Saturday, January 31, 2009

Culinary preservation--or gastronomic racism?

In April, I was invited to Italy for a primer on the food, wines and beers of Lucca, a Tuscan city striving to preserve the culinary traditions that have flourished within the medieval era walls encircling its core. The difficulty of the task was illustrated by the first restaurant our group saw within Lucca proper: A McDonald’s.

It was no surprise, then, to read this week that city officials have taken the controversial step of forbidding the opening of any restaurant within the walled-off area that does not feature Italian food. The leaders also want a recommendation that the menu of all new restaurants include local specialties like faro or savory pumpkin jam (usually served on cheese, not bread).

The move has been assailed by some as culinary chauvinism, by others as a hopeless effort to freeze time. That McDonald’s, after all, was noticeably busy, despite a fall-off in U.S. tourism because of the dollar’s weakness against the Euro. A considerable portion of traffic was presumably coming from locals.

Even the government of Tuscany, the city’s host province, reportedly condemned the move as “gastronomic or culinary racism.”

But you can’t fault the city’s leaders for trying to preserve foods and preparations that are as much a part of local heritage as the ancient walls for which Lucca is known worldwide. Few would dispute that a town or city has the right to govern architectural styles, building heights, commercial development or the destruction of historical facilities. New York has even legislated what some restaurants have to put on their menus (i.e., calorie information). Why not type of restaurant?

Maybe I’m just biased. It’s been more than nine months since I’ve some decent faro doused in true extra virgin olive oil from the Tuscan hills outside Lucca.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Fast-food zen: Think small for bigger checks

The big burger chains are going small so their tabs can grow larger. Let me explain, Grasshopper.

With Jack in the Box joining Burger King, McDonald’s and Hardee’s in experimenting with mini-burgers, already a staple in casual dining, the era of what McDonald’s calls the “fourth tier” may be the upon us. Value menus bring in the bargain hunters. Premium offers are targeted at those sports who might spring for something special, like BK’s premium-priced Angry Whopper. Sandwiched between those pricing strata are the chain’s workhorse options, like burgers and chicken sandwiches.

Now comes the fourth tier of sliders, as (we) aficionados call the mini-burgers. Last year, with the phenomenal success of its Snack Wraps, McDonald’s demonstrated that deal shoppers would pop for a few cents more if the trade-up landed an even better bargain than the cheap eats on the dollar menu.

The mini sandwiches, which are often sold in packs, carry that strategy a step farther. McDonald’s Snack Wraps and the knock-offs that followed were all priced around $1.29. Burger King has priced its BK Burger Shots at $1.49, for a pack of two.

Jack in the Box is similarly selling its new Mini Sirloin Burgers in a three-pack.

McDonald’s Little Tasters are apparently sold one at a time. But they feature such premium touches as being served on a mini-ciabatta roll. The chain hasn’t revealed the pricing to those of us on this side of the pond.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder when Wendy’s will fire up a slider experiment of its own. The chain is certainly no stranger to minis. In the late 1980s, it tested a 2-oz. option called the Hot ‘n Junior. Might we see a reprise?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mich. hospital's Rx for ill economy: New culinary slant

In Michigan, where unemployment has already topped 10%, chefs, culinary educators and a hospital are collaborating on a project the Obama Administration should unabashedly steal and duplicate. It creates jobs, bolsters health, provides a new career path for displaced blue-collar workers, and meets a demand that will undoubtedly soar as the Baby Boomers age. They’ve started the first culinary school that’s devoted to teaching students how to prepare healthy hospital fare.

This is no Birkenstock & Yogurt U. The center is an initiative of the Detroit area’s new Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, which functions in part on the principle that food is essential to health. Left unasked is the question, Why doesn’t it get more attention from the healthcare industry?

The center, which is slated to open in March, will reportedly take such steps as providing healthy cooking classes to patients, with demos provided by chefs. The foodservice will be provided by local but nationally renowned restaurateur Matt Prentice. When I interviewed Prentice last year for a Nation’s Restaurant News story, he explained that he felt obliged to do something about healthcare feeding after a teenaged daughter was hospitalized. The food, he stressed, was abysmal.

Prentice told The Detroit News that his patient, staff and visitor feeding operations will feature organic and natural fare, without a fryer in the facility. He also noted that halal, kosher, gluten-free and vegetarian meals will be readily offered.

The News story notes that a culinary school, run in cooperation with Schoolcraft College in nearby Livonia, will be part of the 80-acre complex. “This will bring additional revenue to the area as students from across the country will come to spend a week learning about this new industry of healthy hospital food,” Gerard van Grinsven, the Ritz-Carlton Hotels alumnus who serves as Henry Ford CEO, told the News.

Other culinary schools might disagree, noting that their courses provided the know-how to provide healthy hospital fare. Many could likely cite alumni who now work in healthcare feeding.

But the Ford program may be the only one that focuses not only on hospital fare, but healthy hospital food.

And it’s certainly the only one that was conceived in part to help Michigan’s beat-down economy, where conditions have been recessionary since long before Washington, D.C., started thinking about bail-out packages.

It may be a much-needed bright spot in an otherwise grim situation.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

BK is 'brandjacked'

The Twitter voice of Burger King, it turns out, was a fake. A wag named Caleb Kramer acknowledged on his blog today that he'd "brandjacked" the chain's kingly icon and posed as a true spokesperson for the fast-food giant through his posts as theBKlounge.

Full disclosure: I was one of the people who were taken in.

At least I wasn't alone. TheBKlounge has 1,500 people who "follow" it, or receive every message that is posted under that name. Often, the posts sounded as if they might've really come from BK's Miami headquarters. There was the cease-and-desist controversy, for instance, where theBKlounge sent a tongue-in-cheek notice to a Twitter denizen called WhopperVirgin to stop using that name. The MTV humor in the back-and-forth seemed to perfectly fit the off-beat approach BK has taken in its real marketing efforts.

In 'fessing up today, Kramer noted that he'd garnered press around the world. He explains how he familiarized himself with the brand's advertising and posted accordingly. Needless to say, it was a convincing performance.

