Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Wringing out 2007

Let the swallows flock to Capistrano. We ink-stained wretches have our own compulsion to indulge. The minute they roll Dick Clark out of the home and start the chondroitin drip, every journalist feels the irresistible drive to recap the outgoing year’s memorable moments. Who am I to fight Mother Nature? Here’s my rundown of developments the restaurant industry should remember about 2007.

Most worrisome trend to emerge: Menu labeling The industry’s arch concern, a monster it’s beaten back time and again, arrived with a cancelled one-way ticket last year. New York City and King County, Wash., have already decided that local chain restaurants will have to post calorie information on menus and menu boards. California’s Silicon Valley and the Washington, D.C., suburb of Montgomery County will likely follow with similar labeling requirements. And from there, the dominos will fall. It’s only a matter of time until a state mandates nutritional displays. Then we’ll watch a repeat of smoking bans’ spread.

Runner up: Paid sick leave, already mandated in San Francisco, with Washington, D.C. expected to vote on a measure next week.

Biggest yawn of a trend: Trans-fat bans. Sure, availability of alternative oils is still a problem. Witness the decision by Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s to delay their switch because of supply issues. But New York’s changeover, the nation’s first, went relatively smoothly. Regulators say the biggest problem to date has involved the use of margarine, a potential motherlode of trans fats, without a heads-up to patrons.

The bigger challenge, restaurateurs say, will be the requirement that trans fats be eliminated from baking, a process that benefits greatly from that type of shortening. It may prove to be more of a painful changeover for the true baked-good artists.

Biggest trend that failed to materialize: The mainstreaming of organics. The supply just isn’t there, and the consumer appeal seems secondary to matters like source labeling--saying where each element in a menu item came from, a mega-trend even evident within the mass-market chains.

Unforeseen trend fallout of the year: Smoking bans’ literal way of chilling sales in northern states. Lighting up outside may not have been a problem during spring and summer. But this is the first winter of outside-smoking-only for Anchorage, Alaska, and Illinois, among other areas with frigid weather. Operators in some of those regions are attempting to hold onto patrons by erecting smoking huts, complete with heat. But many of the new rules also prohibit smoking 15 feet from a door, window or other potential vent into a restaurant, meaning you may not have the space in a downtown setting. The industry may want to consider subsidizing sales of The Patch.

Menu trend of the year: Miniaturization. You can now buy a mini-sized burger from an abundance of restaurants, chain or independent, thanks to the Lilliputian Effect. Restaurateurs are smartly betting that consumers will pay a premium for variety (with sampler packs) or the chance to have a few bites of something their doctors tell them they should eat more rarely. A few even savvier players have taken the same approach with desserts, and you can even find some mini-cocktails out there, too.

Menu-item comeback of the year: Burgers. Back in vogue for the umpteenth time, thanks to interest from high-end chefs along the coasts and higher quality offerings from the maintstream chains.

Best product trend from a consumer standpoint:
Premium coffee and coffee-based blended drinks. Even office coffee-break stations are being revamped to feature better grades.

Best product trend from a business standpoint: See above. How can you beat the margins on products consisting mainly of water?

Most intriguing new concepts: The wave of all-natural grab-and-go places, like Fresh & Easy, the U.S. beachhead of European retailing giant Tesco, or the Michael Milken-backed Eaturna, which is growing in partnership with concessionaire HMSHost. The places are actually riding three trends that clearly gained strength in '07: Stepped up demand for meals that could be eaten off-premise, increased interest in natural foods, and heightened desire for quality food that can be purchased in a snap, a la grab-and-go formats.

The places are part of a larger trend that has yet to fully flower: With Whole Foods and Trader Joe's proving it can be done, food retailers are finally offering the caliber of ready-to-eat foods that could steal business from restaurants. Supermarkets have always posed a threat to restaurants because consumers are inside them several times a week, but the quality was never there. That's changing. The missing piece is marketing that effectively lets the public know they have a new, viable dining option.

Most encouraging development for foodservice: A clamor for greater collaboration in promoting food safety, both within an organization (i.e., food safety working with marketing as well as ops to guarantee that new menu items are safe) and between groups, including competing chains. The theme was stressed both at Nation’s Restaurant News’ Food Safety Symposium and Cooperating for Food Safety, a conference held in Washington specifically to bring traditional adversaries together for the promotion of safe practices.

