Monday, November 17, 2008

Googling food safety

Plug “E. coli” into Google’s news search feature and you’ll pull up the latest on an outbreak in Canada, where officials are trying to verify that contaminated lettuce is what sickened more than 50 people. You’ll also be getting a test drive of what could become a powerful but controversial new tool in promoting food safety: The Google search itself.

The New York Times reported last week that a philanthropic arm of the internet powerhouse is experimenting with a new service designed to help U.S. health officials detect a flu outbreak at least a week before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention typically spots a cluster. The premise of the program is that sufferers or their families will search for symptoms of the illness via Google in hopes of determining what ails them. The search engine notes the spike in queries and pinpoints where they’re arising, thereby flagging an outbreak. See it for yourself at

Right now, the only incarnation of the service is Google Flu Trends. But the same concept would presumably work with such food-related illnesses as norovirus or E. coli. “From a technological perspective, it is the beginning,” Google CEO Eric E. Schmidt told the Times.

The capability would seem like a no-brainer of a breakthrough. But it’s already stirred up controversy as well as hopes. The Times’ popular technology blog Bits has aired the fears of some groups that the detection function could lead to breaches of privacy. Google has issued assurances that disease-related search results would be aggregated rather than recorded by searcher, but public advocates are worried the capability could be misused to identity persons coming down with a particular ailment.

Potential risks aside, what’s the pay-off for such a system? In tests, Google Flu Trends spotted an East Coast flu outbreak a full 14 days before the incidences were collated by the CDC. That news came to light as health authorities in Canada were looking at reports of diarrhea and other potential signs of E. coli poisoning from a school in North Bay, the town where a Harvey’s family restaurant was implicated as the source of the lettuce-related outbreak.

Fortunately, it looks as if the school children were afflicted with the flu, not ailments caused by the potentially deadly bacteria. But if the Google system had been in place there (right now it’s only used domestically), and the agent was indeed E. coli 0157:H7, health officials might’ve gotten a jump that could’ve saved lives.

With a benefit that important, it seems like a service worth adopting, especially if reasonable privacy safeguards are put in place.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Set phasers on stun

Depending on which side you believe, a Starbucks in Minneapolis either was or wasn’t unionized this week. Either way, it may be a preview of a disconcerting future for chain restaurants nationwide.

First, the dueling realities: According to the Industrial Workers of the World, better known to our grandparents as the Wobblies, employees of the downtown coffeehouse voted yesterday to be represented by an affiliate called the Starbucks Workers Union. A statement on the Wobblies’ website said management of the store had been presented with a 500-signature petition demanding that a security guard be hired. The posting also asserted the unit’s baristas walked off the job and declared an affiliation with the SWU, though the connections between those developments was not explained.

The statement convinced the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal and other media to report that the store had unionized and thereby become the second Starbucks in the state to organize. But as that coverage noted, Starbucks' corporate office experienced a much different reality. No baristas walked off the job, no other Starbucks in Minnesota has been unionized, no employees had so much as asked for a union vote, and the Starbucks Workers Union isn’t even really a union.

Apparently the company’s spokeswoman had a point. The paper posted a correction under the story to acknowledge that no unionization vote had actually taken place at the store.

This is hardly a “Roshamon” kind of thing, where an event witnessed by several advisers is perceived and recounted as totally unique experiences. It sounds more like one of those “Star Trek” episodes where a character is stretched between separate and conflicting universes and facing certain oblivion unless a brilliant solution is hatched.

And guess who's playing that character in this potential pilot for the seasons ahead? That'd be you, bunkie.

Even before Barack Obama was elected last week, business groups were bracing for doom because the Illinois senator was sympathetic to unions—and, by extension, presumably their new organization tactics. Much has been written in Nation’s Restaurant News and elsewhere about card check legislation, a measure that could force employees to vote publicly on proposals by their peers to unionize. It’s hard to cast a ‘nay’ when everyone, including the zealots, can see how you balloted.

But that’s just one of the tactics that unions might use to foster the organization of restaurants, the new frontier for the labor movement. Presenting alternative realities may be another. The situation in Minneapolis underscores just how far organizers will go to push their cause. Clearly it may be a matter of going where no man has gone before.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gift cards get a loud, 'Bah, humbug'

Gift cards have consistently been a holiday blockbuster for the restaurant industry. But that streak’ll end if several public watchdogs have their way. They’re warning shoppers to forego the no-brainer gifts because the chain or restaurant accepting the card could go bankrupt after the holly wreaths and mistletoe come down.

Those Scrooges include Richard Blumenthal, the attorney general of Connecticut. He’s cited in a Hartford Courant column by George Gombossy as flatly advising consumers to bypass the cards because “many more restaurants” will throw in the napkin. Indeed, Blumenthal said he’s speaking with the Connecticut Restaurant Association about forming what amounts to an insurance pool. Restaurants offering gift cards would all contribute small amounts to the fund, which would be used to make good on gift cards issued by operations that go under. Consumers could tap the kitty for a refund, then use the cash on places still in business.

Blumenthal is clearly using some broad strokes to tar the industry. Is a well-capitalized chain steakhouse really as likely to go under as Salty Ed’s Fry House and Bait Emporium? Yet he’s reportedly saying gift cards from all restaurants should be shunned like an I.O.U. from Michael Jackson. No wonder Gombossy titled his column, “Use Gift Certificates Now, And Don't Give Any.”

But Gombossy and Blumenthal are hardly alone in suggesting Aunt Lil give you an argyle sweater instead of that $100 piece of plastic for Ruby Tuesday. An article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times was headlined, “Consumer Alert: Are your gift cards safe?” It cited a warning from the Tower Group consulting firm that shoppers could lose $75 million charged on gift cards because the issuing store or restaurant goes bankrupt.

The story doesn’t point out that $75 million is a tiny, tiny portion of what will be charged just on restaurant chains’ gift cards. The figure for all restaurants, never mind retailers, runs into the billions. The National Retail Federation has pegged the total for both channels at more than $26 billion. Such a small potential loss means only a tiny percentage of card-issuing restaurants are believed to be at risk. Yet the article—and possible the Tower research—fail to provide that context.

Instead, the story notes that consumers reportedly held $20 million in gift cards when Sharper Image went bankrupt. It also reports that Bombay Co. paid cardholders 25 cents for every dollar that was left on their cards when the retailer soaped over the plate glass windows of 388 stores in August.

Both that article and the Courant column appeared before “Taps” was sounded for Circuit City, the big-box electronic retailer that presumably sold a lot of gift cards.

Yeah, there’s a danger to buying cards. But the industry needs to remind consumers that it’s routine for one restaurant chain to honor the coupons of another, even when both are still in business. It may become even more of a convention if additional concepts flat-line. When Bennigan’s company-run restaurants went bust, Texas Roadhouse offered to provide a free entrée to consumers who had gift cards from the chain. The patrons presumably could’ve also used the cards at franchise establishments, which stayed open.

For six or seven years running, gift cards have been the restaurant-industry equivalent of finding a new sports car parked in the driveway on Christmas morning. It would be a shame to see that Maserati repo’d because consumers were frightened away from a holiday staple that giver, getter and seller all appreciate and value.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

This just in!

The American Medical Association declared its unflinching support yesterday for bans on trans fat use by restaurants and bakeries. Equally progressive stances were no doubt taken on dinosaur bites and something called fire.

Sure, it must take time to fill out all those insurance forms. But where has the group been for the last two years? At this stage, trans-fat bans are about as controversial—and necessary—as bar signs warning pregnant women not to knock back drinks.

If this group is the voice of the medical community, you can only hope it gets up to speed before the dialogue starts on universal health care.

Well, I better get back on AMA watch. It could issue its revised policy on battery licking at any second.

Friday, November 07, 2008

No Happy Meal toy, though

Discounting, it seems, is highly relative. Knocking $2 off the price of a pie may work in the pizza business, but the high-ticket Ruth’s Chris chain has to operate on a different scale. So, after posting a 15-percent drop in comp sales for its non-franchised steakhouses, the wheezing brand is planning a mail drop of $25-off coupons. It's also experimenting with the fine-dining equivalent of value meals.

Upper-bracket bargain hunters will already find a new steal at the (steak)house that Ruth built: A five-ounce lobster tail stuffed with crab meat and coupled with a six-ounce beef filet for $39.95. Not exactly a Chicken Snack Wrap, but clearly a deep discount by the standards of the chain's market.

Three other Cadillac-echelon combos are in test. The Ruth’s Classic comes in two versions. For $39.95, patrons can pick an entrée, side and dessert. If they pop for the $49.95 version, the choices also include a full-sized rib eye, a lobster tail and lamb chops.

Simultaneously, the chain is testing a three-protein deal that would make Michael Jacobson overheat before he could condemn it as an obesity booster: A meat, a fish, and a chicken selection, accompanied by a side and a dessert, for $44.95.

“Frankly it's too much food,” Ruth’s Chris acting CEO Michael O’Donnell told shareholders.

And, perhaps, too much of an outlay. O’Donnell said the Ruth’s Trio will be recast with smaller portions and a price “in the $29.95 range.”

During a financial conference call convened by the chain’s parent, Ruth’s Hospitality Group, O'Donnell also mentioned a re-affiliation with Cameron Mitchell, the Columbus, Ohio, restaurateur who sold the company his Mitchell’s Fish Market and Mitchell’s Steakhouse chains. O’Donnell wasn’t clear on the nature of the affiliation, but indicated that the entrepreneur would be accessible if the company needed his expertise. “He has kindly agreed to be available to us on a limited basis,” O’Donnell said.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Light bulbs above some heads

A few weeks ago, the restaurant industry was reeling from a shortage of customers, and hence sales, and therefore profits. Worst of all was an acutely low supply of something just as critical: Creative ways of contending. Now, at least, it looks as if that drought is easing.

