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Phil Romano’s latest concept celebrates the spud

Phil Romano’s latest concept celebrates the spud

• Foodservice entrepreneur at it again • Beer boom inspires mini servings • Beware bogus food-handler permits • Apps to help restaurant ops • Gourmet cupcakes may still rise

One of the foodservice industry’s most creative minds is at it again, rolling out a meal-in-itself baked potato-based restaurant.

Take a loaded baked potato, upgrade the loading options and transplant it into a Chipotle-style service format and you’ve got the basic idea behind Potato Flats. Opening last week in Dallas, the new restaurant is the latest brainstorm from concept genius Phil Romano.

Why pay attention what to the 75-year-old Romano is doing? His list of groundbreaking concepts include Fuddrucker’s, precursor to the still-hot gourmet burger segment; Eatzi’s, forerunner to chef-driven multirestaurant/upscale gourmet market concepts like Mario Batali’s Eataly; and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, which still dominates the Italian casual dining segment.

At Potato Flats, we’re seeing Romano’s spin on fast casual. The primary menu offering starts with a flattened baked potato (or baked sweet potato, or half of each). Customers then move down the serving line to select one meat and three vegetables plus other toppings of their choice. Price points are fast casual friendly—$9.75 if topped with meat, just $5.75 for the all-veggie version. The Potato Flats tag line is “a meal in itself,” in this case a traditional meal that’s eaten with a knife and fork, as opposed to the numerous hold-in-your hand sandwiches and burritos sold elsewhere in fast casual.

The ever-growing proliferation of beer choices has convinced some operators that mini servings can be a viable way to keep driving this category’s growth.

The just-opened Beer Grotto in Dexter, MI, is a retail pub that offers 48 craft beers and 24 wines on tap plus a wide selection of bottled beers. To help customers sort through the options, its tasting program provides free small pours of draft beers (three per person) plus tiny tastes of draft wines for a small fee. Bottled beverages can be mini-sampled, too, also for a fee. “It sounds a little wild, but bottled beverages fit into a special system that allows you to taste small samples of any bottle we have on the shelves, wine or beer,” says Beer Grotto head Sam Short. “Bottled beer, draft beer or wine bottle, any drink in this store is available for tasting.”

A different spin on small sips: in Minneapolis, attendees at this week’s All-Star game festivities can purchase customized small pours of four Anheuser-Busch beers. A DraftServ self-serve beer station will sell Budweiser and Bud Light for 38 cents per ounce, while Shock Top Lemon Shandy and Goose Island 312 Urban Pale Ale go for 40 cents per ounce. Customers, can specify exactly how much beer they want. “If customers want half a cup, that’s all they will pay for,” a spokesman says.

Beware that food handler permits your employees have obtained from a legitimate-seeming online provider might be bogus. Quick action by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson will result in eFoodhandlers, an Oregon-based internet provider of online training and certification for food handling, reimbursing 11,000 Washington consumers who acquired food handling certificates through its site.

“Consumers paid for a worthless piece of paper,” Ferguson says. “eFoodhandlers’ deceptive practices made it difficult for food service workers to keep a job and for businesses to stay open.”

The consent decree requires eFoodhandlers to pay full restitution of approximately $120,000 to more than 11,000 consumers, prohibits “certification” by eFoodhandlers’ website and requires removal of any implied or explicit references in compliance with Washington laws. The site agreed to pay $40,000 to the Attorney General’s office for attorney fees and costs.

The site still offers $10 food handler permits in 49 other states plus the District of Columbia.

App developers are coming with nifty new tech options that can help operators finesse with real-world restaurant problems.

One winner from this month’s 200-person Hack//Dining NYC event was Kitchen Check, billed as the “TurboTax of food safety regulations.” The challenge: make it easier for restaurants to use technology to comply with and maintain food safety regulations. The result: an interactive form that produces a list of requirements restaurants, or even food trucks, must meet to be in compliance with local, state and federal laws.

Another top finisher at this weekend hackathon sought to use technology to help solve a challenge posed by Chipotle Mexican Grill. The winning app: Just Right, described as “an app and rewards program that empowers the consumer to ‘right size’ their burrito, salad or rice bowl order and incentivizes sustainable and healthy choices with points that can be redeemed for free Chipotle food.”

There may still be plenty of life left in the gourmet cupcake segment, even though 48-unit Crumbs may have closed all of its stores. When Crumbs Bake Shop announced the closure of every store in its nationwide chain, media outlets raced to sound the death knell for the gourmet cupcake trend. 

Fattening and overpriced, went the thinking, these hand-held treats have had their day. Maybe not. TV viewers still tune in in droves to Food Network”s “Cupcake Wars.” Savvy industry people are still getting into the cupcake business, opening shops like the new Sugar Mammas that will debut later this summer in Hollywood, CA. Most telling of all: Crumbs was a publicly traded company whose management couldn’t figure out how to grow sales, but other players think they can. New investors have surfaced who have plans to restructure the brand. Even the head of Crumbs rival Magnolia Bakery thinks the Crumbs brand can be salvaged and that the market for a $3.50-$4.50 cupcake has yet to be tapped out.

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