Retail Traffic

Restaurants tinker with their traditional appeal

No one disputes that the restaurant industry is in a state of change. But is the change evolutionary or revolutionary?

In one segment, there is the evolution of traditional restaurants growing more refined - steakhouses, grilles, cafes, bistros are adding elegant appointments, starched linens and excellent cuisine in casual or clubby environs for discriminating diners.

In another segment, there is the revolution of eater-tainment restaurants with spectacular movie-set interiors, electronics, live entertainment, souvenirs, imaginative food and nonstop retail.

Add to these the frenzied pursuit of market share by the fast-food sector plus the globalization of the industry, bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes and you have - hospitality surprise.

Not exactly, says Washington State University professor Don Smith. There's nothing new under the sun, indicates the veteran restaurateur and academic.

"Today, we are seeing new combinations of old stuff," says Smith. "Positioning is what the restaurant business is all about."

Smith says this is a mature industry with a projected 2 percent growth. Yet there is a 3 percent increase in the numbers of restaurants, which dictates that one-half of growth outlets will fail. The professor says home-replacement meals - that is, fully prepared or nearly cooked fresh foods to be warmed and consumed at home - will grow from a $62 billion to a $170 billion segment in the next 10 years.

"It's the biggest thing to hit the industry," Smith says. "It plays off the lifestyle of the American public."

Brave new world What is today's lifestyle? While it's a fact that close to one-half of each food dollar of a typical family is spent at some type of restaurant or take-away facility, up from one-third three decades ago, there is no paradigm. There are diners who frequent the stimulating atmosphere of eater-tainment settings, with spaceship stations, or parrots and aquarium-bound creatures, or pulsing rock music and memorabilia. There are diners who eschew those sights and sounds in favor of polished dark wood and sparkling chandeliers and leather-covered booths.

There's plenty of room for both in the market, and in spite of the conviction of some observers that entertainment and food don't mix, there are dazzling newcomers squeezing into the market alongside the Rainforest Cafe, PlanetHollywood and their peers.

Steve Schussler, creator of Minnesota-based Rainforest Cafe, reports serving 6,000 meals a day in some of his restaurants. "We are adding 12 new stores this year, and our total sales should total $200 million," he says. "Rainforest Cafes have been 100 percent occupied with two- to three-hour waits. Ninety-two percent of our customers have expressed their intention to return."

And Irish entrepreneur Paschal Phelan is building Mars 2112 on Broadway near Times Square in Manhattan. Philadelphia restaurant designer Karen Daroff is handling this next-century project and its "immersion environment."

Passing by a flying saucer and into a spaceport, the customer travels by simulator to Mars, the red planet. "After walking over flowed lava on what feels like a shaky bridge, diners arrive in the entertainment zone, where they can sit either at the edge of a Martian crater or in it," says Daroff.

Retail welcomes food mix Daroff helps create themed hospitality, must-see restaurants. Some are stand-alone businesses. Others are integrated into a hotel complex or a shopping center, where they can take advantage of a ready-made consumer base. Shopping centers, anxious to attract and hold individuals and families, have recognized the benefits of both traditional and eater-tainment restaurants. They want to offer more than the informal courts with their selections of fast foods.

"In the last few years, we've seen real dining come to malls - upscale, full-service restaurants, with their own outside entrances, and which are themselves destinations," says Brian Stys, vice president, Shawmut Design and Construction, Boston. They are contributing to consumers coming and spending a full night at the mall, he says.

Shawmut Design has provided the bricks and mortar for Cheesecake Factory restaurants, where 30 varieties of the rich dessert accompany a wide selection of cold and hot foods served in a setting with a southern California flair: stone floors, detailed columns and bankettes (booths) for cozy dining.

"Locating nice restaurants in good retail centers is expanding in importance to where some shopping centers have leasing specialists dedicated to that," Stys says.

