Wednesday, April 30, 2008

'Paging Mr. Ripley'

If a picture is worth a thousand words, headlines should come with volume numbers. Here are a few grabbers that tell a vivid story without a word of explanation, though a dab of context is nonetheless provided for those who wonder how the underlying articles came about. All are real headlines that appeared within the last few weeks:

‘Restaurants go after reviewer's testicles’: It seems that the reviewer for the Metro newspaper in Auckland, Australia, left several high-profile restaurants off his list of the area’s 50 best dining options. One of the overlooked establishments responded with a full-page ad in a rival paper, slamming the critic’s work and providing a recipe for reviewers’ testicles. The ad encouraged at-home Emerils to take a "very sharp knife, [and] slice through the sort of skinnie muscley stuff that you find surrounding each of the Metro Food Critic Testicles (there should be two testicles, they can be hard to find)".

‘China's first penis restaurant,’ also reported under the banner, ‘Members only, but diners don't find it hard to swallow’: Guo-li-zhuang restaurant in Peking, China, specializes in the private parts of yaks, donkeys, water buffaloes, horses and other studmuffins of nature. The best quote in the story that appeared under the latter headline: "Of course, there are other restaurants that serve the bian [penis] of individual animals. But this is the first that brings them all together." You can only imagine the Zagat entries.

'Bruce Oldfield shows off his McDonald's designer duds': Oldfield, in case you’re the gauche sort who buys off the rack, is a clothing designer whose world-famous clients included Princess Diane and who still dresses the likes of Catherine Zeta-Jones. He was asked to revamp the uniforms for McDonald’s staffers in the United Kingdom, a crucible for some of the chain’s more progressive personnel policies. Some might say it’s like Oasis or Amy Winehouse playing bar mitzvahs and weddings. But the new outfits, shown last week in Britain, have merited serious commentary from the fashion sheep who ooh and ahh over the latest runway get-ups. The neck scarves for women have been panned, but the brown-on-black shirts for guys have been given well-received. Ditto for the new baseball caps. “Next up, McBurqa's,” quipped one online commentator here in the States.

‘Church’s Chicken Names Fletcher Martin Agency of Record for Eastern U.S. Media and Print’: This was the headline of a press release that was sent to us and that you can probably find online. As a stand-alone, it’s perfectly fine. But the copy below it is an eyebrow-raiser: “Church’s Chicken, a division of AFC Enterprises, Inc…” Church’s was sold by AFC in 2004. Today, AFC’s only restaurant holding is Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, a competitor to Church’s. Since the new agency is dealing with media, it might want to clear up that error ASAP. Otherwise, it could end up being pointed out in a blog.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

It's a jungle out there

Here on the Peltz-engeti Plains, the beasts of the restaurant wilds are hitting the watering holes a bit more enthusiastically. After watching Nelson Triarcus carnivorous ruthlessly stalk its prey, the wounded Wendy red-hairus, the herd winced in horror as the predator brought down one of the kingdom’s most storied specimens. But the blood-letting didn’t end there. No sooner had Kerrii Anderson’s head been mounted than another proud denizen of the restaurant jungle find himself being measured for a spot on the lodge’s trophy wall. In a move that shocked everyone, including the prey, Craig Miller found himself at the wrong end of an angry board’s scope. He was summarily dispatched as CEO of Ruth’s Chris Steak House, a post he assumed four years after Bill Hyde had been dropped because of a vertical climb in beef costs. No wonder the beasts left standing are taking a big gulp and wondering, Who’ll be next?

Rock Bottom answered that question with the simultaneous resignations yesterday of three top executives, including CEO Ned Lidvall. The smart money says he won’t be the last chain chief to feel as if he’s in a National Geographic special, cast as the wildebeest in a study of investors’ meat-eating habits.

Worst of all, the situation isn’t purely Darwinistic. Everyone is mired in an economic swamp that has customers spending less, suppliers charging more, employees bailing for other trades, and landlords forgetting there’s a real estate glut. Even if you’re better than the competitions’ CEOs, you can still look like a prime cut of meat to an unforgiving investment pack. Outside of McDonald’s and Chipotle, the only executives who are looking fit these days are the ones who’ve dropped out of the restaurant business to work as head hunters.

