Wednesday, March 28, 2007

PETA's ventriloquism act

More than 230 stories were written today about Burger King’s switch to pork and eggs from animals raised outside of cages, according to one of the news-gathering systems we use. I’ll bet 90 percent of the articles suggested Burger King was the source, which is kind of perplexing. The chain didn’t issue a statement, or at least not one that I could find during the considerable time that I spent looking. Nor did I see a statement quoted in any of the stories. And the last article posted, by Reuters, specifically noted that the franchisor wouldn’t address the matter. So where did everyone get the news? From PETA and the Humane Society of the United States, two animal-rights extremist groups that were pressing BK to promote more humane farming practices.

It’s not surprising that such publicity-savvy crusaders would crow about their victory. What’s dismaying is how they assumed the role of spokes-groups for BK, airing the news as if they were the chain’s public relations department. Indeed, an announcement posted on a service called the Restaurant News Resource is tagged as coming from Burger King. The electronic document carries the chain’s familiar logo, as if the home office had released it. Yet the content is all about PETA, a.k.a. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and it was exactly the statement that the group had directly sent to us this morning. Yet a casual reader would initially think the release had come from BK.

It’s such a blatant encroachment on BK’s turf that I can’t help but wonder if the statement was the result of more than mere audacity on PETA’s part. Was making the announcement part of a deal struck with BK? Did the chain agree to let PETA and the Humane Society do the talking? I have no concrete evidence, but that would explain why PETA and the Society recounted the exact same points of BK’s “decision” (though the language did vary slightly). And why BK was silent on a development that many consumers might see as a positive move by the chain.

If it’s so, and the animal groups indeed become the party framing announcements like today’s head-turner, the industry would be ceding an important safeguard. Instead of hearing the applause it deserves, the trade would have to listen to lot of self-serving chest-thumping from a bunch of roughnecks.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Shots heard 'round the industry

Let it be noted that the restaurant industry made its stand not in the libertarian strongholds of Texas, Idaho or Maine, but in that cradle of social activism, the Bay Area. In case you missed Monday and Tuesday’s news reports, operators there are in open rebellion, having crossed the line between frustration and roaring outrage. Restaurateurs, unite! The revolution has started.

The flashpoint was San Francisco’s paid sick-leave proposal, a measure that will require operators there to provide an hour of sick leave for every 30 hours that an employee works. That equates roughly to paying for an extra hour of scheduled time, without the actual work, per employee per week. And the July 1 mandate will follow a hefty increase in the local minimum wage and staggering new health-insurance costs. The local industry decided enough was enough and that it was time to push back.

As was reported in this space Friday, restaurateurs have decided to fight back with a one-day lock-out of customers, without any warning, and possibly on a day when the city is packed with conventioneers. They want their hometown to get a taste of what life would be like without the economic engine of its restaurants.

Things have only worsened since then. When mayor Gavin Newsom met with locals about the new sick-leave measure, he was shouted down for much of the two-hour confab, The San Francisco Chronicle reported today. Demonstrators showed up in chicken outfits, apparently to make the point that the mayor is afraid to talk substantially about the mandate. “About every 10 minutes or so, [Gaven and his health-department director] were drowned out by shouting from the crowd,” the paper reported. “’Let the people speak!’ they chanted.”

The story continued, “’Nice dialogue and discussion!’ one of them told Newsom. ‘Thanks for letting us talk.’”

But that dust-up was only part of the backlash from the industry. Across the bay, in Oakland, the industry scored what may be its first victory in the fight over trans-fat bans. Oakland County commissioner Marcia Gershenson reportedly withdrew her proposal to ban the artery clogger’s use by restaurants because of lack of support from her legislative peers. They, in turn, cited indications from the county’s 4,400-member restaurant industry that the ban would raise their costs and prices and thereby hurt tourism. The industry’s argument had prevailed, a rare occurrence in the debates raging at all levels of government over trans-fat bans.

A pundit once said that trends start in California and roll east. Might a better metaphor for this week’s developments be a match set to tinder?

Monday, March 26, 2007

A restaurant's own private Idaho

As Congress hunkers down for the donnybrook over immigration reform, a restaurant in Idaho is learning why that discussion may leave the nation wincing. Chapala had been tending to its business when a pack of bigots tossed a shovelful of mud its way, for no other reason than the place’s name and menu are Mexican.

