Scratching a Niche

In a world of homogenized menus, the unique really stands out

Henry Ford is credited with the oft-repeated line, "People can have the Model T in any color, so long as it's black."

Walk into a restaurant these days and you might feel like Ford is now crafting menus instead of motors. At Happy Dog, you can order anything you'd like, so long as it's a hot dog. Sit down at Melt and dine on everything under the sun, as long as it's a grilled cheese sandwich. Noodlecat sells noodles in a bowl; Palookaville pushes chili; Barrio trades in tacos; Bogtrotters peddles hoagies; and Prime Rib Steakhouse sells, well, you know what they sell.

Welcome to the era of the niche restaurant.

Not long ago, diners were singing the holy praises of a place called The Cheesecake Factory, where one truly could order anything under the sun. Now, it seems, the mighty and fickle pendulum has swung clear to the other side.

"In nature, the only constant is change," explains Cliff Courtney, chief strategy officer of Florida-based Zimmerman Advertising.

As the agency of record for category-killing national restaurant brands, Zimmerman's stock in trade is understanding consumer demand. And lately, consumers are demanding vertical menus, notes Courtney. The opposite of the broad and general horizontal menus, these menus specialize in one main dish.

"Differentiation is the antidote to commoditization," he says. "In a world of homogenized offerings, the unique really stands out. These one-offs offer a much more unique and interesting experience."

That was precisely the rationale behind Melt Bar and Grilled, says owner Matt Fish. When he opened the first shop in 2006, he did so to differentiate himself from all other eateries in his neighborhood.

"In Lakewood, every bar or restaurant served wings and pizza and burgers," he recalls. "Everybody did a lot of everything, but nobody was doing one thing and doing it well. I focused on grilled cheese because I was trying to be incredibly different from everybody else."

That tactic not only catapulted Fish and Melt to national standing; it unwittingly launched a tidal wave of copycats. While Fish will never openly take credit for it, his success with Melt (which will open its fourth Northeast Ohio location this fall) begat all other local niche eateries. Like him, these operators are boldly staking their claims on a single dish.

"It's a great feeling to put your stamp out there saying, 'This is what we do, it's all we do,'" says Fish. "If you like it, awesome. If you don't, then maybe we're not for you."

That is certainly the case at Barroco Grill, where the Vergara family sells Colombian street food, specifically arepas. When the fun and funky cafe opened in Lakewood a couple years back, it was gambling on the notion that Cleveland diners would dig Colombian street food as much as their South American neighbors.

"This was still a risk," says owner Juan Vergara. "This is not a business we have seen here in Cleveland, and we didn't really know how people would react. So we focused on something we already knew how to make."

Because arepas — thick corn cakes stuffed with a variety of fillings — were such an unfamiliar product, the Vergaras knew that it was best to concentrate on one thing, do it well, and educate the consumer along the way.

"To us, it was really important for people to understand what we do and how we do it," adds Vergara. "I tell my staff, 'Let's explain to people how we make them.' We'll walk them into the kitchen and show them."

And respond they have: Barroco is weeks away from opening a second shop in the Warehouse District, and plans for a food truck also are in the works.

Jonathon Sawyer can certainly relate when it comes to being a culinary trailblazer. Just as Clevelanders were getting cozy with Vietnamese pho, Sawyer pulled a switcheroo and opened a shop devoted to Japanese noodles. Downtown's Noodlecat went all in on a cuisine and concept entirely foreign to most local diners.

"Having one main ingredient gives a better opportunity to have a true learning curve," Sawyer explains. "It's easier for a chef and a diner to understand one ingredient really well."

But while that's true, Sawyer says that wasn't his main motivation for concentrating on a single niche dish.

"It was based on tradition," he says. "In Japan, more so than anywhere else, they revel in the opportunity to understand and perfect one ingredient. Restaurants there might serve soba and udon in the same place because the techniques are similar, but they would never serve soba, udon, and ramen. We try to stay as true to those ideals as we can."

There are obvious benefits to the operator of a niche eatery. Inventory and ordering become infinitely simpler, with the bulk of the budget going to a few main staples. Food costs stay remarkably consistent, reducing unanticipated P&L statements. And chefs can pour all their efforts into nailing the house specialty.

"On the business side of things, the pros are simplicity and consistency," says Eric Williams, who elevated hot dogs to haute cuisine at Happy Dog. "Instead of having to create an entire menu and prep list, and maintain a stock of items, I just have to worry about creating the best hot dogs I possibly can."

And there are less obvious benefits as well, notes Williams.

"It always drove me crazy as a chef when you'd create a dish and then the customer would make all these changes. This way, the customer creates exactly what they want and how they want it," Williams says of the interactive ordering at Happy Dog.

Of course, the downside to putting all of one's eggs into a single basket is that some people hate eggs. As great as it is, Melt will never be appealing to the lactose and gluten intolerant. Arepas, as dreamy and delicious as they are, will always be "weird foreign food" to many. And some naysayers will always believe that noodles in a bowl should cost no more than Cup O' Noodles.

But perhaps the strongest force acting against the niche restaurant is fashion. Just as cupcakes are giving way to French-style macarons in the trendy dessert category, so too will some other hot new concept eventually replace the hot niche restaurant of the moment.

"It's like the life cycle of a popular club," says Sawyer. "Some of these places will need to change every five or 10 years to stay current."

As Courtney said, the only constant is change. But until the point when the pendulum swings back to the Cheesecake Factory side (God forbid), savvy operators will continue to open unique and interesting one-offs.

"Right now, they are chasing the very few remaining squares on the chessboard," says Courtney. "If there's no mac-and-cheese bar, grab it while you can. Because for a lot of operators, it's easier to own something than try and be better than what's already owned.

"This is exactly the kind of thing that makes this country great," he adds. "Only in America can you go out and open the Red, White, and Blue Apple Pie Café and have a shot."

About The Author

Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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