Branching Out: Former Banks = Cool Stores

The New York Times: “Former bank branches have been reincarnated as pizza parlors, fast-food outlets, health care sites, massage chains, credit unions, educational institutions, churches and mobile phone stores. Some serve as locations for Starbucks, CityMD Urgent Care, CVS and other chains.”

“Attributes that were attractive to banks in the first place are now selling points for the converted properties. Many occupy corner locations on busy streets with heavy retail traffic. The buildings are often free-standing and well maintained, with sturdy brick construction. Depending on municipal zoning restrictions, canopied drive-throughs can be converted to other uses, such as fast-food pickup, side entrances or patios.”

“Part of an Apple Bank in Manhattan was converted to condos in 2006, and CVS moved into at least two banks in New York with high ceilings and marble columns … In the small tourist community of Lake Tomahawk, Wis., Tina Rydzik saw a marketing opportunity after she found it impossible to remove the vault from a former bank she took over and converted into a pizza house. She christened the enterprise Pizza Vault, and named nearly all the entrees after famous bank robbers.”

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Yes, The Cow Had a Name: Dinner

The Wall Street Journal: “The menu at chef José Andrés’s Bazaar Meat in Las Vegas notes that its Vaca Vieja steak is made from a “hand-selected working cow.” The beef comes from a meat company called Mindful Meats, where, on the cow’s ‘final day,’ employees ‘look each cow in the eye and say thank you as they load onto the trailer,’ its website explains. Welcome to the final frontier in the discussion about transparency in food: meat … The challenge for restaurants and food providers is to give information without turning stomachs.”

“It’s a fine line between transparency and oversharing. At Blackbelly Restaurant in Boulder, Colo., servers are coached to let customers take the lead in discussing the provenance of the meat, says chef and owner Hosea Rosenberg. On a typical evening, about one-third of customers will want to order without much discussion, says Mr. Rosenberg. Another third is interested in more specifics—like cuts of meat, or particular breeds of animals—before their eyes glaze over, he says. The last third is interested in even more details, such as types of grasses or grains the cow was fed, what it weighed, and what farm it was from. Sometimes they ask if it had a name. (‘We named it Dinner,’ he says).”

“Randy Golding, a retired chemical engineer in Cedar City, Utah, orders steaks, chicken and ground beef every three months from Firefly Farms in North Stonington, Conn. He says he has spoken directly with the farm manager, Dugan Tillman-Brown, for at least an hour, asking questions such as how the animals were treated (‘They have names. They have personalities,’ says Mr. Tillman-Brown) to how they are slaughtered (a quick shot to the head with a steel bolt) … Mr. Golding says those details help him and his wife, Lisa, feel better about eating meat knowing the animal wasn’t mistreated. “

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16 Handles: Frozen Yogurt Gone Wild

The Wall Street Journal: “At the New York-based frozen-yogurt chain 16 Handles, the main draw has always been the self-serve aspect: Customers are free to mix and match flavors and toppings at will, paying a per-ounce price, varying by store, for their creations. But this summer, patrons at the 10-year-old chain’s East Village location may be surprised to find a soft-serve machine positioned behind the counter. It is reserved for a special new line of frozen treats, dubbed Sugalips, that employees are charged with making.”

“Included in the offerings: an outer space-inspired Galaxy Cone, priced at $8.95, that combines frozen yogurt, cotton candy and rock candy, a colorful dessert designed with the food-on-social-media era in mind … it comes as 16 Handles has seen its same-store sales decline in each of the past three years, following an initial period of consistent growth.”

“For starters, the concept of self-serve frozen yogurt is no longer seen as novel. But even more important: Frozen yogurt isn’t the trendy dessert it once was. Artisan ice-cream companies, offering a wave of creative and even vegan flavors, are commanding increased attention. So, too, are makers of multicultural frozen treats, such as Thai-style rolled ice cream … While such changes might help bring frozen-yogurt chains a broader clientele, experts warn there is a risk of alienating the regular customer base if a company goes too far.”

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Fast Casual Picks Up The Pace

The Wall Street Journal: “TGI Fridays, a 53-year-old brand that came under new management last summer, is working to improve the dining experience for people who eat at the restaurants … The privately held company has redesigned about half of its 440 U.S. restaurants, some of which now have open kitchens. It switched to a blend of chuck and brisket for its burgers, from ground sirloin and chuck; launched a meatless burger; and moved to meatier ribs. The chain has seen a 15% sales increase from menu items that have been improved since October 2017.”

“Red Lobster had declining sales when it was owned by Darden, but it has been gaining back customers, opening new restaurants and growing its takeout business since being acquired by Golden Gate Capital in 2014 … The company added smaller tasting plates with more urbane dishes like tuna poke. It began offering online ordering in January and is experimenting with new store designs that include a dedicated takeout area. The 749-unit chain also is delivering food.”