What's left unanswered is why BK let him continue the ruse for two months. Maybe there was some behind-the-scenes communications with lawyers that Kramer has yet to disclose.

NYC's next food crusade: salt

Last fall, officials of the restaurant and food processing industries were invited by feared New York City health commissioner Thomas Frieden to a meeting about salt consumption. Or at least that’s all we keyboard jockeys were able to learn at the time. Frieden’s office would neither confirm nor deny that such a get-together was even happening, never mind the content. Nor would suspected participants acknowledge whether or not they were part of the confab. It was completely hush-hush, which of course usually means something big is developing.

Yesterday’s New York Times finally cleared up all of the mystery-- except why there was such intrigue in the first place. It also included the bombshell that restaurant-chain executives will be summoned to Gracie Mansion next month for another salt-focused luncheon.

The story recounted how Frieden told participants that he wanted them to cut the salt in their most popular and sodium-rich foods by 25% in the next five years, and by another quarter in the succeeding five years. As Frieden readily admitted to the Times, failure to heed the the “suggestion” could prompt the city to seek “legislation.”

The latter is in quotes because it usually signifies action by a legislature. But in New York’s case, Friedan has enacted restaurant-related laws by fiat. The city became the first municipality in the country to mandate calorie disclosures for all standard chain menu items, a requirement put on the books by the health department's decree. California, several Pacific Northwest counties and a number of municipalities have since copied that model--and sometimes the mode of enactment. Health departments have become lawmakers.

Frieden was also the instigator of the city’s trans-fat ban, another model for areas from coast to coast. This is not a man who poses idle threats.

That may be evident in the subsequent actions of several fast-food giants. Yum! Brands, the parent of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, noted last month that it’s cutting back on the sodium in its food. And Burger King said it’d switch to low-sodium items for its kids meals.

When Frieden convened the October luncheon, I was still at Nation’s Restaurant News, and we were able to confirm that restaurant-industry officials were part of the gathering. The February session will apparently include restaurant chiefs, not the association executives who were invited in the fall.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More weirdness from Burger King

Burger King's Twitter voice, theBKLounge, has just posted three cryptic indications that whoever pens the social media contributions may be passing the quill to a new author. Yet, taken another way, the messages could be a pssst that The King may be backing away from his figurehead duties, clearing the way for a new icon.

"The next King will be chosen by democratic means," says the most recent post. "The mask will be passed as well," says the one that proceeded it. "Tomorrow is the big day. I will begin the process of stepping down from the Twitter throne and preparing it for my heir."

This could be one of those instances where that mystery-speak makes sense to a younger person who adores The King. To those of us who find him sort of creepy, it's just puzzling.

Maybe the chain has decided that a wooden-faced, middle-aged king isn't the best icon to represent the chain within the popular social networking phenomenon. There is a King, Jr., after all.

A quick review of other fast-food chain icons: Wendy's, using the name 3conomics, features a Wendy with a monkey. Hardee's and Carl's Jr. both use their stylized names with the Famous Star logo. Taco Bell hasn't posted in so long that I suspect Gidget the Chihuahua spokes-dog might've been the image that was used.

In any case, The King says he'll clear up the mystery tomorrow. Be sure to watch CNN.

BK's newest weird promo

Burger King's latest viral marketing campaign seems to be a quiet tie-in with the new Steve Martin movie, "Pink Panther 2: Inspect the Unexpected." The chain is apparently giving away 30 pendants studded with diamonds and pink sapphires, though it's unclear how patrons can try to snag one. Indeed, the whole program seems tougher to figure out than Inspector Clousseau's English.

Twitterer OhThatLaura! asked BK's "voice" on the social networking site, TheBKLounge, if the rumored giveaway was real or cyber myth. TheBKLounge cited a blog post indicating that the promotion is being touted in a women's magazine.

As blogger Lisa Paladino suggested, even an advanced Google search doesn't turn up any info about the giveaway, which is supposed to run for a 30-day stretch beginning Sunday. But that's normal for these sorts of hush-hush campaigns. Indeed, a big part of their buzz seems to come from the secretiveness.

Oh, no--I'm a BK pawn again.

Monday, January 26, 2009

McDonald's new sliders

Burger King tried out a slider in Great Britain before adding one on this side of the Atlantic. Is McDonald’s doing the same?

The burger giant’s U.K. outlets recently added two of the mini sandwiches: Little Tasters, or smaller-sized cheeseburgers served on a mini ciabatta bun, and the Little Italian, the same thing but with a sausage patty replacing the hamburger patty. Prices aren’t listed on McD’s website for the U.K., but you can get the rest of the lowdown here.

McDonald’s Corp. CEO Jim Skinner cited the Little Tasters as a “fourth tier” to the chain’s menu, sandwiched price-wise between bargain items and core selections like full-sized single burgers (the other tier apparently consists of premium-priced choices.) He cited the additional example of a new product marketed in France, the Petite du Jour.

As Restaurant Reality Check reported earlier, Burger King’s U.K. stores started selling a multiple slider meal in May 2008 called the Angus 6 Pack. Last month, another type of slider, called BK Burger Shots, was introduced in some U.S. stores. Two Shots are sold as one order, for $1.49.

In a conference call today with financial analysts, McDonald’s officials didn’t say if the sliders now available in Great Britain might show up on this side of the pond. But Skinner noted that about 75% of units in Europe are now outfitted with a kitchen package called the Bridge Operating Platform. One of the new set-up’s strengthens, Skinner noted, is its capability of producing a wider array of products.

A Super Bowl surrender

Attention, Pittsburgh-area residents who don't follow football: All three of you could be in for a surprise this Sunday. In honor of the hometown team's appearance in the Super Bowl. the Eat 'n Park chain will be closing all of its restaurants as of 3 p.m.