A glimmer here and a rumbling there suggest economic conditions are separating the industry thinkers from the Dan Quayles—the folks who think brilliant leadership is picking the right idea to copy. They’re lemmings looking for the parade sign reading, “Cliff this way.” It’s the mindset that has landed much of casual dining in its current predicament.

Contrast that spud-headedness with a few initiatives that have come to light in recent days. Daily Grill’s parent company is cutting its cash outlays by paying executives 10 percent of their compensation in stock instead of dollars. It gives new meaning to the cliché, “win-win.” The company saves on salaries, the executives get paper that could be worth far more if they can drive up the stock price, and other shareholders get a management team that’s highly motivated to work for their benefit. Raise the value of the stock and everyone gains.

There’s also the public relations value of letting the world think the home office has cut its top-paid execs’ take-home, when in fact it’s given them something with the same face value and the potential of being far more precious. Indeed, from the recipients’ standpoint, it’s better than getting stock options—provided they don’t let the stock price decline any further (see earlier reference to management’s and shareholders’ perspectives being aligned.)

But that’s not the only ah-ha notion that’s been aired recently. Consider Sonic’s plan to lower its labor expenses while boosting customer service and possibly increasing the take-home pay of carhops. The drive-in chain is in effect reclassifying the runners who bring orders to patrons’ cars as tipped servers. It hasn’t said how it’ll trumpet that recasting to customers, but executives said in disclosing the plan that most guests already leave a gratuity. By formalizing the tendency and encouraging carhops to strive for tips, the chain can claim a tip credit, thereby cutting what it’s required to pay the staffers as a minimum wage. Yet the carhops are likely to end up with more money than they did when they were collecting the full wage.

What’s more, with an hourly-staff turnover of about 100 percent, the chain can phase in the program by merely extending it to new hires. The transition would only take a year, presumably with no shock to carhops who are accustomed to getting the full minimum wage.

Not all of the innovations are far afield. The Pollo Tropical fast-food chain, for instance, merely replaced its sandwiches with wraps. It correctly anticipated that wraps would be easier to eat on the go, and presumed that benefit would appeal to the chain’s mobile clientele. Units are selling 50 to 60 wraps a day, compared with the 15 to 20 sandwiches they formerly peddled, executives told investors Wednesday.

In still other instances, the course was apparent. It just took leadership and courage to pursue it. Every franchisor would readily attest that its success rests on the financial wellbeing of franchisees. Yet few have backed up that assertion with the sort of action that Papa John’s and Domino’s have recently taken.

The former made news Tuesday when executives revealed that the franchisor’s commissary operation would roll back the prices of the cheese it sells to franchisees. The wholesale cost paid by corporate likely hasn’t receded; Papa John’s must be absorbing the cut in its margins. It’s taking the hit to enhance the profitability of franchisees, even though royalties are based on sales, not the bottom line. But by keeping licensees healthy and thriving, the home office is betting it will benefit in the end.

To keep franchisees growing, Papa John’s is also looking at ways of becoming their bank. Because they’re struggling to find the capital needed for expansion, the franchisor is willing to serve as their pipeline until the tap is reopened by more traditional sources. One of the core rationales for franchising is the use of licensees’ capital to build a chain. Papa John’s, much to its credit, is rethinking that tenet of the situation.

It may be inspired in part by arch-rival Domino’s, which disclosed last month that it was providing franchisees with financing. “It will never be my preference to provide financing to our franchisees,” CEO David Brandon commented to investors. “We would rather keep our relationship with them focused on being the franchisor rather than their bank. However, we are wading through uncharted waters.”

Better to be slogging through them than being carried along by the current, hoping you’ll eventually land upright.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Live election coverage

I'm sitting in my kitchen, watching CNN and eagerly waiting for the election results to trickle in, probably like every other American on this historic night. My objective here is to provide live updates of the races involving restaurateurs or known supporters of the industry, such as former National Restaurant Association executive Jo Ann Emerson (now running for re-election on the Republican ticket as the congresswoman from the eighth district of Missouri). The thread is probably best read from the bottom up. All times are EST.

According to our count, there are eight current restaurateurs running for office. You can find out who they are, and learn about the other "friends of foodservice," by checking out the story on our website,

Here's how some of those races stand as of the time posted.

12:07 a.m. New Mexico, Alabama
The networks have just projected that the industry's victory streak has come to an end. Ed Tinsley, a co-owner of the K-Bob's Steakhouse chain and a longtime director of the National Restaurant Association, has apparently been defeated in his effort to win the congressional seat for the second district of New Mexico. Tinsley, a Republican, lost by six points to oil-industry veteran Harry Teague. At MUFSO, Tinsley commented that unions had poured money into the election in hopes of pushing Teague into office.

Things aren't looking too good for Subway area developer Jay Love, either. Love, the Republican looking to win Alabama's second district, is running about two percentage points behind his Democratic opponent, with 97 percent of the ballots counted.

11:15 United States of America
The hooting and hollering outside were a tip-off to the news flash that came seconds later from The New York Times, CNN, The Miami Herald and Crain's New York: Barack Obama will be our next president.

I can't say I'm surprised. The poll I've been conducting on this page put him 10 points ahead of John McCain. And that's with a sampling size of 22 people. Julia Stewart landed two votes, by the way.

10:12 Oklahoma, Florida
CNN has just projected that Dan Boren, a co-owner of two Roly Poly quick-service outlets, has kept his House seat for the second district. A Democrat, Boren won almost three out of every four votes cast (71 percent).

The vote was closer in Florida, but racetrack concessionaire Tom Rooney still won the House seat for the 16th district by considerably more than a nose. The Republican challenger is projected to win with 60 percent of the vote. He beat Democrat Tim Mahoney, who had been funded by the National Restaurant Association's Political Action Committee.

8:54 General observations
I didn't vote tonight until about 7 p.m. The volunteer who checked me in at the neighborhood firehouse said the traffic was about triple the norm.

It's kind of a surprise that so many people were still sober by that time. I was one of the few NRN staffers who was not going to watch the returns on a barstool. It's the sort of thing my co-workers normally do during March Madness, the World Series or the Olympics. Then again, Tuesday is sometimes enough of an excuse for some pub time. It must be that whole "third place" social phenomenon.

8:30 Florida, Oklahoma
The industry's candidate in Oklahoma, Democrat Dan Boren, is looking like a shoo-in. Only 2 percent of votes have been counted, but Boren, an investor in Roly Poly wrap shops, is leading Republican Raymond Wickson by a 69 percent to 31 percent margin.

Things are much tighter in Florida, however. With slightly more than a fifth of the votes counted, dog-track concessionaire Tom Rooney (of the Pittsburgh Steelers Rooney's) has 54 percent of the ballots, compared with incumbent Timothy Mahoney's 46 percent.

Results thus far suggest Rooney could be an exception to a Republican backlash. As of this moment, two Democratic restaurateurs have been projected as the winners of their respective races, and Boren would make it three. Might the tide be hurting Rooney?

At Nation's Restaurant News' MUFSO conference in Washington, D.C., industry lobbyists speculated that the Democrats could pick up 10 Senate seats and 20 slots in the House. The early counts haven't disproved those forecasts.

8:00 Kentucky
CNN has projected Yarmuth as the winner in Kentucky.

7:36 Virginia
Mark Warner, a co-owner of Majestic Cafe in Alexandria and the former governor, has been declared the winner in the race for the Senate seat that had been vacated by the retirement of the legendary John Warner (no relation). Mark Warner is projected to have beaten Republican contender James Gilmore III with 57 percent of votes.

7:26 Kentucky
John Yarmuth, the Republican incumbent from the third district, is creaming challenger Anne Northup, 57 percent to 43 percent, with 42 percent of precincts reporting. Yarmuth is a part owner of the Sonny's BBQ chain, which his brother serves as chief executive.

Follow the election from a restaurant perspective

I'll be blogging live tonight to cover the races where restaurateurs will be vying for a ticket to Capitol Hill. Check back as soon as the results start rolling in.

Friday, October 31, 2008

McCain vs. Obama: What's a restaurateur to do?

With the presidential election just a few days away, we at Nation's Restaurant News decided to present this story from the issue that publishes Monday. It covers a debate we coordinated at our MUFSO conference specifically to help restaurateurs decide who'd be better for their businesses, John McCain or Barack Obama. It's being posted here in hopes of providing the industry with fodder for thought for those members who are still conducting their own internal debate as to which contender should get their vote (and if you want to practice, take our poll to the right).

Washington – A MUFSO debate between stand-ins for the U.S. presidential candidates proved as contentious as the actual face-offs between Barack Obama and John McCain, with the participants disagreeing on everything from Sarah Palin’s competency to what makes a good Oval Office occupant.

The two-person teams squabbled over such issues as which candidate offered the best prospects for small businesses; how much the financial crisis should be weighed in picking the next president; which contender was more of a capitalist; which candidate would surround himself with better people; and, in a strange twist, which of the two had mentioned Warren Buffett first during a televised debate.

Both sides included a one-time restaurant company leader who had sold his charge in the last few years: former Cold Stone Creamery CEO and chairman Doug Ducey, representing McCain, and Phil Hickey, who held the same posts at former LongHorn Steakhouse parent Rare Hospitality, speaking on behalf of Obama. Each was teamed with someone with a legal background. Melissa Rothring, the former executive vice president of legal affairs for current Cold Stone owner Kahala Corp., rounded out Team McCain. Cathy Hampton, the former general counsel of Rare and now a full-time volunteer in Obama’s campaign, joined Hickey.

Both sides offered assertions as to how the winner might affect the restaurant industry. The only concurrence seemed to come on the overarching question of which side had the best candidate. Both teams readily insisted they did.

