restaurants

Would Jesus Tip More than 20%?

tipsforjesus

 

Tips for Jesus struck again, this time in Philadelphia.
After drinks ($150) and dinner ($250) a diner left a $2,000 tip for the bartender and $5,000 to the server. Those latest tips bring Jesus’ total extravagance to nearly $150,000.

An anonymous diner or group of diners has been tipping for Jesus since last fall, leaving absurdly generous tips at restaurants and bars in more than a dozen cities in the United States and Mexico. Each receipt has been stamped with the Instagram handle @tipsforjesus, where photos of the tips and the ecstatic recipients are posted.

The tech-savvy Samaritan is rumored to be former PayPal VP Jack Selby and a few friends from his inner circle. While maintaining their anonymity, the group has released public statements and given a few interviews explaining their mission. Despite the insignia and the extensive coverage by religious press organizations, they prefer to keep some distance between Tips for Jesus and traditional Christian philanthropy, calling theirs ‘agnostic’ giving.

The Tips for Jesus crew is hoping  to inspire an army of munificent copycat tippers. They try to create an internet sensation with each new episode, harnessing the power of social media through the 75,000 followers of their Instagram account. And it’s exactly the kind of off-kilter, feel-good story that the internet likes to run with.

The problem is, as an act of charity, this kind of giving falls flat.
With the gap between rich and poor ever widening, plunking down the occasional out-sized tip isn’t especially effective or even moral. It smacks of hubris and privilege, more like the drunken lark of an entitled frat boy than genuine altruism. And while n
o one would argue that restaurant servers aren’t worthy of largesse, the Tips for Jesus recipients aren’t exactly hash slingers working the midnight shift at Denny’s. Whatever their true identities, the Tippers definitely dine like tech millionaires of a recent vintage, and the Instagram photos show receipts for high-end sushi bars, craft cocktail lounges, and  blow-outs at clubby steakhouses—the kinds of places where a server makes a solidly middle class living and is more likely to use a tip windfall to buy a big screen TV than to pay an overdue electric bill. 

Not that I think they should stop.
Tips for Jesus is probably not destined for long-term sustainability, but it’s bringing attention to charitable giving and packaging it for a new generation of givers. Some of them just might take their philanthropic impulses and find their way to more conventional forms of charity. In the meantime, it’s fulfilling the fantasy of everyone who’s ever waited on tables.

 

Posted in community, restaurants | Leave a comment

States Vote to Ban Gays from Restaurants

restaurantsign

Mississippi is the latest state to pass its version of ‘turn away the gays’ legislation.
Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which goes into effect this July, allows restaurants to ban customers whose lives don’t align with the owners’ religious values. While the broadly written law doesn’t specifically mention gays and lesbians, it’s widely understood, in this heavily conservative Christian state, that it’s a license to discriminate against gays in the name of religion.

Where civil rights fit in
The Civil Rights Act protects us from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, or national origin, and there are other laws that prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, or disability. The Employment Nondiscrimination Act prohibits discrimination of sexual orientation in the workplace, but otherwise there are no federal laws that protect the civil rights of gays and lesbians. 

Civil rights of restaurant owners
Restaurants are privately-owned businesses, which guarantees certain rights to their owners. They have to comply with federal laws banning recognized forms of discrimination because they provide what the law calls a ‘public accommodation,’ but it gives them a lot of latitude as long as they don’t step on the rights of a protected class. That means that a restaurant can refuse to serve anyone who wears a pro-Israel t-shirt as long as they don’t ban Jews, or they can have a policy that bans sagging pants if they otherwise serve young black men. Unlike blacks and Jews, gays and lesbians don’t constitute a protected class. It doesn’t matter what they wear; they can just be sent packing. 

Most states don’t have laws protecting gays and lesbians against discrimination by restaurants and other public accommodations, but Mississippi’s RFRA goes a step further by explicitly codifying the bigotry. It protects restaurants and their owners from lawsuits if they refuse service to gays, and it permits hate speech against individuals and their lifestyle. It even adds a provision that’s like a children’s version of the Act, forbidding schools to discipline students for expressing anti-gay views either verbally or through written assignments.

LGBT activists wonder: Is this the making of a new Jim Crow-style era?
Along with Mississippi, Republican lawmakers in Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Arizona, Hawaii, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Kansas have recently introduced their own so-called ‘religious freedom’ bills giving citizens the right to segregate their businesses against LGBT Americans. All of these RFRA bills popped up in just the last four months, suggesting a concerted, national effort by the religious right to push back against the movement toward expanded rights for same-sex couples. A total of 31 states have already taken a stand against what they call a ‘substantial burden’ placed on their citizens’ religious practices.

 

RFRA1

 

 

Posted in food policy, restaurants | Leave a comment

This Man Has Eaten at 6,300 Different Chinese Restaurants Across America

image via LA Times

image via LA Times–and yes, he prefers a fork

 

Meet David Chan. 
He’s a 65-year-old lawyer and accountant, a native of Los Angeles, and a third-generation American who doesn’t speak Chinese. He’s probably eaten at more American Chinese restaurants than anyone else on the planet. 

He didn’t plan for it to happen.
Mr. Chan sees himself as more of a cultural historian than a foodie. As an undergraduate at UCLA in the 1960′s, a single class in ethnic studies inspired him to explore his heritage, and he embarked on his own gastronomic roots tour after graduation. Sometime in the 1980′s he realized he’d been to every single Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles and that achievement urged him on to further challenges. His dining became more deliberate, reaching 300 restaurant meals a year and taking him to Chinese restaurants in all 50 states.

An avid collector (before Chinese restaurants there were record albums and stamps) and, as befits a CPA, a highly organized and methodical man, Mr. Chan catalogs menus and documents each experience on detailed spreadsheets, including childhood meals that he retraced from a time when Chinese food could only be found in metropolitan Chinatowns. The subsequent spreadsheet entries track more than just a series of meals; they reveal much about the migration patterns and evolution of a half-century of Chinese-American life.

