Gandy Restaurant Project Mixes Food Trucks, Waterfront Ambiance

October 28, 2013

tbo.comA year ago, Scott Tashkin had sold his stake in a staffing firm and was having a drink with his wife at the I.C. Sharks bar in St. Petersburg when she pointed to the derelict property next door that used to be the Banana Boat bar.

“So we walked over and I guess that’s how it started,” Taskin said. Not long after, Tashkin purchased the property and after months working from a construction trailer, the site is shaping up to become Tampa area’s next luxury beach-side bar restaurant called The Getaway. “We’ve just always wondered why Tampa doesn’t have more waterfront places with all this water around us.”

So they’re building one, and this restaurant and bar will have the hippest of twists. Though the landscape will be lush and the drinks especially upscale, there will be no permanent restaurant kitchen. Instead, there will be a steady rotation of the hippest food trucks in Florida to provide food to an all open-air bar space along the water.

“At some point, maybe we build our own kitchen,” Tashkin said. “But when we floated this idea of bringing in food trucks, people got really excited.”

To pull off his project, Tashkin partnered with David Burton, an operator of local Pizza Fusion locations. When complete, the project could reach a $3 million budget for the land and construction. That includes floating docks with 30 boat slips. And there will be two tiki areas, one with a 1,600 square foot, open-air drinking and dining space, and another “dockside” bar near the boats.

The location sits just at the western landing of the Gandy Bridge in Pinellas County, and it faces south toward a set of mangroves and small islands. So a dockmaster at the Getaway will also rent out kayaks and paddleboards for anyone who wants to explore. Luckily, the site was already permitted for dock space, even though most had fallen into disrepair before construction started. Also luckily, the site sits midway between the decidedly gritty “Beercan Beach” on the south side of the Gandy causeway where people drive right up to the water for fishing and drinking, and the decidedly upscale office parks further inland and the affluent areas around Snell Isles and Coffee Pot Bayou.

During a recent tour of the space, a pair of boaters broke down just off the soon-to-be-built dock space — as their outboard motor battery died — and they drifted up to the waterfront space. “Hey, when do you guys open,” the boater asked. “Soon as we can,” Tashkin replied.

People should expect far more than just a thatched roof, Tashkin said. He’s hired architects who designed many of the most upscale Key West restaurants. There will be lush landscaping, a covered walkway from the parking lot, a fireplace pit by the water, a tiki-covered fish pond, thatched band stage, and all drinks made with fresh ingredients — not pre-made mixers.

Though there are not a lot of beach-side places, there are a few recent projects in the area, including the Hulk Hogan-themed “Hogan’s Beach” restaurant on the Courtney Campbell Causeway. The Gulf side has far more watery places, including the Salt Rock Grill, Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill, Crabby Bill’s and the Hurricane in Pass-A-Grille.

At one point, Tashkin and Burton had envisioned building out the derelict Banana Boat bar into a kitchen for the overall operation, but going with the food truck trend sparked huge interest, Tashkin said, and he’ll spend the next few weeks sorting out which ones will be in the first rotation.

Some elements of this plan match with especially hip trends in restaurants, said Darren Tristano, a restaurant consultant with the market research and consulting firm Technomic. Besides the numerous food truck festivals that seem to grow bigger each year, at least a few restaurants are embracing food trucks — which had been seen as their natural competition for customers.

“In Austin, there are a number of bars where you order food at a stand behind the bar,” Tristano said. “If there’s a trend here, it’s the bring-your-own food trend.” The Getaway, he said, will have to balance the desire of customers for a consistent menu, with the allure of “Who knows what will happen tonight” adventure of just going to a beach bar to find out which food truck came, too.

Kathy Hayden, Editor-in-Chief of Food+Service Magazine, said food truck “clusters” are popular in cities such as Portland, Ore., that has several permanent places to park in the city.

She also notes the Truck Yard burger bar/beer garden in Dallas that launched with food truck service in an outdoor beer garden, serving steak sandwiches.

“The idea of gathering food trucks makes sense,” she said, “especially where weather and local regulations are agreeable.” The question in her mind is whether any such restaurant can make money off a variety of trucks, unless they end up charging rent/parking fees.

Meanwhile, contractors at the Getaway this week started to put up the major poles that will hold up the tiki bars, and if all goes according to plan, the restaurant will have a soft opening in November and a full opening in December.

Starbucks Petition Urges Lawmakers to Wake Up, End Shutdown

October 25, 2013

Screen-Shot-2013-10-11-at-10.03.31-AMStarbucks on Friday kicked off a petition drive to mobilize its customers and other businesses in hopes of ending the federal government shutdown.

“Please join us in doing what you—and your companies—can to give the American people the voice they currently lack, and are desperately crying out for,” Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wrote in a letter posted on the company’s website. “And in the process, you can help to restore faith and trust in our government through your civil words and deeds.”

By mid-morning Friday, more than 200,000 people had signed on, Schultz said during an appearance on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

Within the past 48 hours, Schultz has spoken with more than half of the CEOs of companies listed on the Dow 30, he said. They all were consistently disgusted with the situation, he added.

“I’m saying enough is enough,” Schultz said.

The petition comes as Americans’ frustration with Washington politicians is high. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 60 percent of Americans would opt to throw out every member of Congress at once if possible.

The Starbucks petition states: “To our leaders in Washington, D.C., now’s the time to come together to: 1. Reopen our government to serve the people. 2. Pay our debts on time to avoid another financial crisis. 3. Pass a bipartisan and comprehensive long-term budget deal by the end of the year.”

