“As the Millennial generation gets away from the ownership of things, there’s an ownership of experiences [at work] here,” Paco Underhill, the author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, told me. “Being in a place that brings back memories or creates memories is actually cheaper than buying those memories.”
Appropriately, those reserving a spot for dinner at Saved By the Max must do so online, where a diner is prompted to “book” and “choose” their “experience.” The popularity of the pop-up is pretty apparent; originally conceived as a month-long endeavor, Saved By the Max has extended its run through the end of 2016. When I asked Derek Berry, the creator and co-owner of the pop-up, what the strangest thing to happen so far was, he told me he had received inquiries from couples hoping to get married in the space.
Of course, nostalgia itself has a shelf life. Earlier this year, Johnny Rockets, the fading 1950s-themed casual burger chain, announced it would be ditching its chrome scheme and tabletop jukeboxes in favor of something more current—white brick walls, industrial lamps, wood planking, and community tables. In one swift maneuver, graduates of Guadalcanal become graduates of Gowanus Canal.
“What we needed was an environment and a setting that people felt was more contemporary, and to compete with all the other modern burger concepts out there,” the company president and CEO Charles Bruce told Nation’s Restaurant News. “Every brand goes through an evolution to stay relevant. We’re no different.”
While the company declined to comment on what its new design is meant to convey, there were elements of an ideological repositioning as well. “What made a good store in 2000 and what makes a good store in 2016 is different and they are often a reflection of the changes in us,” Underhill added.
This evolution for Johnny Rockets includes an emphasis on “fresh never frozen 100-percent domestic farm-raised beef” and “fresh, farm to table” fare. (Such socialist-sounding credos would no doubt spin the head of any good McCarthyite.) This week, the 30-year-old chain also opened its very first location with a drive-thru.
Elsewhere, another experiential endeavor can be seen (literally) at play at Hard Rock Cafes, where recent remodeling efforts have prioritized space for more live performances, a Millennial substitute for passively ogling Steven Tyler’s bescarfed microphone stand. In a surreal 2011 announcement, the company also introduced healthier dining options, promising, “Whether you want to go heavy metal or rock the lighter side, we have something on the menu for you!”
These changes aren’t specific to theme restaurants, but also sit-down casual-dining chains, an industry that has been slumping for years. Applebee’s, for example, is tinkering with an open-kitchen model, electrical outlets at the bar, more local craft beers, and fewer pre-mixed cocktails.