The Caviar Sandwich is Back!

The Wall Street Journal: “The caviar sandwich at the Grand Central Oyster Bar is back … the under-$15 sandwich, a novelty item that served as a kind of low-rent riff on the luxury lifestyle, disappeared from the menu several months ago. The reason? The cost of the bowfin caviar, a cheaper variety of fish eggs used for the sandwich, had suddenly soared. That left the restaurant with two options: Increase the price for the sandwich threefold or nix it from the menu altogether. Given that the whole point of the sandwich was the caviar-on-the-cheap aspect, the Oyster Bar chose the latter.”

“And Oyster Bar executive chef Sandy Ingber figured the situation would remain that way because he wasn’t finding any caviar purveyors cutting deals … The menu item, a fixture for more than 15 years, had never been a huge seller, as a typical day saw up to 10 orders. But those who liked it really seemed to like it, Mr. Ingber said. The appeal went beyond the novelty aspect, he added. The dish, with the caviar served on plain white toast and paired with chopped egg with a dollop of sour cream on the side, is a perfect study in contrasting textures and flavors: salty, creamy and crispy.”

“But Mr. Ingber still needed to find a source for low-cost bowfin caviar. Fortunately, one turned up at a trade show in Boston last month. The product is the same quality, he said, and only a tad more expensive when factoring in shipping. Mr. Ingber was able to reinstate the sandwich to the menu two weeks ago, raising the price by only a dollar to $13.95.”

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7-Eleven: When Convenience Is Not Enough

The Wall Street Journal: “For 7-Eleven, Big Gulps and Slurpees are no longer enough. The convenience-store pioneer is falling behind rivals that are gleaning more sales from healthier snacks and freshly cooked meals … The company’s executives said they are working to come up with better foods to sell in their 9,700 North American stores. ‘Simply being open longer than the competitor … is not enough,’ said Raj Kapoor, referring to the stores’ extended hours. Mr. Kapoor, a 23-year veteran of 7-Eleven, is head of fresh food and proprietary beverages.”

“The effort to freshen up 7-Eleven’s business has run into resistance from the chain’s franchisees. Eight out of 10 7-Eleven stores are owned by franchisees, most of whom own fewer than five stores. Many say it is too expensive to maintain new equipment like ovens, and that 7-Eleven needs to pay to remodel their stores if they want them to sell more fresh and hot food. ‘Our stores don’t look like we are in the food business,’ said Hashim Sayed, who sold his store in Chicago back to 7-Eleven this week after 25 years as a franchisee.”

“7-Eleven says it has been addressing the shift in tastes for several years. But competitors have done more to sell fresh—and more profitable—foods, analysts said. Regional convenience chains Wawa Inc. and Sheetz Inc. make custom salads and hot meals at on-site kitchens. Iowa-based Casey’s General Stores Inc. is now one of the largest sellers of pizza in the U.S. CVS Health Corp. has reorganized its drugstores to display healthy food more prominently.”

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Waiting in Line: There’s No App For That

The Wall Street Journal: “Every day, Mitchell Burton orders and pays for an Italian B.M.T. sandwich on his Subway mobile app, so the sandwich is waiting at the counter. When he arrives, the 32-year-old Baton Rouge, La., parks and recreation worker frequently heads to the back of the line, to avoid seeming rude to less tech-savvy fellow customers. Line skippers sometimes ‘get the stink eye,’ he says, because fellow patrons don’t understand that there’s an app to order ahead.”

“Various ways to skip lines have gained momentum in recent years, as businesses ranging from retailers to movie theaters have come up with ways for customers to avoid a wait, often with mobile apps and ordering kiosks … In theory, order-ahead technology should appeal to everyone.” But: “Some line lovers say technology gets in the way of the personal touch. That’s why Al DiSalvatore sometimes puts his phone down and lines up the old fashioned way at coffee shops in Philadelphia. He likes when the baristas remember his name and order—something that reminds him of his time living in smaller cities.”