Of course, if could be worse. They could be among those unfortunates who come to work one day and find a registered letter on their desks from William Ackman, Sardar Biglari or some company whose name starts with T-R-I, the mark of Nelson Peltz and the now industry equivalent of “666.” It’s one thing to pack up all your office belongings in a cardboard box and head down to HR for an exit interview. It’s another to be hounded like a wobbly gazelle trying to limp its way across the African veldt.

And it’s just a matter of time until that happens. In the announcement of its deal to takeover Wendy’s International, Arby’s parent Triarc Cos. specified that the fast-food empire formed by the chains’ merger would grow in part through acquisitions.

Not that you should feel too bad for Anderson, who’s about to be replaced as Wendy’s CEO by her counterpart at Arby’s and Triarc, Roland Smith. News reports say she’ll be paid $20 million in severance, which includes about $5 million to defray her income taxes.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Customers sound off

A rose is a rose is a rose, but restaurant customers come in ever-shifting varieties. Treat them right, even in a crisis, and they can be convincing apostles for a place or a chain, as Chipotle is learning from a consumer poll that’s being conducted on its handling of a food-safety situation. But burn ‘em and they’ll turn into town criers of a far different sort, as I was reminded by an e-mail, complete with a photo documenting the transgression, that was sent this morning by a disgruntled KFC patron.

“The picture I have attached is my first, and likely the last, purchase
 of what was supposed to be KFC's new Grilled Chicken Sandwich,” wrote Chris Donaldson of Westminster, Canada. “[It was] advertised at 
the ordering kiosk in the drive-thru as having a bulging piece of grilled
 chicken layered with a generous helping of lettuce and a slice of tomato.” Instead, Donaldson said, it looked like this:

He said he contacted KFC’s corporation operations, who put him in touch with the franchisee, who offered to give him a free sandwich the next time he’s in the area. Donaldson said he lives 30 miles from the store, and a free sandwich just isn’t enough of a draw.

“I appreciate the efforts by some fast food outlets to present a good fair-
for-the- money product, but this turn in my opinion with KFC has to be done 
properly and without ripping customers off, “ he wrote. He also lamented the chain’s discontinuation of Tender Roast non-fried chicken a few years ago.

Contrast that takeaway with the impressions consumers cited in a poll that’s being conducted by Kimberly Palmer, author of U.S. News & World Reports’ Alpha Consumer blog. The survey deals with Chipotle’s handling of a norovirus outbreak that was linked to its unit in Kent, Ohio, near the campus of Kent State. About 450 people were afflicted in the incident, according to local news reports. As we reported yesterday online, Chipotle is inviting victims to submit their medical bills for reimbursement.

“Imagine this: You go to a restaurant. The food makes you sick—so sick you need to visit the doctor,” writes Palmer. “To compensate, the restaurant offers to pay your medical bills. Does that leave you a satisfied customer?”

The posting includes an instant poll that readers can take to express their opinions of Chipotle’s response. Fifty-three percent said their sentiments were best expressed by the option, “It could have happened to any restaurant, and probably won’t happen again to Chipotle.” Another 31 percent said they’d be “a bit wary” but would eventually go back to the restaurant. Only 16 percent responded, “Medical bills or not, Mexican food would nauseate me forevermore.”

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Lucca IV: Fighting faintness

By my calculations, there were 2.7 minutes during my first day in Lucca, Italy, when I wasn’t eating or drinking. My hosts ensured such deprivation would end there by dispatching an English-speaking local to take me on a tour that afternoon of the city’s food shops and cafes. Our objective was to sample some of the delectables that are unique to the area. In true Italian style, we ended up trying most of them, though I drew the line at a local blood-and-pig’s-head sausage (at least until the next day). The experience underscored a brother’s contention that Italians could coax a delicacy out of virtually anything that walks, sprouts, flies or swims.

