Thursday, December 28, 2006

Wringing out New Year's Eve

There wasn’t a word about this on the major news sites, but this is big, people: In some parts of the country, revelers will have to remain stone sober this New Year’s Eve, even if they plunk down some serious coin for one of those fancy dinner-and-dancing restaurant packages. Which means the establishments in those areas are going to lose all those high-ticket Champagne, wine and cocktail orders that give them a nice start to the next 12 months.

The party pooper is the calendar. New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday night, and many areas prohibit the sale of alcohol on the Christian Sabbath. So if residents of those areas want to toast 2007 with a glass of champagne at midnight, they’ll be doing it in their homes.

This is the first time this has happened since the year 2000. But there is a bright side: There won’t be a similar time warp back to Prohibition for another decade.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Some jousting within the King's court

Looks as if the King has discovered a joker within his ranks. The House of Whopper had to do some fast damage control after a European executive told a London newspaper that Burger King’s halt on advertising to kids in Great Britain would cut sales there “without doubt by approximately 10 to 15 percent." That translates into a loss of about $196 million, according to the Daily Telegraph story.

“It will have a major impact on our top line," Giorgio Minardi, vice president of Burger King’s northwest-Europe operations, explained to the paper. It noted that Minardi’s comments came in the first interview he’s granted since moving to BK from arch-rival McDonald’s earlier this year.

And he pretty much flubbed it, BK’s home office in Miami suggested a few hours later with a terse statement. Without mentioning Minardi or his prediction, the media release said the discontinuation of ads aimed at children would have “minimal impact.” Or at least on Burger King. The situation for Minardi’s former employer is a far different thing, suggested BK European president Peter Robinson.

"Our target consumer for many years has been 18 to 34 years old,” Robinson said in the statement. “We expect the advertising ban to have a far greater impact on our competitors who have previously targeted children as a core consumer."

Of course, those competitors won’t find out for several weeks after BK is gauging the actual impact of the halt in kids ads. The official “junk food” ban will be phased into effect starting at the end of January. But BK pledged in the fall to halt its commercials before Christmas, as indeed it did last week, in the midst of the busy holiday shopping season.

There’s been no response yet from Minardi about being contradicted by headquarters. Come to think of it, there’s been no word from him at all since his maiden interview. Why do I think it’ll be a long time until we hear from him again?

It’s a shame, too, because it’s nice to witness some actual candor in this age of media training, spin-doctoring and professional muzzlers.

Friday, December 22, 2006

6 things that shouldn’t survive 2006

When the big ball drops in Times Square on Dec. 31, we can only hope these industry annoyances pass with it:

The call-us-back-to-confirm-reservations ruse: Ahh, of course I’ll make it my responsibility to give you a confirmation call before I step into your restaurant to spend a few hundred dollars on a meal. It’s the least I can do to spare you lost sales and anxiety, not to mention effort and aggravation.

Hey, why don’t I just cook the food and serve it to myself, too? After I hang up my coat and fetch my wine selection, too.

Glasses of wine priced at the level of an entrée: America is drinking better, but price gouging has been elevated to an art. When you know a bottle of your wine selection would retail for less than twice the price of a glass, something’s wrong. Speaking as a consumer, I’d much rather pay a reasonable mark-up several times than pop for a single wallet-buster. And as a business person, I can’t help but wonder when there’ll be a backlash. Some companies are already rewriting their travel policies to deny reimbursement for alcoholic beverages consumed solo, as when you have a glass of wine with a late hotel dinner.

The pooh-poohing of the avian flu threat: Even the National Restaurant Association had predicted the much-feared disease would appear somewhere in the United States during 2006 (in the summertime, to be precise). As did many of the white-coated lab geeks who stepped before a camera now and again to warn of the dire possibilities. But, despite a few low-level scares, the dreaded disease never appeared as expected, and the public’s apprehension dissolved like Michael Jackson’s career. Which is frightening, because the danger wasn’t miscalculated; only the timing was. Yet the public seemingly believes the danger is past—that we dodged a bullet.

In truth, nothing’s changed but the perception. And that’s set the public up for a shock that could have consumers hunkering down in their basements with pots on their heads. The window for convincing them that the disease could be managed stayed open longer than expected, yet the opportunity wasn’t exploited. Instead, we have situations like the one in Marin County, Calif., where 40,000 school children recently brought home flyers warning their parents of the disease’s potentially devastating effects and encouraging them to stockpile water and other essential supplies. Oh, yeah, that’ll really help restaurant sales if an instance of avian flu is reported. And those mom and dads will be certain to let little Tyler or Tiffany head to their jobs at KFC, Houston’s, McDonald’s or any other place where they might be handling chicken.

The warnings aren’t the problem. It’s the industry’s complacency that is. It should be teaching the public that this is a virus that dies with proper cooking, so cooked chicken and poultry aren’t a threat. Yet there’s not a peep from the trade.

We can only hope that reticence will end before we hear the yelp that avian flu has indeed landed here. And keep in mind that authorities have yet to say what killed more than 2,500 ducks in a matter of days near a spring in the wilds of Idaho in mid-December. They’ve acknowledged that they’re testing the carcasses for avian flu, so the alarm could be sounded soon.

Paris Hilton’s stardom: This has absolutely nothing to do with the restaurant industry. But my list of things that should end with 2006 would be deceitfully incomplete mentioning it.

Militant shareholders: Wall Street has crowed that activists like Bill Ackman, Nelson Peltz and the crew at Pirate Capital did a service for investors by goading management to make critical strategic changes. And, indeed, the share prices of victims like McDonald’s and Wendy’s have climbed. But that assessment is based on short-term gains, not the long range. Who among the gadflies has more money, a better business mind, or a healthier portfolio than Warrant Buffet? And his strategy? Buy and hold for the long range, and don’t interfere in the day to day.

Besides, it’s hard to support the very notion that shareholders can redirect a company’s activities on their whim. It’s like championing shower mold, or naming your kid after George Steinbrenner.

Nelson Peltz’s silence: I’m still hoping for an interview with the media-shy investment activist, something that I might’ve mentioned here a time or two, and maybe in my column in Nation’s Restaurant News.

Oh, well. It’s a brand-new year. Maybe he’ll come around in ’07.

In the meantime, a happy holiday to all you readers, and thanks for your attention during this first year of The Scoop.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Don't quit the day job, Greg

I’m just the messenger on this because I hadn’t seen the ads until tonight. But I don’t think the criticism was unjustly harsh or off-target. If my friends and colleagues are any indication, Taco Bell’s attempt to allay food-safety concerns with a commercial featuring chain president Greg Creed is a waste of money. It’s not as if those associates doubt the safety of Taco Bell. As one put it, the contamination of produce at the farm level has turned dining out into a crapshoot, and the lettuce-triggered outbreak of E. coli that sickened 71 Taco Bell customers was just a stroke of bad luck for a chain that apparently did nothing wrong.

But nor did it do right by airing the spots that feature Creed. There he appears in a unit, wearing a suit, assuring patrons that it’s safe to eat in Taco Bell restaurants again. As one colleague put it, the guy doesn’t look as if he’s eaten a taco in years. Another noted that she saw the spot in Atlanta, where fright levels were minimal to start because the outbreak hadn’t extend that far south. At best, the spots do no harm. At worst, they do no good.

The Yum! Brands-owned chain might have fared better if it’d heeded the advice of my wife, who views all major fast-food chains as the handiwork of Satan. Michael Jacobson of CSPI would blush at her vehemence.

But she may be onto something this time. If Taco Bell really wants to assure patrons that fears of a food-borne illness are ungrounded, then its executives should eat lunch and dinner in the once-contaminated stores for a week straight. The canaries who put themselves in the coal mine should include the units’ managers and regional directors.

And Creed should do the same. Ideally with his family. That would do a lot more to demonstrate confidence than the most aggressive television blitz.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Live from Indy, it's norovirus!

Welcome to Meet that Pathogen, the blog entry that introduces you to the viruses and bacteria making today’s headlines. And today’s focus is none other than that current page-one favorite, that star of radio, internet and health advisory alike, the veritable Tom Cruise of micro-organisms, the norovirus.

Currently making headlines for likely sickening 370 people who ate at an Olive Garden in the Indianapolis area, the bug has also been tagged the culprit for the 975-person outbreak linked to the famed Dinosaur restaurant in Syracuse, N.Y. Around the same time, it afflicted an Applebee’s in Michigan, where dozens of patrons were infected, forcing the restaurant to close. After the place reopened, more customers were stricken, pushing the toll of victims to 250 and forcing the outlet to shut again.

Despite that recent streak of damage, the virus is relatively unknown within the restaurant industry, where cries of “Food-borne illness!” usually signal outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella or listeria. Perhaps that’s because norovirus doesn’t have to be food-borne. Indeed, authorities say it’s much more likely to be passed from person-to-person, either through direct contract, or by touching surfaces like a bathroom doorknob. The Centers for Disease Control has reportedly looked at 11 norovirus outbreaks in New York State. Only two were the result of food being contaminated. Seven resulted from an infected person spreading the contagion, which is what authorities expect was the case at the Indianapolis-area Olive Garden.

But the germ has become as common as deck chairs in the cruise-ship industry. And, indeed, one of its many aliases is cruise-ship virus. It’s also well-known as the Norwalk virus, so named after Norwalk, Ohio, where it caused a highly publicized and extensive outbreak among grade-schoolers in 1968.

The symptoms it evokes have generated a list of names for the collection of ailments, including winter vomiting disease, stomach flu and the catch-all term food poisoning. The signs include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pains, nausea, and fever is common, all of which typically pass in a matter of days.

Sanitation geeks usually wince and curse when they hear any of the bug’s names being used, not so much because of its effects on humans, but because it’s relatively difficult to eradicate. In Indianapolis, for instance, authorities reportedly told the unit’s managers to clean every hard surface with a bleach solution. The chain kept the store closed for two days to sanitize it.

This is a pathogen that, sadly, is likely to become more familiar to the foodservice industry as more outbreaks are logged. The industry perhaps has work to do in strengthening its defenses. In Indiana, officials are understandably speaking with the Olive Garden’s management about hand-washing policies. But they’re also discussing the outlet’s sick-leave policy, since three employees have tested positive for the virus.

