Pittsburgh is not known for setting culinary trends, but some restaurant operators in the area are well ahead of the curve. Eat’n Park, a 79-unit family-dining chain based there, rolled out espresso machines in 2003, shortly after improving the quality of its drip coffee. It switched to canola oil with zero grams of trans fat back in August 2005. When local produce is in season, some of it can be found on the salad bars of this chain, which has a check average of just $7. Eat’n Park started marketing the produce last year, but the company has been working to source local products for the past five.
“We have been lucky picking ideas that we think are pretty hot,” says Brooks Broadhurst, senior vice president of food and beverage for Eat’n Park Hospitality Group.
But it’s not all luck. The company doesn’t just manage family-dining restaurants. It also operates Parkhurst Dining—45 on-site accounts in colleges, corporate dining, museums, etc.—and Cura Hospitality, which provides foodservice for retirement communities, senior living facilities and some small regional hospitals. The company also owns four diners and Six Penn Kitchen, a high-end casual restaurant in downtown Pittsburgh.
So Broadhurst is on top of what’s happening with nearly every age group in nearly every segment in the country.
He oversees purchasing and development companywide. In addition, the “culinary councils” in the Parkhurst and Cura arms report to him.
The chefs at the unit level are the driving forces behind those operations, while Eat’n Park is run more from the top down, with two chefs who report to Broadhurst taking responsibility for the menu throughout the system.
Of course, sometimes they try to make innovations trickle down too quickly, like when they tried to give family-dining customers a choice of light-roast or dark-roast coffees five years ago.
“We were a little ahead of ourselves,” he admits, but he notes that part of the problem was that they were simultaneously testing espresso machines. That process took about a year and a half to figure out and was followed by a massive rollout in which, in just two months, they trained 4,000 servers to be baristas.
Teaching servers to make espresso drinks while also getting them to remember to ask customers how they liked their coffee roasted seemed to be too much.
“It was one of those things that operationally was a little bit of a struggle for us,” he says. So after trying the two roasts in six stores, they pulled the plug.
That’s part of the menu team’s testing process. They start by showing ideas for new items to a menu committee of members from the marketing, operations and menu development teams. Then the potential menu items are developed and tested in five to 10 stores for about two weeks. The goal is to get at least 100 customer responses and to see if the new dishes work operationally.
About nine months ago they added a new step to the process: vetting their ideas online before presenting them to the committee. As a result, “we feel we spend less time spinning our wheels,” Broadhurst says.
Now, instead of trying to add a new coffee blend, Eat’n Park works on gradually making its coffee better without shocking its customers.
“For a lot of our customers, any change is bad,” Broadhurst says. So he doesn’t want them to be disturbed by a new coffee. “We want our customers to say: ‘Wow! This cup of coffee tastes great today,’” he says, without them knowing that it’s a different blend.
8trends for ’08 KNOWING A PRODUCT’S ORIGINS UPSCALE BEVERAGES SINGLE-FOCUS RESTAURANTS GREEN LOCAL HEALTH CONVENIENCE FRESHNESS FAD ABOUT TO FLOP? COOK-YOUR-OWN-MEALS VENUES. “It sounds like a great idea, but I don’t know how convenient that is. In the long run, are people really going to want to spend the time on that?”
KNOWING A PRODUCT’S ORIGINS
FAD ABOUT TO FLOP?
COOK-YOUR-OWN-MEALS VENUES. “It sounds like a great idea, but I don’t know how convenient that is. In the long run, are people really going to want to spend the time on that?”
“We know that big, radical changes don’t work because even though [the coffee] might be a better product to a quote-unquote ‘coffee expert,’ we don’t have coffee experts coming to our restaurants, we have people who drink lots of coffee.”
Eat’n Park serves only shade-grown coffee.
“It’s not necessarily that it’s better for the environment or anything else, it simply is better-tasting coffee,” Broadhurst says. “Most of the time, we find that the best ingredients are produced by those folks who really care about what they’re producing, be it bacon or a cup of coffee.” Most of the caring coffee producers, he says, are growing their coffee in the shade. “That’s what we’ve found. I’m not saying it’s the gospel.”
But the fact that it pleases environmentalists is a bonus and will likely be even more of one in years to come, he says.