My guide-cum-enabler started me off slowly, suggesting we merely peer through a bakery’s window at a local specialty called torta di verdura. It looks like a green pie, and usually hits the dinner tables on religious holidays, the guide explained. I was about to suggest we give it a try when she described the ingredients: Swiss chard, maybe a little cheese, usually a few other vegetables baked into it to form a strongly flavored savory dish. There was a long pause. “It’s an acquired taste,” she remarked.

The other cake for which Lucca is known, she continued, is the buccellata, which at times looked like a giant bagel, at other times like a giant bagel whose sides are squeezed together to form a long double-tube loaf.

In what would become the pattern for our tour of gluttony, my guide suggested we give buccellata a try, and shot into a food shop. I started getting my Euros together while she chatted up the store keeper, pointing to me every four or five seconds. After awhile the proprietor brought me a dish with two slices of what looked like raisin bread, along with a tiny cup of pinkish liquid. I went to drink the liquid, but everyone in the place moved to stop me. “You dunk it,” the guide whispered. As soon as I lowered the bread into the wine—vin santo, literally holy wine—the whole place seemed to breath a sigh of relief. I realized why when I tasted the wine-soaked bread. The bread itself was mildly honeyed. But the wine could’ve sweetened a wedding cake. Downing it in a gulp might’ve put me into a sugar shock. Besides, the guide explained, vin santo typically costs five times as much as regular wines, and wasn’t to be gulped.

Not that I would have learned any prices from our tour. When I went to pay the proprietors, the guide invariably stopped me. It seems that ignorance of buccalleta or other local specialties is not to be tolerated in Lucca. And clearly I was more ignorant than most. Though we visited easily a half-dozen emporiums, each readily offered up free samples to a stranger they’d never see again. As far as I could tell, the motivation was pride. Which was why I soon found myself trying a rival establishment’s buccalleta. “It’s the best,” the proprietor confided in English. I skipped any vin santo there, still a little buzzed from the earlier sample.

But that was nothing compared with the near paralysis that set in when the guide took me to one of the city’s oldest and most famous cafes, Di Simo, which has been in business at least since 1846. The proprietor insisted we try one of the traditional local alcoholic drinks, a digestif called biadina. It’s traditionally served with several pine nuts, and local lore notes that it actually restores you twice—once with the liquid, a second time when you eat the pine nuts on the bottom of the glass. “Restores” is a carefully selected euphemism; “kicks your ass” might be a more apt descriptor. “It’s 40 percent alcohol,” the guide explained with a smile—after I’d downed a good lot of it.

We staggered out to take in some of the historical sights of the town. But a food option was never more than a few waddles away. My guide showed me several bakeries that stack trays of focaccia in front of open front-of-the-store windows so locals can grab a slice as they dash to work. But that’s as close as Lucca traditionalists come to fast food.

By the time our tour took us to one of the city’s many meat shops, further consumption would have been humanly impossible. So we merely looked at specialties like biraldo, a sausage that’s made by boiling a blood-and-scrap pork sausage for about six hours, if I understood the shopkeeper's account.

We also forewent a taste of lardo colonnata, or lard cured in a marble box. The process gives the lard a special taste, my guide explained. Locals slice the lard thin, put it atop a slice of bread, and toast the whole thing so that the lard starts to melt.

After showing restraint in the meat shops, we ended our tour at a gelateria. I was too stuffed even to taste anything, but my guide provided explicit directions as to how to get there from my hotel the next day. Which I, of course, did.

But that day of eating our way through Lucca had to end. It was almost time to get ready for dinner.

Schultz tries to foster Seattle's fortunes, too

You’d think Howard Schultz would be jittery enough without a court battle on his hands. But the Starbucks CEO filed a lawsuit Tuesday against fellow tycoon Clayton Bennett to scuttle their Seattle SuperSonics deal. Schultz agreed in 2006 to sell the pro basketball team for $350 million to a group led by the Oklahoma City financier. But when Seattle balked at building a new arena for the Sonics, Bennett alerted the National Basketball Association that he was relocating the franchise to his home town. Seattle restaurants of all stripes—including a few, presumably, in Starbucks green—have warned that the relocation would starve them of much-needed nighttime business.

