Eatery digests patrons’ feedback

June 6, 2016

Arkansas-based fast-casual restaurant chain Slim Chickens, known for its tenders and wings, is rolling out a chicken-breast sandwich for taste-testing.

Testing is underway at Slim Chickens’ three Fayetteville locations, its Rogers store, and in Broken Arrow, Okla., near Tulsa. The restaurant chain is offering cayenne ranch and buffalo chicken sandwiches in Northwest Arkansas and cayenne ranch and Cajun chicken versions of the sandwich in Oklahoma.

Customers who select the sandwich are asked for feedback in a survey that takes about a minute to complete. That information goes straight to a few select Slim Chicken executives. So far, customers’ feedback has already resulted in changes to one of the sandwiches. The process is expected to continue for the next several weeks.

“Early indicators are positive,” said Sam Rothschild, Slim Chickens’ chief operations officer. “This is why you test.”

While the chain has offered sandwiches in the past, this is the first one made with a whole, premium chicken breast. Rothschild described the test sandwiches as being made from high-quality chicken and “fully dressed” with Slim’s sauce, pickles, lettuce and onions.

“We want our sandwich to stand out,” he said.

Slim Chickens has 35 restaurants — 25 are company owned and 15 are franchise operations — in Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee, with 21 other stores under construction. With the new stores, Slim’s is expected to have more than 50 restaurants open by the end of the year. The company said it hopes to have 600 stores in the United States by 2024.

Slim Chickens competes in the fast-casual segment, where operations focus on an enhanced dining experience compared with fast-food operations. While they don’t have a wait staff, fast-casual restaurants typically deliver patrons their food after ordering.

According to information provided by Chicago-based Technomic Inc., a research and consulting firm focusing on food and food service, sales at limited-service chains among the top 500 U.S. restaurant chains grew 5.5 percent to $211 billion in 2015. Sales at limited service chicken restaurants was up 9 percent. Limited service chains include fast food and fast-casual concepts.

Sales in the fast-casual segment alone were up 11.5 percent, and unit growth was up 9.6 percent in 2015, according to the report.

Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, said that portability, in the form of a sandwich, is something that consumers are looking for, and that adding a sandwich helps fast-casual operations compete with more traditional fast food’s convenience factor.

“One hand on the wheel and the other on a sandwich,” he said.

He added that Slim Chickens’ efforts to test the sandwiches locally are wise.

“They are getting consumers to validate the quality of the product,” he said. “It’s what successful brands do but not what everybody does.”

Rothschild said the sandwich sells for $3.99 by itself or as part of a combo meal at $6.49. Slim Chickens’ lowest cost combo meal, pre-sandwiches, was $6.99. He said that puts the Slim Chickens’ sandwich and combo meal close to fast food on price.

“We want people to come to us when they want chicken,” Rothschild said.

Spice up Sliders with Non-Burger Options

May 10, 2016


by: Marzetti Foodservice

Customers continue to crave sliders, those mini sensations that pair well with warm weather and cold beverages. The opening of seating on patios and sidewalks always signals an uptick in orders for these shareable snacks. Sliders are the ultimate treat for customers who want “just a bite” of something at happy hour or snack time. They’re a popular option for grazing-prone millennials, who often choose “snack like” items over larger entrées. Operators love the versatility of sliders, since they represent a single menu item that can be used as a hors d’oeuvre, appetizer or entrée.

The Slider Evolution

“Sliders are part of the increased trend for personalization, customization and miniaturization that we see throughout the industry,” says Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, a food industry research and consultancy. “Sliders are going through their own evolution now, and chefs are moving beyond the basic burger, using the soft bun as a carrier for different proteins like pulled pork, chicken or salmon.”

Tristano says the highly customizable format allows operators to demonstrate their culinary credibility. “Because consumers are ordering a smaller portion, they’re usually willing to be more adventurous, or to order a combo plate of a few different types of sliders, one of which can be a more creative stretch for the kitchen.”

