Thursday, April 12, 2007

Avoiding nuggies for better farm life

There are two ways to eat a Whopper: The human method, and the one engineered by my younger brother, whom I'm sure my father won in a card game. While I ate my sandwich in the normal fashion, he'd occupy himself—no doubt by plotting some prank on the dog—until my sandwich was gone. Then he'd unwrap his Whopper with the loving attention of a parent fawning over a newborn. He'd stare at it for minutes, alternating between coos and ahhs before eating it at glacial speed, moaning with each bite, mixing in a few "oh, wow's", and sometimes even offering a muffled, "Don't you wish you still had yours?"

It would continue until I invoked the Bigger Brother Rule, which is seldom enforced outside of Mauritania, but holds sway in almost any situation where an adult isn’t present: To he who is bigger belongs the spoils. Of course, it'd backfire on me when a parent was summoned. My brother would get both his Whopper and the satisfaction of knowing I'd be delegated some of his chores as punishment. "I just want to enjoy what the Good Lord has provided for us," he'd say sanctimoniously, looking heavenward.

Burger King missed its shot at an ideal pitchman. But the crew that really whiffed on signing its Michael Jordan is the lot that's been forging headline after headline in recent weeks. Call them the eco-instigators, the righteous indignators, or maybe the demon spawn of Eddie Haskell. They’re the ones who want the industry to take a sharp turn toward ecologically sounder practices.

But however sincere they may be in that cause, their methods are another matter. Publicly, they’re holier-than-thou, a fervent army striving to foster a kinder, gentler society. Away from the camera lights, they’re a pack of Chicago union organizers, circa 1900, using a mix of taunts, goads and the occasional threat to wrest “green” concessions from whomever they’re bullying.

And those targets have lately run the gamut, from Wolfgang Puck to Burger King and Joe’s Corner Grill. Well, actually, I can't swear that Joe’s has felt the heat yet. But it's largely a matter of time until it does. Like a kid brother, they're not going away, as much as you might will it.

Then again, today not many people want to see them fade away. Certainly not your customers, if the anecdotal evidence is telling. When Burger King agreed to buy its eggs, chicken and pork from farms that employ humane cultivation methods, estranged relatives and classmates from grammar school were calling to say, “Aha! Finally, your industry is getting its act together! Save the seals!!” The public saw the eco-activists as heroes, not arm-twisters with an idiosyncratic agenda.
Since I’ve yet to spy a John Deere, a harpoon or a Feed Lot This Way sign inside a restaurateur’s office, I’m not sure why the industry had been villanized in the first place. But the calls kept coming, though, strangely, not from my brother.

But a few could’ve been placed by your employees. The green that tends to preoccupy employers is the sort that’s in the till, perhaps because they’re the ones who have to meet a payroll. You may be concerned about staffers tracking dirt into your dining rooms, but the youngsters themselves are focused more on their carbon footprints. That’s why being green is emerging as a recruitment strength. Does anyone doubt that Starbucks’ eco-focus has helped it land high-caliber employees?

So if customers and employees are at least secret sympathizers with eco-agitators’ effort to turn the industry green, does that leave restaurateurs as the sole opposition? Well, not exactly, because sentiment is turning decidedly eco-friendly within the operator community as well. Business sensibilities may still flatten support for measures like the polystyrene bans currently sweeping northern California, or purchasing changes that jack up food costs exponentially. But all indications suggest there’s a new openness to alternative procedures, supplies and policies that pack the benefit of being more green-hearted.

And yet the battle with eco-activists will likely intensify in coming months. The industry may agree with many of their goals, but the means pose a divisive issue, as do the strong-arm tactics. It’s a shame the groups wouldn’t stifle their attempts at manipulation in the hope of finding some room for cooperation. Or as my brother might have said, There’s a way to have your Whopper without the addition of a few atomic nuggies.

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