Standing out in the restaurant crowd

by Keith Nunes
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New and emerging restaurant concepts are focusing on Med-iterranean flavors, Asian spices, authenticity and freshness as drivers for growth. While the restaurant category has suffered through some challenging economic times, the trends indicate the category is slowly recovering and transitioning from value and toward products and concepts with a premium positioning, said several speakers at Technomic, Inc.’s Trends & Directions Conference, held June 19 in Chicago.

Two speakers at the conference highlighted restaurant concepts that are achieving growth and culinary trends that are appearing on more menus. Darren Tristano, executive vice-president of Technomic, spoke about emerging restaurant concepts that are gaining traction.

“To meet the definition of a ‘hot concept’ it must have demonstrated growth, broad consumer appeal, strong unit economics, and be a contemporary experience as well as have a differentiated approach,” Mr. Tristano said.

Three of the concepts reviewed by Mr. Tristano focused on Mediterranean flavors. Two fast-casual examples included 100 Montaditos, which is a concept owned by the Restalia Group in Spain, and the Little Greek Restaurant chain, which is owned by Happy Greek Foods, Inc. 100 Montaditos’ menu features Spanish mini-sandwiches, imported bread, and menu prices range between $1 for an “original Montadito” to $5 for tapas.

“100 Montaditos excels at authenticity,” Mr. Tristano said. “When you walk into one of their restaurants you feel like you are in Spain.”

The Little Greek Restaurant chain is a fast-casual Mediterranean concept that serves American-influenced, neighborhood Greek food, said Mr. Tristano. Items on the restaurant’s menu include a gyro platter, lamb skewers, dolmades, which are grape leaves stuffed with ground beef, rice, tomato and herbs, and baked mousaka, which is an oven-baked eggplant with potatoes, ground beef and covered with a béchamel sauce.

“They focus on fresh produce and authentic ingredients,” Mr. Tristano said.

In the full-service concept category, Mr. Tristano highlighted the Carmel Cafe & Wine Bar, which features a modern Mediterranean cuisine. Menu items include grilled lamb and veal sliders, ceviche, and lamb lollipops.

Spicy Asian condiments is a trending topic as operators seek to use condiments as a cost effective way to add value to a product, said Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta. Citing examples of how wasabi and siracha have successfully penetrated the mainstream market, she said the next spicy Asian condiment to watch is sambal, a chili-based sauce.

“It is absolutely take the top of your head off hot,” Ms. Kruse said.

Using P.F. Chang’s Thai basil sambal noodles menu item as an example, Ms. Kruse called the execution “a very smart approach to the unknown. It is served on a bed of noodles, which is a culinary safety net.”

Ms. Kruse added that ramen is an ingredient that is currently trending on menus.

“I bet you didn’t expect to see this up here today,” she told the audience. “It is everywhere and I don’t mean in college dorms. It is an example of a very ethnic, authentic ingredient that may be used as a cost-effective way to add flavor to a dish.”

Ms. Kruse added that Asian baked goods will be a niche opportunity for some restaurant operators. She used the 85°C Bakery Cafe as an example of a small chain attempting to establish a presence in the niche. The chain is headquartered in Taiwan and currently has three locations in Southern California, and its menu features items such as milk pudding muffins as well as more traditional products such as tiramisu and cheesecake.

Using freshness to stand out

Emerging chains focusing on the perceived freshness of their menu items also were identified as hot concepts by Mr. Tristano. One concept highlighted was P.D.Q., which is an acronym for People Dedicated to Quality. It is operated by MVP Restaurant Partners L.L.C., Tampa, Fla. With the tagline “fresh served fast,” the P.D.Q. menu features hand-breaded chicken, hand-tossed salads and hand-cut fries. The chain’s market positioning focuses on premium products with a healthy halo.

“They are trying to bring freshness to the forefront,” Mr. Tristano said. “But it is freshness with the convenience of a drive-thru.”

Noting that the pizza chain is a mature one, Mr. Tristano focused on the Rotolo’s Pizzeria chain in Baton Rouge, La. Rotolo’s features approximately 20 outlets in Louisiana and differentiates itself from the competition by promoting the freshness of its ingredients, homemade sauces and its made daily pizza crust dough.

“This chain is hitting on a lot of the elements people want and continuing to do well,” Mr. Tristano said.

Freshness in conjunction with demand for healthier menu items is why the presence of vegetable-based dishes is appearing on more menus.

“We are in the midst of a vegetable renaissance,” Ms. Kruse said. “Vegetables are being rediscovered. We have data showing that kale mentions have increased 300% in the past year and it is being used in a number of formats like smoothies.

“If any of you are interested in best in class in how to use vegetables, take a look at No. 7 Subs in New York. They have never met a vegetable they don’t want to put between two pieces of bread.”

With four locations in New York, the No. 7 Sub menu features sandwiches such as the Zucchini Parm, which includes fontina, sweet onion and pickled jalapeños; a broccoli sandwich with lychee muchim, ricotta salata and pine nuts; and General Tso’s Seitan that has roasted green peppers, mayonnaise and fried shallots.

Ms. Kruse added that more small operators are promoting the local sourcing of ingredients.

“The locally grown thing is a ‘small is beautiful’ trend and predisposes an anti-chain bias,” she said. “If you can’t do local, it does not mean you can’t do fresh. There are opportunities for larger chains in this area.”

Gourmet snacks and chicken

Ms. Kruse noted restaurants serving gourmet snacks is a growing phenomenon.

“This is an extension of the small plate trend,” she said. “What’s happening here is operators are finding an opportunity to breakthrough to another day-part. Starbucks is a good example of an operator that has done this successfully. It also may lead to higher margin beverage sales.”

Because it is a “favorable commodity” compared to beef currently, Ms. Kruse said chicken is being rediscovered by restaurant operators.

“Two things strike us as interesting in the chicken category,” she said. “First is the slow, real growth of dark meat. You know your customers are diehard white meat consumers, but as you see the growth of interesting Peruvian dishes, assertively flavored, it may lead to some interesting dark meat items. Do watch as the door opens slowly in terms of dark meat.

“The other thing to watch is the evolution of a better chicken segment. This is not going to replace the better burger category, but there will be opportunistic growth from chefs who are locked out of better burgers; where they can exert culinary prowess and focus on better chicken products. Concepts may come from an heirloom breed or something done by hand in the back of the house.”

She added that chicken’s versatility ranges through all of the day-parts, including snacking, and preparations may include grilled, rotisserie or fried.

While Ms. Kruse talked about opportunities around chicken, Mr. Tristano noted that the upscale burger trend has not peaked quite yet.

“We may see market saturation in three years,” he said.

He noted that the chain BurgerFi is one of the latest entries into the upscale burger category.

“They are focusing on the more natural, better-for-you idea,” Mr. Tristano said. “The beef is grass-fed and the burgers seem to be focused on less indulgence and being more natural.”

He added that in addition to BurgerFi’s natural burgers, the chain also features craft beers and custard for dessert.

“Custard isn’t anything new to Midwesterners,” he said. “But it is something that is appearing on more menus.”

Ms. Kruse noted at the end of her session that the challenge facing restaurant operators is to offer the right options.

“It’s the name of the game,” she said. “Consumers want it all.”
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