Nick: Welcome to Bar and Restaurant Breakthroughs podcast episode 13. Today we have Paul Barron of the Foodable Network, and today we’re going to discuss food trends that are making an impact in the bar and restaurant scene. Paul, thanks for being with us today.
Paul: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Nick.
Nick: Not a problem. Before we get started, do you mind telling us a little bit about what you do now with the Foodable Network and really how you got started in the hospitality industry?
Paul: Sure. The network itself is about three years old. I’m the CEO and founder of it. My involvement of launching Foodable came from my passion around the media business for the restaurant space. That’s about 25 years in the making, so I love it when people say, “Wow, Foodable is doing so great. It’s an overnight success.” It was 25 years in the making. But I fell into the restaurant industry.
I was actually working for Microsoft as a tech lead for the retail systems division, and my job was to assist restaurant owners and brands – most of it was bigger brands – with their technology. So that was kind of how I fell in love with the space, started doing some consulting in it on the technology side, fell in love with media, and that was in 1993 and 1994. I’ve been in food media and all around the space ever since.
Nick: Awesome. One other important question I want to ask you before we get started with this is, what would you say is probably the most important thing that you’ve learned in the hospitality industry in the bar and restaurant business?
Paul: A lot of people say, “Innovate or die” in the space, but when – I kind of cut my teeth on a category called Fast Casual, and was lucky enough to catch it at a very early stage. And what made Fast Casual so unique and why it’s a $60 billion dollar industry today with really all the successful brands was because the operators that started and developed those new brands had this insatiable hunger to innovate, to get better, to do some things that were different than what was being accepted in the industry.
I think the bar industry is kind of in that same position right now, because you have legacy bar owners and you have new upstart guys that have never been in the bar business, and innovation is the number one thing that you have to constantly be learning and innovating your business to succeed.
Nick: Yes. That’s one big thing that Peter Drucker and Tony Robbins always talk about is you’ve got to be innovative. You’ve got to keep bringing new ideas, because people get tired of the old stuff. You’ve got to bring new ideas all the time.
Nick: So what are you seeing now in the restaurant and bar business with different food trends that are really starting to take off that owners and operators probably should not ignore? What are you seeing that’s just kind of blowing up that could really make an impact for bar and restaurant owners around the country?
Paul: We have a show called Across the Bar, and that show covers bar trends and drink builds across the country. We’ve been in about, I’d say, 150 bars in the last few years, and these are everything from a five-star hotel bar to a mom and pop concept to a swanky underground speakeasy – you name it. So we’ve seen a lot of different angles, and one thing that is clearly evolving as a go-to or a must-have for any bar business is being able to start to blend in the match or the pairing to their culinary programs.
Now, whether that’s a savory aspect in their bar menu or if it’s actually building a whole concept of a bar menu that’s aligned with a chef’s menu and trying to create a whole experience from both beverage and food. So we’re seeing quite a few mixologists and bartenders and owners really kind of go in that direction.
Nick: OK. Let’s take sports bars, for example. Are there any new burger trends or small plate trends, anything like that that you’ve seen, or certain menu items that are kind of just out of the ordinary, that have really taken off?
Paul: I think artisan has kind of become the buzzword, or local. It continues to be a huge part of it. And sports bars, I think just because of their ability to be so localized in essence – if you look at someone in St. Louis or Kansas City, a barbecue aspect is going to be there. So I think staying with the local trends that kind of match up with those areas that these bars are in – what happens so many times in sports bars that we’ve seen is they kind of get into that rut of buying and/or going down the common route of standard distribution. “Hey, I’m going to have wings and fries and [inaudible 0:05:19], this and that.”
Consumers are so much smarter these days, so they’re really looking, even at a sports bar, for something just a little bit different. Maybe it’s a grass-fed burger. Maybe it’s a different spin on nachos. Maybe it’s a whole different menu category that’s aligned with craft beer and pairing certain kinds of food to that craft beer. That really works when you localize the menu, and I think that can help any bar owner, even if it is a sports bar owner.
Nick: Yeah. And exactly with what you said, sports bar owners, and probably even restaurant owners too, get into that rut of just doing the same thing over and over. Just a few years ago – I’m not the greatest expert in the kitchen by any means, and I had hired a chef to come out to bring some new ideas to us. We were doing a Taco Tuesday, and it was just your regular chicken or beef tacos. And I said, “You know what? Everybody is doing this. I want something completely unique.” He came in and did five different types of street tacos, of just crazy different types of recipes, and that really blew up for us. Then we also started doing a Buffalo Chicken Egg Roll, and we’re the only place in town that does them and that’s been our number one seller.
