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Our athletes went to the Olympics, our science went to Mars, and our people went to the polls. But what of the restaurant industry in 2012? These dozen items from the year had the biggest impact on the foodservice landscape and shaped the industry for a potentially game-changing 2013.
An Economy in Flux
The economic recovery isn’t lighting a fire under anyone’s feet, but the economy did at least improve, albeit slightly.
As of August, the National Restaurant Association’s (NRA) Restaurant Performance Index had been positive for nine consecutive months. It has since been weakening, however, indicating operators are less optimistic about economic conditions going into 2013.
“In the winter quarter [of 2012], we started to see things looking good,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst with NPD Group, a Chicago market research company. “We thought we turned the corner. But then gasoline prices increased and people pulled back.”
The Congressional Budget Office’s outlook is for the economy to grow less than 2 percent in 2013. The Conference Board, a business group, is slightly more optimistic, estimating growth at 2.2 percent.
However, if Congress fails to avert a series of tax hikes and budget cuts due in January—the so-called “fiscal cliff”—analysts warn another recession could ensue, which could undo any kind of progress quick-service operators have made.
Health Headaches and Solutions
Health issues continue to impact restaurants, both in menu development and how operators deal with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), also known as “Obamacare.”
The U.S. Supreme Court this year upheld the constitutionality of most of PPACA.
Many restaurants may need to undergo some significant cost analyses next year to prepare for a wide range of regulations scheduled to begin in 2014.
“We’re going to see a lot of financial modeling going forward, and deciding how to manage the costs,” says Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies at WD Partners, a Columbus, Ohio, design and consulting firm. “It seems the way it may be playing out is to find ways to keep employee hours down and make more of them part-timers.”
One portion of the act that may go into effect in 2013 requires chain restaurants with 20 or more locations to display calories on menuboards.
Many companies have decided not to wait for the law’s implementation, though, including McDonald’s. In September, all of McDonald’s 14,000-plus U.S. restaurants began listing calorie counts on menuboards.
The proactive move by McDonald’s “is a real positive,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic Inc., a Chicago consulting and market research firm.
The calorie numbers “may be more of a shock at first, but when [consumers] return, they will still want to indulge,” Tristano says. “That’s what you do when you go out.”
Meanwhile, all types of limited-service operators began offering better-for-you alternatives, from oatmeal to sweet potato fries.
The Big Soda Ban
Any consumer who plans to visit a restaurant in New York City in March or after shouldn’t expect to buy sugar-sweetened beverages larger than 16 ounces. They’re outlawed.
In a stated bid to combat obesity, the city’s Board of Health instituted the ban at eateries, movie theaters, and other venues.
Restaurants call the action unfair, in part because it still allows larger drinks to be purchased at retail outlets and convenience stores. Whether the ban sweeps across the country, like the city’s earlier action against trans fats, is still up in the air.
“We’ll have to take a wait-and-see approach,” Technomic’s Darren Tristano says. “I suspect if history serves us, it will likely become a political issue … and likely will spread to other cities.”
Commodity Costs Rise
The most severe drought in a quarter century has had a serious impact on U.S. agriculture and food prices. The damage done to corn and other crops was extensive and resulted in higher direct and indirect costs.
Many ranchers are running out of grass. Unable to grow enough feed crops—or unwilling to pay for higher priced feed—they are thinning their herds by selling cattle early. That will likely result in fewer cattle going to market next year, making beef and other proteins more expensive, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Wholesale beef prices were already up 10.5 percent by 2012’s third quarter, while poultry prices increased 11.5 percent. Heat stress and higher feed costs are expected to reduce pork production as well, the department says.
“If you look at the USDA forecast for a year ago, there was no contingency for a drought of this severity and duration,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the NRA’s Research and Knowledge Group.
Consumers increasingly want to know more about what’s in their food, and also desire the ability to customize their dishes more than ever before. For years, quick-service concepts such as Chipotle and Subway have capitalized on this desire by giving guests the ability to craft their own dishes, choosing from an array of fresh ingredients.
In 2012, this build-your-own strategy continued to become more rule than exception, expanding into categories like pizza and even ethnic concepts. Newer brands, such as Pie Five, Atlanta’s Uncle Maddio’s, and Washington, D.C.’s Amsterdam Falafelshop, are now thriving on the model.
“We expect to see this basic model growing,” Tristano says. “Customers want to be part of the process, and the visual impact is important. Interactivity engages the customer. This is an emotional connection that makes loyal fans of these restaurants.”
A New Kind of Trade Down
Most of the restaurant industry suffered during the recession, but fast-casual restaurants still performed well. Folks may not have been eating out as often, but when they did, they were looking for quality and value. Many found those attributes at Chipotle, Panera Bread, and their fast-casual peers.
Numerous full-service restaurant companies took notice.
“Casual-dining chains continue to look at whether they have a limited-service opportunity,” Lombardi says. “It allows them to extend the reach of their brand, and in some cases move into areas where full service may not work as well.”
Abuelo’s Mexican Restaurant is one of the latest casual chains to open a fast-casual offshoot, which it did this year with its Abuelo’s Taqueria in Lubbock, Texas. The menu items and pricing are focused on promoting frequent dining.
The opening comes on the heels of several new ventures launched by casual chains in late 2011, including Red Robin’s Burger Works and Pizza Inn’s Pie Five.
Pie Five, which makes handcrafted pizzas in five minutes, has more than a half-dozen corporate-owned locations in the Dallas area.
“We will be looking at other markets [in 2013] from a corporate standpoint, as well as domestic and international franchising,” says Madison Jobe, senior vice president and chief development officer for Pie Five and Pizza Inn.
