Gwyneth Paltrow wrote on her lifestyle website Goop that she's "kind of in love with Erin McKenna," founder of the popular gluten-free bakery Babycakes. Recently Actress Zooey Deschanel had contestants on Top Chef Masters scrambling to prepare a gluten-free meal for her. And The View’s Elisabeth Hasselback (who has celiac disease; sufferers can't tolerate gluten) wrote a guide to living gluten-free called The G-Free Diet.
With more than 3 million Americans with celiac disease, plus countless more who are eschewing gluten for health and weight-loss reasons, catering to this group is becoming a big business: According to a recent study, the gluten-free market in the U.S. grew 30 percent since 2006, and hit $2.6 billion in sales in 2010 alone.
One of the fledgling companies trying to get a piece of the (wheat flour-less) pie is the NYC-based Feel Good Foods, launched earlier this year by the husband-wife team of chef Tryg Siverson and Vanessa Phillips, who has celiac disease. The pair opened NYC restaurant Friedman's Lunch—which features a mostly gluten-free menu—in 2009 and garnered a loyal following. Wanting to make Siverson's gluten-free offerings accessible to a larger audience, they sold the restaurant and decided to focus on Feel Good Foods—frozen, gluten-free dumplings, which are sold in nearly 300 stores, including Whole Foods.
"The response to our dumpling line has been fantastic," says Phillips, who offers shrimp, chicken, pork and veggie versions. "Dumplings are the food I missed most when going on a gluten-free diet and I'm glad our customers are as excited as I am."
Dumplings not your thing? Not to worry: Feel Good Foods is expanding the line to include more appetizers and entrees, launching this fall.
Chef Zak Pelaccio and partner Rick Camac already have a stable of successful eateries serving tasty, Southeast Asian-influenced fare—three Fatty Crab locations in New York City and the Virgin Islands and two Fatty 'Cue posts in Brooklyn and the West Village. But the pair's most recent venture is considerably smaller: Four Fatty Snack and Fatty 'Cue kiosks in New York City's Financial District, Battery Park, and around Central Park. Camac tells us about the decision to start smaller outposts.
Why did you decide to do food kiosks instead of another restaurant?
Three reasons: It’s an easier, less expensive way to test a new area, it’s an easier and less expensive way to test a new concept, and its scalability potential.
What are some of the issues you've had to deal with?
Storage and prep areas are at an absolute minimum. It's tough to get qualified personnel. There are various Department of Health permitting issues that don't exist at restaurants. And if you're in a park you not only have to deal with every community board surrounding that park, but the park's conservancy as well.
What kind of customer are you hoping to attract?
We're looking for the client that wants a high-quality item, at a reasonable price, served quickly with a smile. Pricing needs to be less expensive as no one wants to spend $30 at a kiosk. Menu choices need to be easy to handle for people on the go and the choices have to be more approachable, as oftentimes the crowd can be mostly tourists, especially if you're in a park.
How do you think kiosks can help build your brand?
Kiosks give you the opportunity to get your brand name out there quicker and ultimately win over new clientele. It attracts a demographic that may be different from your current one, so some of these new clients may represent pure incremental revenue.
What advice do you have for people wanting to do something similar?
It would greatly depend on their concept. You want to make sure your kiosk offerings have a connection to your other ventures and that you're not sacrificing quality or integrity in order to accomplish this. Of course, a strong kiosk concept doesn't always translate into a strong restaurant concept. People have different expectations at a restaurant.
The iconic Philly cheesesteak—thin slices of beef piled onto an Italian bun and topped with grilled onions and Cheez Whiz (sorry Provolone proponents, it ain't a Philly cheesesteak to me without the neon Whiz)—was invented in 1930 when Pat and Harry Olivieri improvised with some leftovers to make a sandwich to sell at their South Philadelphia Italian market stand when they ran out of hot dogs.
The happy accident is one of my favorite guilty pleasures, a must-have whenever I'm anywhere near Philly. And it got me to thinking about what other potential accidental, yet crave-worthy combos were lurking in the culinary ether.
"What was an afterthought turned out to be one of my most popular dishes ever," says Chef John Bonnell of Bonnell's Fine Texas Cuisine in Fort Worth, about his signature fried quail leg dish, which he concocted after a supplier accidentally sent him a pack of 20 quail legs. He estimates that he's sold more than 20,000 legs over the past 10 years—and not only has the item helped increase sales, there's the intangible boost that comes from having a dish customers can't get anywhere else.
