Friday, November 28, 2008

The battle of menu-labeling acronyms

Prior to the election, Sen. Tom Harkin's reintroduction of a menu-labeling bill would've been akin to the White House's pronouncement that a Thanksgiving turkey would be pardoned. Some symbolic gestures are just a given.

But Harkin's party will control 58 seats in the next Senate, and health is almost certain to be a major focus of the White House and Congress after the Inauguration. Interest in menu labeling has also been rising, in part because of developments on local and state levels, and partly because the restaurant industry itself is trying to avert a hodgepodge of requirements by championing a preemptive federal measure, the Labeling Education and Nutrition Act. In acronym-crazed Washington, it's being pushed as the LEAN Act.

So it was a surprise that more attention hasn't been paid to reports out of Harkin's home state of Iowa that the longtime senator is planning to revive his menu-labeling bill, the Meal Education and Labeling Act, a.k.a. the MEAL Act.

Harkin's bill would require units of chains with at least 20 stores to post the calorie, fat and sodium content for every regular menu item, either on menus or menu boards. Restaurants have opposed it because they say it does not provide enough flexibility in how the nutrition information is presented, and hence would be a crippling financial and logistical burden.

The measure, which has been introduced more often than a popular convention speaker, will be presented to the new Congress when it convenes next year, according to the SWI Iowa News. The LEAN Act has already been introduced into both houses of Capitol Hill, but proponents acknowledged that it wouldn't see any action until the new Congress convenes.

Suddenly, the LEAN Act would look like a compromise measure, enhancing its chances. But the scene certainly suggests that the chances of a labeling bill being passed have never been higher.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

News of an unfamiliar sort

What’s all this unusual restaurant stuff I’m seeing on the wires? Could it be a dusting of good news? Indeed, if it weren’t for Starbucks’ warnings about the tough slogging ahead, restaurateurs might’ve thought we’d hit a time warp to more temperate times. And not all of the hurrahs are being generated by McDonald’s.

Gift card sales are expected to ebb this holiday season because dollars are tight and no one wants to get stuck with a gift card to a bankrupt store or restaurant. Yet Cracker Barrel said its card sales are running 7.6% above last year’s tally.

Jack in the Box said its company stores in California posted positive comps for the July-through-September period.

And McDonald's, a chain whose recent performance really calls for steroids testing, is betting it can raise the price of its popular double cheeseburger by roughly 20%, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Then there’s the macro news. The Dow closed up two days in a row. Part of the $800 billion in government aid announced today includes backup for institutions that extend Small Business Administration loans, the mother’s milk of restaurant start-ups. New Jersey passed a law today that intends to help small businesses through loans and credits for newly created jobs, a potential model for other jurisdictions.

Okay, it’s not exactly a click-your-heels-three-times kind of change. But in this environment, with parallels drawn constantly to the Great Depression, anything short of dire news feels like a Mary Poppins song.

WANTED: New Pei Wei president

All of you out-of-work restaurant execs, get your resumes to Alice Elliot ASAP. Her company is handling the search for a successor to Russell Owens, who's stepping down next month as president of Pei Wei Asian Diner, the fast-casual little sister of P.F. Chang's. His resignation was announced this morning.

It's probably not a job for the faint of heart. Chang's has been taking its lumps from Wall Street, along with almost every public restaurant company. Shares are trading at roughly half the annual high of $33. And your mission, the company said, is president is "to bring Pei Wei to the next level of growth and profitability." Capital is frozen and restaurant spending is depressed by an historic degree. At least the statement didn't mention leaping tall buildings at a single bound.

You can see the official announcement here.

Monday, November 24, 2008

More kiosks to pop up at Jack in the Box

Jack in the Box hasn’t explained why it waited two years, but the frequent innovator is finally moving ahead with its kiosk ordering system. Executives told investors last week that a test of the self-service devices had been expanded to 30 of the chain’s 2,158 stores, with more locations to be identified using the test results.

Jack started tinkering with kiosks almost exactly two years ago, moving a self-ordering system into just three stores at the beginning of December 2006. Why such a long breather since then?

For one thing, executives didn’t say if the system that’s booting up for the expanded test is the same one the chain tried during rosier times.

Call me cynical, but another factor may be the tougher present-day climate, a possibility underscored by investors’ reaction to last week’s disclosure. Management broke the news during a conference call about the franchisor’s financial results for the last quarter and full fiscal year. Recent performance was good relative to the rest of the industry, but still negative, with profits declining 5% and officials warning of a further earnings retraction in the quarter underway for the company, which also franchises Qdoba fast-food restaurants.

The kiosks were mentioned during executives’ account of how they plan to counter the negative economic trend. President Linda Lang noted that orders placed via the kiosks tend to exceed the chain’s check average, an experience reported by other chains that have tried the devices.

Analysts participating in the conference call repeatedly pressed Lang and her team for more details. What operational impact did the kiosks have? (“It definitely helps with our order accuracy,” said COO Paul Schultz.) And exactly how many stores are currently offering the self-serve devices?

Another question dealt with the higher sales volumes of some newly opened Jack units. Lang’s response was not totally clear, but her comments suggested that those stores sport a kiosk as part of an updated look and layout, including a more efficient kitchen.

A run on Starbucks?

If the U.S. government can spend $20 billion for a stake in Citigroup, why shouldn’t Colombia and other coffee-growing nations invest a piddling $300 million to buy a controlling interest in Starbucks? That’s the notion that was aired yesterday, apparently in all seriousness, by the director of the National Federation of Coffee Growers, according to a Reuters report.

