The week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Future-peek edition

The restaurant industry hit one of those pesky time warps this week, hurtling into a future that would spin Rod Serling’s head.  Here’s how tomorrow unfolded during the Twilight Zone of the last seven days.

The Cheesecake Factory without Grand Lux Café?

Investors put the question bluntly this week to Cheesecake executives: Why hold onto Grand Lux, a secondary brand that’s been stuck in a prolonged sales slump? “You have only had a couple of quarters of positive same-store sales over the last couple of years,” said Mike Tamas, a stock analyst for Oppenheimer. “Are there any thoughts of separating that piece of the business?”

“Well, not yet,” responded Cheesecake CEO David Overton.

He and CFO Doug Benn were also pressed about the possibility of turning the 11 Grand Lux units into Cheesecake Factories.

“No, they are all too close,” said Benn. Not a single Grand Lux is far enough from a Cheesecake to avoid cannibalism, so Cheesecake landlords wouldn’t permit it, he explained. Left unsaid: The possibility had likely been explored already or Benn wouldn’t have been able to cite the difficulty so readily.

Grand Lux’s same-store sales for the second quarter declined 2.7 percent, while Cheesecake’s comps increased 1.5 percent.

A Starbucks latte with those Air Jordans?

Or a pair of Ray-Bans? How about that a high-end Beats rig from Best Buy? In a galaxy not far away, consumers may be able to buy all sorts of products through Starbucks’ smartphone app. The coffee giant revealed this week that it’s asking retailers to accept payment via the app. Hit “Pay,” and you wrack up loyalty points along with a new lamp or a Snicker-Doodle scented candle (though Starbucks has not yet revealed which retailers it approached.)

The strategy is tomorrow’s take on fishing where the fish are. In that antiquated world of eight days ago, restaurants and retailers would routinely co-locate where people shopped, hoping for a symbiotic relationship. Today’s consumers shop virtually. Starbucks wants to remain where they buy. Who said a symbiotic relationship had to be forged in bricks and mortar?

McDonald’s lab experiment.

As part of what CEO Don Thompson called a “service reset,” the struggling fast-food leader has opened what Thompson described as a “learning lab” restaurant on the West Coast. He was mum on the details, but commented that the facility would help McDonald’s in “creating an engaging experience which addresses all elements of customer sensory perceptions.” He also said the changes in the concept would leverage “the investments that we already made in technology.”

Last month, McDonald’s revealed that it was opening an office in Silicon Valley to recruit digital-media talent and foster new ideas. But Atif Ratiq, McD’s chief digital officer, stressed at the time that the facility was not a lab. Thompson sounded as if he were describing a completely different facility.

Slower service through technology?

If a post this week on Craigslist is real, full-service restaurants will soon be measuring average ticket times in hours. But it’s still an “if.”

The anonymous posting was purportedly from a restaurant in New York City that was criticized on citizen-reviewer sites for the slowness of its service. In addition, said the poster, guest counts hadn’t changed, even though the restaurant had added staff and simplified the menu.

At the instigation of a consultant, the unnamed place rooted around its storage areas until it found a video of the dining room. The date was Thursday, July 1, 2004, an era when video surveillance in the dining room was still novel.

The tape reportedly showed routine table turns on a day the poster described as busy. Once seated, the 45 customers who were studied took eight minutes to place their order. Appetizers were fired within six minutes. The whole meal took an average of 65 minutes, the post recounted.

The place then took the digital images that had been captured on July 3, 2014, also a Thursday and also a busy day. Once again, 45 guests were studied. Because they either used their smartphones or talked to their servers about how to use them, the lapse between sitting and ordering averaged 21 minutes.

Portions of their orders were brought to the table within six minutes, according to the post. Twenty-six of the 45 customers then spent three minutes on average to take pictures of the food with their smartphones and post the shots on social media sites.

Because more phone use followed the completion of the meal, the check was requested 20 minutes after the last person at the table had stopped eating, and the guests took 15 minutes before paying.

The total time of the visit: 115 minutes.

If the review is legit, it’s the smoking gun that could get the use of smartphones routinely prohibited in dining rooms. But it’s all a little sketchy. Things just fit too neatly.

A firsthand look at food recalls’ future.

Digital ordering and order processing are arming restaurants with a head-turning list of new capabilities, from spotting a long wait time for a particular guest through KDS alerts to recording regulars’ favorite drinks. I got a firsthand look this week at how information gathered from a check might soon be used to handle food-safety alerts. That future is already here at Costco, the big-box retailer.

A routine grocery shop for my household included a blister pack of a dozen yellow peaches. The item was on the Costco checkout belt at about 11 on Sunday morning. Around 6 p.m., we fielded a robo-call from the retailer. The peaches had been recalled because of a possible listeria contamination, and captured POS info showed we’d bought some of the suspect fruit right before the safety concern had arisen. We were instructed not to eat the peaches and were encouraged to seek a refund. If we’d gotten sick, presumably we could let the chain know.

Restaurants routinely use a town-crier approach to alert customers of a possible food-safety problem. Tell the world through announcements and mass e-mail blasts and hope the affected parties might hear. Yet the data is within their system to reveal specifically who ordered the suspect product, with contact info available if the meal was purchased with a credit card, the guest was a member of a loyalty program, or if they’d merely provided a phone number when making a reservation.

Welcome to the future.


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