There wasn’t much mystery behind Applebee’s decision back in 2013 to branch out in to late night operations with its “Bee’s Late Night,” which saw the family dining format transformed into a lively bar scene with black-light parties, karaoke and dancing. Quite simply, the chain saw opportunity in encouraging younger diners to socialize (and, of course, order apps, meals and drinks).
Of course, the restaurant “Get-Together with Friends” occasion isn’t relegated to any particular age demographic—it’s a time-honored practice used to celebrate any number of occasions ranging from birthdays to holidays and workplace or sports events. As we all know, going out to eat with a group of friends can be the highlight of pretty much anyone’s week. And, no great mystery, it’s also a restaurant opportunity for big, higher-margin tabs. Unfortunately, according to analysis of eating occasions conducted by The Hartman Group, consumers seem to be doing fewer get-togethers today compared with two years ago—so what can restaurants do to reinject some excitement for such occasions?
The Hartman Group’s The Power of Marketing to Restaurant Occasions report finds that Get-Together with Friends eating occasions make up 5 percent of all restaurant occasions. These events consist of a group of three or more (not counting significant others) guests who get together to socialize, de-stress and enjoy good foods and beverages. As any waitstaff would point out, group occasions such as these are more likely to include alcohol.
Our analysis finds that 21.4 percent of the Get-Together with Friends occasion segment involves alcohol (and is more likely to involve alcohol compared with any other measurable restaurant occasion) and is the only occasion where alcohol surpasses carbonated soft drinks in terms of what’s consumed. If the margins from alcohol weren’t enough to convince restaurant operators of the value of Get-Together with Friends occasions, they should also consider that these occasions:
- Have a significantly low price sensitivity.
- Lean towards premium restaurants.
- Are more often at full-service restaurants.
- Are less likely to be food-only occasions.
The social stakes at Get-Together with Friends occasions are high. Not only are such occasions not terribly common, they’re usually made unique by the particular combination of friends who gather. It may be one of a very small number of times per year for friends within a particular group to get together. Celebration in combination with stress relief and perceived rarity means that people will spend in greater proportion to match the perceived importance of the situation.
Of interest, group restaurant occasions like Get-Together with Friends have been steadily declining in recent years. We believe the same social fragmentation that has produced growth in eating alone is making it more difficult for consumers to coordinate around each other’s varying schedules to assemble at restaurants. For consumers, the increased rarity of group restaurant occasions may in turn lead to even less price sensitivity. For restaurants, this could mean bigger spending from groups that are showing up less often. Though innovating for diners who eat alone should be front of mind for restaurant and chain marketers today, it is important to remember how much of current sit-down revenue models are built around serving groups.
If this trend intrigues you, consider findings displayed in The Hartman Restaurant Occasion Wheel, which depicts a taxonomy of consumer behavior towards restaurant selection. Our Restaurant Occasion Wheel illustrates how social and emotional goals are connected as well as who is included in the occasion. The Restaurant Occasion Wheel shows when and where the occasion takes place and if it’s culturally meaningful. So far we’ve uncovered 14 culturally distinct occasions that encompass 78 percent of restaurant-sourced eating.
Consumers are dramatically changing their eating behaviors: perhaps we can all take a cue from Applebee’s, which saw merit in extending operating hours to encourage new behaviors in their formats that include social dining. In the hyper-competitive restaurant world of today, targeting restaurant occasions and understanding more about what is behind the motivations, needs and desires of diners as they make their decisions to “eat out” is a meaningful, relevant way to capture market share.
The Hartman Group , CONTRIBUTOR
We cover consumers, food & beverage culture and trends
The Berkshire sow has flopped down on her side inside a sunny, semi-exposed shelter at Cabin Creek Heritage Farm in Upper Marlboro. A couple of piglets, no larger than pugs, are nursing while the remaining newborns gather around their mother’s head, as if looking for face time.