Ostensibly, the outlets are being shuttered to give employees a chance to root for the Steelers, who are expected to turn the Arizona Cardinals into salsa. But the home office has admitted that past experience figures into the decision. When the team beat the Seattle Seahawks in the 2006 Bowl, the chain couldn't give away its signature Smiley cookies. Everyone was home wolfing down chicken wings, pizza and nachos, leaving seats empty and staffs twiddling their thumbs.

Press reports note that Eat 'n Park seldom closes its restaurants for anything less than a major holiday like Christmas. But what's a major cultural and religious holiday compared with Steelers football?

A news sampler to start the week

The last few days brought a number of interesting yet little-noticed developments within the restaurant industry. Taken separately, they’re mere curiosities. But as connected dots, they form a picture of how the business is changing with brutal times.

Gordon Ramsay said to be in financial trouble: The New York Post reported Sunday that stardom hasn’t shielded the ill-tempered chef from the economic free-fall. Foxtrot Oscar, his celebrated London restaurant, is now closed two days a week, and two of his other eateries there are rumored to be for sale, though Ramsay insists he’s not looking for a buyer, according to the tabloid.

“21” loosens its dress code: The famed New York playground of the rich and wrinkled has reportedly dropped the requirement that men wear neckties at dinner. Spats, however, are still recommended. Okay, I made that last point up. But the tie rule was equally as outmoded. Most old-guard restaurants would let you dine buck naked these days to put a butt in a seat. What’s covering said butt shouldn’t matter in an economic situation as dire as the present. It’s enough to make you fall off your polo pony—which, by the way, can no longer be valet-parked.

No more lunches for Boston’s Locke-Ober: The Beantown landmark has been keeping its doors shut until dinner since Jan. 1, but even a hometown newspaper didn’t notice until last week. That may explain why the service was discontinued. But it must’ve been a monocle-dropper to all the old Brahmins and blue hairs who’d been lunching there since the riffraff and nouveau riche started showing up. Where can a guy in tie and spats eat comfortably in a big city these days?

Pigall’s nee Maisonette fires down its ovens: The lone restaurant in the heart of the Midwest to earn a four-star Mobile rating has thrown in the napkin. Jean-Robert at Pigall’s, the Cincinnati restaurant that replaced the city’s famous Maisonette, is reportedly closing Feb. 28 because of strife among its partners and weak finances, which seem to go hand-in-hand these days. As a local newspaper notes, the announcement came on the same day the place was awarded its fifth four-star designation from the Mobile dining guide. It was reportedly the only eatery in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky to earn that lofty assessment. The closing speaks volumes about the state of fine dining outside the coastal enclaves that serve an international trade.

Gladstone’s to open in LAX: A riff on the mega-volume Malibu landmark is scheduled to be unveiled on Thursday in Los Angeles’ Marquis de Sade-sanctioned airport. The outlet will be run by contract feeder HMSHost Corp., which is also operating a La Brea bakery inside LAX, whose lone redeeming quality is being only a shuttlebus away from an In-N-Out.

Brinker’s in-store gift-card sales tanked: Not all of last week’s news tidbits were cooked up by independents. The parent of Maggiano’s and On The Border told investors last week that its workhorse Chili’s brand suffered a 14% drop in sales of gift cards within the chain’s restaurants.

The impact was tempered, CEO Doug Brooks explained, by year-over-year increases in sales of the cards by retailers and other third parties. A major factor for the in-store decline, Brooks said, was the discontinuation of a “bounce-back” deal--exactly like the ones countless other chains adopted this year. Persons buying a card were given a $5 credit, a sort of commission, that they could redeem during a later visit.

Brinker determined that the incremental business wasn’t worth the give-away. So it dropped the deal for 2008—a year marked by the availability of similar come-ons from other chains.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A dog day afternoon for Taco Bell

Shakespeare probably isn't the best starting point for canine thespian training, but my dogs are going to cash in while the market's ripe. Actually, they're more interested in scouring the carpet for unvacuumed treat crumbs. But after reading that Taco Bell has to pay $42 million to the originators of a spokes-dog's gig for Gidget the Chihuahua, I've turned into Joan Crawford. Lindsay Lohan's parents have nothing over me.

In case you were out walking your pooch, here's what happened.

Back in the late 1990s, Taco Bell ran a series of commercials featuring a beret-clad Gidget speaking in a heavily accented male voice. The dog would wax rhapsodically about Taco bell's fare, then conclude with a tagline that became part of the popular lexicon: Yo quiero Taco Bell.

By all accounts, the spot was a huge hit, and Gidget became a pop icon.

But two cartoon makers from Michigan came forward and accused Taco Bell of stealing their idea for a "psycho Chihuahua." In Taco Bell's defense, the dog never seemed that imbalanced to me, if you discount the beret and the fact it spoke.

But a jury and federal judge agreed with the pair of plaintiffs, ordering Taco Bell in 2003 to pay them $42 million in restitution. The fast-food chain countered by saying the award should be footed by the agency that created the Chihuahua commercials, which were reportedly part of a $500-million ad campaign. It sued the agency for the $42 million.

On Friday, a federal appeals court ruled that Taco Bell, not its agency, had to cut the check.

There's no word yet on how much will end up in Gidget's account.

Okay, back to coaching my lazy flea bags on "Richard III." But I fear what they really want is to direct.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

More sweeping layoffs at Starbucks?

As many as a third of the Starbucks employees who survived earlier job cuts could be pink-slipped within the next few weeks, according to a story in Friday's edition of the Seattle Times.

The report, based on a financial analyst's comments, has not been confirmed or denied by the coffee company. But it stoked a lively conversation on, a website used by employees to compare notes (and often scouted by keyboard jockeys for news yet to be released by the home office). A number of posts express relief that in-store employees will be spared in this cutback (after having their ranks thinned by the elimination of 2,000 jobs and the closure of more than 600 stores last year). But many lament an asserted fall-off in service in the shops, attributing it to earlier cuts, a too-rapid staffing-up at some units around the holiday, and a spike in traffic that aggravated the situation.

