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Retailers hail lifting of travel ban, return of international tourists with hopes of sales rebound

As the holiday shopping season picks up, retailers across the country hope to get a lift from another wave of spenders: international tourists who can visit the U.S. once again

Starting Monday, the Biden administration will allow visitors from abroad into the country again. Most foreign travelers from more than 30 countries, including the U.K. and Brazil, have been restricted since early 2020, as Covid-19 cases rose globally. Visitors must be fully vaccinated against Covid and have a negative Covid test within three days before departure. Exemptions apply to travelers under the age of 18, if they have medical reasons preventing them from getting a vaccine, or are traveling from one of 50 countries with low vaccine availability.

For retailers, the policy is a much-awaited change that may help them fill up stores and ring up bigger sales again. At stake are billions of dollars that tourists spend on not only souvenirs, but luxury handbags, high-end makeup, top-shelf liquor and other items they often can’t find at home. Global visitors fueled more than $43.4 billion of shopping in 2019 — or 27% of the total shopping driven by travel and tourism, according to the International Trade Administration.

Yet retail experts and companies say it will take time for tourists to return to the U.S. and spend at post-pandemic levels. Airlines still have fewer flights. Other countries, including China, tightly restrict outbound travel. And pandemic-related logistics, from long lines at the airport to show proof at vaccination to Covid test when returning home, could delay travelers from booking a trip.

“Airlines will tell you that they are seeing a surge in booking. What they don’t quantify is when. Hotels will tell you is they’re seeing an uptick in bookings. What they won’t tell you is when,” said Daniel Binder, a partner for Columbus Consulting who focuses on travel retail. “The ban will lift, and it will take time.”

Binder saw the spending power of international tourists — especially Chinese tourists — up close as a longtime executive at DFS, a luxury goods travel retailer that’s owned by LVMH. He said he also saw the many months it took for global tourists to flock back and spend freely after other challenging periods, including the 9/11 terrorism attacks and the SARS outbreak.

Still, National Retail Federation CEO Matt Shay said there is a feeling of optimism as the ban lifts. He said that as Americans feel comfortable booking trips, dining out and having more active lives, they are also shopping. As international tourists visit, that will “give a jolt to the retail side,” too, he said.

“The return to the service and the experience economy is going to be positive and beneficial for retail and it’s going to be enhanced furthermore by these international visitors returning to the U.S.,” he said Wednesday on a call with reporters.

‘Shot in the arm’ for New York City

International shoppers will be a key ingredient needed for New York City’s recovery. During a typical year, visitors from other countries spend an estimated $4.75 billion on shopping, according to NYC & Company, the city’s tourism board.

Shopping is the most popular activity for people visiting the city from other countries — with 88% of international visitors saying they participate, according to a 2018 survey by the Department of Commerce. That’s compared to 86% who participate in sightseeing, 54% who go to art galleries and museums and 29% who experience fine dining.

In contrast, less than 30% of tourists from other parts of the U.S. shop when they are in New York City.

“It’s a pivotal milestone in our recovery, for sure,” said Chris Heywood, executive vice president of global communications at NYC & Company. “Welcoming back the international traveler is exactly the shot in the arm that New York City needs right now.”

In the coming days, Heywood said the tourism group will unveil a project with Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and other retailers to incentivize visitors to return to their stores. Over the next few months, he said the group plans to spend $6 million across the globe on advertising about New York City. He said that money will be concentrated in countries that have loosened their policies in a way that makes it easier for their citizens to leave and return home. These include South Korea, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, France and Italy. Places where restrictions are till very tight, such as China, will not be part of the advertising campaign.

Heywood said New York City benefits from having many shopping districts that are themselves tourist destinations — such as Fifth Avenue, Times Square and Hudson Yards — along with attractions like Broadway shows and art museums.

“This is a chance to actually get back to this notion of that shopping experience and having the bragging rights to say ‘I bought that on Fifth Avenue’ or ‘I bought that in New York,’” he said. “That’s something people have not been able to have.”

Still, he said it will take years to build back up the city’s tourism and shopping revenue. The group expects about 2.8 million international visitors to come to New York City this year, compared with 13.5 million international visitors in 2019. Next year, it expects international visitors to triple to about 8.5 million and by 2024, it expects international tourism to roughly match pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re hoping to accelerate that timeline as much as possible,” he said.

