Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Don't Let Hotels Miss Out on Casual Cuisine

How many times have you walked into a hotel restaurant only to find over priced, less than satisfying food? Generally, hotel restaurants exist to a) provide food to captive hotel guests or b)add to a hotel's luxury offerings to make guests more likely to come (back) and stay. Their presence has never been to contribute significantly to the bottom line, and most struggle to break even at all. So, if hotel restaurants aren't making money, are there other ways that hotels could leverage food services to make their guests happier, support and add to their own food offerings, and reinforce unique aspects of their individual brands? Casual Cuisine offers the Hotel industry a unique opportunity to achieve a variety of these goals with little to no cost or risk.

What follows are the three categories where Casual Cuisine can add to Hotel offerings (and support their bottom line):

1. The Pop-up:
The most tempting place for a hotel to dip its toe into the Casual Cuisine waters would probably be the pop-up restaurant movement best demonstrated by Ludo Bites down in LA. Chefs taking over restaurants for short stints is not an unusual thing. But the combination of the economic downturn (read: good chefs without gigs), the rise of the celebrity chef, and perpetual foodie search for the next "undiscovered treasure" should be manna from the gods to hotels with dark rooms and banquet facilities looking to generate some buzz, or provide a unique offering to guests. It should also not go unnoticed that professionally trained chefs are comfortable in formal kitchens and with (typically more formal) hotel service styles. Why not open a second restaurant once a month in dark banquet space featuring a guest chef serving some highly imaginative cuisine? Whats there to lose? You have to keep the kitchen open anyhow...

2. The Added Attraction:
All Hotels should take note of of a very successful movie night that the Good Hotel (a JDV property in San Francisco) did in conjunction with the bicycle coalition. Set aside the Green and Local appeal of this event for a moment, and focus mainly on the totally unique experience that Good Hotel was able to offer its guests:

Imagine seeing that on your first trip to San Francisco! Even better, imagine the battle hardened road warrior seeing that on his or her 50th time to San Francisco. These vendors prepared the food themselves, arrived on their own dime, and were happy for an opportunity to showcase their food. There's no reason why a hotel couldn't capitalize on this low cost event idea again with something focused on local food and local community for their guests. (Hint: It wouldn't even have to be in the hotel, how about near the hotel or in a parking lot...)

3. The "Oh My! What's is this?"
Everyone loves dim sum. The carts come around and you take something that looks good.

If something comes around that you don't like, you leave it. No problem. Something else will come along.

Tapas is the same way; small plates that keep you around to purchase the (high margin) drinks. Why couldn't a hotel allow certain mobile food vendors to come in and sell things once a week? To be sure, this isn't workable for all Hotels. But what about the ones with limited food offerings (especially late at night)? This is a home run for happy hours or theme nights. Keep the variety. Keep the soul of the food. Make it easy to manage and maintain quality. You'd have foodies searching for you from far and wide. And, if things don't work out? No problem. Easy to end.

There's something special happening with Street Food at the moment. Hotels would do well to take note and run with it. It'd serve the properties just as well as it would serve food vendors.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Street Food: Building a Brand Using Twitter Direct Messaging

Much has been said about the way that mobile street food vendors are using Twitter to publicize their locations, build community and encourage word of mouth buzz for their products. To be true, the food cart craze is one part foodie expression on the cheap and one part grown-up scavenger hunt that is benefiting from a broad realization that the same tools and techniques that keep your food safe, clean and delicious in a restaurant can allow you to have a fantastic food experience on the outside. But here's something really unique about what street food vendors are doing with social media: They're growing their customer bases by purposely limiting their audience -- not necessarily a marketing plan most industries rely on.

For the uninitiated, tracking down your favorite vendor is more than simply driving to the same scheduled spot every day. Because many of these fine products are not actually sold legally, many Street Food vendors have been reluctant to provide hard addresses to their followers (who might be police). The result is that simply following a vendor isn't always enough. Next you have to (actually) pay attention to their tweets so you a) know when they are going to be serving and, b)can direct message them to find out their location. Third, finally, you are "in the know" and can commence the physical part of actually tracking down (and eating) some food. In case you missed it, that's lots of opportunities for customers to get frustrated and give up; but its also an excellent filter for ensuring that, if you go out (as a vendor), you are going to actually see a large enough number of those people (who've jumped those hoops) to make the outing worthwhile.

On top of that, every time that a vendor forces someone to DM them, they also potentially pick up a new follower (you can't DM if you're not a follower), initiate direct customer contact (because the vendor has to start following you back) and communicate with you in order to tell you their location.