Team McCain portrayed their candidate as the better capitalist, leader, commander in chief, decision-maker and independent thinker. “This guy’s a survivor, he’s a leader, and he’s always been mission-driven,” said Ducey, a resident of Arizona, which McCain represents in the Senate.

Teammate Rothring acknowledged that she had been drawn to McCain “by gut instinct.” But, in preparation for the debate, “I went to a website and looked up the issues. The common thread I saw with McCain is that he is a capitalist.”
She lauded the Republican candidate as someone who was likely to slice corporate taxes, cut the estate tax and lower the exemption on that industry-hated measure, push for tort reform, and seek a permanent research and development credit. All of those measures are favored by the restaurant industry.

In contrast, she asserted, Obama would push for a $9.15 minimum wage, unionization, paid sick leave, a rise in corporate taxes and the real estate tax, and a health care proposal that would cost “10 percent of your payroll.”

Team Obama’s Hampton challenged those assertions. “Just this weekend Sens. Obama and [vice presidential candidate Joe] Biden revealed their plans for small businesses,” she calmly retorted. “What they’ve done in their plan is direct money to help small businesses. One thing is to take away — completely eliminate — capital gains taxes for investing in small businesses.” She also cited a $3,000 tax credit for each new full-time employee a small business hires during the next two years.
“We’re talking tax cuts for 95 percent of hardworking families in America, and tax cuts for 98 percent of small businesses,” Hampton said.

Hickey professed to “take it up to the taller trees,” where he could see a bigger picture. Explaining that he’s a registered Republican who has contributed more than $1 million to industry lobbying and campaign efforts, he recounted that he was a staunch McCain supporter in the 2000 campaign.

Yet, he continued, the country has had eight years under a Republican Administration, “which was voted for by most of us. Let me ask you, how are things today? How’s your business? How’s that working for you?” His rhetorical questions came as the industry was contending with a pronounced downturn in sales, profits and traffic.

“My sense is, an Obama presidency would deal with bigger issues that would ultimately help our businesses,” Hickey said.
He cited such pressing concerns as the energy situation and the high gasoline prices that have resulted. “The leadership on that has been lacking,” he said. “As a result, it’s come out of control.”

Overall, he said, “The underpinnings of the economy are very uncertain. Who do you trust to lead for the next four years in the U.S. economy? Who do you trust to fix this?”

One of the constant points of contention during the hour debate was how much the economic crises should factor into a voter’s choice of candidate. The session was conducted after one of the worst weeks Wall Street had ever seen, and a day after the Bush Administration disclosed plans to buy stakes in nine banks as a recovery measure.

“Two years ago, we were all pretty happy with the economy. The issue was Iraq,” Ducey said. The economy “is unraveling, but it’s really all about housing. Once we get through the housing part of it, what will we have?”

He suggested, “People may go back to, ‘What are these issues?’ rather than, ‘What are these crises of the moment?’”
Team Obama would have no part of that. “I really wish we could turn the page on the economy, but it’s very hard to do that,” Hampton said.

Hickey asserted that the economy was an attitude-changer, not a short-term distraction. “There’s a strange dynamic in this room, in that there are a number of Republicans,” he said. “My support for Obama started out in the minority. But other people have come up to me and said, ‘I just can’t go there. I just can’t vote for McCain.’”

The debate was moderated by Nation’s Restaurant News editor Ellen Koteff.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Clearing the smoke from product intros

Enough with the handicapping of the presidential election. What we really need is an analysis of what this week’s menu changes mean for the country.

Let’s start with the scheduling. Once upon a time, restaurant chains would schedule their menu overhauls to correspond with the seasons—salads and beverages added in the summer, heavier fare like soups and stews featured in the fall and winter. Now chain parents are announcing menu changes either right before or immediately after releasing poor financial results.

Earlier this week, for instance, DineEquity announced that its IHOP brand had added Coffee Cake Pancakes. Simultaneously, the franchisor disclosed that its losses had deepened to $16.4 million. It was as if the company expected investors to say, “Whoa. Who cares if the company lost money. IHOP has Coffee Cake Pancakes!!”

Similarly, Popeyes parent AFC Enterprises disclosed last Friday that its domestic same-store sales for the third quarter had slipped 2.8 percent. On Monday, Popeyes announced that it was adding a new bowl meal and a chicken sandwich—the foundations of what the chain trumpeted as a whole new menu platform.

Is the new trend to use menu additions as a distraction from bad financial numbers? Two instances would’ve been merely a coincidence that suggested no. Then came today’s one-two announcements from Denny’s. In the morning, the company crowed that it was updating its late-night Rockstar menu with items supposedly developed by stars like Katy Perry, Taking Back Sunday and Hoobastank. Hot-selling rock bands, working together in their kitchens to come up with items like the Melty Grilled Chicken and Sausage Quesadilla. Sure, I buy that.

Nevertheless, roughly eight hours later Denny’s released its third-quarter financial numbers, including a 6.1-percent drop in same-store sales for franchised restaurants and a 2.7-percent decrease for company-run units. If three instances suggest a trend, we’re there.

Yet my smokescreen theory is severely undercut by Denny’s profits. Net income more than doubled, to $10.6 million. Why blunt good news like that with yee-haws about the new Hooburrito, supposedly a brainchild of the band Hoobastank?

Denny’s may be an exemption to that trend, but it certainly fits another pattern in how chains are announcing new products these days. Not so long ago, they tended to introduce a whole new menu and stress the additions. Afterward, they might’ve showcased a limited-time offer now and again. The introductions were either grouped together into one event of note, or peppered over an extended period in a bid to stay top-of-mind.

Contrast that with the approach that was taken yesterday by Jack in the Box. The (now) multiregional burger chain announced at 9 a.m. East Coast time that it was resurrecting its Teriyaki Bowls line; at 12, that it was bringing back its Mini Churros; and at 3:30, that it was introducing two new “homestyle” chicken sandwiches (translation: sandwiches made with fried chicken) in its central and southeastern regions. What would have normally been one news item became three web postings. Which, presumably, was exactly the point. By staggering the release of three separate press announcements, it garnered at worst a story and two updates, and at best three separate articles, without a penny in ad fees. Pretty smart.

And what of the products that were added this week? Clearly they prove that “new” is a relative term. Popeyes declared its new meal in a bowl to be new, but it’s been featuring similar items for years. And its new Big Easy chicken sandwich sounds exactly like an item it’s carried for some time.

And, with all due respect to Melty quesadilla creators Taking Back Sunday, or Hooburrito midwives Hoobastank, those items aren’t exactly groundbreakers.

Need we point out that two of Jack in the Box’s three menu additions were resurrected products, and that the third sounds conspicuously like McDonald’s chicken biscuit sandwiches?

So, what does all of this mean for the country? Clearly the emphasis is on recycling retreads, which raises some alarming questions about levels of creativity. But then again, the industry is showing surprising innovation in the most mundane of areas, how product introductions are handled. Business may be down, but it’s hardly lacking in craftiness.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The industry's knee-deep--in fertilizer

For a preview of the renaissance that’ll up-end the restaurant industry in a few years, look to a shuttered dinnerhouse in Spartenburg, S.C.

After 29 years in business, the Steak & Ale there died with the rest of the brand this summer, locking its doors to the 50 or so employees before they mustered for a shift that could’ve been a replay of the prior day’s, and probably the day’s before that. Later this week the place will fire up its grill again, this time as Steak and Spirits, with many of the former employees back in their familiar roles. Yet they’ll hardly be aiming for business as usual now that they’re the ones deciding what’s best for guests and the operation. All those ideas that arise from talking with and serving patrons can actually be implemented, instead of dying in some corporate suggestion box.

“Now that we’re not corporately owned, we have the freedom to do some things,” past and future manager Carol Easler told a local news media for a story.

Easler and her reassembled team will indulge their pent-up entrepreneurship because the new backers apparently appreciate the staff’s intuition for what works, what doesn’t, and, most important, what guests really want. The same dynamic will likely come into play as the economic downturn erodes the corporatism that has homogenized casual dining into the foodservice equivalent of rice cakes—plain, unsalted rice cakes. A death knell for hidebound restaurant companies will undoubtedly put restaurant operations within the grasp of more free thinkers, if not downright radicals. With sites becoming affordable and new ideas trumping big-company resources with a public craving originality, we’re heading into a period of unparalleled creativity for the business.

It’s exactly what happened after the economic shin kick of 1991. If memory serves me correctly, the IPO class of ’92 included Outback, LongHorn and LoneStar, to name a few high-flyers of the next decade. At the time, each brazenly shot a finger at the status quo. Now they’re as subversive as a powder-blue leisure suit.

It’s a shame that the industry has to lapse into shambles for a new generation of innovators to arise. But does anyone doubt that it’s long, long overdue?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sighs of the times

This is an entry about the economy, but it poses as a lapse into what blogging’s detractors call The Cheese Sandwich Syndrome. They bemoan the tendency of many bloggers to recount the mundane aspects of their lives—i.e., “Today I had a cheese sandwich”—in the mistaken belief someone cares. But you might be interested this time if you’re one of the restaurateurs who’ve been contending the economic crisis of the last month has largely been contained to the financial world. “Wait until it hits the general public,” they warn. Based on my experiences of the last few days, we’re already there, folks.

As my bio notes, my wife and I share our house with three greyhounds that were retired from racing. On Monday we were asked to take in a fourth because its adopter had been evicted from her home because of a change in her economic situation. The dog is 12 years old, which means she’d had him for at least seven years, and possibly a decade or longer (greyhounds can only race between ages 2 and 5, and rare is the dog that stays competitive for that long.) Jim B. also has some health issues. The woman had to give up Jim, her lone companion, because she couldn’t afford to keep him.

It’s the sort of story my parents would tell about the Great Depression.

That’s Jim to the right, by the way.