Jeremiah Langhorne is beyond smitten. The chef and owner of the Dabney, the forthcoming restaurant in Blagden Alley, and his two sous-chefs simultaneously release the same sweet, unguarded sound when they lay eyes on the black piglets with their stubby pink legs: Oooooooh!
“They got their little pink socks,” Langhorne says. “They’re so cute!”
Langhorne, former chef de cuisine at the influential McCrady’s in Charleston, S.C., is not shopping for a pet. He’s scouting farmers who might supply his restaurant, dedicated to the flora, fauna and fermented flavors of the Mid-Atlantic. This trip to Cabin Creek is just one of many he has made ahead of the Dabney’s opening later this month. The 30-year-old Langhorne wants to inspect every potential supplier, not just to form a bond with farmers who might be skittish about working with (historically unreliable) chefs, but also to review their agricultural practices. He wants farmers who respect their products as much as he does.
“They’re doing it right,” Langhorne says after visiting two Maryland farms in August with sous-chefs Chris Morgan and Mike Tholis. “They put their animals’ happiness first and foremost. Most other farms, you’ll see some part of the chain where convenience outweighs the happiness of the animals.”
In turn, Langhorne and his business partner, Alex Zink, want to do right by the Mid-Atlantic with the Dabney, which is shaping up to be one of the District’s most ambitious restaurants, perhaps ever. The chef wants to source virtually every ingredient, whether the vinegar on your greens or the sweetener in your dessert, from the states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed (save largely for liquids such as coffee, tea and some wine). The Dabney won’t have a set menu. It won’t even have a signature dish. Langhorne expects to create small, personalized menus based on the products available to him from day to day. Many will be prepared in a large, open-flame hearth, and some will feature vinegars, misos, pickles, preserves and other pantry items made in-house with ingredients plucked from local woods and valleys.
It’s an approach that can frustrate both prospective diners and companies that set up point-of-sale systems for restaurants: They want much clearer answers on what the Dabney will serve.
“Everyone seems to really not be able to comprehend and understand the fact that I just come up with dishes, like, the day the ingredients come in. That’s how it works, honestly,” Langhorne says. “The menu doesn’t exist.”
Where history left off
At a time when restaurants are defined by their “concept” — maybe a fast-casual Mexican joint or a Mediterranean small-plates emporium — the Dabney will have no easy shorthand description to classify its food. What, after all, defines Mid-Atlantic cuisine? Does it incorporate Pennsylvania Dutch cooking and the sweet specimens pulled from the “Chesepiook,” as the Algonquian natives used to call the “great shellfish bay”? Does it embrace the products that have become tourism commodities, like Virginia ham and peanuts?
Or is it something else altogether?
Over the months that I’ve been following him, I’ve watched Langhorne explain the Dabney to the curious and the confused. A few folks have remained that way even after the chef’s explanation. Their confusion is understandable: The Dabney will be a reverse image of your standard restaurant.
[A day in the life of Jeremiah Langhorne and other Dabney stories]
The Dabney will not latch onto an identifiable cuisine, like French or Southern, and then search for ingredients to create the necessary dishes. Instead, it will start with Mid-Atlantic ingredients and rely on Langhorne’s ingenuity to prepare something satisfying. The food will be informed by his study of the historic cookbooks of Maryland and Virginia, but his plates will not be museum-level recreations, like tabletop dioramas. No modern diner would eat such food: 19th-century cooks had a limited pantry available to boost flavor.
Langhorne sees it as his duty to continue the evolution of Mid- Atlantic cuisine, which was halted prematurely — by war, by industrialization, by America’s fascination with cuisines far older than its own.
“My goal is to continue this region’s development and movement as far as gastronomy is concerned,” he says. “The idea is not to re-create [historic recipes]. The idea is to learn from them and pick up where they left off.”
For a man so focused on history, Jeremiah Langhorne prefers not to talk about his own, at least not his childhood. In some ways, he doesn’t know much about it. Asked where he first lived, Langhorne begs off and says he’ll need to call his older brother, the family historian.
