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Are Non-traditional Locations the New Restaurant Trend?



Some journalists call out trends far too prematurely, but two recent interviews have me wondering if non-traditional restaurant locations (stadiums, airports, universities, etc.) are a new trend heating up the industry.

Citing a growing population of about 20 million college students in the United States, Eau Claire, Wisconsin-based Erbert and Gerbert’s President and CEO Eric Wolfe directed his team to create a new format called E&G Bistro to better fit university settings.

“I had no intentions to go into the non-traditional units, and really didn’t know a lot about it,” Wolfe said of his being approached by the food director for the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire at a local chamber of commerce meeting. “They started to pursue us and we thought, ‘OK, let’s entertain this.’”

After developing the concept, the company contracted with institutional operators like Sodexo, Chartwells and Aramark to bring E&B Bistro to universities throughout the Midwest, including Wisconsin, South Dakota, Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee.

On an even grander scale, Smoke’s Poutine is planning to open 800 locations in the United States in the coming years, many of which will be in non-traditional locations of all stripes.

It’s hard to argue with a strategy that pairs poutine (at its most basic, fries and cheese curds topped with gravy) with sports fans or college kids out partying. Smoke's first U.S. location in a bar district outside University of California, Berkele—which opened to massive lines around the block—is one anecdote giving some weight behind the potential of in-demand, franchised restaurant concepts going into non-traditional spaces.

Thinking back to concerts and sporting events 10-plus years ago, I think of the obligatory gross hotdogs and lukewarm cheeseburgers with outrageous price tags. The situation has changed dramatically, as large event center operators have seen the potential in turning their venues into culinary buffets. Few people bat an eye at paying ballpark prices for food that’s a cut above.

Using the beautifully urban Target Field ballpark in Minneapolis as an example, here are some of its most recent food offerings: Red Cow gourmet burgers, Andrew Zimmern’s Canteen (I want that Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich), Barrio (great carnitas and tequila), Hot Indian Foods (can’t argue with chicken tikka) and Murray’s with its sirloin cheesesteak sandwiches.

While it’s been happening for years, continuously elevating food expectations will undoubtedly lead to even greater interest in established and up-and-coming franchised brands. And there you have it, another journalist calling out a trend.

Cheers to a tasty weekend!

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