Worst of all, the little brains weren’t Archie Bunkers in hoods and sheets. These were college students, the group that traditionally tests the outer boundaries of tolerance.

Not the Young Republicans from Boise State University, who figured a little immigration humor would be a hoot. The political organization produced and circulated a mock flier to illustrate its position on immigration reform. Among the events touted in the document was a food-stamp drawing, eligible to immigrants who first crawled through a hole in a fence and presented fake identification. The winner, said that slice of hilarity, would get a dinner for two at, of course, a Mexican restaurant.

The group subsequently apologized to Chapala, but the effort is almost as offensive. “It is one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, and we love eating there,” Young Republican Jonathan Sawmiller was widely quoted as telling the Boise eatery. Why didn’t he say, “Why, some of our best friends are Mexican, and we treated our Mexican housekeeper as if she was a member of the family.”

The matter drew the wrath of the Democratic National Committee, which demanded that its Republican counterpart condemn that action by the Boise Young Republicans. As of Thursday, the DNC said, it had yet to receive a response.

But this isn’t a Democrat-versus-Republican matter. Nor is it even a tussle between those who want a liberal new immigration policy and those who prefer a more conservative, less-forgiving approach. In this case, it’s xenophobia versus an open mind, and discussion versus stereotyping and disparagement. The restaurant industry has been a leader of the progressive side in this matter. It’s a shame that one of its own had to feel the harshness of such a reactionary, dim-witted attitude.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Fray by the Bay: Who'll Pay?

San Francisco’s restaurants are squaring off with the city, and the fight is turning decidedly ugly. A story in today’s San Francisco Examiner said the local trade plans to shut for a day to give residents a taste of what their town would be like without its celebrated eateries. It might even spring the lockout as a surprise, Kevin Westlye, head of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, told the newspaper. Participants might choose a day when the city is packed with conventioneers, who’d be caught by surprise, without the fallback of their home kitchens.

The notion grew out of a meeting last week by an estimated 100 restaurateurs, who gathered to consider responses to recent cost increases that have been foisted on local businesses, including a wage hike (to $9.14 an hour) and a mandate to provide paid sick leave.

The possibility of a shutdown drew a slap from a proponent of the sick-leave measure. “They’re having a two-year-old tantrum, embarrassing themselves and San Francisco,” supervisor Tom Ammiano said of the town’s restaurants.

The story also resurrected earlier local press reports that restaurants there are considering the widespread adoption of a service charge, an extra fee that would be automatically tacked onto guests’ checks. After a local business paper suggested the restaurants might act in concert to lessen the chances of a public backlash to a surcharge, industry leaders were quick to refute the assertion, noting that such a thing could run afoul of anti-trust regulations. They apparently feared accusations that the eateries were fixing prices.

In today’s Examiner story, Westlye is cited as saying that restaurants have indeed considered a service charge of 3 to 5 percent. “If all we do is raise prices, the public would just think we’re being greedy restaurateurs,” he’s quoted as saying.

Walk-offs and shutdowns have not worked well for restaurant staffers in the last few decades. A strike by restaurant and hotel employees in New York City in the 1980s was seen as a pivotal moment in industry labor relations, with the trade’s main union almost universally cited as the loser in that confrontation. The outcome was the same in a strike in Las Vegas.

But a strike by restaurant owners? Only in San Francisco. Or at least that’s what we all should hope.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Take this McJob and--well, you know

Rumors that McDonald’s has demanded the stand-down and de-nosing of all clowns except Ronald McDonald appear to be flights of fancy, but not so the reports that it wants the English language adjusted. News stories coming out of the United Kingdom indicate that the fearsome burger chain and sometime linguist is mounting a campaign to purge “McJobs” from the dictionary.

The cause will be regarded by many in the U.S. foodservice business as valorous, if not the sort of gallantry of which schoolchildren will someday sing. Perspective, people! Sure, it’s an admirable effort from the industry’s standpoint, a defense against the sensational sound byte that tars entry-level restaurant jobs as a sure sign off loser-dom. (No word yet on whether Burger King is similarly trying to expunge “whopper flopper” from the vocabulary.)