Langhorne was midwived in a Bethesda hospital, the middle of three sons to a father who ran a concrete company. Langhorne spent his early years in Sterling, but his family moved around Loudoun and Fairfax counties. When his parents split up, Langhorne and his brothers lived with their mother in a small mountain town in the Shenandoah Valley.
“We had a massive garden, tons of woods,” Langhorne recalls. “My little brother and I, we used to dam the creek and make swimming holes or build fjords or do whatever we could to just have good time.”
His parents reunited when Langhorne was a teen, and they settled in Charlottesville, where the middle son started his life in the restaurant industry. Sort of. He took a job at McDonald’s so he could buy equipment to videotape his skateboarding antics. He later delivered pizzas, which led to a grunt job at the now-closed OXO restaurant under chef John Haywood, an Englishman trained in French cuisine. For Langhorne, working for that old-school taskmaster would be his culinary school.
“I thank him to this day, because he spent four years just beating into me all these wonderful, wonderful values” about food, Langhorne says.
While laboring at OXO, Langhorne learned about chef Sean Brock’s experiments at McCrady’s, where the future James Beard Award-winner was reclaiming long-dormant low country ingredients and putting modernist spins on them. Langhorne became obsessed with Brock’s blog, Ping Island Strike, a minimalist and illuminating “digital notebook” that the chef started after opening McCrady’s. Langhorne was determined to work in Brock’s kitchen one day.
It would take some two years and multiple visits to Charleston, where Langhorne apprenticed for Brock, before the young cook caught a break: In 2008, McCrady’s had an opening in the kitchen, and Brock hired Langhorne. After a year or so at McCrady’s, Langhorne took a sabbatical to work at Nomain Copenhagen, where chef René Redzepi’s team taught the American about foraging. Langhorne would take the lessons and transform McCrady’s kitchen.
If you need to better understand the Dabney, look at Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, owned by Spike Gjerde, the Beard-winning chef who has become a mentor, student and friend to Langhorne. Since opening his place in 2007, Gjerde has been slowly building a pantry and a menu that reflect the region around him; the work is both treasure hunt and reclamation project. It requires brutal dedication. But it can unearth once-lost jewels like the fish pepper, a chili popular with African American cooks in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“I would say Jeremiah and I start with the notion that we’re going to source from local growers and the local food systems,” says Gjerde. “It’s market-driven cooking going back, probably, a millennium at this point.”
The approach goes beyond farm-to-table, even though that tag often gets applied to both Gjerde and Langhorne. Langhorne, in particular, has been contemptuous of peers who proudly list farms on their menus but buy only an ingredient or two from local growers, sourcing everything else from traditional wholesalers. Langhorne is not interested in using a menu to convince diners of his convictions; he wants to use local products to convince diners of the natural beauty of the ingredients around them.
But first he has to source the ingredients or forage for them himself. Once they are in hand, he might pickle them. Or he might convert them into molasses. Or he might ferment them into misos or vinegars.
Whether on his own at Union Kitchen or with assistance from theHoneycomb team at Union Market, Langhorne has already produced more than 150 pantry items. A woefully partial list: watermelon molasses, pickled ramps, canned Roma tomatoes, fish pepper pickles, walnut miso, sunchoke miso, popcorn miso, black garlic, aged sorghum vinegar, carrot vinegar, beet vinegar, cabbage-and-carrot kimchi, vinegars based on local beer and a Worcestershire-like “bay sauce,” adapted from the late 19th- century collection, “Housekeeping in Old Virginia.” He’s just now starting on his own fish sauce, fermented from 100 pounds of Atlantic menhaden.
“That’s really the tip of the iceberg,” Langhorne says, “because once we get into the kitchen, [preservation] will be a daily occurrence. Every single item we get in, we’ll figure how to utilize it” for the pantry.
