Wednesday, October 22, 2008

‘Clean-up attempt on Aisle 5’

An army of cliches gave their lives during our recent confabs to alert restaurateurs they’re in the bomb sights of a rival they probably discounted long ago. The new mantra of that resurgent enemy should’ve readily done the job: Restaurant meal replacement. It underscores how determined the grocery business is this time around to take away restaurants’ lunch, dinner and breakfast sales.

But back to a moment of silence for the clichés that are no longer with us. Topping the casualty list is “share of stomach,” the clever tag for the struggle between restaurateurs and grocers for the public’s food outlays. That battle, the supermarket business realized, lapsed into a one-sided contest long ago. Smart grocers have left such conventional warfare to the retrogrades who still believe they can trump restaurants with clamshells of Buffalo wings stacked in a refrigerator case (“Best sold before 2010”), right next to the vintage sushi.

The new grocery militia has also given a blindfold and last cigarette to the old adage that they have to beat restaurants at their own game. The often-tried strategy of bolting a restaurant onto the public’s source for Metamucil and Handi Wipes just hasn’t worked. As menu watcher Nancy Kruse suggested during our MUFSO conference, dates are seldom wowed by dinner at a Piggly Wiggly, even if the moonlight hits the plate glass just right.

But, Kruse stressed during that convention and our Culinary R&D conference a week earlier, regional and upstart grocers have quietly mapped a more effective strategy, in part by enlisting chain menu planners in the brainstorming. Whole Foods’ development of ready-to-eat meals, for instance, is being handled in part by Tina Freedman, a longtime veteran of the Fresh Choice buffet chain’s test kitchen. Fresh & Easy, the fast-growing American outpost of British retailing giant Tesco, has entrusted its R&D efforts to chef Michael Ainsle, who apparently coined the battle cry of “Restaurant meal replacement.”

That term, of course, is a rewrite of the label Boston Market gave its targeted market back in the days when it was still the concept that was going to upend the industry. Asserting the brand didn’t really compete with conventional restaurants, executives cited their strategic objective as “home meal replacement.” For the year or so that Boston Market continued to fly high, it was the buzz-phrase that captured the industry’s attention. Today we forget that Boston Market-inspired concepts were tried by McDonald’s, Brinker International, Cracker Barrel, Hardee’s (through its Roy Rogers holding), Arby’s and Ruby Tuesday (through Morrison’s), to name just a few converts. They were convinced the future would belong to a concept that could combine restaurant-quality meals with the convenience of takeout and the lower prices of groceries.

Another cliché that should be taken behind the barn: Be careful what you wish for.

As Kruse noted during her “State of the Plate” presentation at MUFSO, some supermarkets have finally mastered that alchemy. Because a consumer tends to shop for groceries about four times a week, food stores have the convenience factor wrapped up. Grocers foolishly figured shoppers would buy basically anything carbon-based for a heat-and-eat dinner, since they’re in the stores anyway. Who cared if the meatloaf was older than their kids, and roughly the color of a bruise.

Casualty No. 14: “If you stock it, they will buy.”

But now, Kruse observed, progressive supermarkets are delivering the quality and freshness that weren’t there during the Era of Rotisserie Chicken, the long stretch when store meals were merchandised no differently than mop heads or turnips. She noted that some restaurant chains are putting grocers like Ukrop’s on their list of direct competitors.

Perhaps that’s because grocers are starting to eat restaurants’ lunch, at least at dinner. Kruse cited NPD/Crest data that shows restaurants’ evening share of stomach—sorry, proportion of all supper opportunities—as slipping between 2001 and 2006. She also mentioned NPD’s finding that consumers are dining at home more often to economize, not only on their meals, but on their gasoline usage. If they’re going to be in a supermarket anyway to pick up staples like bread, milk or cereal, why not grab a dinner that involves no tipping or a separate trek to the mall?

Among the more surprising indications to arise from the enemy camp, Kruse added, is an intention by the grocery chains to elbow their way into the away-from-home breakfast market, a major area of growth for quick-service restaurant chains. Retailers have apparently been getting up before their stores open to count the cars lining up at drive-thrus. A push for that market would change the game, since grocers would have to position their outlets as a morning destination, not a place to grab a meal while you’re there for other reasons.

Which brings us to an old expression that most restaurateurs would probably like to put on the list of cliché casualties, but definitely won’t find for some time: May you live in interesting times.

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