Schultz may have grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but he’s loyal to his adopted hometown. He’s asked a U.S. District Court to un-do the deal because it was based on the assumption that the Sonics would remain in Starbucks’ home base. The team would still be sold, the complaint reportedly states. But Schultz would like to find an “honest buyer” who’d keep the Sonics in the only city the team has ever known, the Associated Press reported this morning.

Bennett, meanwhile, could end up as the trial lawyers’ poster child of 2008. He’s also being sued by the city of Seattle and fans who bought season tickets to the Sonics for future years.

Bennett has already agreed to give up the Seattle SuperSonics name, clearing the way for Seattle to secure another franchise. But he seems to be proceeding with his relocation plan. The NBA gave him a green light Friday to make the move, pending the outcome of his court fight with Seattle.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Lucca III: Food trends & traditions

Hearing the local purveyors tout their wares, you’d think the food trends of Lucca, Italy, were the same currents shaping menus back in the United States. The salespeople—nearly always the farmers or artisans who produced the materials—talked up the organic, healthful and gluten-free items that originated from their fields. Throw in the boasts about everything being locally sourced, processed by hand, and produced according to ancient family recipes, and you could’ve been at a food show in New York or San Francisco. Until you got to the farro beer, the chestnut liqueur, or the savory-sounding jams.

Lucca, a part of Tuscany, may be little-known in the U.S., but it’s renowned throughout Europe for its extra virgin olive oil, boutique wineries, and farro, the grain known in English-speaking countries as spelt. Locals also wax rhapsodically about the widespread local use of chestnuts, either by milling them into flour for cakes, breads or pastas, or as a flavoring.

Those items continue to be the bedrock of the local food culture. But a younger generation of producers and consumers are nudging the heritage-revering area to at least look at other ways of using traditional ingredients.

For instance, at a trade show convened for those of us who were visiting from the States, one of the local craftsmen poured samples of his newest beers. One was an extremely light, almost lager-style version made from farro and orzo, also an Italian signature. The other, he said with nearly bursting pride, was made solely with farro, something he’d been told could not be done because of the production inefficiencies.

The 100-percent farro beer, as yet even unnamed, is the same pale yellow as a wheat beer, minus the cloudiness. Indeed, it was crystal-clear, with a head “that could last for two hours,” the brewer explained through an interpreter. I swear I saw a tear forming in his eye.

The brew also has a much lower alcohol content, a mere 4 percent.

The brewer described the beer was an alternative to the darker, slightly heavier brews that Italian elders in the area might’ve sipped when they were youngsters learning the traditions of their elders.

A tour of local food shops and cafes revealed that younger Italians are indeed drinking differently than their parents did. Aperitifs, my tour guide explained, are the current rage among people in their 20s. They’ll head to the same time-steeped cafés where their grandparents might still stop by in the afternoon for a local digestif called biadina, which is served with a few pignoli thrown into the glass. The young adults descend on the places at 7 for aperitifs of one sort or another, often garnishing them with nuts, raisins or other enhancements that are arrayed in glass bowls on the bar. At 9, they head off to dinner, which of course is accompanied by wine.

A liqueur company participating in the Lucca trade show acknowledged that it’s had to make some accommodations to changing drinking habits. The buzz-phrase is “doing it for the market.” The owner cited such concessions as the introduction of a drink that tastes like dark rum, as well as a creamy limoncella and a liqueur, called Halloween, whose flavor was lost to language differences. His product line also includes a chestnut-flavored liqueur.

Several of the trade-show exhibitors featured jams of local produce—such local fruits as raspberries and currents (or what we’d know as blueberries, judging from the labels), to be sure, but also carrots, pumpkins and basil, to name just a few. Samples were given on bread, leading me to say something extremely intelligent about what a strong toast market Lucca must have. I was quickly corrected. In Lucca, one interpreter explained, persons of taste put jams and marmalades on cheese, as an alternative to using honey. Surely I must put honey on my cheese, she suggested. I couldn’t even bring myself to answer. Clearly it was yet another major setback in other cultures’ impression of America.