Sliders on the Menu

There are endless options for what goes inside a signature slider. Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Family Sports Pub serves Southern Fried Chicken Sliders with smoked Gouda cheese and honey mustard aioli. Del Frisco’s Grille’s Asian Street Bao Sliders include barbecue pork, pickled daikon and carrot, cucumber, cilantro and chiles. And Bar Louie offers Blackened Salmon Sliders with bacon, spinach, tomato and pesto mayonnaise.

McDonald’s All-Day Breakfast Sparks a Fast Food Fight

May 9, 2016

by Leslie Patton

Fast-food joints aren’t hitting the snooze button anymore.

McDonald’s Corp.’s decision to start selling Egg McMuffins all day long last year — meant to help sales during lunch and dinner time — has boosted its morning business as well. That, in turn, has kicked off a scramble among its rivals to find new ways to combine eggs, potatoes and meat for a tasty breakfast.

The latest example is Burger King’s Egg-Normous breakfast burrito, which is being introduced in the U.S. on Tuesday. It’s stuffed with sausage, bacon, eggs, hash browns, cheddar and American cheese and served with picante sauce. The home of the Whopper, which still serves breakfast only during morning hours, also recently added a supreme breakfast hoagie and got rid of slower-selling English muffin sandwiches.

“We’ve invested more in breakfast,” Alex Macedo, head of Burger King North America, said in an interview. “The environment is very competitive.”

Along with adding and deleting items, Burger King tweaked its smaller egg burrito earlier this year, removing green and red peppers and replacing them with hash browns.

Skillet Bowls

Taco Bell revised its morning offerings in March to include $1 options such as skillet bowls and sausage flatbread quesadillas. Subway Restaurants just announced buy-one-get-one subs for the month of May. The catch: They have to be purchased before 9 a.m. And Dunkin’ Donuts revamped its menu boards to focus on all-day choices and started advertising $1.99 Coolatta drinks that are sold at all hours.

The changes come as more U.S. consumers grab eggs and coffee outside the home, according to a study by researcher GfK MRI published by Last year, more than 34 percent of Americans reported buying breakfast at fast-food restaurants, an increase from 32.8 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, fewer consumers said they’re dining out for lunch and snacks. Dinner increased less than 1 percent.

McDonald’s all-day breakfast in the U.S. has helped turn around its worst sales slump in more than a decade by drawing more customers throughout the day, including the morning. The plan is surpassing its goals.

Exceeding Expectations

“It’s still exceeding our expectations,” Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook said on a conference call in April. “Whilst we clearly added incremental visits and incremental spend across rest of day, our breakfast business has also prospered.”

Items like Egg McMuffins and hash browns fueled a 5.4 percent U.S. same-store sales increase at McDonald’s in the first quarter. That’s stronger than the most recent quarterly gains posted by Burger King, Dunkin’ and Taco Bell.

“It’s helped drive success, which they haven’t seen for several years,” said Darren Tristano, president of industry researcher Technomic Inc.

After losing customers to McDonald’s all-day Egg McMuffins, Jack in the Box Inc. has been advertising a triple-cheese and hash-brown breakfast burrito. Same-store sales at company-owned Jack in the Box locations may be down as much as 3 percent in the recently ended quarter, the company said in Februar-1x-1y. The chain also is adjusting and improving other breakfast items, CEO Lenny Comma said during a conference in March.

Dunkin’ Donuts said last month that its new menu boards are helping drive breakfast-sandwich sales. It’s also focused on introducing mobile ordering and will start a 1,650-store test in metro New York in May to get customers their morning meals even faster. CEO Nigel Travis says McDonald’s push has actually helped Dunkin’ in the breakfast battle by highlighting that the doughnut chain has the same menu all day. Still, the change has increased competition for diners’ dollars.

“Clearly, the value war is pretty intense,” Travis said in an interview.

The Mac Daddy: Can the Big Mac survive in the age of the ‘better burger’?

April 26, 2016

by Time Walker
April 24, 2016


For almost half a century, the world’s most popular burger has remained all but unchanged by the swirls and eddies of the US fast-food business. Today, the Big Mac is still composed of the same few simple ingredients made famous in a 1974 advertising campaign: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions – on a sesame seed bun.”