It’s a collection of memories and experiences that are unmatched anywhere.
Fortunately for us, Mr. Chan is generous in sharing his passion and insights. He blogs as Chandavkl and contributes to Menuism as the resident Chinese Restaurant Expert. His Twitter account gives a look at his prodigious dining habits and the stream is frequently trolled by restaurant critics and travel writers searching for recommendations. He also shares general guidelines for choosing excellent and authentic restaurants:

  • The best Chinese restaurants are almost always influenced by Hong Kong-style cooking.
  • You don’t need a Chinatown to find authentic cuisine—look to the suburbs.
  • Vietnamese-Chinese restaurants or Thai-Chinese restaurants are fine, but avoid Japanese-Chinese which Chan says ‘mix like oil and water.’
  • Never eat at a restaurant that’s been open for more than two decades; by then they’ve lost their edge and are lagging behind newcomers

David Chan calls Koi Palace the best Chinese restaurant in America and he’s not alone in that estimation.
True to his guidelines, Koi Palace is a Hong Kong-style restaurant and it’s located in a suburban strip mall outside of San Francisco. You won’t find sushi or other pan-Asian dishes on the menu. But what of its opening in 1996? In 2012 Chan added 5 years to what was then his 15-year rule in order to keep the 16-year old Koi Palace on top of his best restaurant listings.

The next Koi Palace could be out there waiting to be discovered by David Chan.
What happens in 2016 is anyone’s guess, but there are still another 40,000 or so Chinese restaurants across America that he has yet to visit. 

 

Posted in bloggers, restaurants | Leave a comment

Me, Myself, and I: Table for One

INB-table-plate-FPO

 

We’re being ridiculous and we know it, but we still feel stigmatized by solo dining. Take a confident, capable, rational adult, plunk him down at a table for one, and residual memories of a middle school cafeteria come back to haunt him. It’s the mark of the loner, the weirder, the social outcast.
              Everyone’s staring I look like a pathetic friendless loser I’m going to die a lonely virgin.

It’s a displaced dishonor that just won’t die.
Newspapers and magazines regularly run features on the how-to’s of this unnatural state. It’s treated as the extreme sport of food and drink, calling for nerve, verve, practice, and pep talks. It doesn’t help that there are restaurateurs who still grumble Here comes lost revenue for the 2-top, and there there are servers that will treat you as if you have a communicable disease.
ikea-singleton-table-w724

 

The internet pokes fun while fueling the insecure with the parade of odd characters on the Tumblr table-for-1I feel sad when I see an old person eating alone is Facebook’s heavy-hearted exercise in dining desolation that has attracted 749,000 likes. And Ikea’s April Fools offering of the Löne Singleton Dining Table, a mirrored table for one, hewed close enough to the stereotype to leave many wondering if it was really a put-on.


alonetablesOne woman who believed other diners saw her as ‘a sad, lonely spinster’ founded the dining companion search service Invite for a BiteThe website SoloDining.com is ‘dedicated to supplying you with the information and tools you need to take charge of this important life-style skill’ and advises you to purchase their $7.95 e-booklet. And as further proof that middle school scars will never fade, there are forever alone tables. The partitioned cafeteria seating from Japan has been popping up on American college campuses, especially in the socially awkward milieu of engineering schools.

We all know the joys of the communal dining experience, but eating alone comes with its own distinct pleasures.
You can engage in satisfying eavesdropping and people-watching or immerse yourself completely in the sensory satisfaction of the meal. You can set your own pace, you don’t have to gauge your menu selections to others, and nobody will stick a fork in your dessert.

Eenmaal is a recurrent pop-up restaurant in Amsterdam that aims to take the shame out of dining alone. The dining room is filled exclusively with tables for one and the wine list is stocked with half bottles. There are no couples, no families, no chattering groups of friends to prey on a solo diner’s insecurities. 

The great food writer M.F.K. Fisher, in her iconic Gourmet Magazine essay An Alphabet for Gourmets, captured the bitter and the sweet of solitary dining with A is for Dining Alone…

I still wished, in what was almost a theoretical way, that I was not cut off from the world’s trenchermen by what I had written for and about them. But, and there was no cavil here, I felt firmly as I do this very minute, that snug misanthropic solitude is better than hit-or-miss congeniality. If One could not be with me,“feasting in silent sympathy,” then I was my best companion….

 

Posted in food business, restaurants | Leave a comment

Chefs on Twitter: Why Do You Want to Follow Them?

image via Bon Appetit

image via Bon Appétit

 

Really, why would you read the 140 character musings of chefs?
It’s not a rhetorical question and I’m not asking it snarkily. Chef twitter streams are as individual as cooking styles, and some chefs are as adept with social media as they are with a boning knife while others careen from mundane to puerile like a bad banana split. 

The first thing you have to ask is why is the chef on twitter? 
The chefs themselves have their own varied reasons for tweeting. Some tweet within an inner circle of other chefs, sharing support and tips and keeping tabs on far-flung colleagues. Others expand the circle to include friends, fans, and loyal customers to create interest and build loyalty. Twitter can be a platform for the personal and political agenda of an activist chef, or it can increase a restaurant’s bottom line when it’s used as a promotional tool or a barometer that gauges customer satisfaction.

Then there are the brand-building celebrities.
Their tweets don’t originate from the depths of a steamy kitchen but from the carpeted offices of social media managers. Instead of the off-the-cuff remarks of a chef with two thumbs and a smartphone, you’re getting a twitter stream that’s maintained by a marketing professional who analyzes the demographics of followers (who can number in the millions) and crafts targeted messages that hone a chef’s public persona and plug their line of cookware.

Now ask yourself what do you want out of it?
You can find out about tonight’s dinner specials, put in your two cents about a recent meal, get some industry insider commentary, or see what your favorite chef eats for breakfast. You can rub online shoulders with a high-flying celebrity or be a fly on the wall of the bistro down the block. Twitter can bridge the gap between cook and customer, chef and fan. Once you know why you would want to follow a chef, here are some lists that will help you find one that fits the bill.

The 15 Most Followed Chefs on Twitter
The Huffington Post presents the big dogs.

Michelin Starred Chefs
ElizabethOnFood focuses on European restaurants with lists of Nordic Michelin starred chefs on Twitter and British and Irish Michelin starred chefs and restaurants on Twitter. @MichelinGuides publishes a list of starred chefs from their New York, Chicago, and San Francisco guides.

11 Flavorful Celebrity Chefs on Twitter
Mashable considers these to be the tastiest feeds out there.

The Archetypes
Zagat 
divides celebrity chefs into five categories: The Real Me, The Highly Edited, The Retweeter, I Am Who You Want Me to Be, and The Politicos.

118 Twitter Feeds Every Food Activist Needs to Know
Not just chefs but also farmers, writers, researchers, and policy makers, this exhaustive list comes from Food Tank.

Yahoo Food! gave us an April Fool’s Day gift of 7 Funny Foodie Twitter Accounts.
There’s the absurdist @coffee_dad, the inane @tofu_product, the tongue-in-cheek fetishism of @daily_kale, and other feeds that parody and skewer our foodie culture.