Taking care of him requires a fair amount of time, which has been in particularly short supply since Monday. That’s because much of the last few days has been spent in conversations with friends who’ve lost their jobs or key clients and are looking for leads. Each is a highly qualified individual whom I’d hire in a minute, and unemployment is as novel for them as it is unpleasant. These are victims of the times, not symptoms.

A looming economic crisis? I suggest you look out your door. The crisis is here. The question is, how much worse will it get?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

‘Clean-up attempt on Aisle 5’

An army of cliches gave their lives during our recent confabs to alert restaurateurs they’re in the bomb sights of a rival they probably discounted long ago. The new mantra of that resurgent enemy should’ve readily done the job: Restaurant meal replacement. It underscores how determined the grocery business is this time around to take away restaurants’ lunch, dinner and breakfast sales.

But back to a moment of silence for the clichés that are no longer with us. Topping the casualty list is “share of stomach,” the clever tag for the struggle between restaurateurs and grocers for the public’s food outlays. That battle, the supermarket business realized, lapsed into a one-sided contest long ago. Smart grocers have left such conventional warfare to the retrogrades who still believe they can trump restaurants with clamshells of Buffalo wings stacked in a refrigerator case (“Best sold before 2010”), right next to the vintage sushi.

The new grocery militia has also given a blindfold and last cigarette to the old adage that they have to beat restaurants at their own game. The often-tried strategy of bolting a restaurant onto the public’s source for Metamucil and Handi Wipes just hasn’t worked. As menu watcher Nancy Kruse suggested during our MUFSO conference, dates are seldom wowed by dinner at a Piggly Wiggly, even if the moonlight hits the plate glass just right.

But, Kruse stressed during that convention and our Culinary R&D conference a week earlier, regional and upstart grocers have quietly mapped a more effective strategy, in part by enlisting chain menu planners in the brainstorming. Whole Foods’ development of ready-to-eat meals, for instance, is being handled in part by Tina Freedman, a longtime veteran of the Fresh Choice buffet chain’s test kitchen. Fresh & Easy, the fast-growing American outpost of British retailing giant Tesco, has entrusted its R&D efforts to chef Michael Ainsle, who apparently coined the battle cry of “Restaurant meal replacement.”

That term, of course, is a rewrite of the label Boston Market gave its targeted market back in the days when it was still the concept that was going to upend the industry. Asserting the brand didn’t really compete with conventional restaurants, executives cited their strategic objective as “home meal replacement.” For the year or so that Boston Market continued to fly high, it was the buzz-phrase that captured the industry’s attention. Today we forget that Boston Market-inspired concepts were tried by McDonald’s, Brinker International, Cracker Barrel, Hardee’s (through its Roy Rogers holding), Arby’s and Ruby Tuesday (through Morrison’s), to name just a few converts. They were convinced the future would belong to a concept that could combine restaurant-quality meals with the convenience of takeout and the lower prices of groceries.

Another cliché that should be taken behind the barn: Be careful what you wish for.

As Kruse noted during her “State of the Plate” presentation at MUFSO, some supermarkets have finally mastered that alchemy. Because a consumer tends to shop for groceries about four times a week, food stores have the convenience factor wrapped up. Grocers foolishly figured shoppers would buy basically anything carbon-based for a heat-and-eat dinner, since they’re in the stores anyway. Who cared if the meatloaf was older than their kids, and roughly the color of a bruise.

Casualty No. 14: “If you stock it, they will buy.”

But now, Kruse observed, progressive supermarkets are delivering the quality and freshness that weren’t there during the Era of Rotisserie Chicken, the long stretch when store meals were merchandised no differently than mop heads or turnips. She noted that some restaurant chains are putting grocers like Ukrop’s on their list of direct competitors.

Perhaps that’s because grocers are starting to eat restaurants’ lunch, at least at dinner. Kruse cited NPD/Crest data that shows restaurants’ evening share of stomach—sorry, proportion of all supper opportunities—as slipping between 2001 and 2006. She also mentioned NPD’s finding that consumers are dining at home more often to economize, not only on their meals, but on their gasoline usage. If they’re going to be in a supermarket anyway to pick up staples like bread, milk or cereal, why not grab a dinner that involves no tipping or a separate trek to the mall?

Among the more surprising indications to arise from the enemy camp, Kruse added, is an intention by the grocery chains to elbow their way into the away-from-home breakfast market, a major area of growth for quick-service restaurant chains. Retailers have apparently been getting up before their stores open to count the cars lining up at drive-thrus. A push for that market would change the game, since grocers would have to position their outlets as a morning destination, not a place to grab a meal while you’re there for other reasons.

Which brings us to an old expression that most restaurateurs would probably like to put on the list of cliché casualties, but definitely won’t find for some time: May you live in interesting times.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Restaurateurs for Obama?

When Chris Matthews took the stage at MUFSO, he jokingly asked, “Any Republicans in the room?” Even outsiders know the industry of inclusion is a lot more single-minded when it comes to politics. But clearly a few Obamanacs have snuck under the tent, and the number will likely grow as the recovery plans issued this week by the presidential candidates are digested by the industry. At least on paper, Barack Obama seems to have the better prescription for a wheezing restaurant business.

For one thing, he’s proposing that employers be given a $3,000 tax credit for each full-time employee they hire over a two-year stretch. Repeatedly during MUFSO, executives cited a need for talent at all levels of their organizations as Priority No. 1. Couple that with all the people who are being displaced from their jobs by the economic meltdown, mix in the Democratic sweetener to hire, and you’ll likely have a lot of pleased restaurateurs.

What’s more, Obama’s plan would eliminate capital gains taxes on investments in small businesses. That provision could be a stout wrench in re-opening a rusted-shut capital pipeline.

That could get enough credit flowing for restaurants to makeover their current restaurants and even build some new ones. If they do, Obama’s plan would grant them a $250,000 write-off on the investments through 2009.

Ironically, John McCain’s plan is far more focused on consumers than Obama’s business-centric proposal. The Arizona senator wants to ease the plight of restaurants’ customer pool by allowing people to tap their retirement accounts now without paying an income tax rate that sounds as if it was a vig set by Louie the Horse. Up to $50,000 could be withdrawn during the first two years at a rate of just 10 percent.

The Republican also proposed that the capital gains taxes on stocks and other investments held for a long time be cut in half, to 7.5 percent. That, too, could help consumers enhance their liquidity, as the financial types say.

But other provisions of the plan are designed to encourage saving, not spending. This is just a guess, but restaurateurs probably don’t want at this point to see consumers socking away more dollars that might otherwise go into their tills.

Is it any wonder that some industry executives are openly voicing sympathy for the Democratic candidate—correction: for Barack Obama—as the election approaches?

“I’m a registered Republican,” said Phil Hickey, an unrepentant capitalist who, by the best of our recollection, made upwards of $30 million when he sold the company he led, Rare Hospitality, to Darden Restaurants in a multi-billion-dollar deal last year. “My family’s maxxed out on the Ed Tinsley campaign (a push to turn restaurateur and National Restaurant Association director Tinsley into a Republican Congressman from New Mexico). I’ve sent (industry lobbyist and leftists’ scourge) Rick Berman almost a million dollars in checks over the last 10 years.”

Yet, Hickey stressed from the stage at MUFSO, he’s pushing for Obama on Nov. 4. Indeed, Phil agreed to serve as the Democrat’s proxy in a debate NRN staged during MUFSO (Doug Ducey, the former CEO of Cold Stone Creamery and an Arizona resident, served as the main advocate for McCain.) In normal times, arguing for the policies of a Democrat is akin to wearing pork chop cufflinks during a visit to an attack dog school.

As Hickey noted, the country has had eight years under a Republican Administration, “which was voted for by most of us. Let me ask you, how are things today? How’s your business? How’s that working for you?”

It’s now a cliché to term the industry’s economic plight a perfect storm. Regardless of whether or not you agree with Hickey’s choice for president, you have to agree that his question merits asking. Voting for a Republican in knee-jerk fashion just doesn’t make any sense during times like these.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Live from MUFSO, Day Two

This is being written live from the Washington, D.C., ballroom where some 600 chain-restaurant leaders have gathered for their annual download of ideas, insights and connections. For the complete thread of what's happening at MUFSO, read from the bottom up.

Tues., 11:20
The panelists' advice to a young person who wants to evolve into a leader:

"Find someone who can mentor you and work with you closely."--Wingstop's Flynn

"Pay attention to detail."--BJ's Deitchle

"Be a teacher."--Kenneth Pondery, CEO of First Watch

"Hire good people, listen to them, be very clear about what you want them to do, and respect them."--Puzder

"In order to grow your business, you have to grow yourself. Study constantly. Read books. Go to seminars. Look at every aspect of your business. Master your craft by developing yourself."--Joseph Tortorice, presidet, Jason's Deli.

"Take a risk."--Greg Creed.

Tues., 11:06
Is there a disconnect with reality here? As someone just asked from the audience, how can the heads of six major chains say they're not worried about the economy, as the panelists have repeatedly professed?

Given that food is not a luxury, there's no need to be on suicide watch, one of the panelists explained. "If I was selling Mercedes-Benz, if I was selling jewelry, I'd be worried," said CKE's Puzder. "But I'm selling fast food. If that soccer mom stops coming into Carl's Jr. for a burger, then our economy would be in worse shape than I thought."

Greg Creed, president of Taco Bell: "You can't go to a supermarket and get the ingredients and make it yourself for what we charge."

Puzder again: "We think next year will be a good year for this industry and a good year for us."

Doherty: "I don't know about the audience, but I'm surprised there's not much gloom and doom up here. There's just some problems that have to be worked through."

Tues., 9:40
Andrew Puzder, CEO of Carl's Jr. and Hardee's parent CKE Restaurants: "Our margins have improved for each of the last four quarters." But, he acknowledged, "Our margins are certainly not what they were in 2006." One of those statements was not a surprise.

