Sunday, June 11, 2006

Roll the highlights

The past week didn’t bring a dynamite single story about the restaurant business, but seldom has a seven-day stretch yielded as many news cherry bombs. Though subtle, they’re a collective nod the trade is changing monumentally, an inch at a time rather than in head-turning bounds.

Consider the turn signals that were flicked for menus, for instance. A scan of the headlines in the Breaking News section of our website shows that Panera Bread is courting Mom with new kids’ meals that incorporate organic and so-called natural components. The disclosure by the fast-casual darling is a follow up to the news a few weeks ago that it plans to add a pizza-like dinner item made with organically grown tomatoes.

In and of itself, that’s an interesting but hardly pulse-quickening development, given that Panera has yet to reach the market-making status of a McDonald’s or a Taco Bell, which can fundamentally change a product’s supply and demand macro-dynamics with a mere recipe tweak. (Before Claire Babrowski left McDonald’s upper ranks for the fast track to the chief executive’s job at Radio Shack, she bemoaned having the power to create a global sesame-seed shortage merely by changing the specs for Big Mac buns.)

But the week also brought an announcement from Chipotle Grill that it was switching to the use of natural chicken in more of its markets. Judging from what chain officials have indicated in the past, the move signals a step up in the availability of additive-free chicken. And the more that production increases, the more likely consumers are to embrace the product, the more likely producers are to accommodate the burgeoning demand, the more readily Chipotle and other chains can put the unadulterated protein on their menus. Each convert minutely tips the sale to that critical point where production takes off, and the price puts the option within reach of low-priced mass marketers.

Meanwhile, a farmers’ cooperative from North Dakota has begun to open restaurants where members’ meats and produce will be showcased alongside organic greens and other farm-to-fork proteins. They chose Washington, D.C., as the site of their first Agraria, but say they’re apparently already considering a duplication of the high-end eatery.

And that’s not the end of the push toward more wholesome, unprocessed, organic or sourced-by-growing-region foodstuffs. Local newspapers reported in recent days that McDonald’s supplier Paul Newman, who apparently also makes movies, is opening a restaurant this summer in a Westport, Conn., theater in collaboration with Michel Nischan, a chef and cookbook author known for his support of sustainable agriculture. Called The Dressing Room—Newman’s Own, A Homegrown Restaurant, the establishment will feature naturally grown and artisanal foods from local farmers. It’s one restaurant, in a town considerably off the beaten trail. But attach Newman’s name to it, and you can count on publicity, of the restaurant and its cause. You can already find coverage in newspapers thousands of miles away.

Those developments would seem to me like mere one-offs—just a series of coincidences—if it weren’t for a chain menu makers’ roundtable I recently moderated on health and nutrition. To a person, the participants attested that “health” is being equated more and more by consumers to “natural.” And nearly every one of the menu-writing participants, as you’ll read in the full coverage in an upcoming issue of Nation’s Restaurant News, believes they’ll soon have organic items on their menus. Indeed, one already does, and others readily cited peers who are already testing non-adulterated and additive-free items on mass-market menus.

They declared with assurance that issues of availability and price are about to be overcome, and that organics would soon become a staple on the menus of even the largest restaurant chains.

The tipping point, they said, was Wal-Mart’s directive to its food suppliers that they begin cultivating organic foodstuffs now, on a scale that could feed the giant retailer. That demand, the menu makers said, will justify the investment on the part of growers and processors in the wide-scale farming and ranching of organics. Factory food will be out, and natural or organic fare will be in, with its origins spelled out to an extensive degree.

But that trend is only one of the shifts that was nudged further along in the last week by individual developments. In the days ahead, maybe there’ll be time and space to look at some of those other currents, including the notion that honesty is making a comeback, be it in the way corporations are run, or in a resurging interest on the part of chefs in the simplest of fares, like burgers and hot dogs.

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