Who Chefs are Following on Twitter
Restaurant Hospitality magazine’s list of chef-recommended feeds.

14 Chefs and Their Very First Tweets
They all had to start somewhere, and Grub Street shows us where.

 

Posted in cyberculture, restaurants | Leave a comment

Restaurant Lingo

linecook-570baker-570x300bartender-maggyserver-570x300prepcook-570dishwasher-570chef-570x300barista2-570x300

 

 

 

 

 

 

Restaurant people are truly a different breed.
They look different, with their own clothes and tattoos. They keep their own hours, heading to work when most of us are heading home, and going out when we’re going to sleep. The industry has its own rites and rituals, its own rules, and its own language.

Dining room jargon–

BOH: Back Of the House; the kitchen, walk-in, or any other area where you don’t deal with customers; BOH also refers to the people who work there. FOH: Front Of the House is the bar, the dining room, or anywhere else the staff deals with customers, as well as the people who work those areas.

[ _ ]-Top: describes the table’s seating– a 4-top seats four; a 2-top seats two but is better known as a Deuce, and a Hi-top is a tall table like you’d find in a bar area.

Covers: the count of meals served; multiply the tops by the Turns (the number of seatings at a single table) and you’ll get the total covers.

What they call us–

Diners are called Campers when they linger too long at the table, or Cupcakes when they’re flirting with staff. If it’s an open kitchen there are probably a few other coded descriptors.

PPX is an Extraordinary Person–it might be written on the ticket to signal VIP treatment. It’s not just for celebrities and high rollers; someone might write NPR on a ticket to tell the staff that Nice People Are Rewarded too.

There are numerous unprintable phrases to describe a bad tipper; some of the kinder ones are Stiff and Flea.

Kitchen jargon–

After you place your order, the kitchen might print out Dupes; these are duplicate tickets frequently printed in multiples on color-coded paper to signify courses. The dupes are hung on the Rail or the Board where they’re considered On Deck.

If your server has checked the Low Board they know the Count of a particular menu item; if it’s 86′ed you’re out of luck. In a hurry? The cooks will be told it’s On the Fly, and they’ll Fire the dish immediately.

When multiple cooks are working different components of a single dish they’ll call 3 Out or 5 Out to signal to the others that they’ll be ready to plate their items in the stated number of minutes. All Day counts the number of dishes that the cook is readying at that particular time, as in ‘I’ve got 2 lamb and 3 risotto all day.’

Cooked orders go from the Line to the Pass, a long counter surface where they’re plated and picked up by servers. If the kitchen is In the Weeds with too many dupes, the orders won’t be Coming On Up as quickly as they should. Conversely, if the waitstaff is Slammed the orders can sit there Dying on the Pass.

Learn to speak their language and who knows—the next time you’re at your deuce in the FOH, you just might find yourself comped like a real PPX.

Posted in food business, restaurants | Leave a comment

An ‘X’ in Espresso is Like Nails on a Chalkboard

Alphabet_soup

 

Something in me snaps when I see an ‘x’ in espresso. 
Or an extra ‘r’ in mascarpone. The salad is ‘Caesar,’ not ‘Ceasar,’ and nobody tops off a meal with a ‘desert’. In my opinion, malaprops and misspellings are reasons enough to eat elsewhere.

Yes, we all make little mistakes sometimes. And it’s true that excellent spelling skills are seldom a prerequisite for a restaurant job. But no, I will not lighten up; not until every misplaced ‘x’ has been eradicated.

Butchering should only take place in the kitchen. 
There’s no room for creative expression when it comes to menu spelling. Get it wrong and it undermines your credibility and leaves doubts about your expertise. If you can’t spell it right, how can I trust you to cook it properly?

Wrong tells me that you couldn’t be bothered to check. It makes me wonder what else you couldn’t be bothered with, like trimming the tough stems from the spinach or washing your hands.

I’m not saying it’s easy.
Menus can be an etymological bomb fields. They can challenge even the word-nerdiest diners and restaurateurs (no ‘n’ in that one!) with their technical jargon and regional and obscure foreign phrases. It’s what makes food terms such a favorite of the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

For the final word on menu language, pick up a copy of The International Menu Speller with its 10,000 alphabetically arranged names of dishes, ingredients, culinary techniques, and nutrition terms, all correctly spelled and accented. You’ll need it for the next round of the Cooking Edition of Scrabble.

 

Posted in diversions, restaurants | 2 Comments

The Procrastinator’s Guide to Restaurant Reservations

sign via Chefville

via Chefville

 

Plans change and so do moods. Cravings pop up, dates can slip your mind, or maybe you just want a little instant gratification.
If you’re flexible, spontaneous, or just plain forgetful, this one’s for you. These are the tools, techniques, and technology that will land you a last minute reservation at even the most coveted tables in town.

Here’s how little ol’ you can eat like a VIP.
If you’re George Clooney, or Beyoncé, or even a simple Supreme Court justice, a table will always materialize at a moment’s notice. That’s because big city restaurants hold back a few tables for celebrity and VIP walk-ins, and even humble locales will save a table for friends of the house. Those unused prime tables plus some late cancellations made by mere mortals are released back into the reservation system for last-minute booking.
Here are some places where you can troll the 11th hour open tables:

Every morning the data cruncher behind Last Minute Eatin scours the 800 or so top-rated restaurants on New York’s OpenTable to see who’s got an actual opening for that evening. He posts a carefully curated list of that day’s 100 hottest restaurants on the homepage, and throughout the day he’ll continue to cross-check for availability, tweeting updates every 20 minutes from 8AM on.

Register your wish list with Rezhound—any dates, any restaurants, in any city as long as it books through OpenTable—and the free service alerts you by text or email the moment a match is available.

The Eater group of city guides publishes its Crunch Time listings of restaurants with same-day availability of tables for two. The feature appears daily in the New York, L.A., and Chicago editions, with sporadic coverage elsewhere.

Leloca adds a geo-targeted twist to the cancellation model. Within seconds of a reservation cancellation it tweets out the available table to smartphone users within the vicinity of the restaurant. It’s a first-come-first-served offer with a discount attached, usually in the range of 30-50%.

You’re never, ever going to come across available tables at certain restaurants. You have to go after them.
When it comes to the newest, the most buzzed about, the best reviewed, the most in demand, you need to get a jump on the clamoring hordes. Many of the most popular restaurants have very specific reservation cycles. For instance at Noma, the global destination restaurant in Copenhagen that many consider the world’s best, bookings are opened every 4th Monday for three months out, and 20,000 requests typically come in on that one day—and the restaurant has just 12 tables. Closer to home, San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions releases future tables into its online reservation system at 4a.m. and can be booked solid long before sunrise.

