Eggs? Grilled Cheese? Food Chains Say ‘Niche’ Pays

A decade ago, when buffet chains, fast-food outlets and family-dining franchises were expanding their menus, attempting to cater to almost every taste, a singular focus on an item such as the egg would have seemed like a stamp of doom. But now, with the success of narrowly themed concepts like the 260-plus-unit Noodles & Company and the 126-unit Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers (which offers only its namesake product, plus fries, toast and coleslaw), restaurants that do one thing–and do it well–are gaining traction.

The secret is in picking an item with enough broad appeal and versatility to anchor a menu. PB Loco, a gourmet peanut-butter sandwich chain that started franchising in 2005, got great reviews for its unique flavor combinations. The problem was, the concept didn’t appeal to breakfast and dinner crowds; even for lunch, the grade-school staple felt more like an occasional novelty than a regular meal. The company started closing stores in early 2008. A small flurry of cereal-only restaurants opened and flamed out in the mid-2000s, going down for the same reasons.

Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a restaurant research and consulting firm in Chicago, says narrowly focused restaurants need to choose their offerings wisely. “What’s at the center of the plate? Is it substantial enough for people to think of as a meal?” he asks. “Noodles & Company broadened its menu to add sandwiches; they have salads, soups, proteins and a good beverage choice. And people are comfortable having pasta at the center of the plate.”

Continue reading . . .