The news follows the disclosure last week that Howard Schultz was not paying himself and fellow top executives a bonus for a second straight year, and had rolled back his salary by 8.5%. That dropped his compensation for the nightmarish year to a mere $9.7 million. Cue the violins.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Another kid-related caper

Authorities are searching for a flimflam man in South Carolina who wheedles money out of restaurants by claiming they ignored warnings about a son's food allergy, according to media reports from the Greenville area of the state. He apparently puts up enough of a stink to wrest a "refund" from a place even if he can't produce a receipt. A McDonald's, for instance, reportedly gave the con artist $22 to halt a tantrum about onions being left on the boy's burger despite a heads-up the kid can't eat them.

Curiously, that refund covered two Big Macs, two Quarter Pounders, four orders of fries and four soft drinks, so the boy must be a big eater. Even more astounding was the $58 the man claimed he was due from a hospital because its cafeteria served the kid something with onions. The grifter said the lad took ill, and the money was needed to cover an allergy shot.

Hospitals tend to notice someone who looks as if they're going into anaphylactic shock. And cafeteria employees reportedly said that they hadn't had a tab over $20 on the day of the purported incident. So clearly audacity has more to do with the scam's success than reason or plausibility.

The reports do not mention a boy actually accompanying the man. But, just to increase the chances of nabbing the con man, authorities should be on the lookout for someone accompanied by a very fat kid.

The kid stays in the scam

A child is being enlisted to con a few dollars at a time from restaurant patrons in central Ohio, the Akron Beacon Journal’s Bob Dyer reported in a recent column.

The enlistment of a “sad little girl,” in the words of one witness, may be a twist, but the scam is an old one. Someone central casting might’ve picked to play an affable next-door neighbor approaches people inside the restaurant with a confession. Somehow he left his cash and credit cards home, and now he’s stuck miles away with an empty tank and no way of putting gas in the car. If you’d forward him a few bucks, he could get the kid home and then drop a check in the mail. Could you help him out of an embarrassing pickle?

“Plenty of local restaurants apparently have been donating,” Dyer notes.

He recounts that a local first came across the grifters—a middle-aged man and the girl—at a Red Lobster. Then he saw them at a Mexican restaurant, and later at a mall. Acquaintances, according to Dyer’s source, had seen a slight variation in other restaurants.

There was no explanation as to why the restaurants would allow the con man to work their clientele. Presumably the bite was put on patrons as they waited for a table, or when they entered or exited the place.

The ruse is so common in New York that I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s like fending off the people handing out promotional flyers on the sidewalks. Our practitioners typically position themselves outside a subway station or inside our two main train stations, Penn and Grand Central. In my experience, they usually look as if they’re in their late teens or early 20s, and present themselves as college students. They were heading home, they explained, when they stupidly spent some of their fare money without thinking. Once, it was on a beer at a T.G.I. Friday’s in Penn Station—“I didn’t realize how expensive things are in New York.” Usually, it was to get something to eat.

In any case, couldn’t I help them out with 50 cents, or maybe $1.49? The biggest request I’ve ever heard was $2.

I always politely tell them, “Hey, I know the scam,” or sometimes, “I saw you here yesterday saying the same thing.” It’s amazing to me that they just nod and move on, stepping out of character for a split second before putting the bite on someone else.

You can read about more restaurant scams here and here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

New trend in marketing: Flipping lawyers the bird

Another day, another restaurant commercial that plays off a cease-and-desist letter. This one has Domino’s CEO David Brandon refusing to comply with a directive from lawyers for Subway, whose sandwiches fared poorly in taste comparisons with the pizza chain’s new oven-baked subs. The new spot shows Brandon incinerating the demand that his chain stop airing commercials based on the taste tests. Fittingly, he uses one of the ovens in which the new Domino’s subs are baked.

“This is as much fun as a good, old-fashioned school cafeteria food fight,” Brandon declares in a statement, even though you can sense he’s never tossed a hotdog or flung a dish of Jello in his life. I’d bet his idea of high school hijinks was reading in bad light.

But you have to give him (or his PR person) credit for adding, “I think I did what any red-blooded American always wants to do with a letter from a lawyer: burn it to a crisp.”

Indeed, rebellion against lawyers is very “in” in restaurant marketing right now. Yesterday brought Captain D’s new anti-C-and-D spot, where a spokesman shreds a cease-and-desist communication from counselors for Darden Restaurants, parent of the Red Lobster sit-down seafood chain. Captain D’s has been featuring Lobster patrons in a spot that unfavorably compares the full-service chain’s value to what’s offered at the smaller fast-food operation. The ad, like the new commercial that shows the letter being destroyed, is shot in front of a Red Lobster.

Like Captain D’s, Domino’s is refusing to pull its comparative spots, which assert that consumers preferred its sandwiches 2-to-1 over Subway’s specialties in a taste comparison.

If this keeps up, lawyers are going to start levying a creative-services fee. And then sue if they don't get it.

Subway has not yet publicly responded to the new Domino's commercials, which started airing last night on "American Idol."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Splash fight!!!

After rankling Red Lobster by telling its patrons they’re wasting money, the Captain D’s fast-food chain is kicking more sand in the full-service giant’s face. It announced today that it’s defying a cease and desist letter issued by the larger chain’s parent, the mega-sized Darden Restaurants Inc., to halt a commercial that enlists Red Lobster customers in a slam of the brand’s higher prices.

Captain D’s even set up a website,, to rub it in—and ride whatever publicity it can generate with the David-versus-Goliath ploy. The webpage promises a “I refuse to cease and desist” T-shirt to the first 1,000 visitors who register their sympathies with Captain D’s.

“All we wanted to do was show that you could get delicious sit-down quality seafood at a much lower price,” says the star of a video on the site. The spokesman then rips up a copy of the letter. Throughout the video, he’s standing in front of a Red Lobster.

The crux of the dispute is a commercial where the same Captain D’s spokesman intercepts people as they come out of a Red Lobster. He invites them to a nearby screened-off area where they’re shown what they could’ve gotten at Captain D’s for what they just paid at Red Lobster. The people are invited to taste the platters spread before them. “That’s the same thing we just ate,” said one of the Red Lobster customers, pointing to the unit behind him.

