Part 3: Smaller brands, offbeat products win big in trend toward higher-end eating

| by S.A. Whitehead
Part 3: Smaller brands, offbeat products win big in trend toward higher-end eating

Luxury QSR. It's really an idea born out of simple psychology and the idea that in the midst of our modern-day hustling and bustling, rewarding ourselves with a little something special can be a great coping mechanism. It appears the food service industry has not only embraced this idea, but has also been working to extend it to all, even those who haven't the time or money for leisurely, lavish dining.

Luxury QSR rewards us with quick, small touches of the "good stuff," even if it's take-out. Even the names of the vendors are kind of tony — for instance, the centuries-old Brands of Britain, which produces everything from top-of-the-line preserves to ultra-high-end cocktail mixers. Or there is the Ancient Grains line from Smart Flour Foods, featuring niche products such as naturally gluten-free pizza dough and sandwich buns made with exotic grains like amaranth that was originally cultivated by the Aztecs, or the staple of Ethiopian culture, teff. 

The high-end mixers and marmalades of Brands of Britain

Regardless of the moniker, it's clear that the current move toward the slightly luxurious or offbeat is giving some vendors a positive jolt through new and growing affiliations with large restaurant chains. For instance, Brands of Britain President Mark Rajeski has been pleasantly surprised by the growing interest among restaurant chains in the company's ultra-high-end preserves and lemon curd.  

Of course, the stuff is too pricey to dole out in condiment packets at a typical fast food joint, but the chef for a fast casual brand might pick up a few jars of lemon curd to create a spectacular limited-time dessert to drive customers in over the summer. 

"Whereas we've always built business for some of our brands at very high-end hotels and restaurants, we're now finding that a number of fast casual chains are interested in some of our brands because they are really upgrading their offerings — and actually that's been happening a lot quicker than we anticipated," Rajeski said. "We find that to be a very exciting new piece of business for us and, as I say, it's even ahead of where we thought it would be at this time … because across the board, the trend of places that are actually utilizing our products in areas where we traditionally haven't been used, is happening much faster than we expected."

Another Brands of Britain line, Fever-Tree tonics, has seen a flood of new business in support of the burgeoning interest in high-end liquor and rediscovered cocktails like the Moscow Mule. Rajeski said this is driving a lot of interest in super-premium tonics, ginger beer and other esoteric mixers.

"Fever-Tree has been a remarkable success here in this market,” Rajeski said. “We hit a real void, I think, where [cocktail] mixers, in general, have not kept pace with what is going on in mixology and the spirits world, where we're finding many more craft and premium spirits. But, the mixers on the market have been very, very low-grade. … So in the last three to four years, restaurant beverage managers in fast casual and the like have recognized if they're going to improve their beverage program, one of the things they seriously have to look at now is the mixers. … because if three-quarters of your cocktail is the mixer, you need to make sure you use the best with these higher-end spirits, and that is catching on at a fast rate."

Pizza dough with a touch of the Aztecs

Other brands, like Smart Flour Foods are looking to fill trend-related openings, like the gluten-free movement that has infiltrated just about every sector of food service. It's a perfect niche for Smart Flour's Ancient Grains products, which are not only naturally gluten-free, but are also accompanied with a kind of mystique, since they incorporate millennia-old grains like amaranth and sorghum in modern-day products such as pizza dough, burger buns and pancake mix.

"We're in over 1,000 restaurants nationwide," said Tanya Phillips of Smart Flour Foods. "So we're in several big chains, like Mellow Mushroom is the first that comes to mind … and there are a lot of bigger chains we're working on right now that are well known. … [P]eople are just trying to eat a  little healthier, and pizza's not going to go away. This way, they can indulge in something a little bit healthier and not feel guilty about it. That's a win-win for everybody because  you can still have comfort foods and still get some protein and calcium and extra fiber in your diet."

It would seem that these smaller, more exclusive brands have an opportunity before them. The trend toward indulgent ingredients and other items across food service will undoubtedly make eating out — whether fast food or fast casual — more exciting and perhaps even a little educational.

It also makes the jobs of restaurateurs, menu developers, chefs and even frontline employees a little tougher, but could also be the kind of creative shot in the arm that makes just about any job a little more interesting. 

Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability, Food & Beverage, Hot Products

S.A. Whitehead

Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of and after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.

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