Wednesday, May 9, 2018

"The Weird Science Behind Chain Restaurant Menus"

From Munchies (a Vice vertical), May 2:

I was a corporate restaurant consultant. Here’s how the sausage gets made.
Every pizza display case tells a story. The strategist knew that very well. From the signage to the slicers to the arrangement of the Parmesan and red pepper flake shakers, no visual cue could be left to chance, especially for this client: a 20-unit New York style pizza chain headquartered in San Diego. The CEO was very proud of the organic nature of his restaurants’ interiors, and the lack of “chaininess” to them.

Six different pizzas now rested on burnished metal stands, intermittently punctuated with an assortment of calzones, stromboli, salads, and beverages. It had taken three weeks of recipe testing to bake pizzas this good. For every perfect, client-ready pizza, there were at least six that missed the mark­­—crusts that weren’t crispy, mozzarella that didn’t stretch, pepperoni that curled when cast in the oven, pockmarking the pie with tiny buckets of grease. (I was a beneficiary of the process. An arsenal of failed recipe prototypes was accumulating in my freezer.)

The strategist carefully removed a stack of miniature chalkboards from her desk. On each one, she inscribed the name of a different pie: The Triboro (meat lover’s). The Whitestone (white pie). The Bronx (everything but the kitchen sink). New York’s exalted status in the pizza universe was essential to this client’s identity, so much that the client had even implemented a reverse osmosis system in the dough-making process to replicate the pH balance of New York water.

When the set up was complete, the strategist called over the head of the agency to evaluate her work.
He gingerly touched one of the pizza stands, marveling at its sturdiness. “Here are my thoughts on the stromboli. There’s too much dough overlap; the ends should barely be touching on top. Plus it looks too constricted on these round pizza trays. Do we have another option? A rectangular tray with a lip?”
“Yes,” the strategist answered. “That’s an operational solve.”

“Let’s go with the smaller carafes for the wine,” he continued, studying the last third of the display. “We don’t want to mislead guests with the portioning.”

When he reached the end, he folded his arms and furrowed his eyebrows.

“These IPAs feel like it’s raining and I’m in Portland. What’s a signature New York City beer? Something you might find at a neighborhood place?”

“Brooklyn Lager?” the strategist asked.

“What about Blue Point?” I piped up from the other side of the room. “It’s a little edgier.”

I hoped he didn’t sense the sarcasm in my voice. As much as I enjoyed the perks of the job (free pizza), working at the agency had been a mixed bag. I had spent nearly eight years in grad school analyzing the politics of 18th-century venison feasting, and here I was, Googling high-res images of French-fry containers before I could leave for the day. Still, it was better than adjuncting at a third-rate university somewhere. I counted my blessings.

The head of the agency didn’t notice my exasperation.

“Great,” he said. “Let’s make sure we pick up a few before the tasting tomorrow.”
It’s a recent development that things like pizza and chicken wraps have warranted the attention of professional strategy firms. Until about 20 years ago, chain restaurants inhabited a simpler world. On one end, there was the no-frills quick service restaurant (QSR) model that dealt in simple takeout items like burgers and fries. On the other end, the full-service “casual dining” and “family dining” models that came of age in the 70s and 80s.

The rise of the “fast casual” segment during the late 90s and early 2000s—the Chipotles, Paneras, and Shake Shacks of the world—shook the status quo. Offering higher-quality food and atmosphere without the operational burdens of a full-service restaurant, fast casual restaurants are both products and drivers of changing culinary expectations. We want convenience, but we also want to feel good about where our food is coming from. We want to indulge, but we want healthy options. We want variety, but we want it everywhere, on demand, and at a reasonable price. Even legacy chains like Applebee’s and Sizzler now must have a point of view on things like wellness and sustainability and community engagement if they wish to keep investors happy....MUCH MORE
HT MetaFilter's Taste Sensations and Umami Bombs