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Editor’s Note: In September we announced that Skift was expanding into food and drink with the addition of the Chefs+Tech newsletter.
We see this as a natural expansion of the Skift umbrella, bringing the big-picture view on the future of dining out, being fanatically focused on the guest experience, and at the intersection of marketing and tech.
Bonus: We now publish C+T twice weekly.
Imagine a Future Full of Grocerants
The “grocerant” is a term for those grocery store-restaurant hybrids that are popping up everywhere from midtown Manhattan to midwestern supermarkets. A new fast-casual opening from Whole Foods in Atlanta could be considered a grocerant by definition, as it’s physically attached to a Whole Foods. It’s a new concept called The Roast by Whole Foods Market, and features a menu created by noted local chef (and former Top Cheftestant) Kevin Gillespie, a fast-casual operating model, and enough design-y details to keep the millennials happy. You look at Eater’s well-composed photos of subway tile, piles of wood, draught beers, and an actual DJ booth and tell me it’s not millennial bait.
While Whole Foods has been quick to defend the fact that, in its nearly 37 years of existence, its stores have always included a prepared foods and salad bar section, the new crop of dining options is a little different. They often feature table service, offering the luxury of a full-service meal in the atmosphere of a casual-but-useful store full of things you want to buy. In a lot of cases, grocerants are like advertising for the market wares. Like the pasta? Aisle two. Wine? Aisle ten.
Read the recent headlines and you’ll see why this makes sense: casual dining is dying, fast-casual is popular, and grocery stores are experiencing a comeback as millennials (and others) incorporate home cooking back into their schedules. Whole Foods, though, isn’t nearly as popular as it used to be (likely a direct result of its high prices and new competition from other retailers offering less expensive organic fare). It’s possible that The Roast is a kind of hail mary because grocerants seem to be the next hot ticket — but it’s a new concept worth trying. By partnering with a local and well-known chef, Whole Foods got the branding right; the spot has only been open for a few weeks, so time will tell if it can stand on its own legs or if the grocery chain is spending a lot of money on an expansion concept that falls flat.
The Fascinating Challenge of Selling Cold Brew Coffee
Cold brew coffee isn’t simply coffee on ice, it’s an entirely different way of making coffee than most of us are used to: grounds are steeped in cold water, often overnight. It’s a time-intensive process, and making more isn’t as simple as grabbing a filter, some grounds, and some water. And it’s gaining in popularity, according to a piece in the New York Times (and basically everyone who owns a coffee shop, from one-off local spots to 13,000 Starbucks stores). Specialty roasters like Blue Bottle and Stumptown introduced the drink about a decade ago, and it caught on, according to the piece. But the drink’s popularity isn’t the full story; instead, it’s part of a supply-and-demand equation driven, at least in seasonally-affected cities like New York, by the weather.
One proprietor, with 24 locations in New York, says his business sells 10,000 servings of cold brew on a peak day, and that all iced coffee drinks make up 65 percent of sales in the summer, as opposed to 25 percent in colder seasons. That’s a major difference in supply, completely dictated by something you have zero control over: the weather. On the plus side, cold brew is fairly stable, and can be stored for a time without worrying about flavor changes, unlike hot coffee — or hot coffee put into the fridge, a.k.a. the iced coffee of yore. It can also be kegged and tapped exactly like a beer. The Times piece also dives deeper into cold brew — who knew it could be so polarizing? (Its critics say its lack of acidity is a flaw, among other issues.) Still, the fact that this new beverage is completely changing the way many coffee shops operate, forcing them to adapt their offerings, timeline, and pay a lot more attention to the weather is telling. Coffee is coffee, but even the most universal food items aren’t immune from disruption.
Instagram Fits in Everywhere, Including the Fine Dining Room
Restaurants+Instagram is a story that’s been told a few times, but as the photo-sharing/posting phenom continues to grow, its relationship to chefs and restaurants is evolving. Grubstreet takes a look at how fine dining chefs have embraced the medium, even if their restaurants are only aspirational for most of their followers. By now, chefs and restaurateurs know the ripples from just one Instagram post can spread far and wide — fast. Chefs who use it to post daily specials see dining room guests that come in same-day asking for the dish they saw on Instagram. It’s an invaluable marketing tool for the restaurants, but diners can snap photos and turn certain dishes into immediate classics, tempting others to book even the priciest reservations to try it for themselves — not without snapping a photo first, though. (This writer sure does have a photo of the edible Alinea balloon in her Instagram feed.)
The piece notes changes that have come about, potentially out of the Instagram era — more focused restaurant lighting, white marble tables, custom plates decorated with the restaurant’s name — but also that artistic, thoughtful, and sometimes provocative plating existed long before the Instagram exploded. Wylie Dufresne’s New York temple of molecular gastronomy WD-50 opened in 2003 and closed in 2014, with its most formative and famous years well before photo snapping and sharing in the dining room became commonplace.
The benefits come with some disadvantages, too. Chefs must live up to the hype created by perfectly-staged, perfectly-lit, filtered images of their best dishes. And then there’s the issue of copycats — one chef quoted says, “Noma posts a new dish, and you can start to see copies within days.” Still, it doesn’t completely upend the way chefs develop their menus and do business, though the lightning fast speed at which information is shared has certainly sped up the process.