‘We don’t see tremendous movement’

Some retailers said they don’t expect the lifted travel restrictions to result in an immediate jump in sales. For many companies, especially those outside of the luxury space, the market doesn’t make up a significant chunk of their businesses. Department store chain Macy’s, for example, said that international tourists accounted for just about 4% of sales in 2019.

Capri Holdings, which owns Michael Kors and Jimmy Choo, believes that some international tourists will book trips to the U.S. in the coming weeks. But CEO John Idol noted on an earnings conference call on Wednesday that there was only a minor return among international tourists into Europe, after travel restrictions were lifted. And there has been no return into Japan nor Korea, he said.

“In our forecast, we don’t see tremendous movement changing our trajectory at least in next fiscal year,” Idol said.

For a company like Tiffany, however, it could be worth the extra effort to try to court international visitors back to its U.S. stores. The jewelry chain, now owned by LVMH, typically sees about 12% of sales domestically coming from foreign tourists.

This holiday season, Tiffany has opened a pop-up shop in the West Village neighborhood of Manhattan, which pays homage to the legendary Tiffany designer Jean Schlumberger. The space, which features a number of Instagram friendly backdrops and activities for visitors such as painting, is open to the public from Monday until Jan. 8.

It’s the mall operators — some of the most challenged by stay-at-home trends in 2020 and consumers shifting into e-commerce — that say they expect to see a boon to traffic as foreigners return.

“We still think that there’s another leg up if we get the international tourist that we haven’t seen for a couple — two, three — years,” Simon Property Group CEO David Simon told analysts on an earnings conference call held Monday.

Simon’s malls include The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, The Galleria mall in Houston, as well as a number of premium outlet centers.

Over in New Jersey, the American Dream megamall is antsy for foreigners to visit. A portion of the 3 million-square-foot development first opened to the public in October 2019. But it was shut down shortly after due to pandemic restrictions. When it had first kicked open American Dream’s doors in the fall of 2019, operator Triple Five Group told CNBC the megamall would draw 40 million visitors annually, many of them foreigners. It has likely only since seen a sliver of that.

American Dream is ramping up its efforts to court tourists to New Jersey’s Meadowlands in preparation for Monday. The megamall has a team entirely dedicated to tourism that is corresponding with travel agencies and helping visitors book trips to the development.

“American Dream was always designed to be a top global tourism destination,” said Jill Renslow, executive vice president of marketing at Triple Five. “We’re also working with New Jersey … making sure we’re showcasing all the things that New Jersey has to offer.”

The fact that sales of clothing and footwear in New Jersey are generally tax exempt should be another appealing factor for foreign visitors to head to the state, she said.

Just last month, the first round of luxury retailers — including Saks Fifth Avenue, Hermes and Dolce & Gabbana — opened up at American Dream. These high-end shops also have their own wing within the megamall, which includes a separate escalator entrance for buses that are there to transport tourists and their shopping bags.

Jeweler David Yurman has laid the groundwork during the pandemic to grow its international sales. It has 45 stores in the U.S. and a handful in Canada, but has partnerships with jewelry and department stores in other parts of the globe.

Over the past year and a half, it has launched dedicated websites in other countries and kickstarted initiatives to woo more Chinese customers, David Yurman head of marketing Lee Tucker said. It started to sell a limited collection through social media and messaging app, WeChat, he said.

Tucker said that salespeople at the jewelers’ stores know how to speak numerous languages, including Mandarin, Arabic and Farsi, so they can welcome tourists and make them feel at home.

Starting this month, a double-decker bus wrapped in the company’s advertisement is driving to destinations like Rodeo Drive and Newport Beach, where international tourists may see it and get inspired to shop.

“We’re holding our breath to understand how international tourists are going to come back to our cities and which groups are going to travel here first,” he said.


Olive Garden Is Offering 7 Weeks Of Unlimited Pasta For $100

Olive Garden is trying a new tactic for drawing in customers.

The struggling Italian chain is offering a “Never Ending Pasta Pass” for $100 that buys seven weeks of unlimited pasta, breadsticks, salad and Coca-Cola beverages, USA Today reports.

There are only 1,000 passes and they will be sold on the company’s website beginning at 3 p.m. If a customer uses the pass once every day for the 49-day period, they would effectively be paying about $2 per meal.

The chain’s pasta dishes average around 1,000 calories for a single serving.

“What we’re trying to do is get some attention,” Jay Spenchian, Olive Garden’s executive vice president of marketing, told USA Today. “It’s sure to provoke a reaction.”

