Operators constantly are looking for an innovation that’s going to set them apart from the competition. But what takes a notion from “that’s cool” to a smart, business-forward point of differentiation? We present 50 of the greatest on-trend ideas we’ve collected throughout the year.
1. Dessert by the inch
At RCB Bakery, a concept by James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Mindy Segal in Chicago’s new Revival Food Hall, bar-style cookies are offered by the inch instead of by the piece. The sweets sell for about $2.50 per inch, so diners can order the exact amount they want, whether it’s a quick (short) treat on the way out (RCB is located near Revival’s exit) or several inches to share.
2. Codes to skip the line
As a perk for loyal guests who want to skip the checkout line—as well as a way to drive repeat visits and go more green—The Ohio State University sells reusable soda cups equipped with an RFID code that is scannable at fountain drink stations. The cup comes loaded with 10 free fills, with the option to purchase more drinks after those credits are used up.
3. Fostering family time in a QSR
A Suwanee, Ga., Chick-fil-A franchisee has put a new spin on the chain’s community-focused philosophy. To foster family interaction during dinner at the restaurant, the restaurant challenges guests to silence their smartphones and place the devices in a “cell phone coop” that looks like a takeout box. If the party can make it through the meal without opening the coop, everyone in the group is rewarded with a free ice cream cone.
4. In-house shoutouts
Joanne Chang has worked hard to maintain the supportive, encouraging culture at her four Flour bakeries, her restaurant Myers + Chang and her commissary kitchen, all in Boston. “It’s easier to hire and keep people,” she says, and it’s earned her a reputation as a good employer. Each of her stores features a whiteboard where staffers can write notes when they see co-workers delivering great guest or internal service. At the end of each month, the notes are gathered, and upper managers pick the top five across the company and hand out gift cards.
5. Cold ones for carryout
To avoid losing alcohol sales on takeaway orders, fast-casual chicken concept Flyrite in Austin, Texas, incorporated beer into its to-go business. Carryout customers can order growlers and six-packs of craft beer in the restaurant or at the drive-thru. Buffalo Wild Wings, too, plans to test to-go beer this fall in select markets.
7. Say to pay
Restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area—including some McDonald’s and Papa John’s units there—are testing a new Google service that allows customers to pay for a meal by saying aloud, “I’ll pay with Google.” Called Hands Free, the system works off an app; users don’t have to remove the phone from their pocket or purse. Tech at the point of sale detects a selfie on the customer’s phone and shows it on the POS system’s screen. The employee taking the order verifies the identity and approves the transaction.
A receipt then is beamed to the guest’s phone.
8. Loot for leftovers
Two dozen hotel and buffet restaurants in California, New York and Illinois are taking part in a program to eke a few more dollars out of food and beverage revenue. Customers pay a small fee—typically $2 to $4—via mobile app, and then show up 15 minutes before close to fill a to-go box with all the food they can carry out. The program appeals to cash-strapped consumers, and the app’s developer, BuffetGo, touts combating food waste and hunger as its main benefits.
9. Skip the bucket
To save some valuable tabletop real estate as well as make an Instagramable presentation, when guests order oysters from Jose Andres’ restaurants, Wine Director Andy Myers withholds the ice bucket and tucks the wine bottle directly into the crushed ice on the plate with the shellfish.
11. Faster email mining
Chris McCracken, director of nutrition services at the University of California San Diego Health System, starts the subject line of every email he sends to his staff (and they do the same) with one of three words: Action, Information or Response. The universal prompts help recipients prioritize those emails that require them to do something or weigh in on something, while leaving the FYI-only messages for last.
12. A cut beyond
Chicago’s GT Prime steakhouse eschews the “bigger is better” sentiment of some of its peers serving hefty portions of meat. Instead, the Boka Restaurant Group concept offers 4-ounce servings of all of its steaks, ranging from $14 to $28, so customers can try multiple cuts, from traditional rib-eye to bison tenderloin. It also serves The Carnivore, a sampler of four 4-ounce cuts that feeds four to six people for $110.
13. Preorder time guarantees
Service time guarantees, such as Buffalo Wild Wings’ fast-break lunch, have been popping up of late. Some chains are taking to-the-minute quotes a step further, adding estimates to the app experience even before orders are placed. Outback Steakhouse quotes wait times at each location before patrons put their name on the list, and Pizza Hut now offers “promise time” by projecting the wait for delivery and carryout before orders are submitted, based on how busy they are in the restaurant.