Often the problem is that software programs are stealing your dinner. They’ve been operating for years on ticketing sites where they keep a step ahead of site security to scoop up the best seats for ticket brokers and scalpers. Now they’re invading restaurant websites and online reservation systems, snatching up the prime dining times at rare and rarified tables.
Here’s how you can fight fire with fire:

Mechanize gives you the open-source software that will do your bidding in cyberspace. It will endlessly comb booking engines for newly released openings and cancellations and make the desired reservations for you.

HackerTable scours the sites for you in a similar way. It focuses on the over-heated Bay Area restaurant scene and lives up to its tagline of reservations at elusive restaurants by regularly posting availability at hard-to-get spots like The French Laundry and Chez Panisse.

When all else fails, you can always go with the best table that money can buy.
Hotels have always had concierge services and now all the major credit card companies offer them to customers who qualify for the ‘elite’ or ‘platinum,’ or ‘signature’ cards. There’s a lot of talk about their ‘special’ relationships with restaurateurs, but they rarely have any genuine pull. What they offer is the legwork involved in hunting down those OpenTable cancellations. What’s new is a breed of concierge services specializing in restaurant reservations, and for the right price, they will deliver the goods.
They smack of the same elitism and manipulative swagger as the old school method of greasing the maître d’s palm:

Today’s Epicure charges an annual membership fee of $1,000 (shorter terms are also available) and gives access to impossible reservations at the highest profile restaurants of the moment. In addition to the cool thou to join, Today’s Epicure tacks on a variable fee that hovers around $100 per booking, rising with the lateness of the date and the hotness of the venue. They follow the money, offering reservations in New York, Los Angeles,  Miami and The Hamptons in season, and

I Know the Chef appeals to the big-shot wannabe. It’s more of a cut-rate experience than Today’s Epicure—even the annual pricing, at $499.99, sounds like a bargain basement come-on. They don’t guarantee you the hottest tables in town but will consider your dining preferences and find you a slightly cooler restaurant that you’ll like too, although most of their list is bookable without any help. They make up for it by promising that dinner comes with a side order of fawning—a special amuse-bouche or maybe a personal greeting from the chef. You don’t really know the chef at I Know the Chef, but to an outsider you’ll look like an insider.

The dorm’s RA can steer you clear of the cafeteria’s meatloaf, but college students with more rarified palates turn to the restaurant concierge services at the Boston Collegiate Consulting Group. The group calls itself a ‘lifestyle brokerage’ and for $300 a month they promise to ‘open doors’ and ‘make lines disappear.’ Of course for $300 a month they’re doing more than just giving undergrads a meal plan alternative. They also decorate dorm rooms, line up courtside seats to NBA games, and make apologies to landlords after wild parties. For the littlest the littlest bigshots, BCCG also has a ‘prep’ division for high schoolers.

Stop dragging your feet!
You know what to do. The weekend [out-of-town guests, your anniversary, your best friend's birthday...] is almost here. Go out and make some reservations!

 

Posted in cyberculture, restaurants | 1 Comment

Destination Dining Where the Gas Station is the Destination

Eat-Here-Get-Gas

The term destination restaurant originated with France’s Michelin Guide.
In the early days of motoring, the Michelin tire company got into the travel guide business to boost demand for cars. It assigned the top score of three stars to restaurants with cuisine so exceptional that they were worth a special trip. The restaurant was the destination and a stop at the service station was, Michelin hoped, a byproduct of the journey. 
Now it seems the service station is the destination.

The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, and other media outlets have reported on the recent popularity of gas station cuisine, some even calling it ‘the next big thing’ or ‘the new food truck.’ These are restaurants you head to even when you don’t need to fill up; maybe they’re not vaut le voyage like a Michelin three-star, but they’re not just gas station convenience markets with withered hot dogs turning on grill rollers. There’s a Shell station with pan seared diver scallops on its menu; apricot glazed pork tenderloin served with a view of the Mobil sign; and corned beef that’s slow-cured in-house by an Exxon station’s deli master.

Gas station owners are willing business partners, happy to see a rent check and the increased foot traffic that a restaurant brings. Would-be restaurateurs see relatively low start-up costs for what is typically a highly visible and accessible corner location.

Gas station dining is a long-standing tradition in southern states where picnic tables are a common sight alongside the diesel pumps and locals know that the area’s best barbecued brisket just might come out of a roadside smoker. If you’re new to the genre, it can be jarring to dine on seared ahi amid a parking lot ambience of exhaust fumes, car horns, and stacked oil cans. The intrinsic kitschy charm of the experience is not for everyone.

This month Bon Appetit profiles 16 gas station restaurants around the country. You’ll find reviews of food at the pump at Gas Station Gourmet and Gas Station Tacos.

 

Posted in food business, restaurants, trends | Leave a comment

Be a Lunchtime Lab Rat

mouse-dining-table

 

You’re part diner, part test subject.
Hidden floorboard scales weigh you as you walk to your table.
Take a seat and chair sensors monitor your heart rate while bites are counted, eye movements are tracked, and facial expressions are analyzed. The soup of the day is lentil.
This is the canteen at Holland’s Wageningen University, where campus hangout meets research facility.

The restaurant is a living laboratory of dining behavior, and its research is followed closely by agribusiness groups, nutrition, sustainability, and health policy makers, food scientists, and the hospitality industry.
Everything about it is modular and malleable to suit experimentation. Scientists can test the effects of center islands vs. long buffets; waiter service vs. self-service; lighting that’s dim, colored, or bright; communal tables, counters, or booths. They look for different eating patterns when sandwiches are cut in triangles vs. rectangles; fruit is sliced, cubed, or kept whole; food odors are enhanced or masked.

The control room trumps the kitchen as the real heart of the restaurant .
Joy-sticks let researchers zoom in with the dozens of cameras concealed in the ceiling. They study every move, large and small: who sits where, who lingers at the salad bar, who’s talking, smiling, and frowning. They count bites and time chew speeds, document a hesitant hand reaching for the dessert menu, and analyze food waste.

They’ve learned that coffee tastes stronger in brown mugs, small biters eat less, and when the usual conventional milk is relabeled as organic people complain of a funny taste. Fresh flowers on a table will improve the mood of table mates, nobody likes to eat in a room with blue lighting, and chairs upholstered with flowery pink fabric will be the first seats chosen.