Even as it was assigned the blame for America’s expanding waistlines and became a byword for US cultural imperialism, the signature McDonald’s sandwich, first made in 1967, has continued to sell in the hundreds of millions. But now, on the eve of its 50th birthday, the Big Mac is about to undergo the most fundamental alteration in its history.

Last week, McDonald’s began trialling two new versions of its best-selling burger at around 130 locations in Texas and central Ohio: a smaller so-called “Mac Jr”, and a larger “Grand Mac”. If the two new sizes prove to be a hit with customers, they will be rolled out across the US. From now on, the Big Mac may – technically speaking – be a Medium Mac.

McDonald’s US sales fell steadily over the first half of this decade, and the company has admitted it must innovate to keep pace with consumer tastes. Its core menu is its testing ground. With stiff competition from its rivals in the so-called “better burger” sector, the Big Mac is struggling to maintain relevance in the industry it first helped to super-size.

This week The Weinstein Co released the first trailer for its McDonald’s biopic The Founder. Oscar-tipped, the film stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the ambitious businessman who wrested the chain from its creators, the McDonald brothers, in the 1950s. It’s either the origin story of an enduring American institution, or a nostalgic glimpse of a fading empire’s glory days.

The Big Mac was created in 1967 by one of Kroc’s early franchisees, Jim Delligatti, who operated several McDonald’s restaurants in Pennsylvania. At the time, it was considered a prestige menu item, and a necessary response to Burger King’s Whopper. It became available across the US in 1968 and, upon its sesame seed-encrusted shoulders, McDonald’s would build a global brand.

Andrew F Smith, the author of Hamburger: A Global History, teaches culinary history at the New School University in New York. He ate his first burger in 1956, back when McDonald’s had only a handful of items on its menu. “I didn’t like the burgers,” he recalled. “I went because the French fries were great.”

Eventually, Mr Smith said, Mr Kroc and co realised their customers “didn’t just want something cheap, they wanted something that tasted good. The trifecta of taste is sugar, fat and salt; those are the flavours inherent in virtually all fast-food. The secret of the Big Mac? A lot of fat and salt! It became a symbol for McDonald’s and for the entire hamburger industry”.

Today, McDonald’s purports to serve some 68 million customers per day, in 119 countries. The Big Mac, as potent a symbol of American capitalism as Coca-Cola or the iPhone, has been used by The Economist to compare the cost of living in different countries since 1986, when the magazine published its first “Big Mac Index”.

In a press release announcing the Mac Jr and Grand Mac, Scott Nickell, the president of the McDonald’s Central Ohio Co-op, described the Big Mac as “a McDonald’s icon and a great-tasting sandwich,” adding: “We listened to our customers, who told us they wanted different ways to enjoy the one-of-a-kind Big Mac taste.”

The Grand Mac contains one-third of a pound of beef compared to a regular Big Mac’s one-fifth of a pound, and it comes in a bigger bun with an extra slice of processed cheese. In 1967 Delligatti sold his new creation for 45 cents; today’s Big Mac costs $3.99 (£2.78). The Grand Mac will go for $4.89, while the modest Mac Jr is a mere $2.59.

It’s a sensible business move, explained Darren Tristano, executive vice president at the food industry consultant Technomic. “McDonald’s beverages and French fries have always come in multiple sizes,” he said. “By creating the Grand Mac and Mac Jr, they can satisfy both price and portion sizes for different people’s tastes, without adding any new items to the menu.”

Just like the Big Mac in 1967, the Grand Mac and Mac Jr are a response to market forces. For decades, the Big Mac was the standard against which all other burgers were measured, but for many of today’s burger-lovers, it’s little more than a punchline. Who needs a Big Mac when you have “better burger” chains such as Five Guys, Smash Burger or the upmarket Umami Burger?

Chipotle Mexican Grill, considered the most successful “fast casual” dining chain in the US, said last month it had applied for a trademark to open a burger chain called, simply, Better Burger. The fast casual market exploded in the late 2000s and is now worth around $5bn, Mr Tristano said. “It has stolen share not only from McDonald’s, but fro10 Burger King and Wendy’s.”