Puzder recounted how CKE's purchase of Hardee's "crippled" the company, driving its stock price down to $2 from the low 40s. He was the general counsel for the company at the time, and the problem was apparently tossed onto his lap. Under his leadership, the company's concepts are now outpacing most of their competitors.

Puzder just noted how one official of CKE has just instituted a rule that new hires in his area be able to speak English, an unimaginable requirement in the tighter labor market of a year ago. That policy was also mentioned by a panelist yesterday, for the same reason. The greater availability of English-speaking hourly talent seems to be an overlooked silver lining of the current economic storm.

Tues., 9:32
Jim Doherty, Nation's Restaurant News' group publisher and moderator of the Presidents' Panel, has just asked the five CEOs on the panel about how much time they spend in their chains' units. The lowest figure was 20 percent of the time; the highest, 50 percent of the time.

Tues., 9:27
Flynn has just recounted a few details of working at Popeyes when the concept's eccentric founder, Al Copeland, was still involved. He noted that he tries to be at his desk by 5:30 a.m. Copeland would routinely roll into the office at 3 or 4 p.m., Flynn explained.

Copeland, who died a few months ago, has come up a number of times in conversations here at MUFSO. One of the more interesting mentions was a ghost story starring Al. It seems that some AFC veterans went to Copeland's funeral, where a priest recounted how Al traveled through Europe toward the end of his life, looking for a cure of the rare cancer that had afflicted him. Among the stops was Lourdes, a major shrine in the Catholic faith because the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared there. A priest accompanying Copeland said he looked over at one point and saw a woman kneeling by Al's wheelchair. When he looked back, the woman was gone.

The caravan-for-a-cure continued on to Germany, where Copeland visited another place that was known as a site for miracles. The priest saw the same woman again, kneeling once again by Copeland's wheelchair. Once again she disappeared.

Tues., 10:22
Bingo: Jim Flynn, CEO of Wingstop, just noted that he's a graduate of the Naval Academy. He made reference to serving on submarines. Flynn was asked if he knew John McCain, since their attendance of Annapolis apparently overlapped. Flynn drew a laugh by divulging that McCain had a reputation of being an avid hazer and hellraiser.

Tues., 10:12
The Presidents' Panel, traditonally one of the true high points of MUFSO, has just begun. This year's panel includes Jerry Deitchle, CEO of BJ's, who just mentioned something that's often overlooked when industry veterans talk about what makes a successful chain CEO. Deitchle, like so many of his peers, spent some time in the military. It's a common trait of industry leaders, whether we're talking about Norman Brinker, Joe Lee, Roland Smith of Arby's or Jim Skinner of McDonald's.

Tues., 9:30
A gem from Jim Sullivan: "Look, it's no secret today that things are tougher than a woodpecker's lips."

Tues., 9:20
An interesting statistical tidbit from the presentation of the Spirit Awards, an honor bestowed on outstanding foodservice employers: The average turnover of hourly employees within fine dining is 102 percent. Morton's, the winner for that segment, has brought down its churn to 39 percent.

Tues., 8:40
Motivational speaker Marcus Buckingham is on the stage. Having seen Marcus before, I'm not feeling motivated, though he's clearly resonating with the crowd. But perhaps this affords an opportunity to present two informational gems from yesterday's sessions. Both came from Kent Rathbun, chef-owner of the Jasper's high-end restaurant chain. The concept had been chosen by NRN's editors as one of the year's hottest concepts.

During a panel of those concepts' operators, Rathbun noted in passing that Jasper's had cultivated a nice little niche business with private-jet catering. Its home base of Dallas, he explained, is surrounded by small airports that serve the executive traveler who has her or her own plane. As he noted, the downturn really hasn't put much of a crimp in their spending. Rathbun said he reaches out to the personnel at the airports, who are often asked by the jets' passengers and crews about where they could get a good meal. Jasper's has taken steps to make sure it's the concept that's named.

Rathbun also offered some insights into music, a key component of ambience that's often overlooked by the style addicts who notice things like color patterns or staff uniforms. Rathbun acknowledged that the element is important enough to merit his personal attention to the selections that play. His strategy is drafting four distinct lists--one each for lunch, dinner, after 8 p.m. and after 10 p.m. Each list steps up the intensity of the music both in volume and tempo, he explained. The energy-building process has been successful enough to prompt requests by patrons for the playlists.

Tues., 8:15 a.m.
The day is starting with a presentation from the National Restaurant Association about its revamp, the result of a strategic study that was expected to cost the organization in the neighborhood of $1 million. The plan calls for updating the association by focusing on four key areas. For a quick rundown, check out our story from this week's issue of Nation's Restaurant News. Link to it here.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Live from MUFSO

Greetings from the ballroom where some 600 industry leaders have gathered for NRN's annual MUFSO conference. I'm going to provide the highlights, as well as an overall sense of the conference's mood, by live blogging for the first time. This is best read from the last posting up to the first.

Mon., 2:05
Tase noted that Wienerschnitzel has saved $125 per restaurant per month by swapping out its incandescent light bulbs for flourescent versions.

Ken Reimer of Baker Bros., the fast-casual deli chain, is echoing what other operators have said during MUFSO: Using standardized restaurant features can cut costs and construction times. Reimer said that many of his chains' units buy their supplies from Home Depot.

Leondakis said her company's fine-dining restaurants cut costs, not to mention water and detergent use, by foregoing tablecloths. She noted that restaurants are being designed with hardtop tables, even when they're position as a fine-dining choice.

Mon., 1:55
Denise Tase revealed that Wienerschnitzel is trying end-cap locations because of the lower costs. He noted that the chain will spend about $500,000 for one of those locations, turnkey, while the cost of a traditional store could run to more than $1 million.

Mon., 1:40
Among the fast-circulating pieces of gossip here at the conference is the departure of David Goronkin from Redstone American Grill, where he'd served as chief executive and president since early January. Goronkin had resigned the same posts at Famous Dave's of America to join the upstart Redstone concept, a venture of Champps founder Dean Vlahos.

Staffers in New York were able to confirm that Goronkin did indeed part with the chain last week. They're awaiting a callback to get the details.

Mon., 1:35
Niki Leondakis from Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants is offering the wartime perspective of fine dining. Discounting or deal-making "has to be more subtle," she explained. She recommended "doing anything that conveys a sense of value."

She addressed what she acknowledged is the fine-dining version of "bundling," where disparate elements of a meal are packaged into an attractively priced packaged deal. At Kimpton, that means combining a meal with theater tickets.

Similarly, she said, the company's in-hotel restaurants are going to local businesses and offering a discount to employees who come for a special "event." A slight twist, she said, was creating a Hungry Actors' Club, to draw in folks who are drawn by both the networking opportunity and the deal that's extended.

Among the new things Kimpton is trying is cutting the price of a bottle of wine in half.

Mon., 1:30
On stage are the three chain executives participating in our "Capital Ideas in Challenging Times" panel, a look at the tactics operators are using to weather the grueling current economic environment.

Dennis Tase of Galardi Group, parent of the Wienerschitzel chain, just touched on what has proven to be a theme of the conference: Discounting may get butts in seats today, but what's it going to mean when conditions improve? Won't it ultimately cheapen the concept? Will the discounting binge leave a hangover of sorts?

Clearly much of the industry regards that issue as purely academic; they're discounting like Christmas tree vendors on Dec. 25. Yet the question underscores the underlying optimism that the industry will rebound from the current mess. It's just a matter of time.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Reality bites

A long-time acquaintance confided tonight that his restaurant company will soon have to cut its staff because of the economic situation. The operation is of a size, he explained, where he’ll have to let go friends and what he termed members of his family. He didn’t need to tell me how upset he is by the prospect.

Welcome to the restaurant industry post-meltdown. Tonight we kicked off our annual MUFSO conference with a slam-bang cocktail party featuring the specialties of Washington, D.C.’s top restaurants. The conversations were as varied as the drink orders. But sooner or later they tended to flit back to the issue of the moment: How bad is this economic situation, and when might the industry feel some relief?

There was hardly a uniform opinion on the when, though the consensus seemed to be that we’re many months away from relief—at best. And as for the depth of the downturn, the universal assessment could be summed up as a shrug. The one point of agreement: The situation is unprecedented. And I heard that from persons whose tenure ranged upwards to 24, 35 and even 50-plus years.

Undisputed was the notion the economy is in standstill mode until the public gains some confidence that relief is foreseeable. The hope for resolution has been tossed aside. Executives spoke wishfully of a change in the trend lines, never mind a solution.

Yet, virtually everyone stressed, the cycle will turn. It may be a different industry that enjoys the rebound—and certainly a smaller one, most agreed. It’s the pain many will feel between now and then that seemed to be the concern of attendees.

A Blum of an idea

MUFSO hasn’t officially started yet, but it’s already clear that one issue will be hotly debated during the three days of the conference: Is Brad Blum crazy?

That seems to be the question on attendees’ minds as they register, grab a pre-conference cup of coffee, or bump into an editor as he drops bread crumbs in hopes of tracing his way back to whatever elevator serves the time zone where his room is located (the convention is being held in the Gaylord National, a sprawling, biosphere-like complex outside Washington, D.C.) A completely unscientific straw poll indicates the insanes have it, with only one dissenter contending that Blum showed true insight in choosing a “vertical sausage” concept as something to develop. That dissenter would be me, the crumb-dropper. And I’m convinced Blum is on to something big.

In case you missed our coverage, Blum is a former head of Olive Garden and Burger King. Lesser known within the industry was his key role in building a European market for the cereals of General Mills, the former owner of Olive Garden. All of those were huge jobs. But he largely dropped out of view after things went bad at Burger King.