Olive Garden’s same-store sales dropped 1.3% in the most recent quarter.

Olive Garden

The new promotion is running at the same time as its “Never Ending Pasta Bowl” offer, which lets customers eat unlimited pasta for $9.99.

This is the latest in a string of promotions offering unlimited food by struggling casual dining restaurants.

TGIFridays launched a $10 “Endless Appetizers” deal in July and Red Lobster is currently offering “Endless Shrimp” for $15.99.

Restaurant Secrets Get Diners To Spend And Eat More

Whether it is the delicious smells or the fun atmosphere, we often spend more than we plan at a restaurant. There are more factors than we realize jump-starting our appetites.

Earl’s Kitchen+Bar at Assembly Square is one of the area’s new hot spots, and a constant stream of diners stop to check out the menu. Regional Chef Cam Armstrong knows the menu is more than just a list of food options. He said there is psychology involved in the layout and the marketing of the menu, in terms of how items are strategically placed on it. This is common in the restaurant industry, as a way to highlight special dishes and items with a higher profit margin.

Diners like Chris Clark like to think they are controlling their choices when they peruse a menu. “It’s really the mood of the day. Do I want fish or do I want steak?”

Brian Wansink, a hospitality expert at Cornell University, said that all of us are influenced by how a restaurant presents their items, whether we realize it or not. “We are not masters and commander of what we choose when we go to a restaurant,” Wansink says.

Marketing techniques can be as simple as circling or boxing a selection on a menu. Chef Armstrong added, “That really draws people in, and gives them this focal point.”

Using high quality pictures is another tool. “We see sometimes a 25%-30% boost on that item, just based on a picture,” explained Armstrong.

The description of an item is also important. Research shows that the use of words like succulent or creamy can really impact diners. “They’re willing to pay about 15% more for the item. They’re 27% more likely to take the item, and they also end up rating the item as actually being tastier after they finish dinner,” said Wansink.

Lighting can also impact how much a guest ends up spending. “If it’s dark and quiet, you will also eat a whole lot, because you stick around longer and you end up eating more,” added Wansink.

At Earl’s, they know presentation is key, but the food has to be king. That how’s to develop a loyal customer base. “When one of our guests is drawn to it, and given the opportunity try one of these dishes, they are going to be blown away,” said Armstrong.

Thailand’s ex-PM develops food robot to test Thai food

A machine that can scientifically evaluate the make-up of Thai food has been developed with the help of the country’s ex-prime minister.

Fed up with poor Thai food when visiting other countries, Yingluck Shinawatra came up with the idea of a machine to rate food samples against authentically-prepared dishes.

The food robot was due to be unveiled in Bangkok on Tuesday.

It is part of a growing trend to use computers to analyse food.

The machine, dubbed e-delicious, has ten sensors which create a chemical signature for food, which is then measured against a gold standard recipe, as approved by 120 taste testers.

According to the website, the machine is composed of three parts:

“An electronic nose for measurement of smell by an array of 16 gas sensors, an electronic tongue that allows us to measure sourness, sweetness, saltiness, spiciness, and a central processing unit that gathers data and interprets the result.”

Each test takes no more than 30 minutes.

The food is analysed on a range of criteria.

Thai food is one of the world’s most popular cuisines but, according to the website, “the flavours of Thai food in many restaurants and in hotels abroad are deviating from the authentic ones.”

The government, which was ousted by a military coup in May, was so concerned about the idea of inferior Thai food that it set up the Thai Delicious committee and gave it $100,000 (£61,000) to build the machine.

Each recipe has had its chemical make-up recorded in a database to compare with other versions.

Food samples are inserted into the box to be analysed and are rated out of 100.

In the case of a Thai green curry, the dish will be tested to ensure it has the right mix of basil, curry paste and coconut cream.

The team from the Thai Delicious committee has also created an app with authentic recipes for chefs to use.

Hospitality in the Restaurant Kitchen: A Chef’s Perspective

I am a chef and I work in the hospitality business. I spend some time in the dining room, but mostly you’ll find me in the back-of-the-house: the kitchen. Having owned and operated a catering business for 14 years and two restaurants for the past six years, I have managed almost every aspect of each of these businesses at different times. I have worked with corporate clients, young and older couples getting married, families, groups of friends, gala fundraisers for non-profits and guests coming to eat at my restaurants for a variety of meal periods. The clients and guests I have work with all vary in personality, tastes, budgets, needs and desires. Needless to say, I have pretty much seen it all.