There's few better ways to truly make your customer feel like an insider who is "in the know" about something special. As an added virtuous circle bonus: The next time that the vendor tweets about a location they'll have an established customer getting a direct line about their plans, which makes it easier for the vendor to know their customer, which allows for easier planning for their customers, which makes it more likely the vendor will have another positive transaction as a result. By priming their audience through making them feel special and part of an exclusive group, as well as establishing an effective form of continued communication (converting them to an interactive follower) these vendors have demonstrated a counter intuitive dance that, by limiting your audience, you can simultaneously reinforce brand recognition, loyalty, and trust. Which, as it turns out, isn't counter intuitive at all; its just good business.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Street Food in San Francisco

There has been a lot of excitement generated by the publicity from the emerging "gourmet roach coach" thing in San Francisco and the Bay area. But as a mobile food vendor, entrepreneur, investor and partner in this business here's my take:

My immediate reaction to the explosion in popularity of what is essentially an underground food economy is: its great but unsustainable. The reasons for this are simple: the money associated with the legal operation of a food cart in San Francisco is (very purposely, I believe by the city) an impractical one for a continuing or start-up venture. And, while it makes sense that Twitter has empowered mobile vendors to connect with their audience, at the end of the day you can't individually contact every patron you might seek and you have to be publicly open in order to sell something. It costs 100,000 easily to purchase a mobile food truck. Add in an additional 20,000 for permitting and (a little bit) of marketing and you have yourself quite an investment; too much of an investment for the vast majority of would be vendors to risk on an unstable location, and routes that are at the will of the police (not to mention the climate). Carts cost less, but you can't legally cook raw food on them (at least in San Francisco), nor legally sell it (as vendors are beginning to find out).

There a lot of ways to encourage street food in this city, and hopefully the unlicensed vendors will persevere successfully. Ironically, it has been the power of social media to connect to a large audience that has brought attention to an economy that has existed in the city (especially the Mission) virtually unbothered by the police for a very long time. It would be a shame to loose the momentum that has built up over the summer for quality, diverse street food; so here is my suggestion: Look to the bars.

The only way that the city will reach mass adoption of this medium is going to be in partnership with brick and mortar businesses that are willing to sponsor these vendors with vocal support (along with their tax base) ala, the Tamale Lady. Bars, off hours for restaurants, and mixed use store fronts are a natural fit for these vendors to work in partnership with, and cross promote each other. It would give customers consistency. It would allow the vendors to build a tax base. These locations have the bathrooms and sinks that mobile vendors need; Some of them even have full kitchens and food quotas for service asscociated with their liquor licenses.

There's a movement here worth saving, but the way to preserve its vibrancy isn't to take it more underground.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bellagio and MGM Grand Schnanegans

The wires are reporting that Kirk Kerkorian is making a bid to purchase the Bellagio from... well, himself (as he owns 56% of the MGM Mirage). Interesting timing with the WSJ reporting yesterday that the MGM is making an international play to build and manage branded luxury hotel properties around the world (which won't be casinos). When I read the article yesterday, it seemed to oddly contrarian for the company to make a play like this in an industry that is battling a horrible business travel climate and uncertain luxury leisure travel. But, upon hearing this, it makes a little more sense; if Kerkorian buys the crown jewels of MGM, than the company needs some other reason to exist.

I suppose, this is just a long way of saying that I wouldn't bet on Kerkorian buying the whole company and taking it private.

Michael Lewis Review of Warren Buffett Book

Mike Lewis reviewed a new book about Warren Buffett for Powell's books. The review itself is typically awesome writing but, of course, it helps that the subject is so interesting. Here's a small piece from a quite thoughtful review:
By the time he was sixteen, Buffett had accumulated the equivalent in today's dollars of $53,000, and hardly saw the point of taking the spot he had been offered at the Wharton School. He knew what he wanted to do for a living -- live in Omaha and invest in stocks -- but his parents prevailed and off he went to college. He lasted three years before he returned and finished at the University of Nebraska.
Interesting that he wrote the review for Powell's rather than Amazon. I wonder if they paid him?...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Fund Rasing

There is a good article in the Times today about what sacrifices should an entrepreneur make when pursuing capital:
“We had a fairly solid vision of what we wanted this company to be,” he said, adding that he had built a previous start-up by selling software to small businesses and knew he could find strong demand in that market. But the investors did not agree. “Many V. C.’s just follow the leader, and for a time it was in vogue to just fund consumer-based plays.”

Monday, January 26, 2009

Unproductive Productivity

There is an interesting story in Sunday's NY Times about looking busy (even if you're not) at work:
A lawyer at the New York office of an international firm wanted to give the impression he was working late at night — but he was stymied by office lighting that would dim when he left the room. So he brought in an oscillating fan, which tricked the motion detectors into keeping the lights on long after he’d departed.
Productivity is a strange thing; less people theoretically doing more in less time. Productivity in hotels was (at best) a rough science calculated on the amount of guests actually in house, but failing to account for the increased work demands associated with more guests checking in and out. Productivity in creative fields? Forget about it, right. Who knows? Midweek internet surfing could produce the next great ad campaign (Might not be suitable for work):

Productivity is so often reported as a flat number, but it is so obviously not a flat idea. Does merely being "present" for 18 hour days constitute productive? The Japanese may think so (just don't ask for overtime worked vs overtime paid statistics). In retail or service industries where customers might come in waves, how to do businesses staff and stay lean without sacrificing customer experience when people do arrive in mass? It begs the contradictory question: Should customers expect to spend their increasingly scarce dollars on goods that are provided through poorer service?

It seems, though, that often we are all engaged in a happy farce. From the NY Piece:
“You don’t want anyone from corporate to walk in and see you doing nothing,” Ms. Bailey said. “You’ve got to keep busy for them and the clients. You have to be proactive —” she broke off to reposition a handsome pair of boots, “so we’ll do a lot of refolding and dusting. Hey, I might just mop!”
Wonder if they'll get rid of the janitor next? Like everything thing in business it is a balancing act, but it leaves one to wonder if, eventually, there will be anyone left at all?