Perhaps the leading purveyor of “better burgers” is Shake Shack, which opened its first permanent restaurant in New York in 2004 and now has almost 70 locations worldwide. Shake Shack landed in London in 2013, and this year opened its first west coast branch in West Hollywood. When it went public early last year, the company was valued at around $1.6bn.

Shake Shack’s cows are said to be raised without antibiotics or hormones, and its beef ground fresh from full-muscle cuts, not scraps. The chain launched in the same year as the release of the documentary Super Size Me and shortly after the publication of Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation, both of which helped make the Big Mac a symbol of the evils of the food industry.

Still, McDonald’s appears to enjoy its greatest success not when it tries to flog salads, but when it stays true to its original, nutritional values: salt, fat and sugar. In recent months, the firm curbed its US sales slide by offering breakfast all day. Days before the new Big Macs were unveiled, a Missouri branch announced it would serve “bottomless” orders of fries.

In the US, McDonald’s must now jostle for position with multiple rivals. Overseas, its business continues to grow in countries where chain restaurants have yet to saturate the market. The bitter irony is that the Big Mac may be viewed more positively by consumers in the developing world than it is at home, in the culture it helped to create.

History’s most influential burger may still be a global bestseller, but in America the Big Mac fell out of fashion years ago. It’s the Elvis of sandwiches. “The Big Mac was for the Baby Boomer generation. It was exactly what we wanted and needed in the 1960s, 70s and 80s,” said Mr Smith.

“But my students go out of their way to avoid McDonald’s. They prefer all these new chains who claim they don’t use antibiotics or additives, who say they use grass-fed beef only – all the things that are attractive to millennials. Shake Shack may be healthier than eating a Big Mac. But then again, eating salt and fat and sugar has never been good for you, and it still isn’t.”


Johnny Rockets to scrap nostalgia for modern look

April 15, 2016

By Nancy Luna
The Orange County Register
April 14, 2016


To assure its future, Lake Forest-based Johnny Rockets is scrapping much of its past.

The iconic Lake Forest-based burger chain is saying goodbye to dancing servers in white paper caps, jukeboxes, red-vinyl booths and stainless steel counters. The 30-year-old chain founded in Los Angeles is unveiling today a contemporary restaurant in Syracuse, N.Y., with wooden finishes, pendant lighting and a self-serve ordering kiosk for to-go orders.

“We were showing our age. We were looking a little old; a little tired,” Chief Executive Charles Bruce said in a phone interview Wednesday.

While there’s “equity in the brand,” Bruce said, the chain’s 350 restaurants have not seen the kind of repeat foot traffic needed to keep the chain going another 30 years. “The frequency wasn’t really good.”

The prototype New York restaurant looks like a modern fast-casual diner with glass globe lights, wood finishes on walls and tabletops, dark-colored booths and bright red chairs and barstools.

This year, the chain plans to grow aggressively with 70 new locations domestic and worldwide. Of those, one-third are adopting the new look. The rest of the chain, including older locations in Southern California, will adopt elements of the changes in stages, the company said.

The most dramatic changes are wiping out key 1950s-inspired features that have made the brand a Southern California institution.

In New York, servers are dressed in black or dark denim jeans with white oxford shirts. No more paper hats and nostalgic soda jerk-style uniforms. Quaint hospitality-driven touches like servers creating smiley-face ketchup designs next to an order of fries and spontaneous dancing are also going away.

Bruce, who came on board last year as CEO, said “someone dancing isn’t really relevant these days” to most customers, including millennials.

The changes are meant to move the brand forward by reaching out to millennials, while increasing sales among core customers – families and Latino diners. In 2015, Johnny Rockets generated nearly $206 million in sales, down 4.6 percent from 2014, according to market research firm Technomic in Chicago.

For now, the chain is focusing on making design changes to new restaurants. The core menu remains the same, though efforts have been made to add more limited-time burger specials in the last year.

Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, said shifting from its nostalgic brand roots is risky.

“Moving away from what consumers identify with the brand could be potentially confusing,” he said.

Still, he said the chain’s decision to first introduce the change to newer locations is a good approach.

“I think you test and see if it works,” he said.

Chain officials declined to say how much capital the privately owned company is investing in the new design. However, Bruce said the redesign might look “upmarket” and “eye-catching” but the costs are “on par with where Johnny Rockets has been.”

