A pizza place, a burger joint, frozen yogurt and a wine bar. Who would have thought these would be the recipients of Nation's Restaurant News coveted "Hot Concepts" for 2009? For a moment I was reliving 1989. But, in all honesty, this was one of the best panels, and most telling trend-wise, that I've seen in over 10 years of watching new restaurants come and go. All innovative, all focusing on artisanal, authentic high-quality foods and drinks offered at a really, really fair price. Not cheap, and not discounting, these new concepts have struck a chord with a discerning diner who simply wants great food at fair prices. Is that too much to ask?
Smashburger was the talk of the town. A regional burger chain based in Denver that focuses on high-quality Angus burgers that are "smashed" on the grill to maintain their flavor. Their fries are hand-cut, as are the fried veggies (trimmed in the shape of fries). Ten to twenty percent of their menu is customized regionally to appeal to local diners, as is their beer list.
Tutta Bella in Seattle is a Neapolitan Pizzeria, one of the few in the States that is certified as such, adhering to the strict Italian culinary method of making authentic pizzas with a focus on simple, authentic ingredients. No stuffed crusts here.
Vino Volo, a small chain of wine bars located within the security checkpoint of major airports want to take some of the mystery out of buying and enjoying wine every day. They offer reasonably priced wine flights and have a staff who understand everything there is to know about wine and love to share it, in fact "storytelling" is a fundamental part of their concept – patrons can even purchase bottles and take as many as they can on the flight.
Red Mango, the chic frozen yogurt chain talked about the need to educate consumers on the health benefits of yogurt (calcium, live cultures) vs. viewing yogurt as a treat. They designed a chain that encourages patrons to hang out and socialize vs. get it and go. Avid users of social media like Twitter and Facebook, they use these tools not as a marketing devices but a simple way to stay in touch with their consumers in real time.
Lazy Dog Cafe has four units and is based in Southern California. Their menu features American cuisine with influences from Italy, South America, China and France. This isn't fusion cuisine, it’s a reflection of the population. The ambiance is a key aspect of Lazy Dog, rich furnishings and extraordinary service show people why sometimes it’s just better to eat out and take a break from their everyday lives. The only change any of these concepts mentioned given the rough economy is offering $6 wine options vs. $8. I'm sold.