Well, we’re out of time. Next on Meet the Pathogen: An interview with Listeria.

Friday, December 15, 2006


Taco Bell executives insist the chain’s outlets are completely safe again, but the kid-packed town of Port Washington, N.Y., apparently didn’t get the memo. A unit there, smack in the hot zone where dozens of Taco Bell patrons were sickened by E. coli in recent weeks, is usually a choice place to observe the current waistband heights and mating rituals of the skateboarding masses. But a visit during dinner tonight found the place completely empty. The only customer was an absolute imbecile who risked his health and his family’s well-being for the asinine reason of doing research for a blog that probably will be the death of him, unless he’s murdered first by his spouse, as one commentator put it. But I think my wife is starting to calm down.

Of course, it didn’t help my cause to parrot Taco Bell’s assertions that its outlets are safer than an Idaho mother’s milk, and that germ sniffers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have adjudged the outbreak officially over. Her exact response: “And you believe those idiots?”

As I saw during my visit to our local Taco Bell, she is far, far from being the only person with that conviction. After reading about outbreaks involving spinach, tomatoes, Taco Bell, Applebee’s, Taco John’s, lettuce and Olive Garden, she’s written off the chain sector as the Chernobyl of the restaurant industry, with inherent dangers that only a Borat-caliber moron would brave for the sake of a chalupa. And the people safeguarding that noxious lot, she and others seem convinced, are as spin-doctor-y and smoke-spouting as the Moscow bureaucrats who tried to explain away the clouds that had cows in Belgium veritably glowing with radiation.

That skepticism came to mind as I was sitting in the Port Washington Taco Bell and watching the two persons on duty. They were cleaning when I came into the store; they stopped and washed their hands before one took my order and the other prepared it; and then they plunged back into their cleaning spree. The unit made a hospital O.R. seem like the men’s room at Penn Station.

Yet a crowd was at the Burger King next door, and the pair running the Taco Bell looked resigned to a shift that would pass with the speed of a kindergarten’s dance recital.

The industry has lost its credibility, yet it’s not doing enough to restore it. Sure, it’s looking at various ways it can prevent food-safety crises, and that’s a great thing. Taco Bell, for instance, said twice this week that it plans to lead the formation of a coalition that would set new safeguards for the industry’s supply chain. That ad hoc group would include competitors, regulators and suppliers, it said.

A noble gesture, indeed. And something that surely shows Taco Bell’s seriousness about averting catastrophes like the recent E. coli outbreaks. Except that a group very much like it already exists. It was formed this fall, around the time of the spinach-related E. coli outbreak, by the National Restaurant Association, with the express purpose of setting standards for produce. Why doesn’t Taco Bell know about that if it’s really serious about fostering safety on a macro level?

Indeed, the chain needs to watch what it says and does. I participated in the media conference that the chain hastily called on Monday night (it alerted the general media 26 minutes ahead of the start time, or about 5:34 in the evening). Taco Bell president Greg Creed was the featured presenter. But I kept expecting Rod Serling to butt in.

Creed gave the impression that extensive testing had found no traces of E. coli in any ingredients used by the Taco Bells in the four-state area of the outbreak. Then I asked him about white onions. Oh, yeah, testing did find some E. coli in those, but it wasn’t the same strain as the one that had made everyone sick, he said.

Ah, I see. It’s a completely different contamination. A flukey coincidence. But, um, what about that assertion that all ingredients are safe?

He also said that federal officials had identified lettuce, cheese and beef as the statistically probable causes of the outbreak. But since it couldn’t be beef or cheese—the former’s cooked, the latter’s pasteurized—lettuce had to be the culprit.

Well, if it couldn’t be cheese or beef, why did the Centers for Disease Control say those ingredients were also under suspicion? And why did Taco Bell throw out shipments of those foodstuffs from a particular supplier and then change vendors? Wasn’t it all safe by virtue of the processes that prompted Taco Bell to declare lettuce the “most probable” cause?

And it didn’t exactly calm fears when it stressed that it only used a small portion of the lettuce that was under suspicion. Creed emphasized that Taco Bell buys only 20 percent of the implicated vendor’s shredded lettuce, which meant that a lot of tainted greens could’ve been floating out in the market. Of course, that raises the likelihood that E. coli victims could have ingested the bug at other places, a significant finding when you’ve already been sued by two parties, with more lawsuits almost certain to follow.

If my one-unit mystery-shop was any indication, the chain is doing a great job of safeguarding the public (and, indeed, no one disputes that the problem was an ingredient shipped into the unit in a contaminated form, rather than any mistake the chain or its units might have made). But it needs to allay the concerns of folks like my wife. Because I'd like to get my stuffed burrito without a dessert of abuse. And that couple working at my local unit sure looked as if they'd appreciate the business.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Take this pitch and shove it

Covering food-borne illnesses for the last week hasn’t been pleasant, and not merely because the volume has been unparalleled (about 1,400 people sickened in at least five outbreaks involving five well-known restaurant operations). The unease is more a result of the yuck factor: Journalists have to eat, too, and we in the foodservice media probably do it more often in restaurants, including chain facilities, than your typical E.coli-averse person.

What increases the nausea are the walking chancre sores who see kidney failure and the hospitalization of kids as an opportunity to land some ink. Since news reports of the E.coli and norovirus situations first emerged, we’ve been besieged by parties who smell an opportunity. This one has a widget that certainly would have averted an E.coli outbreak like the one that hit Taco Bell. Curiously, Company B has a miracle-working gizmo that’s even better, and is willing to grant us an opportunity to learn why it outstrips everything offered by respectable suppliers with proven products.

More lawyers than you’d normally see behind an ambulance have called because they have some thoughts on E.coli-related litigation that would be great fodder for our stories, if not the basis for an article just on them. Translation: Write me up and maybe someone reading it might hire me to sue a restaurant chain on their behalf.

Ditto for insurance advisors, who merely want to explain in print how essential it is to have coverage against a food-safety catastrophe. It’ll all be totally generic, they assure us. It’s merely a coincidence that the form of coverage they recommend is exactly the sort their firm offers. Sorry, but I’m only taking calls from the Geico lizard from this point forward.

Then there are the consultants who know precisely what mistakes an afflicted chain made that resulted in the outbreaks, and want to enlighten our readers at absolutely no charge. Right. From their in-home study, they were able to determine sight-unseen what the likes of Taco Bell and Applebee’s were too dumb to realize. Never mind that some of the affected restaurants appear to be victims themselves, stung by produce that was likely contaminated when it was still in the ground.

They’re like plastic surgeons standing at the sight of a serious car crash, passing out business cards.

Actually, there’s a name for opportunists who feed on tragedy like that. Oh, gosh, what is it again? Oh, yeah, I remember now—maggots.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Like father, like son?

With the volume of executives who've moved from Dallas-based Brinker International to Phoenix-headquartered P.F. Chang’s, some industry wags have taken to calling the Asian-chain operator "Brinker West." From Chang’s CEO Rick Federico to president Bert Vivian and director Lane Cardwell, there have been enough defect-ees to wear a footpath between the casual-dining giants.

Now the overlap is spreading to a second generation. Yesterday, Chang’s named sports marketer Tim McDougall as its chief marketing officer. He earned that responsibility by heading the marketing operations of pro basketball’s New Orleans Hornets and Houston Rockets. But his new employer must hope he’s inherited some restaurant acumen, too. He’s the son of Ron McDougall, Brinker International’s former CEO.

Not coincidentally, the elder McDougall rose to that post through marketing, serving under Norman Brinker when both were at Pillsbury. Ron was Norm’s second in command throughout the formative years of Chili’s and their early subsidiary concepts, Macaroni Grill and On The Border.

Theirs is hardly the only family affair in foodservice. The Hislop family’s boys, Mike and Steve, both formerly oversaw chains (Il Fornaio and O’Charley’s, respectively). John Metz built a sizeable contract-management concern before becoming a T.G.I. Friday’s franchisee, and son John, Jr. is part of that business now, too, after opening some fine-dining restaurants in Atlanta. Former IHOP marketer Steve Pettise was followed into the business by his son, as was Rich Hohman, the late one-time chief of Country Kitchen. And, of course, there are the Marriott boys, Bill and Dick.

For an industry that supposedly dehumanizes people with the baseness of its work, foodservice certainly draws a lot of individuals who have plunged in after watching their parents or siblings toiling in the trade. They know exactly what that career track holds, and they chose the life nonetheless. Detractors call it a dead-end field, but clearly they're missing what people-in-the-know readily see. Why else would they follow in a close relative's footsteps?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Humans 0, Germs 1,189, Radioactivity favored

The war against dangerous microbes hasn’t been going well for the human side. Thirty-nine people were reportedly sickened by bacteria linked to New York-area Taco Bell restaurants, 900 were struck by a viral contamination traced to the famed Dinosaur barbecue outlet in Syracuse, N.Y., and at least 250 customers and employees of an Applebee’s in Michigan have been afflicted with the gastrointestinal maladies of a norovirus infection, which has yet to be contained there. And that’s all in the last few weeks.

There’s no consolation there even for the hardest-hearted competitors, since any place can be tarred with suspicions if one of its kind is implicated in an outbreak. Besides, who wants to best a rival in that fashion?

But from Great Britain comes an astounding indication that consumers may run hot or cold on being poisoned. A Polish restaurant in the city of Sheffield is doing killer business because of its name: The Polonium. That moniker was little more than a curiosity (it was the name of the properietor’s Polish folk band) until cold-war spy and Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive isotope. Since he died, and left a compelling mystery as to why he was poisoned and by whom, The Polonium has been enjoying an upsurge in business.

Ditto, reportedly, for outlets of the sushi chain whose London unit was where the polonium-210 may have been slipped into Litvinenko’s food. Traces of the radioactive material have been founded in that branch of Itsu, but it hasn’t kept customers away, according to British press reports.

Who’d have thought a poisoning could be a traffic generator?

Monday, December 04, 2006

'Yes, we can. Er, no we can't.'

Ronald McDonald should be redrafting his holiday gift list to put “walkie-talkies for all executives” smack at the top. Maybe then they’d say the same thing about McDonald’s readiness for New York City’s planned trans-fat restrictions, which are expected to be approved Tuesday.

