Why fast-food chains are making ‘increasingly outrageous’ creations to get you through the door

September 30, 2016

imrsBy Becky Krystal
The Washington Post
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/going-out-guide/wp/2016/09/28/why-fast-food-restaurants-are-coming-up-with-increasingly-outrageous-ways-to-get-you-through-the-door/

Call them what you will. A sign of the apocalypse. Unabashed marketing ploys. The anti-kale. However you view the latest splashy fast-food innovations, know this: They’re probably not going anywhere. At least for now.

The latest of these creations to be foisted onto America: Pizza Hut’s Grilled Cheese Stuffed Crust Pizza, which features mozzarella and cheddar baked into a crust that’s topped with bread crumbs and melted butter. Close relatives of recent vintage include Burger King’s Whopperrito and Mac n’ Cheetos, KFC’s Double Down, Pizza Hut’s hot-dog-crust pies and Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos.

Such creations, often referred to as stunt foods or limited-time offers if they’re temporary, aren’t concocted in a vacuum, especially since they can take months or even years to develop. In the last few years, the trend has grown amid efforts to lure customers back into fast-food restaurants, as well as diners’ quest for novel items to share on social media.

Now it seems like each release is wackier than the last. “Like clickbait, the concepts are so unbelievable, so shocking, so Onion-headline-esque that they work,” said Sophie Egan, author of “Devoured,” an exploration of the modern American diet. “They’re irresistible.”

The wave of headline-grabbing fast-food items has its roots in the recession, when the industry entered a slow-down period that lasted through 2014. “A lot of these companies were trying anything to get customers back” during that time, said Sam Oches, the editorial director of Food News Media.

Ask observers and analysts what particular promotion was the turning point in paving the way for successors, and you’re likely to get one of two answers: KFC’s Double Down, a bacon, cheese and Colonel Sauce sandwich that used fried chicken fillets as a bun, and Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos. (Not surprisingly, both chains are part of the same parent company, Yum! Brands, along with Pizza Hut.)

Launched in 2012, Taco Bell’s Doritos-taco mashup took two years to develop. The fast-food chain sold 100 million units in the first 10 weeks and surpassed the $1 billion sales mark the following year. “The Doritos Locos Taco was a pivotal moment in our brand’s innovation journey,” said Rob Poestch, Taco Bell’s director of public affairs and engagement.

Coming next year: The Naked Chicken Chalupa with a fried chicken shell.

Why do they do it?
Despite the effort these foods take to develop, most aren’t intended to be sustainable as long-term menu additions. “It’s almost never about making money off the product,” said Darren Tristano, president of the food industry analysis firm Technomic.

In fact, the bestselling items at fast-food restaurants tend not to be the wacky mashups, but the classic offerings — Taco Bell’s standard tacos and burritos, for example.

The point of the limited-time offers, as Taco Bell’s head of social insights, Ben Miller, told the Atlantic, is “getting people in the door.” Tristano also said it’s about taking money away from competitors and making companies seem innovative and appealing.

So why do companies need to invent excuses for you to come in? The main reason is competition, and not just from their immediate fast-food brethren. Fast-casual restaurants such as Cava Grill, Chipotle and &pizza have moved in on the fast-food market and are growing at a faster rate, said Elizabeth Friend, a Euromonitor International strategy analyst. From 2014 to 2015, fast-casual brands grew at a rate of 10.2 percent, compared to 3.1 percent for the rest of the fast establishments.

Years ago, a diner’s only option for getting food quickly was the local drive-through. Now, “It’s really easy to get food quickly with minimal effort,” Friend said, pointing to such delivery apps as UberEats and GrubHub in addition to grocery stores with hot bars and prepared food offerings.

“Convenience is a very strong factor,” Tristano said. And if fast food isn’t as convenient as other options, then brands have got to think of something else.

A crazy fast-food item might be the only nudge a diner needs to walk into a Taco Bell or Burger King. If they’ve seen news coverage or a post on social media, the restaurant might later be at the top of their mind when they’re trying to decide where to go.

Why does it work?
No doubt the visuals are especially compelling and share-worthy, which says as much about consumers as it does about the brands hawking them. “The vast majority of us, we don’t have a lot of exciting things that happen to us” on a daily basis, said Brian Wansink, author of “Slim by Design” and the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab.

By trying one of these flashy foods and photographing them, people are showing that they’re willing to try something new. And like most food photography, those social media-friendly images are aspirational. They aren’t usually representative of our diet, a cultural disconnect that Wansink, in a study of historic paintings, has shown goes back well before the advent of fast food and the Internet, let alone cameras.

The whole experience suggests that consumers are full of contradictions. We make an effort to eat well but still want to reject the health-food guilt, at least once in a while. “We want to feel that we’ve treated ourselves. We want to feel that we’ve experienced new life experiences, and food is part of that,” Egan said.

Diners are also downright curious to know what something new tastes like, which may be more human nature than food culture. “You just can’t help yourself,” she said.

So what’s next for stunt foods?