Broadhurst sees the desire for local products as part of a broader green movement. “It’s not something that’s going to take over the world … but I think it is something that is here to stay,” he says, noting that the large quick-service restaurants and grocery stores also are examining ways to be more green.
Broadhurst says he started to get pressure to use more local items as early as six years ago, with much of the pressure coming from retirement communities in Philadelphia—perhaps more for reasons of flavor than of environmentalism.
“In Philadelphia, they want to have New Jersey tomatoes,” says Broadhurst, noting that most of the retirees previously had gardens of their own and wanted tomatoes that tasted the way they remembered them.
Broadhurst spent nine months working to partner with produce companies and local agricultural organizations to find local farmers who were willing to sell through distributors. He says local food also fits into a trend of people wanting to know where their food is from.
“You can call it food security, you can call it locally sourced foods, country of origin, whatever it may be,” Broadhurst says, but with scares about food coming from China, outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in the United States and growing awareness of the value of local food, customers are becoming increasingly interested in their food’s origins.
Another trend is what Eat’n Park Hospitality has dubbed “Hemisflavors,” or food from other parts of the world. He says this trend is more active in his Parkhurst and Cura operations, and he worked with Southeast Asian specialist Mai Pham on ways to educate his chefs about the cuisines of that region.
Health is also a growing concern among customers.
EAT’N PARK HOSPITALITY GROUP HEADQUARTERS: Homestead, Pa. UNITS: 79 REGION: Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia PRICES: appetizers, $4.79-$7.99; breakfast, $3.99-$11.99; lunch, $3.99-$7.79; dinner, $6.29-$12.79 BEST SELLERS: soup and salad bar, $6.49; Superburger, one-third pound beef in two patties with melted cheese, pickle slices, shredded lettuce and “Sauce Supreme” on a double-decker sesame seed bun, $4.49; Breakfast Smile, two eggs, three pieces of bacon or sausage, choice of hash browns, home fries or potato pancakes, plus toast, $4.79 SLOWEST SELLER: Low-Carb Smile breakfast, three eggs with two pieces of bacon or sausage, $4.99
HEADQUARTERS: Homestead, Pa.
REGION: Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia
PRICES: appetizers, $4.79-$7.99; breakfast, $3.99-$11.99; lunch, $3.99-$7.79; dinner, $6.29-$12.79
BEST SELLERS: soup and salad bar, $6.49; Superburger, one-third pound beef in two patties with melted cheese, pickle slices, shredded lettuce and “Sauce Supreme” on a double-decker sesame seed bun, $4.49; Breakfast Smile, two eggs, three pieces of bacon or sausage, choice of hash browns, home fries or potato pancakes, plus toast, $4.79
SLOWEST SELLER: Low-Carb Smile breakfast, three eggs with two pieces of bacon or sausage, $4.99
“There’s always going to be the consumer who wants to come in and eat a thousand-calorie hamburger and French fries, but there’s a growing number of customers who are buying salads and are eating healthier, or want to know what they’re eating,” Broadhurst says.
He says convenience is not a new trend, “but it’s not slowing down, and it needs to be addressed in a different way. You can’t just put a drive-thru in the back of your restaurant and say ‘I’m convenient.’” He says it’s also important to focus on serving items that travel well.
Another continuing trend is freshness, he says. The term connotes health and authenticity and is a term that sells well.
Broadhurst says use of fresh ingredients now has spread to beverages, because of a continuing tightening of margins. “Almost every restaurant chain is really [trying to figure out] how you can capture more dollars.… If you’re lucky to get more people in the door, how can you get more money out of them?”
Raising drink prices can help, but you can’t just tell customers that lemonade is $4. If you make it fresh and add fresh strawberries to it, then a markup is possible.
He says Eat’n Park’s soda fountain now has an upscale soda on it, and it is outselling fruit punch by 400 percent to 500 percent. It still does not outsell mainstream soda, however.
“The day of one-size-fits-all is not dead by any stretch of the imagination, but when you start looking at the real growth chains, especially the smaller, emerging ones, most of the time they’re focusing on a very limited menu, very authentic, very fresh, and quick and convenient. There are not lots of big-box kind of wide, huge menu types of restaurants being developed.”