Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Bye to hockey pucks, cash, Peltz's silence

It’s a little-known nugget of trivia, but George Romero patterned the zombies in “Night of the Living Dead” after journalists who’ve just changed their calendars to a new year. They’ll stop for nothing—not a Tom Cruise meltdown, not a free buffet, not even an open bar—until they’ve sated whatever supernatural force compels them to greet Jan. 1 with a slate of predictions.

And who am I to shoo swallows away from Capistrano, or to deflect salmon from swimming upstream? In keeping with natural law, here are my prognostications for 2007.

Hockey pucks are doomed: If restaurant trends really do start in fine dining and trickle down, then we’re about to see fast-food chains reconsider those granite-like frozen rounds they plunk on their grills for conversion into what they now peddle as burgers. One of the dominant high-end trends of 2006 was a sharp interest among big-name chefs in the possibilities of the burger. Kitchen stars with names you usually see boldfaced in the consumer media were suddenly experimenting with new meats (think Angus or Kobe), new grinds (more fat content), or ingredients (especially foie gras and truffles. And, seemingly, it’s worked. The pack of high-end new burger places in New York are packed.

We’re already seeing it happen in the quick-service market with Carl’s Jr.’s Six Dollar Burger, which is several years old by this point. But look for more regional chains and upstarts to try upscale riffs on the American classic, followed by the mega-brands like McDonald’s and Burger King. We’ll soon be seeing menus studded with descriptors like “hand-formed,” “custom ground” and “never frozen.”

Cash, once king, heads into exile: Last year brought us what is probably the industry’s first cashless restaurant, a Washington, D.C. café called Snaps. The only green or silver it wants to see is the glint of a credit or debit card.

That’s a little extreme, given how few kids carry plastic, or even wallets. Ditto for lots of college kids. But more places—at the low-end, not the high—will likely urge patrons in subtle ways to forego the time needed to process a cash transaction. They’ll wager that whatever additional amounts they pay in processing fees will be offset by the higher volume they can generate during peak hours.

They key, obviously, will be new technology, like devices that allow servers to settle a credit-card tab right at the table, or EZ Pass-like automatic charge systems. That fits into the next big trend of 2007…

Transaction compression will be the new byword: Restaurateurs and customers may have different reasons, but both will celebrate new technology and procedures that streamline the necessary evil of settling tabs. Operators, and fast-food managers in particular, want to slash that time so they can handle more patrons, and make time-crunched customers that much happier. Guests just see no benefit in the process being dragged out, and will become more strident in letting that be known.

This is one of those rare situations where there’s no down side, provided the gizmos and set-ups work as promised.

Group business becomes the new takeout: Is there a full-service restaurant built today that doesn’t have a party room, or a space that could be turned into one? And would it likely forego catering?

Is there a sandwich chain or other fast-casual concept that enters the market without a strategy for landing big orders, be it a business’ lunch order for a meeting, a meal for the doctor’s office that a pharmaceutical salesperson wants to woo, or all the fixings for a Raven fan’s Super Bowl party?

Restaurateurs of all stripes have individually discovered the potential for those large orders. In 2007, the industry as a whole is going to awaken to the prospect. Casual concepts that don’t open for lunch may instead offer in-office catering services at midday. We’ll see innovation in packaging that allows big-order specialists to capture the soft-drink sales they’re currently failing to land, and anyone with an oven will be experimenting with travel-friendly new entrees, like lasagna, or casseroles rechristened with a sexier name. It will become one of the major targets of the new year, just as takeout zoomed out of nowhere to become a prized opportunity for casual chains a few years back.

Nelson Peltz socks Michael Jacobson: Angered by the profit-shaving cost of trans-fat-free oils, activist shareholders turn on the consumer advocates who pressed restaurant companies to adopt the healthier (but costlier) frying medium. In one memorable exchange, Nelson Peltz breaks his public silence to challenge CSPI chief Michael Jacobson to a joust—polo ponies at 20 yards. Jacobson declines, citing the potential for cruelty to animals, and they thumb-wrestle instead.

Actually, I don’t think that’ll happen at all. But a man can dream, can’t he?

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