Starbucks is urging like-minded individuals to sign the petition online or to bring it into a Starbucks. They can also sign up for email or text updates, share them on social media and download a badge for their social sites. By Friday morning, the Starbucks post on Facebook had more than 70,000 likes.

Earlier this week, the Seattle-based coffee chain started with a soft-sell campaign, urging customers to “pay it forward” by buying a coffee for another customer. Starting Friday, the company added to those efforts by stocking its stores with petitions, asking politicians to wake up to the people’s wishes.

“I think Starbucks has a lot of guts to be the first ones to get involved,” said John McCourt, a graduate student at New York University, who is documenting his quest to visit every one of the coffee chain’s outlets in Manhattan. On Friday morning, he had already signed the petition and bought coffee for another person at an Upper East Side Starbucks.

“I think the petition is an evolution of the pay-it-forward. The pay-it-forward was asking people to be nicer to each other, to be more civil to each other. Three days later, nothing happened, so now we have the petition,” McCourt said.

Although mixing politics with business can have negative repercussions for some companies, this campaign is right in line with Starbucks brand and identity, said Darren Tristano, the executive vice president at Technomic, a food industry research and consulting firm.

“It really fits in with the Starbucks philosophy. They’ve always done things with a strong corporate responsibility,” Tristano told CNBC.

Schultz has weighed in on high-profile political issues before, including a plea for Starbucks customers to leave their guns at home and a 2011 call for people to stop making political contributions until lawmakers reached a deal on the U.S. debt and spending.

“In my mind it’s also a promotion for the brand,” Tristano said. “I think what it’s showing is this brand cares enough to help other people. Why can’t the government work harder to help out citizens?”

Sbarro’s New Kitchen

October 18, 2013

sbarro-s-new-kitchen_0As fast-casual pizza concepts make their mark across America, one of the nation’s top 10 pizza chains is joining the growing movement.

Sbarro will open its first Pizza Cucinova restaurant next week in a strip at Columbus, Ohio’s popular shopping center, Easton. The concept’s second and third units will open in early 2014 near downtown Columbus and in Cincinnati, respectively.

“This is a completely separate concept, designed to be developed primarily in strip centers,” says J. David Karam, chief executive of Sbarro, which has more than 1,000 units in some 40 countries. “It’s part of a fast-emerging category.”

Pizza Cucinova has been a key initiative for Karam since he joined Sbarro in early 2012 as chairman after serving as Wendy’s president from 2008 to 2011. The first stores are prototypes, not test units, he says.

“I thought it was important to develop or acquire an artisan pizza business,” says Karam, who took on the title of CEO in March.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the Sbarro pies, he adds, which feature fresh dough and whole-milk Mozzarella shredded in the stores.

“Sbarro is the premium-quality [quick-service pizza] chain,” he says, and Pizza Cucinova embraces the “stratification of the market.”

Columbus was chosen for the initial store because it is one of the nation’s top test markets, and so Karam can keep an eye on it. He splits time between Columbus—home to his family’s large Wendy’s franchise, Cedar Enterprises—and Sbarro’s offices in Melville, New York.

“We certainly believe in the underlying trend that is causing customers to look for higher-quality food, but they still want convenience.”

Much of the work to create Pizza Cucinova was led by Anthony Missano, president of business development.

“We’re very confident in this category,” says the 35-year Sbarro veteran. “It’s artisan, Neapolitan-style pizza, with very, very fine dough that requires special handling. We will be featuring top ingredients and will locally source many of them.”

Using dough made with double-zero flour from Italy, the thin-crust pies are baked quickly in a very hot, wood-smoked oven and topped with upscale ingredients such as arugula and prosciutto.

“We certainly believe in the underlying trend that is causing customers to look for higher-quality food, but they still want convenience,” Karam says.

The menu features nine specialty pies, five pizzas dubbed “Classics,” and a build-your-own option, all of which come in one 12-inch size. Specialty pizzas include the Steak and Gorgonzola pie, made with roast top sirloin, caramelized onions, roasted garlic, Gorgonzola, and chopped parsley; and the Caponata Vegetariana, made with grilled eggplant, garlic, goat cheese, and capers. Among the ingredients in the remaining specialty pizzas are roasted Portobello, truffled Asiago cheese, truffle oil, imported Bufala Mozzarella and Burrata, anchovies, clams, shrimp, sausage, meatballs, pepperoni, soppressata, arugula, fennel, broccolini, and peppadews.

Pizza Cucinova’s Classic pies are all made with extra virgin olive oil and Pecorino Romano. Four different variations, the White, Red, Green, and Margherita, allow customers to choose from sauces such as marinara and basil pesto, as well as different cheeses. Customers can add extra ingredients for $1–$4 each.

The fast-casual concept will also serve upscale salads like Roasted Red and Yellow Beets, with house greens, Feta, roasted walnuts, fresh basil, and lemon vinaigrette; and the Mediterranean, with a mix of greens, olives, Feta, pepperoncini, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, and red wine vinaigrette.

A unique salumeria-style menu item includes sliced prosciutto and crusty bread, soppressata, salami, olives, and pepperoncini. Pizza Cucinova will serve eight beers on tap, wine by the glass, soft drinks, and cheesecakes baked daily.