14. New resident love
To court loyal business of new local residents, Chick-fil-A tucks a “Welcome to the neighborhood” message in with the retail coupons that are sent to people who register a move and change their address with the post office. Included is a coupon for a free sandwich or order of chicken nuggets, valid only at that nearby location.
15. Time-saving draft latte
Upscale coffee chain La Colombe offers what it calls the first-ever draft latte, made with cold-pressed coffee and frothed milk. The beverage, also available in cans, takes a fraction of the time to prepare and features a stronger taste than traditional iced lattes, because it’s poured cold from a keg and not watered down by ice cubes.
16. Take-home illustrations
Salt Lake City-based Even Stevens Sandwiches commissions local artists’ renderings of its sandwiches, and offers them as free prints. The graphic riffs create a “sticky” guest experience that follows them home, says COO Michael McHenry. “We’ve identified creatives as stakeholders, and authentic advocates across all markets.”
17. Blind testing rotating wines
To appeal to fun-seeking connoisseurs, The Geneva Inn Restaurant in Lake Geneva, Wis., invites customers to test their wine knowledge in a blind test. People can purchase a mystery glass of vino for $10. If the guest can identify the brand from among one of the eight rotating wines on the menu, they win the entire bottle.
18. Buttering the bread basket
To elevate the ubiquitous bread service, market-cafe Buttercraft is thinking outside the basket with its butter sampler boards featuring scoops of housemade butters paired with toast. The Portland, Ore., concept offers a changing selection of butters in varieties such as pepper balsamic, Sriracha and orange honey.
19. Chipotle offers a raincheck
When Chipotle shut all 2,000 of its U.S. restaurants earlier this year to review its safety plan, it made sure to console patrons who might have been annoyed to find their lunchtime unit locked up. Consumers were told they could get a free burrito by texting “raincheck” to a particular number before the restaurants reopened. The giveaway also was a pass-along deal; fans could give the number and code to friends who might have been lapsed regulars or lost customers.
20. Doughnut happy hour
Glazed and Infused—a five-unit doughnut shop in Chicago from Francesca’s Restaurants—offers a two-for-one doughnut happy hour to help get rid of its fresh-baked goods before it closes at 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The time changes daily, says the manager of the West Loop neighborhood location, to keep the deal an unexpected surprise for customers.
21. Benefits tailored to the employee
Helping staff retention, Hi Neighbor Hospitality Group in San Francisco lets workers customize their benefits. On top of healthcare and paid time off, employees can choose from Netflix subscriptions, dining credits, commuter checks and sommelier certification reimbursement.
24. A $500 tech troubleshooting trick
“Fail fast” was an oft-repeated mantra by restaurant tech experts at this year’s FSTEC conference. Former TGI Fridays CIO Tripp Sessions takes that idea literally. To incite an IT team to explore a new technology, he suggests choosing one with an API and asking the group to mash it up with a data set in a specified period of time—and offer a $500 gift card if they deliver. You’ll be amazed by the quality of their work, he says. And you’ll pinpoint where you need to spend time bolstering their knowledge.
26. Tools to open communication
A busy Houston location with a number of deaf staffers added simple tools to improve the experience both for those employees and guests. For instance, when coffee is finished brewing, the timer flashes and vibrates instead of beeps. And staff take orders on digital dry-erase boards.
27. Stars outside of Starbucks
As a new perk of its much-lauded loyalty program, Starbucks lets members earn points for more than coffee. Via a partnership with Lyft, guests get stars if they use the ride service to commute. And coming soon: a Starbucks debit-style card that awards points for purchases made anywhere Visa is accepted.
28. Brewing up better citizens
Without pushing any candidate, CEO Howard Schultz sent a letter urging all Starbucks employees to vote, and offered access to online registration. “By helping to increase voter registration and participation, we believe more people will have an opportunity to make their voices count,” he wrote.
29. Sample sales
As some eateries double down on “no modifications” policies, Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab earns service points for readily going off script. The iconic independent menus its signature stone crab in portions of five, six or seven per order. But a server may happily offer timid first-timers the option of sampling a claw for a prorated market price. Verts Mediterranean Grill similarly has allowed guests to buy one meatball, normally sold as a trio for $7.50 to $8.50 as a main protein in its rice bowls, pitas, salads or wraps.
31. Trackable e-learning for LTOs
Newk’s Eatery used to send out a booklet to teach individual restaurants about its quarterly LTOs, but it’s switched to e-learning. Corporate sends out a webinar a week before the rollout, and it has an interactive component for managers to type in questions. Instead of wondering who was reading the snail mail, Newk’s now can track who is watching.
