The ‘New’ Applebee’s: Hand-Cut & Wood-Fired

Business Insider: Applebee’s “is installing wood fire grills in all 2,000-plus locations across the US — a $40 million investment by the chain’s franchisees. The grills will completely change much of Applebee’s menu’s meal preparation, impacting 40% of items on the menu. It’s a major change that Applebee’s hopes will allow the chain to gain culinary credibility and stand out from the vast array of casual dining restaurants across the US, which have struggled to keep up in an era dominated by fresh fast casual chains.”

“You’re going to see it and hear it,” said Julia Stewart, the chairman and CEO of Applebee’s parent company DineEquity, Inc. “You’re going to literally smell it when you’re in the parking lot, and then you’re going to walk in and see it on the menu, and then you’re going to have a food server talk about it in a very excited way.”

“Beyond the grills, the chain is adding new items like hand-cut wood-fired steaks to the menu, training employees as meat-cutters, and remodeling locations across the US. It is also launching a $120 million marketing campaign, the largest in the company’s history, with a new creative agency.”

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McDonald’s Ritual = Customer Loyalty

The Washington Post: “Surely there are plenty of customers who have traded up from the fast-food standbys for pricier offerings from fast-casual restaurants that they perceive as healthier and fresher. But now that we’re deeper into the fast-casual boom and consumers have adjusted to this new restaurant landscape, it’s worth noting that they tend to stay exclusively in one dining lane.”

“So if Taco Bell, for example, were to slip into a rough patch, it seems more likely that those dollars are being lost to another fast-food player — not Chipotle. And as Chipotle aims to pull out of the sales spiral it has been in since some of its restaurants were closed because of e. coli contamination, it might be better off not trying to emulate Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu, but instead trying to win over the people getting lunch at Panera.”

“McDonald’s still dwarfs the other brands in terms of overall foot traffic, and its customers have very little overlap with other chains … McDonald’s customers also tend to be more loyal than any others in the industry, preferring to stick with the Golden Arches as a ritual instead of bouncing around different chains.”

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American Airlines Is Piker With Points

The Wall Street Journal: “For the third year in a row, free seats open for booking increased in the Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey, a comprehensive look at success at redeeming miles or points at the basic ‘saver’ level. The survey found two seats available at the lowest mileage level on 77% of the booking queries made this year, up from 74% last year and 72% in 2014.”

“Southwest Airlines and Air Berlin had seats available on every request. It was the fifth year Southwest has topped the survey at 100% availability. Value airlines like Southwest and JetBlue, which had seats available on 93% of booking queries, do well in the survey because they let customers earn points based on fare rather than distance. Then they let customers pay for any seat with either cash or points. The payback works out well for customers. Last year, 12% of Southwest’s passenger traffic was award travel.”

“American was among the stingiest of the 25 airlines surveyed, with saver-level seats available on only 56% of booking queries made.”

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Some Men Go Shirtless When Brushing With Crest

The New York Times: “Among the tidbits that Crest, owned by Procter & Gamble, learned from its recent monthlong quest for selfies: There’s a huge spike in brushing from 4 to 6 p.m., probably tied to a desire for happy-hour fresh breath. That knowledge could be useful when Crest decides which times of the day to start future social media campaigns.”

“The selfies are a good way for companies to obtain information that people can’t or don’t articulate in focus groups or other traditional research methods … For example, they could lead to an understanding of which rituals go along with certain types of consumption … About 11 percent of the men in the Crest photos were shirtless, a level of comfort the brand rarely sees when it uses other tools in its research arsenal.”

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Crowdsourced Insights: The New Focus Group

“Crowdsourcing is fast, cheap and scruffy, especially when you need to move quickly,” says Lee Mayer in The New York Times. Chris Hickens of UserTesting, which uses crowdsourcing to get at consumer insights comments: “Crowdsourcing has replaced focus groups. It’s faster and a lot cheaper. Innovation is going so fast that we need faster answers.”

“Josh Gustin, co-founder of the online men’s wear store Gustin in San Francisco, put his own twist on crowdsourcing. He was searching for a better way to sell his handmade wares, which include jeans from denim woven on vintage shuttle looms … The company’s new approach is simple, yet deeply cost-effective. A garment is designed and then posted on the site. If 100 people order it, for example, it goes into production. The result: zero inventory and zero waste.”

Gustin comments: “We suffered through the old retail model and the capital requirements. You can never guess right.” The efficiency realized via crowdsourced insights also enables him to “offer jeans once priced at more than $205 for $81, and a $200 Japanese cotton button-down shirt for $69.”

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365: Like A Playroom for Foodies

The New York Times: 365, “the much anticipated new grocery concept from Whole Foods Markets …feels like a sort of foodie playroom. Shelves, racks and refrigerated cases are splashed with bright primary colors and surrounded by exposed insulation and polished concrete floors. All the fixtures are low profile — the highest shelving rises just 72 inches. Electronic terminals are lined up, ready to accept orders.”