Instead, the public pronouncements have shown little of the chain’s famous consistency. A few weeks ago, CEO Jim Skinner told a group of portfolio managers that McDonald’s would be ready to replace its partially hydrogenated fryer oil with a zero-trans-fat variety if the restriction on restaurants is adopted. His assurance was reported in a slew of news reports, including the lead story of a recent Nation’s Restaurant News.

Then, on Thursday, articles in The Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal had the chain singing a much-different tune (“We’re not lovin’ it”?) Granted, that revised assessment came second-hand. Both papers said they’d been told by Peter Vallone Jr., a city councilman best known for being the son of a like-named political luminary, that McDonald’s would not be able to comply with the measure in its current form until June 2008. Yet the restriction on restaurants’ use of the artery clogger would be put in place a year earlier. The younger Vallone said he’d been given that message by a McDonald’s lobbyist, Patrick Thiesen.

Both publications tried to check the assertion with McDonald’s, but the company would neither confirm nor deny the reports. However, a spokesperson told the Journal that the chain would indeed be able to comply with the ban if it’s enacted.


Clearly some spin-doctoring is being done here. But the proponents aren’t staying on message. Can McDonald’s comply or not? At other times, representatives have suggested that the chain couldn’t switch to a trans-fat-free oil at this point because the choices available would affect the taste of the famous McDonald’s French fries. Yet the Golden Arch-studded restaurants in Australia, among other places, have already made the switch.

Are we to believe that McDonald’s simultaneously a) can’t make the switch; b) actually can make the switch; c) would never sacrifice the taste of its fries; d) doesn’t have an oil ready that will preserve the current gold-standard taste of its signature side dish; e) will indeed make the change if required? All simultaneously? Even Hogwarts couldn’t deliver that sort of magic.

Ronald McDonald’s title is technically chief smile officer. But with that kind of hedging, he’s might be getting some memos from the top about excessive frowning.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A flight of news

The Scoop usually strives to mound your plate with news and insights. But, in a blatant rip-off of the small-plates phenomenon, today's installment takes more of a sampler approach. The day has brought a smattering of interesting bite-sized developments, worthy of a taste but not sufficient for a main course. Consider these tidbits, for instance:

The 1,799 items that were a no-go: In an interview published today by The Orange County Register , McDonald’s menu planner Dan Coudreaut was asked how many potential new products his R&D department considers in the course of the year. His answer: 1,500 to 1,800. That’s 125 a month, more than 30 a week, and an average of six per day.

Out of that torrent emerged the Snack Wrap, a chicken finger wrapped in a tortilla. McD’s needed some time to get it right, Coudreaut confided to the Register. Initially, the chain was looking at a quesadilla made with the strips of chicken that are sold separately as Chicken Selects. But test-subjects balked.

The Culinary Institute of America grad said his menu-development team will be focusing near-term on new kids’ items, desserts and beverages, but he did not divulge any specifics.

The next high-art culinary craze to captivate mainstream America: Gelee. The Akron-Beacon Journal informed Ohioans this morning that chefs and foodies alike are going ga-ga over creative riffs on gelatin, a.k.a gelee to any urban sophisticate. Of course, the story did refer to it as Jell-O, and advised readers to experiment with a variations of the Knox brand before moving on to preparations like Ginger Ale Gelee or a Creamsicle-like orange and yogurt gelee treat. Curiously, none of the recipes or examples were taken from local restaurants.

South Korea loses its mind over bird flu: Officials of the Asian nation disclosed Monday that the national government will begin destroying cats and dogs to stifle outbreaks of bird flu. Never mind that scientists don’t know if the virus that causes the disease can even be passed to and from the pets. With a second outbreak in three years confirmed by authorities earlier this week, the nation is willing to err far on the side of caution to contain the ailment.

N.J.’s smoking ban could apply to Atlantic City: Trenton legislators caved to the casino lobby when they outlawed smoking in restaurants, bars, bowling alleys and every other public place in the state. But now the plucky officials of Atlantic City have vowed to close the exemption that was handed to their city’s casinos, which whined that they’d lose business under an across-the-board snuff-out. Never mind that restaurants and other establishments had said the same thing.

If Atlantic City’s City Council has its way, as many observers expect, the playing field may finally be leveled in Jersey, to the delight of restaurateurs who feel they’re losing smokers to the casions.

Catherine Zeta-Jones goes back to working in restaurants: The film star and cell-phone spokes-gal has reportedly been working in the kitchen of an unnamed London restaurant. Britain’s notorious slander sheets have gone easy on her, saying she landed the gig to research an upcoming role as a chef in a flick called No Reservation. They did note her confession that a stab at cooking for hubby Michael Douglas resulted in a decent-sized kitchen fire. But the tabs completely overlooked her serial foodservice employment, including a gig at the well-known Fiamma restaurant in New York City earlier this year. That time around, she was supposedly gathering real-life experience for yet another movie role—that time, too, as a chef.

The Scoop can see right through her subterfuge: Ten or twenty million doesn’t buy what it once did, and she and Michael are feeling the pinch. What better way to pick up some cash than putting in a few weeks at a restaurant? Especially around the holidays.

What she should really do is rent herself out as a salt lick: She works at a restaurant, and you get to hire all the people who want to work with her. I guarantee you’ll have a line of applicants at your back door.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Getting clogged at 30,000 feet

Perhaps the clean-artery commandos prefer to drive wherever they go. Certainly they’re not flying. If they were, they’d stop screeching about fast-food chains’ use of partially hydrogenated oils and start harping at the airlines for what they serve in-flight. Unless you pay for first-class accommodations, or luck out and land a seat on one of the blue yonder’s mavericks, your in-flight food options amount to trans fat, trans fat, or trans fat. With a beverage of your choice.

Typically the only variable is what form it takes. Would you prefer chips, crackers, muffins, cookies, or that dried-cat-food analog they call “snack mix”? Look for “partially hydrogenated oil” on the wrapper, and you’ll find it more readily than you will your luggage.

This might sound as if I’m lambasting a sector of our very own industry. That’s because I am. The chains targeted by the health zealots typically contend that their obligation is to offer choices, so that consumers can opt for better-for-you fare. They argue, rightfully so, that a decision on health should not be made for patrons.

Many feeders-in-the-sky offer no choice, or at best a limited one. And it’s not as if you can vote against all the options with your feet. The restaurant industry’s fear of losing patrons to the place next door just doesn’t hold at 30,000 feet. It’s take it or leave it. And after 12 or 14 straight hours of travel, you’re not going to leave it, even if they’re serving wood chips.

Of course, if you leave it, these days they may not care. As it is, they have too few seats for all the butts that want to fill them. And study after study has shown that people choose flights on the basis of schedule and cost, not the potential effects on their circulation.

It’s just a shame that the pressure exerted elsewhere doesn’t fall on a sector that might need that push to change its cholesterol-boosting ways.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The CIA's lovin' it

McDonald’s has enlisted a surprising ally in its ongoing struggle to cut prep times and thereby serve hotter, juicier meals: The Culinary Institute of America.

The Harvard of foodservice education revealed in the new edition of its alumni magazine that it’s been retained by the quick-service giant to find and test new high-tech cooking equipment.

The article noted that the school is exploring such NASA-caliber advances as “multi-wave/convection/moist-heat combination technology,” pressurized-steam apparatus, and hybrids that combine the function of a microwave with impingement cooking, or blasting all surfaces of the food with hot-air jets, usually as it moves on a conveyor.

In laymen’s terms: The gizmos cook food faster, without letting it dry out.

The discovery of a breakthrough grill or oven could satisfy the chain’s decades-long quest for a way to serve meals in a flash without batch-cooking the components ahead of time. The difficulties of delivering convenience without losing the positives of a fresh-from-the-grill burger or chicken sandwich was what tripped up the brand in the mid-1990s, when it began the tailspin that has only recently been reversed.

At the time, McDonald’s spent upwards of a quarter of a billion dollars to install a new high-tech cooking system called Made For You, a label that emphasized the added benefit of allowing units to customize orders, since they were cooked on demand. As has been noted other times in The Scoop, that system is in the process of being replaced by a new “cooking platform.”

The article in the CIA’s Mise En Place publication quotes a CIA official as speculating that faster kitchen equipment could also allow McDonald’s to improve the integrity of its ingredients. “These technologies that reduce cooking cycle time allow you to prepare foods that don’t have added hormones, steroids, or artificial additives,” said Ron Desantis, director of the school’s new consultancy service, the Industry Solutions Group.

The issue of Mise En Place notes elsewhere that the CIA has also consulted to Burger King, Wendy’s, Starbucks, T.G.I. Friday’s and Panera Bread.

And it observes that the McDonald’s outlet closest to the school’s main campus, in Hyde Park, N.Y., is managed by a CIA grad.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Lettuce Keep You Healthy

Rich Melman routinely delights consumers with his dozens of Chicago restaurants. Now he wants to disinfect them, too.

That sounds harsh, but the concept mastermind is acting out of extreme benevolence. He recently told the Chicago Tribune that his Lettuce Entertain You dining empire is striving to keep patrons healthy this winter by urging them to take the sort of precautions that a parent might press on a youngster.

Signs posted in all 30-something of Lettuce’s restaurants urge customers as well as employees to wash their hands. According to the Trib, the alerts point out that that “handwashing is the most effective way to reduce the effects of colds and flu.”

Signs in the Gents and Ladies also advise visitors to grab restroom door handles with a paper towel, not their bare hands, which can pick up germs from such a surface that’s been touched again and again and again. Melman acknowledged in the story that Lettuce is “without question” spending more on paper towels, but told reporter Janet Franz that “it’s a small price to pay.” As he noted, people don’t dine in any restaurant when they’re knocked flat by a cold or the flu.

Melman indicated that his company will spend far bigger dollars with its next health-oriented move. Among the company’s more intriguing operations is foodlife, a collection of themed food stations, were customers can try just about any of the ethnic or trendy cuisines they read about in Bon Appetit. They record whatever they’ve ordered from the stations on a single magnetic card, then pay the total charged amount when they settle up with a centralized cashier.

