Restaurants Redefined

October 28, 2011

Restaurants Redefined

Restaurants Redefined

As the old saw goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and to put it mildly, the Great Recession bred a lot of necessity.

For the quick-service sector, the deprivation cut several ways. There was the “trading down” phenomenon, where some cash-strapped consumers chose fast-casual establishments instead of the full-service experience they might have opted for in better times. But more consumers overall were eating at home as their disposable income dwindled and their anxiety rose, and all segments of the restaurant industry took a hit.

As the commercial real estate market took a nosedive, there also was suddenly an opportunity for franchisors to negotiate better deals on better locations in markets that had previously proved tough to penetrate. This might have been a consolation of the economic calamity, except that credit streams had frozen so solid you could skate on them. In this climate, those in the industry who wanted to expand went begging at one bank after another.

These are sink-or-swim conditions. So it is not surprising that in the last two years, restaurants have been innovating at a pace that is unusual for a historically slow-moving industry. From the food trucks rolling through more neighborhoods to the industry’s late but enthusiastic adoption of social media marketing, restaurants have shown an impressive capacity to adapt in hard times.

Another strategy that has picked up steam during the recession is the mixed-service model, where restaurant brands offer their customers both full-service and quick-service experiences, sometimes under one roof. While this is not an entirely new phenomenon, it is becoming more common as consumer preferences become less monolithic.

“A mixed-service format is probably on the horizon for a number of restaurants,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Chicago-based food consultancy Technomic. “Mixing limited and full service together is a great combination.”

One company that already employs the strategy successfully, Tristano says, is Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings, which offers fast-casual and full-service options throughout the day. Other brands, like Le Grande Orange Café in Santa Monica, California, a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant, offer limited service during breakfast and lunch and then switch over to a full-service model in the evening.

“It’s kind of the best of both worlds,” Tristano says. “As you move away from that fast-casual need, the full-service picks up and all of sudden it’s like you’re running two completely different restaurants.”

Of course, time was when few operators would have wanted to run two different restaurants under one roof. The goal is brand consistency, after all. Tristano says the trick is maintaining brand identity while adapting to new consumer preferences.

“There’s always that risk of confusing the consumer,” he says. “But this mixed-service model tracks better with consumer schedules.”

People are far more “time crunched” in the morning and during lunch, Tristano says. But in the evening they have time to enjoy a slower meal, and they are willing to pay more for it.

The potential for high ticket averages is what convinced Randy Murphy, president and CEO of Mama Fu’s, a chain of “Asian houses” based in Austin, Texas, to start implementing what he calls “flex casual” service in 2006. Before he took over, Murphy was Mama Fu’s biggest franchisee. He liked how well the fast-casual model did during lunch, but he wanted to find a remedy for the sales drop-off come evening.

So after taking the reins, he decided to turn select Mama Fu’s locations into full-service establishments by night. Now with more than 10 flex-casual locations, Mama Fu’s is “predominantly a dinner-driven concept,” Murphy says.

“We firmly believe that for lunch people do want to get in and get out,” he says. “But at night, whether they are on a date or out with the family, people typically want a higher level of service, and they have a little more time to dine.”

Transitioning to a completely different format of service between lunch and dinner isn’t as laborious as it sound, Murphy says.

“The only thing that changes is the ambience,” he says.

But running a full-service restaurant does entail more than just lowering the lights and switching up the music. For one, it requires having more staff on hand. While paying waiters may make some quick serves give up on the idea of a flex model, particularly in a down economy, Murphy says he pays less for labor during dinner because the servers get tip wage, which is typically about a third to a quarter of hourly wage.

“You do need more bodies, but it does not add up to the amount of pure labor wage you had before,” he says.

Further offsetting the costs of switching to full service are the extras that diners tend to indulge in during a sit-down meal.

“What you’re not going to get in fast casual or quick service is the add ons,” Murphy says. “You’re not going to get alcohol, you’re not going to get appetizers, you’re not going to get desserts, or any of those things that accompany a full dining experience.”

All told, Mama Fu’s ticket average goes up by $4 during dinner. Still, Murphy says he has “no intention of going full service during the day.”

“It’s all about finding the right mix,” he says. “Some places are understandably [one service model] all the time. But I think you’re going to see changes in service models, in terms of flexibility and mobility, simply because you have to differentiate and give customers what they want.”

East Coast Wings & Grill, based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is another chain proving the trend is already well under way. By the end of 2010, the company will have opened three on-the-go locations in addition to its 15 full-service establishments, and 10 more are in the works for 2011, says president Sam Ballas.

“With a lot less capital and a lot less projected operating expense, we want to niche into [new markets] with a kind of ‘Mini Me’ of East Coast Wings & Grill,” Ballas says.

