The infinite possibilities of foodservice by Paul Charity

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Four days spent with 40 colleagues in a city like Chicago reminds you of the infinite possibilities of foodservice. The French may have invented the restaurant but it was the US that invented systems, layered over category killing, scaleable offers. Five decades on from the creation of the first category killing concepts, its brands – and, indeed, what has become known as American food – dominate the league table of global unit numbers.

The food scene has shifted shape each time

The city of Chicago provides its own moveable feast of US foodservice ingenuity. Last weekend was my fourth annual trip to the city and the food scene has shifted shape each time. Chicago, is, though, the home of Lettuce Entertain You and the city has benefited from the company’s inexhaustible ability to re-invent itself and imagine fresh concepts. This company can lay claim to the title of the globe’s most stylistically diverse operator with more than 50 unique branded offers. Sure, some of the concepts grow to mini-chains, but Lettuce Entertain You (LEY) and its boss Rich Melman revel in the one-off. Mitchells & Butlers may think it has enough brands with 16 in its portfolio, but Melman might argue that it’s missing out on the better burger market (LEY has M Burger), the tiki bar market (Three Dots and a Dash), the hot Asian steamed buns market (Wow Bao), the tapas and paella market (Café Ba-Ba-Reeba) and should be able to fill a whole food court (Foodlife at Water Tower Place). Oh and why is M&B so shy of the Japanese urban bar market (Tokio Pub)? We had dinner at the company’s Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak and Stone Crab venue, which proves it’s also no slouch in the high-end dining market.

This is a conversion of Damascene proportions

Our party of 42 industry executives spent 16 hours touring the city’s restaurants and bars. Notable, as always in our industry, is the willingness of founders and general managers to meet us and tell us anything we wanted to know about every aspect of their business. And there was no lack of interest. At Lyfe Kitchen, for example, our party must have fired off 50 or more questions, taking a forensic approach to every aspect of the offer before touring the cooking lines. This is an offer where component parts are still being tinkered with, but the food is delicious – and a California branch is taking $80,000-a-week in a 3,500 square foot site. Founded by former McDonald’s executives, this is a conversion of Damascene proportions.

Encouraged to call-and-respond like an Army unit on the march

At Blaze, the operator’s openness extended to allowing our party behind the line to make and cook their own pizzas. A big part of the Blaze fast-cook pizza offer is the energy of the staff who are encouraged to call-and-respond like an Army unit on the march. Both concepts are forging a new way of doing good-sized market segments – healthy food and pizza, of course, respectively – and stand a chance of achieving real scale. But one area where the UK excels is design – and both would look better if UK expertise was applied.

 It’s a volume lifestyle business!

It was a visit to Honey Butter Fried Chicken, voted last week as Chicago’s best new restaurant concept, that provided the most complete articulation of a host of key trends. Located in a suburb, the brand was founded by chefs who ran a dining club and created a following. A particular dish, fried chicken served with honey butter, proved to be an enormous hit with their customers. The offer, then, is mainstream – fried chicken. But their first site weaves in an emphasis on ersatz design, provenance and fresh ingredients. It employs two staff who work seven hours each day to butcher 200 chickens – machine-cut chicken doesn’t taste the same, you know. Its regulars believe it and form queues outside every Saturday evening. Labour costs, though, come in at 38% – just as well sales are north of $40,000 a week. To reinforce its credentials, the upstairs living area at the restaurant is where the dining club, with its 6,000 members, still meets. It’s a volume lifestyle business! It’s also a business that wouldn’t work in the UK – honey butter makes fried chicken taste very sweet indeed. Not to UK tastes.

90% of patrons were eating

Over and over, one is reminded of the towering and universal importance of food across the US out-of-home gamut. Even at Lettuce Entertain You’s Bub City (what is M&B doing in the BBQ, beer, bourbon and best of country music segment?) at 6pm on a Friday, when you might have thought liquor would dominate, 90% of patrons were eating.

Here’s a way to fill a large capacity venue

A final word goes to best thought-through bar offer I’ve come across in years. At Howl at The Moon, a group of a dozen or so musicians rotate between 8pm and 2am to play crowd-pleasing tunes suggested by customers themselves via notes passed to two piano players (with low denomination dollar bills attached) facing each other. Our group could not tear itself away, for two consecutive nights. I’ve already briefed Luminar’s chief executive Peter Marks – here’s a way to fill a large capacity venue for the entire night. The very cool Duncan Fisher, from the Apartment Group, part of our group, might just get there first, though.

Paul Charity is managing director of Propel Info

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