But you have to acknowledge the audacity and sense of might that would give rise to such a push. Remember, this is the corporate entity that gave the world the Hamburglar and wrote “supersize” into the vernacular. And, when all is said and done, it sells burgers, drinks and fries. Those aren’t the ideal credentials for a party that asserts the right to police the English language.

There’s no doubt that McJobs is a term that denotes the user’s ignorance. It’s just a shame that we need a fast-food chain to lead the charge against the formal recognition of such a derogatory word as a part of the language. And it’s more than a bit scary that the chain is probably going to prevail, with or without the blessing of the tweed-clad real guardians of the mother tongue.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Cut, now finally pasted

Editors. Pffft.

Never mind that I’m one of them. As a lot, we’re way too anal-retentive. More often than is statistically possible, a great line is excised from a story because “it’s not our style,” or “it really isn’t consistent with what you’re saying,” or “there’s absolutely no proof that extraterrestrials exist.”

This installment is my revenge. Here are some of the lines they’ve refused to let me include, or that I’ve yanked myself in a fit of pre-emptive self-editing. If only I could remember the context for each.

“They could make the numbers dance like Chita Rivera.”

“He ate his first meal in an American restaurant on Dec. 8, 1970. His second was on Dec. 9; his third, Dec. 10. Some 3,412 meals (and 3,412 days) later, he’s still visiting the restaurant every day, sitting at the same table, often ordering the same thing.”

“Even Stevie Wonder could have seen it.”

“In trying to eat all five of my recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables, I’ve often counted popcorn and corn chips. But that damned doctor red-carded me.”

“They had shifted most of the functions in-house. But a key one remained out-house.”

“Some are born to cured meats. Mario Batali had it thrust upon him.”

“Sure signs the Apocalypse is upon us: My gym bag came with a 32-page User’s Manual. My grab-and-go breakfast now comes in a bag with handles. IBM no longer sells PCs, and McDonald’s execs have publicly stated that the chain may someday get out of the burger business.”

“You can now get ciabatta at Jack in the Box, espresso at Dunkin’ Donuts, a panini at Mobile gas stations, prime rib at Quiznos, fresh-baked bread at Wendy’s, organic pizza sauce at Shakey’s and even lattes at some McDonald’s outlets. Yet none of those seem as ambitious as Mimi’s offer of fresh asparagus as a seasonal offering. This, after all, is a family chain that once went waffle-to-waffle with Denny’s, Bob Evans and Friendly’s.”

“I was a little frightened by our editorial meeting today. A colleague was talking about molecular gastronomy and signs that the chemistry-in-the-kitchen craze has gone mainstream, a possible sign of ultimately cresting. ‘Of course, there’s still a lot going on with spherification,’ he noted offhandedly. Why not just tell us who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb.”

Sunday, March 18, 2007

This just in from the social front

Item 1: At an IHOP in Grandview, Mo., a female patron kissed her partner and lover, one of the three other women in the booth. She later described it as “a kiss I would share with my uncle.” But other guests complained and the manager told the women to leave, explaining that he ran a family restaurant. The matter was spotlighted—sympathetically—in a popular column of The Kansas City Star, the major daily of a notoriously conservative state.

Item 2: A woman breastfeeding her baby inside Johnny’s Barbecue in Cullman, Ala., alleges that an employee threw a dirty towel over the baby’s head to hide the sight. Management said the towels were clean and were merely offered, and employees have alleged that the woman’s breast was in clear view. The outraged patron organized a protest of nursing mothers, but only three showed, according to local media. There was no indication of how many might have been scared away by the customers who filled the lot to demonstrate their support of the restaurant’s actions.

Item 3: Several months ago, an entry in this space noted that former longtime Church’s president Hala Moddelmog had been appointed chief executive of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, a group that fights breast cancer. A reader recently sent a note chastising me for not pointing out that the Foundation also supports abortion through funding of Planned Parenthood, an allegation that I can’t say is true or untrue. But I didn’t allow the comment to be posted because the writer went on to assert that supporting Planned Parenthood is the same as supporting abortion, and that encourages the rape of minors by adult men working in restaurants. It was not the mad raving of a yahoo writing from a cabin in Idaho.