Melman told the Trib that he plans to add yet another out-of-the-ordinary feature to the Watertower Place food court: Public sinks in the dining area. Patrons will be able to set down their trays of food and wash their hands before starting to eat.

He attributed his newfound focus on customers’ health to serving on the board of a local hospital.

If anyone else had pushed his company to adopt similar safeguards, he or she might’ve been tarred as a nut. But this is Rich Melman, undoubtedly one of the richest persons in the business, and beyond a doubt one of the most prescient. He’s been ahead of any number of trends that eventually went mainstream.

You can only hope that this focus, as strange as it may initially seem, is added to the list.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Catching more than fish. And it stinks.

A rose is a rose is a rose. But down in Florida, the grouper could be anyone’s guess. An investigation several weeks ago by the Daytona Beach News-Journal found that four of 10 local restaurants were trying to pass off cheaper white fish as grouper. And the determination wasn’t made with a quick eyeball of whatever the investigators were served (Vietnamese catfish in three of the instances, emperor fish in the other). The newspaper sent samples to a lab for DNA testing.

The testing facility then told the Associated Press that similar checks of seafood from 24 U.S. cities revealed consumers have less than a 50:50 chance of being served the variety of fish they ordered.

Authorities in Florida have begun an investigation into the fish faking, according to the AP. A (sorry about the pun) bait and switch could cost a restaurant $15,000 per fake-out.

But follow-up news coverage has suggested that restaurants may not be the culprit. Some have said they, too, were duped—by their seafood suppliers.

The situation is reminiscent of the short-lived scandal that erupted in New York City about 18 months ago, when The New York Times analyzed what was being sold or served as wild-caught salmon. The probe revealed that a high percentage of establishments were buying farm-raised fish for about a third of what they’d have paid for the wild version, then selling it as the Alaskan variety for a huge mark-up.

And restaurant old-timers recall a time when a low-priced veal dish on a menu meant someone had pounded a chicken breast flat in the kitchen and cooked it Milanese-style. But today’s consumer, they attest, is probably too sophisticated to fall prey to that ruse.

It’s a shame that some restaurateurs spoil it for everyone by cheating like that. After being told non-stop how the industry is making them fat, short-changing them with skimpy wages, littering their streets with wrappers, and closing up their arteries with trans fats, the last thing consumers need to hear is how they’re being ripped off as well.

There’s no mystery about what kind of louts the perpetrators are. A crook is a crook is a crook.

Better off red?

If researchers discover one more benefit of drinking red wine, it’ll be a matter of time before moms start serving merlot instead of milk, pharmacies replace their vitamins with a selection of zinfandels, and marathon water stops run red with Chianti. Less clear is how restaurants will exploit the advantage of being a longtime purveyor of what is truly beginning to sound like a health elixir.

For starters, perhaps they should crack open a top-notch Cab and invite some researchers over for a review of the favorable data that’s poured out of vino-focused labs in recent months. First, by altering the diet of tee-totaling mice, the white-coat set was able to determine that a red-wine ingredient called resveratrol can prolong life dramatically. We’re talking in the neighborhood of 30 percent.

Or at least it can stretch the life of a rodent; conclusive studies have yet to be conducted on humans. But the information was sufficient to spark a run on resveratrol, which was an unusual item for even health-food stores to stock. Now you can’t find it anywhere. But, undoubtedly, that will change as marketers cash in. It remains to be seen if restaurants will enjoy a similar surge in demand for their resveratrol reserves, which are typically meted out by the bottle.

Just a few days after the anti-aging qualities of resveratrol were revealed, medical journals were set abuzz again by a separate round of research. Those studies had found that the red-wine ingredient could counteract at least some ill effects of a high-fat diet, including obesity and diabetes. Here again, the research subjects were mice, but experts have already said the effects should be translatable to humans.

To recap: Resveratrol can make you live longer, and better. Two big reasons to drink red wine, from highly respected health officials.

Pardon me while I wipe away a tear. I wouldn’t want it falling in my pinot.

Unfortunately, scientists noted at the time that humans probably couldn’t drink enough red wine to absorb the amounts of resveratrol that are needed to combat obesity and aging. Clearly they never belonged to a fraternity.

But even if the required intake is prohibitive, that’s not going to dissuade consumers from ordering red more readily. Remember, this is a society that equates the descriptor “fresh” with “healthy,” even if it’s being applied to lard. A little knowledge sometimes works in the industry’s favor.

Then this weekend came news of yet another finding about resveratrol. When lab mice were given the compound and put on tiny treadmills, they could run twice as long, with the reduced heart rate and other signs of conditioning you’d expect in athlete rodents. Researchers concluded that the substance dramatically boosted endurance. And this time, the scientists didn’t rule out that salutary effects could come from relatively small doses of the compound.

A glass or two, maybe?

Of course, the research also didn’t speak to motivation. Who’d want to get on a treadmill to prove enhanced endurance when there’s more wine to drink? No pain, no pain—yet lots of gain.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Talking dirty

Scandalous food-safety conditions came to light this week in Chicago and Philadelphia, but restaurants there are looking like potential victims rather than the culprits. Government hearings held almost simultaneously in the cities left little doubt that eateries and their patrons are facing a significant health risk because neither municipality has hired enough safety inspectors.

Chicago, for instance, has a field force of 46 people to monitor 15,500 food outlets. To inspect each of them once a year, the germ chasers would have to hit 1.3 establishments per day. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that a place be checked every four months, which would mean inspecting five outlets in an eight-hour day, week in and week out.

Instead, an official reportedly told a city-council committee that the inspectors get to about 6,000 restaurants and food stores per year, and those tend to be the places most in need of scrutiny. Despite the high management turnover of the restaurant business, the other places are left alone because no infractions were detected during a prior visit, which could have come more than a year beforehand.

In 1982, noted a Chicago Sun Times story on the city council hearings, the health department had 150 sanitation inspectors, and presumably far fewer restaurants to check.

Still, the situation in the Windy City seems preferable to conditions in Philadelphia, judging from coverage of the city council hearings held there on Thursday. Officials noted that the City of Brotherly Love has 15,000 restaurants and just 32 safety inspectors.

The industry has long bemoaned certain aspects of sanitation inspections. In particular, chains and multiple-restaurant operators complain that the regulations tend to vary from one jurisdiction to another, or even from inspector to inspector. The lack of consistency makes training that much more difficult.

And then there’s the lack of knowledge shown by some inspectors. The ideal safety guardian, restaurateurs assert, would be someone who wants to help them protect customers. That means teaching operators the right procedures and processes, instead of merely playing cop and walloping them with sanctions or a bad grade. Yet the inspectors are often as green as bread mold, and know far less than the restaurateurs they should be counseling.

It looks as if restaurateurs in Chicago and Philly—and, presumably, other areas—can put another item atop their gripe list.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Now in blogs! 'Truth or Fad'!!

Amid the features of, a site launched recently for fifty-somethings by a co-founder of, are brain teasers, puzzles and other mental challenges intended to keep visitors’ minds in Jack La Lanne shape. It’s only appropriate that The Scoop similarly aid readers of a certain vintage with its own dash of cerebral diversion. Hence the incorporation within this installment of that ever-popular foodservice parlor game, Trend or Fad.

A quick review of the rules: I describe the development that has the business currently atwitter, and you decided if it’s a hula hoop or the next iPod. Then I give you the correct answer, which, just coincidentally, happens to be my opinion on the matter. So here we go.

Truth or fad: The new meal-assembly concepts like Dinner By Design, Let’s Dish!, Super Supers and easily a half-dozen others.

In case you’re not familiar with these newcomers, you need to come out of your cave and take a look, especially if you’re involved in franchising. They’ve been growing by leaps and bounds, in part by signing restaurant operators as licensees.

In essence, the concepts occupy the grey area between restaurants and supermarkets. Patrons go online to select meals they’d like their families to eat, and to schedule a time when they can visit the meal-assembly center to put the selected dinners together. The place buys and prepares the ingredients ahead of time, so all the heavy lifting is done by the time the customer arrives. The guests assemble the components into a family-sized portion that’s ready to be slipped into an oven. Then they lug it home, to be either cooked then or slipped into the freezer for some later date.

The industry largely scoffed when these concepts first appeared on the scene about two years ago. Who’s going to spend their evenings in some communal kitchen with strangers, putting together meals they still have to cook? It’s neither convenient, effortless nor a dodge of stove time.

What the skeptics under-appreciated was the appeal of the social component. Customers apparently like the quilting-bee aspect of the assembly process, and the opportunity it affords to chat with new acquaintances as you engage in the redeeming activity of providing for your family. For many, it’s better than having a few drinks or spending date night at a conversation-less two-hour movie. Indeed, some of the concepts are marketing themselves as party places for groups of friends, or as an activity for businesses that want to foster some bonding among employees.

But doubts still abound. Chief among them: How fresh are the meals, and how much will that weigh against acceptance when consumers are demanding fresh above all else? There’s also been some snippiness about the quality of the ingredients provided. Are chefs doing the slicing and dicing, or some minimum-wage college student?

So what are these places, a flash in the pan or a major new consumer option that’s here to stay?

The correct answer: These places are going to become part of the dinner-options spectrum, but not in the numbers they’ll reach if they keep growing at the present rate. As with many Next Big Things, the potential is soon overshot by development and there’s a shakeout, with a few survivors serving what remains of the market after the initial excitement cools. This could be the textbook example of that familiar dynamic.

Truth or fad: Molecular gastronomy, or the desire by some chefs to play a mad scientist who lost it right after culinary school. Using gizmos like lasers or high-tech chillers and ingredients that sound like the chemicals that were kept in a locked glass cabinet in the high school lab, this new breed of culinarian is employing science in the pursuit of new dining adventures. The results include flavored foams, “caviar” beads of different flavors, or any number of mutations where a familiar food is given an unexpected texture or taste, like bacon ice cream.

I’ve been a hardcore skeptic from the get-go. Meanwhile, chefs are lining up to cook for free at the temple of the high priest of molecular gastronomy, Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Spain, in hopes of absorbing his brilliance. And the consumer food books are anointing Chicago’s Alinea, the high temple of the gastro-science on this side of the Atlantic, as the nation’s best restaurant.

