From the June 2006 issue of Startups

These days, the name of the game in the restaurant industry is differentiation--if you specialize in one product and you know your stuff, hungry customers will flock to you for a taste. "There are currently about 1 million restaurants in the U.S., representing about $430 billion a year in sales, with [about] $1.3 billion per day [worth of food] consumed in restaurants around the country," says Aaron Allen, founder and CEO of Quantified Marketing Group, an Orlando, Florida-based strategic marketing and PR firm for the restaurant industry. "When you look at that kind of competitive landscape, you have to stand out."

The restaurant industry at large is just now beginning a general movement toward specialization, but some innovative entrepreneurs have gotten a head start. Suzanne Levinson, 40, opened New York City-based Pommes Frites in 1997. Inspired by what she found in Europe, she opened a shop of her own that specializes in authentic Belgian fries--crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside and, most important, fried twice. Staying true to the Belgian experience, patrons can choose from 30 different sauces, including customer favorite sweet mango chutney. Fries may not be such a unique idea, but it doesn't take much more than a nibble to taste the difference. Says Levinson, "I came in with a new twist on an old product. That's what draws people in." Levinson estimates that she goes through 10 tons of potatoes a month and projects 2006 sales of approximately $500,000.

But specializing in a single product can be a big gamble. After all, how do you know which specialty will attract the crowds--and the money? There's another movement in the restaurant industry that might just shed some light. "Nationally, what we're seeing is a consumer trend toward more authenticity and bolder flavors," says Allen. "[People] are looking for cultural immersions, to be better educated about products." In August 2004, Ori Apple answered this demand by launching Hummus Place in New York City. Apple knew there was a need for a restaurant in the city specializing in authentic hummus when he couldn't find one as a customer. At Hummus Place, 80 percent of the supplies come from Israel, including the olive oil, chickpeas and tahini. The food remains true to its origins and is very simple--meals consist of hummus, pita and assorted garnishes. "We show a lot of people how hummus should really taste, and they love it," says Apple, 34. "People who eat it in Israel know what hummus is, but over here, [Americans] haven't really tasted it before." Apple now has two locations in the city and is projecting year-end sales of more than $1 million.