Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Now in blogs! 'Truth or Fad'!!

Amid the features of, a site launched recently for fifty-somethings by a co-founder of, are brain teasers, puzzles and other mental challenges intended to keep visitors’ minds in Jack La Lanne shape. It’s only appropriate that The Scoop similarly aid readers of a certain vintage with its own dash of cerebral diversion. Hence the incorporation within this installment of that ever-popular foodservice parlor game, Trend or Fad.

A quick review of the rules: I describe the development that has the business currently atwitter, and you decided if it’s a hula hoop or the next iPod. Then I give you the correct answer, which, just coincidentally, happens to be my opinion on the matter. So here we go.

Truth or fad: The new meal-assembly concepts like Dinner By Design, Let’s Dish!, Super Supers and easily a half-dozen others.

In case you’re not familiar with these newcomers, you need to come out of your cave and take a look, especially if you’re involved in franchising. They’ve been growing by leaps and bounds, in part by signing restaurant operators as licensees.

In essence, the concepts occupy the grey area between restaurants and supermarkets. Patrons go online to select meals they’d like their families to eat, and to schedule a time when they can visit the meal-assembly center to put the selected dinners together. The place buys and prepares the ingredients ahead of time, so all the heavy lifting is done by the time the customer arrives. The guests assemble the components into a family-sized portion that’s ready to be slipped into an oven. Then they lug it home, to be either cooked then or slipped into the freezer for some later date.

The industry largely scoffed when these concepts first appeared on the scene about two years ago. Who’s going to spend their evenings in some communal kitchen with strangers, putting together meals they still have to cook? It’s neither convenient, effortless nor a dodge of stove time.

What the skeptics under-appreciated was the appeal of the social component. Customers apparently like the quilting-bee aspect of the assembly process, and the opportunity it affords to chat with new acquaintances as you engage in the redeeming activity of providing for your family. For many, it’s better than having a few drinks or spending date night at a conversation-less two-hour movie. Indeed, some of the concepts are marketing themselves as party places for groups of friends, or as an activity for businesses that want to foster some bonding among employees.

But doubts still abound. Chief among them: How fresh are the meals, and how much will that weigh against acceptance when consumers are demanding fresh above all else? There’s also been some snippiness about the quality of the ingredients provided. Are chefs doing the slicing and dicing, or some minimum-wage college student?

So what are these places, a flash in the pan or a major new consumer option that’s here to stay?

The correct answer: These places are going to become part of the dinner-options spectrum, but not in the numbers they’ll reach if they keep growing at the present rate. As with many Next Big Things, the potential is soon overshot by development and there’s a shakeout, with a few survivors serving what remains of the market after the initial excitement cools. This could be the textbook example of that familiar dynamic.

Truth or fad: Molecular gastronomy, or the desire by some chefs to play a mad scientist who lost it right after culinary school. Using gizmos like lasers or high-tech chillers and ingredients that sound like the chemicals that were kept in a locked glass cabinet in the high school lab, this new breed of culinarian is employing science in the pursuit of new dining adventures. The results include flavored foams, “caviar” beads of different flavors, or any number of mutations where a familiar food is given an unexpected texture or taste, like bacon ice cream.

I’ve been a hardcore skeptic from the get-go. Meanwhile, chefs are lining up to cook for free at the temple of the high priest of molecular gastronomy, Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Spain, in hopes of absorbing his brilliance. And the consumer food books are anointing Chicago’s Alinea, the high temple of the gastro-science on this side of the Atlantic, as the nation’s best restaurant.

As difficult as the admission may be for me and other fans of food that looks, feels and tastes as you expect it would, this looks as if it could be a trend, though one that may never trickle down to the broad-based dining-out market. It’s hard to imagine a Chili’s entrĂ©e where you start with a pillow of scented air, or a new fir-tree-flavored cream puff from Dunkin’ Donuts. Sadly, as the counterbalance to the ongoing appreciation of comfort foods, this appears to be a trend.

Trend or fad: Advertising to space aliens, as KFC is doing in its latest publicity stunt. The chicken chain fitted together 65,000 painted tiles in the notorious Area 51 of the Nevada desert to form 87,500-sq.-ft. portrait of the concept’s founder, Col. Harlan Sanders. Headquarters is crowing that it’s the first brand icon to be visible from space, an achievement that school children will someday sing of.

The question, of course, is why? The highly cynical should be forewarned that the official rationale could cause uncontrollable twitching and outbursts of sarcasm: “The Colonel is truly a global icon and we want everyone in the universe to see KFC's new look of the future," KFC president Gregg Dedrick was quoted as saying in a press release. KFC is updating its design, as Nation’s Restaurant News reported some time ago, and this is its way of getting attention. The specifics of the overhaul, like the inclusion of a free digital jukebox, just aren’t going to snag the attention of the YouTube generation.

And, just to be doubly sure it appeals to the X-Files crowd, the chain is touting the incidental benefit of having a billboard that even near-sighted Martians could spot. “If there are extraterrestrials in outer space, KFC wants to become their restaurant of choice,” Dedrick is quoted as quipping.

So, what is it? A gimmick, a gimmick or a gimmick?

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