Langhorne has developed a network of farmers and chefs, like Gjerde, who have helped him find other ingredients needed for a functional kitchen. Like salt (which Langhorne will buy from J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in West Virginia) or citrus (which will come from Next Step Produce in Southern Maryland, where the farm grows “flying dragons,” a lemon-like fruit) or cooking oil (which the Dabney will source from Shenandoah Agricultural Products in Virginia, where they press canola oil). It has to be the hardest way to build a pantry, far more difficult than placing an order with a distributor or loading up at Restaurant Depot.
“I call it an illness, because it comes with health concerns,” says Brock, who influenced Langhorne in these flavor-reclamation projects. “It’s not healthy to be this obsessive and passionate and hard-working . . . It’s exhausting physically and mentally, and that’s why very few people do it, because it takes 10 times the amount of work that anybody would ever want to do.
“Jeremiah’s got that illness, and thank God,” adds Brock, with a laugh. “We need more people who allow their passion to cloud their judgment when it comes to healthy living.”
So a question or three flow logically from Brock’s comments: Why on Earth would anyone go to such extremes? What’s the point? Are these chefs the real-life equivalent of the main character in William Golding’s “The Spire,” a cathedral dean who decides to build a towering spire to bring people closer to God even though the construction might hurt those involved?
In a sense, yes.
“The most powerful thing that comes out of this is a sense of pride,” says Brock. “It’s almost like the pride that comes along with college football. It’s like, this is ours, and it belongs to us. This is the food of the people before us and our ancestors and our family members. This is the food that we’re supposed to be cooking here.”
By Tim Carman
A recent article in Grub Street highlights changes in the new on-demand chef space, one of the fastest growing segments within food-tech. The story focused on how two startups,Kitchensurfing and Kitchit have changed their business model from a chef marketplace model, where customers can book chefs for private parties, to an on-demand model, where customers get pre-set menus cooked at their homes. Although this may seem like a small tweak in the models, it’s a much bigger change —especially for the chefs who work for the two companies to generate much needed extra income. The pivot by both startups means that chefs are limited to an hourly rate on a set menu price—as opposed to a revenue share on a job capped only by how much customers might spend on a dinner party.
The online personal chef business has been heating up over the last few years. Kitchit, a San Francisco startup, launched in 2011 with $600,000 in seed money led by 500 startups. New York-based Kitchensurfing launched in 2013 with $1,000,000 in seed capital led by the BoxGroup. Both companies have been growing slowly since their launch, but that did not stop them from attracting additional funding in 2014. Kitchensurfing raised an additional $15 million, bringing their total funding to $19.5 million, while Kitchit brought in an addition $7.5 million. With funding in place, both startups were poised to enter 2015 with hopes of hyper growth.
But the Grub Street article highlights the pain points of growing a food-tech business, especially one with no real product. As both companies grew their marketplaces, they seemed to have happy customers and more importantly—because they are known for being difficult to work with—happy chefs. However, both companies quickly realized that, in the fast-paced world of Venture Capitalists, their slow steady growth based on a small revenue share wasn’t going to cut it.
“As it turns out, making 12.5 percent off of bespoke, high-end cooking has not been lucrative enough for the company.” Jessica Pressler was writing about Kitchit, but Kitchensurfing had learned the lesson she described a few months earlier. Although the on-demand meal space will bring larger margins to both startups, the model will be more difficult to manage and scale while at the same time disenfranchising their biggest assets, their chefs.
Kitchit and Kitchensurfing are banking on the on-demand meal space, hoping that customers prefer their meals cooked in their homes instead of at a catering facility or restaurant. But with Uber Eats, Munchery, Farm Hill, Radish and countless other startups delivering on-demand meals around the country for $10-$15 per meal, Kitchit and Kitchensurfing may have a difficult time convincing consumers to have on-demand meals cooked in their kitchen at rates of $25/person (Kitchensurfing) or $39/person (Kitchit). Additionally, the two startups have left many chefs feeling angry and left behind, especially the most talented ones, who have no interest in the on-demand, fast food model.