My shop-tour guide suggested that the jam-on-cheese phenomenon was getting a boost from another recent trend in the local dining scene. A new preoccupation has taken hold of blending salt and sweet items, like desserts flavored with balsamic vinegar, or salts used in baked items.

I could’ve been home, listening to a bunch of foodies discussing what they’ve been witnessing on the local dining scene.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Fred Turner takes McD's podium again

McDonald’s bi-annual chainwide meeting offered something a little different this year, at least for individuals who’ve logged at least 20 years with the brand. Included among the 15,000 franchisees, executives, employees and suppliers who gathered in Orlando this week for the quick-service giant’s Worldwide Convention were 1,500 people who have spent at least two decades within the system and are still logging days on the job. Another 500 are retirees. Together they constitute what the chain has dubbed—what else?—McVeterans, and they were honored for their role in building the company at a two-day, invitation-only gathering that dovetailed with the larger get-together..

According to an attendee, the turnout included several executives whose tenure dated back to the days of Ray Kroc, including former chief executives Fred Turner and Michael Quinlan. But, the attendee indicated, this wasn’t a then-vs.-now thing. The McVeterans McEvent included presentations by both Turner and current CEO Jim Skinner.

Instead, he said, it was a tribute to the folks who stoked the economic engine that just keeps chugging along.

Lucca II: A few words about green toilets

Green has been a concern for so long in Europe that it may be showing a little gray. Conservation seems to be a standard operating procedure, even in a city steeped in antiquity, like Lucca, Italy. The evidence can be as close as the nearest bathroom.

Toilets like the ones in our hotel, the San Luca Palace, have a nifty feature that must save a considerable amount of water. The flush mechanism is a two-piece touch plate on the wall. One piece is a smaller oval inset into a larger one. No instructions are given, but when you stop and wonder why the device has two components, the intent becomes apparent quickly: Touch the small oval for a lighter flush. For, um, tougher jobs where more water and flush power are needed, touch the larger part of the plate.

Here's what it looks like:

Bathrooms are not the only component of hotels and restaurants to be retrofitted with high-tech features for the sake of conservation. The hotel where we’re staying, for instance, features an impressive electricity-saving measure. When you enter a guest room, some lights will go on. If you put the card key into a slot by the door, they’ll stay on after the door closes, and you can of course turn on others, or snap on the TV. If the card key is not in the slot when the door closes, all the electricity shuts off. That, of course, means all lights will go off when the guest leaves the room with card key in hand. It’s nearly a failsafe way of guaranteeing the patron snaps off the power when he or she doesn’t need it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Taking a limoncella for the team

Ah, the things we have to do to make a living. Today, for instance, I’m sitting in Lucca, Italy, getting ready to eat and drink my way through local specialties. I’m on a tour to learn what foods and wines—and let’s not forget cigars and coffee—could be feasible for restaurants back in the States that want to differentiate their menus with authentic regional Italian cuisine. Man, what a grind.

The tour began last night with dinner at one of the city’s most historic restaurants, which is saying a lot. Among Lucca’s distinctions is the retention of a wall that was built around the city for its defense back in the time of the Roman Empire (but updated twice, most recently during the Renaissance). Our guides explained that they wanted to start off our visit with dinner at Buca di Sant’ Antonio because it features the foods they ate at the family table while growing up. These were the dishes made by their grandmothers, who in turn learned them from their grandmothers.

We were steered toward the 226-year-old restaurant’s specialties by the crackerjack staff. Meanwhile, our guides, both from companies that promote Lucca business and tourism, selected local wines. My meal started with sautéed chicken livers served with a specialty bread that had a coarser grain than usual. It had almost a nutty taste, like the nut and whole-grain breads you see in health food stores back in the States. Several of my fellow visitors tried the “pies” that were offered as antipasti—one with leeks and ricotta, the other with asparagus and ricotta. All were terrific.

