Thursday, March 27, 2008

Signs of the (new) times

This is a good time to be in the sign business. First KFC reveals that it might replace its familiar exterior logos with ones reading, “Kentucky Fried & Grilled Chicken,” a dramatic act of support for the chain’s new roasted chicken (it’s roasted on a plate that leaves grill marks; hence the name. Apparently “Kentucky Fried & Roasted/Grilled Chicken” was adjudged to be a bit much.)

Then sister chain Pizza Hut disclosed that the home office in Dallas will replace its exterior nameplate with one reading, “Pasta Hut,” a not-so-subtle shill for the $11.95 trays of pasta that will be added to stores’ delivery menu on April 6. The rechristening is supposed to happen next Tuesday, otherwise known as April Fool’s Day, and last for a month. But, remember, Pizza Hut is run by the same company that announced on a past April 1 that it had purchased the Liberty Bell for promotional use by its Taco Bell chain.

You have to wonder what Taco Bell’s parent has in store for the exterior signs of that chain. If it follows the patterns set with its other holdings, Yum! Brands will be swapping out the current trade dress for logos reading, “Taco Platters,” or “Taco Smoothies.” Platters were introduced a short ways back, and smoothies are on the rollout schedule for this summer.

But in the meanwhile, the signage business can pick up a little more coin from Ruth’s Chris Steak House Inc. The high-end operation doesn’t feel that its corporate identity should be based on only one restaurant brand when the fold was enlarged through a recent acquisition to include the Mitchell’s Fish Market, Mitchell’s Steakhouse and Cameron’s Steakhouse concepts. It reportedly plans to ask shareholders at their annual meeting on May 22 to approve a switch to the more inclusive handle, “Ruth’s Hospitality Group Inc.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Chicken fight

Truth be told, Goliath usually squashes David. So when KFC lunged for the public’s attention with a carefully choreographed announcement of its new non-fried, non-grilled yet still sear-marked roasted chicken, El Pollo Campero must’ve realized the heat would be on. Yet the plucky Guatemalan chain countered with some marketing ju-jitsu. A day after KFC drew headlines in everything from USA Today to The Podunk Press with its plan to introduce Kentucky Grilled Chicken by next year, Campero, a chain with 38 restaurants in the United States, announced that its new grilled chicken would be offered as of today. “Pollo Campero beats competition to market with choice of grilled and fried bone-in chicken,” the much-smaller chain crowed in a press release. And presumably it’s a true grilled chicken at that.

Campero president Roberto Denegri acknowledged that the chain was bringing its non-fried option to the U.S. “a little early,” but attributed the timing to America’s love of grilling during the spring. He failed to explain why that should be a factor, given that the restaurants would be grilling the chicken, not their patrons.

But back to KFC. We at NRN were astonished other media failed to note a monumental point that didn’t slip by executive editor Richard Martin. To call attention to the rollout, Col. Sanders’ brainchild is allowing franchisees to rename their stores, “Kentucky Fried & Grilled Chicken.” In the world of restaurant reportage, this is a big move. Huge, in fact. Though it remains to see if it will be adjudged a smart one.

We were also surprised by the chain’s efforts to prolong the announcement, asserting at one point that the news was “embargoed” until March 24, or provided only on the understanding that it not be disclosed until that date. Yet it allowed selected media to go ahead and publicize the year-away rollout (the product is currently only in test, albeit it on a large scale) as soon as they heard about it, rendering an embargo void by the rules of publicist-journalist engagement. Nor did we make any pact prior to being fed the info on the product last week. So we went ahead and reported it.

Maybe the chain is preoccupied with its ambitious goal of convincing the public that KGC is truly grilled, when in fact KFC acknowledged to journalists that it’s cooked in a high-tech oven, up to 80 pieces at a time. The claim to being grilled comes from the use of a special plate in the roaster that sears grill marks onto the meat. That’s like putting “singer” on your resume because you sometimes belt out a tune while soaping up in the shower.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A grande serving of what?