The upscale Somerset Collection in Troy, Mich., is a case in point. Its restaurant mix didn't just happen, says Rebecca Maccardini, director of operations, Forbes-Cohen Properties, Southfield. "We sought a variety of restaurants including some for leisurely shoppers and some for customers for whom shopping is more a part of their lives," she says. Various ages and tastes were carefully considered.

The 1.3 million sq. ft. Somerset is home to Michigan's first Capital Grille. "It was a big step for them [a Washington, D.C.-based company] to open in Michigan," says Al Ferris, Forbes-Cohen leasing manager. "It is chic, popular and very successful. It is in the mall, but without the mall atmosphere."

In addition to inviting a few of the better and more popular restaurants in metropolitan Detroit to consider the Somerset Collection, Ferris says, "we wanted to bring to the table parties from outside Detroit - California Pizza Kitchen and J. Alexander's, for example."

Refined, yet casual Ray Hemmig, chief executive officer of Retail & Restaurant Growth Capital LP, Dallas, says today's restaurant evolution is one of refinement and specialization. As diners grow more discerning and their eating-out options increase, restaurants must be food-oriented, "palate-oriented," in order to stay in the game.

"Retail is detail," says the 30-year restaurant business veteran. That means more than hot food served hot and cold food served cold. It means adding distinctive items to the menu, he says, citing the Texas Land & Cattle Company, which offers a delectable, surprising smoked salmon alongside its de rigueure steaks and foods with Southwestern, "Mexicali" seasoning.

Critics of rapidly expanding eater-tainment chains say the highly focused theme-entertainment-retail approach lures lots of one-time diners. But these restaurants must accelerate change in menu, decor or entertainment in order to attract repeat business.

Michigan State University's Bonnie Knutson says baby boomers, the country's first television generation, are accustomed to being entertained. They like to travel and are always looking for something new. Eater-tainment may well be their bag. The succeeding groups, generations X and Y, while adventuresome, appear to seek a more balanced life, she says.

Knutson says combining entertainment with meals satisfies customer cravings for convenience. She also points to the popularity of neighborhood restaurants like television's "Cheers" bar. High tech has produced a need for high touch. The local pub where everyone knows each other creates a secure feeling. Spicier ethnic foods - pan Asian - may continue to grow in popularity, she says, adding that salsa now outsells ketchup.

Martinis and cigars Although Keith Youngquist, a partner at Mt. Prospect, Ill.-based Aumiller & Youngquist, sees diversity as a key to success, he is not a convert to the new wave of eater-tainment restaurants. Most consumers will go once or twice, eat, buy a hat or gloves and never go back, he says, characterizing it as a "quasi-food" experience.

"I'm a firm believer in entertainment in a restaurant, but that means entertaining friends, not being entertained," he says.

A true restaurant has a sense of place, he says. It must look alive. Aumiller & Youngquist accomplishes this through the interplay of hard surfaces, ceiling treatments and wood mixed with carpeted areas and upholstery.

The firm is building Sullivan's Steak Houses in several locations. These are traditional, he says: dark wood, custom-painted murals, lots of glass, a room for cigars and brandy and jazz. "People are seeking a certain feeling," he says. "Their dining includes fine wine, martinis and big beautiful desserts. They may go to the same restaurant 12 times a year."

Veteran Detroit restaurateur Richard Vincent concurs. "Wanting to go back is the secret to the successful business," he says.

"When we eat out, we keep these things in mind: The food should be good - not fabulous, but at least good - and service should be sincere," says Vincent, co-owner with Ben Edwards of the Traffic Jam & Snug. "Off-beat places are fun once in a while. I loved the Rainforest Cafe at Mall of America. It's clever and it works.

"We recently had a wonderful meal with the best strawberry shortcake I've ever eaten at the campy-cowboy Rancho Pinot Grille in Scottsdale," he says.

The best part about eating out, anytime, anywhere, is "somebody else cleans up," he adds.

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