My second course was a pasta and rabbit dish with a very robust sauce—one of the highlights. Something about it was very familiar, but I couldn’t quite place where I might’ve had it before. Later, one of our hosts noted that the chef of New York’s Beppe restaurant was from Lucca. I realized that’s where I’d enjoyed a similar dish, though I doubt it was made with rabbit.

My meat course consisted of roasted baby goat, with a simple accompaniment of roasted potatoes. It was delicious--juicy, flavorful, yet mild. The meat had a slight but pleasant musty flavor, like amplified dark meat turkey. It was as tender as a braised pork shank, but deeper in taste.

The meal wrapped up with a local specialty: Cookies that are made with olive oil in place of butter, lard or other shortenings. They were a bit heavy, but tasty. And just perfect with the dessert wine that our hosts chose. The wine was made with the local grechetto grape. The vintner later explained that the grapes are dried on mats for two to three months, until they’re largely dehydrated. Then the pulp is pressed, yielding a wine with extraordinary depth. The sweetness was more of a highlight than the sugary backbone of the wine. And as my wine-centric colleagues noted, it had great fruit.

The experience wiped out the surpisec we got when we saw our first restaurant in Lucca--a McDonald's.

Okay, I’d better rest up before I move to the next sampling. I’ve heard that we may actually have to heft more wine glasses this morning.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What's in Ted's garage--and hangar

It’s fitting on tax day that we remember what the titans of industry are driving these days. Take Ted Turner, for instance. The media-mogul-turned-rancher-turned-restaurateur (he’s a principal in Ted’s Montana Grill, the 55-unit bison chain) cleared up the mystery during a presentation in New York last week. “I drive a Prius, that’s my primary car,” the billionaire explained during the “green tour” he and Ted’s CEO George McKerrow, Jr., are currently undertaking to raise ecological awareness within the restaurant business.

The revelation about Ted’s wheels drew some guffaws and murmurs from the audience. This, after all, is a guy who could probably buy Ford or GM, never mind a Rolls, Bentley or Maybach.

“What’s wrong with that?” he challenged the audience when it mumbled about his choice of car.

“So what do you think when you see a Humvee on the road?” asked Deborah Roberts, the ABC News personality who moderated the appearance by Turner and McKerrow.

“Well, I have one Humvee, but I only use it for quail hunting in New Mexico,” he admitted.

Turner also revealed that he takes a cloth bag with him when he shops, so he doesn’t have to get a new plastic or paper one from the store. He also recounted how he’ll pick up litter, both in Georgia, where he sponsors the clean-up of some highways, and outside of the Ted’s unit in midtown Manhattan.

“I’ll pick up a couple pieces of trash if someone’s looking because that has double the impact,” he said. “Someone’ll say, ‘If Ted Turner can pick up trash, so can I.’”

He even noted that he’s mindful of waste when he travels. Other billionaires are buying airliner-sized craft and converting them into private planes. His plane is merely moderate in size, Turner assured what seemed like a decidedly pro-green audience.

Turner is not the only mega-rich person in the restaurant business to drive a Prius, by any stretch. A few years ago, after an industry dinner in Dallas, Norman Brinker and his wife, Toni, waited outside for the valets to bring around their ride. They, too, drove a hybrid.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A class action by any other name...

After pounding a keyboard for 29 years, I foolishly assumed the English language was no longer Greek to me. But a Baltimore litigation firm set me straight Wednesday. The statement it issued clearly states, “Brower Piven Announces the Filing of a Class Action Lawsuit Against Darden Restaurants, Inc.” To me, that means a party named Brower Piven had filed a class action lawsuit against Darden Restaurants, the operator of Red Lobster and Olive Garden. But, oh!, was my participle dangling.