There had to be a secret message encoded in Howard Schultz’s presentation yesterday, because even Mike Tyson would know better than to pin Starbucks’ turnaround to rickety measures like adding a new coffee roast or installing a newfangled coffee maker. And let’s not forget the pledge to do more for the environment and the startup of a social-networking site. But maybe the real message of his address to shareholders was blurred by all the specifics. If you step back and view the elements as a package, it’s clear Schultz is taking a bold gamble. The one-time coffee-carafe salesman is trying to infuse the brand with more showbiz than the industry has seen since the heyday of eater-tainment.

Schultz described Starbucks’ purchase of a company that makes a new type of coffee brewer, a device called the Clover, as the most dramatic of the steps he and other execs detailed for investors. The machine supposedly makes a cup of coffee superior enough to justify a price of more than $2.50. Schultz said he saw it being used by a place in New York that charged $7 a cup. But how it generates the nectar of the bean may be as important as the quality of finished brew. Starbucks described the machine as a cross between a French press pot and a vacuum-style coffee maker, which provides a bit of a show with every cupful that’s produced.

Similarly, Starbucks disclosed that it’s rolling out a new espresso maker that gives the baristas more control over the coarseness of the coffee grind and the way the milk is steamed. Not coincidentally, the devices are not as high as the machines currently being used, which will allow patrons to see their drinks being made, and possibly even interact with the coffee maker.

Even the new frequent-guest program has some dazzle to it. Guests present their cards to be wowed a little by the service they’re then given. The benefits rendered don’t sound that amazing. Free half-and-half or soy milk? Whoa. But the give-and-take about the freebies does give the counter servers and baristas a chance to strut their stuff a little.

The bland-sounding moves that Schultz disclosed yesterday may prove anything but. It’s a bit of razzle-dazzle from someone who could prove to be a very adept ringmaster.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Don't picture this

Trend worshippers are hailing a new restaurant feature as the mark that differentiates a merely haute place from one that might actually be a haunt of Mary-Kate Olsen, Lindsay Lohan or other bold-faced tastemakers. To make fashionistas’ must-try list, say the sort who care about such matters, a newcomer has to set a policy—ideally through an exterior sign—that photography is prohibited on the premises. How else can Brittney Spears cross her legs without worry?

Yet some of the places using that sign of distinction don’t seem like worthy shooting ranges for the paparazzi. Take the newest Pinkberry frozen yogurt outlet in New York. Grub Street, New York magazine’s excellent blog site, revealed last week that the store is banning picture-taking. As it pointed out, the treat shop is located in the heart of the East Village, a haven for the ridiculously body-pierced and absurdly tattooed. Are Brad and Angelina really going to stop by for a yogurt with mixed-in Captain Crunch?

Other Pinkberry outlets feature a similar warning, suggesting it’s a corporate policy. You can see for yourself by checking out any number of blog postings—many of which document the feature with photos of the signs.

The trend seems to be more prevalent in Europe and Asia. But the smattering of examples suggests it’s catching hold here in the States as well—on the coasts first, as per the usual process for a trend.

But fashion zealots may be surprised to learn the policy was first adopted more than a decade ago, and not just by private clubs or other hangouts for persons who stood a chance of seeing their names in a gossip column. The most-noted proponent was not some velvet-roped club, but Eatzi’s, the prepared-food cathedral of Chili’s parent Brinker International. So many people from the industry came in with their Nikons snapping during competitive reconnaissance missions that management had to curb the spying with a no-shooting rule. It certainly wasn’t to protect Miley Cyrus or Paris Hilton from appearing in the supermarket tabs. I’m not sure either gal was even walking yet.