33. On-the-road stages
Bar Marco, a wine bar in Pittsburgh, takes its staff education on the road by organizing and paying lodging and travel expenses for brief group stages. For instance, on a two-day trip to Chicago, the bar team spent time at mixology lounge The Violet Hour, and the pastry chef shadowed at Blackbird and Baker Miller, taking what she learned at those restaurants to apply at Bar Marco.
34. Pop of red
As part of its makeover earlier this year, Donatos updated its staff uniforms to appeal to millennials, said CEO Tom Krouse. In addition to a choice of a T-shirts and hats, associates can add a personal “pop of red” to their gear, such as a necklace, bandanna or shoes. “It’s stuff they want to wear, instead of corporate-looking,” Krouse said.
35. Music that matters
When consumers sign up for San Francisco-based The Melt’s ordering app, they can input their favorite songs into their profile. The chain not only uses beacon technology to fire an order when a diner gets nearby, but it adds music that fits within that person’s preferences to its playlist, creating a crowdsourced musical queue that resonates with patrons in the store.
36. Blankets to ward off chills
Across the street from the San Francisco Giants’ stadium, shipping container concept The Yard is open well beyond the warmer days of baseball season. Due to Port Authority regulations, open-air concepts such as Anchor Brewing Co. and burger restaurant Belcampo could not install space heaters, so The Yard rents blankets for guests
40. Diana Ross? Order up
While a lot of traditional fast casuals hand out a number or ask guests for their name to let them know when their meal is ready to grab, Twisted Root Burger Co. hands out cards with the names of celebrities—such as Elvis, Diana Ross or Rosie O’Donnell—along with a fun fact about that star. Workers then call that name over the loud speaker, adding an element of fun and eliminating any confusion of multiple orders for John or Jane.
42. Guacamole subscription
Papagayo, a four-unit Mexican concept in Boston, found a different way to both upcharge for guacamole and deliver a value to guests. For a one-time $99 fee at the beginning of the year, customers could buy a book of 52 coupons, entitling them to one order of guac and chips each week. Similar to Olive Garden’s pasta pass, the coupons target repeat guests—plus they amount to a savings of more than $500 a year.
43. In-between portion sizes
Dickey’s Barbecue Pit is trying to appeal to groups of all sizes by offering portions that fall between an individual meal and the big servings typically offered as catering options. It now sells package meals in three sizes: Picnic Pack, Family Pack and XL Family Pack.
44. The kitchen sink of desserts
To cater to millennials’ view of dining out as a social event, Ampersand Wine Bar in Chicago crafted this shareable dessert. The platter has smaller versions of the restaurant’s main desserts, plus cookies, truffles, candies, chocolates and other sweets—a way to sample what’s on offer.
45. Forgoing greenbacks
The Sweetgreen salad chain put signs in some of its store windows saying that "forward-thinking businesses are going cashless." And the fast casual is one; it eliminated cash payments in select stores in Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, D.C., limiting patrons to using plastic or the concept's app. It's been collecting feedback from customers and may go cashless at additional units, pending further tests.
46. Off-peak traffic that feels good
As part of a pilot test, several Subway restaurants in the Venice Beach, Calif., area partnered with a charity to drive business during off-peak hours. The group sent out a text to people in need, asking if they wanted to visit the restaurant at a specific time to pick up food. The charitable organizer picked up the tab.
47. Meal built for imbibers
New York City bistro Mimis in the West Village offers a Parisian-style menu for lunch and dinner, but from midnight to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday—aka prime boozing time—the restaurant serves only a spicy-sausage-and-french-fry sandwich on a baguette, a late-night meal popular in France for its alcohol absorption.
48. What’s in the box?
Customers at chef Stephanie Izard’s Duck Duck Goat order a mix of street snacks that get packed to go in look-alike cardboard boxes. Instead of forcing guests to open up the boxes and guess what’s in each, the cashier puts stickers on each with the name of the dish. With much of the food being ethnic fare—and not always recognizable—labels also help mitigate any confusion.
49. Instructions to go
Sugarfish Sushi in Los Angeles designed its menu to be consumed in-house. But with the uptick in delivery, rather than fight against the onslaught of third-party services and consumer demand, the restaurant prints eating instructions right on its takeout boxes.
50. Compartmentalize the sides
2941 Street Food, a four-unit fast casual in Michigan, serves up a mixed plate of Mediterranean proteins, grains and spreads. While others in its space are marketing these combos as bowls, piling foods together, 2941 serves the Bazaar Meal for $16.50 on a nine-section platter to keep it separated.