Setting food trends is just the start. The restaurant industry proved this week that it’s become the arbiter of fashion in so many other realms, from clothing (including how much of it can be legally shed) to ecology and animal control. The business is even challenging entrenched beliefs about freshness and product integrity.
Here’s what we mean.
1. On the fashion runways: White Castle and Dunkin’
As all the weird getups attested, fashionistas were out in force through Wednesday for New York City’s Fashion Week, the clothing business’s annual designation of tomorrow’s haute couture. The arbiters of taste might have had their heads turned from the waifs strutting the runways by news of two new parties revealing their lines: White Castle and Dunkin’ Donuts.
White Castle debuted new crew uniforms that will also be the foundation for a line of logoed street wear, all developed by the haute design firm Telfar, which every restaurateur knows is famous for its unisex fashions (insert a golf clap here). A chain known for its peaked caps, cheap sliders and throwback buildings is giving Polo and Izod a run for their money.
It could feel competition on the clothes rack from a familiar rival in the battle for share of stomach. Dunkin’ Donuts revealed this week that it’s opening a virtual pop-up boutique on the members-only fashion site of Rue La La to sell clothing inspired by the Dunkin’ On-The-Go Girl, whom we didn’t know existed until the announcement.
Turns out On-The-Go-Girl is Rue La La’s term for young women who buy activewear, and Dunkin’ is just hitching its name to that tag for a week. The Dunkin’ section features everything from leotards to dressy capes, and as far as we can tell, they’re not adorned with the Dunkin’ logo. But many of the photos feature a model sipping from a Dunkin’ cup, and shoppers who register in the doughnut chain’s frequent-customer program will get free shipping from Rue La La for a month.
2. A different sort of eye opener
A coffee emporium in Everett, Wash., learned recently that its fashion sense wasn’t appreciated by local officials. Indeed, the lawmakers slapped the wrist of Grab-N-Go Bikini Hut by adopting an ordinance that prohibits restaurant employees from wearing bikinis or flashing too much skin, including bare shoulders, midriffs or butts.
Since Grab-N-Go is known as much for putting its female crewmembers in bikinis as it is for its espresso, the legal clampdown didn’t sit well. But it was the employees—the women who regularly wear the two-piece suits—who took legal action.
They filed a lawsuit this week, seeking to overturn the regulation on the grounds it violates their rights to free speech and privacy.
The measure is still pending, according to local press reports.
3. Another white meat?
Restaurants haven’t been on the forefront of a new food trend being pushed by animal-control specialists in Australia, but it’s likely just a matter of time until they’re a force in the campaign. The Land Down Under is grappling with an overpopulation of its signature critter, the kangaroo, and some ecology experts are arguing the solution could be landing more of the hoppers on a dinner plate.
Experts there say Australians should start eating more of the beasts, which now outnumber human residents of the island continent by almost 2:1. Kangaroo isn’t an unknown meat choice there, or even in some adventurous U.S. foodservice establishments. But a step-up in consumption appears to be encountering resistance because of perception issues.
4. Redefining 'wholesome'
Sous vide, a food-prep method that has struggled for acceptance because of misperceptions about freshness and wholesomeness, may finally be getting its breakthrough moment, courtesy of a fast-food overperformer. The Arby’s sandwich chain is embracing the process as a way of offering such exotic meats as shawarma, smoked pork belly and deep-fried turkey in 3,200 restaurants, without a kitchen or major operations overhaul.
The chain showed no reservations during a menu tasting for the media last night about revealing its reliance on sous vide, noting that the process yields a better quality of meat than a restaurant might get if it prepared the proteins from scratch. A unit anywhere can offer a brisket smoked by a family operation in Texas hill country and have it taste exactly as it would if someone ate it right out of the smoker, stressed Rob Lynch, the chain's president.
Chefs have been saying the same thing for some time, and many use sous vide for that reason in their fine-dining operations. Hotel chains such as Marriott have also embraced it. But it has never gained much traction in the mainstream restaurant market.
With sous vide, food is cooked, sealed in a bag and brought down in temperature via an ice-water bath, then kept sealed until it’s reheated in hot water.
5. Takeout’s latest wrinkle
The off-premise boom is continuing unabated, but restaurants are exploring ways of riding the trend without crimping margins, since the service can be costly. Among the latest is the new large-order takeout strategy from Cracker Barrel.
The country-store-themed chain said this week that all its units will start offering two sizes of group-meal packages by the end of the quarter. One set of choices will be portioned to feed six to 10 people, and another for 18 to 24 eaters.
“We're launching the program with more than 20 entree offerings, like our ham, egg and cheese casserole, or our fresh fruit and yogurt breakfast, or the homemade chicken and dumplings or roast beef with gravy,” CEO Sandy Cochran told investors.
The big packages will be offered for all three dayparts, she indicated. Cochran did not reveal the suggested pricing.
Large-order takeout and delivery is not new. Olive Garden, for instance, offers delivery only for big orders. Panera Bread Co. first offered delivery of catering-sized orders, and then preceded to haul smaller meals.
Cracker Barrel is already looking at small-order delivery, said Cochran, but she did not reveal details.
6. Another stab at dinner and a movie
When you run restaurants and movie theaters, and customers are abandoning both for a night of Netflix or Hulu, why not double down on your draws? The Marcus Corp., a longtime restaurant operator, is doing exactly that with its new dining concept, BistroPlex, the latest in a long string of attempts to change America’s movie-viewing habits.
The one-time Big Boy franchisee and operator of the SafeHouse eatertainment concept describes BistroPlex as “a restaurant that serves movies,” with food as the star. Moviegoers can buy sandwiches and craft beers from the restaurant or lounge and carry the meals to their reclining seats in any of eight theaters. But people who just want to eat or drink can still hit the food portion of the complex, which appears to be the main point of difference from a conventional concession stand.
Restaurant-movie combos have been tried (and largely scrapped) since talkies came into vogue. The AMC and Carmike theater chains, for instance, offer concepts similar to Marcus’ new venture.