Gabriel Silva reportedly explained to the Latino newspaper El Tiempo that the purchase would be a way of seizing the U.S. coffee pipeline and thereby ensuring it’s filled with members’ brews, presumably at an attractive price. The move would merely be a dash of vertical integration sprinkled with some emerging-world socialism.

But there’s of course one big, big problem: $300 million, the high end of what Silva estimated would be needed to secure control of Starbucks, probably wouldn’t cover some patrons’ latte bills. Even in a depressed stock market, the coffee chain’s market cap is hovering around $6 billion.

Perhaps Silva’s federation could team up with the biscotti bloc and make a real run on the company.

How McD's lost Phelps to Subway

Michael Phelps volunteered throughout his domination of Olympics coverage that he was a diehard McDonald's fan. Now he's signed on as a pitchman for the arch-rival Subway chain. How did the Golden Arches miss a chance to enlist the Man of Gold in its marketing efforts? A perception of health apparently appeals to more than the weekend-warrior set. See Advertising Age's full explanation.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tom Colicchio's slam dunk

Chef Tom Colicchio seems to have discovered a form of kryptonite against the irresistible forces of recession. His idea of turning space within his celebrated Craft into a two-days-a-month private restaurant where he does the cooking has only been put to the test three times. But the 32-seat restaurant-within-a-restaurant is selling out “five or 10 minutes” after the reservations blackout is lifted for upcoming dinners, Colicchio said today on theCBS News program Sunday Morning. That’s at a fixed price of $125 to $175 per person, excluding wine and other beverages.

On the night when the CBS camera crew dropped in, Colicchio was getting the full $175 a head. That’s $5,600 on a fall Tuesday, just for the food.

The former Grammercy Tavern chef and partner explained that there are people in New York who’ll always have that kind of money. And, he asserted, they’re actually getting a value for what they’re paying.

The special service is called Tom: Tuesday Dinner, and is offered every other Tuesday. Given the success of the program, the Rolls Royce set will soon have its pick of high-ticket meals offered on a limited basis by celebrity chefs.

Since we last met...

Sorry if I sound a little rusty. Since Nation’s Restaurant News laid me off Tuesday, I’ve not been blogging, at least about the restaurant business (though I have been doodling about my new status at Pink-slipped). I figured I’d clear some of the cobwebs by offering a few observations about the industry’s week that was:

Pretty soon T.G.I. Friday’s is going to start giving away living room sets with every meal you order. The casual chain’s frequent-guest program, Give Me More Stripes, started out with the usual bonuses for heavy traffic. Then it tried to sweeten the deal by throwing a free helping of chips and dip into the mix. Now the sector’s granddaddy is adding the whipped cream of a free dessert to any card carrier who visits a unit next weekend and buys an entree. I’m holding out for a steak-knives offer.

Taco Bell president Greg Creed has cajones bellgrande. First the chain proves it’s a badass by dissing 50 Cent. Last summer it suggested the mega-star reprise a Chihuahua’s role by serving as an unlikely pitchman for the Bell. Change your name to 79 Cent, 89 Cent or 99 Cent, the home office publicly offered, and we might be able to come through with bling-bling—a $10,000 payment to the charity of your choice [Thugs Without Bullets, perhaps? Teeth Grills for the Disadvantaged?). The proposal was put forth just as Taco Bell was rolling out a new value menu, an event that may not have snagged much publicity on its own. But Taco Bell tweaking a nasty mother like 50 Cent? Big news, dog.

50 Cent, the only rapper whose music I refuse to let my wife play when I’m in the car, responded with a lawsuit. He may try hard (and convincingly) to come off as a gangsta in the hood, but he’s a brilliant businessman who’s not going to let his name be used gratis as part of a publicity ploy.

Taco Bell should’ve been grateful that the response wasn’t a drive-by. But instead of dropping the matter, it filed a blistering defense that accused the Gangsta Formerly Known as Curtis James Jackson III of not being able to take a joke.

Indeed, the Sept. 19 court filing, brought to light yesterday by the gossip site TMZ was one big bitch-slap (Fast Company called it “counter-blathering.”) Taco Bell alleged in its filed response that 50 Cent nee Jackson “has a well-publicized track record of making threats, starting feuds and filing lawsuits,” and that his suit was merely an attempt to “burnish his gangsta rapper persona.”

“Instead of responding to Taco Bell's sincere offer in the friendly and humorous spirit in which it was issued,” the suit reads, “Jackson launched an aggressive, offensive attack on Taco Bell in the press. In a heavily publicized sound bite, Jackson threatened legal action against Taco Bell stating, "When my legal team is finished with them, Taco Bell is going to have a new
corporate slogan: 'We messed with the bull and got the horns.'"

The filing—technically an “affirmative defense”--disputes or denies each on of 50 Cents’ assertions in turn. It then asks the court hearing the action to dismiss it and make the the rapper pay Taco Bell’s legal fees.

A heads up to Creed: Remember Tupac, my man.

Just think ‘pizza’ and your delivery order will be placed. Maybe we’re not there yet, but the major delivery chains are certainly inching closer to that Isaac Asimov-ian vision. Domino’s, a leader in online ordering, added the option last week of letting TiVo users put in for a pie via the set-top box. Papa John’s announced that it would try to protect IM fanatics from malnutrition by allowing them to buy a delivered pizza without leaving Facebook, an option that Pizza Hut started added in mid-Oct.

So, let us review. Want to order a pizza? You can now do it via your phone (cell or landline), computer, Facebook account, TiVo, video game, or text-messaging capability.

My money’s on Pizza Hut as the first to accept brainwave orders. The chain should just hope it doesn’t intercept any that were beamed by 50 Cent at its sister brand.