As difficult as the admission may be for me and other fans of food that looks, feels and tastes as you expect it would, this looks as if it could be a trend, though one that may never trickle down to the broad-based dining-out market. It’s hard to imagine a Chili’s entrée where you start with a pillow of scented air, or a new fir-tree-flavored cream puff from Dunkin’ Donuts. Sadly, as the counterbalance to the ongoing appreciation of comfort foods, this appears to be a trend.

Trend or fad: Advertising to space aliens, as KFC is doing in its latest publicity stunt. The chicken chain fitted together 65,000 painted tiles in the notorious Area 51 of the Nevada desert to form 87,500-sq.-ft. portrait of the concept’s founder, Col. Harlan Sanders. Headquarters is crowing that it’s the first brand icon to be visible from space, an achievement that school children will someday sing of.

The question, of course, is why? The highly cynical should be forewarned that the official rationale could cause uncontrollable twitching and outbursts of sarcasm: “The Colonel is truly a global icon and we want everyone in the universe to see KFC's new look of the future," KFC president Gregg Dedrick was quoted as saying in a press release. KFC is updating its design, as Nation’s Restaurant News reported some time ago, and this is its way of getting attention. The specifics of the overhaul, like the inclusion of a free digital jukebox, just aren’t going to snag the attention of the YouTube generation.

And, just to be doubly sure it appeals to the X-Files crowd, the chain is touting the incidental benefit of having a billboard that even near-sighted Martians could spot. “If there are extraterrestrials in outer space, KFC wants to become their restaurant of choice,” Dedrick is quoted as quipping.

So, what is it? A gimmick, a gimmick or a gimmick?

Monday, November 13, 2006

In wake of finger scam, more allegations surface

If you can’t tell the players apart without a scorecard, chances are you’ll really flub which restaurant allegedly served the rodent and which purportedly added the marijuana.

Indeed, with all the allegations in recent weeks of patrons finding alien objects in their food, it’s tough to keep the potential scandals straight. That’s assuming, of course, you hear of them at all, an uncertainty that’s probably for the best. In the wake of the finger-in-the-chili scam that a desperate couple tried to pull last year on Wendy’s, public suspicions have largely pushed reports of unwanted ingredients out of the mainstream news. But there’re always the web, the blogosphere and local radio stations to keep stomachs turning with reports of fingers being where they shouldn’t.

Like the one that a woman asserts she found in the cheese-steak sandwich sold to her by a Subway in Chowchilla, Calif. According to local radio reports, the patron came back to the store with the alleged digit several hours after she’d bought the sandwich. The unit stopped selling steak for two days, and Subway said it would investigate. The results of that inquiry have yet to be made public, and the customer has not announced plans to seek any redress in the courtroom.

Not so with the two law enforcement officers who claim they were served burgers laced with marijuana at a Burger King in Los Lunas, N.M. News reports say that three employees at the unit were arrested for pot-peppering the officers’ meals. Now the policemen, who work for the Isleta Pueblo tribe’s police force, are suing the chain’s franchisor, Burger King Holdings.

There’s no word yet on how sharply sales spiked afterward among college students.

A lawsuit has also been filed by the Dallas Cowboys staff member who told the media he was sold a salad containing a dead rat by a McDonald’s in Southlake, Texas. Todd Haley, his wife, Christine, and their au pair, Kathryn Kelley, say they are collectively seeking $1.7 million in compensation for their physical and mental distress (the salad was part of a larger take-out order for the three).

The operator of the franchised McDonald’s store told local media that it’s investigating the situation.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

'Didn't clean your plate? Here's your fine.'

For years, activists have blasted restaurants for serving unnecessarily large portions. Now some establishments in Montreal are reportedly turning the tables and fining guests who opt for more than they can eat. It’s their way of enlisting patrons in the cause of holding down food costs.

The Gazette, a Montreal daily, reported today that at least two local Japanese places tack a surcharge onto the tabs of guests who eat only the fish part of their sushi and leave the rice behind. Odaki justifies its $10 penalty fee as the difference between the restaurant’s $22 all-you-can-eat sushi deal and the $32 eat-till-you-burst sashimi offer. After all, the rice-skippers are presumably downing more fish, which is why the sashimi meal was priced higher in the first place.

Kanda Sushi Bar charges by the piece—in this case, not for the sushi patrons order, but for the pieces they leave behind. If guests opt for the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat deal and then fail to consume every item they choose, they’re hit with a $1-per-piece leftover charge. It doesn’t come as a surprise; the surcharge policy is spelled out on the menu in an apparent attempt to discourage food waste.

A vegetarian outlet, Spirite Lounge, similarly levies a surcharge if patrons fail to clean their plates. And in addition to the $2 penalty, they’re denied dessert, and may be turned away the next time they try to dine there. Its mission is raising awareness of world hunger and food waste. “I’ve got to tell you, this is without a doubt, hands down, the absolute strangest restaurant I’ve ever been in,” Shelley Macdonald wrote in her review of the place for

You can read about the Montreal restaurants’ anti-waste policies at

One hot spot to another

Robert Gates, President Bush’s nominee to succeed Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, is no stranger to life during wartime. He’s a director of Brinker International, the casual-dining behemoth that’s felt the sector’s downturn this year. The company’s stock-rating has been downgraded by three financial-research firms since Oct. 6.

Gates is also a past director of the CIA, as in “Central Intelligence Agency,” not “Culinary Institute of America.” No doubt his prior experience has informed Brinker’s strategy for dealing with the media. Or not dealing with it, to be more precise.

Gates’ day job had been president of Texas A&M, where he’d earlier been dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service. What a coincidence that he’s been offered a job by George W. Bush.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Tallying the elections’ costs

Restaurateurs are going to pay for last night’s elections, and I mean that literally. Five of the six ballot initiatives calling for increases in their respective state’s minimum wage have been approved, and the yeas were outscoring the nays in preliminary tabulations within the sixth, Colorado (the count is expected to be completed there today, and hike proponents say they'll hold off on celebrating until it's official).

Some of those wage increases could be rendered unnecessary by the situation on the national level. Before the Democrats were even projected to win the U.S. House, CNN’s Lou Dobbs asked Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rahm Emanuel, a Representative from Illinois, how a victory by his party would change Congress’ agenda. Emanuel spouted the usual PC happy-speak about helping orphans and the patriots who want to better their family’s lot, which would apply to everyone but Lord Voldemort. But he did cite one specific measure the Democrats would hammer through: A minimum-wage increase.

The states that passed wage-hike initiatives are Arizona, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Culture shock for cafeteria ladies

The chalk line between restaurants and gourmet food shops will be further smudged this winter with the opening of a new concept called Kidfresh. Like a Balducci’s or the grab-and-go sections of a Whole Foods, the New York City prototype will offer upscale fare. But like a restaurant, everything will be ready to eat. And unlike both types of food outlets, this one will exclusively stock ingestibles for kids.

The tykes can yank in Mom or Dad for a ready-for-school lunch, a packaged breakfast for the next morning, a snack for right then, or a dinner they can munch while the parental units slurp their spaghetti Bolognese.

Promotional materials say the meals will be healthy, with at least some prepared with natural, organic or additive-free ingredients. The announcement notes that items will be freshly made, though it wasn’t clear if that translates into “made daily” or “prepared to order.”

Restaurant veterans are apparently not among the founders, but Kidfresh said its launch team would include an award-winning chef, who was not identified.

Menu choices will include Star Shaped Pancakes with homemade chocolate dip; Honey Teriyaki Chicken Tenders with rice and edamame; and “pizza bites.”

Pointedly named as members of the start-up group were two marketing veterans, Dannon alumnus Gilles Deloux and Ralph Lauren Childrenswear veteran Samira Samii Mahboubian. They join the father who came up with the idea for Kidfresh, former management consultant Mathias Cohen.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Founders keepers

After aspiring for years to become an heir, I’m redirecting my career effort to finding work as a founder. Judging from today’s events, it’s a far, far more lucrative gig.

First, the trio who gave us the Outback Steakhouse chain—Chris Sullivan, Bob Basham and Tim Gannon—come forward to say they’re buying back their brainchild with help from some big-time financiers. Bain Capital, the one-time owner of Domino’s Pizza and co-owner of Burger King, is joining forces with one of the more intriguing and hyperactive private-equity firms buying into restaurant companies, Catterton Partners, to provide part of the $3.2 billion that Sullivan’s group has offered for Outback (now known as OSI Restaurant Partners). If you don’t know Catterton, you’re likely familiar with some of its holdings: Stakes in P.F. Chang’s and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new string of hotel restaurants, Spice Market, along with up-and-coming brands like the First Watch breakfast concept, or the Cheddars chain.

I’m surprised that a guy like Sullivan, who comes to the starchiest industry event dressed in a Mister Rodgers-like cardigan, would even know folks like the suits at Bain. And now he and his cohorts are going into partnerships with the Boston firm, which probably has a portrait of Thurston Howell III hanging in its hallway.

Of course, it’s not clear how the founding trio will participate in the buyout. They’re all major stakeholders. And they’re offering $40 per share to buy all of OSI’s stock. So they’ll pay themselves $40 for each share they hold? Something about that just doesn’t seem right. That’s presuming, of course, that they maintain their current stakes.

A deal of that scale had us buzzing at work today. But within hours, it was eclipsed by an even bigger industry deal, at least in terms of the dollars that will be spent. And—surprise, surprise—it was led by yet another founder.

The person this time was Izzy Sharp, co-founder and longtime CEO of Four Seasons Hotels. Sharp and his family already hold a controlling stake in the luxury lodging chain. To buy the rest, he really went big-league. His collaborators in the deal are none other than Bill Gates, of Microsoft fame, and His Royal Highness Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Adulaziz Alsad of Saudi Arabia, the kind of guy whose private jet is a 727, and uses a real cannon for his marker when he plays Monopoly. Which, no doubt, he does with real money.

Together, the three are bidding $3.7 billion, or $82 per share, for the hotel company, or about a third more than Wall Street had adjudged it to be worth in trading during the prior six months.

Twenty percent? Pfft. But 33 percent? These are not the sort of guys you want for your next game of Texas Hold ‘Em.

