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The week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Golden Oldie trends edition

There was likely a run on neck braces this week by operators who’d rather get a registered letter from the IRS than slip an inch behind the industry’s cutting edge. Spotting the next trend to ride required more than the usual noggin rotation because the possibilities looked so much like the currents of yesteryear.  Any trend watcher with time in the business would have thought it was déjà vu all over again.

A quest for takeout speed and accuracy

The wholesale shift to remote-ordering technology has turned a spotlight back on concerns that have preoccupied the industry since the first brontosaurus burger was tossed in a bag for in-cave consumption. Speed up takeout service and you’ll win more convenience-minded customers and enjoy higher throughput during peak times. Muff their orders less often and they’ll be yours for life.

Panera Bread Co. should have turned more operators’ heads with the strides it revealed this week on both fronts. Management informed at least one financial analyst that the brand’s new Panera 2.0 takeout system has cut pick-up times in half. And the orders are exactly what the customer requested in nearly every instance, for an accuracy rate in the high 90 percent range.

The 2.0 system, which enables customers to place takeout orders via mobile devices and pick them up from a cabinet that looks like the cubbyhole closet of a kindergarten classroom, costs $125,000 per store. Panera plans to have the set-up operating in all company-run units by the end of the quarter.

Is another of Mama’s specialties the hot new menu item?

As far as we can tell, she never took up the Cronut, the Wonut (a waffle-doughnut hybrid drawing attention in some quarters), Pumpkin Spice Lattes or any of the other buzz-stoking products that quicken the pulse of the trend-mad. But dear old mom was the source of more humble products that appeared on big-chain menus this week, though sometimes in decidedly Frankenstein forms.

Consider, for instance, Taco Bell’s experiments with fried chicken, though mom never would have called it Double Crispy instead of fried. The chicken is being tested in such products as a quesadilla and another apparent inspiration from a southern aunt, the Biscuit Taco, where the shell has the consistency of a biscuit you might serve with sausage gravy. . 

Dunkin’ Donuts experiments in New York City stores with a southern-style fried-chicken-and-biscuit sandwich adds veracity to the theory that southern biscuits will be the next pretzel roll. But don’t rule out the waffle, like the variation that was such a hit for Popeyes (chicken nuggets in a waffle coating), or the variations Chick-fil-A is testing (chicken and waffles, a maple waffle) as possible alternatives to its biscuit products.

The comeback of fried chicken and biscuits underscores the fact that comfort food is always in style.

Offering more than a job

The restaurant industry has known for eons that employees seldom take, keep or leave a job because of the wages. There was a group aha this week that education assistance might be the something extra that good hires value.

Taco Bell certainly bet so. Its charitable arm, the Taco Bell Foundation, announced that it was cutting a $471,000 check to Junior Achievement to help the organization set up programs in more areas to help high school students—a key pool for the chain—graduate and find good jobs. Nothing was said about whether or not those jobs would be in the Taco Bell system, but the silence strongly suggests not.

McDonald’s, meanwhile, rolled its Education Workshop into heavily Asian-populated areas of Los Angeles. A new component, the Scholar Speaker Series, brings in past recipients of McDonald’s scholarships to talk about their experience and how to navigate the scholarship application process. The multifaceted Workshop program is intended to help young people get into college.

The initiatives were the latest examples of the somewhat ironical effort to draw better restaurant employees by helping them grow beyond a minimum-wage job.

Remember the green movement?

There was a time when you couldn’t fling a Birkenstock at an industry conference without bopping some operator mid-crow about his restaurant’s installation of soybean shingles or the like. Then came the recession, when the question of survival distracted many conscientious restaurateurs from their quest to do right by the planet.

Looks like the industry is at the point in its recovery where sustainability is snagging a considerably larger mindshare, or at least that’s the indication of developments this week.

The National Restaurant Association released a report that shows 17 percent of restaurants compost food waste, 66 percent recycle paper and cardboard, and 48 percent use low-flush toilets and urinals.

Almost simultaneous with the release of the study, Dunkin’ Brands and fellow doughnut maker Krispy Kreme pledged to change their sourcing policies for fryer oil. Both said they would gradually shift to the exclusive use of palm oil from plantations that weren’t carved from virgin rainforest. Dunkin’ said it would be able by 2017 to trace the oil to the specific locations where it was milled and the source palms were grown.

Dunkin’ also revealed that it’s testing a coffee cup made of recyclable plastic.

Hail the new seasonal craving

The online buzz this week makes it official: Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte merits space alongside the McDonald’s McRib, White Castle’s sliders and In-N-Out’s Double Double in the pantheon of restaurant cult favorites. Never mind that an influential food blogger has been harping on the complete lack of pumpkin in the drink, known to legions of adoring fans as PSL.

Fortune magazine, in noting that 200 million of the drinks have been sold in the 11 autumns it’s been offered, wondered in print if the beverage has aphrodisiac properties. It no doubt has Starbucks executives breathing a little more heavily. The PSL was the subject of 630,000 Google searches, boasted 93,100 followers on Twitter, and extended its reign as Starbucks’ best selling seasonal drink.

The sort of people who live for things like insect-stuffed tacos or eating naked in the dark might have been more interested in developments this week such as the opening of a London restaurant that only serves cans of seafood, or the addition of an $18-a-cup coffee by Starbucks’ Japanese stores.

But it was the resurgence of Golden Oldie trends that should turn the heads of any operator looking for business drivers, not oohs and ahhs. 

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