Turns out, if you read further, that a lawsuit had been “commenced,” which doesn’t necessarily mean “filed” under the rules of language that are now applied to law-firm press releases. As we’ve learned in recent weeks, many are trumpeting lawsuits that are not really lawsuits, or at best not yet. The hope is to scare up plaintiffs—specifically shareholders who lost money on the would-be defendant’s stock—who might like to join a legal action when one is actually undertaken. It’s the equivalent of a chain declaring it’s bigger than McDonald’s, then muttering in an aside that it just hasn’t opened the 35,000 units yet.

The Brower Piven statement does not expressly say the lawsuit has yet to be filed, so let’s take the company’s word that the action has indeed been taken. But it seems the key figure of a lead plaintiff is still missing. “You may, no later than May 12, 2008, ask the Court to allow you to serve as lead plaintiff,” the release notes, explaining that someone who lost a bundle on Darden’s stock would have an edge.

Indeed, they’d lead the class, so to speak. Yet, the statement acknowledges, “no class has yet been certified in the above action.” Despite the statement’s headline, there’s no class-action suit.

Maybe there will be one, even by the time you read this. But the class-action suit that Brower Piven declared in its statement as being officially underway clearly wasn’t at the time, by the company’s own admission.

Plenty of companies may feel the pain of shareholder class-action suits during the present economic downturn. Language and the truth, it seems, are already being bent to that purpose.

Monday, April 07, 2008

How lemmings draft a menu

Listen: That crunch you hear is the sound of quick-service chains squashing their points of differentiation. Instead of learning from the tragic blunder of casual dining, players one click down the service spectrum are just as avidly turning their menus into clones of the competition’s line-up. If they haven’t already copycatted McDonald’s Snack Wrap, vis-à-vis Wendy’s, Sonic, and KFC, it’s only because smoothies, premium coffees and espresso-based drinks are higher on their To Develop list. And that’s after deciding how to join the discounting binge.

In the currrent environment, you can readily understand why a chain copies a sure-fire hit for someone else. But it clearly speaks to a dearth of cleverness and creativity within the sector. Instead of analyzing why a certain product appeals to consumers and then crafting an alternative that sates the same desire, even contenders with considerable marketing knowhow are merely giving a twist to what’s already selling well.

The follow-alongs are not only betting that lightning will strike twice, but leaving themselves vulnerable to the upstart that hatches a true New Idea. If a newcomer hits on the next Bloomin’ Onion, fajita, Blizzard, chicken nuggets or smoothie, the old guard is cemented into the role of hawking commodities. How much pressure on prices can a concept take when costs are squeezing margins from the other direction?

The copycats would be better served by staying attuned to what makes their concept unique and then nudging their menus in the direction in which public tastes are moving. Leapfrogging to a far afield idea just because it worked for another player is like trying to make it as a rock star by covering last week’s hits.

Friday, April 04, 2008

A different sort of Big Mac attack

Fast food is getting less respect these days than Kevin Federline’s acting abilities, even from quick-service chains themselves. Marketing campaign after marketing campaign is disparaging the fare as the sort of mass-produced plastic you won’t have to choke down at ______ (insert the name of whatever family, casual or fast-food chain is airing the ads, be it McDonald’s, Denny’s, Taco Bell, Bonanza/Ponderosa or KFC). Invariably, the spots proceed to point out that you don’t have to pay more, in time or money, for “real” food.

Much of the mud is being flung at fast-food breakfasts, which have been selling like, well, hotcakes. Denny’s current campaign blasts them explicitly as fake, unlike the true platters you’d find at the home of the Grand Slam.

McDonald’s touts its McSkillet Burrito as “a sit-down-style weekend breakfast you can eat on the go.” Translation: The real food you’d buy after church at a Denny’s, available every day via a drive-thru.

Panera Bread is bragging that its new breakfast sandwich line is a morning option “made by bakers, not microwaves.” In Tuesday’s announcement of the rollout, CEO Ron Shaich crows that “we’ve developed a hand-crafted, made-to-order grilled breakfast sandwich that literally breaks the mold.”