Really what led me to that, and another question I want to go to you on and you’ll probably say the same thing, is for owners and operators who know they need to make changes and just don’t know how to make them, what would be your advice to someone who knows they want to change? They’re willing to invest in that change to grow their business. Where should they go and where should they look to bring an expert in to help them with new menu ideas?
Paul: There are a few consultant groups that do a really good job with thinking outside the box, but one thing I have found, especially within the restaurant industry, is the comradery between operators. So whether you’re a bar owner or a restaurant owner, a lot of times if you look inside your own city or your own network area, it’s likely that you’ve got someone that could definitely be a mentor and/or has seen things or is doing things completely different, whether it’s someone in the Southwest or the fresh-mex category that might help somebody over here in the Asian or in a sports bar category. I think look to your local market, and also look to people that are, in some cases, outside the restaurant business but maybe they’re in either specialty foods or in some sort of craft beer development. Look to those kind of niche little markets.
We have a few of those here in Miami that have kind of sprung up, and a whole neighborhood is created now around these craft artisans. And you can go into these neighborhoods, do your exploration or your study, and there is so much you can take away just in terms of ideas. It’s how big brands do it when they develop new menu items. If they’re trying to do something in Asia, they go to Bangkok. If they’re trying to do something in Texas or in great barbecue, they go to south Texas and Austin and really immerse themselves in it. So I think sometimes people overlook that opportunity. Within your own market, there is usually a very rich community, in some facet or another. You just have to think outside the box.
Nick: Right. And then maybe find other successful restaurants and bars and maybe model a little bit of what they’re doing? Would you say that as well?
Paul: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there are a lot of farms. At least here in South Florida, we have tons of farms that do great things from artisan herbs, which can blend into mixology aspects, to different types of vegetables and fruits and things like that that can start to be applied into your menu, and/or can go into the culinary or the savory side in developing a menu. That’s not something that you’re going to find in the pages of a Sysco manual or a US Foods manual that’s like, how do I create something really innovative for my customer?
Nick: Yeah. And there’s one other thing I want to point out is something that I’ve done that’s been really helpful as well. We’ve got a really big email list, and I’m always going to my customers and asking them what they want. I set up a really simple Google Form saying, “Hey, we’re trying to come up with some new food items and we just want to get some ideas. Would you mind giving us your opinion?” And they go there, and they give us tons of different ideas. I’ll also ask them, “Have you had something somewhere else that just isn’t around here? We really want some different, unique ideas.” We’ve pulled in some great, great concepts and ideas just from that.
I’ve always learned that when it comes to business, it’s not about what we want. It’s obviously about what the customers want. They’re the ones coming in and paying. So figure out what it is they want, and then be able to deliver it to them. When they see that you’re listening to them, that pretty much wows them that, “Wow, they’re really trying to give us what we want.” So I would throw that in there too to anybody who is listening or watching, that that can be pretty beneficial as well.
So let’s say there are a lot of bar or restaurant owners out there whose business isn’t doing as well as they want, their food business isn’t doing as well as they want. What advice would you give them on increasing those food sales, like marketing strategies? What could someone who is stuck do to take it to the next level?
Paul: I think a lot of times what happens with most restaurant operators is they have really weak marketing. When I say weak marketing, I mean they haven’t developed or they don’t believe they have a brand. So in many cases, it can be as simple as developing a really nice menu that has some branded product in there, and also using just very basic recognizable brand elements. So whether you’re using a certain kind of cheese that might be recognizable or you’re using a Boar’s Head product or you’re using something that shows that you’ve put a little bit of thought into it, building a marketing element around your menu is the first step, because you can start to create value there.
The other thing is you can start to expand outside your comfort zone with doing things like chef takeovers or bartender takeovers, and these are usually guest chefs or bartenders that you bring in from neighboring cities. If it’s a chef, you have somebody come over from another sports bar or another restaurant across town or the next city over and do an X night, whether it’s Street Taco night like you were mentioning, or it’s something unique that kind of brings a little different angle.
It’s almost like what you see in the brand business where they’re doing limited time offers where they test menus and find out what people really want in those local markets. Sometimes, you might have a certain set of guests that want one thing and/or can kind of powerhouse through the popular elements on a menu. But in many cases, you might find stuff that is very innovative and different that may open up a whole new market for you.
