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.

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