As even the cave-dwelling neighbors of Osama Bin Laden are no doubt aware, we’re in the midst of a presidential election that’s likely to be a doozy. The industry fully expects the yapping by the various candidates to focus attention on issues vehemently opposed by the trade, like health-insurance mandates, wage increases or employee benefits like paid sick leave. But the preening and strutting for votes this time around is likely to touch on social matters that are hotter than Mike Tyson’s temper, from family values to abortion to gay marriage. And as the modern-day town square, restaurants will often be the stages for those heightened passions. Indeed, as these three examples suggest, the foodservice business is already serving as a battleground.

Which brings me to a few key questions, and the real reason for this entry: So what’s your policy on dining-room breastfeeding (if your state has even left that as an option)? How about public displays of affection by same-sex couples? And how are you going to react when employees, customers or neighbors don’t like the charities your operation supports (the Komen Foundation is one of the industry’s most widely championed groups, as my earlier entry noted)? For that matter, how do your frontline employees feel about these issues, and how are you going to handle the clash between their attitudes and yours, or theirs and customers?

I certainly don’t profess to know your business. But it seems to me that having the answers to those and other socially explosive questions now may be a whole lot better than having to come up with something when one of my colleagues in the media is thrusting a microphone in your face, asking for clarification for the local 6 o’clock evening news.

It’s not a task I envy you.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Harsh glare of the spotlight

A Chinese restaurant in Spring Valley, NY, is hoping to reopen for the weekend rush after being shuttered because health officials reportedly found 500 mouse droppings in the place. Which, of course, means that some poor schlub had to invest considerable time in counting rodent turds. We can only hope he or she was an apprentice or intern. “You start with droppings, then move up to taking a temp reading or two, and before you know it you’re going mano-a-mano with salmonella,” they were probably told by inspection greybeards in the department’s break room, which you have to assume is spotless.

I pass this along not only as fodder for choosing your dim sum source this weekend, but also to underscore how the health inspection, once the foodservice industry’s equivalent of a prostate check, is suddenly in the internet spotlight. The news-gathering services we use here at Nation’s Restaurant News have been as plump as Rosie O’Donnell with local stories about restaurant closings and appetite-dashing health-inspection results. No doubt it’s part of the fallout from New York City’s ongoing rat scandal, which no doubt left reporters and inspectors in the hinterlands smashing a fist in into their palms and wishing they could get a chance to test their mettle with a situation like that. So, they’re going out and finding them, which may not be that difficult to do.

The attention to health inspections and their effectiveness may be new to the Information Superhighway, but they’ve been hot topics among restaurant-business leaders for some time, and in far less-flattering terms. Perhaps no party knows better than the industry that the inspection process has been on a slide for sometime, the result of budget cuts, increased inspector workloads, high turnover of department personnel, no standardization, and, perhaps more than anything, poor training for a job that’s grown more difficult. Many health departments have smartly turned to the trade for its most-popular training curriculum, the ServSafe program; some foodservice leaders confess that they’ve investigated ways of giving the program to inspectors or crafting training programs for them, since restaurants actually welcome the scrutiny of an outside party, provided it’s competent.

The International Food Safety Council, a group formed under the auspices of the National Restaurant Association, got a go-ahead from the parent group in May 2005 to seek a standardization of safety standards on the state and local level. Establishing across-the-board safety criteria would spare chains the aggravation of having to customize their training from location to location. But it would have the added benefit of standardizing the training process from area to area, allowing inspectors and their instructors to be recruited across jurisdictions. They wouldn’t have to start in each new post as a droppings-counter because the system there was new to them.

In any case, perhaps all this newfound attention on the inspection process will have a salutary effect. If it’s in the spotlight, perhaps the job of inspector will garner some interest, if not a hint of CSI-like glamour. Perhaps the position should even be renamed. How about rat buster?

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Once and future kingpins

Geez, who knew he’d be this sensitive? Toss a few barbs at a billionaire gadfly and he high-tails it into another trade—across the Atlantic, no less. Yet there it was, all over today’s wire services, one story after another about Nelson Peltz buying a 3 percent stake in the United Kingdom’s Cadbury-Schweppes sugared-treats conglomerate. With his attention focused outside the restaurant industry, Peltz, an investor mentioned a time or two in this space, may be ceding his distinction as the most-feared shareholder in foodservice.

