The Restaurant Industry
Is A Blur of Change
The cover story in this month’s issue is about the importance of neighborhood restaurants. A sluggish economy during turbulent times has led to a resurgence of restaurants that are warm, comfortable, affordable and relaxed. In many instances, chef/owners have left their upscale operations to create affordable, stylish neighborhood joints.
It’s just one more case of the industry constantly readapting to the ever-changing environment. It came as no surprise that many upscale operations did not fare well last year. But with signs that the economy is improving, the pendulum could swing back in their favor in the year ahead.
You can bet your last dollar that the industry will morph in a variety of ways to meet the needs of its customers and the demands of the marketplace. As an observer of the restaurant scene, I look forwarding to tracking the movement. That movement, I have no doubt, will including further battles in the civilized war between independents and chains.
Independents, long the darling of the industry, have been struggling in recent years to hold ground against chains that have become a powerful presence on the dining scene. Independents are beginning to learn that their best defense is an offense that requires them to regain an edge lost with complacency. Independents are also coming to understand that they can move quicker to adjust to changes. Anyone sitting on their hands in 2004 will lose ground to their competitors. Period!
Speaking of sitting on their hands, the quick service sector finally began to realize in the last year or so that what they were doing for decades no longer works. It has led to some interesting and, in some cases, successful changes. With that said, observers will be watching closely the latest McDonald’s experiment. The quick service giant has plans in the new year to open an upscale Cajun-style restaurant that will have leather couches, chandeliers and, of all things, a grand piano. Here’s an example of a chain emulating a chain (like the The Cheesecake Factory) emulating an independent. It’s a crazy world. I’m not going to bet on this pony.
Meanwhile, in New York City some of the country’s most influential independent chef/owners will open restaurants beginning next month in, of all places, a mall at the southwest corner of Central Park. High flyers such as Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Gray Kunz and Charlie Trotter will all have places in the newly built $1.7 billion Time Warner Center. Dare I say it: here’s a case of upscale independents emulating the chains.
Of course, in this case, the restaurants will be designed by hot-shots such as David Rockwell and Adam Tihany. Oh, and the check averages will skew a bit higher. A Japanese chef from Beverly Hills will open a place that will serve a $500-a-head dinner. The key here is whether New Yorkers will become repeat customers of a vertical restaurant district in a mall setting. That’s another pony I won’t be betting on. In any case, 2004 should be an interesting year.