The new concept’s layout follows in the open, airy fast-casual tradition. Diners enter the restaurant and go down the ordering line, where the restaurant’s staff builds the pies on pizza peels. There’s a big menuboard behind the workers, and customers pay at the end. Reclaimed wood is used throughout the restaurant, including in the tables.

Sbarro, which operates primarily quick-service pizza restaurants in shopping malls, universities, airports, and other nontraditional locations, is the latest on a growing list of operators and restaurant veterans to launch fast-casual pizza operations. Texas-based chain Pizza Inn created Pie Five, while Atlanta-headquartered Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint was developed by Moe’s Southwest Grill cofounder Matt Andrew. Los Angeles brand PizzaRev has financial backing from Buffalo Wild Wings, and Pasadena, California–based Blaze Pizza is operated by the founders of Wetzel’s Pretzels.

The new pizza movement is part of a bigger trend in which restaurant companies, from quick-service veteran White Castle to casual player Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, test and roll out fast-casual concepts to capitalize on the only restaurant segment showing solid growth.

Recent research from restaurant market research firm Technomic Inc. determined the made-to-order pizza category could be the next hot niche concept.

“There are several players in the U.S. looking to grow by focusing on a customization process that uses different sauces, cheeses, and flour types, just like Subway or Chipotle do,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic.

The artisan pies “are in that sweet spot of $5–$7 and can be quickly turned out in a very fresh manner,” he adds.

In a very competitive market, where big chains sell larger traditional pizzas for less than $6 each, the profit margin for fast-casual pizza is also attractive, he says.

Although Domino’s Pizza has experimented with stores that focus increasingly on lunch—a hallmark of fast casual—and has moved kitchens to the front of the store, Sbarro is the largest pizza chain to incorporate a customizeable and quickly served artisan menu.

With a Wink and a Nudge, ‘breastaurants’ Consider Milwaukee

October 17, 2013

b99111943z.1_20131010160657_000_gj52ren1.2-0Milwaukee could soon get a taste of the new breed of “breastaurants” that have emerged to challenge Hooters in the beer-and-babes dining category.

A Texas-based group has signed an agreement to open two Twin Peaks (get it?) restaurants in the area, and has been actively scouting locations.

Eyeing Milwaukee as well is Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery, which also dresses its waitresses in skimpy, cleavage-emphasizing outfits, but with a Celtic theme rather than Twin Peaks’ mountain-lodge look.

Both chains are relatively small. But they’ve been expanding by providing a fresh approach to a restaurant industry segment long dominated by Hooters.

“There are definitely opportunities for growth and, certainly, demand,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at food industry research firm Technomic Inc. “So I think we’re going to expect three to five years of continued growth, and that’s partially because there are a lot of markets like Milwaukee that don’t have these restaurants.”

Furthest along in Milwaukee is Twin Peaks, which developer David Schmille touts as “kind of the Cadillac” of the segment. Schmille, a Dallas-area resident, operates Fish City Grill restaurants in Texas and Arkansas, and is a former top executive with the Romano’s Macaroni Grill chain.

“I’ve already been up there a few times,” he said of Milwaukee. “We’ve got one opportunity that we’re looking at right now. We like the Mayfair mall, Brookfield mall corridors.”

“We’re hoping to have something in the market by next year,” he said.

Focus on skin

Based in Dallas, Twin Peaks has grown from seven restaurants in 2008 to 44 now. The chain touts its “made from scratch” cooking, and longtime restaurant industry consultant Malcolm Knapp gives Twin Peaks high marks for its food.

Ample servings of skin, though, seasoned with suggestive wordplay — “well built sandwiches,” “smokin’ hot dishes,” “scenic views” — are essential ingredients in the marketing recipe.

But forget the double-entendres. The first sentence of the chain’s franchise disclosure document — required to be provided to potential franchise buyers — makes the business model clear:

“You will establish and operate a lodge-themed, full service restaurant with a full bar featuring the ‘TWIN PEAKS’ Girls, who are attractive women dressed in theme-related uniforms that enhance the sex appeal of the women,” the document begins.

Swap Twin Peaks’ deep-cleavage plaid tops and short shorts for Tilted Kilt’s deep-cleavage tartan bras and mini-kilts, and the waitresses at the two chains look pretty similar.

But Tempe, Ariz.-based Tilted Kilt doesn’t seem to favor Twin Peaks’ wink-wink marketing approach. Kilt president Ron Lynch doesn’t even want his places called “breastaurants” — and not simply because yet another chain, Bikinis Bar and Grill, trademarked the word last year.

Lynch’s view, according to a Tilted Kilt spokeswoman: “He thinks that term demeans and objectifies his employees.”

Among Tilted Kilt’s 85 locations — up from 14 in 2008 — are restaurants in Green Bay and Oshkosh, and a third that opened this year in Kenosha, in a former Old Country Buffet.

“We’ve been in pretty steady growth even with the down economy,” said Paul DiBenedetto, who heads a group that holds Tilted Kilt development rights for Wisconsin and seven other states.

DiBenedetto’s group doesn’t yet have a franchisee for the Milwaukee area, which puts Tilted Kilt a step behind Twin Peaks and Schmille, who already has connected with a local real estate broker and is searching for space.

Waitresses as performers

At the moment, the nearest Twin Peaks is in Wheeling, Ill., a northwest suburb of Chicago. The company-owned restaurant opened in March and is huge — 450 seats, 64 TV screens as large as 80 inches, and 110 employees.

Among them are 55 “Twin Peaks Girls,” who might address customers as “sweetie” and “honey” or sit down beside them to chat. It’s all part of their instruction in what one waitress described as the restaurant’s Three S’s: Sit, Schmooze, Sell.