And why do men as rich as Gates and the prince want with a hotel company? I can only suspect that they hate having to use Expedia for reservations, and this way a room will always be waiting for them.

Well, gotta run here. This founders correspondence course takes more work than you’d think.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Time for a sales boost

When the government does something that’ll likely boost sales, you’d think the restaurant industry would throw Capital Hill a parade. Yet, despite the pointed reminder of last weekend, the trade has been quieter than the Mark Foley re-election campaign.

Last Sunday, you’ll recall, most of us turned our clocks back an hour, officially ending Daylight Savings Time. Largely unnoticed was the larger significance of the occasion: It actually marked the end of DST as we know it.

Starting next year, we’ll be getting that extra hour of daylight for 34 out of 52 weeks, rather than the present 30. The whole nation will spring ahead in March, and stay on that schedule until November.

Proponents say the move will save the United States about 300,000 barrels of oil that would otherwise be used to generate light. What should interest restaurateurs, especially ones who cater to families, are the objections of the critics. They contend that the fuel saved from generating less electricity will be offset, if not eclipsed, by the additional gas that consumers tend to use during DST. The detractors point to indications that a later dusk tends to draw more people onto the roads for a longer stretch into the night. That’s why, they say, the alteration has been supported by places like amusement parks, malls and retailers.

Presumably, if those families are using the extra daylight to be out and about, they’re likely to grab a bite from establishments like yours rather than prepare something in their kitchens. It may not be a factor that makes or breaks the year sales-wise, but it could be an instance of the tide rising an inch or two, to float all boats that much higher.

If you're wondering how the extension of DST came about, you can credit Washington. The provision was slipped into the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which President Bush signed into law in August 2005.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The joys of dying earlier

If customers have a choice of living longer or eating in your restaurants, which way are they going to lean? That all depends on whom you regard as weirder, me or my wife.

My child-bride has been positively obsessed with the outpouring of stories in the last week about CR—calorie restriction, for those of you who don’t have a cryogenics pamphlet tucked away somewhere. It’s a new way of eating—or, actually, not eating—to promote longevity. In essence, you drop your calorie intake by about a third. We’re not talking here about cutting back to a mere Wendy’s Double from the previous standard order of a Triple. Ingesting 2,000 or so calories a day puts you in the realm of indulging in a few romaine leaves for Thanksgiving.

Yet the payback can be considerable. As recent stories in The Wall Street Journal and New York Times pointed out, CR is believed by a growing body of scientists (and, presumably, certified nut bars) to prolong life expectancy by as much as 40 years. They say adherents could easily log 110 or even 120 years, most of them Viagra-free.

There’s indeed a strong incentive there for the public to cut back its eating. My MBA degree hasn’t arrived yet, primarily because I’ve not so much as enrolled, but it seems to me that a drop in food consumption would be less than ideal for an industry that feeds people.

Which is why my wife has been stage-whispering comments about the restaurant industry taking a major fall. I hear it with each CR story that’s published. So, lately, only a Cubs fan would know more doom.

But I parry her assertions with a highly personal argument: I’d rather be gone next week than give up pizza. Or pumpkin pie. Or a chef’s salad. Or tofu, even.

And I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment. Why live if you can’t truly eat? I equate CR with living in a bubble. She insists it’s a bubble that restaurant patrons will readily enter as they learn more about the life-prolonging benefits of eating like a fashion model.

But decide for yourself. You can find the New York Times article here: And if you want to tell my wife she's wrong, feel free. Just know that CR would be kind of academic at that point.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

BK to beat McD in eliminating trans fats?

Think President Bush knows pressure? Consider whoever is charged with securing a trans-fat-free fryer oil that McDonald’s could roll into its domestic operations. The quick-service giant pledged three years ago to swap its partially hydrogenated oil for a medium that would eliminate a widely recognized health risk to customers. Yet, as CEO Jim Skinner has said, it still doesn’t know when the changeover will come.

Meanwhile, the public has watched a flurry of competitors raise their hands to pledge, “I’ll do it right now.” Wendy’s said in August that it was switching. KFC chimed in on Monday. And now Burger King is giving franchisees the heads-up that it’ll move toward a changeover within the next 90 days, starting with tests in selected units, according to a report in The Wall St. Journal this morning. The publication apparently interceded an e-mail that was sent to U.S. franchisees, disclosing steps to beat McD’s in switching.

And McDonald’s? Well, it did change the oil of all 740 of the chain’s outlets in Australia.

Of course it’s a bit tough for a chain of McDonald’s size to find sufficient supplies of trans-fat-free oil. It has in the neighborhood of 14,000 restaurants in the U.S., or more than Wendy’s and KFC combined, or about double the store count of BK.

Yet all of them are securing the oil. What’s the advantage of being the 500-pound gorilla when you can’t lock up supplies of scarce, valuable resources, at a cost that smaller jungle-mates can’t negotiate?

So that poor soul who’s leading the procurement effort must be looking a lot like an especially nervous Don Knotts these days. You can only hope that he or she has invested in some soybean farms along the way, because McD’s alone could make that a boom business.

Monday, October 30, 2006

More bang for bucking trans fats?

Does anyone truly think it was coincidental that KFC announced its switch to a trans-fat-free cooking oil in New York City, moments before the board of health opened hearings on a proposal to ban trans fats from restaurants? For that rare individual who probably believes pro-wrestling is real, consider that the chicken chain had shuttles on hand to haul reporters from its press announcement directly to the hearings.

That would also explain why it scheduled a press event for 9 a.m. on a Monday, traditionally a Dead Zone for the working press.

KC is swapping its partially hydrogenated oil for a trans-fat-free frying medium in all 5,500 of its units within the United States. The NYC ban would affect few of those stores, but other areas are quickly following the Big Apple’s lead in seeking to curtail consumption of trans fats, which are portrayed as a virtual toxin by coronary-health experts.

Although the New York announcement was carefully choreographed to coincide with the ban-proposal hearings, no connection was drawn to another relevant event, this one elsewhere within the KFC system. The chain’s Canadian operation disclosed at 3:01 a.m. on Monday that all 786 of its units would switch to trans-fat-free oil by early 2007. It did not specify precisely how early, but presumably KFC Canada will complete the overhaul before its U.S. counterpart, which pledged to make the changeover by April.

Why 3:01 a.m.? Maybe the operation realized that more journalists would be awake then than there would be at 9 a.m. on a Monday.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Former-sibling rivalry

Tim Hortons has been out of the fold for merely a few weeks, but Wendy’s is already seeing some side effects of spinning off the monster Canadian brand. The burger chain has cited the rollout of hot breakfast sandwiches and other morning options as a key part of its comeback effort, with projections that the a.m. menu could add $225,000 in sales per Wendy’s unit.

And what’s fueling Hortons’ sales growth these days? In part a hot breakfast sandwich, rolled out in the United States at the end of September. “We expect that the breakfast sandwich will contribute to continued sales growth,” Hortons CEO Paul House said in lauding the new item’s impact on sales. He also noted that the chain is finding new success in the States, which it largely struggled to do under Wendy’s tutelage.

The breakfast overlap isn’t the only indication that the chains’ test kitchens might’ve been aware of what the other was doing while they were part of the same company. Among the items that Wendy’s said it has in test: A chunky chicken salad sandwich, made on its new Frescatta fresh-baked bread.

In explaining why its units enjoyed a 9.2 percent increase in same-store sales (or 5.9 percent in Canada), Hortons cited the success of such promotional items as a chunky chicken salad wrap. Different by light-years, of course, from a chunky chicken salad sandwich.

Wendy’s said it’s also testing oversized Big Dipper chicken nuggets. No word yet on a comparable product from Hortons.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Succession planning of a different sort

Among the more intriguing informational tidbits served up at last week’s MUFSO conference was a revelation from Domino’s CEO David Brandon. He and other chain chiefs were asked what they view as their greatest industry challenge. Brandon noted that Domino’s, at age 46, is at a point in its lifecycle when a lot of franchisees would like to retire or otherwise kick back. How is the franchisor going to manage the transition to a new generation of operators?

It’s a question with profound implications for the brand. McDonald’s, with five more candles on its birthday cake, went through an adjustment of sorts in the 1980s and ‘90s when some of its long-time, smaller franchisees decided to focus on grandchildren instead of Big Macs. In many instances, the units were passed along to kids who’d grown up in the business, working in their folks’ franchises. But in others, the units were bought up by franchisees looking to expand their territory, leading to operations like Rick McCoy’s in Boston, with more than 100 stores.

Other systems have greeted that consolidation with concern, if not a counterattack. Pizza Hut didn’t like to see its franchisees become public companies. And most of the giant quick-service brands still don’t have publicly owned franchisees, with the notable exceptions of Burger King and Wendy’s.

Domino’s, founded in 1960, is entering a phase of maturation that other brands will hit sooner or later. Many have already made that changeover from early entrepreneurs to successive stages of franchisee ownership. For others, it’s a test yet to be undertaken.

Yet not a lot of eyes will likely be on the pizza giant, since that succession process is not a public display. Unfortunately, since it’s the franchisor is now a public company, many of those peepers will likely be investors’.

The MUFSO conference (for Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators, of course) is presented by Nation's Restaurant News. Look for full coverage in our Oct. 30 issue.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Near upset in Europe?

A $916 million bid for the European quick-service chain Quick has muted rumblings that the powerhouse brand would be acquired by Burger King.

The move would’ve been a brilliant flanking operation by the Home of the Whopper, giving it a dominant concept in the heart of the European Union. Belgium-based Quick reputedly outperforms McDonald’s in the French, Belgian and North African markets served by its 400 burger outlets.

Instead, Quick Restaurants SA said it fielded a friendly takeover bid from the French private-equity giant CDC Capital Investissements. Quick said it would exclusively deal with CDC to finalize a deal.

CDC’s per-share bid of $47.48 (or €37.8) outstripped the $43.98 (€35) offer that analysts had expected from Burger King Holdings, according to the Associated Press.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A green-hot trend

I appreciate your attention here, but keep an eye diverted for safety reasons. After the industry insisted for decades that it couldn’t afford to address social concerns, the pendulum is suddenly swinging the other way, and you don’t want to get bonked by that baby. Not at the speed it’s moving.