Chains of all stripes are equally adamant about differentiating their lunch and dinner fare from fast food. The campaign that broke Monday for Bonanza and Ponderosa touts the sister chains’ buffet specifically as an alternative to burgers and that lot. Give it a try, the promotion stresses, “because great tasting meals aren’t served in a wrapper.” It slams quick-service value meals in particular, asserting that they’re "not much of a value or a meal.” Curiously, however, the effort subtly promotes visits to a quick-service chain. The budget steak brands are inviting patrons to submit a bag or receipt from a fast-food place to get a break on the price of the buffet. Eat at a burger or fried chicken joint one day, the promotion suggests, and you can have unlimited fresh fare the next day for $5 at lunch or $8 at dinner. “This is an incredible alternative to getting lunch or dinner in a bag at a drive-thru window,” says Sheryl Randolph, senior director of marketing for the pair.

Here again, even the major fast-food brands are scrambling to showcase products you wouldn’t associate with fast food. Taco Bell describes its Fiesta Platters as “a complete real meal solution,” “the favorite dishes of a sit down Mexican meal in a convenient and portable plate.” Promotional materials also stressed the price: a mere $4.99, or probably less than you’d spend in a full-service place.

Sister concept KFC is sounding a similar tune for its new Kentucky Grilled Chicken. President Gregg Dedrick proudly cites research indications that consumers view the fast feeder's new non-fried option as a "step above fast food."

All of the initiatives echo what Carl’s Jr. did several years ago with its Six Dollar Burger, a sandwich touted as being as good as the burger you’d spend $6 to get in a casual-dining restaurant, available at just over half that price from the West Coast stalwart. You’d think it’d be the most zealous proponent of the movement. Yet the CKE Restaurant holding is one of the few quick-service burger brands not to adapt the café-caliber coffee that consumers can now find at almost every other player of size. Nor is Carl’s racing to develop the Jamba Juice-caliber smoothies you’ll soon be able to buy at fast-food places ranging from a Taco Bell to a Dairy Queen.

If Carl’s is once again astutely gauging which way the pendulum will swing, the key question could be how long fast food remains the standard against which all chains, even the brands most readily affiliated with that style of fare, are favorably gauging what they serve.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

'And why is there no Mrs. Ronald?'

This just in from the lunatic fringe: McDonald’s is promoting a homosexual agenda, if not homosexuality itself. The story may have slipped by such hack media as The New York Times, CNN and The Financial Times, but the vast left-wing conspiracy couldn’t push it past the newshounds at, otherwise known on the net as WingNutDaily.

The site—“A Free Press for a Free People”—broke the news Sunday that the chain “famed for the Golden Arches, Ronald McDonald and kids meals has signed onto a nationwide effort to promote ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ business ventures.” The story cited the incontrovertible proof: McDonald’s USA’s vice president of corporate communications, Richard Ellis, was elected to the board of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Ellis even acknowledged that he was “thrilled” to be chosen, and shared the organization’s “passion” for promoting business within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. The insinuations were clear. McDonald’s may strive to be as wholesome as American Pie and a John Birch Society picnic, but it’s secretly celebrating diversity and opportunity for all. It may even have an Obama-supporting Democrat within its executive ranks.

The story was illustrated with a picture of a poster promoting McDonald’s kids meals. It depicted a boy dressed as a pirate and a girl in princess garb, no doubt secretly listening to Melissa Etheridge tunes in the background.

The story drew a combination of disbelief and ridicule from sectors of the blogosphere where most contributors walk upright and believe the moon landing wasn’t staged in a soundset. But the knuckle-dragging forces of reaction jumped on the report as proof we’re one cross-dresser away from outlawing heterosexual marriage and weaving a pentacle into the flag.

Those of us who cover foodservice have often remarked that the industry’s overt commitment to diversity often stops short of expressly welcoming persons of all sexual orientations. McDonald’s is showing itself once again to be a leader by working with the NGLCC. It may catch heat from the black-helicopter crowd planning to build a new community in the mountains of Idaho, but it’s demonstrating how attuned to the modern world it intends to stay. No wonder its sales have remained strong while many competitors wheeze and stumble.