There’s no shortage of volunteers.
Wageningen faculty, staff, and students are willing diners/test subjects. They have to sign a research waiver and photo release form, but few have balked at the prospect of lunch as a behavioral guinea pig. They’re unfazed by the scrutiny and surveillance, many even choosing to lunch there daily. It doesn’t hurt that the lentil soup is reputed to be thick and tasty and that the restaurant’s low prices make it one of the best bargains in all the Netherlands.

The canteen at Wageningen University, also known as The Restaurant of the Future, is open every school day for lunch.
I couldn’t help but notice that its Facebook page has just 2 likes.

Posted in restaurants, Schools | 1 Comment

The Subminimum Wage for Tipped Workers– how low can you go?

pennyonplate

 

The federal minimum wage is not rock bottom.
In the midst of the intense focus and national debate on the minimum wage, we don’t want to forget a group that falls even lower on the pay scale. There’s something called the subminimum wage for tipped restaurant workers, and by law it can be a shockingly stingy $2.13.

Increases to the federal subminimum wage haven’t even kept up with the standard minimum wage.
For most of the 20th century, the subminimum wage was pegged at 50% of the standard wage. In 1991, when the minimum wage was  set at $4.25, tipped workers received $2.13 per hour. In 1996 workers won a 90-cent per hour increase, but for the first time the subminimum wage was uncoupled from the standard wage and it was held at $2.13. It’s been stuck there for going on three decades. While the minimum wage has been increased four more times to its current $7.25 an hour, the subminimum wage, unchanged at $2.13, has been reduced to less than one-third of the minimum. Factor in the rising cost of living, and the buying power of the subminimum wage has effectively shrunk to $1.28.

Think about that $2.13 when you calculate a server’s tip. 
It’s called a gratuity, but the way the pay scale works there’s nothing gratuitous about tips. The subminimum wage is based on the assumption that tips will constitute the vast majority of a server’s earnings. As customers we think we’re rewarding good service, but in fact we’re subsidizing the ability of restaurant owners to pay a mere pittance to their employees. Tips are necessary just to get server compensation up to the minimum wage.

While wages are stuck at $2.13, tips are trending down. 
The recent recession and current recovery have kept a lid on restaurant menu prices and taken a toll on individual spending habits and corporate travel budgets. Tips are calculated on stagnant spending, and customers have gotten chintzy with that calculation.

Restaurants can also choose business practices that will erode tips.
Employers can keep payrolls down naming more of their workers to the subminimum wage category. And when those workers aren’t in typically tipped positions, it’s perfectly legal for restaurants to institute mandatory tip-sharing pools and take a cut from the servers to subsidize the paychecks of non-serving employees. They can also deduct the tip-related portion of their credit card processing fees from the tips given to servers. It’s a small amount from each tip (typically around 2%, and can go as high as 4%), but it adds up to nearly $1,000 a year for full-time workers. For a restaurant chain like Olive Garden, it can be upwards of $10 million in credit card fees that are skimmed from employee paychecks.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Servers
We have a seafood watch list, fair trade labeled imports, and we know when the eggs are cage-free. How about looking at the sustainability of restaurant workers?
There’s a measure in the Senate that will increase the minimum wage to $10.10. Let’s make sure that subminimum wage workers are included this time.

 

 

Posted in food business, restaurants, workplace | Leave a comment

Forget Wine Flights. Now We Have Gravy Flights.

Numbered dishes available from Magenta Wholesale Home Décor

Numbered dishes available from Magenta Wholesale Home Décor

 

Tasting flights aren’t just for wine anymore.
The migration began with other drinks, and we started to see flights of beer, whiskeys, and tequila, often served on wooden pallets with cutouts to hold all the little tasting glasses. Now they’re showing up all over the menu, at any meal and every course. There are tasting flights of country ham at breakfast, lamb flights for dinner, and flights of cheesecake for dessert. And of course that gravy flight, so suitable at any time of day.

A flight is not just so many small plates.
It’s meant to be a progression of tastes that’s presented to allow for sampling and comparison. The selection should be deliberately chosen to show depth or breadth, to highlight differences or to emphasize similarities within a category. Traditional wine flights are often vertical tastings of different vintages of the same wine, or horizontal tastings of a certain vintage from different wineries. A cheesecake flight might offer tastes of cakes made from goat, cow, and sheep’s milk, while a chocolate flight could start you with a sweet and mild 60% cocoa Dominican Republic, move on to a smooth 72% Ecuadorean, and then contrast those against an earthy, cocoa-heavy 85% African blend. Whatever the category of food or beverage, a flight should always be constructed with a guiding discipline.

Here are some of the more interesting flights we’ve found:

frenchtoastflight

 

Experience the full range of sweet and savory playing off the egg-battered challah of the French Toast flight at Chicago’s Batter and Berries.

 

 

stew potsNew Orleans’ R’evolution Restaurant explores the seven nations that settled Louisiana (Native Americans, French, Spanish, Germans, English, Africans, and Italians) with a flight of seafood stews including French bouillabaisse, Spanish zarzuela, and Tuscan cacciucco.

creme-brulee-flight

 

Pisces Sushi and Global Bistro in Clearwater, Florida presents a fusion of Asian flavors and French custard in its flight of crème brûlée.

barclayprime

You’d break the bank trying to taste your way through the luxe steakhouse menu at Philadelphia’s Barclay Primebut the flight of NY strip steaks lets you compare and contrast among prime examples of wet-aged, dry-aged, and wagyu beef.

 

A flight of popsicles is appropriately the only dessert offered at Brooklyn’s street-food-themed Nightingale 9.

9OH2O_ONE_LITER_GLASS_STILL_BOTTLE_FRONT_WITH_TUMBLER_ON_WHITE_MAX_10_WEB

 

The menu at Ray’s and Stark Bar explains its water flight thusly: Martin Riese, General Manager and Water Sommelier of Ray’s & Stark Bar, has curated a water selection that demonstrates the difference in taste between twenty different waters sourced from various regions of the world. Terroir affects water just like wine. Let us take you on a global journey of water. You have my permission to roll your eyes at this thankfully only-in-Los Angeles phenomenon. Oh, and that global journey of water will run you $12 for three three-ounce pulls of the tap.

gravyflightAnd about that gravy flight, you’ll find it at Biscuit Head in Asheville, North Carolina. The ‘big as a cat’s head’ biscuits are paired with a rotating menu of gravy specials plus the standard lineup of sausage, espresso red eye, sweet potato coconut, smoked tomato creole, and vegetarian seitan gravy. $7 gets you three bowls of three gravies. And there’s not a gravy sommelier in sight.