Custom pizza shop, Your Pie, coming to Indio this summer

April 11, 2016

By Anna Rumer
The Desert Sun
April 7, 2016


As soon as this summer, Indio residents will be able to sink their teeth into personalized artisanal pizzas in Indio Towne Center at California’s first Your Pie location.

Your Pie first opened in 2008 in Athens, Ga. as a family operation, but soon expanded across the country after fast casual pizza began to take off. In 2013, the company was named one of the Top New Franchises by Entrepreneur Magazine.

With a focus on hand-tossed dough, craft beers and a Chipotle-esque ordering system, Vice President of Development Ken Caldwell believes the restaurant creates a shared experience similar to that of dining in Italy while also providing people the opportunity to get their personalized pie and get out.

Two other similar pizza shops, Blaze and Pieology, are scheduled to open within the next few months in Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage, respectively, but franchise owner Scott Burr isn’t overly concerned about the competition.

Due to the relative novelty of the idea to the area and distance between locations, the La Quinta resident believes there’s enough demand for pizza to make it work. He’s sure Your Pie’s quality will surpass its competitors anyway.

“Nobody in the Coachella Valley is really even familiar with the concept of down-the-line pizza,” he said. “I’m happy to go up against anyone with this.”

He expects that when the shop opens in mid-to-late June, business will take off.

“It’s a booming community out here in North Indio and … there’s really no pizza restaurants,” he said.

The restaurant, located at 42250-B Jackson St., would employ around 25 employees.

Indio’s Your Pie would be the furthest west the east coast company has pushed and the beginning of what Caldwell hopes is the first of many in what he sees as the heart of fast casual pizza dining in California.

“We hope that this is the seed that really starts to germinate in California,” he said.

The company also has a deal signed with a franchisee in San Jose, but Caldwell said it will be a while before that location gets up and running. If Indio takes to the restaurant, he’d like to see 10 more Your Pies in-state by the end of the year.

“We will really have it grow at a controlled pace,” he said. “We won’t grow just for growth’s sake.”

Burr is also interested in expanding his franchises if things go well, but hasn’t committed to anything at this point.

The explosion of down-the-line pizza restaurants in the Coachella Valley isn’t uncommon, according to Darren Tristano, President of Technomic Inc., a company that does research and consulting for restaurants.

Even as fast food and traditional restaurant growth slows, fast casual restaurants continue to expand with a lot of success, he said. Most of these restaurants focus on lunch, but at least half of fast casual pizza’s business comes from dinner customers, giving it an advantage against competitors like Panera.

The appeal of pizza places like Your Pie largely comes with the amount of personalization and face-to-face interaction the customer has when ordering their food, Tristano said. It’s not just ordering onions on your pizza, it’s being able to count out how many onions are on your pizza.

“You have a higher level of quality and freshness and control,” Tristano said.

It’s the opposite model of businesses like Domino’s, which recently dropped the “pizza” from its name and developed a line of sandwiches and salads in order to gain wider appeal.

“These are very focused,” Tristano said. “They do it well.”

An influx of similar restaurants could oversaturate the market depending on its maturity, but Tristano wouldn’t be surprised if at least two or three chains were able to coexist within the valley.

“Ultimately, it comes down to how good of a restaurant you are and if people want to come back,” he said.

Has Chipotle Mexican Grill Reached ‘Peak Burrito’?

April 8, 2016

By James DeTar
Investor’s Business Daily
April 7, 2016 


Chipotle Mexican Grill‘s (CMG) move to trademark “Better Burger” didn’t just signal a possible new burger chain. It also underscores that Chipotle’s core business may have peaked.

Chipotle is just starting to recover from a slew of E. coli and norovirus outbreaks at several of its restaurants late last year, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ending its investigation on Feb. 1. Same-store sales plunged 14.6% in the fourth quarter and were down 26% in February. Chipotle has predicted it would report its first-ever quarterly loss in Q1.

The burrito giant should see a rebound in sales. But Chipotle’s growth was decelerating rapidly, even before the food illness outbreaks. And other industry data also suggest that demand for Mexican food generally is no longer outpacing other types of cuisine.