Everyone who comes through my doors is different. It is my main responsibility to make sure they feel cared for, appreciated and relaxed. And, as a customer, this is what I want to experience when I dine in a restaurant.

So, now there are the Alan Richman and Elizabeth Gunnison Dunn articles of late. I like them. In fact, I totally agree. Some of the food and chef craze has just gotten out of hand. Yes, I said it. And, I will say this: I don’t think there is any difference between a really talented chef and a really talented musician. Both are creative, and in order to be and continue to be successful, they must push themselves constantly to be better and better, and more creative. Now, what musicians do not face, but chefs do, is the practice of hospitality. As fun or as creative as cooking at a restaurant may be, the diner’s experience is paramount. All chefs know that unless you make your guests happy, they will not return to your restaurant. And, your happy and returning guests keep all of your bills paid.

That said, there are limits. You, as a chef, cannot please everyone all of the time and you have to stay true to your culinary focus and point of view. It takes a special kind of balance for sure. We are familiar with the idea of hospitality in the dining room: The focus of directly caring for guests, what everyone calls customer service, but the practice of hospitality also extends into the kitchen. (Whaaaat?) YES! It is a part of the discipline or craft of cooking in a restaurant — and, it can be very tricky.

In the age of notations at the bottom menus reading, “Substitutions Politely Declined,” it is hard for guests who have any special needs to feel a sense of hospitality. What if the guest has a heart condition and requires a low-sodium diet? Can the salt be left off of the steak prior to grilling? Or, are guests with dietary restrictions not welcome at the restaurant? As a chef who is married to someone with a dietary restriction (a medical condition, not a preference), I understand completelyhow much this affects a diner.

I battle with some requests, but ultimately, I want to practice hospitality in the kitchen. I want to be a role model for my cooks so they practice hospitality in the kitchen too, and so they always remember what industry we work in. We’re in the people-pleasing business, and I want my guests to feel cared for in my restaurants.But, I cannot alter everything, and I cannot bend to every whim. There just has to be limits.

As a chef, I do have intention when creating dishes and pairing ingredients together. There is always a method and reason for what ends up on the plate. My choices are careful and deliberate, and I want my guests to experience the dishes as I intend them to taste. Now, I will leave nuts out of a salad to accommodate a nut allergy, but I draw the line at substituting another dressing that was not intended for the flavor profile of a specific salad. My general rule of thumb is that I will leave an ingredient out, but will not substitute or add ingredients that are not intended for a specific dish.

There are two issues I face with altering dishes:

1. Consistency matters. Cooks are taught to focus on repetition and to make the same dish over and over. This ensures consistency and that in a given evening the first and last preparation of that dish will be the same. Additionally, a dish has been tested multiple times before it makes it onto a menu. This testing in advance gives the kitchen team confidence that everything on the plate works when it comes time for service. On busy nights, alterations break cooks’ rhythms, and sometimes special requests do not get the same level of attention as their order-as-is counterparts. When you are firing dishes from the line in rapid succession it is not always possible to test if a newly altered dish will work as well when compared to the original.

2. Flavor matters most. I measure heat, acidity, texture and other flavors to ensure balance in a dish. I have been cooking professionally for almost 20 years and my ingredient pairings are purposeful. The style in which I cook is a personal reflection of who I am, and I do not always want to change dishes to accommodate the whim of a guest. Specifically, when I don’t feel the dish will be represented best. (In the practice of hospitality I make sure that my menu can accommodate a range of ingredients and dishes that will appeal to a variety of guests.)

Number 1 is just logistics. That’s just how it works. Number 2 is more complicated. Here’s the thing: not all flavors go together. And then comes the curveball: Everyone has different palates. This can be a matter of taste, and not who is right or wrong. One of the best things about being a chef is choosing what you want to pair together, and having your menu represent your experience. And, when you work chef’s hours — that’s usually more hours every week than everyone else — you tend to take your job pretty seriously and really care that you give your guests a great and delicious experience.

I care. I care a lot. In a perfect world I want every customer to be happy with every experience they have with my businesses. I want to think of hospitality as part of what we do in the kitchen. I want to write a menu with intent and confidence, knowing guests can make choices to suit their needs, but I know that doesn’t always work out as perfectly as I hope.