But fret not, green-mailing toadies. Left to help your portfolios are plenty of other militants willing to bully restaurant companies into a live-for-the-quarter mindset. It’s not a matter of whether they’d fight for changes that boost stock prices in the short run, with no regard for the long term. All that’s left to be decided is what color shorts they’ll wear into the ring.

The leading contenders for Peltz’s crown include William Ackman, who has re-purchased a sizeable chunk of McDonald’s. And then there’s Richard Breeden. Much of our online news coverage in recent weeks has focused on Applebee’s attempts to appease the hedge-fund manager, who wears a brilliantly white hat because he once served as chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. His demands don’t sound outlandish, either. Franchising is a core strength of Applebee’s, which was carefully, purposely crafted by Abe Gustin to be a model licensor for the industry. Breeden wants it to franchise more and run restaurants less.

He’s also hammered management for indulgences like the use of a corporate aircraft to zip down to Galveston, Texas, some 29 times last year. Applebee’s doesn’t have a restaurant within 40 miles of the place. But former CEO Lloyd Hill does have a beach house. There, too, his demand isn’t unreasonable, though a tad nit-picky, given how often the company jet might have enabled Hill to sandwich business matters between reasonable familial commitments.

No, Breeden doesn’t sound like he’s cut from the same bolt of cloth used to make Peltz’s designer suits.

But then there’s Sardar Biglari, chairman of Western Sizzlin Corp., a collection of regional family steakhouse chains, and a 15-percent stakeholder in the parent of the family-oriented Friendly’s regional chain. Biglari has been very critical of Friendly’s management, which is led by yjr legendary Don Smith, perhaps best known as the man who gave the go-ahead for Pizza Hut’s Personal Pan Pizza when he was leading that brand. He was also a one-time president of Burger King.

Biglari is aghast that Friendly’s stock price has languished. Like Breeden, he wants more franchising from his investment. But, unlike Applebee’s, Friendly’s was founded as a restaurant operator, not a franchisor. Indeed, it came to licensing relatively late in the game.

Biglari is also upset about governance matters, again like Breeden. And, like the former SEC chief, he’s hoping to change things by securing seats on his investment’s board. His mark of distinction is how he’s gone about it. In addition to the now-routine techniques of sending letters to fellow shareholders and publicly criticizing the current board, Bilgari has forged the new activist weapon of going to the company’s employees. Local media reported last week that he had placed ads on billboards around Friendly’s headquarters in the Boston area, asserting that a change in management would be better for the headquarters staff, too.

Brilliant, just brilliant. It must make Peltz feel like Joe DiMaggio did when he saw a kid named Mantle take batting practice.

I’ll miss you, Nelson. But it’s never too late for a comeback.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Chinese checkers

Everyone worries about our relations with Iran and North Korea, but interactions with the People’s Republic of China haven’t been the stuff of love songs lately, either, at least from the perspective of the restaurant industry.

On Sunday, a motion was introduced in the Communist nation’s legislature to evict a 7-year-old Starbucks from the Forbidden City, the jaw-dropping palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties when the Western world was still eating with its hands. Officials don’t think it’s right to have milk being steamed for a paper cup of cappuccino or tourists lining up for Frappucinos in a 600-year-old facility that’s unparalleled in its historic and cultural importance to the Chinese. What’s reverence for a cultural landmark compared with the imperative to peddle lattes and coffees wherever eyes may be bleary from jet lag or currency is waiting to be plucked from wallets?

Okay, maybe the officials have a point. But is it really a coincidence the Chinese government suddenly has a beef with the U.S. restaurant chain that has the largest presence over there? The Chinese media have reported that the nation’s health officials are investigating KFC’s use of talc as a filtering medium for the oil in its fryers. The press reports say the powder is being used in a way that could pose a health hazard, according to interpretations that were widely reported on U.S. internet sites this weekend.