Monday, March 10, 2008

'President Skinner here'

It’s 3 a.m. and American families are safe and asleep. But there’s a phone ringing in the White House. Who do you want to answer it? If it’s a financial crisis, I’d vote for Jim Skinner, CEO of McDonald’s. With the chain posting an 8.3 percent leap in domestic same-store sales for February, after a nearly unbroken stream of bad news from other restaurant chains, he and his team have shown they know how to pull prosperity out of a trying situation. Indeed, we might want to consider steroid testing.

Okay, okay—Leap Year helped a lot, with Feb. 29 getting credit for four percentage points. But we’re still talking about a pretty heady jump in comps. And from what? The chain says the pole vault over last year’s tally is due to the push behind breakfast, coffee and everyday bargains. With the exception of Yum’s and CKE Restaurants’ brands, what quick-service chains aren’t doing that right now? How many have succeeded the way McDonald’s has?

Of course, it helps to have the chain’s marketing kitty, which is roughly equivalent to NASA’s budget for the Saturn project. But even competitors will have to acknowledge that they must be doing something right up at Oak Brook. Barack and Hillary should stop by for a quick tutorial on turning a wheeze into a “Whoa!”

Divide and conquer?

I hope you can hear me over all that fiddling. It’s that damned pack of economists, wailing away as they watch the business climate soften like an overripe peach. They’re more concerned about declaring a recession at precisely the warranted moment than they are about the meltdown already evident in industries like the restaurant business. It’s a good thing the trade is taking matters into its own hands. While the Brooks Brothers set jams away, restaurateurs are trying R-word remedies like this recent phenomenon of adding more pricing tiers.

If you stop by an Au Bon Pain bakery-café right now, you can forego the usual salad or sandwich and economize a bit with one of the regional chain’s new small plates. But your options don’t end there, or even with picking which of the 14 new Portions you’d like. Go for the hummus and cucumbers, and you pay $2.99. Trade up to one that includes meat, like the Thai peanut chicken, and you’ll have to pop for $3.49.

In another economic climate, might the fast-casual chain not have bothered to create two pricing groups a mere 50 cents apart?

Similarly, if you wanted to trade up from fast food to a full-service breakfast, Denny’s has just the option for you. Or options, really. Try one of its three new “real” breakfasts (as opposed to the “fake” ones purportedly offered by quick-service restaurants), and you’ll pay $5.99. But each has a trade-up option: Pay a buck more, and get a few add-ons—another bacon strip, sausage link and hash browns, maybe.

The notion is certainly not new. It’s a staple of the industry to offer a soup or salad add-on for a slight bump in the price of an entrée.

But the tactic seems to be gaining momentum, and sometimes with a twist. In the standard version, you offer a lower priced option, like Quiznos’ $2 Sammies sandwiches. In some instances, even that price is segmented, into Bargain and Bargain Plus.

Perhaps the poster concept is Starbucks. Once upon a time, the coffee king offered its drinks in three sizes, in prices ranging from high to stratospheric. Now the chain is testing a $1 “short” option that comes with free refills. Some stores are also experimenting with coffee made in a press pot, priced at more than $2. That price falls between the charge for a standard cup of Coffee of the Day and the usual hit for premium espresso-based drinks.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Ming sings about his blings

Having a famous chef join your table for a preview of his next restaurant project is just another can of Schlitz for my blogging colleague Bret Thorn. But it’s a heady treat for a non-food-writing, chain-focused schlub like me. So when Ming Tsai pulls up a chair at his Blue Ginger restaurant in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, you tend to listen raptly as he details the venture he’s undertaking with rock-star designer David Rockwell. Not that the endeavor needs any underscoring by a celeb. A 50-seat lounge with a menu limited to “bings,” a lstyle of Asian dumpling, isn’t exactly another burger place.