“Private-equity firm NRD Capital Management bought the struggling Ruby Tuesday chain last year, after it closed 100 restaurants … developing healthier dishes and returning to its Southern roots with new menu items such as the Smoky Mountain chicken sandwich and Hickory Bourbon salmon.” Aziz Hashim of NRD comments: “Casual dining is not going anywhere, it just has to be reinvented.”

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The Future of French Fries

The New York Times: “A new type of fry starts in the ground. At its farm in Paterson, Wash., Lamb Weston grows half a dozen potato varieties on 20,000 irrigated acres, tracking even the most minute differences in hydration, temperature and other environmental factors. Potatoes with less water make for crispier fries. Too much water can make them limp … Workers monitor the fields from the Pentagon of potatoes, a room filled with computers that monitor soil conditions, crop maturity and irrigation. The plants are tested every week to measure their nutrients, a sort of blood test for plants. Using those results, workers can adjust how much water they give the crops.”

“Lamb Weston started testing a longer-lasting fry two years ago. Employees on a visit to China noticed dozens of delivery scooters outside a McDonald’s. They figured the trend would go global, and wanted to be ready … Lamb Weston had already developed a French fry batter that could keep fries crispy for 12 minutes. So food scientists at the company’s laboratory in Richland began tinkering with the recipe to extend a fry’s life even longer. When the fries drop into the hot oil, the batter, made mostly of uncooked starch, cooks instantaneously to form the crispy outer layer.”

“To protect the fries during delivery, the team created new packaging to keep out moisture while allowing for the right amount of ventilation … Plastic bags or tightly sealed containers turn into little saunas, making French fries soggy quickly. A paper bag, lightly folded over, is a better option … Back at the laboratory, food scientists duplicate different hazards, packing French fries in white paper bags next to cold milkshakes or moist hamburgers. Bags are left alone for 15 minutes, others for 30 or 45. Their heat is measured using infrared cameras … Testers check how they fare. They take bites of chocolate, crackers and other foods, using them as benchmarks to rate the fries’ crunch, sweetness and other attributes.”

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Chick-Fil-A: The Harvard of Fast Food

The Washington Post: “Carrie Kurlander, vice president of public relations for Chick-fil-A, said the Georgia-based chain receives more than 40,000 inquires per year from people interested in becoming restaurant operators (the company’s term for ‘franchisee’). After filling out an initial “expression of interest” online, they complete a formal, written application. From there, the company conducts recorded live-video and in-person interviews with applicants, taking business experience and leadership skills into consideration.”

“The chain opens 100 to 115 new restaurants a year, Kurlander said, and operators typically run one restaurant each. The company runs more than 2,200 restaurants in 47 states, and the average restaurant makes more than $4 million in annual sales. Again: that’s 40,000 people who hope to become operators, and about 100 to 115 who make it through. To compare, of Harvard’s 42,749 applicants for the school’s incoming freshman class, it admitted 1,962.”

Kurlander comments: “We are very intentional with our selection process as we believe this model is the key to ensuring our customers receive the best care and experience possible.”

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Wendy’s Cultivates Better Tomato Experience

The Wall Street Journal: “By largely moving production to the U.S. from Mexico, where Wendy’s currently gets the majority of its tomatoes, and using the more controlled setting of greenhouses, the company says it expects to be able to deliver more ripe—and therefore more flavorful—tomatoes to its restaurants. There are also fewer insects and plant diseases to contend with when tomatoes are grown inside.”

“Whether consumers will care about the change in its tomatoes remains to be seen. Although fast-food rivals have been touting the quality and freshness of their food, consumers still want their meals at a low price.”

“Some tomato purists say nothing beats the flavor of a tomato grown in the soil. But field-grown tomatoes sold for commercial use are often sprayed with ethylene gas, a plant hormone that occurs naturally in fruit, just before they reach supermarket shelves or restaurants so that they appear ripe.”

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Decibel Diet: Loud Music is Fattening

The New York Times: “Behavioral scientists who ran a series of lab studies and real-life field experiments found participants selected more unhealthful or calorie-laden items like red meat and cake when the ambient music was loud, and were more likely to choose healthful items when softer music was played in the background. The genre of music did not appear to influence the choices, the researchers said: They found the same effects whether the background music was classical; a mix of pop, rock, soul, R&B and alternative music; or heavy metal.”

Dipayan Biswas, a professor of business and of marketing at University of South Florida in Tampa and lead author of the paper, comments: “High-volume music is more exciting and makes you physically more excited, less inhibited and more likely to choose something indulgent. Low music makes us more relaxed and more mindful, and more likely to go for the things that are good for us in the long run.”

“Loud background music in a supermarket similarly nudged customers toward less healthful purchases, compared with softer music … Dr. Biswas, whose earlier research found that patrons are more likely to order healthful items when restaurants are brightly lit and more likely to indulge in dimly lit restaurants, said the findings can help consumers be aware of unconscious factors affecting their choices.”

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