“They’re considered performers,” general manager Ignazio Colella said. “We hire them on as performers.”

As Colella explained it, the girls are encouraged to “flirt without intent…have a couple playful innuendos.”

Said waitress Kelli Koch, a 19-year-old community college student who hopes to become a paramedic, “I can sit down with you. I can talk with you. I can mess around with you, play with you a little bit.”

But no touching.

“When guys touch us, it absolutely is not tolerated,” she said.

She acknowledges being “a little shy” at first about showing herself in the skimpy Twin Peaks costume. Now it’s merely the uniform she wears at work — at a place where she regularly earns $100 a shift in tips alone.

“We look at it as nothing but a job,” she said. “I am going to school, I’m making car payments, I’m making credit card payments…. We’re just normal teenage girls who are trying to make good money to get ourselves set up.”

Colella takes pride in Twin Peaks’ food, but said there’s no shortage of decent restaurants with lots of TVs showing sports.

“But when you throw in great-looking girls who have a great attitude, who are going to give you an experience…it sets you apart,” he said.

Limits to strategy

The breastaurant strategy, though, has limits.

Hooters of America is a case in point. The Atlanta-based chain finished last year with 417 restaurants, down from 455 at the end of 2010, according to the firm’s franchise disclosure document. Among locations that closed was one in Greenfield.

Overall sales fell by about 7% over the same period, Technomic estimates.

Hooters pioneered the segment but has “been on stasis for about 10 years,” said Knapp, creator of the Knapp-Track count of monthly restaurant sales and traffic. “They just weren’t growing and they had internal fights…and they weren’t responding to changes.”

Now, new management under an ownership group that took over in 2011 is “working on making it more relevant again,” Knapp said. “The T-shirts never went out of relevancy, but the food really wasn’t what it should have been.”

And while Tilted Kilt has expanded overall, several outlets also have closed over the last few years, including locations in Madison and Stevens Point.

An issue all of the chains face is the limited appeal of the testosterone-drenched atmosphere to one very large demographic group — women.

Schmille said about 90% of Twin Peaks’ customers are men. The lunch crowd at the Chicago-area restaurant last Thursday bore that out: five women among roughly 100 men.

Later that afternoon in Kenosha, a 30-ish woman hesitated at the door of the Tilted Kilt, with its stained-glass likenesses of the chain’s waitresses.

“Oh God,” she said, “please don’t tell me that’s how they’re dressed in there.”

“C’mon,” said her male companion. “We were here for football.”

In they went.

Dining Over a Din: Loud Eateries Feed on Energy

October 16, 2013

getimage.aspxChad Bell loved the steak tacos and margaritas at Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar on Sand Lake Road. The blaring Top 40 music? Not so much.

“It would be a great place if you were going to have drinks with friends,” said Bell, 40, of Winter Springs. “For dinner or conversation, it just kind of ruined it.”

Raising your voice at a restaurant is becoming as common as leaving a tip. It’s a trend that some customers, generally older ones, find frustrating. Noise ranked No. 1 in a Zagat survey last month of diners’ pet peeves, with 27 percent calling it their biggest complaint.

For many Central Florida restaurants, though, loud music is part of the ambience — and they aren’t inclined to lower the volume. Some of the noise is fueled by trendy design: open kitchens, concrete floors and high ceilings.

“Loud restaurants equate to successful restaurants,” said Tom Galvin, a Winter Garden restaurant designer.

At Rocco’s Tacos, manager Pete Vittas agrees. He described the boisterous atmosphere as “dynamic and energetic.”

Vittas said guests haven’t complained about the volume, although sometimes the “guy across the lake lets us know it might be a little too loud.”

Other Central Florida establishments known for putting the din in dining include burger joints Graffiti Junktion and BurgerFi, Prato on Winter Park’s Park Avenue and Taverna Opa in the tourist district.

Both customers and neighbors have occasionally complained about the music at Graffiti Junktion at night, president Greg Peters said. Restaurant employees can turn down the speakers in different sections if someone complains, Peters said.

But “it’s kind of our mojo,” he said. “You go in there, it’s got music playing, people are having a good time.”

Graffiti Junktion cut down on live bands in its Thornton Park location a couple of years ago, Peters said. Now bands are scheduled just a couple of times a year and stop by 10 p.m.

At Prato, a bar takes up much of the dining room, and alternative rock in the background gets louder as the night goes on. The restaurant also recently added speakers outside.

The music “has to be at a level you can hear it to create that energy, to create a buzz,” said Tim Noelke, Prato’s general manager. “Definitely, we’ve elevated that music a little louder than some restaurants.”

One recent night, the decibel level registered at 89.2, about the same as a motorcycle 25 feet away.

Noelke said some guests have complained and he will lower the volume in certain parts of his restaurant upon request. He’s also installed soundproofing in Prato’s high ceilings and put cushions on benches.

Emma Starling said she didn’t mind the noise while enjoying date night with her husband, Walker.

“This is a young, cool place,” said Starling, 34, of Orlando. “So you expect it to have louder music.”

The Starlings have a 10-month-old son, so they see another benefit to lots of background noise: When the baby cries, he doesn’t disturb other diners.

“We don’t go to quiet places anymore,” Walker Starling said.

Nearby, 62-year-old Richard Spell of Houston confessed he would have liked a little less commotion with his cuisine.

