Sunday, September 24, 2006

Bad timing, but who knew?

You can’t help but sympathize with Max & Erma’s, the 100-unit casual-dining chain. It announced a line-up of fall menu specials last Tuesday with the usual drum rolls and trumpet blasts. No fanfare was likely need for one of the limited-time items. Who wouldn’t notice a ravioli dish made with baby spinach, when health authorities were posting daily updates of how many people had been sickened and hospitalized from eating the green?

The unfortunate timing certainly wasn’t Max & Erma’s fault. No doubt its new Italian array was under development for months, starting back in the days when spinach was viewed as something that fostered health. And the menu is slated for the fall; who knows what the status of the spinach situation will be next week, never mind early December? Would it have made sense to hold back on a ravioli dish that features spinach when the vegetable might be re-designated as safe by the time guests roll into restaurants to give the new menu a try? Perhaps. But, for the sake of prudence, why not forego a mention of the product, at least in press announcements that the media will likely pass along to consumers?

Of course, Max & Erma’s is hardly the only chain to put the spotlight on an item that might have better been left under wraps. On Aug. 25, just about the time state health officials were fielding reports of people getting sick from eating spinach, Applebee’s scored the publicity coup of disclosing that celebrity chef/TV star/heartthrob Tyler Florence had developed four menu items for the mega-chain. One is an interesting poultry dish, called Crispy Brick Chicken, which is made by splitting a chicken and pressing it against a red-hot grill, according to the announcement that flooded the media. But in a regrettable twist of timing, it’s accompanied by a fresh spinach salad.

Applebee’s apparently kept the chicken, but smartly pulled the accompanying salad.

There’s no word yet on what Max & Erma’s plans to do if the spinach crisis continues, as it likely will to some degree. Fortunately, the new Italian menu includes three other dishes that can be touted. But it’d be a shame that all that the outcome of all that R&D work might have to be a raincheck.

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