Hungry For Change

Hungry For Change

Don’t miss big cultural resets when assessing your competitive landscape.

Just because you win accolades in the media, there’s no guarantee that your business will flourish. Just ask restaurateur Russell Klein whose Brasserie Zentral closed in January even though it was a critics’ darling, and Star Tribune restaurant of the year in 2014.

With palates changing from whim to whim, managing inventory that can easily spoil and a lot of cash changing hands, the restaurant game is as tough as a $5 steak, and I’m hard-pressed to recall a time in my 30-plus years here when the Twin Cities saw so many “name” establishments close in a single season.

The local bastion of fine dining, La Belle Vie, closed in October after regularly topping myriad “best” lists, locally and nationally during its 17-year history. Not far behind was chef Vincent Francoual’s namesake downtown dining spot. Francoual, whose pedigree includes the legendary Le Bernardin in New York City, operated Vincent for 14 years on Nicollet Mall before calling it quits.

Seventeen was also an unlucky number for Chiang Mai Thai in Calhoun Square, which closed last year, along with one the area’s first sushi restaurants, Origami, which had operated for an impressive 26 years in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis.

A host of other closings in 2015 underlined how hard the restaurant business can be. Pracna on Main, Modern Café, Masa, Sapor, Glockenspiel, and Blue Point Restaurant and Oyster Bar were some of the better-known establishments to close their doors to diners.

While new restaurants opened at a decent rate in the past year and into 2016, it seems that there’s a movement away from finer dining, even though unemployment rates are at record lows, as are gas prices; we should have some cash on hand to go out for a very nice meal from time to time, right?

Yes and no. While we may have a little more cash on hand, there’s a greater societal shift going on, and if you’re not changing your menu, or in some cases your whole concept, you may find your business eighty-sixed.

The more sweeping changes we’re seeing in the business world, thanks to technology and a new generation on the cusp of its prime, is driving the dining scene. While many of the so-called expense account restaurants couldn’t make it through the economic meltdown of 2008-09 and subsequent recession, what’s happening now is more of a cultural shift than one driven by economic necessity.

Think about what you wore to work 10 years ago and what your office environment looked like. It was a struggle to wear jeans on a Friday, and open offices with rows of desks seemed like a relic of the 1950s. Fast-forward to today, and outside of a few professions, jeans, khakis, and untucked shirts outnumber suits at least 10 to 1, based on my informal skyway poll.

Fast-food franchises like McDonald’s and Burger King are now struggling to find their new niche, while fast-casual chains like Panera Bread and Chipotle have taken a healthy bite out of the market. (Chipotle has had its own issues of late with food safety, but that’s another story.)

Although it hasn’t hit the Twin Cities yet, we’re seeing celebrity chefs switching gears and following the trend to more casual dining. People don’t often recall that Steve Ells, who founded Chipotle, was a chef at the legendary Stars restaurant in San Francisco, which is widely credited with starting the movement that became known as California cuisine.

Chicago’s Rick Bayless—who is now only opening fast-casual locations—first opened his casual concept Xoco when a space opened up next to his full-service restaurants (Frontera Grill, Topolobampo) but he was wary of cannibalizing his business.

New York’s Danny Meyer was known for two highly regarded restaurants, Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café, when a real estate opportunity in Madison Square Park piqued his interest. What started out as a hot-dog cart experiment touched a taste nerve, and today there are 66 Shake Shack locations—including one coming to Mall of America—and counting. Our own Francoual is dipping his toe into the waters of more casual fare as well. He closed Vincent to become the culinary director of Cara Irish Pubs, which operates the Local, the Liffey, Cooper and Kieran’s.

The lesson for restaurateurs and marketers in general is that unless you understand broader societal changes outside of your immediate industry—and how they impact your business—you could very well find yourself with a concept that nobody’s hungry for.

Glenn Karwoski ( is founder and managing director of Karwoski & Courage, a marketing communications agency. He also teaches in the graduate school at the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas.

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