“I can understand the attraction to the, I hate to say, younger crowd. It makes it seem alive,” said Spell, glancing around at his fellow diners who appeared mostly between the ages of 25 and 45. “My choice would be a nice, quiet place these guys would hate.”

Indeed, there often seems to be an age divide on the subject of noisy restaurants.

“Younger generations are looking at the noise as energy,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at restaurant research firm Technomic. “Older generations are looking at it as an annoyance.”

In a NPD Group survey last year of diners 48 and older, almost half said they would visit full-service restaurants more if the eateries would turn down the volume a notch.

Even some younger customers, though, would like a little more peace and quiet.

“I’d rather have the decibel level lower,” said 25-year-old Vivian Gornik of Tampa, dining with friends recently at BurgerFi on Park Avenue as ’80s rock blared over the speakers.

Even so, the chain’s director of operations, Josh Lorence, said he’s not aware of complaints.

“Our customers seem to love our environment,” he said.

Some restaurants have special attractions that are inherently noisy, such as the animatronic dinosaurs’ roar at T-Rex in Downtown Disney. Taverna Opa is known for its sometimes-loud live entertainment, which includes belly dancers.

“The reason why you do come to the restaurant is the loudness of the restaurant and the entertainment and dancing and having fun,” said Katerina Coumbaros, Taverna Opa’s owner.

In general, Tristano said, diners shouldn’t expect restaurants to quiet down. “I don’t know that restaurants are deeply concerned over it,” Tristano said. “Most of the restaurants are noisy because they’re full, and full restaurants aren’t concerned with the noise.”

Ciro’s Chris Dorman: A Story Behind Every Cocktail

October 15, 2013

rpdormancirosimg4938 304Tasty food is always a draw, but some of today’s restaurant-goers are looking for a taste of eras gone by.

Storytelling is increasingly important to the restaurant experience, said Darren Tristano, a restaurant analyst with Technomic Inc.

Chris Dorman, beverage director for SoHo Hospitality Management, described how history influences cocktails at Ciro’s Speakeasy and Supper Club, the Prohibition-themed lounge in South Tampa.

Dorman joined SoHo about two months ago after relocating from New York City, where he was involved in several restaurant and nightlife concepts with historic themes.

Tampa Bay Business Journal: What attracted you to Tampa Bay?

Dorman: Tampa had an interesting cocktail culture that was growing already. Tampa is one of those places where they’re into the culture. People understand what they’re doing and are trying to push it forward. Down here, a few [places] I see doing that consistently are Sidebern’s, Fly Bar & Restaurant and Anise Global Gastrobar.

TBBJ: What are some of the new ideas you’re rolling out?

Dorman: We’re going to get more seasonal than we’ve been in the past, where every six or seven months you’ll find new cocktails on the menu based on what’s in season. One new cocktail is called the “Flapper’s Delight.” It’s a gin-based cocktail [that] comes in a classic cocktail champagne flute … We have another cocktail called the “Special Delivery.” During the Prohibition, people’s liquor bottles were painted white to look like milk. At 9 a.m., you were having milk delivered. It goes back to having a story behind the cocktail.

Meet the King of the Breastaurant™ Empire

October 14, 2013

bikinis_hall_of_fameToday MTV has loosed upon the world  Big Tips Texas,  a faux-reality show about the buxom waitresses of Lewisville’s Southern-stripper-themed restaurant, Redneck Heaven. Judging from  the promos, the fourteen-episode arc will focus primarily on drinking, cussing, screwing, and fighting, with frequent subplots involving betrayal, name-calling, applying to Harvard, and other cable-friendly degradations of contemporary Gomorrah. It could be worse.

It makes perfect sense to choose Texas as the show’s locale. Our state has recently become a sort of corporate headquarters for breast-n-something themed eateries, due in large part to the state’s rising breastauranteur, Doug Guller. While others in his very specific line of food-service prefer to play footsie with innuendos, Guller would much rather skip the foreplay. “Bikinis” is his restaurant. And in it there is nary an allusion to the Marshall Islands or atomic bombs. As if to bring home the point, this spring Guller applied for—and was granted—a trademark on the ubiquitous portmanteau, “breastaurant.” Legally speaking, Bikinis really is the “World’s only breastaurant.” And in his quest for continued breastaurant domination, Guller bought a “town” this year, renamed it Bikinis, Texas, and is banking on the idea that an actual Redneck Heaven can arise just beyond the city limits of Fredericksburg.

The idea that a heterosexual male would pass up an easy opportunity to attend the grand opening of a town explicitly dedicated to breasts and beer is ludicrous. Of course I went. After an hour and half of driving in the July heat, at the end of a snaky, narrow country road just off U.S. 290, I found a place where determined travelers would be welcomed with cold libations, a bikini contest, and a glimpse of the world-famous beauty—such as she is—Carmen Electra, the inaugural inductee into the Bikinis Bust of Fame. The cost of entering paradise, without proper credentials, was $40.

Carmen’s presence in town was unmistakable. Her white limo was parked between a small cemetery and the “town” of Bikinis, a 1.67-acre plot of land once known as Bankersmith (though that point is debatable). Beyond that lay a field where a fawn was seen bounding toward the cover of trees and a pristine hillside. Before Guller purchased the land, a move that garnered the attention of the media—and, unsurprisingly, the ire of his new neighbors—there was only an abandoned general store on the country property.