Now he’s moved back into the spotlight with Dogmatic Gourmet Sausage System, a New York City restaurant he’s basing on a popular cart that operates seasonally in Greenwich Village, traditionally the city’s most avant-garde area. The place will feature six high-craft sausages made with ingredients that Alice Waters would sanction, like grass-fed beef or free-range chicken. That’s Strength No. 1. The halo of those more-natural foodstuffs are quickly coming to be appreciated by mainstream America—not Joe Sixpack, maybe, but perhaps his niece, Tiffany Apple-tini.

Another signature item will be organically grown asparagus spears. Outlandish, yes. But not a hard sell, not only bcause of the organic descriptor but also because asparagus is a known entity. We’re not talking about edamame or an acaci salad. That, I’m willing to bet, will become Strength 1.5.

And then there are the drinks—handmade soft drinks made from fruits along with high-craft sodas. That’s a solid Strength No. 2.

The sausage and asparagus will be served in an artisanal roll that’s toasted from the inside out from the insertion of a hot stake. The roll is configured so that the completed sandwich stands upright. Hence the vertical-sausage descriptor. And there we have Gimmicks 1 and 2.

Add it all together and you have a New Age-y concept with overtones of health, freshness, novelty, even Greenwich Village outlandishness. If the numbers make sense—admittedly, a big if; the prototype is being built in an ideal site off Union Square Park, one of the city’s high-rent districts—this could be something that catches on.

Blum has already indicated that he plans to parlay the initial restaurant into a national chain. We hear that all the time. But he has experience, connections and the chutzpah to give such a thing a try.

That’s why I’m saying it’s hardly an insane idea at all. Indeed, it’s one of the more interesting ventures the industry has seen in awhile.

Okay, back to dropping my bread crumbs. And I think I see a hungry bird flying around.

If you're interested in what our industry's leaders have to say about the nation's current plight, please check back here often. I’m going to try to blog as much as possible, including right from the MUFSO conference room.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

What's in the headlines

I thought the industry had used one of its three genie wishes when the story first appeared: Modern medicine had succeeded in transplanting an arm. Finally, a way for restaurateurs to get that oft-coveted extra hand.

It took less than a half-sentence to realize the recipient was receiving a replacement—two, in fact—rather than an addition. But it just goes to show how bizarre the word can seem when the perspective is based on headlines, or even the first few words of a story. Consider these recent reports, all of which actually appeared on the news wires:

“New study finds Americans still have harsh feelings toward tequila”

“Monkey works as waiter in Japanese restaurant”

“‘Tastes like Robitussin’/New item is so bad, our teeth started to hurt,” from an AOL review of fast-food items

“‘Testicle pizza,’ ‘battered testicles’ among 31 recipes in first ‘testicle cookbook’”

“Swiss restaurant to feature breast milk.” That’d be of the human sort, Garth.

“A goomba awaits you at this Concord restaurant”

“Magical veggie challenge to right musical wrong”
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- "Beans, beans the musical fruit ..." For years, children have recited this memorable schoolyard chant. In fact, three out of four adults recognize the classic bean chant. But most people don't realize something is amiss in the lyrics. Beans are a vegetable, not a fruit!

As Dave Barry would say, “Folks, we couldn’t make this stuff up.”

Monday, October 06, 2008

NYC's new anti-obesity message to restaurant patrons

After the firefight over menu labeling, New York City knows better than to expressly target restaurants in its new push for healthier eating. But the products depicted in the campaign that commenced today aren’t exactly what you’d whip up at home for breakfast or lunch, unless you’re Rachael Ray or a chain R&D chef. The message of the Department of Health’s new ads is clear, even if the approach is coy: Think twice, or maybe a third time, before ordering that burrito, sub or muffin.

The ads started appearing this morning on city subways. New reports indicated that about every fifth car will feature the billboards, from now through January. An Associated Press report pegged the total “spend,” as they say in the advertising world, at $82,000.

“2000 calories a day is all that most adults should eat,” blares the placards, which will share subway real estate with ad space for impotence cures, English-language courses and dermatologists. Pictured below that headline are finger-foods that look decidedly restaurant-born. A flag in the items reveals the calories of each—475 in a muffin, for instance, or 1,170 in a burrito. One installment compares the calories content of a tunafish sub (530 calories) with a roast beef version (290 calories). “Choose less. Weigh less,” advises the ad copy. You can read it for yourself here.

The campaign carries the theme, “Read ‘em before you eat ‘em.” Clearly it plays off the city’s new menu-labeling requirements, which went into effect for some chain restaurants in April. Units of chains with at least 15 units nationwide are required to post calorie counts on their menus or menu boards for every item that is offered over an extended time.

Clearly the city is planning to call attention to the calorie counts by urging citizens to read them.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Lunch with Wendy's honcho, Friday's sauce on the side

Several of us had lunch yesterday with Roland Smith, the new CEO of Wendy’s, who’s shouldering that responsibility while continuing to lead the Nelson Peltz-affiliated corporation that previously ran only Arby’s. Besides providing a guilt-free chance to indulge in a Double and a Frosty—hey, it was research—the sit-down at a midtown Wendy’s yielded a few guarded indications of what the chain’s new owner may do with its $2.3-billion prize. But even better was a reality check the unit’s franchisee gave us after Smith left, not so much about Wendy’s, but about general industry conditions and his other concept, T.G.I. Friday’s.

Here’re the highlights of what Smith had to say about Wendy’s and its new parent, Wendy’s/Arby’s Group Inc.:

• Co-branding is definitely in the works for the company's two chains, particularly in high-rent locations like the midtown location where we ate. Smith said the pairing of the concepts—separate kitchens, but paired menus sporting the signature items of each brand—would be especially synergistic overseas.

• The acquisition of other restaurant brands is definitely a possibility for Wendy’s/Arby’s. Smith of course wouldn’t be specific about the possibilities, but he said the company favors concepts that are viewed as quality providers. not bargain peddlers.

• Although the two concepts will be run as separate brands, without any sharing of "trade secrets" like menu products, personnel could be transplanted from one to the other as need and availability arise, Smith said.

• The emphasis for Wendy’s near-term will be on boosting profits. Smith remarked that Arby’s unit-level margins are among the best in the business. Wendy’s was once up there as well, he said, but the profitability of company units slipped, with margins now falling below what franchisees have been able to maintain. Not that licensees are content with their incomes, either, he suggested. Asked for the top three present-day concerns of Wendy’s franchisees, Smith counted them off on his fingers: “Profit, profit, and profit.”

• Wendy’s and Arby’s may indeed cross-franchise, so an operator of one chain could open units of the other if the situation would be appropriate.

As we were leaving, we were asked about our meal by someone who was obviously a person of authority, but just as clearly not a part of Smith’s posse. Turns out he was the franchisee, Brad Honigfeld, CEO of multi-brand The Briad Group.

Honigfeld said he was optimistic about Smith and the change in ownership, and praised in particular the selections of David Karam as Wendy’s new president and Steve Farrar as the new COO.

He voiced more concern about his Friday’s restaurants, noting that Briad is that chain’s largest franchisee. Stores in Arizona are running 25 percent below what they were a year ago, he lamented.

Bakery-café concepts like Panera are stealing the lunchtime customers of casual chains, Honigfeld explained, and the battle for dinner patrons is just brutal. He dismissed discounting as the way to go, suggesting instead that the established players in casual dining need to re-invent themselves.

Perhaps not coincidentally, he revealed that Briad has just signed on to become a franchisee of Corner Bakery, a competitor of Panera.

Honigfeld also noted that his Wendy’s units in the New York area have been doing well, but that Briad’s restaurants on the West Coast suffered a “significant” decline last month. He called it a sign of things to come, which I took to mean the chilling effect could roll eastward.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Watch what you insinuate, John

It’s bad enough the presidential candidates exploit their families, friends and supporters in the lunge for votes. Now they’re going after one of our own. On Tuesday, John McCain threw the venerable Sonic chain under a bus so he could sound wise and statesman-like.

“If we do nothing, many businesses will fail,” McCain said in a mass e-mail to supporters after the House of Representatives rejected the $700-billion bailout package. He then cited Sonic’s problem in securing capital from a usual source, GE Capital. His implication was clear: The corporation could become a casualty of the financial mess. That’s at best an overstatement, and at worst a calculated misrepresentation of the franchisor’s stability, made either way for political gain.

In covering companies with financial problems—something Nation’s Restaurant News is doing with increasing frequency these days—we’re painstakingly careful not to suggest that a concern could be going under, unless of course it’s actually filed for bankruptcy. At the hint of a business failing, suppliers might deny credit, loans could be called, prospective franchisees could pass on a contract, landlords could choose another tenant, and new hires might decide to work elsewhere. It’s the business equivalent of declaring someone a criminal because suspicions have been raised.

McCain apparently doesn’t share that compunction. He went ahead and affiliated Sonic with catastrophe, when the facts don’t warrant that assertion. Ironically, Sonic CEO Cliff Hudson spent part of the next day joining with other business leaders from the chain’s home state of Oklahoma to lobby for the bailout package, the very intention of McCain’s e-mail blast. There was no need for the senator to raise the possibility of failure to get his point across. He could have merely cited the importance of the package to Sonic, and left it at that.

Instead, he demonstrated the sort of self-serving, exploitative politicking you don’t want to see in a leader who needs to inspire.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A big caveat on menu labeling

The country is obviously tipping toward menu labeling, with mandates pending on the federal, state and local levels. But one of the nation’s most celebrated thought leaders is swinging in the opposite direction after discovering a hidden risk firsthand. Harvard University has pulled the nutrition information it formerly displayed in its foodservice operations because the disclosure of calorie counts could aggravate students’ eating disorders.

“Specifically, we needed to address the challenge a quiet and surprisingly large contingent of our community faces with eating disorders,” Ted Mayer, the executive director of Harvard’s dining services, said in his blog. “Those individuals can place an undue emphasis on calories and other literal food values, making their placement over every food item a real challenge. Thus, we did what we felt best addressed the special health needs of those individuals, much as we support people with food allergies or religious dietary preferences.”

