In today’s hypercompetitive restaurant industry, knowing what the market wants now and having insights into what the future holds is what can make or break a restaurant operation. At the Culinary Institute of America’s 2017 Worlds of Flavor Conference: Casual by Design, experienced restaurant group operator Elizabeth Blau, founder and CEO of Blau + Associates, presented five key business and culinary strategies that every multimodel restaurant group should employ to grow their brands, particularly when entering the casual dining space.
Focusing on the strategies of approachability, simplicity, healthfulness, efficiency, and scalability, Blau offered up several real-life examples of how the industry is evolving. She began by talking about combining fast service with a casual ambiance, or “casual approachability,” which means providing foods that are elevated yet still affordable and served in an environment that makes customers feel like they belong. Restaurants like these may serve truffle oil on fries or bourbon caramel sauce on vanilla ice cream, she said, or they may emphasize a healthy angle as Jose Andres and his team at ThinkFoodGroup have done with Beefsteak restaurant. Blau said it’s exciting to see someone like Andres who earned his stripes in the fine dining realm enter the fast casual dining space with a vegetable-focused restaurant.
Another tactic chefs and restaurant owners can take in expanding their restaurant group offerings is to present new flavors in a familiar format. Here, Blau said that the best applications for introducing new flavors and ingredients is with tried and true menu options like pizza, flatbreads, burgers, sliders, and tacos. Think bulgogi ciabatta sandwich, Jamaican jerk pizza, and braised oxtail tacos, for example. Or how about the food served at the fast-casual concept Sushirrito, which combines Asian and Latin ingredients such as salmon belly poke, yellowfin tuna, pork belly, ginger guacamole, blue corn chips, chicharron, and more in a fun, new way—a sushi burrito.
While Blau’s topic was about ways that restaurant groups can branch out into new concepts, she said that before launching a new restaurant concept and ultimately expanding the business, the food needs to be the first focus. “You have to come up with a great new product,” she told the audience. “These concepts don’t become scalable without a really successful model. You have to focus on product and quality before establishing a large market presence. You have to create a must-have product.” She said that David Chang did this with his Momofuku brand. Chang began by honing his skills at making noodles followed by opening a casual restaurant that focused on ramen. As the popularity of his restaurant grew, Chang ventured into other concepts, such as fine dining, bakery, and a retail product line.
While Chang and many other chefs and restaurateurs start with one concept and eventually expand into other concepts and areas in the food industry, others develop a restaurant concept and then take it national and international. “When you think of these multi-concept restaurants, nobody embodies it better than what Danny Meyer has done with Shake Shack,” said Blau. Meyer was operating several different restaurants in the early 2000s when he began Shake Shack, which became a hit. “It literally started as an actual shack in Madison Square Park and it’s morphed into a billion dollar hamburger enterprise,” said Blau. This includes Shake Shack restaurants around the United States and the world as well as at stands in stadiums like Citi Field in New York and Wells Fargo Center in Pennsylvania and in airports in New York, Dubai, and Kuwait.
Today, with any restaurant concept, it’s all about creating the perfect aesthetic and thinking creatively about ways to utilize unused space in a restaurant. Everything from the interior design, table settings, uniforms, and even the font on the menus needs to be considered to give restaurants a casual and approachable vibe. Blau also added that to-go shops are a perfect way to put unused space to good use (and help pay the rent). These are popping up in restaurants here and there and sell food items or non-food products or a combination of both. Some, like Poulet Galore, a walk-up window that is adjacent to its sister restaurant, Cantine Bar and Bottle Shop, concentrate on one item; in this case, rotisserie chicken.
It can be an uphill battle to develop a restaurant concept, but Blau’s take-home messages about the business strategies and the examples she presented can help to keep restaurateurs on-point and on a successful path. Upping the approachability factor means that good food can and should be affordable, while perfecting simplicity allows the kitchen staff to use key ingredients to develop focused menu items that are easy to execute. She added that restaurant groups can develop replicable models through streamlined and standardized processes. Finally, while burgers and shakes are big sellers, some chefs are providing healthier fare by spotlighting fruits, vegetables, and grains.
Karen Nachay is senior associate editor of Food Technology magazine ([email protected]).