Embrace Blasts from the Past

Kevin Higar, Author, Foodservice Marketing Consultant

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“Nothing could be finer than to emulate the diner …” OK, granted: You do not want to be trapped in a subcompact car with me while I belt out that oldie but goodie. However, if you can get past the fact that I will never be on “The X Factor,” there is a lot of wisdom in that catchy little tune. Heading into 2013, that’s my mantra, and if you’re looking to create, sustain or elevate your foodservice success, it wouldn’t hurt to consider embracing it yourself.

Over the past three months I’ve traveled the country to check out emerging, successful concepts for an upcoming Technomic study. While I spend most of my time eating at these hot spots, I also passionately protect the opportunity to squeeze in trips to places likely to employ staff members that incorporate phrases such as “Kiss my grits” into their vernacular. Funny thing is, I’m not alone. The customers I observe in these restaurants and the consumer research I’m seeing at Tech­nomic also suggest a whole lot of people yearn for some combination of tradi­tional and contemporary diner elements, regardless of where they are enjoying a meal occasion.

Now, I’m not suggesting that every­one turn their foodservice operations into roadside greasy spoons. However, I do believe some of what is making the emerging concepts I’m visiting successful is what has always made the classic diner endearing. So why not take an unbiased stroll through your own foodservice operations and see if the following two “diner drivers” are present?

Hospitality: The Great Equalizer

No one wants to just be another source of dollar bills. Even if it’s only for 30 seconds, customers like it when they feel staff members are on their side, see­ing things from their perspective. Call guests by name, remember something about their daily routine, or ask about an important event they just experienced. Believe me, it often isn’t the suspect bacon that keeps people yearning for diner meals. A customer enjoys being treated like a real person.

I was recently in Philadelphia for a speaking engagement. On the way back to the airport, I stopped to gas up the rental car at a Wawa. Realizing airport food can be scarier than a flight atten­dant who wants you to return your seat to the upright position, I decided to grab a sandwich for the flight. Stressed, hurried and hungry (sound like any customers you know?), what I found inside was a Wawa staff member who briefly engaged me in casual conversation while mak­ing my Italian sandwich. Did it leave an impression? I’m talking about it here, aren’t I? Moral of the story: Give your staff the leeway to have these little give-and-take conversations with guests. They leave differentiating impressions.

Heart and Soul Food

Here’s a 2013 trend you can take to the bank: People love comfort foods, both in the classic and contemporary sense. Why? It speaks to their soul. Want to positively affect your foodservice operations? Seek out the most popular diner in your area and grab a menu. Allow your mind to expand outside the proverbial box. What items can be translated in such a manner they form a perfect Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis relationship with your concept? Think it’s impossible? I recently visited a place called 5 Nap­kin Burger in Boston. Very cool place with a strong contemporary vibe. Yet when I looked at the appetizers, what immediately caught my eye was a clas­sic diner dish that hugged my homespun culinary soul: Deep Fried Pickles and Pastrami served with sauerkraut and mustard vinaigrette (pictured, center). It was basically a small, cylindrical, fried version of the sandwich any respectable New York deli stakes its reputation on. As I sat there eating it, my first thought was how easy something like this could be tweaked to accommodate both portabil­ity and the hot-dog roller units found in many convenience stores today.

See what I mean? Anything is possible with a little imagination!

Good food and great conversation: It’s a dynamic duo capable of creating “Happy Days” for your 2013 foodservice program. And yes, I am now officially done with the retro puns.

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