Lost in translation was how the use of magnesium silicate, as it’s scientifically known, had roused concerns about KFC. Many of the domestic stories noted that McDonald’s also uses the compound as a filtering medium, and yet its operating procedures are not being examined.

And KFC issued a statement saying the Yum! Brands-owned operation welcomed the safety check and pledged full cooperation, according to U.S. news reports.

KFC has had a presence in China for decades, with 1,700 of its outlets now operating there. All of a sudden the government has a problem with the chicken chain, just because of concerns that an operational practice could potentially pose a health hazard?

Um, okay, maybe the officials have a point there, too.

Considered together, the situations are proof that the land-rush stage of international development is certifiably over for U.S. chains, and local control is going to be exerted far more forcefully for cultural considerations. The occasionally ugly American brand may have to get much prettier to keep international relations harmonious.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Setting back international relations

If you had any doubts, it’s now official: New York is the center of the universe. The European Union, the confederacy of all those nations whose cheese exports we had to learn in grade school, has turned to the city for advice on banning smoking and trans fats. It’s just a matter of time until the French are asking Gotham-ites for a good bread recipe.

This is a matter of button-popping pride for those of us who wonder what really does play in Peoria—or, to be truly New Yorker-ly about it, who ponder why anyone would care. But the smugness is tempered by concerns about the representative we dispatched to meet with the EU’s health commissioner, Markos Kyprianou. The Big Apple's counterpart, Thomas Frieden, has lately been running neck-and-neck with Lord Voldemort and shower mold in his estimation among local and national restaurateurs--and not a few rank-and-file New Yorkers. Yet he was tapped for a turn as diplomat. We can only hope they didn’t ask him about rat control.

Truth be told, a few of his other efforts haven’t been going so well, either. As we reported on, one of the most celebrated initiatives from Frieden’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene backfired miserably last week. He should consider himself lucky that more restaurant chains didn’t realize what had struck White Castle and Wendy’s, though the latter stopped just a tad short of getting all the way through the loophole. Otherwise, Frieden would have had a full-scale scandal on his hands.

What those two chains figured out was a way to beat Frieden’s pendate requirement that restaurant chains disclose the calorie counts next to each choice on a menu or menu board. The new regulation, a rider on the health department’s edict to limit trans fat as of next July 1, mandates that the info be posted roughly as large as the prices, so customers can more readily handle their own waist management. The obligation is binding on any multi-unit operation that had the caloric information available in other forms, like in a brochure or on a website, as of March 1.

Late in February, Wendy’s and White Castle had an idea. (Curiously, both are headquartered in the Columbus, Ohio, area, which I believe is somewhere near Peoria.) Why not stop making that information available and beat the system?

So they quietly yanked the calorie information off the posters they erected in their New York restaurants some time ago to do voluntarily what the minions of Voldemort—er, Frieden—had set out to do by fiat. Asked by Nation’s Restaurant News deputy managing editor Paul Frumkin if the evasive action would succeed, the department gave a definite no. Those chains still offer the calorie information via their websites and the placards in stores elsewhere, don’t they? Well, then, the department said, they’ve met our criteria of having the information available. No one specified it had to be available in New York.

It looked like a noteworthy but somewhat foolhardy gambit on the part of Wendy’s and White Castle, since now they had to contend with a backlash of negative publicity along with the posting obligations. But then White Castle informed Frumkin that it had indeed retracted the information every where it had appeared, including from its website and stores outside of the city. Another call to the health department yielded an indication that White Castle may have successfully dodged the mandate, though NRN was the only publication to note the success of the maneuver.

Just to recap: White Castle had been providing the information Frieden’s posse had wanted customers to see. It just wasn't on the menu boards of units in New York. Now, because White Castle felt the menu-posting mandate would be too costly and cumbersome to meet, calorie information won’t be available at all to customers.

And this is the man to whom all of Europe is turning for advice on how to regulate its restaurants.

Maybe we could eventually give them Peoria, as a peace offering.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Bernie Williams, restaurateur?

When spring training opened for the Yankees, hardcore fans almost sprained a tonsil in rooting for Bernie Williams to be put on the roster for a 26th year. Only the truly fanatical fans held back, knowing his retirement could mean having dinner with the legendary pin-striper—in his very own place, no less.

