Sunday, May 21, 2006

Dateline: NRA Show

Two days into the National Restaurant Association’s annual convention here, two themes have clearly emerged—one very positive, the other as scary as an urgent call from the doctor after some routine tests.

The good news first: The industry is clearly shifting away from the notion that it can mold matter into something edible and call it food. During one of my first NRA shows, the hot product was an abomination called ketchup crystals, a form of the condiment that looked like sugar and could be shaken onto burgers like salt. It fit the prevailing imperative (circa 1980) to cut a restaurateur’s effort and costs, regardless of how distantly the end result might have resembled anything found in nature. Flavors were the result of manipulation in a lab, not in a kitchen.

Contrast that with some of the notable items from this year’s exposition. Usually you’d only find natural products in the small booths in the outer zip codes of the exhibit hall, near the inventor demonstrating his new neck-tie guard or the entrepreneur hawking musical salt shakers. They were garage operations, relegated by their budgets and scale to marginal status.

But this year, minimally processed choices were showcased by a number of the industry’s major processors. Few nudist colonies offer more au natural. Clearly suppliers are being pushed by restaurateurs—undoubtedly shoved themselves by customers—to provide simpler, less-chemically enhanced food choices. As a result, restaurateurs dependent on so called value-added items can now spec such halo-bearing products as proteins flavored with natural marinades, or naturally preserved cold cuts. The 45-item list of ingredients, chockfull of –ites, -ates, acids and gums, is being supplanted by a short roster of recognizable foods, like chicken, salt, or spices.

And that’s a decidedly good thing, judging from a roundtable discussion I moderated on health and nutrition during the show. The degree of interest in simpler, more natural preparations, even by huge mass-market chains, was stunning. Meeting just as the show was opening, the participants all but clamored for the very things they could find later on the show floor. A good thing indeed, for all concerned.

Not so for another frequent topic of discussion during the show. Avian flu has loomed as an industry threat for some time. Now it may be close to arriving. During the NRA’s board meeting, directors quoted experts as saying an instance of the disease will likely be detected within the United States this summer. One cited a Harvard University study that showed 46 percent of consumers would stop eating poultry if the virus is found in U.S. farm stock.

/There’s widespread agreement that patrons have little to fear, barring a pandemic. But there was a near-consensus that the public won’t follow reason.

“We’re just going to have to manage the hysteria, because we know it’s coming,” Todd Graves, founder and CEO of the Raising Cane’s chicken-finger chain, said during an interview at the show.

The chain is already putting together a website to provide fans of the brands with facts about the disease, and how much risk it really poses. Should the disease be detected domestically, Cane’s merely has to post a link on its home page.

The company will also “manage our money so we can absorb a 35-40% sales hit,” Graves said.

Meanwhile, the NRA is spearheading a campaign to educate the industry and the public about the malady, and how little danger it poses if proper food handling and cooking procedures are observed—provided there’s no pandemic.

And if that happens? What if the disease does morph into a deadly illness that can be passed from person to person?

An NRN colleague mentioned how a source of hers in the airport management business already has facilities earmarked as quarantine space for travelers who might have been contaminated.

Scary stuff indeed.

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