Pilot Light: The State of the Union

Ariane Batterberry - June 2014

In this issue, our focus is on the United States, and I thought I would have a look at the state of our restaurant industry. I am somewhat of a numbers person, and at times I like to bury my nose in statistics. Mind you, I know that many feel that “there are lies, there are damn lies, and there are statistics,” but I find that those from the National Restaurant Association’s regular studies are completely reliable and often reassuring.

According to the most recent study at the time of this writing, restaurateurs are cautiously optimistic, with 40 percent expecting higher sales in the near future, versus just 11 percent fearing lower sales, and the majority are planning capital expenditures.

In our “table service segment,” 2014 is projected to be the fourth consecutive year of moderate growth. Restaurateurs have found improving service and expanding their presence on social media a help, but the big challenge is, as ever, attracting customers.

Here, helpfully, the NRA has polled consumers themselves, and the results are illuminating. Despite all the media out there in the technosphere, more than nine out of 10 diners still choose restaurants on the basis of good old word of mouth. However, 57 percent are influenced by reviews in print or online, while 44 percent are influenced by advertising. Just 32 percent are influenced by social media, and we can assume these are the young consumers.

And what, exactly, are they looking for in the restaurant they choose? They want service and value, the majority would love to go to restaurants more often while staying within their budget, and they really like the idea of lower prices at off-hours. They also want to find their favorite foods on the menu, and they say they want healthy choices. (I know. I know. When they’re on the menu, they are often not ordered.) Moreover, 63 percent seek attractive decor and atmosphere, 48 percent are locavores, 43 percent like to try new restaurants, and 40 percent want dishes they have never tried.

Wait a minute. Consumers want their favorite foods and dishes they have never tried? Which? What? Where? This is the yin and yang of menu planning today, and, as we all know, restaurants tend to emphasize one or the other. For example, I was recently at deliciously trendy Mistral in Princeton, New Jersey, where one might have a pork belly salad with blood oranges, peanuts, and Sichuan vinaigrette followed by seared halibut with Serrano ham skin, smoked potatoes, and rock shrimp, with a side of pretzel with Taleggio and hops mustard, followed by chocolate puff pastry with goat’s milk, mandarin, and sweet olives for dessert. Meantime, in Midtown Manhattan, The Regency Bar & Grill in the newly refitted Loews Regency Hotel is offering every dish that might conceivably be your long-time favorite. Eggs Benedict, eggs Florentine, bagels (plain, sesame, poppy), Caesar salad, shrimp cocktail, tomato soup, turkey club, grilled cheddar on sourdough, lobster roll, veal Milanese, Dover sole in brown butter, farm chicken, wild king salmon, double-cut lamb loin chop, Meyer lemon tart, carrot cake, and all done with polish and precision. If that list doesn’t make you happy, just knowing it’s there should.

Ariane Batterberry, Founding Editor/Publisher