Williams has yet to utter a word publicly, but industry insiders say the Bomber and his wife plan to open a restaurant if Bernie decides the 2006 baseball season was his last as a player (he was offered a minor-league contract by the Yanks but declined, maintaining his class to the end.) Waleska, known as Wally, would be the back-of-the-house talent, using the culinary skills she fire-hardened during her recent schooling at the Culinary Institute of America. The Williams live in nearby Armonk, N.Y., so Bernie would often visit the campus, located about 90 minutes north of the stadium where he whacked a horsehide for a living. Faculty members describe him as a warm, down-to-earth guy who just happened to bat .297 lifetime for the greatest sports franchise in history. In short: A perfect front-of-the-house partner, who could roam the dining room as gracefully as he once prowled center field.

Unclear is where the two might open a place. New York City, where Bernie could follow the lead of such sluggers-turned-restaurateurs as Mickey Mantle? Or how about the upscale communities near their home in Upstate New York? Or what about Williams’ native Puerto Rico?

That’s assuming, of course, that Joe Torre doesn’t pick up his phone one day in Florida and summon Williams to the squad one more time. If so, the Yankees might get a repeat of Bernie’s outstanding 2006 season, when he compensated admirably for the loss to injuries of several younger and more celebrated Yankee stars.

It’d be great for Bernie, the Yankees and the game. But the industry would have to wait a long, long year for such a notable addition to its ranks.

Monday, March 05, 2007

This just in from overseas

Reality-show producers are missing an opportunity for a big ratings win. Instead of locking strangers in a house, finding dates for Flavah Flav or airlifting a disparate pack of people onto a remote island to see who survives, the programmers could provide a winning blend of the strange and the compelling by merely scouting the news wires on a Sunday night for restaurant-industry developments. The American market is too preoccupied with surviving its busiest time of the week to generate the sort of head-turning news that makes you wonder where the business is heading. But the news coming to light in Asia or Europe is another matter. Consider, for instance, the revelation this Sunday night of an addition to the menu boards of McDonald’s units in Thailand: the McNuggets Seaweed Shake Shake.

The big burger chains are scrambling to develop products for the U.S. market that will truly set them apart from the herd. This one would certainly do that for McDonald’s, the way a salt grass malted achieve the same end for Burger King or Wendy’s. The Shake Shake—and no, that’s not a typo—reportedly consists of the same chicken meat that McDonald’s uses for its McNuggets, though mixed with a secret flavoring agent. The chicken bites are coated and fried until crisp, then shake-shaked with what press reports said is a “seaweed seasoning.” Millions of Americans gobble nori each day in the form of maki rolls. But a seaweed-flavored McNugget may not in the picture for the domestic market, even with a really buffo ad campaign.

Less of a jump, though, is what the Thai media describes as a new concept for the Oakbrook, Ill.-based burger behemoth, called the McDonald’s Esplanade. Like the new-generation McDonald’s outlets already sprouting in the United States, the Esplanade features different zones to match the different sorts of clientele that might frequent the unit. The U.S. prototype, for instance, features an area specifically for families. Ditto, apparently, does the new Esplanade. Starbucks expatriates might be drawn to a hanging-out area with overstuffed chairs, while patrons in a hurry will find a different set-up to accommodate their time constraints.

But the Esplanade goes further than the new design being used here in the States in what it offers as services and entertainment. Thai press reports say the prototype allows patrons to reserve movie tickets for a show that evening, or even to load up some tunes at a “music station,” a feature that a few U.S. outlets tried but subsequently scrapped because of insufficient downloading.

Thai press reports stress that the format is only about a week old, but that McDonald’s officials there are already heralding it as a new direction for the brand.

And, indeed, it has passed the major test of importance, or at least a big one by U.S. standards: A competitor is already copying the approach. New reports out of London say Pizza Hut’s British operation has retrofitted a restaurant with the chain’s new look for units across the pond. A signature of the updated design: Zones, where different sorts of diners will find different accommodations.

The stories say that 80 of the 435 sit-down Pizza Huts in the United Kingdom will be outfitted with the new look this year, with the remainder to be given the facelift by 2009.

No word on any Pizza Huts trying a Seaweed Shake Shake Pizza, though.