“Lining up is part of a gauzy nostalgia for the days before smartphones, which also includes professors banning laptops in class, people stopping at the register to write checks and shoppers skipping shopping online … Erik Fairleigh, 38, who works in communications at Amazon, also has a simple reason for sometimes joining the line. ‘I like to pay in cash,’ he says … Ashleigh Azzaria, a 34-year-old Palo Alto, Calif., event designer, typically chooses to wait in line for coffee at Starbucks, even though she has the mobile app installed and skips the line for bigger orders. ‘It’s my break,’ she says. ‘It’s my time to just kind of decompress, to not be on the phone’.”

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The Costco Pizza Sauce Robot

Reader’s Digest: “Costco works hard to make sure their pizza is practically perfect every time, and it’s all thanks to a secret pizza robot. This magical machine evenly distributes their sauce on the pizza dough… The gourmet gadget is actually pretty mesmerizing to watch in action.”

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Chipotle’s ‘New’ Recipe: Back to Basics

The Wall Street Journal: “Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.’s new chief executive said his recipe for reviving the burrito maker is simple: focus on improving the fast service and relatively simple menu that made the chain so popular to begin with. Brian Niccol said in an interview … that he is taking a measured approach to turning around Chipotle’s business after more than two years of weak sales in the wake of food-safety and customer service problems.”

“He said the company is hiring new field managers and restaurant employees from outside the company rather than only promoting people internally. He said Chipotle will more rigorously test new menu items and add longer hours, pickup windows for mobile orders and potentially drive-throughs at some restaurants. And he said Chipotle won’t introduce combo meals or cut prices to entice new customers.”

“Mr. Niccol, who was the chief executive of Taco Bell before taking the top job at Chipotle in March, has shrugged off calls for Chipotle to franchise stores or add breakfast items. Activist investor Bill Ackman, whose Pershing Square Capital Management is Chipotle’s largest shareholder with a stake of about 10%, has publicly urged Chipotle to serve breakfast. Mr. Niccol said he has told Mr. Ackman Chipotle needs to focus on turning around its current business first … Mr. Niccol said Chipotle can instead open restaurants earlier and keep them open later without making major menu changes.”

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The Color of Money: Bias & The Brand Experience

Alexandra C. Feldberg and Tami Kim: “Over the past two years, we have investigated discrimination in customer service by conducting large-scale field experiments in the hospitality industry. We have repeatedly found that front-line workers exhibit racial bias in the quality of customer service they provide. In one experiment, we emailed approximately 6,000 hotels across the United States from 12 fictitious email accounts. We varied the names of the senders to signal different attributes, such as race and gender, to the recipients.”

“Overall, hotel employees were significantly more likely to respond to inquiries from people who had typically white names than from those who had typically black and Asian names … Hotel employees provided 20 percent more restaurant recommendations to white than to black or Asian people. Employees’ politeness also varied by race. When responding to white people, employees were more likely to address them by name and to end their emails with a complimentary close (e.g., “Best,” “Sincerely”) than they were when responding to black or Asian people.”

“Instead of relying primarily on trainings to remedy bias, if they truly want to transform the way they serve customers, companies need to make structural changes. For instance, they should standardize scripts and provide employees with specific protocols for managing these situations. Such efforts can institutionalize norms of behavior for employees when they interact with customers … To detect bias in these behaviors requires quantifying different aspects of customer service and comparing treatment quality across a range of customers … It is only after identifying these disparities that companies can develop targeted interventions to combat biases.”

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Eateries Experiment with Split-Menu Pricing

The Wall Street Journal: “When the Michelin-starred, Paris-based chef Joël Robuchon opened his high-end L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon restaurant in the Meatpacking District last November, he had it share space with his “elegant, yet approachable” Le Grill de Joël Robuchon concept. At the former, a main course can cost as much as $135 and tasting menus run $145 to $265. At the latter, there is a three-course prix-fixe menu for $65. All prices include tipping.”

“Agern, the Nordic-inspired restaurant in Grand Central Terminal that also offers $100-plus tasting menus, has taken another approach to pricing. In recent weeks, it has expanded its a la carte offerings—even going so far as to add a burger and chicken wings, albeit in gourmet-minded versions. The $26 burger, for example, is made with a secret-spice mix, according to chef Gunnar Gíslason, and is served on a bun seasoned with smoked salt and vegetable ‘ash’.”

