Monday, May 19, 2008

Miscellaneous stuff I learned at the NRA show

The National Restaurant Association’s annual convention abounds in educational sessions, including 14 on green issues alone. But many of the revelations come elsewhere, as these minor gems attest:

Who said restaurants don’t offer health insurance? Oh, sure, you may find an operator here or there that takes a progressive stance on benefits, and there’s always Starbucks, the exception that ostensibly proved the rule. But few people in the general public—much less those in the industry—would expect to find health coverage available from the mega-sized quick-service chains, where the size, turnover and young age of the workforce presumably pushed the benefit beyond the point of feasibility. Not so, McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner revealed in his address to convention attendees this afternoon. All 9,000 of the franchisor’s company-operated restaurants now provide employees with access to coverage. But, Skinner acknowledged in one of several surprising flashes of candor, “it’s available, but not necessarily affordable.” He seemed to suggest that affordable health coverage is one of the goals the industry should pursue in collaboration, instead of each operation scrabbling in isolation. More on that in a later post.

New fruits are ready to drop on the U.S. market. You never know who you’ll see or hear among the tens of thousands who attend the restaurant show. Who, for instance, would have expected to catch a cameo appearance by New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States at the NRA’s board meeting? Yet there was Roy Ferguson (are you supposed to put an “Honorable” or something before his name?), talking about the efforts underway in his country to provide American restaurants with delectable new choices. Among the bunch, Ferguson said, are new fruits like the kiwi berry, a kiwi that could be eaten without being peeled.

But that’s not the only new fruit heading to the States. Tonight a group of us from Nation’s Restaurant News visited the Chicago outpost of Sushi Samba, the popular fusion-cuisine concept from New York. The concept’s Joanna Cisowska mentioned that the restaurant is participating in a Brazilian food festival, a first-of-its-kind event in the city that was scheduled to coincide with the convention. The festival is aimed not at consumers but at American restaurateurs who are visiting Chicago for the show. The government of Brazil hopes to promote the foods of that nation to restaurateurs from all over our country. Among the items they’ll be invited to sample is a fruit called cupacu, which Cisowska described as a new “super-fruit” that could be as warmly embraced by the health-conscious as acai. At the end of the meal, we were surprised with desserts that were made with cupacu, a purple puree that contrasted beautifully with the tapioca below it. Apparently it’s hardly a novelty in its native land.

Pasta prices are hard to hedge. Bakers can try to temper the spike in wheat costs by locking into long-term contracts or otherwise striving to hedge against the inflation. Not so with duram wheat, the sort that’s by pasta makers, a supplier explained. The market for that variation is purely transactional—buy what’s available at whatever price you can, without the benefit of long-term deals. He also revealed that the price of the wheat appears to have topped out.

James Brown has a following on the NRA board. Association director and Golden Corral chief executive Ted Fowler once described the board as “stale, male and pale,” Multicultural Outreach Committee chairman Daniel Halpern revealed to his fellow directors in explaining why his committee had been launched several years ago. Now, Halpern said, the diversification push is bringing results, though the board can’t let up in that effort. The situation, he said, brings to mind the words of “the poet James Brown: ‘I’m not asking you to give me anything. Just open the door and I’ll get it on my own.’” Get down, y’all.

Vegas hookers will run you $250 an hour. That nugget was overheard on the hotel shuttle bus from the convention hall. The speaker was apparently enlightening a less-worldly compatriot who mistakenly thought Sin City was all about gambling, shows, and eating the food of famous chefs. The forced listener looked as if he’d have paid $250 at that moment for a can of Lysol. Given the look of the speaker, he must have had a coupon to get the rate he cited.

Elephant & Castle has the best meatloaf in Chicago. Overheard during that same bus trip.

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