Detailed nutrition information on what’s offered at the facilities is still available from the school’s website and onsite kiosks.

Posted comments on the decision have been mixed. Some students asserted that the situation mandates more effective counseling for persons suffering from eating disorders, not the removal of information that could benefit far greater numbers of people.

They also blasted the alternative of making nutrition information available via computers, noting that their meals are often a hurried, spontaneous affair. That objection could be echoed as the industry tries to deflect demand for on-menu postings by promoting online or kiosk postings as replacements.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The White House story that wasn't

Colleagues attending the National Restaurant Association’s Public Affairs Conference alerted us Tuesday that a big story was shaping up in the host city, Washington, D.C. The Bush Administration had invited 200 restaurateurs from the conference to visit the White House Wednesday for an announcement from the President of a significant policy initiative. It had to be something of import to restaurants and other small businesses, or why would the attendees be summoned to serve as a backdrop? We geared up for what we thought would be a very newsworthy political development.

A few hours later, deputy managing editor Paul Frumkin called again from the PAC meeting: The White House had cancelled the invitation, saying the reason would become obvious. Clearly something bigger had trumped the meeting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

We now know that big development was Bush’s decision to address the nation last night about the bail-out package pending on Capitol Hill. What’s still a mystery is the policy initiative he was going to announce. NRA officials indicated that it would be of importance. But that covers a lot of ground, given how many industry-related political issues were apparently covered at the PAC conference.

All we can say is, Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Boobs for sure

PETA has either lost what little reason it had left, or it’s become the victim of an outstanding hoax. The news wires were humming this evening with the hard-to-believe story that the animal-rights zealots had asked Ben & Jerry’s to use human breast milk in place of the bovine sort in its ice creams. Funky Monkey indeed.

“If Ben and Jerry’s replaced the cow’s milk in its ice cream with breast milk, your customers—and cows—would reap the benefits,” explained a letter from Tracy Reiman, executive vice president for the group. “The breast is best!”

She stopped short of volunteering her services.

But Reiman did explain that dairy cows are kept pregnant to maintain their milk production, with considerable wear. It also noted that male calves are turned into veal because they don’t generate milk, a key biological fact that Reiman noted in her letter. Presumably some of the males are needed to make more baby cows, but there was no verification in the note.

The letter was sent to the ice cream chain’s co-founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. You can see it here, along with the press release that PETA distributed.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Toss those trays

College foodservice is often the incubator for trends that eventually spread into the restaurant mainstream. If that tradition holds true, get ready for two changes in the business: The end of the restaurant tray, and the emergence of a new foodservice position called “the forager.”

Dennis Pierce, the diretor of dining services for the University of Connecticut, provided a preview of both changes during the Food Safety Symposium on Sunday (see earlier posts for some context).

The forager, he explained, is a position that’s arising as a result of interest in procuring local produce and ingredients. “It’s someone who has a culinary background, as well as a procurement background,” said Pierce.

Because localized purchasing can require menu re-engineering, he continued, restaurants will need someone with the ability to adjust recipes or tweak the bill of fare as supplies change with the growing seasons. But at the same time, he noted, that person has to know how to adjudge how much of a local item will be needed, and where to get it a feasible price.

Pierce cited the hypothetical example of adding locally grown garlic. The forager would have to know what's needed, in terms of volume, and how to get it.

The other trend, he said, is already well underway in college dining. “If you’ve not heard about this,” he said, “you will. It’s trayless dining.”

He recounted how Middlebury College had eliminated trays from its feeding facilities as a way of saving water in its cleaning operations. That prompted UConn to give it a try last semester. For a week, two dining facilities operated as usual, but with Pierce and his team studying and apparently benchmarking certain variables. The next week, they educated the students about such issues as water conservation. The third week, they stopped using trays.

“We discovered that we had 900 lbs. less of food waste and saved 2,000 gallons of water,” he said.

That prompted the school to pull trays this semester from dining facilities that cater to freshmen, since they’ve not yet been accustomed to using trays.

Pierce also described the college’s newest sustainable venture, the use of a “pulper” to convert food waste into compost material, which the school plans to sell. The waste is pulverized and dumped into a bin, which is then heated. It apparently consolidates into what looks like dirt.

He also recounted the school's experiences with bee hives. It's already put in 10 hives, and is harvesting hundreds of pounds of honey. Ten more are coming. UConn plans not only to use the honey as a sweetener, but also to sell it in convenience stores.

Putting a face on food safety

You have to appreciate the above-and-beyond efforts of the food-safety specialists attending the Food Safety Symposium this weekend in Charlotte, N.C. They could’ve kicked back last night with an extra hot chocolate, or maybe declared it a wild night because they had the three-custard dessert at the local hotspot where we had dinner. Instead, they insisted on demonstrating the germ-killing capabilities of alcoholic beverages. Again and again and again.

I, too, had a few drinks at the post-dinner party, presented by our hosts, Ecolab. But that doesn’t change the impact of today’s event, a look at how the restaurant industry is trying to protect guests more effectively from foodborne disease. The first session of our two-day conference was crammed with practical advice on safeguarding the food supply. But what really sticks with me is how the effort to avert foodborne disease was personified.

Instead of talking in stark scientific terms about bacteria and viruses, speaker after speaker put a human face on the issue. Dave Theno, our keynote speaker, explained that he was driven to push for food-safety improvements by memories of a six-year-old girl who died during the E. coli catastrophe that almost destroyed Jack in the Box in the early 1990s. He characterized the girl, the first child to die in the epidemic, as “the angel” who inspires him to keep driving for greater safeguards.

“I think of my 2-year-old and my 9-year-old. They’re my 6-year-old,” said Angel Sanford of the McAlister’s fast-casual chain. “Quality is something I take very, very personally.”

Kathy Means of the Produce Marketing Association showed pictures of Kyle Algood and Ruby Trautz, two victims of the spinach contamination of three years ago. Dr. Bruce Chords of Ecolab mentioned how his grandchildren had brought home a norovirus infection—which he then caught. My NRN colleague, Robin Allen, mentioned that her daughter had been hospitalized with the pathogen. Patrick Sterling of Texas Roadhouse recounted how he called all 150 victims of a norovirus outbreak that was believed to be connected with one of that chain’s restaurants.

Clearly, despite all the problems they've seen or noted, attendees regard the victims of a contagion as people, not statistics.

Attendees also heard terms like virons, lateral flow immunosensors and bacteriophages. But they and presenters never let the meeting drift too far from the sensibility that they are protecting people in restaurants, not working with petri dishes in some lab.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The potential downside of buying local

We’re only one panel and one speaker into the Symposium (see the post below for some context), but already some definite themes are emerging. One, clearly, is the need for traceability, which by the consensus of presenters thus far is a particularly pointed need because of rising imports. The other, perhaps not surprisingly, is local sourcing, which has been largely cited as a food safety challenge.

Said Theno: “Many of these local suppliers do not have the sophisticated controls in place. [Yet] you need a lot of processes and process controls for food safety. Small does not necessarily mean bad;” some small players, he noted, do indeed put the necessary systems and safeguards in place. But, he suggested, a lot simply can’t afford it.

“ Sacrificing safety for the marketing aura of saying ‘locally produced’ is not wise,” he concluded.

Mike Reinert, VP of supply management, talked about the need of educating those small local suppliers, while applying the same sort of criteria that would be used for suppliers of any size: third-party audits, checking for a food-safety security plan, employee background checks.

The safeguards aren’t unique to that realm, he suggested. But the challenge is making sure that they’re applied. He indicated that Delaware North tries to do it by educating its suppliers. He also suggested that Delaware North personnel are also trained to ensure standards are met by the local players from which they buy.

Live from the NRN Food Safety Symposium

Bacteria must be high-fiving and hooting with delight. Dave Theno, the food-safety guru who was brought in by Jack in the Box in the midst of the chain’s E. coli crisis to right the situation, has just noted that he’s retiring. His presentation, on where the restaurant industry is heading food-safety-wise, underscores what an arch-nemesis the pathogens are about to lose.

Indeed, Theno has just invited the audience of 40 or so chain food-safety experts to contact him if they’re getting pushback from upper-level executives about investing in food safety.

“You got a CEO who doesn’t get it? Say, ‘I got a guy you’ve gotta talk to.’ Set it up, and I’ll call the guy,” Theno said. “And afterward, he’s going to like you a lot more, because I’m a real asshole to talk with, so you’ll look a lot better.”

Theno ended his presentation by recounting how he met a woman from Safe Tables Our Priority, whose six-year-old daughter was the first child to die in the Jack in the Box E. coli crisis in the early 1990s. Theno recounted how the woman promised her lost daughter that she would press for reforms on the girl’s behalf. Theno said he saw the girl as his “personal angel” in helping him push for safer foods.

If you know someone in food safety, tell them or give them a six-year-old. Trust me, it’ll get a lot easier.

"Take home your own six-year-old," he said.

I’m writing this from Nation’s Restaurant News’ Food Safety Symposium in Charlotte, N.C. I’ll be posting updates here throughout the conference, hopefully on a near-live basis.

So stay tuned. And contact me if you’re a chain restaurant executive who’d like to reach Theno.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

'An order for Sec. Paulson'

I’ve gotta be quick here because a call from the federal bail-out specialists could come at any second. I alerted them yesterday that an institution crucial to the financial health of New York-area restaurants, a venerable borrower called Romeo Enterprises, was teetering on the brink of insolvency. If they were willing to lend AIG $85 billion, they can certainly toss a few grand my way.