 

 

Posted in food trends, restaurants | Leave a comment

Food Photography: Over-Exposure Turns Us Camera Shy

food art via Dan Cretu

cucumber camera via Dan Cretu

 

Food porn is a modern sacrament.
There was a time when saying grace was a standard, pre-dining ritual. Now nobody eats until the plates are photographed.
Instead of blessing food, we document, catalog, upload, tweet, and post it.

Bad form or bad photos?
There are questions of form, especially when camera flashes pepper a dining room, but it’s mostly a problem of scale.
The numbers tell the story: nearly 100 billion photographs have been uploaded across various social platforms. What began as foodie fabulousness on display has expanded to include every mundane snack, sip, nibble, and nosh.

The backlash has arrived.
Too many meals have sat cooling, too much ice cream has melted. Enough with the tripods and filters and chair-perch gyrations. I don’t care if it ruins your shot. When the food arrives, I want to pick up my fork without delay.

There are snarky websites like Pictures of Hipsters Taking Pictures of Food, and the Hungry Channel spoof that documents the fallout when restaurant-goers ask to take photos of the plates of fellow diners and then haul in massive lenses and lighting equipment. Even Apple parodied the phenomenon with its clever iPhone5 ad touting the phone’s ability to capture quality images in “whatever dimly-lit, exposed brick, no reservation, basement restaurant your friends care about more than each other.”

Not merely idle sniping, there is a scientific basis for feeling fed up with food pics. Researchers call it sensory boredom. They’ve found that looking at too many photographs of food can dull your pleasure in the foods they depict. When you’ve seen one too many photos of salty snacks, you’ll lose interest in that bowl of pretzels because your sensory experience of saltiness is already satiated.

Your photographs can add up to more than gustatory navel gazing.
The new Feedie app turns your food pics into real food for needy children. 
The pet project of Mario Batali and a slew of Hollywood celebrities, Feedie has signed up an ever-expanding universe of restaurants that will trade your photo sharing for a donation to the non-profit Lunchbox Fund, an organization dedicated to providing a daily meal to extremely poor and at-risk school children. When a diner uses the Feedie app to upload a photo to their social networks, the participating restaurant will donate the equivalent of one meal to the Fund.
It’s a good cause; your dining companions can’t complain, even if you use a flash.

Posted in cyberculture, diversions, restaurants | Leave a comment

No Olive Oil, No Pepper, No Sugar: Can a Restaurant Be TOO Local?

image via Square Deal

image via Square Deal

 

When Vinland opens later this fall in Portland, Maine, it will be the first restaurant in the United States to serve 100% local, organic food.
That means that if it can’t be grown, harvested, or produced in Maine it’s not going to be on the menu. That list includes plenty of kitchen staples like olive oil, black pepper, cane sugar, mustard, peanut butter, and chocolate. It also bans avocados, bananas, citrus fruits, most rice and grains, and a very long list of spices, sauces, and seasonings.

Farm-to-table is almost a cliché for contemporary restaurants. It’s become second nature for a chef to showcase seasonal ingredients and to establish working relationships with nearby farmers, ranchers, and fishermen. But nobody has ever pushed the concept to this extreme, with this much purity.

Let’s not forget, we’re talking about Maine, a state that squeezes its growing season between the last frost in June and the first in September.
In season, there’s native seafood and agricultural bounty to rival any other region, but the pickings are slim for most of the year. There will have to be a lot of preserved foods—smoked, dried, pickled, cured, and fermented—to offer some semblance of variety on the Vinland winter menus.

Vinland doesn’t have a menu yet, but it does have a manifesto.
The document references the rising cost of medical care for diabetics, celebrity chef tantrums, confinement-raised animals, the dangers of seed oils, and the misogyny, racism, and homophobia of restaurant kitchens. It slams the Industrial Revolution and the Vikings, praises raw foodism, and quotes both Wendell Berry and Che Guevara. According to its mission statement, Vinland is not just a restaurant; it’s the blueprint for a sustainable food system that will help us survive the coming collapse of a doomed and destructive food industry.

Heady stuff, indeed. It should come as no surprise that the missionary behind Vinland is a first-time restaurateur who is more ideologue than trained chef.
A few years ago, David Levi was a high school English teacher in New York City with a few stints of restaurant work under his belt. A tutoring gig with the son of the renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten helped him land some very high profile internships in legendary restaurants like Spain’s El Bulli, Sweden’s Faviken, and Copenhagen’s Noma. A few more stages and apprenticeships later and he landed in Portland offering cooking classes and a series of pop-up tasting menu dinners.

Levi brought with him an admiration for the culinary and ecological ethos of the New Nordic food movement he encountered while staging in Danish and Swedish kitchens. And he recognized the parallels between the bioregions of northern New England and Scandinavia. Vinland is meant to be a kind of mulligan for the Nordic people in Maine.

Vinland is the original name for the North American settlement of Leif Eiríksson’s Viking followers (presumed to include what is now Maine). While Levi salutes their courage in pushing into the unknown, he recognizes their mistakes and wants to learn from them, the worst of which he says was their ‘antagonism toward the indigenous.’ Vinland will be a second chance: “We are seeking to begin again, not as occupiers this time, but as participants. We hope, belatedly, to learn from the rightful inheritors of this land.  We hope to honor the indigenous and the myriad non-humans who have been so grievously harmed by Western culture.  We hope to earn their welcome as we seek to build, together, a vibrant, indigenous, wild future.”

In case you were wondering, there will be salt. Maine harvests its own salt, and it’s really good. There also will be coffee, even though there are no native coffee growers. Levi just really likes his coffee.

 

Posted in restaurants, sustainability | Leave a comment

Eat Your Veggies–For Dessert!

image via A Thousand Words

image via A Thousand Words

 

Sweets lovers, you may want to avert your eyes.
Vegetables are sneaking away from your dinner plate and landing on the dessert menu. Carrot flan, eggplant tiramisu, black olive madeleines, and celery sorbet are charming and confounding us in equal shares, and forcing us to recalibrate our tastebuds.

Forward-thinking chefs have been playing with a sprinkle of salt and the bite of hot pepper for a while now. Chile-spiked chocolate barely raises an eyebrow anymore and sea salt caramel has become a culinary cliché. Bacon desserts have gone so far past outré that even Burger King lards up a vanilla soft-serve sundae.

The vegetable-based dessert trend has a certain logic.
It takes diners along the same continuum as the salty-savory sweets, but at the same time, they’re new enough to dazzle. And it taps into all things seasonal and farm-to-table.