On a more casual note, Las Vegas Chef Anthony Meidenbauer was working at a casino resort where a frequent high roller was vegan. One day, the guest popped in unannounced and requested the chef make him a fresh veggie burger. So he quickly pulled together a patty made of avocado, sprouts, and cucumber and served it up. The vegan VIP loved it and the URTH burger is now served at Meidenbauer's current post at Holsteins Shakes & Buns at the Cosmopolitan Hotel.
Finally, there's a dish that I'm dying to try at Maialino in New York City. Originally conceived by Chef Nick Anderer to use up the unused legs from their suckling pig entree, as well as leftover pieces of pasta that remain after the pasta is cut, Malfatti al Maialino is a heavenly sounding ragù of ham, veal stock, butter, arugula, and lemon served over pasta. It's the restaurant's best-selling pasta dish according to the New York Times. "Cook what you might otherwise throw away, and if what you're cooking is delicious, the restaurant's profit margin increases," wrote Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton of the dish.
What do you think of happy accident signature dishes? Do you think it helps draw more customers, or is it just savvy marketing?
A few months ago I wrote about a handful of restaurateurs that discouraged diners from bringing children into their establishments. And many of you commented, the majority (parents and non-parents alike) saying things along the lines of "all kids don't need to be banned—just the badly behaved whiny ones who use mashed potatoes as projectile devices and run around like the Tasmanian Devil on amphetamines." (I may be paraphrasing a bit here.)
But now Mike Vuick, owner of McDain's restaurant just outside of Pittsburgh has officially banned anyone under age 6 from coming through the doors, starting July 16. "I'm doing this on behalf of all the kind, refined people who have e-mailed me who have had meals ruined," Vuick told the Wall Street Journal. "I've decided someone in our society had to dig their heels in on this issue."
One regular customer emailed Vuick to suggest he ban kids after a certain hour or partition off a kids-only area, but said he wouldn't concede. "All children do not have meltdowns, and I don't feel I should have to suffer the repercussions," said the customer, Stephanie Kelley, who has a one-year old son.
Still, response to the ban seems to be favorable so far. Sixty four percent of 10,000 people polled by a Pittsburgh TV news station support Vuick's new policy, and business was up 20 percent on a recent night.
I have three nieces under the age of 3 and they are very well behaved at restaurants, casual and formal alike. But I also know that their parents are very conscious of scheduling their meals out at times where they aren't tired and cranky, as well as providing games and diversions for the times when the kids aren't so interested in their entrees. So while Vuick—and other restaurateurs that discourage kid diners—have already made that choice, it's equally important that parents are considerate of the restaurant atmosphere as well.
What do you think? Is Vuick justified in banning children at his restaurant?
Chances are, there was some form of tubular meat at your Fourth of July barbecue: My family had some grilled chipotle pork sausages to accompany our ribeyes; no doubt kielbasa, brats, and chorizo made appearances at holiday gatherings across the country. But for sheer culinary ubiquity, I'm sure it was the modest all-American hot dog that beat them all out, whether it was the 155 million hot dogs consumed this past weekend (July 4 is the biggest hot dog holiday of the year), or the 62 dogs Joey Chestnut scarfed down at the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating contest at Coney Island.
So while you can argue that wieners don't need any extra publicity (insert shameful-yet-fascinating political sex scandal here), the Connecticut Tourism Board recently announced it had created an official Hot Dog Trail, which maps out 10 hot dog hot spots across the state. Among those getting a shout out: New Britain's Capitol Lunch for its hot dog with the works and meat sauce; Portland's Top Dog Hot Dog truck for its Cajun Dog; and Fairfield's Super Duper Weenie for its New Englander dog with homemade hot relish.
How much does inclusion on the Trail actually help sales? "It has definitely created a buzz in the area which has increased business," says Art Ververis, manager of Capitol Lunch. Adds filmmaker Mark Kotlinski (whose film A Connecticut Hot Dog Tour aired on the Documentary Channel this weekend): "We did taste tests to see what made each dog special. In the end we included a number of well known places as well as a few surprises."
All good for a state not particularly known for hot dogs—and it's interesting to note that the Connecticut Tourism Board has also recently launched popular wine, beer, and ice cream trails that, while certainly tasty, are also not usually items associated with The Constitution State. "It just made sense to string together the best [of each category] and let the traveler come to their own conclusion," says State Tourism Director Randy Fiveash. "It makes finding these hidden gems easier for people from out of town."
In any case, I'm all for calling attention to local eateries that would otherwise go unnoticed. Especially if they happen to be delicious.
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