Captain D’s doesn’t mention that it refused to participate in a review of the commercial by the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau, a step requested on the basis of Darden’s objections. The full-service giant pointed out to NAD that the spot cites what the patrons paid in total at the Red Lobster, including taxes, beverages and tips. Those additional charges aren’t factored into what Captain D’s asserts the Red Lobster customers could’ve gotten at the quick-service chain for the same tab.

The NAD reportedly referred the matter late last year to the Federal Trade Commission.

Captain D’s is a holding of Sagittarius Brands, which also owns Del Taco.

How to lower start-up costs, learn prison feeding

Hard times foster a sharp upswing in scams, as earlier posts attest. The cons are usually plotted to fleece restaurants, often of a few dollars at a time. But a couple in suburban Chicago were jailed yesterday for allegedly grifting hundreds of thousands for the benefit of the restaurants they formerly operated, according to local media reports.

The pair was accused of falsely reporting that their former Bolingbrook, IL, restaurant, Escapades, had been robbed of its furniture, fixtures and equipment. The apparent ruse wasn’t discovered for a long stretch, enabling James Karonis and Denise Fardelos to wrest a payout from their insurance company, according to the news reports.

Then, the reports say, the pair opened a restaurant in North Aurora called The Wild Orchid. Authorities must’ve been suspicious, because they reportedly raided the place and found it outfitted with the items that had been “stolen” from Escapades.

The two were charged last May but allowed to remain free. They were brought into county jail yesterday.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Restaurant Week to become Restaurant Month?

The organizers of New York City's popular (and much-copied) Restaurant Week promotion are considering an extension of the special-price offer through February, according to a report in Crain's New York.

The conversion of Restaurant Week into what amounts to Restaurant Month Plus would follow the less-ambitious extension of the deal to Sundays, a first this year.

The promotion is intended to give consumers a chance to try the city's high-end restaurants at bargain prices of $24.07 for a three-course lunch and $35 for dinner. It's held twice year, in the traditionally slow stretches of late January and mid-summer.

Restaurant Week is already a misnomer for the citywide deal, which is offered by more than 200 restaurants and cooperatively promoted. This year's winter session began Sunday and runs through Friday. It lifts on Friday and Saturday, then resumes on Sunday for another five-day run.

Crain's source for the story was Tracy Nieporent, who runs Myriad Restaurant Group in partnership with his brother Drew.

More important than restaurants

In my 51 years, I’ve squirreled away a few items as touchstones for important moments in history.

I have a notice that was mass-mailed to parents around 1960, letting them when and where they could get free polio vaccines for their kids.

There’s a Kennedy silver dollar, given to me by a family friend as a reminder of how our hopes soared and crashed.

I kept my draft card, along with the Marine Corps collar insignias a former brother-in-law wore in Vietnam. There’s a cassette recording of Nixon’s resignation speech, captured on an old Panasonic. And I have the explanatory pamphlet that was sent to every American home in the 1980s to calm fears and raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic. It’s nestled in the wire copy announcing the start of the first Gulf War, under a copy of The New York Times of Sept. 12, 2001.

Today I added a new piece to the collection, the print-out of a news alert from It reads in its entirety, “Barack Obama has been sworn in as the nation's 44th president.”

Sorry to veer off-topic, but today is an extraordinary day. Back to LTOs, dayparts and bankruptcies tomorrow.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Carl's readies a new green flagship

Carl's Jr. will open a new eco-friendly flagship unit in two weeks on the site of a former Carrows family restaurant, according to posts on Twitter, the social networking site.

One "tweeter" (a.k.a. a "tweetle"--this could get cutesy, folks) asked Carl's via the micro-blogging site about the store, which is in Carpinteria. It was apparently arresting enough visually to merit a query from a local observer, who said it snagged his attention on a drive-by ("Nice place!" Hey, you only get 140 characters for each post, so that's downright effusive by Twitter standards.)

The company acknowledged that the converted restaurant is a new standard-setter, since the unit is only a mile from the headquarters of Carl's and its parent, CKE Restaurants. It also described the unit as "environmentally friendly to boot." But no further details were disclosed.

That's a shame, because you have to wonder if Carl's is eyeing other shuttered family restaurants as well. Today The NPD Group reported that enough of tose restaurants were shuttered last year to shrink the number of outlets in the segment by 3%. Southern California, Carl's stronghold, was a core market for many of the brands.

Fine dining shrinks again

The ranks of fine-dining restaurants thinned by 8% last year, , with the decline particularly pronounced (11%) for independents competing in that sector, according to research released today by The NPD Group. The findings underscore consumers' mounting preference for more casual dining experiences.

The numbers also indicate that the big got bigger last year. Chains with at least 500 restaurants increased in number by 1%, while chains with 50 to 99 stores decreased in count by 2%, and chains with fewer than 49 outlets collectively retracted by 1%, NPD said.

Overall, the research company's Recount census service found that the nation's inventory of restaurants remained about the same, with openings almost matching the number of closings. Given the imbalance between plummeting restaurant demand and plentiful supply, that's good but not great news. The survivors might've benefited from a significant retrenchment of the business.

Wendy's goes a little 3-kee

Wendy’s new commercials are raising eyebrows among the intelligentsia. Could a chain with a red-pigtailed mascot be using an unconventional but popular theory of economics as the new slogan for its value menu? Did it pass on “Wendy’s/Supply side in action” before settling on the new catchphrase, “Freakonomics?”

Most definitely not, because the term is actually “3conomics,” a reference to the value menu’s inclusion of three sandwiches, or apparently more than the other brands sport. But the subtle difference in the phrases is being missed by a lot of people, including Steven D. Levitt, the University of Chicago professor who forged the economic theory.

