The following is Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse’s response to NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn’s thoughts on whether high-end kitchen counters could translate to mainstream dining.

Bret, I am truly impressed by your culinary stamina. I mean, five hours of discomfort and 19 courses constitute a real endurance test and deserves some sort of medal — followed by a long nap. But I bet that if you took your ringside view of the kitchen out of the equation, the event would have been considerably less pleasant and seemed much longer.

The experience that you’re describing isn’t anything new. It’s really a benign form of the old Roman axiom of bread and circuses, right?

Restaurant-goers want a combination of sustenance and entertainment when they eat out, and operators have been providing both for a long time. It has been over a decade, for example, since super-chef Joël Robuchon opened his storied L’Atelier in Paris, where customers sit at a counter in the midst of the kitchen action. It was totally in tune with the zeitgeist and emblematic of the culinary revolution that made chefs into stars and put patrons in the thick of things.

Exhibition kitchens were all the rage for a while, a de rigueur design element in dining hot spots. Many mainstream chains attempted to jump on the bandwagon, too. Red Lobster and others dabbled with opening up parts of the kitchen and/or exposing some of the prep process, but it’s a risky move in a high-volume operation that must balance customer engagement with operational exigencies.

And there are limits to what most consumers actually want to see, as Phil Romano found out years ago when he hung sides of beef in the original Fuddruckers and elicited howls of protest. It was a gastronomic case of TMI — too much information — and a good object lesson. Most chains that still do exhibition cooking strictly limit the practice, as with the tortilla-making machine, dubbed El Machino, at Chevys Fresh Mex. It’s a signature of the chain, makes time pass while waiting for the food and underscores the freshness position. Above all, it’s clean and inoffensive.

But your experience raises a couple of other issues. This my-way-or-the-highway notion of forbidding substitutions may work for an expensive, chef-driven meal, but would be folly in mass-market chains where have-it-your-way is the rule. Customers expect some degree of customization; indeed, players in the burgeoning fast-casual pizza segment are building their businesses by putting patrons in charge from the crust up. Most casual-dining chains with set menus also allow choices; sometimes it’s prep method or side dish, often it’s dressing or sauce. Totally ceding control to the whims of the chef may work in very selected circumstances, but it is and will remain a total nonstarter in the market at large.

It’s actually your last question that I find most interesting. Sure, I think it’s possible to coax patrons to try something new, but I also think most restaurateurs could do a better job of it. One of the reasons shoppers love supermarket delis is because they can sample something before they buy. Indeed, product sampling is a standard promotion approach at retail grocery, yet most restaurateurs never give it a shot. Why don’t they offer tiny tastes of a new dish, either in the dining room or, better yet, in the lobby as patrons wait for their tables? It could induce trial, keep them interested and even gauge their reaction to new items.

Gosh, Bret, it seems as if we’ve covered the waterfront this time around. And it also seems like you’ve been covering some interesting ground yourself. Hidden locations behind sliding doors in the back of a bar? Wait a minute; is a secret password required? I’m impressed and think I may start hanging out with you more often.

Contact Bret Thorn at bret.thorn@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @foodwriterdiary
 
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at nancykruse@aol.com.