“Ultimately, each restaurant may have its individual reasons for adopting lower-price models and approaches. But if there is a common thread, it is the increased emphasis on casual dining in our culinary culture, says Arlene Spiegel, a New York-based hospitality consultant. Today’s diner ‘doesn’t want the restaurant to tell them what to wear or how much to spend,’ she says. ‘They want to feel welcome whether they are in jeans or tuxedos’.”

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Bravo: Homestyle Grocer to Latino Mets

The New York Times: “Cooks scurried in and out of the kitchen carrying containers of pork ribs, stewed beef, and rice and beans. Behind a display case of Latin American pastries, a worker hurried through coffee orders. The rapid-fire banter of Caribbean Spanish filled the air. It was the lunchtime rush at the cafeteria of the Bravo Supermarket here, but one loyal customer in particular — the Mets infielder Jose Reyes — caught the eye of the head chef, who hugged him as he took his place in line yet again, like so many Mets from Latin America hungry for home cooking.”

“Opened in 2005, the supermarket has done more than provide a dose of home comfort for players, essential as they find that. It has, at times, also offered free food for strapped athletes, occasional employment or even a cheap place to stay through Luis Merejo, an owner of the supermarket and a former baseball player himself.” Mets shortstop Amed Rosario comments: “It’s home. Every Dominican likes to eat their food, and this is the closest to my mother’s cooking. It makes me feel better. Sometimes you just want to eat your rice and beans, and Dominican-style meat.”

“Bravo is a supermarket chain with at least 60 stores in Florida and the Northeast, including the Bronx and New Jersey, in areas with a high concentration of Latinos. The Port St. Lucie location has perhaps fed the most professional baseball players … A large plate of Dominican-style rice and pigeon peas and fried plantains costs $4. Add meat for only a few more dollars. It’s a steal for minor leaguers who earn paychecks that pale in comparison to those that major leaguers receive.”

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Valentine Hearts Take Flight on Chicken Wings

The Wall Street Journal: “Somehow, chicken wings are elbowing their way to a spot alongside flowers, chocolate and champagne on America’s Valentine’s Day menu … Restaurant orders of chicken wings—1.1 billion in the U.S. last year—are 14% higher on Feb. 14 compared with other days of the month, excluding Super Bowl Sunday, of course, according to Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst for NPD Group, a market-research firm.”

Marivel Guerrero, who plans to give her new boyfriend a chicken-wing bouquet wrapped in a red bow, explains: “When you’re eating wings you’re really getting to know that other person. Will they pick at them with their fingers? Will they dive in and eat right off the bone?” Charlie Morrison, of Wingstop, “a chicken-wing chain of about 1,100 restaurants,” says sharing wings means “you’re ready to be vulnerable with someone, because there’s going to be food on your face.”

“Duffy’s Irish Pub in Washington, D.C., will offer chicken-wing combinations or ‘flights’ on Valentine’s Day in different flavors … The nine-wing combos require a couple to negotiate over the last piece, says co-owner Casey Callister. The back-and-forth could spark new intimacy.” He comments: “Sharing a partially eaten wing is like sharing a toothbrush.”

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Profits Eat the App-etite for Delivery Services

The New Yorker: “In 2016, delivery transactions made up about seven per cent of total U.S. restaurant sales. In a research report published last June, analysts at Morgan Stanley predicted that that number could eventually reach forty per cent of all restaurant sales, and an even higher percentage in urban areas and among casual restaurants, where delivery is concentrated. Companies like GrubHub maintain that the revenue they bring restaurants is ‘incremental’—the cherry on top, so to speak, of whatever sales the place would have done on its own.”

“They also argue that delivery orders are a form of marketing, exposing potential new customers who might convert to lucrative in-restaurant patrons. The problem is that as consumers use services like Uber Eats and Seamless for a greater share of their meals, delivery orders are beginning to replace some restaurants’ core business instead of complementing it … And, as delivery orders replace profitable takeout or sit-down sales with less profitable ones—ostensibly giving restaurants business but effectively taking it away—the ‘incremental’ argument no longer holds.”

“DoorDash, an Uber Eats competitor, has started to experiment with leasing remote kitchen space to restaurants so that they can expand their delivery radii. If such practices catch on, it’s easy to imagine a segment of the restaurant economy that looks a lot like, well, Uber, with an army of individual restaurants designed to serve the needs of middle-man platforms but struggling to make a living themselves.”

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