Consider how it’s been pushed in the other direction by events of the last few days. Walt Disney Co. would’ve generated headlines merely by adopting healthier menus in its theme parks, as it’s indeed doing. But it took the considerable extra step of vowing not to do business with restaurant chains that refuse to meet its health-oriented menu standards. A tie-in with the likes of Burger King, Taco Bell or McDonald’s can presumably mean millions in additional box-office revenues for a Disney flick. Yet the company has publicly vowed to walk away from such a collaboration if healthful dining options aren’t on its partner’s menus.

An aspect of the announcement that went unnoticed by the public: Disney convened an event the day afterward at MUFSO, our conference for restaurant-chain executives, to provide further details of its initiative. Was it a way of getting out the word to the big chains that future marketing partnerships would have to be much different?

The initiative is such a bodacious step that even the Center for Science in the Public Interest couldn’t muster it’s usual “good, but” response. It veritably gushed about the move Ditto for critics like Marion Nestle. It is indeed a quantum leap.

Yet the magnitude of that development might’ve diverted attention from other strokes of green. Normally, the launch of a new lodging chain by Barry Sternlicht, the Steve Jobs of the hotel industry, would have delivered the buzz of a honey farm. Add an exclusive affiliation with BR Guest, the New York indie-restaurant group headed by Steve Hanson, and the Richter Scale needle would’ve moved into the red. Overlay the news that the venture will be totally eco-friendly, right down to its restaurant, banquet and room service operations, and more than a few observers would be bouncing like Tom Cruise during an “Oprah” appearance. But coming just a few days after Disney’s announcement, it might’ve seemed, um, a little mickey mouse.

Ditto for Wendy’s disclosure that it had developed a website where parents could get information from dieticians about children’s nutrition, or the pledge from McDonald’s, a frequent partner of Disney, that it would develop more healthful kids’ entrees. McD also promised to spend 20 percent of its GDP-scale children’s marketing budget on spots that promote exercise.

Added together, the news suggests the industry is convinced, after decades of being hounded, that there’s considerable green to be made from being green.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The next big thing?

Add a new word to the crib sheet for staying current on restaurant trends, and put this one down in ink: izakayas, or the neighborhood restaurant-bars of Japan. Recent developments suggests they’re about to become the concept of the moment on the U.S. dining scene, with two very distinct followings.

The Japanese term was largely Greek to American foodies until a few weeks ago. But izakayas have been quietly infiltrating the U.S. market for several years, serving a subculture of Japanese students and young transplants within the States known as NEETs, or Needing Education, Employment, or Training. A major recent feature in The New York Times equated that portion of Japan’s youth to our slacker generation. It noted that these disaffected youngsters are coming to the U.S. in waves, for anywhere from a few months to several years, in hopes of finding themselves (read about it yourself at

The story noted that so many izakayas have opened in the city’s East Village, an anything-goes area known for avant-garde boutiques and body-piercing emporiums, that a section of neighborhood has been re-dubbed Little Tokyo. The places are presumably authentic izakayas, Japan’s equivalent of the United Kingdom’s gastro-pubs. Both serve a clientele of professionals and hipsters who want to have a few drinks after work or school, accompanied by something better than each country’s equivalent of nachos, chicken fingers or other standard bar foods. Izakayas catering to NEETs and other Japanese immigrants typically offer small plates of highly flavored Asian specialties, often grilled.

If the anticipated izakaya craze went no further than serving those ethnic strongholds, the concept would likely garner no more attention from the dining mainstream than Korean barbecues or Peruvian eateries. But recent signs say the format may be moving into the American mainstream.

The Las Vegas-scale neon alert was the opening a few weeks ago of an izakaya-style place by P.F. Chang’s, the company that all but minted gold by introducing many areas of the country to Chinese food they could trust, in a setting that bedazzled instead of conjuring fears of ptomaine poisoning. Its namesake brand has been one of the most successful restaurant ventures of recent years, and a lower-cost version call Pei Wei Asian Diner has similarly enjoyed the touch of Midas, though both concepts have wheezed a bit in recent months.

And now comes Taneko, in Scottsdale, Ariz., a test of what the company hopes will be its newest Asian over-achiever. The company has set it up as a izakaya for the American mainstream, or at least the more adventurous of its dining-out aficionados. Like the pub-restaurants of Japan, it puts a considerable emphasis on beer, spirits and cocktails. The kitchen offers plates of what Gourmet or Food Channel fans might recognize, like Kurobuta pork chops or kobe beef, along with sashimi, tempura and noodle dishes. The company has indicated that patrons will typically spend $30 a head.

Meanwhile, another chain is poking its sandaled toe into the market. Wann, an izakaya brand from Japan, plans to open a U.S. outpost in downtown Seattle, that city’s Post-Intelligencer reported this summer. The newspaper’s restaurant writer, Rebekah Denn, cited the arrival as evidence of izakayas emergence as a next big thing, or what she calls the “it kids” of the local dining scene. Two izakayas are already in operation there, she noted.

Back on the Right Coast, The New York Times reported just last Wednesday that a place called Izakaya Ten had opened in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood, a frequent arbiter of dining fashion.

The paper has tacitly (and uncharacteristically) acknowledged that its hometown may be lagging behind Los Angeles in the evolution of the trend. Note the observation of a July Times story that carried a Los Angeles dateline: “The Japanese izakaya — a pub featuring savory snacks downed with sake or cold beer — is starting to shove the sushi bar off its pedestal,” wrote Jennifer Steinhauer.

And the ultimate gauge of a trend’s arrival: A Google search of “izakayas” served up 16,900 hits. That’s almost in Paris Hilton territory.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Seasons in the sun

Among the industry’s most-watched new restaurant ventures has been Seasons 52, Darden Restaurants’ attempt to mold an all-fresh restaurant and wine bar into something that could profitably serve the mass market, and aging Baby Boomers in particular. The company has been careful to characterize it as an experiment that might never grow into a sizeable chain. Or at least that’s what it had been saying before today.

The Red Lobster and Olive Garden parent tossed aside that usual caution when Blaine Sweatt, the concept’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, was asked during the MUFSO conference about Seasons 52’s chances of ever become a $1-billion-a-year business. Darden has said it wouldn’t undertake the development of a new chain unless it could reach that threshold. Would this ever be a concept feasible for widescale expansion?

“Are we ready to set the switch [to] ‘on’? Yeah, we’re getting pretty close,” said Sweatt. “Will it be a billion dollar business? Yes. It’s going to be bigger than a billion-dollar business.”

He explained that Darden’s success with the venture would likely prompt other casual-dining companies to develop knock-offs, which would add top-spin to the whole pack’s expansion. Darden would prosper, as would everyone else. But it’s invested the time and effort into nailing the right venture.

Sweatt noted that Darden has opened seven outlets of Seasons 52 in markedly different outlets, to gauge its popularity nationwide. Although he didn’t share details about the brand’s acceptance, the mere mention of that tactic suggests that Darden has liked what it’s learned.

Similarly, Darden is one of the industry’s most cautious players. It doesn’t boast or lightly project success. For Sweatt to speak the way he did,, the company has to be very confident about its chances of succeeding. It’s Darden’s boldest endeavor to date, but undoubtedly the one with which it’s moved most cautiously.

Behind the Baja deal

One of the big topics of conversation at MUFSO, Nation’s Restaurant News’ annual conference for multi-unit restaurant operators, has been Wendy’s sale of Baja Fresh for a mere $31 million. To put it in perspective: Wendy's bought the chain in 2002 for more than $275 million.

Attendees in a position to know said the brand had been widely shopped around before Wendy’s agreed to sell it to David Kim, a West Coast entrepreneur described as MUFSO participants as operator of more than 100 Cinnabon franchised stores. They also noted that he’s been a franchisee of Pickup Stix, T.G.I. Friday’s Asian little sister, and franchises a flower-delivery service called Kabloom.

Persons close to the situation say other bidders were put off by the poor financial health of company stores; they speculated that would-be bidders figured they’d have to close dozens of corporate units, which would represent a considerable write-off. But, they said, Kim has vowed to keep the units open, apparently by pursuing a turnaround plan he’s yet to reveal.

Many noted that a number of franchisees are thriving despite the brand’s travails. And word surfaced of an alternative prototype, already in operation in Pennsylvania, that offers the key benefits of speedier service and a less-expensive design.

Down from Olympus

Among the high points of this year’s MUFSO was having Norman Brinker attend. It was like going to a wedding reception and seeing the Rolling Stones take the stage. The man is nothing less than a founding father of the business—every bit as much of god as Ray Kroc, Dave Thomas, or Colonel Sanders. And there he was, sitting in the audience as if he headed a six-unit chain with national aspirations. This was a man who veritably invented casual dining, the visionary who thought up Steak and Ale, Bennigan’s and Chili’s when concepts of that sort were Gemini space craft in a horse-and-carriage world . Oh, yeah—along the way he managed to become one of the richest men in America. Yet you could readily reach him on the phone if you felt like chatting.

There, in the flesh, at MUFSO.

Yet a most extraordinary thing happened: Our industry’s equivalent of Frank Sinatra was in the house, and the house stayed as calm as a yoga instructors’ convention. A few of we old-timers said hello, but nary a Beatles-esque scream was raised, and the crowd kept its distance.

If most attendees merely wanted to respect the seventysomething’s privacy, that’s a wonderful thing indeed. But you can’t help wondering if many of those in the room didn’t grasp who this person was, and how much of a stamp he’d left on the industry, and society as a whole. They’re squandering the chance to meet a legend. And that’s sad indeed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bling for the King?

Can Burger King get its funk groove on, even with Diddy in the house?

The quick-service chain has contracted the one-time Puff Daddy as a “change agent” who can get the chain some street creds with the iTunes generation. The first step is the association of BK with the rap star on a page of, as if the King and Diddy hang together all the time. A video clip on the new Google holding shows the entertainer ordering a Whopper (written all in lowercase for added coolness) and explaining why he chose BK as a new collaborator. He’ll also star in an ad spot on that old-media staple, TV.

