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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Chick-fil-A-Pay: Not Chicken Feed

The Washington Post: “By 2022, the minimum wage in California will rise to $15. But the owner of a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Sacramento plans to go ahead and raise the wages of his employees now, offering a huge bump to $17 to $18 from the $12 to $13 he pays now. While analysts can’t say whether a $17 to $18 hourly wage is the highest in the country for front-line fast-food workers, it certainly appears to be among the higher ones, said David Henkes, a senior principal with Technomic, a restaurant research and consulting firm.”

Eric Mason, owner of the Chick-fil-A location in Sacramento, comments: “I’m looking at it big-picture and long-term. What that does for the business is provide consistency, someone that has relationships with our guests, and it’s going to be building a long-term culture.”

Warren Solochek, senior vice president of industry relations for the food service practice at NPD Group, adds: “You can’t have that high level of service when you continually hire people and have to train people. You need people who’ve been in their job for a while. That’s Chick-fil-A’s reputation, and that’s very true across the country.”

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PF Chang: An American Bistro in China

The Wall Street Journal: “P.F. Chang’s may be seen as an upscale Chinese-food restaurant in the U.S. But the chain is calling its debut location in China ‘an American bistro’—which is exactly how its early customers there see it. ‘The food looks similar, but you eat the food and you know instantly it’s not Chinese,’ said Zhang Ji, 35, who works in finance … Animation designer Zhang Xue said she came because P.F. Chang’s got a shoutout on ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ the U.S. sit-com popular in China.”

“Like many upscale restaurants in China, the restaurant is in a shopping mall. There is a prominent white P.F. Chang’s sign on the 8th-floor entrance … Inside, the décor looks like a mix of old Shanghai meets American diner, with booths and tables … P.F. Chang’s created 10 new dishes for Shanghai customers, including Dusk ’Til Dawn Honey Chicken and Scallion Pancake, an Asian take on chicken and waffles that puts crispy chicken on top of a buttermilk pancake. The Duck Spring Roll features mozzarella, something a Chinese chef might consider sacrilege.”

“P.F. Chang’s is hardly the first foreign company to try selling a cuisine back to its native land. The Domino’s pizza chain arrived in Italy in 2015 and now has 11 locations there; South Korea’s Paris Baguette has two stores in Paris that sell bread back to the French … Yum Brands Inc., however, hasn’t had much success bringing Taco Bell to Mexico, despite two separate attempts.”

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Chik-fil-A ‘Secret Sauce’: Community

Business Insider: “Chick-fil-A’s recent dominance of the fast-food industry can be tied to one behind-the-scenes secret … It’s less expensive to open a Chick-fil-A than it is to open a location of almost any other chain. Chick-fil-A charges franchisees only $10,000 to open a new restaurant. However, unlike other franchises, it prohibits franchisees from opening multiple locations.” Industry expert John Hamburger says this franchise model puts “somebody in the store that was close to the customer. They’re dealing with the customer, they’re in the community. They’re active in the community. And that’s what Chick-fil-A does.”

“Chick-fil-A franchise owners are involved in hiring and firing employees. The company also encourages franchisees to get personally involved in the community through various local organizations. According to Hamburger, that allows Chick-fil-A to get a leg up on the competition in terms of quality and customer service.”

“Hamburger says chains such as Applebee’s are already seeing the negative impact of losing their community connections. The chain, which went to a 100%-franchised model in recent years, closed 99 stores in 2017 amid sinking sales … Chick-fil-A’s success as a rapidly expanding private company could help convince more public companies to follow in its footsteps.”

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Ordering Anxiety: The High Stress of Fast Food

The Wall Street Journal: “As menu choices multiply—and multiply and multiply—diners are suffering from option paralysis. Especially troublesome are assembly-line-style chains in “fast casual” restaurants where diners have just seconds to answer rapid-fire questions such as whether they want tahini or aioli sauce on their chicken shawarma, or prefer the turmeric almonds or pickled ginger on their beet falafel bowl.”

“People who get nervous at the counter say they worry about being judged for stumbling through their order, or feel pressured by having customers waiting behind them in line. They fret that their food will come out wrong, or that if they try something new they won’t like it. Others simply buckle under the pressure of too many choices. Sarah Anderson hates it when she gets to a restaurant counter thinking she knows what she wants, only to be asked ‘like 20 questions’ … Restaurant executives know this. They feel it themselves, sometimes.” Scott Gladstone, vice president of strategy at Applebee’s, admits: “I usually end up finding one thing on the menu I like and order it every time, because of the anxiety of the ordering process.”

“So, why do restaurant chains offer so many choices? Tom Ryan, the founder and chief executive of Smashburger, says if he didn’t, he would lose customers who yearn for new experiences.”

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