Yet Tsai invoked White Castle in explaining the rationale for Ming’s Bings, which will be the only items offered at the 50-seat lounge he's adding in the space adjacent to Blue Ginger. With young kids at home, Tsai has not gone for a namesake Vegas restaurant or the other bling of celebrity chef-dom. The add-on lounge and accompanying private dining rooms will be the first extension of his single-restaurant empire, despite the offers he’s fielded continuously in the 10 years since Blue Ginger opened. But Tsai slyly suggested that Ming’s Bings might not be his last undertaking. He explained that the bings he’ll serve are light, healthful riffs on the simple Asian street foodknown as xian bing. Usually the potstickers are made with gingered pork. Tsai indicated that his array might include a burger that’s encased in a dumpling-style wrap and served in a box—“like White Castle,” but “with a thinner layer of carbohydrate around the protein.”

So, asked NRN executive editor Richard Martin, are you going to see Ming’s Blings pop up in airports and other the other usual sites for chef-created finger fare?

“It all depends on what kind of a write-up I get in a leading industry publication,” he joked with our party, which also included NRN editor-in-chief Ellen Koteff, executive editor Robin Allen, regional business development manager Chris McCoy, and his wife, Martha.

Tsai graciously fielded our questions about high and low points in his career, including the moment he knew a career in engineering wasn’t for him. During a test in college, he was supposed to compute the speed of a dot traveling atop a tube that was riding on on a 33 1/3-rpm record. Instead of computing the answer, Tsai scrawled in his test booklet, “I don’t care,” and stormed out with the conviction he was destined to be a chef, not a bridge or skyscraper builder.

He also shared his secret for cooking calamari, which is served at Blue Ginger with what he described as a sweet potato coating. His chefs learn to cook it to the restaurant’s standards by closing their eyes and listening to the sound. The loud SHHHH of the calamari hitting the oil, or what Tsai calls the “crescendo,” quickly tails off to a near hush. The calamari has to come out of the oil at precisely that point because Tsai estimates the window for “perfect” calamari extends only for 40 seconds. The expeditor ensures the chef’s ear was acute by tasting a piece from each plate; Tsai noted that the expeditor might sample 60 pieces in a night.

In keeping with the blogging style set by the esteemed Thorn, it’s only right that I end this installment with a list of what I ate: Hawaiian Bigeye Tuna Poke served on a crispy cake of sushi-style rice, followed by Mom’s Famous Three Vinegar Sauteed Organic Shrimp, and completed by a shared platter of hush-puppie-like delectables that were sold as donuts. Bret could tell that this dish was perfected with a kiss of tamarind, or that one featured an ingredient you could only get in one section of China on a spring Tuesday, but I’d be out of my league. But if you’re ever looking for the lowdown on a Bloomin’ Onion, I’m your man.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

No longer coverage-worthy

Two days ago, a 60-year-old in a suit and tie walked into a Wendy’s in West Palm Beach, Fla., and pulled a pistol. First he fired at the lunchtime crowd clustered near the counter, killing an off-duty EMT who’d already eaten but had come back into the restaurant to exchange the toy his child had gotten in a kid’s meal.

The shooter then turned toward the dining room and blasted away at random, hitting four people. Without having uttered a word, Alburn Edward Blake then shot himself in the head and died. The police say any explanation went with him.

Google any of the details and you’ll snag dozens of stories about the incident in local and even some national media. But you won’t see a word about it (other than these) on the pages or website of Nation’s Restaurant News. Because we’re a national news outlet focused narrowly on the business of restaurants, a multiple shooting in a lone fast-food place just isn’t coverage-worthy. The situation per se offers no business insight, and the incident is no longer sufficiently extraordinary, like the shootings some 15 years ago at a Luby’s in Killeen, Texas, or the rampage a few years earlier at a West Coast McDonald’s. It’s a heartless call, but a sound one news-wise.

