Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Apple juice

If theater, David Letterman and cheap knock-offs of expensive watches aren’t enough to pull you to New York City this summer, consider the draw that came into focus last week for restaurateurs. In a single day, three local grab-and-go brands—all small, all relatively inexpensive, and all growth-minded—simultaneously revealed they’re about to see if a concept that makes it here can indeed make it anywhere. All three snagged news coverage with revelatons they’re about to expand, maybe big-time.

New York has hardly been a crucible for mass-market restaurant chains, T.G.I. Friday’s notwithstanding. But what makes last week’s developments truly interesting is what they say about the state of the industry west of the Hudson. Once upon a time, chain concepts were hatched and refined in places like Columbus, Peoria and Plano, where the population was far more mainstream and consistent with national norms. If you had a restaurant that generated lines in Bloomington, chances are it’d do well in Springfield, Lakeland and probably Bakersfield. By virtue of satisfying locals, the concept would be more attuned to that big hump in the bell curve of American tastes.

Then, if you were lucky, you could eventually push the brand into high-volume but notoriously snooty enclaves like New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

But last week’s events suggest that the heartland's growing sophistication is reversing the process. Now style, or at least upscale refinement, is what plays well to the broad market, vis-à-vis Panera, Starbucks and Chipotle. And that means importing the sort of places where pinky-benders along the coast might park their Pradas for lunch.

Of course, the flurry of announcements signaled more push by entrepreneurs here in New York than pull from would-be beret wearers in middle America. But the aspiring exporters must believe the qualities that made their upstarts popular in New York—freshness, quality and a perceived point of difference—will play well in Peoria.

And, certainly, the fledgling chains have been embraced locally. Mention Chop’t to anyone who works near the two existing units, like the one a few blocks from Nation’s Restaurant News’ headquarters, and you’ll get the reflexive response, “Oh, the place with the lines out the door?” My wife eats at the downtown outlet every day, and you’re talking about a person who should be used by mystery-shopping services to calibrate merciless criticism.

The concept features tossed-to-order salads served in a bowl or as a wrap, as do any number of competitors near the two existing stores. But fans (read: wife) insist the point of difference is the quality, for which they acknowledge paying a significant premium over what they’d fork over in the other places.

Blockheads describes itself as a purveyor of San Francisco-style Mexican food, but most aficionados know it as that burrito place with the puppets (the chains associates itself with a group of monkey-like stuffed mascots, who look like something Grandma might have knit just as she was going 'round the bend). Margaritas are also a big part of the draw.

Blockheads recently hired John Haywood, the Carrols and Metromedia veteran, to help the concept grow beyond its current six locations.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported last week that a stock offering could be imminent for Starwich, the brainchild of two local entrepreneurs who worked for B.R. Guest, a collection of well-known independents in the city and elsewhere. Starwich’s specialty is high-quality lunch fare, including a pomegranate-juniper glazed-chicken sandwich, and a citrus-duck salad. It currently has nine outlets, including two in airports, two in Boston, and five in New York. The brand’s website suggests that Starwiches will soon be opening in Philadelphia and downtown Washington.

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