ICE’s Culinary Management Instructors are seasoned industry professionals who are still active in the industry, working on their own projects while teaching classes at ICE. With such a wide range of experience between them, we decided to ask Julia Heyer and Vin McCann to take a closer look at some of the trends and culinary businesses we keep hearing so much about.
As the season changes, it seems like a good opportunity to spend some time on some of the ones we are seeing out there; hopefully we’ll find a few good ones to argue about!
The single food restaurant. It comes in all shapes these days, but generally tends to be small in size to not get bigger than its micro-niche: The Meatball Shop (pretty clear what you get here), S’Mac (not much of a stretch to realize you get Mac and Cheese variations), and then there is mid-price level Luke’s Lobster all the way to Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecôte where you don’t get a menu but simply tell your waiter how you like your steak and you will get salad, steak, specialty sauce, frites and maybe one of three desserts. No menu, no fuss, no frills, no complication and from an operator’s perspective keeping the inventory and offering small makes for efficiencies and profitability ALL over the place. I mean just think of how much shorter training would be in comparison to a place with 50 items on the menu and exotic ingredients such as aji amarillo.
The proliferation of new concepts in our business is more an expression of fads in the industry that are feeding off macro trends in the culture, and these operations generally falter unless they strike the public sensibility like an arrow penetrating a bull’s-eye. Just tapping into larger growing preferences such as health concerns, sustainable culture, specialization, artisanal products and customization to name a few doesn’t mean an operator can swim with the sharks on Wall Street. These concepts need to bundle all the elements for success: menu, service style, pricing, location, design, etc. in a compelling package that translates to great value.
Beer gardens & craft beer houses. Again… the affordable luxury with non-snooty conviviality in approach. Really, I am kicking myself that I didn’t do it five years ago when I told all my friends NYC was missing a good German restaurant and beer garden. Now they are popping up faster than you can race down the Autobahn. The Radegast team expanding to Hoboken, a new giant one planned in southern Park Slope, and really, any spot that can fit two tables and chairs is being declared a ‘beer garden’. They are stepping away from the Buds and Coors of the world, instead drafting local Sixpoint and Brooklyn Brewery pints and offering cans of Porkslap and specialty bottles such as Captain Lawrence. My friend Steve, who homebrews beer in his closet (and yes, it’s tasty goodness that he concocts) and his brethren are in heaven.
I’m all in favor of this development. For whatever reason beer tastes better consumed in the great outdoors. But the garden has to have the right feel, needs more than three chairs, and better serve good beer.
The Tiki Bar. It is back with a vengeance. No complaints from my end on that. I will say I prefer the fresh fruit, product and passion driven ones over the heavily designed and sugary, artificially flavored ones. But they are fun-filled havens for a dose of fresh fruit and dark rum in your escapism escapade.
What goes around comes around. Unfortunately. In this case our business mimics Broadway, regurgitating former hits. I think of these places as bite-size Rain Forest Cafes. Serving me my drink in a pineapple doesn’t obviate the fact that the AC duct above my head is not blowing ocean breezes and there’s no chance I can wade into the water for a dip, cocktail in hand.
The food truck turned restaurant. Schnitzel & Things opened a brick-and mortal shop. Big Gay Ice Cream Truck is about to open their own shop. Why is this a trend you wonder? Well, because no one wants to work very hard and make very little money for a very long time. Which is when the food truck conundrum comes in. There is only so much revenue you can realize on both the number of people you can serve and what you realistically can charge for food out of a truck. Plus liquor licenses and their profitable revenue stream are unattainable. So a few smart operators have realized that they have established a name, dare I say a brand and a following, and now are ready to have them come to them in a fixed location. Serve more people, have them spend more a person and yes, serve them beverages. Higher top line, better bottom line… Business 101 may just work out for these guys.
Good luck to them. It seems like a pretty roundabout way to get the door open. Given the energy it takes to operate one of these trucks and the exhausting effort it takes to open a restaurant I can imagine a “blood doping” scandal for these operators when the Board of Health tests for performance enhancing drugs. And by the way, Julia, we never argue; we just see things from a different perspective.