I saw the commercial and admittedly wondered how Wendy’s had secured licensing rights to “Freakonomics,” the subject of a best-selling, must-read book for any student of business. I didn’t catch the “3conomics” reference until the controversy erupted. Nor did the goodly number of fellow bloggers and commentators. Many wondered how Levitt could allow his term to be put to such crassly commercial use

I’m surprised there also wasn’t more discussion about the whole approach of the campaign. Clearly the chain’s new parent, Wendy’s/Arby’s Group, is trying to harness to the same sort of zaniness that works for Burger King. Apparently there’s a large segment of the population that maintains, “Wow, this brand is really off-the-wall. Think I’ll go have one of their burgers.”

Then again, the approach has worked stunningly well for BK and its creepy mascot, the King.

But contriving to be irreverent and kooky is a risky move. It’s too dangerous to come across as insincere and fake—the Monkeys compared with the Beatles.

And it’s hard to be genuinely in touch with the quirky tastes of the youngsters targeted in such efforts. That’s the true brilliance, if you can call it that, of BK’s marketing. Consider, for instance, this online cult favorite of the chain, known as “Eat like snake.”

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The BK King on vacation

The King posted this on Twitter in a message to those who follow news about the Whopper Virgins campaign:

And I always thought Jack of Jack in the Box was the studmuffin of fast-food chain mascots.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Another super-sized franchsee goes bankrupt

A reader of my blog on the Fohboh social networking site pointed out another major restaurant bankruptcy that came to light earlier this week. John Gantes, head of the 110-unit Breckenridge Group, a multi-concept franchisee in southern California, reportedly filed for personal bankruptcy in late 2008 and is now trying to reorganize his sprawling operations.

Breckenridge is a franchisee of El Pollo Loco, Famous Dave's, Johnny Carino's, Burger King, Applebee's, Bruegger's, Ruby's Diner and Arby's, according to the Orange County Register.

The OCR story sites court documents indicating that Gantes owes $280 million.

The week also brought an acknowledgement from Domino's that nine of its franchisees had gone bankrupt, and a Ch. 11 filing by the parent of the Black Angus steakhouse chain.

Curtain to come up on Utah drinking?

One of those pesky time warps has settled over Utah, where elders fear the sight of a martini being mixed could lead youngsters to ruin. Indeed, it’s illegal for a restaurant to shake or stir one in front of patrons. Bartenders have to function behind what’s called a Zionist curtain, lest a young person grow curious about drink and succumb to temptation.

Gov. Jon Huntsman has had enough of that puritan view, according to local press reports. He told The Deseret News, a paper serving the state’s huge Latter Day Saints population, that state liquor laws have to become “more American and less Middle Eastern” if Utah wants to cultivate more tourism. He’s let it be known that he plans to push for the modernization, much to the delight of the state’s restaurant trade.

But Huntsman is opposed by the powerful leader of the state Senate, who subscribes to the view that seeing a drink being made could lead more youngsters to try one when they’re of age. He wants to avert that sort of enticement.

Keep in mind that you can’t just walk into a Utah bar and order a mojito. Technically, there are no bars, just “drinking clubs” that you have to join before exiting the desert sun for a frosty draft.

As a compromise Huntsman has suggested that the Zionist curtain be lifted permanently and instead minors be prohibited by law from sitting at the bar.

Whether you drink or not, you have to hope he succeeds, just on principle.

Bob Evans wants to be hip. Do kids still say 'hip'?

When your clientele is literally dying out, the best option may be starting over with a new crowd. That’s what Bob Evans, one of the industry’s more grandpa-oriented chains, appears to be trying to do in its latest marketing effort.

The ranch-house-themed chain is reaching out to college students, many of whom may remember Bob Evans as that place where Nanna took them for biscuits and sausage gravy. Headquarters said it will roll a specially built trailer, the BOBurrito wagon, into five Midwestern campuses to give students a taste of the brand’s new breakfast burrito of the same name.

Youngsters can also learn about the BOBurrito via a new Facebook page and a microsite, That’s heady stuff for a concept known for putting servers in western-style garb, right down to bolero ties.

But when the old folks who used to park themselves in a booth every morning are coming less often, what else can you do but make a pitch to their grandchildren?

It’s surprising, though, that the chain didn’t go a step farther and make the BOBurrito with a few all-natural ingredients, a touch that might’ve played well with the college crowd. But because the burrito is being introduced at a price of $5.99, additives-free components might’ve put too much of a dent in margins.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Colicchio, Orman, valet parking & other tidbits

News tidbits have been piling up in my Miscellaneous folder like coffee grounds at the bottom of a barista trainee’s espresso. Indulge me as I review a few restaurant-industry developments that might’ve slipped past you in recent days:

Chicago wants standards for restaurant valets: An ordinance passed Tuesday by the City Council would require valet companies serving restaurants to provide enough lot parking for 15% of a capacity crowd’s cars. The measure was pushed through, after being toned down from a 25%-of-capacity requirement, to combat what government officials have dubbed fly-by-night valets—concerns that go into business with nothing more than a few matching windbreakers for the attendants. They merely double-park cars on the street, creating a hazard. Other areas have taken aim at the same problem with proposals to mandate insurance as well as off-street facilities.

Suze Orman leaves restaurants steamed: The quirky personal-finance guru has tossed a hornet’s nest into restaurant management offices from coast to coast by urging consumers to forego dining out for at least a month. The advice is one of the core recommendations of her new book, “2009 Action Plan,” which aims to help readers weather the times. It also urges them not to spend anything for a day, and not to use their credit cards for a week.

Some members of the industry expressed dismay and disbelief that the popular TV figure would issue such advice when the restaurant industry is reeling (this week’s standout casualties in New York alone: The Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court, Ruby Foo’s and Fiamma). I’m sympathetic, but dining out is not a patriotic duty.

China gives U.S. brands the finger with new piracy mall: If you lament the homogenization of world culture, consider the retailing concept that’s reportedly about to open in the People’s Republic. Among the establishments shoppers can peruse: McDnoalds, Bucksstar Coffee, a fried-chicken place called KLG, and Pizza Huh. After having a meal, they could continue their hunt for the best price on Adidos or Dama sneakers.

