Friday, January 04, 2008

A 96-hour preview of 2008

Four days into 2008, Taco Bell and Starbucks are pushing healthful menu choices, California restaurateurs are calling for a sales-tax hike, PETA is yelping about Chipotle’s ingredient standards, smoking has been outlawed in French cafes, and the Red Sox are planning to open eating establishments. Something biblical is happening here, people. And that’s disregarding what the Tarot cards forecast for the months ahead. The year could prove wilder than a Spears family counseling session.

If you straight-line the emerging trends of 2007, we’re likely to see phenomena like these during the new year:

Virtual crime prevention: Restaurants will become as diligent in protecting customers from identity theft as they’ve long been in shielding guests from food-borne health risks. They’ll have no choice. “60 Minutes” has already run segments on the vulnerability of retail credit card information, with Leslie Stahl demonstrating how she could capture data while sitting in a mall parking lot, using nothing more high-tech than a laptop and accessible software. The risk will undoubtedly draw more attention as the problem worsens. All that’s needed for a sudden public obsession is one high-profile swipe of information from a major restaurant chain. The paranoia will rival what the industry sees after a fatal food-contamination incident, or what the nation as a whole observed after the Tylenol poisonings. Fortunately, the industry will get some effective assistance from credit card companies. But a willingness to adopt the right practices and protections, or the awareness of the importance at a unit level, is another manner. What’s really needed is the equivalent of ServSafe, a curriculum to train restaurant and regional-level chain operations on the rudiments of data protection. ChargeSafe, perhaps?

Paid sick leave: The restaurant industry is caught in a bind. Research shows that employees infected with the virus that causes stomach flu can be infectious far longer than was originally thought. Exponentially longer, in fact. Typically, a restaurant asks an employee recovering from a norovirus infection to stay home for two or three days. To be truly safe, the carrier-employee should be out of the kitchen for weeks. Yet how do you ask a staffer to forego that much pay? And if the cost of admitting their ailment is a significant loss of wages, are staffers really going to volunteer that they’ve been vomiting or suffering from diarrhea?

Unions have exploited that situation to press for paid sick leave. In some places, that added pressure isn’t even necessary. San Francisco mandated paid leave via a 2006 ballot referendum. The measure went into effect in February. District of Columbia lawmakers are scheduled to vote on a paid-leave initiative next week. Eight states are eying legislation mandating the benefit, and federal bills have been floated on Capital Hill.

Those efforts seem driven more by concern for low-wage employees than by public health concerns. But paid-leave advocates will likely yell more shrilly about the threat of flu contamination in the months ahead.

Emphasis on concept development: With economic conditions proving disastrous for many of the major casual-dining brands, several of the segment’s powerhouses will rev up new brands to keep revenues and profits growing. You could see glimmers of that in ’07 with Ruby Tuesday buying an Asian fast-casual concept called Wok Hay, Cheesecake Factory disclosing plans to launch a new Asian dinnerhouse called Rock Sugar, P.F. Chang’s continued tinkering with Taneko Japanese Tavern, Ruth’s Chris purchase of Cameron’s Mitchell’s seafood chain, and California Pizza Kitchen’s expansion of its L.A. Food Show venture.

The upstarts will require some tweaking and market adjustments. For instance, P.F. Chang’s discovered that California wine sells better than Japanese beer at Taneko. In an earnings statement issued by the company yesterday, Chang’s stressed the concept’s use of “natural, organic and seasonal ingredients” rather than the attributes it underscored immediately after the prototype’s opening.

Not coincidentally…

The lending crisis will put the brakes on casual-restaurant development: And that could ultimately prove a good thing for the sector. The curb on store openings will give demand some time to catch up with supply, enabling the market to pull out of what is now a multi-year slump.

Recruiters will position jobs as an extension of prospects’ non-work life: In HR-ese, the job will be where you are, not what you do. The challenge is erasing the differences between work and non-work life in dozens of small ways that add up to a meaningful change from Baby Boomers’ restaurant-job experiences. It could mean using YouTube-like training videos, or providing time and a place for staffers to socialize during down times, or offering incentives like paid downtime instead of conventional prizes like CDs. The objective is de-stigmatizing restaurant jobs by making them more consistent with the rest of youngsters’ lives.

The Yankees will win the World Series andthe Super Bowl: Hey, it’s my list of predictions. And stranger things are likely to happen.

1 comment:

  1. paid sick leave-such a catch-22 decision: how do we monitor so it is not taken advantage of? Do we require a doctor's paperwork to let them off for paid sick days? On the other end, we want to make sure food-safety and the health of co-workers is top priority.

    For newer managers in this business, there is the tendancy to jump to a conclusion that someone "isn't really sick", they just wanted a day off to recover from the party the night before. Companies who have good retention usually ask first if the staffer is okay and what can be done for them instead of beating them down about screwing up the shift.

    IN the companies I have been in, manager-level staff usually get 5-10 days of paid sick leave, why shouldn't hourly staff? They can almost never afford to be off for an extended period of time without some financial consequences. I think as long as they are forced to use accrued vacations days first, then get sick leave, then it might work.