East Coast Wings’ approach to mixed service is different than Mama Fu’s in that the on-the-go locations are housed in separate buildings altogether than the full-service locations. The strategy is the result of two years of market research, Ballas says, and the goal is to help area developers grow by introducing East Coast Wings into two market segments.

Ideally, franchisees would first open a full-service location and then branch out into the same area with a quick serve about six months later. If some operators do not want to open a full-service establishment at all, then they would have to contract for multiple on-the-go locations.

Ballas says he was spurred toward the new concept by franchisees who wanted to expand but had only limited access to credit. He felt that the relatively low cost of opening an on-the-go (about $270,000) compared with a full-service East Coast Wings, which ranges between $450,000–$500,000, would make it an attractive option in a bad economy.

View the full article on QSR


The Morning File: Some of us seem a tad slow to desert fast food passion

October 28, 2011

Fast Food Passion

The Morning File: Some of us seem a tad slow to desert fast food passion

It’s been too long since The Morning File staff all went out to a nice fast food lunch together, enjoying the calories, the restroom hand dryers, the playground tunnels to crawl through.

So we’re headed out today to Wendy’s to taste the overhaul of its 42-year-old hamburger, and no one’s going to stop us. Not Michelle Obama, with her emphasis on healthy eating; not McDonald’s, with its insane offering of oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins; and most certainly not our too-smart-for-their-own-good kids, who seemed to eat nothing but fast food for about five years and now, in their late teens, treat it like radioactive waste.

Someone’s gonna need a pretty heavy defensive line today to keep us away from this new 800-calorie half-pound Hot ‘N Juicy double cheeseburger, and we’re pretty confident we’ll be able to talk anyone on such a defensive line into joining our ranks anyway. That’s right, Casey Hampton — we’re talking to you.

Right around the time The Associated Press ran a story recently alerting us to the extensive Manhattan Project-style research that developed the Hot ‘N Juicy, it published another article suggesting all the talk about Americans wanting to eat healthier is just that — talk. Consumers at fast food restaurants are putting their money where their taste buds are, consequences be damned.

“So, while 47 percent of Americans say they’d like restaurants to offer healthier items like salads and baked potatoes, only 23 percent tend to order those foods,” the article said, citing a survey last year by food research firm Technomic. The AP made the point that IHOP’s 1,180-calorie breakfast sampler of eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, hash browns and pancakes (“Excuse me, miss — can I get extra toast with that?”) reigns as its top seller, rather than goody-goody yogurt and fruit bowls.

As another example, before McDonald’s started automatically providing half-servings of both apple slices and french fries this year in its Happy Meals, parents who formerly had the option of picking one or the other for their kids chose the fries 89 percent of the time.

It’s possible, of course, that parents taking their kids to McDonald’s are already a self-selected group of familial gluttons, indifferent if not hostile to government warnings about obesity. Or maybe they feared their children being picked on if they seemed averse to fries, a form of bullying that would be only natural. (“Apples? Your old lady smells like rotten apples, ya little squirt. Now grow up and order some food you can put some salt on, or else.”)

Not willing to be forced down some path of healthy food emphasis by the nutrition police, Wendy’s stuck to its traditional guns on Project Gold Hamburger. The chain has been losing market share to McDonald’s and spent 21/2 years on an effort to remake its bread and butter — which turned out to be a literal as well as figurative change. After extensive taste and marketing tests, the main burger ended up with a thicker beef patty, extra cheese and a buttered, toasted bun.

Oh, and Wendy’s switched the color of its onions from white to red. Let’s see if that keeps their burger-eaters from jumping to Five Guys.

“It’s not about getting real exotic,” a Wendy’s senior vice president told the AP. “It’s about making everything work.”

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Now, we’re not stupid enough to think fast food is our best option when going out for lunch, or dinner, or breakfast — or when we get hungry again right after a healthy lunch or dinner. But gosh, that craving for what is provided by McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, KFC, etc., is as American as a drive-through window.

We know ourselves that we’ve tried to have good intentions in such places — no, don’t super-size me, please don’t, really, well OK, if you must — but it’s so, so hard.

“There is often a disconnect between consumers’ intentions and their actions,” said Technomic executive Darren Tristano. “Many consumers are actually making substantial changes to their overall habits, even basing which restaurants they frequent in part based on their impressions of the healthfulness of the brands. However, as many of us know from personal experience, diners do not always follow through on their intentions once it is time to order.”

Someday, such behavior might change, due to national indoctrination of people like the young vegan in The Morning File’s own household. But until then, we’re willing to have our buns buttered and discover what is so hot and juicy about the Hot ‘N Juicy.

View the full article on Post-Gazette