a shift in food culture. Disney recognized the trend toward on-the-go eating, and it also saw that mainstream America has embraced food trucks. To capitalize on that, they created their own branded, mobile dining destinations: four themed food trucks. Often more approachable than restaurants, these nontraditional food venues present the opportunity to bring more dollars into the park. At a place like Disney, full of parents needing to feed their kids cheaply and quickly, food trucks present a speedy, alternate dining option. But don’t expect uninspired food tailored to children. While hand-dipped corn dogs are on the menu, international fare such as pierogis and regional specialties such as lobster rolls also make the cut. For the adults, wine by the glass—with suggested food pairings—also is offered. The brightly colored trucks currently roam Downtown Disney, and even head into the park during peak times.