Vegetable-based dessert are hardly a new invention.
Think about sweet potato pie, carrot cake, and corn pudding. But where the classic vegetable desserts are intensely sweet, the trend is toward fresher, vegetal flavors. The sugar is toned down to play up the ingredients’ natural sweetness, and savory tastes are front and center.

As an added bonus- you can forget the old adage about finishing your vegetables before you get dessert.

The Centers for Disease Control have a Nutrition for Everyone tool that calculates recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables for your age, gender, and activity level.

Condé Nast Traveler rounds up 20 of the most interesting vegetable-based dessert menus around the country.

Posted in dessert, food trends, restaurants | Leave a comment

Guns in Starbucks and Other Fun Facts

porcelain pistol by Yvonne Lee Schultz

porcelain pistol by Yvonne Lee Schultz

 

Starbucks entered the gun debate with a bang.
In a widely circulated open letter on the company blog, CEO Howard Schultz writes: “…we are respectfully requesting that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas—even in states where ‘open carry’ is permitted—unless they are authorized law enforcement personnel.”
Note that it is a request rather than an outright ban. The guy at the counter waiting for his half-caf vanilla latte could still be packing heat.

This caught a lot of people by surprise.
That’s because for all the talk about gun control at the state and federal level, we don’t really think about about guns on a personal level. But we need to, because when guns are legally carried into restaurants and even bars, it’s touching all of our lives.

  • Fun Fact: Red state or blue—it makes no difference. Nearly every state throws its bar and restaurant doors open to gun-toting customers.

There’ve been some changes in the wake of December’s tragic shootings in Newtown; just not the kind you might expect. With bills pending in a number of state legislatures, we’ll soon see a majority of states explicitly allow residents to bring concealed and open-carry guns into bars and restaurants, while another 20 states continue to allow them by default.

  • Fun Fact: Tennessee State Representative Curry Todd served time this year for drunk driving and possession of a handgun while under the influence of alcohol. He had previously worked tirelessly as the sponsor of the nation’s first guns-in-bars law, which Tennessee passed in 2009.

These laws are the latest wave in the country’s gun debate, and represent progress made by the gun lobby as it seeks, state by state, to expand the realm of guns in everyday life.

Mixing guns and alcohol: this is truly the logic of the madhouse.
A very large body of research tells us that people who abuse alcohol are far more inclined to engage in risky behaviors, and gun owners are more likely to fall into that group:

  • Fun Fact: Compared to people who don’t keep guns in the home, gun owners are twice as likely to down five or more drinks in a single sitting; they’re nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to get behind the wheel of a car when drinking; and they consume 60 or more drinks per month at more than double the rate of non-owners.

Looking for a 3-star gun-free bistro for Saturday night?
Restaurants are free to post signs banning weapons, and recommendation sites like Yelp now include ratings for gun-free dining. Of course concealed weapons make compliance kind of iffy. Unarmed Tennessee residents rely on the listings at not-for-profit Gun Free Dining Tennessee (their motto: Eat in peace) while the NRA crowd visits GunBurger.com (protecting the Second Amendment one bite at a time).

For all the fun facts, there’s nothing trivial about the dangerous mix of alcohol and firearms.
Americans own more than 300 million non-military weapons. There are more than 40,000 gun-related deaths every year, and one in three involves alcohol.

Are there guns in your local restaurants? The NRA website has an interactive, state-by-state map of current firearm laws.

Posted in food business, restaurants | Leave a comment

Welcome to the Grocerant

supermarketmenu

 

It’s 4 PM. Dinner is just a few hours away. Do you know what you’re having?
Studies show that 81% of Americans aren’t sure.

A Hungry Man Salisbury Steak dinner? Mac and cheese from a box? Those days are gone. Today you can kick things off with a cup of Panera’s broccoli cheddar soup or maybe some of Hooters’ chicken wings. Are you in the mood for a burger? Choose from T.G.I. Fridays sliders, L.A.’s  famous Fatburger, or the cultish White Castle. And don’t forget to save room for a slice of the Cheesecake Factory’s Oreo Dream Extreme.

Eating out while staying in.
Restaurant brands are gaining traction in the supermarket. Ready-to-eat or heat-and-eat meals that bear the name of your favorite casual or quick-serve outlet are blurring the line between eating in and dining out. The industry’s name for this hybrid is grocerant, where grocery shopping and restaurants collide.

Restaurant, supermarket, and consumer trends have all pushed us toward grocerants.

Restaurants were hit hard during the recent economic downturn.
Customers weren’t coming to them so they developed products that they could bring to the customers. Franchisees worried that the grocerants would cut into their dining-in sales, but the restaurants learned that if they developed licensed supermarket products that were a good fit without seeming identical to menu items, it could actually help the brand.

Supermarkets have also embraced the grocerant model.
They’ve been scrambling for years to keep up with the ever-expanding category of prepared foods. Shoppers are looking to bring the restaurant experience home. Grocers have tried to replicate that experience by installing pizza ovens, rotisseries, and stir-fry stations, but it’s quicker and easier to relinquish the space to licensed grocerant products. For all the effort it takes to create a store brand from scratch, they know that consumers are more likely to purchase a brand they already like over one they don’t know.

Consumers are cash-strapped and time-crunched. 
The supermarket might be a necessary downgrade from dining out, but restaurant-branded grocerants help soften the blow. They know that a frozen or pre-made version of the freshly-served restaurant counterpart is an inferior product, but for the savings and convenience it’s a compromise they can live with.

 

 

 

Posted in cook + dine, food business, restaurants | Leave a comment

Restaurant Ratings or Restaurant Rankings– How Do You Choose?

review-trackers-food-and-restaurant-review-monitoring

 

Who’s number one?

Restaurant rankings are a relatively new measure of gastronomic greatness.
Reviewers always rated restaurants, often using the shorthand of 3 stars or 2 forks, thumbs up or down, going back a century to the first Michelin guides. Then Zagat came along with its 30-point rating scale that moved us away from entire classes of restaurants toward individual glory, and a decade ago we got the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the list that made household names out of Spain’s elBulli and Copenhagen’s Noma, and has quickly become a dominant player in global media coverage of the industry. Most of the user-submitted review sites like  Yelp, Urbanspoon, Open Table, and Trip Advisor use a combination, aggregating and averaging the individual ratings to create best of and top ten lists.

Ratings and rankings are not interchangeable.
Both methods have their proponents, and both have their inherent flaws.

