Foodservice: On the Restaurant Beat

Menu and marketing trends from your foodservice brethren

Successful c-store foodservice operators are looking around at not what his or her c-store competitors are doing, but rather what the leaders in the restaurant realm are up to. And just like you, restaurateurs are busy tidying up their images and presenting a higher-quality experience to increasingly discerning consumers.

Restaurants are experiencing nearly flat traffic growth that is still below pre-recession volumes, according to The NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y. And the impact of minimum wage and healthcare costs are making some restaurateurs—such as the Minnesota operator who added an itemized minimum-wage fee to all checks—resort to extreme measures.

Despite pressure points on the P&L, the industry continues to innovate with ambitious concepts and menu items. What follows is a snapshot of the latest ideas from leading restaurants. Read on, and consider how they could translate to your operations.

Growth Chains and Spin-Offs

In a 180 flip from the downtrading sentiment of the Great Recession, some quick-service restaurant (QSR) chains are attempting to capture the more discerning, higher-spending fast-casual consumer by rolling out upscale concepts of their own. Mall-food-court mainstay Cinnabon is testing Bon Bake Shop in Houston’s Willowbrook Mall, where the iconic Cinnabon Classic roll won’t even grace the menu. Instead, customers can choose between a variety of miniature rolls with frostings such as Maple Bacon and Birthday Cake. The chain’s existing four-pack of Classic Bites will be available in a wider range of toppings, including Pumpkin Caramel, Toasted Coconut and Butterfinger. It will also sell whoopie pies and savory items such as cheese rolls.

About 1,500 miles away, Taco Bell is trying its hand at the upscale taqueria trend with U.S. Taco Co., which opened in August in Huntington Beach, Calif. No corner of the menu is without an attempt at cheekiness, with items such as the Big Stud Spud (corn tortilla with potato, cheese and pepper blend and a molcajete salsa), the 1%er (a flatbread taco with lobster, garlic butter and slaw) and the Hot Chick (crispy chicken with Buffalo sauce and blue cheese on a flour tortilla). Drinkable desserts include the Friggin’ Fried Ice Cream, Coco Loco and Shut Your Pie Hole, all served in Mason jars.

An emerging chain to watch, Pollo Tropical created a new prototype for its Caribbean-inspired restaurant upon entering Texas. The focal point of the interior space is the Saucing Island: As guests stand in line, they pass by colorful salsas made with mango, pineapple and other tropical ingredients. Once they order, they can watch their food being cooked through a large window into the kitchen. The kitchen holds a two-sided “make table” so cooks can hand off orders to the dining room or drive-thru. Fresh thinking went into the drive-thru, too. “The windows in the new store are raised 2 feet higher than before. When customers sit down, the cars in the drive-thru are hidden,” says Tim Taft, CEO of this Miami-based chain. What they see instead is tropical greenery.

While most c-store retailers are familiar with a different PDQ, the fast-casual chain PDQ—which stands for People Dedicated to Quality—landed the top spot in the Restaurant Business 2014 Future 50 of fastest-growing small chains. The Tampa, Fla.-based concept has 18 units and rings up $28.5 million in systemwide sales. Menu anchors include fresh fried or grilled chicken tenders, fresh-cut fries, made-to-order turkey and chicken sandwiches, hand-tossed salads and fresh-squeezed lemonade. It’s what Restaurant Business aptly called the love child of Chick-fi l-A and In-N-Out Burger. Keep your eye on this chain as it grows beyond its current five-state footprint with the help of some deep-pocketed backers (including Tim Tebow) and strong customer touch points, such as employees taking drive-thru orders car-side vs. the typical speaker system.

Menu Directions

As the summer faded away, fast-casual chains harvested their bounty in a bevy of limited-time offers. Noodles & Company rolled out Asparagus di Parma featuring spaghetti tossed with fresh asparagus, white-wine butter sauce, mushrooms and tomato and topped with Parmesan cheese. Berries popped up on many menus, including at Burgerville (Northwest Blackberry milkshakes, smoothies and lemonades) and Corner Bakery Café (Blueberry Lemonade Baby Bundt). Au Bon Pain featured a Lobster Salad Sandwich with light mayo and mesclun, while Currito closed out the season with its Summer Burrito, featuring black beans, mango salsa, jack cheese and cilantro lime rice in a flour tortilla with a choice of grilled chicken, tofu, carnitas pork or barbacoa.

As autumn emerged on the horizon, Dunkin’ Donuts finally merged its two most iconic menu items for Coffee Crème Donuts, made with Dunkin’ Donuts’ Original Blend Coffee. The doughnuts are available in two varieties: Glazed Coffee Crème with a glazed yeast shell filled with coffee buttercream and drizzled with chocolate icing; and the Coffee, Crème & Sugar Donut with a yeast shell filled with coffee buttercream and finished in powdered sugar. The company also rolled out French Vanilla and Hazelnut Swirls, a sweeter, creamier option for two of its most popular coffee flavors. It allows guests to customize their hot and iced coffee, lattes or Frozen Coffee Coolattas with an even more indulgent sweetener.

Many “better burger” chains and hip diners are finding creative ways to bring milkshakes back to the menu spotlight, often with higher-end ingredients, unique flavors and—for a few extra dollars—a shot of booze. BLT Burger in Las Vegas is selling The Lunch Box—vanilla ice cream, peanut butter and grape jelly—for $7, while Flip Burger in Atlanta features the Burnt Marshmallow Milkshake with chocolate hazelnut cream for $5. Philadelphia’s SquareBurger has a $5 Cake Shake with butterscotch krimpet, caramel sauce and vanilla ice  cream, while Lunchbox Laboratory in Seattle is featuring the Drunken Elvis—vanilla ice cream, graham crackers, peanut butter, bananas, vanilla vodka, banana rum and Irish cream liqueur—for $10.