In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a lot of activity in three areas. One is a restaurant-design format that is popping up in several cities, another is an extension of a favorite daypart and the third is a hot cooking technique.
The modern food hall
When EATALY opened in New York City and Chicago, it heralded the age of the 21st century food hall. This fall sees a slew of new ones, with big cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles getting additional complexes, but smaller urban areas staking their claim, too. There’s Ponce City Market in Atlanta, Liberty Public Market in Denver and Flagship Commons in Omaha, Neb. Chefs are backing some of these mega-marketplaces and/or opening outposts of their restaurants in the spaces.
So why should noncommercial operators care? After all, you led the way in turning college dining halls and corporate cafeterias into multi-concept eateries, each station or kiosk serving up a unique menu.
These food halls take your initiatives a step further. They are set up like bustling street markets with counter seating surrounding a chef cooking up ethnic or local specialties to order. Many incorporate sit-down restaurants within the space, so customers can dine with full service amid the buzz of a real-time market, similar to those in Europe and Asia. They also combine retail with foodservice, giving patrons a chance to purchase an exotic condiment or house-cured charcuturie right on the spot. On a smaller scale, that combination of retail and foodservice, street food and interactive seating may work well in a noncommercial setting.
In early September, McDonald’s announced the nationwide rollout of all-day breakfast starting Oct. 6. With that announcement, several other café- and quick-service concepts jumped on the breakfast-all-day bandwagon, including Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee and Tea. White Castle beat McDonald’s to the punch, beginning its all-day breakfast service Sept. 10.
With all this breakfast competition heating up in the restaurant segment, it seems like a good time for noncommercial operators who haven’t taken the plunge to start making breakfast foods available for lunch, dinner and snacking occasions. Changing lifestyles and work schedules are driving demand for all-day breakfast, said National Restaurant Association spokeswoman Christin Fernandez. Nobody knows this better than the foodservice directors who oversee college dining and health care, where classes and shift changes interfere with normal meal routines. And what K-12 student wouldn’t love pancakes or a breakfast burrito for lunch now and then?
Charred to a crisp
Where smoking and grilling left off, charring is taking over—intensifying those cooking techniques to the nth degree. Lately, I’ve noticed that restaurant chefs are especially fond of charring vegetables—Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrots and corn have been presented to me recently with blackened surfaces and crispy edges after being cooked on a char-grill or over live fire. Charring caramelizes sugars and intensifies flavor, turning vegetables into bold companions for smoked meats, roast chicken and grilled fish. Charred vegetables also can add a flavorful accent to a vegetarian plate or a bowl of pasta. Just be careful not to overdo it—charring can quickly turn into a burnt mess.