As long as people keep paying attention to them and talking about them, the short term expectation is that they’ll become “increasingly outrageous,” Technomic’s Tristano said.

In the long-term, though, the “the tide of consumer empowerment” (see: nutrition labels, the fight against GMOs, etc.) is turning, and people may begin to call these foods out as, well, stunts.

The feeling is that “it will no longer be smart business to rely on stunts, and instead [companies will] start to take more of the cues from what these fast-casual chains are doing,” Egan said, referring to fast-casual’s more customized meals, upscale decor and values regarding the environment, sourcing, health and social issues.

r they might try stunts of a different sort.

After all, Pizza Hut did recently reveal a turntable pizza box.


Why new sports bars are blitzing Dallas for a piece of the action

September 28, 2016

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By Karen Robinson-Jacobs
http://www.dallasnews.com/business/restaurants/2016/09/21/sports-bar-operators-look-gain-yardage-north-texas

When The Park, a small sports bar chain, began looking to expand beyond its Austin birthplace, it bypassed Houston and headed straight for Big D.

With its confluence of marquee sports teams across every major league and its never-say-die fans, North Texas has become a magnet for game-focused restaurant chains and independents.

All are hoping to score.

“I don’t think there’s a better sports town anywhere in the country than the Dallas-Fort Worth area,” said Eric Dunahoe, director of operations for The Park, which hopes to open a North Texas location — its first outside of Austin — by late 2017. “If we’re going to be the Texas-owned-and-operated sports bar, we need to be in the city within the state of Texas that’s the best sports town and that’s Dallas.”

The sports bar occupies a unique, if amorphous, niche within the casual dining segment.

There’s no strict definition of what makes sports bars. Generally, they include TV-festooned venues where more than 40 percent of sales come from alcohol and the draw is the love of the game. (Think Buffalo Wild Wings, Dave & Buster’s and Twin Peaks.)

The growth of sports bars — both in number and in sales might — comes as the broader casual dining segment has struggled.

Chicago-based Technomic tracks sales at the Top 500 U.S. restaurant chains. In the 2015 list, about 13 percent of casual dining sales were at “sports bar” concepts.

Sales at sports bars on the Top 500 list grew 7.7 percent in 2015 to $7.3 billion, compared with 2.9 percent sales growth for the broader “varied menu” category, Technomic said.

The top sports bar chains grew their location count by 4.6 percent in 2015 while major full-service chains overall grew at a rate of 0.9 percent.

“I would say this is a fast-growing niche in the full-service industry,” said Technomic president Darren Tristano. “Although independents place higher emphasis on food quality, the chains tend to have the largest consumer attraction due to the size of the locations, variety of adult beverages, affordability of shareable food, comfortable seating and availability of televisions to view a variety of sports.”

North Texas is one of about a dozen U.S. markets with all four major sports leagues — NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB — along with soccer and numerous alums from powerhouse college programs.

And it’s increasingly a draw for migrants from other major sports towns, who bring their viewing loyalties with them.

That makes North Texas fertile ground for expansion-minded sports bar operators.

It’s also home base for several of the major chains including Twin Peaks, Boston’s and Dave & Buster’s.

Dave & Buster’s was born in Dallas in 1982 as a hybrid restaurant/playground that enticed guests to “Eat. Drink. Play,” with a focus on food and electronic games. In 2011, the Dallas-based chain added “Watch,” as part of a full-court-press designed to include a branded “D&B Sports” area near the restaurant bar.

Today, all 86 U.S. Dave & Buster’s locations include amped-up “sports viewing packages.” About 80 percent are officially branded with D&B Sports sections that bring the restaurant TV screen count up to about 40 (compared with 20 pre-sports push).

That includes two or three 180-inch screens, according to Sean Gleason, chief marketing officer for Dave & Buster’s.

The sports theme has helped Dave & Buster’s appeal to millennials, who gravitate to the communal dining spaces and party-like atmosphere.

On a recent football Sunday, manager Don McDougall presided over the dimly lit but highly animated scene at the Dave & Buster’s on Central Expressway — a restaurant that promises the “ultimate sports watching experience.”

The bar shows every NFL game on Sunday.

As the Cowboys battled the New York Giants, the chatter among the sports fans was constant. A taunt here, a high-five-punctuated boast there. Cheers and groans were interrupted by the occasional “Over here” as patrons vied for attention from a worker lobbing Dave & Buster’s T-shirts into the crowd.

“We try to make it just like tailgating, with prizes, a T-shirt cannon,” said McDougall of the 4-year-old location. “We try to make it as close to being at an actual game as possible.”

Near the center of the bar area, Brad Cotton, 33, and his wife Donna, 42, of DeSoto said they can be found at a sports bar any given Sunday, unless family members are hosting a watch party.

“Going to the game is a little expensive,” said Brad, who was wearing a No. 82 Jason Witten jersey. “So that’s once a year if we do that. This is affordable, but you’re still around die-hard fans. You want to be in the atmosphere with other fans, that’s going to turn up like you turn up.”

Donna noted that the uniform of the day was predominantly blue and white.