Most discouraging development for foodservice: The charlatanism evident in the green movement, with opportunists suddenly declaring themselves eco-friendly as a result of marketing considerations, not true environmental merit. There’s an old southern expression: “Puttin’ a hat on a mule don’t make it the Pope.” Ditto for slapping a green-sounding slogan on a product or service.

In my next installment, I'll complete the annual rite of journalism and offer my predictions for '08.


  1. Governments gone wild

    The bandwagon of local smoking bans now steamrolling across the nation has nothing to do with protecting people from the supposed threat of "second-hand" smoke. Indeed, the bans are symptoms of a far more grievous threat, a cancer that has been spreading for decades and is the only real hazard involved – the cancer of unlimited government power. The issue is not whether second-hand smoke is a real danger or a phantom menace, as a study published recently in the British Medical Journal indicates. The issue is: if it were harmful, what would be the proper reaction? Should anti-tobacco activists satisfy themselves with educating people about the potential danger and allowing them to make their own decisions, or should they seize the power of government and force people to make the "right" decision? Loudly billed as measures that only affect "public places," they have actually targeted private places: restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, – whose customers are free to go elsewhere.

    All decisions involve risks; some have harmful consequences; most are controversial and invite disapproval from the neighbours. But the individual must be free to make these decisions. Yet when it comes to smoking, this freedom is under attack. Smokers are a minority, practising a habit considered annoying and unpleasant to the majority. So the majority has simply commandeered the power of government and used it to dictate their behaviour.

    Politicians were not elected to control and manipulate our behaviour.
    They are elected to serve us, not the other way around.

    Thomas Laprade
    480 Rupert St.
    Thunder Bay, Ont.

  2. I respect the right of others to choose to not be exposed to my smoke,
    and I would continue to do so even if smoking bans were ended tomorrow.

    We smokers are not demanding to go back to the 'old days',
    when everybody smoked everywhere, when baby boomer children grew up in a cloud of Second Hand Smoke yet are alive and healthy today, both proving that anti-smoking claims today are Junk Science.

    We ask - only for 2 things:

    1/ Some place left to us that is ours to enjoy smoking.

    2/ The global news industry to uphold it's Fiduciary Duty and report along side the anti-smoking claims the fact that many researchers, scientists, even doctors and politicians, and millions of tax paying voters do NOT believe the anti-smoking claims about Second Hand Tobacco Smoke.

    Hatred of Second Hand Smoke is morphng in to Hatred of Smokers, begging an answer to the question - who's next ?

    SHS is NOT a Statistically Significant Health Risk to others, including children, which makes Smoking in Cars Bans a Totalitarian State Invasion of Parenting, which will lead to many more, and eventual destruction of all rights, freedoms, and civil liberties.

    Steve Hartwell
    Toronto, Canada

  3. Gluten Free TrinaJanuary 03, 2008 4:06 PM

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment and suggest that another trend is catering to the growing Gluten Free diners market. These special dieters have more and more forums whereby they ask each other where they can eat out while travelling. Often there is just one person needing the special gluten free diet, but the whole family picks the venue because of the dietary needs of the one.

    Chefs need recipes they can make from scratch, have things on hand that make up quickly, so they can serve a similar meal with the gluten free twist.

    Go go www.astoriamagazine.com Food Section for Gluten Free recipes and ideas.

    Gluten Free Trina

  4. Despite being a smoker, I am okay with the bans. Think about it: we praise those in the industry that use the freshest, highest-quality, locally- or regionally-grown ingredients; we spend millions on ServSafe and other programs to elicit food and sanitation safety, but we think its okay to have cigarette smoke anywhere in our businesses. Until tobacco is made into a recipe ingredient, it needs to stay out of places where humans ingest food into their bodies.

    Before I smoked, I thought it insane that it would be allowed anywhere food was served (except for bars that do minimal food service and people know what they are getting into there), however restaurants that serve families or seniors or pretty much everyone need to keep cigarette smoke away from the plate.