Many times I have had guests call prior to their reservation to discuss any concerns of dietary restrictions. I am always more than happy to have a discussion with them and make sure they will be accommodated. Hospitality should not be an occasional practice, and sometimes finding the right solution takes a little give and take. The goal of the chef is to delight guests and treat them with care and hospitality, while also maintaining the integrity of their craft and the careful intention that goes into each dish.

Richa, Laundry MiT

City Restaurants Multiply, Despite High-Profile Closures

The widely held notion that rising rents are making it nearly impossible to survive as a restaurant in the city received its ultimate endorsement this summer when celebrity restaurateur Danny Meyer said the Union Square Café would move from its longtime home on East 16th Street.

Mr. Meyer’s high-profile indictment of his rent bill played into the narrative of the struggling New York restaurant that has been amplified by a growing number of food blogs that chronicle every cafe and bistro’s closing in granular detail.

The numbers suggest, however, that the last decade has seen a boom for the industry, despite higher rents, a more demanding clientele and additional layers of red tape, including a letter-grade health-rating system from the city. The number of permits for restaurants, bars and cafes rose more than 27% to 23,705 at the start of fiscal year 2015 this July from 18,606 in fiscal year 2006, according to the city Department of Health.

Industry observers say more chefs looking to have their own place and dinner-party impresarios going pro have defied the odds and taken on rents that can climb above $15,000 a month in some Manhattan neighborhoods.

The Union Square Café had been in its location for nearly 30 years and is credited with helping to transform the once-dodgy neighborhood. A representative for Mr. Meyer declined to disclose the rent increase and said they planned to move when their lease is up at the end of 2015.

Last month, the owner of Angelica Kitchen, a vegetarian institution in the East Village, put out a plea to patrons to come often to help the restaurant stay afloat. The rent has risen to more than $22,000 a month. In its early days at a different location on St. Mark’s Place, the restaurant paid $450 a month. “How many more dragon bowls can I sell?” said owner Leslie McEachern.

September saw the closure of Yaffa Café, an East Village restaurant with simple food and a popular backyard. These are just a few high-profile examples from recent weeks, though actual numbers of closings are difficult to obtain. Some experts said many dining spots had fared poorly in part because they opened 15 or 20 years ago—the typical life of a lease—when rents were much lower.

“The ones that have been around that are very successful probably are surprised when their lease expires because they’ve had a nice run,” said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, a trade group.

Mr. Spinola said landlords had raised rents because of increased costs and increased demand for retail space—in part from more restaurants. “Higher rents are happening because there’s greater interest in opening up restaurants so there’s a greater demand on space,” he said.

Brooklyn, where retail rents are significantly lower than in Manhattan, and where the dining scene is light on haute cuisine and heavy on craft beer and homemade pickles, has seen the biggest percentage increase in new restaurants over the last five years.

Jaime Mendoza sets up tables in the dining room of the newly opened Le Fond in Greenpoint. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal

The number of eating establishments in Brooklyn grew 10% to 5,658 at the start of fiscal year 2014, from 5,151 in 2009, according to the health department. Manhattan saw a 6% rise—to 9,654 establishments.

Veterans of New York’s unforgiving culinary scene question the staying power of the thousands of new dining spots.

“The restaurant industry is a high growth industry, but it is also a high turnover industry,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a trade group.

Drew Nieporent, the owner of Tribeca Grill and the Nobu chain of Japanese restaurants, said the phrase “fools rush in” came to mind when he looked at new restaurateurs. “If the rents were reasonable, I would have opened 20 more restaurants than I have today,” he said.

The numbers don’t indicate how much of the rise in permits has been driven by bars, casual cafes and takeout spots—which industry experts cite as the engine of the sector’s growth—as opposed to traditional sit-down restaurants.

Knowing the odds are stacked against new restaurants, Jake Eberle still decided to open a French bistro in Greenpoint two weeks ago. Mr. Eberle, 35 years old, a former chef de cuisine at the Lambs Club in Midtown, said it helped that rents in Greenpoint were about a third of even nearby Williamsburg. Le Fond has enjoyed a few glowing reviews in its early days.

“My father is a business owner, and I just always wanted to be my own boss and have control,” he said.

Still, Le Fond is likely to face challenges drawing clientele to a side street with few other restaurants. On a recent Tuesday evening—to be sure, a traditionally slow night in the restaurant business—it had about 10 customers at peak dining hour.