But it’s unnerving to think we’ve reached a point where a random multiple shooting is no longer enough of an unusual occurrence to merit a spotlight.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Off your chest

I was polishing my Olympics medals when the President called to let me know that two more best-selling authors had just admitted they'd bent the facts of their blockbuster non-fiction works. If I hadn’t been for my C.I.A. training to withstand shock, I would’ve toppled for sure into the Pope, who had popped over for lunch with Angelina Jolie and me (he loves those pizzas I developed for Wolfgang Puck). But it only got worse: The New York Times reported this morning that restaurateur Robert Irvine was replaced as host of a Food Network show because of acknowledged exaggerations on his resume, like claims he’d been knighted and counted Prince Charles among his buds.

At least all three of the truth stretchers admitted their fudging, obviously hoping that confession truly is good for the soul. It would only be appropriate that we keep the good karma building by making a few candid admissions here on the part of the industry:

• Twelve or 14 dollars for a glass of wine should only be collected by servers wearing bandanas over their faces, a la Butch Cassidy. Unless the bottle wholesales for a few hundred dollars, there’s no way a wine should be priced that high, especially in a casual place.

• Restaurant groups named after a famous chef often only see their namesake at the Christmas party.

• Part of casual dining’s current woes is the lousy food that’s offered by even some of the most respected players. The sector seems to be suffering the same inertia in that regard that tripped up the big quick-service chains before they realized a frozen hockey puck of ground beef might not be that appealing to a public that spends its leisure time watching the Food Network. The segment needs to shake out of its lethargy and catch up with the higher standards of the times.

• Bio-diesel fuel, though a smart re-use of something that might otherwise end up in refuse pits, is not as green as the industry suggests. It’s not the cleanest-burning fuel available, and, thought it minutely lessens our reliance on imported oil, it’s not as much of an eco-boon as some of the publicity suggests.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Splashing into the family market

Fast food’s success with beverages clearly hasn’t gone unnoticed by family specialists one notch up the pricing spectrum. Today brought news of IHOP and Steak n Shake both giving their drink menus a tweak, possibly foreshadowing an overhaul by the whole sector. And all you can think is, What took ‘em so long?

With few exceptions—IHOP and Steak n Shake among them—the segment has been squeezed flatter than a short stack by casual chains edging down market and quick-service players, particularly fast-casual upstarts, creeping upscale. Beverages were always a part of the casual sector’s assault, since places like Friendly’s or Denny’s could hardly compete mojito a mojito. Then came the more recent onslaught of the quick-service restaurants, touting their coffees and floats the way they once hyped burgers. What’s a family restaurant chain to do?

Village Inn responded with a new format that incorporates a distinct coffee bar inside. Clearly the venerable chain is giving more than a nod to Starbucks, the concept that kicked everyone’s butt until the QSRs started kicking back.

But it’s not alone in flycasting new beverage choices into the public’s pool of options. Today IHOP opened the curtain on its new Dr. Seuss-inspired promotional items, including one that sounds like a Bill Cosby hangover remedy. The Beezlenut Splash consists of cherry and blueberry-flavored Jello cubes plopped into lemon-lime soda. It’s just the thing to sip while wolfing down the limited-time special of Green Eggs and Ham, which aren’t nearly as Cat and the Hat-appropriate as they sound. The eggs are your conventional color, though scrambled with spinach to justify the name. “Green” only modifies the eggs; the ham is roughly the hue of a Spalding Pinky.

Steak n Shake’s new drinks are far less surreal. In a breakfast marketing push aimed directly at QSRs, the always-open concept today added a line of morning smoothies. Curiously, although the equipment to whip up the smoothies is obviously always there, the drinks will only be offered at breakfast, suggesting the concept doesn’t want to undercut its lunch or dinner selections, or possibly slow service.

Those brands may actually be a little behind one of the sector’s sumos, Denny’s, which has been steadily expanding its roster of drink choices. Last April, it added a new line called Juicy Fruit Fusion Favorites—basically, blends of juices and soft drinks reminiscent of mocktails.

It remains to be seen if beverages will deliver the sort of sales boost that has helped the QSR segment during a trying time for the industry as a whole. But clearly the family sector is giving that route a try.