But Guller remodeled the humble shack into a saloon, built a gazebo-like porch extending out the back to accommodate the lingerie pageant and quickly raised a barn-style concert hall for the inaugural musical act, Jerry Jeff Walker. With the infrastructure complete and the newly arrived citizenry, Bikinis seemed to be simultaneously hosting a stripper convention, music festival, bike rally and—by proximity to civilization—a Boy Scout jamboree. Blues standards were the noise ordinance, and bra-clad women operated a beer stall. Whatta boomtown.

It had a mayor to match, too. Guller, declared to be one of Austin’s “most eligible bachelors” by Austin Monthly, introduced himself to me by saying “Dude, why are you buying?” before proffering three drink tickets. A fit man flanked by a smartly dressed woman, Guller wore a cowboy hat over his bald head, a nice watch, and a red shirt that read “BFD: Bikinis Fire Department” with an official looking emblem. Except for strutting purposely through the town, Guller looked like another a chill dude waiting for a bikini contest to commence.

By the time the competition started, about two hundred people had packed into Bikinis’ city limits. The six contestants were very pretty. And pretty naked. Suddenly captivated, the crowding men deposited their beers and leveled camera phones like trumpeters at a coronation. One took an extreme closeup. He bonded momentarily with a stranger who admired the photo’s angle and asked to be sent a copy, immediately, via text. Even the camera-less women seemed to be enjoying themselves. There were no losers. Particularly since no winner was ever officially announced.

Then Guller mounted the stage with Carmen, a smile super-glued to her face. Whatta pro. Like her cut-off jean shorts, Carmen was shockingly tiny in real life, wearing a Texas-inspired outfit: boots, a hat, the straw components of which were forced into a cowboyish shape, and a vaguely western shirt tied above her pierced belly button. She looked like one of the Bikinis bartenders, though perhaps better rested. Cameras were once again hoisted, this time frantically, as Carmen unveiled her Bust-of-Fame, a bronzed cast of her chest. After her brief appearance onstage, fans who purchased wristbands had the chance to meet the Baywatch star inside the saloon. Roughly eighty people paid more than $60 for the privilege. This included one conspicuous older gentleman, a Bikinis regular/photography hobbyist wearing a homemade shirt featuring eleven iron-on images of Carmen Electra and a fanny pack. Guller stood by, clearly pleased, as someone who understands the scope of his own success and knows there’s more to come.

“I think you have to be pretty light-hearted getting into the type of restaurant with a sports bar and grill and having, you know, bikini-clad waiters,” said Guller, who is refreshingly upfront about his business. In 2012, revenue from the Bikinis empire totaled more than $20 million. Doug opened his first Bikinis five years ago in Austin, and now there are twelve in Texas, one in Oklahoma, and one in North Carolina. Teen-friendly titty bars, in general, are a boom industry. During the Great Recession (2008 to 2012), the Big Five—among them Dallas-based Twin Peaks and Bikinis—increased both the number of respective locations and total sales, according to the food industry research and consulting group, Technomics.

This expansion took place during a time when casual dining restaurants suffered big losses, and people warned of the “ death of the American chain restaurant .” Bennigans, Fuddruckers, Friendly’s—and numerous other chains with names suggesting mandatory joie de vivre—all suffered or shuttered.

When eaters finally did venture out again, all chains were competing for the limited market share. The gimmicky breastaurants upped their game, focusing on improved menus and desirable customer service unrelated to the surface area of cleavage. Perhaps obsessively so. When I emailed Kristen Jones Colby, a spokesperson for Twin Peaks, about the distinction between a quality restaurant and a quality breastaurant, she responded, “We definitely don’t consider ourselves a ‘breastaurant,’ but a high-quality casual restaurant.” With twice as many locations as Bikinis spread across nineteen states, the mountaineer-themed restaurant has done well for itself. According to Colby, even if the “signature assets” were removed, “we would still have a successful concept that guests would love.”

If this seems like a dangerous claim, it’s not only because Twin Peaks without the “scenic views” would be reduced to a desert dunescape of bald men. It’s dangerous because Hooters has been attempting to do just that by de-emphasizing its own assets and rebranding itself as more family friendly (which, apparently, means more televisions). Results have not been promising. Hooters has seen more than $1 million in sales lost, 48 locations closed, and a four-percent drop in revenue. To be fair, Hooters was already beginning to sag. The primary reason, said Technomics analyst Darren Tristano, is that Hooters—with 365 outlets worldwide—stretched itself too thin, allowing service and vibe to slack.

“The restaurant industry isn’t growing, it’s stealing shares from one another,” said Tristano, who is, by dint of citation, the country’s foremost breastaurant expert. (Seriously. No reputable article about the niche market is written without first seeking Tristano’s comments for the record.)

Tristano noted Hooters has started seeking turf historically ruled by places like Applebee’s, one of the family friendly chains to survive the recession. With Hooters trying to muscle in on this territory, the younger boobs-and-beer crowd has been driven to places like Bikinis and Twin Peaks. It’s all part of the food-chain chain.

And these restaurants are all too happy to capture that audience. “It’s Darwin’s theory,” said Guller, who, like the other breastaurant insiders, emphasized the importance of service. No amount of cleavage can make up for warm beer and cold women. But Guller has evolved his plan by diversifying his interests. His parent company, ATX Brands, has acquired a variety of establishments in recent years, each one targeting specific “experiences.” As he said, “Hey, you want craft beer, go to Chicago House. You want Tex-Mex, go to Pelons. You want a tequila bar, go to 508.” And if you want bikini-clad women serving beer in the middle of nowhere, there’s now an entire town just for that.