Those aren’t typos. The place’s schtick is to offer knock-offs of copyrighted brands without the usual nod and a wink. And this is all out in the open, completely on the up-and-up, though U.S. restaurant brands may have a decidedly different opinion.

Tom Colicchio has another big idea: Regular readers will know I regard the New York chef’s recent brainstorm, Tom: Tuesday Dinner, as a more innovative idea than anything that’s come out of Detroit since the minivan. Now, according to the blog site, he’s followed up that brilliant stroke of with a new marketing venture: Damon: Frugal Friday.

Damon is Damon Wise, the chef de cusine of Colicchio’s Craft restaurant. Every Friday beginning tomorrow, Wise will develop a one-day menu of items priced under $10. According to promotional information cited by Eater, the dishes will fall into eight categories, ranging from the familiar (salads, small pizzas, cheese plates) to the eyebrow-raising (“food in a jar,” “meat on a stick”). The materials cite such examples as crispy pig ear, deviled egg salad, and caper berries and piquillo marmalade.

Like Tom: Tuesday Dinner, the new special-night meal will be served in one of Craft’s private dining rooms. With the downturn in New York’s party business, it’s a smart way to put vacant space into money-generating use.

Chipotle is heading abroad: After poking a toe into a foreign market with the opening of a lone store in Toronto, the college students’ cult favorite is jumping across the pond. The company disclosed this week that it will develop a single restaurant in London as a possible beachhead to European expansion. Since the 800-unit chain doesn’t franchise here, it’s unlikely to license overseas. It’s a shame that the company isn’t still a half-sister to Pret a Manger, the all-natural grab-and-go chain that, like Chipotle, once counted McDonald’s as an owner. The two might be compatible partners, and Pret owns London.

Starbucks offers to caffeinate those who give back: The coffee giant continues to play to the socially minded with a new promotion keyed to Obama’s inauguration. The President-Elect has asked every American to volunteer their time for the public good next Monday. Agree to do your part, Starbucks announced yesterday, and there’ll be a free tall coffee waiting for you afterward.

Meanwhile, some media have reported that Starbucks is about to announce an arrangement with MSNBC whereby the cable channel’s live coverage of the inauguration will be simulcast within the coffee chain’s 650 U.S. stores.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Simon didn't say 'do that'

The following is a public service announcement to the nation’s casual restaurant chains.

Have you lost your minds?

Part of the reason you’re currently living a blues tune is a lack of differentiation in your menus. Every concept could rename itself That Place Serving a Bloomin’ Onion, Nachos, Fajitas, Burgers, Spinach Dip and Margaritas, and it wouldn’t be lying. A follow-the-leader approach led everyone toward a cliff.

So how are you trying to right the situation? Consider the latest promotion from Applebee’s: A $9.99 sirloin served with two sides. In a stunning coincidence, the LongHorn casual chain is also featuring a $9.99 steak dinner as of this month. And Outback has been selling a 6-oz. sirloin as part of a dinner for a penny less than $10 for a number of weeks. What are the odds???

At least Ruby Tuesday and T.G.I. Friday’s, two concepts that had their starts as “fern bars” (youngsters, ask your folks, but DO NOT bring up leisure suits), are resisting the temptation to copycat. As Ruby CEO Sandy Beall told investors last week, “We believe our burgers offer [an] incredible, differentiated and value category that resonates well with our guests.”

Okay, the chain also noted during the conference call that it was pushing a $5.99 burger with all-you-can-eat fries. But it’s sticking with a key point of differentiation. I mean, what other casual chain offers burgers? It’s not like Chili’s or Red Robin are known for that item.

And Friday’s? Well, consider the promotional head-turner it started pushing yesterday. Here’s the headline from the announcement: “T.G.I. Friday's Restaurants Unleash The 'Ultimate' Burger.”

I think I need a margarita. Or a ‘Rita. Or maybe a Lobsterita.

What are the odds???

Monday, January 12, 2009

A big break for germs

Add another restaurant casualty to the list of recession victims: Food safety in one of Texas’ major cities. A local TV station reported today on the web that Arlington has laid off the five health specialists who monitor sanitation conditions within the municipality’s 2,000 restaurants.

Officials told reporter Janet St. James that the city would outsource oversight to a contracted third party. “However, no deal to do that has been publicly discussed or finalized,” St. James wrote.

The article notes that the sanitation inspectors will work until next Thursday, after which restaurants will be expected to police themselves.

The estimated savings: $100,000, or $50 per restaurant.

No mas! No mas!

The business week is barely underway, but it's already shaping up to be a stinker. The early bad news includes the bombshell that Landry's is backing out of a long-awaited buyout by founder and CEO Tilman Fertitta because the backers don't want details of the financing arrangement revealed to shareholders, as the SEC is demanding. Then there's Ruth's Chris' disclosure that fourth-quarter same-store sales dropped 18.5%. And, just to put that last smiley face on the morning's restaurant headlines, there's a full-fledged food-safety crisis involving peanut butter sold by one supplier to foodservice operators in at least 42 states.

The Landry's situation is by the far the real startler. The deal has had more ups and downs than a roller coaster at one of the company's amusement complexes. Now, with the going-private process in the home stretch, the buyout is called off, for reasons that are murky at best.

As an announcement cryptically recounts, the SEC ordered that the terms between buyer, seller and the deal's financial backers be released to shareholders. Landry's said it informed the agency that the agreements prohibit the disclosure of that proprietary information. The SEC responded in essence with, "Too bad. Tell your shareholders all the specifics."

If Landry's decided to comply with the SEC's directive, the funding might've been pulled in retribution. But, even worse for the company, the lenders could back out of a stipulation that they refinance $400 million in notes. Landry's would lose its suitor and a chance to lighten a crippling debt burden. The most responsible choice, the company argued in a press release, was to terminate the buyout. That way it wouldn't have to issue a proxy to shareholders. The disclosures demanded by the SEC would not have be made, the financiers would be appeased, and the refinancing could continue.

The big mystery, of course, is what the lenders--several Jefferies & Co. and Wells Fargo affiliates--did not want revealed. Barring a new John Grisham novel, we may never find out.