What either partner has yet to explain is the “consulting on relevant entertainment and marketing talent” piece of the deal. BK stresses that provision, and notes the deal is “multi-year,” but provides little detail. Is the burger chain looking to sign other stars for promotional gigs? Is it scrapping the hold-the-pickle-hold-the-lettuce schtick to become the sort of place where teens might skateboard in for the newest downloads and DVD? Will it sell the music and movies, as it’s already doing with its XBOX games, or just give it away to push more Whoppers—sorry, that’s whoppers, dog.

But while the King and Diddy are out clubbing, McDonald’s is already seeing more Big Macs slide across the counter because of its new entertainment initiative. Seventeen percent more, according to the franchisee of the test site. The m-Venue service, currently available just in that lone Schaumburg, Ill., unit, allows patrons to play songs, music videos or movie previews—all from Sony’s entertainment holdings—on any of 10 flat-screen TVs within the restaurant. They send their request via the ether, via either a text-message, a wireless laptop, or a web-enabled phone.

Right now, the entertainment is free. But the company supplying some of the equipment says a digital store is already part of the plan. At that stage, customers can buy the music or videos and download them to their wireless toys. There was no indication of how much the McDonald’s unit might collect from a sale.

That company, Akoo International, says McDonald’s units throughout the greater Chicago area will be retrofitted with m-Venue by year’s end, but the chain itself has not issued an announcement or other statement.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Coming clean on washing

Restaurateurs say getting employees to wash their hands is more difficult than packing the house. New research on American’s use of soap and water may provide some insight as to why.

Dining out may be ingrained in our culture, but hand washing is still surprisingly iffy, according to a new study from the Soap and Detergent Association, whose Washington, D.C., headquarters must be spotless. In a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. adults, more than a third (36 percent) admitted they seldom or never wash their hands after coughing or sneezing. Almost as many (30 percent) said they don’t routinely give the paws a scrub before lunch.

Worst of all, about 8 percent confessed they don’t always wash their hands after using the bathroom. And the SDA surmises that the true figure may be far higher. “There’s a gap between what people say and what they do,” the group observes in its analysis of the data. It cites an earlier study, conducted in collaboration with the party animals over at the American Society for Microbiology, that found 17 percent of Americans don’t hit the soap after using a public bathroom.

And if adults don’t stop at the sink as a matter of course, what habit are their children going to develop?

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Fish tales

Recent events confirm that Maine is very serious about fish. And don’t even get it started on crustaceans.

As we reported yesterday, one of the state’s U.S. senators has asked the federal government to prohibit restaurants from marketing pelagic crab meat as lobster, even if the designation incorporates the more familiar name of “langostino.” Olympia Snowe, a Republican, says her state’s lobster industry has lost $44 million in sales because chains like Red Lobster and Long John Silver’s can buy the less-expensive langostino and peddle it as langostino lobster, accent on the second word. In her view, the feds have to protect the majestic Maine lobster from being confused with the sea mutts she dismisses as “large shrimp.”

But while Snowe was trying to foment a storm, another fish story was unreeling far more quietly within the state. The conclusion will come within 30 days, when a special panel of the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife decides the fate of 10 koi that were seized from a restaurant’s dining-room aquarium.

The oversized, ornamental goldfish, routinely kept as pets in Asia, were taken from a Freeport restaurant called China Rose, where they’d lived for 15 years. Then a game warden spotted the fish and alerted authorities. In Maine, you need a license to raise koi, and China Rose proprietor Coung Ly clearly didn’t have one. Indeed, only one person in the state does.

The state is afraid that koi could escape from captivity, thrive like rabbits in the wild, and starve the endemic species that have turned Maine’s sports-fishing business into a whopper. So they took Ly’s fish—and gave them to a pet store.

Presumably, people can’t buy the specimens. But they can ogle the fruits of Ly’s crime and feel the pull of the dark side. If you know the right people, buying koi in New York or New Hampshire is a cinch.

Ly has begged to have his fish returned, pledging never to let them go or allow them to escape—which, presumably, is a pretty tough feat for a fish.

The odds of an escape will be weighed by the three-person panel appointed by Fisheries and Wildlife. They’ll decide if the fish will be returned to Ly. But regardless of their ruling, he’ll still face courtroom time and the possibility of a $1,000 fine under misdemeanor charges filed against him several weeks ago, for koi smuggling.

Hopefully he’s already erased any mention of langostino lobster from his menu.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

This week in history?

After the events of last week, who knows what the next seven days will bring? It’s unlikely to be noted in history books, but the recent past served up some important milestones, some as obvious as Grant’s Tomb, and others as little-noticed as the Menudo reunion album.

Topping the list would have to be New York City’s call for virtual elimination of trans fat from restaurant preparations. A corner was turned, a tipping point was reached, the last straw was slipped into the camel’s pack. Whatever cliché you want to use, this is when it’s all likely to change, with regulators pushing on restaurants, the eateries pressuring their vendors, and the suppliers giving their R&D folks a firm kick. The end result is going to be the phasing out of trans fats, if for no other reason than the publicity that was raised by the New York health department’s call for eliminating the artery clogger from commercial kitchens. The infallible new gauge of buzz, the Google search, shows 106,000 website mentions of the issue.

And that’s going to be the first domino that falls. Chicago has already said that it’s eying what happens in New York as a model for what it does. And, whether you love New York or hate it, it’s hard to argue that it’s not a bellweather for much of the nation. Where it goeth, often so goes the nation.

Strangely, despite all the attention that New York’s proposed ban has garnered, several aspects of the proposal have been overlooked, or certainly under-appreciated. Why, for instance, is there not more of a sympathetic outcry for banishing trans fat from retail shelves? Or the home kitchen? Why is the public—and the restaurant industry—so willing to accept that double standard?

The answer may be the second part of the health department’s proposal, which, as we’ve noted in our New York office, was largely overlooked even by the city’s celebrated hometown media. Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden also wants to mandate the posting of nutritional information on the menu boards of chain restuarants if the host concept already offers it as a handout or in some other form. It could be the stick that prods a sector of the trade to mute its protest to the ban proposal, which some insiders characterize as a done deal. If restaurants argue that they shouldn’t be subjected to the double standard of having to eliminate all but trace amounts of trans fats, when packaged-goods companies merely have to label the trans-fat content of their foods, then regulators might say, “Fine. Have it your way. Just provide the information, right on your menus. Along with info on cholesterol, calories and salt.”

Eliminating trans fat is a task that can be pushed back on suppliers. Menu labeling is a matter for restaurant accountants, and likely not one to make them happy.

The trans fat proposal may have accounted for plenty of headline ink, but it was hardly the lone newsworthy event of last week. Consider, for instance, the little-noticed tidbit about McDonald’s funding research into what makes children obese. About a year ago, I wrote a page-one story for Nation’s Restaurant News about the glut of research now being conducted on obesity, a cause du jour for academics, scientists and health officials. There’ll be no shortage of data on the topic. Yet McDonald’s is ponying up $2 million for more—no doubt in part to demonstrate concern, but perhaps also to make sure that all voices are heard in that authoritative discussion of obesity’s causes and possible remedies. As far as I can tell, it’s the first time that a restaurant chain has done such a thing, and certainly the only time that a quick-service operator has plunged into the world of health research to that degree.

The last week or so also brought the filing of three lawsuits against restaurants by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As was noted here last Saturday, Starbucks is being sued by the federal agency for allegedly violating the rights of a psychologically troubled employee, as provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act. A McDonald’s franchisee in Denver was hit with a suit for purportedly allowing two teenaged female employees to be sexually harassed by male managers and employers. And then came the announcement of a suit against the Parker Palm Springs hotel in Palm Springs, Calif., for allegedly hiring only males at one of its restaurants.

Given the volume of suits that the EEOC files, three doesn’t exactly signal a trend. But to have three actions against restaurants disclosed in the same week seems unusual. Is the EEOC stepping up its use of lawsuits as an enforcement tool? Are restaurants’ rules slipping a little in this tougher economic environment? Or are employees willing to resort to legal action more readily because jobs are harder to come by?

We don’t know. But maybe next week will provide an answer.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Slain Colo. girl was one of our own

The 16-year-old girl who was killed by a homeless man who took her hostage in a Colorado high school on Wednesday has been identified as one of our own. Emily Keyes worked in a Bailey, Colo., restaurant called the Cutthroat Café. A story in the Rocky Mountain News said her name was still on the work schedule as of yesterday.

The article said the café has become a place for locals to gather in hopes that grieving together may be better than trying to contend with the tragedy alone. A jar was set on the counter yesterday for donations to the girl's family. By noon, the local paper reported, the container was filled. Among the bills jammed inside was a $500 note.

In case you missed it, Emily was one of six girls that a gun-toting 53-year-old took hostage in Bailey’s Platte Canyon High School on Wednesday. Duane Morrison reportedly released four of the girls, then used Emily as a human shield when police stormed the place in hopes of rescuing her and the other remaining hostage. Morrison shot Emily in the back of the head and then killed himself.

If I learn how anyone without access to the jar can make a donation, I’ll pass that info along here.

Moddelmog named to head Susan G. Komen group

The restaurant industry’s ties to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation were seemingly strengthened yesterday when the charity, a favorite of many independents and chains alike, named Hala Moddelmog as its new CEO. Moddelmog, a consultant in recent years, is well known in foodservice from her many years of running the Church’s Chicken chain for AFC Enterprises. She parted with the chain when it was sold.

Moddelmog has also been very active in the Women’s Foodservice Forum and industry events.

A restaurant connection is hardly new for the Komen Foundation. It was named after the sister of founder Nancy Brinker, the former wife of Norman Brinker. Susan Komen lost her life to breast cancer in 1980 at age 36. Nancy Brinker subsequently devoted much of her life to fighting the disease. She was the CEO until surrendering that role to Hala.

This week alone, Panera Bread announced that its stores in southeastern Pennsylvania would generate funds this month for the Komen Foundation. Units there are selling a special pink bagel, like the pink ribbons worn by persons whose lives have been affected by breast cancer, to raise public awareness along with some dough. During October, a quarter from each bagel sale will go to the charity.

Restaurants in New York’s Chautauqua County are having a Dine Out-type function to raise funds. And countless restaurants elsewhere are doing their part to raise money and awareness during what is officially Breast Cancer Awareness Month.