Which is what distinguishes Guller from the pack of businesses grabbing for boob profits. A schtick like buying a town dedicated to the revealing swimwear and the women who love it is a testament to Guller’s unparalleled media prowess and marketing savvy. So was successfully applying for the “breastaurant” trademark while the competitors distanced themselves from the phrase. Their loss. (Actually, Tristano sounded slightly bemused at Guller’s ability to have pulled off the breastaurant™ victory, considering Tristano himself was “probably the first person quoted as using that term if you were to research it.”)

Guller will clearly stop at nothing. He’s even attempted to rewrite bikini history. The town’s grand opening on July 13 was advertised as a coinciding with “National Bikini Day,” never mind that the bikinis invention and celebration occurred the week before, on July 5.

And Guller spares no expense when it comes to expanding his empire. Internet estimates, for example, say a Carmen Electra appearance costs about $20,000. Then there’s the bikini contest. Guller plans to turn it into a big event with a “rifle or shotgun contest … different things the girls are going to be doing.” It’ll be like  Fear Factor  or Wipeout, he said. And it’ll blow Twin Peaks’ All-Star Bikini Contest out of the water. Maybe literally, if explosives are involved. And another item on Guller’s agenda is to buy the rights to Miss Bikini USA, formerly owned by Hawaiian Tropic. What’s next? A weekly waitress giveaway?

The only question now is how big Guller’s empire will get before it begins to fall. History is nothing but predictable. In the cutthroat world of breastaurants, it’s difficult to continuously satisfy even the most loyal patrons. After the pageant and Carmen’s appearance, the town emptied steadily. Even the older Bikinis regular/photography hobbyist with his Carmen Electra t-shirt and fanny pack was ready to leave. Like Guller, the gentleman didn’t skirt around the issues. He much prefers Hooter’s fare and in his assessment of the new town, one felt the strong sense of disappointment.

“I thought I was going to come to a small city,” he said, “not one building.”

Give it time. These things aren’t built in a day.

Burger King Debuts Low-Calorie French Fries

October 11, 2013

n-BURGER-largeLooking for an edge against its quick-serve rivals, Burger King is introducing healthier french fries, dubbed “Satisfries,” today at all of its 7,200 U.S. outlets.

Satisfries contain 40 percent less fat and 30 percent fewer calories than traditional fries, and 25 percent less fat and 20 percent fewer calories than standard Burger King fries, which remain on the menu. Satisfries will sell for $1.79–$1.99 a serving, compared with the $1.59 price of basic fries.

Eric Hirschhorn, chief marketing officer, North America, at Miami-based Burger King, says fries are the one quick-serve category that hasn’t seen “breakthrough innovation.”

“We’re not replacing our current french fries. We’re just giving [customers] a new option,” Hirschhorn says. “We’re giving people an option to make small changes.”

Hirschhorn says consumers’ evolving tastes and dietary choices encouraged Burger King to develop Satisfries. He adds that french fry consumption is declining, even though about half of the 100 million consumers who stop at a Burger King each month order fries.

“People want to make small changes that make a big impact, and don’t want to sacrifice the foods they love,” Hirschhorn says.

Keri Gans, Burger King spokeswoman, registered dietician, and author of The Small Change Diet, said during a September 19 product launch in New York City that one in eight men and one in 10 women in the U.S. dine on french fries daily, and that fries constitute 1.5 percent of the caloric intake of the average American meal. Satisfries contain the same ingredients as the classic fries, just in smaller quantities, she added.

The healthier fries will initially be a limited-time offering. Hirschhorn says the public’s reaction will determine how long the item stays on the menu. Its debut will be supported by a full marketing campaign.

Burger King could use a winner. Competition from McDonald’s and Wendy’s value menus, as well as from a growing crop of fast-casual concepts, has slowed the company’s growth. In fact, same-stores sales at Burger King dipped 3 percent in the U.S. and Canada during the first quarter of 2013 compared with the previous year.

“Economic factors are influencing low-income groups’ ability to dine out with greater frequency, making it more difficult for fast-food chains to increase traffic and sales,” says Darren Tristano, EVP at Technomic, a Chicago-based market research firm.

To keep pace with McDonald’s and Wendy’s, Tristano says, Burger King must introduce new products to keep the cash registers ringing. In the last year, it has added a barbecue sandwich, sweet potato fries, smoothies, and lemonades, helping it compete against industry leaders, he adds.

Olive Garden Woos Millennials with Smaller Portions

October 10, 2013

Olive Garden, purveyor of the Never Ending Pasta Bowl, has discovered portion control.

In an effort to attract millennials and boost flagging sales, Darden Restaurants Inc.’s Italian restaurant chain is introducing small plates, including Parmesan asparagus and grilled-chicken tapas. This amounts to a 180 degree turn for a chain that has long sold big portions to eaters who like a deal.

The challenge for Olive Garden will be encouraging diners in their 20s and 30s, many of whom shun chain restaurants, to drop by for nibbles without alienating loyal customers who convene for regular family feasts.

For millennials, “social occasions generally don’t tend to be large meals in a traditional sense,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president at Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based research firm. “They’re looking for items they can share, sample, that allow them to graze.”

Small plates may not be “a clean fit” for Olive Garden, given its focus on families and boomers, he said.

Olive Garden created the tapas recipes about six months ago and began testing the food earlier this year in cities including Atlanta, Los Angeles and Grand Rapids, Mich.

