I've become pretty good at spotting trends. After 10 years working as a business news reporter, I've seen the popularity of business ideas and ventures wax and wane.
When a new business opens, generally I can tell if it will succeed based on its business plan, target market, where it is as far as market saturation of similar businesses and where it is on the timeline of such ventures enjoying strong public support.
I have not always been good at this.
Walking through the front door of Union and Finch, a new bistro pub on Union Street in Allentown, I was reminded of a poor, poor prediction I made 20 years ago.
Union and Finch’s predecessor at the location was J.P. O’Malley’s, an Irish-themed pub serving traditional bar food that opened in the early 1990s.
It was among the first bars in the Lehigh Valley to sell a wide variety of craft beers as early pioneers in the craft brewing industry, just as Sam Adams and Pete’s Wicked Ale were just starting to make names for themselves.
I was in my early 20s and it was an exciting experience. Who knew there was more out there than Bud and Coors Light?
And, boy did these new brews taste better.
While I enjoyed the quality and variety of beer, I failed to realize the beer industry was changing dramatically.
My mother and I attended an event promoting a local micro-brew startup business. It was seeking financial backers so it could launch into the growing market for new and different beers.
I decided against putting my money where my mouth often was – and recommended that my mother skip the investment, as well.
The reasoning? It was all just a silly trend that would peak in a year or two and all of these small brewers would be out of business.
Despite the better taste, the drinking public would soon grow tired of paying the “exorbitant” price of $3 a pint for a beer, I thought, when it could get an entire pitcher of one of the “big name beers” for the same price. Craft brews quickly would go the way of the grunge look, sun-dried tomatoes and other early ’90s trends.
Today, there is an historic number of small and independent breweries across the nation, and the craft brew market was at nearly $106 billion in 2015, according to the National Brewers Association. And the industry continues to grow.
So now, what about the current boom in bistros – such as the pub that is now in that well-known corner bar space in Allentown?
When the first establishments of the sort started popping up in the region, modeled after the trendy joints that have been popular with New York “hipsters” in recent years, my “fad” radar instantly went off.
Instead of getting a $7 burger with ketchup and mustard, were people going to pay $14 for a “pate de boeuf” on an “artisan grain baguette” with “freshly made tomato jam” and “hand blended aioli of locally sourced mustard seed?”
It seems a bit “much.” Can’t I just get some hot wings?
EATING IT UP, FOR NOW
Despite my early hesitation to accept the trend, it seems that many of the region’s newer restaurants are embracing the bistro concept. From Grain in Allentown to the Mint in Bethlehem and Maxim’s 22 in Easton, the Lehigh Valley is filling up with bistro-style eateries, and the public seems to be eating it up.
I’ll admit, of the couple of places I tried, the drinks were interesting, the food was strange but tasty and the atmosphere made me feel more like I was having an experience versus just grabbing a quick bite and a beer.
And with the buy local and farm-to-table movements in the industry clearly remaining strong, such establishments may have a foothold on the hearts and stomachs of the community.
So is the bistro concept here to stay or a trend that will have restaurateurs switching back to basic bar food in a few years?
I won’t even venture a guess.