In his opinion, occurrences like this will only become more common. Plus, the widespread adoption of QR code menus and the advent of ghost kitchens have freed up brands to test new items in a quicker, more cost-effective way. Before COVID, so-called blackboard specials were mostly limited to independents or smaller restaurant groups. Now, Sadowsky says, multiunit brands like Twin Peaks, which has more than 80 locations, can do something similar. In January, the chef had three 8-foot-tall whiteboards filled with tentative rollouts that corresponded with seasons, special events, and holidays.
But even with a new level of adaptability, Twin Peaks, like every other restaurant, is constrained by current challenges to the supply chain and labor force. Inflation is also putting operators in a double bind; the increased cost of goods and labor may force restaurants to raise prices, but it could come at the same time when inflationary forces leave many consumers cash-strapped.
“Value and affordability are a must right now for guests, and we will likely see that continue for months to come. However, restaurants are going to have to offset that need for affordability,” says Mike Colonna, president and CEO of NORMS Restaurants, a diner concept with nearly two dozen locations across Southern California.
He offers Domino’s as an example. Rather than raise prices, the pizza chain reduced the number of wings in its $7.99 deal from eight to six in January, citing inflation, not the supply chain.
Trimming the number of SKUs could also drive value, by curtailing costs and streamlining menus. Colonna predicts more operators will condense menus moving forward, and he’s not alone in that assessment. Veggie Grill’s Pillan and Twin Peaks’ Sadowsky share that assessment, and Noodles & Company’s Graff adds that the advent of one-off virtual brands will help restaurants test new menu items in a nimble, commitment-free manner.
Dritsas, however, has a different perspective.
“Since we opened back up after the pandemic, we've had a full menu. We didn't do an abbreviated menu at any point,” Dritsas says, adding that the only exception was when the restaurant first had to close and rely on off-premises meal kits. “So if anything, with ops complexity, we've added a little bit more because we believe that if we can outperform our peer set, we’ll be the destination where people want to go.”
Even though Whiskey Cake isn’t changing the number of items it sources, it is doubling down on where it sources from, with an even greater commitment to local sourcing.
Twin Peaks is also finding renewed benefits in this strategy. Sadowsky points out that what’s considered local can vary, with some sourcing regionally and others staying within a 50-mile radius. Either way, progress is being made to build a better system.
“The globalized food chain was so broken when COVID hit. Now people are like, ‘Maybe I will just go support my local butcher even if it's a few more dollars because I like him and I had a good experience during COVID,’” Sadowsky says. “The longer haul freight is getting so expensive that … it kind of leveled the playing field. Would you rather pay a farmer that's in your neighborhood $3 for a carrot or would you pay the commercial guy $3 for the carrot, but $2 of that went to the shipping?”
It’s an interesting dynamic that at a time when flavor profiles are expanding far and wide, the ingredients themselves are coming from closer to home. So while the cuisine of the moment and Instagram-worthy dishes are bound to cycle rapidly, they will be doing so within the boundaries of these much greater shifts. And it’s something consumers are likely to value, too.
“People have opened up a little bit more,” Dritsas says. “I think there's more of an appreciation for being able to experiment, open up a little bit, being able to try different things.”