After offering the dishes for a limited time last month, the chain plans to add them to the permanent menu in December. It’s also trying out more small plate varieties such as garlic hummus, chicken meatballs and tortelloni stuffed with cheese, to gauge customer response before introducing them nationwide.

Olive Garden has been struggling in the aftermath of the downturn as Americans eat out less. Efforts to lure cash- strapped diners with such deals as three-course dinners and $6.95 lunches haven’t helped much because Brinker International Inc.’s Chili’s and Applebee’s, owned by DineEquity Inc., are also advertising cheap eats.

As a category, sit-down restaurants are lagging behind fast food and fast casual joints. Sales at full-service restaurants will rise 2.9 percent this year to $208.1 billion, compared with a 4.9 percent gain for fast-food eateries, according to National Restaurant Association estimates.

Same-store sales at Olive Garden, which has about 820 locations, have declined in five of the last eight quarters. Darden, which also owns Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse, recently announced it is “significantly” cutting Olive Garden store openings to focus on attracting new customers.

“It’s wise to slow down that growth a little bit,” said Stephen Anderson, an analyst at Miller Tabak & Co. in New York. “They’re getting very close to that saturation point in the U.S.,” which would be between 900 and 1,000 stores, he said.

The company is reworking the recipe for its crispy chickpeas after the seasoning and breading didn’t resonate with diners in testing. It also increased the size of its grilled chicken tapas from one to two skewers of meat after customers said the portion was too small to share.

“If you only have one, people are fighting,” said Jay Spenchian, executive vice president of marketing.

The small plates, priced at $4, are “expanding the way people think about Olive Garden,” he said. “The reaction has been excellent.”

While some customers grab a quick glass of wine and a small plate, others eat them as appetizers to a larger meal or to sample something they’ve never tasted before, he said.

Olive Garden has plenty of competition in the race to win over millennials. Applebee’s has introduced late-night specials such as half-price appetizers and girls’ night out to attract younger customers. Its Club Bee’s locations stay open until 2 a.m. and sell sangria and bahama mamas to the party crowd.

Outback Steakhouse, owned by Bloomin’ Brands Inc., recently sold a $10.99 steak-tasting option with two or three pieces of beef with different sauces including brandy peppercorn and Bearnaise. Cheesecake Factory Inc. has small plates including chicken samosas and fried zucchini.

More millennials are dropping by the Olive Garden in Irving, Texas, to sample the small plates, Alex Aragon, the restaurant’s general manager, said in an interview.

The tapas are “closing the gap between lunch and dinner,” said Aragon, who noted that it’s easier for the younger crowd to text and check their phones while munching hand-held bites.

Chipotle, Panera Bread Copycats Turn Up the Heat

October 10, 2013

The success of fast-casual leaders Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) and Panera Bread (PNRA) have attracted their share of imitators.

Fast-food giant Yum Brands’ (YUM) KFC is among the latest and biggest names in the restaurant industry to throw its hat into the fast-growing fast-casual ring.

KFC is testing a fast-casual format that makes no bones about borrowing Chipotle’s business model, in which customers choose ingredients for staffers to assemble as they walk the food line.

The test restaurant near the chain’s headquarters in Louisville is called KFC eleven. It’s been “well received,” said spokesman Rick Maynard in an e-mail. He says KFC will open a second location in the area.

“The focus is on learning everything we can at this innovation restaurant and using it to benefit the KFC brand,” he said.

The interior features dark woods and stainless steel. The logo has a rooster instead of KFC’s rendering of the white-bearded Colonel Sanders. But the “eleven” in the name pays tribute to the founder for the 11 herbs and spices used in his original recipe for fried chicken.

The menu of salads and rice bowls is built around KFC’s relatively new boneless chicken product, which have received lots of TV air time this year from “I ate the bones” commercials.

KFC eleven is the company’s attempt to “remain relevant, evolve and raise the quality for a more affluent customer,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a foodservice research firm. “The plan is to roll it out. But they need to be sure it’s working (operationally).”

Meanwhile, Starbucks (SBUX) has moved deeper into Panera territory. It’s been offering new bakery products from its acquisition last year of La Boulange Café & Bakery, a Bay area fast-casual chain. New salad bowls and sandwiches also have been rolled out recently.

“They definitely intend to be more competitive with Panera,” as well as with McDonald’s (MCD) during breakfast, Tristano said.

KFC’s sister brand Taco Bell also has been experimenting with fast-casual foods with a “Cantina Bell” menu within its existing fast-food units. Meant to compete with Chipotle but with lower prices, the menu features cilantro rice-stuffed burritos and bowls with fresh-Mex ingredients such as corn salsa, black beans and romaine lettuce.

“It’s for Millenials who desire the ‘farm to table’ feel,” said analyst Conrad Lyon of B. Riley. “It takes the freshness factor up a notch.”

The ultimate imitator of fast-casual concepts and Chipotle in particular may be Chipotle itself. It’s applying its assembly-line approach of fresh-Mex items to a spin-off called ShopHouse Asian Kitchen, inspired by the popular one-dish shop houses of Thailand.

Three restaurants are currently open, two in Washington, D.C., and one in Hollywood, with a fourth soon to open in Santa Monica, Calif.’s Third Street Promenade.

Four others in the D.C. and L.A. markets are expected to open by mid-2014, for a total of eight.

Chipotle, Starbucks and Yum Brands shares all fell less than 1% in afternoon trading in the stock market today. Panera is down nearly 2%.