In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. For this installment, they debate how far restaurants should go with customization.
The customer is not always right
NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn says too much customization doesn’t benefit customers.
Nancy, I know we’re always talking about how restaurant-goers love being able to customize everything — from the fillings in their burritos to the toppings on their frozen yogurt. More restaurants seem to be aiming for the Chipotle model — or the Subway model, really — of assembling guests’ food to their exact specifications right in front of them.
But I wonder if restaurants are really doing themselves or their customers a favor by leaving so many decisions up to their guests.
Chipotle seems to have devised a menu that’s simple enough that everything it offers goes pretty well together, but that’s not true for every concept.
At a frozen yogurt chain, for example, you could put breakfast cereal, grapefruit-basil purée and chocolate sauce on your blueberry yogurt, and it would be gross.
Put too many liquid toppings on a multigrain bun, and you have a crumbly, sticky soup rather than a sandwich.
Then there are restaurants that offer too much of a good thing, like Yard House, with its 130-250 beers on tap. I know that concept has done well enough that Darden Restaurants saw fit to buy it last year , but still, wouldn’t consumers be better off if Yard House picked a couple dozen great beers to choose from and eliminated the rest?
I recently was in a Mexican restaurant in New York City that had 100 different tequilas available. I’m a professional food writer, but I had no idea where to start when it came to picking the one I wanted to drink.
Some restaurants have started to help their customers out a bit. Pinkberry’s website has a selection of curated combinations, such as gingerbread yogurt with crushed ginger snaps, white chocolate crisps and nutmeg, and pomegranate yogurt with shaved milk chocolate, mochi and blueberry.
Others eschew the mix-and-match model completely. Chobani yogurt’s retail shop in New York City offers its Greek yogurt with such creative combinations as Turkish pistachios, dark chocolate, orange, clover honey and mint, as well as Atlantic salmon, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and dill. Guests are not invited to devise their own combinations.
Root Hill Burger, a new fast-casual restaurant near my home in Brooklyn, N.Y., offers burgers such as ground beef with a fontina cheese crisp, tomato, sour pickles and mayonnaise on a brioche roll; ground lamb, mint, red onion, tomato, feta and Kalamata olive sauce on a challah roll; ground turkey with crispy shallots, grilled pineapple, iceberg lettuce and chipotle–adobo sauce on a brioche roll; and portobello mushroom in a green herb sauce with a roasted pepper–walnut spread and arugula on a vegan semolina black sesame roll.
Owner Stephen Kelly told me that chef Cali Rivera developed those sandwiches as set pieces. Guests are not invited to add mint to their beef burger or to put pepper–walnut spread on their lamb.
Obviously, if a customer wants to do that, Kelly will oblige, but few customers have asked.
What do you think, Nancy? Is the mix-and-match model really ideal for customers, or is it time for restaurants to reassert their culinary authority once again?
Guests should have it their way
The following is Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s response to NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s take on menu customization .
Gosh, Bret, is it possible to have too much of a good thing? I suspect that devotees of Yard House, your 100-bottle tequila bar or Nihon Whisky Lounge, which offers more than 500 single malts in San Francisco, would beg to differ. Actually, you might need a few drinks before venturing into this lawless restaurant environment of yours, where power-crazed patrons are capriciously upending culinary principles to suit their questionable tastes. OK, I’m being snarky and deliberately exaggerating your position, but it appears that you and I are at odds on this one.
I actually view the specialists, whether beer or tequila, whisky or wine, as the antithesis of the Chipotle model. Like my personal favorite, Chicago’s Pops for Champagne, with its 200 bottles of bubbly, they go very deep within a specific area of expertise, collecting, curating and educating in a comfortable, non-intimidating environment. From the food perspective, restaurants like Red Lobster or Taco Bell do the same thing, albeit in a much less dramatic fashion. They’re also specialists, and in their own way, each has educated the populace. Red Lobster introduced, demystified and made seafood accessible to a mainstream audience, and Taco Bell represents a fun and inexpensive first step into the unfamiliar world of Mexican food for many Americans.
I think the current craze for customization is a very different animal and derives from two parallel consumer demands. The first is all about control, the patron’s desire to dine in accord with his or her taste, diet, budget and mood of the moment. Burger King planted the seed decades ago by inviting customers to Have It Your Way, Subway found a way to execute against that invitation, Starbucks liquefied it and we’ve been off to the races ever since. The underlying assumption is that patrons want what they want, how they want it and who are we to gainsay someone’s personal preferences — even if we find them pretty gross? We’re talking about a kind of new-age cafeteria with a broad array of options. Of course, if diners find themselves overcome by hyper-choice, they can simply switch to conventional menus. As you point out, many emerging concepts offer the best of both worlds, such as Pie Five Pizza, where patrons can either build it themselves or choose from a selection of specialty pies, like the new Athenian, which taps into the Greek trend with ingredients like Kalamata olives and feta cheese.
But there’s a second, equally powerful impulse behind the growth of the customization craze, and that is freshness. It is unequivocally the single biggest driver of current menu research and development, and many operators know that with freshness, seeing is believing. So they’ve removed the barrier between customers and kitchens. Some actually double down on freshness, like Piada in Columbus, Ohio, where the basic flatbread is cooked to order in front of the customer before being topped with an array of fresh ingredients like grilled meats, veggies or mozzarella.
All that said, Bret, you’re not alone in your call for a reassertion of culinary law and order. Last year The New York Times ran a story about chefs flatly refusing to make adjustments  or allow substitutions to dishes into which they’ve poured their talent and creativity. Umami Burger, a hot better-burger chain based in Los Angeles, follows the same path. Their burgers are carefully composed, and they brook no substitutions, except to accommodate specific food allergies.
Where is all this likely to go? Well, we haven’t hit the top of the diner do-it-yourself curve yet, as more sandwich, sushi, yogurt, pizza and even burger joints dedicated to customer customization open weekly. History says that the bubble will burst eventually, and we’ll be left with a few well-positioned winners amid a field of could-have-beens. Conventional operators will amp up patron choices with an array of attractive side dishes, dressings and condiments; they’ll offer more portion options and combos, too. And the undisputed winners, of course, will be consumers, who will take charge on some occasions and let the operators do the driving on others.
Now, Bret, where did you say that tequila bar is? I think you and I need to continue this debate over a drink.
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] .
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary 
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at [email protected] .