“Instead of a human sommelier, there’s Banquet, a wine app developed especially for 365 stores by Delectable. Want a bottle of special Frankies olive oil for $9.99? That’s a so-called green-and-gold product, the name for goods procured and sold exclusively at 365 and only temporarily available.”

The 365 stores will stock roughly 7,000 items, compared with 35,000 to 52,000 for a traditional Whole Foods. Meat is sold only in packages, lowering the cost of offering specialty cuts of meat served up by a butcher. The store will still sell a wide variety of organic produce, though its selection of conventional produce is wider … The 365-branded locations will have about 100 employees, compared with 250 to 500 in a traditional Whole Foods.”

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Web ‘Brutalism’ Makes a Comeback

The Washington Post: “There’s an interesting trend in web design these days: Making websites that look, well … bad. Look at Hacker News. Pinboard. The Drudge Report. Adult Swim. Bloomberg Businessweek features. All of these sites — some decades old, some built recently — and hundreds more like them, eschew the templated, user-friendly interfaces that has long been the industry’s best practice. Instead they’re built on imperfect, hand-coded HTML and take their design cues from ’90s graphics.”

“The name of this school, if you could call it that, is ‘web brutalism’ — and there’s no question that much of the recent interest stems from the work of Pascal Deville. In 2014 Deville, now Creative Director at the Freundliche Grüsse ad agency in Zurich, Switzerland, founded brutalistwebsites.com. He meant it as a place to showcase websites that he thought fit the ‘brutalist’ aesthetic: Design marked by a ‘ruggedness and lack of concern to look comfortable or easy’ in ‘reaction by a younger generation to the lightness, optimism, and frivolity of today’s web design.’

“Look at Craigslist,” Deville says. “This is totally a brutalist website … and commercially, very successful.”

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Shah & Shah: A ‘Speakeasy-Style’ Jewelry Store

The Washington Post: Colin Shah “has put his family’s jewelry trade in a time machine and turned it back to the speakeasy approach that great-grandfather Izzy used when he ran it in the 1930s. There is no storefront. No marketing. No signs. Shah & Shah boutique lies behind a door on the sixth floor of a downtown office building. You push a doorbell to get buzzed inside.”

“Most customers are referred, which means they come in more positive than fearful … A lot of hustle is involved. Word of mouth means socializing with clients, talking to people, attending parties. Last week, he held an open house with champagne and chocolates for Mother’s Day … Everything is a throwback to the days of personalized jewelry sales. The walls include black-and-white photos of the family’s shops from the past. There is a photo of a young Jack Benny.”

“Shah wants every touch to hint at elegance. He plops down a beautiful silver candy dish filled with Edward Marc dark-chocolate nonpareils. He follows with a bottle of Hildon water, which looks like glass artwork that might be for sale. Most of his business is in creating jewelry for the 2,500 customers on his client list … Shah did more than $2.3 million in sales last year … Profitability can run well into the middle six figures.”

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Lord & Taylor Is Coming Up Roses

Washington Post: Lord & Taylor “has ordered up a big roster of rose-emblazoned pieces, many of them exclusives from labels like Karl Lagerfeld Paris and Calvin Klein, that are meant to cater to the contemporary, trend-conscious shopper … In addition dresses and blouses, they’ve lined up offbeat items like rose-flavored gummy candies and rose-shaped temporary tattoos. And in some stores, the products will be featured in a shop-in-shop it calls The Birdcage.”

“It’s a major merchandising and marketing effort that executives hope will … telegraph a fresh, contemporary direction … without alienating the loyal shoppers who might fondly remember that the rose was a staple of Lord & Taylor marketing from 1946 until it was phased out over the last 20 years … The idea … to harken back to the company’s heritage … is a tactic retailers across all price points are turning to right now based on the belief that millennials will respond to this kind of storytelling.”

However, “the story of the rose may be so obscure and unfamiliar to young shoppers, it may be hard for them to even understand the collection as an ode to history and heritage.”

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The Rutgers 250: A Real Tomato Returns

The New York Times: “This season, Rutgers University introduced a reinvented version of a tomato variety from 1934 that reigned unchallenged for decades. After years of work by Rutgers plant specialists, this old-fashioned tomato with old-fashioned taste has returned as the Rutgers 250, named in honor of the university’s 250th anniversary.”

“The Jersey tomato, red, ripe and juicy, was once revered as the best to be had, with a tangy, sweet-tart flavor that was the very taste of summer. If that kind of tomato perfection has faded to a dim memory in recent decades, blame mechanized harvesting and long-distance shipping, which prize durability over flavor. Pulpy, thick-skinned, flat-tasting tomatoes became the unsatisfying norm.”

“Rutgers’s agricultural programs were once linked to Campbell Soup Company, which is based in Camden, N.J., and is one of the largest food companies in the world. Many of the most successful tomato varieties were the result of collaborations between Rutgers and Campbell Soup.” Rutgers Professor Thomas J. Orton says reviving the old-fashioned tomato was “something almost mystical.” “People have had enough of tomatoes that don’t taste like much and have been demanding that we do better … It wasn’t a sure thing, but we think we got lucky.”

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