Then again, the government’s rescue efforts have been decidedly selective. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae got a bailout, as did the insurance giant whose past CEO, Hank Greenberg, still prompts Wall Street insiders to cross themselves and mutter a protective spell at the mention of his name (he was forced out in 2005 because of fraud allegations leveled by New York’s attack-dog attorney general at the time, Elliot Spitzer, who subsequently dropped the charges). Curiously, AIG got into trouble by insuring very complex financial securities, in effect assuring the backers they wouldn’t lose everything. Investors always say you get rewarded for risk, but the insurer’s role was to provide a safety net so some really big paybacks would be protected. Speculation, indeed.

When it looked as if gazillions would indeed be lost because of AIG’s problems, the government stepped in, arguing that it had to avert economic disaster. And, indeed, the company’s failure might’ve emptied plenty of portfolios and pockets. Just ask the foodservice establishments that counted Lehman Brothers among their major sources of business. Delis and restaurants that served the banker are already feeling the loss, according to news reports, when Lehman filed for bankruptcy only a few days ago.

They and other small businesses are getting walloped because the feds decided Lehman had to sink or swim on its own strengths, whereas AIG is too big of a fish to let flounder.

In other words, if you’re wearing a suit, “Here’s a life preserver.” But if those are foodservice whites on your back, “We prefer to let the market regulate itself.” Size clearly does matter when it comes to portfolios and paychecks.

Maybe those strained delis and restaurants can reach out to AIG’s business associates. Perhaps with a promotional Fat Cat sandwich, made with pork, of course.

And they should be sure to come up with something higher end for the big-portfolio'd sort who’s expected by many in the blogosphere to be brought in as AIG's savior. His name is Hank Greenberg.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Did a Next Big Thing find me?

Some trends emerge from the undergrounds of New York, L.A. or San Francisco, pushed along by sub-cultures with a penchant for black clothes and body piercing. Other times they crop up in the checkout lines of suburban supermarkets, alongside the string cheese and Swifter refills. So it was this weekend, when one household had to choose between turning the cupboard into a bookcase or actually going grocery shopping. I knew I should’ve just started slotting the books instead of risking a coin toss. But at least I got a glimpse of what could become a popular menu item, judging from how quickly it’s spreading in white-Zinfandel America.

I first spotted it a week earlier in a sleepy burb called Hampton Bays, where one of the new dining choices is a breakfast and lunch place with a Latino flavor. Waiting for my sandwich, I saw that a whole rack of a soft drink cooler had filled with 16-ounce, lidded plastic cups, each containing a liquid the color of a cantaloupe. Pieces of fruit seemed to have settled in the bottom of each clear cup.

As I was waiting, a patron came in and grabbed one from the case. He drank the liquid in a flash, then used his straw to spear the fruit. Then he took another.

Another customer came in. He took one of the items, too. Same process.

And another.

“Hey,” I asked the clerk, “what are those?”

“They’re a drink made with a little fruit juice and cut-up melon, pineapple, mango and papaya. They’re two-fifty each.”

“I’ll take one…What do you call them?”

“We call them frutas.” Others use the more proper name of aqua fresca de fruta.

Fast-forward five days, to the moment our pantry spider webs were to be cleared by a rare supermarket expedition. As usual, I was forbidden to go, a sentence I’ll serve for life because I tend to buy nothing but peanut butter, a packet of sauerkraut, and maybe some Scottish shortbread.

When my wife returned, I started un-bagging the bounty with the zeal of Robinson Crusoe on a cruise liner home. “Did you see this?” she asked. Plunk. She puts down a pre-packaged fruta made with peaches. Plunk. Another, also pre-packaged, made with grapefruit. Plunk. Yet another, also made with grapefruit. “It’s something new. Looks good, doesn’t it?”

She wasn’t with me when I had my first fruta encounter. Clearly this was something viral.

Each contained about 100 calories a serving, and was presented as a refresher, with fruta never appearing on the packaging.

The drinks may be nothing new to those of you who live in Texas or California. The same likely holds true for hardcore foodies. But I can’t recall seeing aqua fresca de frutas before in the mainstream suburbs of the Northeast, even in the Latino delis that have been sprouting up in recent years. All of a sudden, they're as prevalent as pomegranate juice.

The combination of fresh fruit, real juices, a lot of flavor and a sense of healthfulness, coming at a time of intense interest in beverages, could propel frutas very quickly into the restaurant mainstream.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Early restaurant news out of Texas is far from good

Hurricane Ike's damage to Texas' restaurant industry is starting to be assessed, but it remains unclear whether the storm caused or merely contributed to the demise of a dining landmark. Brennan’s, a longtime favorite of Houston, was “left in ashes” by a fire that erupted about the time the storm was making landfall, according to a report in the Houston Chronicle. The report noted that it was still undetermined as of Saturday afternoon if Ike caused the blaze. It appears certain, however, that the hurricane fanned the flames and kept firemen away.

It seems as if Mother Nature was extracting revenge on the landmark for earlier defying its wrath. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, many staffers of that city’s Commander’s Palace were taken in by Brennan’s. Both landmarks are run by the Brennan family, one of the nation’s foremost restaurant clan.

The Chronicle story noted that co-proprietor Alex Brennan-Martin couldn't speak when he learned of the fire because he was apparently too broken up.

As with Hurricane Gustav, last night’s storm dominated the airwaves. Yet mentions of southern Texas restaurants were rare, as opposed to the detailed reports about how New Orleans dining cathedrals were faring when Gustav hit. The contrast underscores how important eateries are to the Big Easy economy. Most of the economy-related TV and internet reports on Ike focused on the local oil trade.

But a reporter stationed in Galveston by a Houston ABC affiliate noted that a popular beachside restaurant “was literally gone.” I thought he said it was The Stockade, but I couldn’t find a listing for that. A scan of all the eating places listed in local tourist guides mentioned only who’s name sounded similar, the Spot, though I haven’t been able to confirm that through other means.

Meanwhile, another report noted that the Kemah Boardwalk, a tourist facility run by Landry’s Restaurants, couldn’t even be reached on foot or by car. Among the restaurants located on the waterside attraction is one of Landry’s newest concepts, Red Sushi Habachi Grill, a slight variation on the Red sushi restaurant in Las Vegas’ Golden Nugget casino.

Though the news on restaurants affected by the hurricane hasn’t been abundant—and blogs offered less information than they did during Gustav—the situation has to be deplorable. Power companies are saying that power won’t be restored in some areas for three weeks to a month. Many areas are advising residents to stay away if they can, and a lengthy list of towns and cities are imposing curfews to avert looting and lawlessness.

If you’re reading this and know what’s happening with the restaurant industry in southern Texas, please share the info.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hey, maybe we all can get along

I’m usually skeptical when I hear government or industry beating a drum for collaboration in lieu of regulation. In the midst of the tomato/jalapeno/Serrano salmonella epidemic, for instance, the Food and Drug Administration’s call for more industry responsibility and involvement came off as nothing more than finger-pointing—“This wouldn’t be happening if industry did a better job of record-keeping. After all, we don’t have the money to do that ourselves.”

And the private sector’s frequent cries for cooperation sound like thinly masked pleas to be left alone: “We prefer that boards of health and other government watchdogs work with us, not against us. It’s merely a coincidence that we hate paying fines and being forced to meet their standards.”

Then comes yesterday’s news from Oregon. As reported, the state’s restaurateurs and Occupational Safety and Health Department have forged an agreement committed to paper—a veritable contract—to work in tandem for the safety of foodservice employees.

According to coverage in Oregon’s press, this was no photo op pretending to be a significant announcement. As part of the deal, state experts will be dispatched to consult with restaurateurs in their establishments about ways of making the operations safer. An examination of the safeguards already in place would presumably be part of that process, along with a diagnosis of what the restaurant is doing wrong. But the restaurateurs have the assurance that they won’t be penalized for what the state reps might find.

It’s as if the state is sending a force of consultants into the trade, without the follow-up invoices that typically follow consultants more closely than their shadows.

Safety officials, meanwhile, can focus on safety, without the usual sword fighting about blame, fines and being realistic. Not that their fencing abilities will be allowed to lapse. Oregon’s workplace safety inspectors will continue to do their job, and will issue fines accordingly, local press reports note. Presumably the task will just be a lot easier, since restaurants will have a clearer idea of what they should be doing, and virtually no excuse if they don’t heed the advice.

And in a state where reportedly one out of every 14 state residents is employed by a foodservice establishment, that’s good thing.

So kudos to the Oregon Restaurant Association for entering into the deal and thereby blazing a path for peers in other locations to possibly follow. The agreement it signed could prove a welcome model for all sorts of regulatory agencies in all kinds of jurisdictions.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The aftermath of Gustav

Clay Dover, president and chief marketing officer of the Louisiana-based Raising Cane's quick-service chain, sent us this note yesterday about the aftermath of Monday's storm:

Hurricane Gustav forced Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers to close 35 of its 58 company owned stores in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. (We have 73 total). As of Wednesday, September 03, 2008 we have been able to re-open 18 locations.

Baton Rouge has been a challenge due to massive power outages. Additionally some of our outlying restaurant locations were hard hit, including Houma, where Gustav made landfall. We plan on opening the restaurants located in New Orleans beginning Thursday a.m. with full crews.

We were able to reopen quickly because we were very proactive in our preparation both in preparation and recovery.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

New heat-beaters--and a Happy New Year

I’ve put my finger precisely on The Cheesecake Factory’s recent traffic problems: Calendar confusion. Yesterday, Sept. 2, the mega-volume chain announced that it was rolling out its new summer menu. “Take a break from the summer heat and visit The Cheesecake Factory,” gushed the announcement.

Labor Day is popularly recognized as the end of summer, but maybe Cheesecake prefers the official closing date. That would give the chain easily three more weeks to promote its new hot-weather selections. By then, maybe it’ll be ready with a new Halloween lemonade, or maybe a Christmas fresh-fruit salad.