Chipotle is the king of fast casual eateries, as well as the clear leader among similar Tex-Mex chains, such as Jack In The Box (JACK)-owned Qdoba Mexican Eats, privately owned Freebirds World Burrito and more.

But the Mexican restaurant sector is maturing, while upscale burger chains are growing in popularity, according to market tracking firm Technomic’s President Darren Tristano.

“When we looked at the market in 2015, sales in the (upscale) ‘better burger’ category grew 15%. Mexican slowed down to only 7% or 8%,” he told IBD. Mexican restaurant growth had also been in the double digits.

Take a look at the figures for high-flying burger chain Shake Shack (SHAK). There, sales rose 47%, but that was just $51 million compared with Chipotle’s revenue at just under $1 billion in the fourth quarter.

Chipotle needs to continue diversifying to grow, Tristano said.

“When you have such large sales growth, it has to slow down. We saw that with a lot of other fast casuals too,” he said.

Sandwich and bakery chain Panera Bread (PNRA) used to enjoy double-digit and then high-single-digit same-store growth. But in the fourth quarter, that was reduced to 3.4%.

Unsustainable Growth

It’s not surprising that Chipotle’s growth has faltered, but what is astounding is that it stayed so high for so long. In the fourth quarter of 2013, Chipotle’s same-store sales rose a robust 9.3% vs. a year earlier. But comparable growth then accelerated every quarter until it peaked at 19.8% in the third quarter of 2014.

“It was just getting bigger and bigger a few years ago,” Argus Research analyst John Staszak said. “Comparisons were getting more difficult.”

Same-store sales growth cooled to 16.1% in Q4 2014, then to 10.4%, 4.3% and 2.6% in the first three quarters of 2015, respectively. Some of that was due to carnitas shortages as the company sought more humane suppliers.

Another factor to consider is that Chipotle’s food-illness woes haven’t necessarily helped rivals. Jack-In-The-Box’s Qdoba reported same-store sales growth slowed to 1.8% in its latest quarter, down from 14% a year earlier.

Total U.S. Mexican restaurant sales grew at a 2.9% annual rate from 2010 to 2015, when they reached $38 billion, IBISWorld said in a report. The market tracker forecasts growth will slow to 2.5% a year for the 2015-2020 period.

Further, Chipotle and its peers are losing ground when it comes to satisfying the public’s appetite for hotter cuisines. Diners still love spicy foods, but that’s expanded beyond Mexican and Asian dishes to fare such as KFC’s spicy chicken wings and Restaurant Brands International (QSR)-owned Burger King’s “Angriest Whopper,” which features hot sauce in the bun.

“People looking for spicy foods might be headed for a Mexican restaurant, but there are many other choices for Americans now,” Tristano said.

Chipotle has already expanded into the Asian food sector with its ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen restaurants, though it hasn’t rapidly increased those locations. It’s dipped its toe into the fast-growing custom pizza sector by investing in the Locale pizzeria chain.

Despite slowing growth, analysts are still bullish on Chipotle.

“There is still strong association with the Chipotle brand. People have very short memories” for health scares, said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst for market-tracking firm NPD Group.

Chipotle’s Growth Options

In addition to eyeing the high-end burger sector, Chipotle at the end of March began testing an expanded drinks menu at a store in its home city of Denver as another way to regain customers and boost same-store sales and margins. Some analysts still see an opportunity to expand into breakfast.

And the biggest mid-term source of growth is simply creating more Chipotle locations. The company added 192 stores in 2014 and 229 locations in 2015, with 220-235 planned in 2016.

Investors can take heart, however. A restaurant operator that is maturing doesn’t necessarily mean a death knell for the stock. Investors can, and usually do, reset expectations.

Take a look at Panera, which is trading at-all time highs. There’s also the fast-food king, McDonald’s (MCD), which has rebounded to record highs, largely over excitement that U.S. same-store sales have turned positive following a long slump.

And don’t forget that expanding into burgers would bring some symmetry to Chipotle’s story. McDonald’s, home of the Big Mac, was a big Chipotle investor before divesting its stake.


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