“When we walk through the door, just because we have Cowboys gear on, everybody becomes friends,” she said. “That’s pretty cool.”

None of the sports fans interviewed were surprised that North Texas is home to a growing sports bar scene.

“Sports are big in North Texas, whether it’s NASCAR [or] football,” said Daryl Hope, 47, who is moving soon from Forest Hill to Rockwall.

Hope prefers his perch at Dave & Buster’s to stadium seating because it allows him to watch multiple games at once.

That’s important, he said, since he’s big into fantasy football. Try 14 leagues big.

The introduction of fantasy football to younger consumers and mainstream consumers, including women, has given the sports bar segment a nice lift, Tristano said.

Despite the fan enthusiasm, North Texas remains a challenging market as operators compete for both consumers and investors.

In 2000, when the Canadian-based pizza and sports bar chain Boston Pizza began investing in a U.S. expansion, it headed straight for North Texas. The U.S. headquarters is in Dallas and a corporate restaurant that doubles as a training center is in Irving along busy Interstate 635.

Three more franchised locations were added locally through 2007. Then the company was hit with a blitz known as the great recession. From about 60 U.S. locations, the brand dropped to about 25. No additional locations have opened in North Texas in the past 9 years.

Nationally, the brand gained some yardage and is now back up to 29 locations. And while the company has found a franchisee to grow in West Texas — two locations will open in El Paso next year — the company has yet to find the right local combination of investor and real estate for North Texas.

“There’s lots of competition,” said Ken Phipps, director of franchise development for Boston’s Restaurant & Sports Bar, the U.S. arm, as the lunch bunch watched highlights from the weekend’s sports matchups.

North Texas “is and will remain one of our target markets to find the right franchise partners to help us grow.”

“It’s a very expensive market as far as real estate,” he added. “It retained its real estate value post-2008, and it’s gone nothing but skyward. Especially locations like Frisco, Plano, Arlington, with all of the new big developments like the Cowboys’ The Star.”

Three different franchisees own the three noncorporate D-FW locations. Now the company, like many major chains, is looking for large investors who can open more than one location.

“It’s a big investment,” he said, “We look for a net worth of $1.5 to $2 million and liquidity of $500,000.”

“We really want to grow our D-FW market,” said the North Texas native. “It’s our home. It’s our backyard for the U.S., and if we find the right partners we could easily add 15 restaurants in the next five years. This market can easily handle that.

“I’m grinning about the opportunities here in Texas,” he added, after showing off the restaurant’s 160-inch drop-down screen. “It’s very exciting.”


How is it possible that bacon sausages didn’t exist until he invented them?

September 26, 2016

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By PETER FROST

http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20160922/ISSUE01/160929995/how-is-it-possible-that-bacon-sausages-didnt-exist-until-he-invented-them

On a whim in 2008, Lance Avery hopped a quick flight to Des Moines to check out the inaugural Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival, a small event that drew about 200 bacon enthusiasts to a local bar. He remembers seeing men dressed in bacon suits and others with pieces of bacon stuck to their faces and thinking, “These are my people.”

Avery is finding that “his people” are all over the place today. The Des Moines bacon festival? It was held earlier this year in the city’s convention center and hosted 14,000 fans from 42 states and seven countries. As for Avery, the former corporate chef now runs Big Fork Brands, a line of all-natural, antibiotic-free, naturally encased sausages made primarily with bacon that he introduced at the 2011 festival.

Big Fork Brands, which consists of Avery and a single sales manager, had total sales of about $500,000 in 2015 and is on pace to do about $800,000 in 2016 after landing placement in the refrigerated shelves of Whole Foods and Costco stores in Illinois over the past few months. Its annual run rate just surpassed $1 million in its most recent financial quarter. He thinks the Big Fork brand can be worth $15 million to $20 million by 2020.

“Right now, we have more leads than we can deal with,” says Avery, 41, who quit his day job as a food consultant in January to focus on Big Fork full time. “We’ve got to be smart and strategic about how we position the brand and where we go from here.”

Funded with about $300,000 of Avery’s own money plus a small bank loan (that was recently paid off), Big Fork is now distributed in about 15 states both at retail and through food-service channels. Available in eight varieties, including aged cheddar, maple and brown sugar, and best-seller hickory and applewood, Avery’s bacon sausages can be found in grocers such as Plum Market and restaurants like Tavern on Rush. They retail for $6.99 to $7.99 for a 12-ounce package of four links.

He’s now trying to take his startup to a national platform. To get there, Avery knows he’s going to need help. That may mean partnering with a bigger manufacturer that can use its sales teams and infrastructure to broaden Big Fork’s presence or a private-equity-style investor that can inject capital into the business to allow Avery to hire more staff to scale the business.

Darren Tristano, president of Chicago-based market research firm Technomic, says the product is innovative and has a chance to be a hit; but its appeal likely will be limited to a niche group of bacon fanatics. “It’s the type of product that appeals to a more affluent, craft-focused consumer who’s willing to pay more,” Tristano says. Big Fork is “very well-positioned for a bigger brand to come in, and purchase it and build it up.”