Other chains launching fast-casual units included Steak ‘n Shake, with its Signature unit in New York; Shoney’s, with Shoney’s On the Go; FATZ, with Tablefields Market Kitchen; and global beef bowl giant Yoshinoya, with Asiana Grill Yoshinoya.
Ethnic Flavors Gain More Exposure
Americans have made Italian, Mexican, and Chinese cuisines their own, so why not something like Vietnamese or Indian?
Pho, a noodle soup, and banh mi, a sandwich typically made with French bread, are some of the latest cultural dishes to hit the mainstream, often with a U.S. twist.
“People were drawn first by the pho, but now banh mi is very popular, especially as a reimagined American sandwich,” says Melissa Abbott, senior director of culinary insights for The Hartman Group, a research and consulting firm in Bellevue, Washington.
“You have a sandwich on really good French bread filled with really fresh ingredients,” she notes. “It has a flavor that is heightened by various fresh herbs and vegetables.”
Tin Drum AsiaCafé, which has 11 units in the Atlanta area, serves cuisines from around Asia, including pho. Owner Steven Chan says the chain had banh mi on the menu a decade ago and may bring it back “because it’s getting popular again.”
Giving an American twist to Indian food is what Qaiser Kazmi is doing in Washington, D.C. His restaurant, Merzi, features Indian-inspired cuisine with U.S. touches. For example, Merzi serves tandisserie chicken, which is tandoori chicken cooked rotisserie style.
“Our cuisine is not directly from India,” Kazmi says. “We would never leave skin on chicken back there. But I fell in love with rotisserie chicken and wanted to combine that with something that has Indian flavors.”
The Reverse Food-Truck Trend
For Kim Ima, opening the Treats Truck Stop in Brooklyn last year was the logical next step for the owner of a popular food truck.
“I like that I had established my business before opening the storefront,” she says of her truck, the Treats Truck, which has served treats and drinks since 2007. The restaurant offers homey comfort food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Food-truck operators across the country, from Boston to Los Angeles and Houston, are similarly turning to brick and mortar.
In the five years since the gourmet food-truck phenomenon began on the coasts, thousands of these vehicles have hit the nation’s streets, giving budding restaurateurs a relatively inexpensive entry into the business. But it’s not easy.
“You’ve got this small space, gas costs, repairs, weather, licensing—all kinds of issues,” says David Weber, president of the NYC Food Truck Association. “So a lot of food-truck entrepreneurs, once they develop a brand, are looking for more stability. It’s logical to take their concept and give it a home.”
The Future of Social Media is Here
Now that many restaurants have found ways to take advantage of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, they’ve moved on to other, newer social media platforms, such as Pinterest.
Pinterest is akin to a visual bulletin board, where images can be “pinned” to virtual boards. They can be downloaded to the board or can be taken from (and linked to) other websites.
Dunkin’ Donuts, for example, uses photos on Pinterest to link to various events, as well as products, including limited-time offers.
“Pinterest seems a way for the social media strategy to involve more of the customer and the community,” Tristano says. “Instead of pushing out from the company, this is trying to draw customers in to be part of it, to have a shared experience.”
Don’t Forget Boomers
While focusing on Millennials is all the rage, many restaurant operators also understand that Baby Boomers still make up a lot of the nation’s buying power. Members of the generation are looking to dine at places that feature unique flavors and provide plenty of value.
“It’s really the Boomers and those over 65 that are keeping the [restaurant] industry from experiencing a decline,” NPD’s Riggs says. “Boomers are increasing their visits to all restaurant types, but particularly quick service … and fast casual.”
Of course, younger diners typically will be the first to hear about new and exciting limited-service restaurants.
“The Millennial kid knows where the cool stuff is and will tell mom and dad to try it,” Abbott explains. “They are more tapped into the social network. But the parents are increasingly curious to try new places. In the past, that may not have been so.”
Exploring the IPO
One major quick-service restaurant company went to market this year with a big stock deal, while another chain’s plans to go public didn’t get off the ground.
Burger King took its crown back to Wall Street. The Miami-based company’s shares began trading publicly through an unusual deal in which investment firm Justice Holdings paid $1.4 billion to acquire a 29 percent stake from owner 3G Capital.
CKE Restaurants, the Carpinteria, California, parent of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, had planned a $200 million public offering but delayed it. Concerns were raised about the impact of required health-care costs and rising commodity prices.
“The market was willing to give restaurant companies a premium valuation early in the year,” says R.J. Hottovy, restaurant industry analyst with Morningstar in Chicago. “A lot of them were operating at peak margins. Since then, there have been some concerns about the industry’s fundamentals.”
Brand Evolution Continues
Quick serves are always tweaking their images, but there were some major changes in store for menus at some larger chains in 2012.
One of the most notable chains to do this was Burger King, where an array of new menu items, including smoothies, salads, chicken wraps, and specialty coffee drinks, were added to broaden the brand’s customer base. That was the first part of a four-pillar, $750 million strategy Burger King announced in the spring.
Taco Bell also welcomed major menu innovations. The Irvine, California–based brand launched the highly successful Doritos Locos Tacos, featuring shells made with the taste and flavor of Doritos snack chips. Then the chain rolled out a Cantina Bell line of upscale burritos, bowls, and sides created by noted chef Lorena Garcia.
Taco Bell also introduced breakfast at about 800 West Coast locations.
“What Taco Bell has done is a testament to product innovation,” says restaurant analyst Hottovy. The chain “remains in its core competency, broadens its appeal, and takes the pricing point upward.”