"We've got a high percentage of regulars," explains Hazlett. "I'm amazed by how people will eat the same sandwich for a year, but never want to try the next one down the list." Here's one thing you can be sure of: The next one down the list won't be covered with molten, tangerine-colored cheese sauce, the kind you see on the Arby's TV commercials of today. Hazlett doesn't quite get it: People don't understand that a roast beef sandwich could be so good, it's good plain. "We've had so many people request that crazy cheese sauce, we actually got a can of it in here," admits Hazlett. "But we're afraid to use it. Whatever it is. It's ridiculous."

If he thinks that's ridiculous, wait till he starts getting requests for the sandwiches to be served in shelf-stable squeeze tubes.

TABLEHOPPING:

BROWN BAG PRICES, CHINA SERVICE: I lunched recently at Aquavit, where they've rolled out their brand-new $10 lunch specials--truly the buy of the year. For $10 you get all the fancy china, the fancy service, the fancy room, the fancy house-made breads with complimentary things to drizzle on them, and lunch: a bowl of for-the-table green salad with chopped tomatoes and sliced olives (odd), as well as an entrée of either fish, pasta, meat, or soup and a sandwich. I tried glazed beef brisket with a sort of butter foam piled here and there on the plate. It came with a Korean-accented cabbage salad and a vast mound of mashed sweet potatoes. My dining companion had a pan-seared trout fillet. The beef was great: intensely focused, rich, the buttery foam sauce a delight, the kimchi-laced salad a pleasant surprise. The trout was good, and, at $10 a head, I definitely felt like I was getting away with murder. I predict that when word gets out, tables are going to be rarer than March roses, so make your reservations now. Aquavit; 80 S. 8th St., IDS Center, Mpls.; (612) 339-6912.

TASTE THE CONCEPT: Concepts--they're what's for dinner. I'm dazzled lately by the way restaurant companies think their business plans matter to people trying to decide where to eat out. Consider Hops Restaurant, Bar, and Brewery, which proudly announces in a press release that itself, "a Florida-based casual dining concept," will open its second Minnesota location in Eden Prairie. Whatever for? Why, because "the commercial and residential growth in Eden Prairie and the close proximity of the downtown Minneapolis area has helped the location become a major dining and entertainment destination." Yup, Highway 212 and Leona Road. Screw down your courage and just try to shoulder through the revelry of Leona Road, that's what I always say. Additionally: "The new Hops location will also better serve our guests who have been traveling from the Eden Prairie area to our Maple Grove location." Which surely tickles the Maple Grove location pink. Hops also helpfully provided information that their ideal consumer is 25 to 55, college-educated, and earns $40K to $100K. Who's hungry? For more info, consult www.hopsrestaurants.com.

TASTE THE CONCEPT, EAT THE PROTOTYPE: Yet as quickly as Hops wins the Crown of Annoyance, Ground Round snatches it away. Or not Ground Round, but their overlord, American Hospitality Concepts Inc., which "announced today the debut of its new Ground Round Grill & Bar prototype in Maple Grove." (Does that make this prototype a debutante? And Miss Manners, must I send orchids? Please advise.) "AHCI aims to transform the Ground Round's image," they add, pointlessly. Well, who wouldn't? Why, I try to transform the Ground Round's image whenever I see one; the last time I was at Ground Round, I threw rough-hewn serapes hither and yon, creating an exotic atmosphere shattered only by the objections of those they covered. But enough wisecracking--pay attention already. For "Tom Russo, chairman, chief executive, and president of AHCI, [has] stated, 'The launch of the new Ground Round prototype in Maple Grove is the culmination of three years of extensive market research and testing. This site epitomizes the new look and feel of Ground Round, combining a fresh décor with an updated menu that appeals to our loyal guests as well as new customers." Further, the press release informs: "The prototype features a lighter interior... New signage and a tan, burgundy red, and brick color scheme complement the restaurant's updated exterior and enhance its curb appeal." Why, if they needed curb appeal, they should have just asked me. My friend Rags Raspberries needs work. Perhaps most important to the common diner: "The new logo, while similar to the current logo, signals to the guest an updated look and feel." What? Doesn't this imply that all the other Ground Rounds lie moldering about the countryside, positively festering with ancient logos? Even as we speak, the company is "specifically looking to grow the Ground Round brand in the Northeast quadrant of the country." Good luck! For more info, consult www.ahconcepts.com.

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