Ratings ask you how much you like it.
In theory, everyone is using a common scale of measurement, and applying that scale to different dining experiences with consistency. Of course the reality is something very different: reviews reflect the critics’ quirks, biases, and grudges. Their health, the weather, their mood, even the outfit they’re wearing can affect how a meal strikes their fancy on any particular day. Ratings don’t require a unique score for each restaurant and there’s a tendency to cluster the scores in a very narrow distribution. Researchers have also found that response styles differ systematically by culture, for instance Indians tend toward more extreme scores, both good and bad, while most Asian respondents are more moderate, and French reviewers tend to be be more positive than the less-generous Dutch.

Rankings ask you to compare it with all the others.
In their simplest form, rankings can feel very natural. We all have a basic impulse to make comparisons—it’s easy to distinguish a preference for pound cake over angel food, or to say that you like In-N-Out burgers better than Five Guys. But what if you’re choosing between pound cake and blueberry pie and rice pudding and mango sorbet and chocolate chip cookies? Or a French brasserie, an Italian trattoria, a steakhouse, and those same burger joints? Rankings can get difficult in a hurry.

It’s much more taxing to rank a group of restaurants than to rate them. Psychologists say that when you get past three choices most people start to get sloppy and even arbitrary with rankings. While the cognitive effort required to rate a group of restaurants is linear—the same mental process is independently repeated for each—the work of rank-order reviews rises almost exponentially since each additional choice has to be compared to every other one on the list. Once a list tops seven entries, the whole process can go off the rails.

Good food is subjective.
The ratings and rankings of restaurant reviews have their place, but there’s no substitute for a place at the table. Dining experiences are shaped by individual genetics and gender, historical and cultural influences, mood, emotions, context, and hunger. Reviews can create expectations and even guide the experience, but no two people can ever truly taste in the same way.

 

Posted in media, restaurants | Leave a comment

Extreme Restaurant Promotions

 

Senior discounts, student discounts, kids eat free—we’ve seen it all before.
It takes something special for a restaurant to cut through the clutter of a crowded marketplace. Here are some of the more inspired, buzzworthy, and just plain wacky restaurant promotions.

Casa Sanchez’s Jimmy the Cornman

Melt grilled cheese logo

Melt grilled cheese logo

Earn your discount with a restaurant logo tattoo. It seems awfully extreme, to say nothing of permanent, especially considering that the average lifespan of a restaurant is just five years. But there are plenty of takers, even when it’s just a measly 25% off. Somehow that was enough to convince a few hundred customers to get inked for Melt Bar and Grilledan Ohio grilled cheese emporium. San Francisco’s Casa Sanchez ups the offer to free lunch every day for the rest of your life; no guarantees, but it’s been in business since 1924. Of course for the duration you’ll have Jimmy the Cornman flying across your skin on a corn cob rocket.

Shirley Temple, c. 1933

Shirley Temple, c. 1933

Let’s just say that kids aren’t always the greatest dining companions (Of course we’re not talking about your darlings). They’re even banned from certain restaurants and during certain hours. Not at Washington State’s Sogno Di Vino which offers a ‘well-behaved kids’ discount. Alas, there is no penalty for noisy tantrums.

Phone_Zone

Then there’s the ‘well-behaved adults’ discount. Plenty of restaurants discourage or even ban cell phone use in their dining rooms. LA’s Eva Restaurant goes a step further offering a discount to customers who check their cell phones at the door. About half of Eva’s customers take them up on it.

mississippi-welcome-sign-close-up

They do things a little differently down south. On the 20th of each month Jackson, Mississippi restaurants welcome diversity. They call it Two & Two Restaurant Days, and a 20%
discount is given to any diner who eats with someone of another race. No word yet on the other days.3027-virginia-welcomes-you-sign_1

Virginians love the Second Amendment and they celebrate their right to bear arms in restaurants with special discounts for gun-toting diners. Events like Concealed Carry Wednesday and Fire Power Happy Hour have been a real shot in the arm for restaurateurs throughout the state.

 

 

Posted in diversions, food business, restaurants | Leave a comment

Stick a Fork in Them: America’s disappearing chain restaurants

Friends don't let friends eat at Chain restaurants Tee Shirts

t shirt available at zazzle.com

 

It’s been a decade-long slide for chain restaurants.
In the past 10 years, some of America’s biggest chains lost more than half of their sales as they closed hundreds of locations nationwide. Former American staples like Bennigan’s, Big Boy, and Ponderosa Steakhouse are teetering on the brink of extinction as they fight their way back from bankruptcy, and some, like Howard Johnson’s, Steak and Ale, and Chi-Chi’s lost that battle and disappeared from the landscape.

According to sales data provided By Technomic, these are the biggest losers; each restaurant started 2001 with more than $225 million in sales, and each experienced 50% or greater declines since then. Together they have shuttered a combined total of more than 4,000 outlets.

  • Blimpie Subs & Salads
  • Ponderosa/Bonanza Steakhouse
  • Big Boy
  • Don Pablo’s
  • Tony Roma’s
  • TCBY
  • Damon’s Grill
  • Country Kitchen
  • Ground Round
  • Bennigan’s

The restaurant business is a kind of economic indicator for the middle class.
The average American adult eats out or orders takeout more than 200 times a year. The casual dining segment fares well in a strong economy—that’s the Applebees, Cheesecake Factories, and Ruby Tuesdays of the world with their full bars and laminated dessert menus. When times are tough customers used to trade down to fast food, but the 1990′s saw the rise of a new dining segment favored by a new generation of customers that pushed some of the old-line chains toward decline.

The fast casual segment was created by chains like Chipotle, Five Guys, and Panera.
It’s defined by limited menus of made-to-order items that are a step up from fast food, but without the hostess stations and wine lists of casual dining. Prices fall between those of the other two segments, and counter service cuts out the need for a 15% tip. Nobody seems to miss the Sutter Home wine by the glass.

Many of the casual dining chains saw their heyday come and go several decades ago.
Ethnic and local foods rule for young diners who seek variety and authenticity, while chain restaurants promote just the opposite: a sense of dislocation with a hodgepodge of nominal ethnic touches, and decor and dishes that promise you the same meal every time, wherever you are. Data from consumer market researchers at NPD Group show that 18-47 year-olds are abandoning the chains in droves. Older Americans have actually increased their spending on chain restaurant dining, but not enough to stop the slide.

The food is dull, the ingredients mediocre, but refills are free, the bathrooms are clean, and the meal unfolds predictably and reliably. Chain restaurants don’t strive to inspire; merely to not disappoint. But for a new generation of diners, that might not be enough.

Just for fun
Top Cultured created the flowchart Where Should I Eat? (Chain Restaurant Edition).

 

Posted in food business, food trends, restaurants | Leave a comment
Web Analytics