And as you guys know, that word of mouth is huge in being able to get there. An example would be that you do a popup three weekends in a row with new chefs each weekend and have street tacos one week. The next week it’s a new type of slider, and the week after that, it’s a craft beer pairing with something else. You kind of gauge the presence, but what you’ve done is started to create an event around it. Now you’ve got that whole viral element going, and you can learn so much from that. That’s a huge feedback loop in just learning what people are liking and not liking, and quickly now take all those little tests that you did and apply them to your menu long term.
Nick: I love that idea, and I never really thought about that. We did a guest bartending event, but it was something for a local charity here a few months ago and it did really well. I like the idea. I never really thought about this with different chefs. How would you go about, number one, finding bigger name or well-known type of places outside of your area?
I’m in Rockford, Illinois, 60 miles west of Chicago, so let’s just use me for example. If I wanted to do this and say, “Hey, for four weeks, I want to run this event type of thing where we’re bringing in these different chefs where I can talk them up, build up their credibility, and people will want to come see them.” How would you start that process? Because I think a lot of people listening and watching would be really interested in doing something like that. I think that’s a great idea. How would you reach out to them and know who to reach out to?
Paul: Yeah, and it’s hit and miss in the beginning. It’s tough to get to the upper echelon chefs, so like in our Top 25 Foodable Cities, we rank the best restaurants in every city including Chicago. But what happens is you have a lot of emerging chefs who haven’t quite yet made a name for themselves. That’s your target market. You want to get the guys before they become famous. You’re not going to get a Grant Achatz from Chicago. He’s just too busy. Or Rick Bayless – those guys are just – they get 100 requests a week.
You want people who are on the up and coming, and you’re aiding them on exposing their own brand. So it’s a win-win for you and the chef. And in some cases, they may say, “Let’s do a reciprocating where you send somebody over to my restaurant and I’ll send someone over to your restaurant. We’ll play on two different menus and we work together on trying to build each other’s business.” In many cases, it’s not competitive, so it’s pretty easy to do that.
Nick: Awesome. I like that. One of the last questions I want to ask you, Paul – and thanks, this is great information. What is your definition of success in the bar and restaurant business?
Paul: I think the end of the game is – there are two things I look at. You’re either a person who looks at success as: I’ve been able to sustain my business and do the plus-one. And if you’re capable of taking a concept and opening a second concept or that second – whether it’s a direct model or a derivative, that’s a huge sign that you’ve started the process on success. That’s how, whether you’re a Lettuce Entertain You group with Rich Melman there in Chicago who has opened 25 brands, or a Danny Meyer who’s got 25 brands, or a Sam Fox who has bars and restaurants all over the southwest, those guys were in that model. They were that plus-one. So it’s getting your concept to be able to scale.
I think the other form of success is just being able to affect people’s lives, whether it’s your employees or it’s your community’s lives. So there are two routes you can take. Some of it is financial success. Some of it is more personal success. It kind of depends on which one you are.
Nick: Exactly. Paul, for bar and restaurant owners who want cutting edge information to grow their food sales and get innovative ideas, what are the best resources through your Foodable Network for them?
Paul: Sure. There are several areas of it. Of course, just check the national blog which is all of our national news and has tons of operator stories and tips which are coming from all over the country and in some cases worldwide. We publish about 75 new articles and videos a month. Our show Across the Bar is a great way to learn new recipes that bartenders from around the world are doing, so just hit our show page. And then our lab section, which is just Foodablelabs.com, if you’re a bigger bar owner and you’re looking for deeper insights, that is a big part of our business is some of the data that we collect from the beverage industry that can assist in terms of identifying certain trends or customers.
Nick: Awesome, sounds good. Well, what I’ll do in the show notes for YouTube and the blog and everything is put some of those links to those shows. So for anybody who is listening or watching, you guys can just click the links down below. Paul, I appreciate your time. I know you’re a busy, busy man. Great, great episode, and I’ll look forward to seeing you in Chicago at the restaurant show.
Paul: Yeah, it’s going to be great, Nick. I’ll see you there.
Nick: All right, sounds good. Thank you.
Paul: Bye bye.
Nick Fosberg is known as one of the highest paid, marketing and promotional consultants in the bar & restaurant industry and he owns 2 bar / restaurants in the Chicagoland area. He's famous for creating some of the highest grossing digital marketing promotions in the history of the bar & restaurant business..... without spending a penny on marketing. All done through e-mail & Facebook posts. Click here to get a free copy of my latest book.