Perhaps Fertitta should shift his attention to buying out Ruth's Chris instead.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Was there a full moon?

I knew I should’ve brought a satellite phone on the trip. No sooner do I leave the country than an unprecedented run of weirdness besets the domestic restaurant industry. My eye was off the business for a mere week. Who knew that’d be long enough for a push to rechristen edible fish as “sea kittens,” a dissing of Chili’s by Drew Carey, a clever parry from Chili’s in the form of a job offer, and a seafood restaurant’s reprieve of a 20-lb. lobster? Next you’ll be telling me Chuck E. Cheese is taking steps to discourage parents from misbehaving.

Given the peculiarity of those developments, it should come as no surprise that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are involved in two.

The savants leading the well-intentioned but obviously deranged group are really begging for committal this time. They’re mounting a campaign to spare more fish from human consumption by recasting swordfish, haddock and the like as personable critters that might bat around a ball of yarn if they could. “Fish need to fire their PR guy—stat,” explains a mission statement of sorts. “You’ve done enough damage, buddy. We’ve got it from here. And we’re going to start by retiring the old name for good…who could possibly want to put a hook through a sea kitten?”

And who wouldn’t doubt that Tara the Tuna is every bit as cuddly an appealing as Whiskers, Aunt Sarah’s tabby? Especially when PETA’s website features a bedtime story about Tara, who “loves to squeeze herself into tight spaces and snuggle up close to her Sea Kitten pals.” In the words of Dave Barry, “Folks, I can’t make this stuff up.”

Perhaps the group is merely feeling its oats—er, grain bunnies. As CNN and countless other major media have reported, PETA announced Friday that City Crab restaurant in New York City has acquiesced to demands that a 140-lobster known as George be taken from its tanks and released into the ocean. “Yay!” exclaims PETA blogger Liz Graffeo. “Next step: ban catching lobsters completely.”

George might’ve slipped away, but Chili’s isn’t letting Drew Carey off the hook. The comic and game-show host gave the industry a nudge in the ribs by telling the Washington Post he probably would’ve been a restaurant manager if he hadn’t succeeded in showbiz. In his glibness, Carey seemed to suggest any schlub could manage a casual-dining restaurant, even if he or she started as a server.

The implication for any server who doesn’t rise to restaurant GM: You’re a loser.

Chili’s president Todd Diener decided to give Carey a taste of what a GM’s job is really like—and snag considerable press in the process. He released a letter Friday that invited Carey to manage one of the chain’s 53 outlets in Los Angeles for a few hours. Carey’s pay would be donated to a charity of his choice—“perhaps the Cleveland Public Library?” (part of Carey’s schtick is having grown up in Cleveland).

The letter said it was accompanied by a $100 gift card so Carey could at least enjoy the chain’s hospitality and fare.

There wasn’t an edge or even a hint of irritation in Diener’s letter. But anyone in the industry would know what a rude change in perception awaits Carey if he accepts the offer.

For the publicity value, and the chance to maintain the industry’s weirdness streak, you have to hope he accepts.

Okay, time to track down the now-removed YouTube video of the fight that erupted recently in a Chuck E. Cheese’s in Pennsylvania. According to a local news report, fights often erupt in the concept because adults bump into one another. Kids’ parties often bring together estranged mothers and fathers sharing custody, and sparks sometimes fly between the parents.

A subsequent report indicates the restaurant is now hiring off-duty policemen to serve as safety monitors.

“It’s madness, absolute madness,” local police chief Robert A. Martin is quoted as telling The Patriot-News.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Trying the delights of St. Lucia

Today we were taken around the island of St. Lucia by a driver who promised to give us a taste of his homeland. Fortunately for me, he took the vow literally, stopping at roadside stands to buy us local delicacies. Here are some of the foods we sampled:

Fresh bananas: They’d been picked, probably that morning, from one of the banana plantations that once formed the main industry of the British commonwealth (bananas were known as “yellow gold”). Our guide, a character named Spencer, warned us that St. Lucian bananas taste different from the sort we eat in the United States (ours tend to come from South America, which has largely destroyed St. Lucia’s industry by undercutting it in price).

As he’d forewarned us, the bananas had more of a mineral-y, almost metallic taste—closer to a green banana in the States than the brown-spotted ripe sort. Yet there was a nice, sweet finish to it. But perhaps my judgment was biased by seeing where and how bananas are grown. Clearly these were the freshest specimens I’d ever eaten.

Creole bread: Spencer would speak of the local bread with reverence that bordered on the misty-eyed. He wasn’t over-selling it. The bread itself is not distinctive in its taste or appearance. But it’s baked in small ovens and eaten hot and fresh. And, while it may not be unique, it was delicious—as chewy as good French bread, with more of a chewy skin than a crust. And, of course, it was hot enough to make you juggle it from hand to hand. We had ours with butter and peanut butter, which are apparently the usual garnishes.

Coconut cake: Imagine a squished-down muffin packed with fresh coconut and pineapple, which provided virtually the only sweetness. The cake is far more savory than anything we’d christen cake. Spencer explained that you’d have it with a meal or as a snack, but not as a dessert. The coconut cake wasn’t my favorite among the local specialties we tried, but everyone else in the party gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. It also sold for pennies.

Johnnycake: A traditional accompaniment to jerked chicken, true St. Lucian johnnycake is cooked in a big leaf to ensure the inside stays chewy, according to Spencer. The specimen I relished was more likely pan-fried in oil. It looked like a flattened piece of dough whose edges had been rolled up to form a nearly round, half-inch-thick bread. It had a rich crusty taste and a very chewy consistency. I probably violated all kinds of local etiquette by dipping it in the hot sauce served with my jerk chicken, but the combination was delicious. So was tearing off a piece and wrapping it around a hunk of white meat.

Jerk chicken: I’ve yet to find a version in the States that comes close than what you can find anywhere in the Caribbean, cooked on a homemade grill in some roadside pull-off. Mine was so hot that I could barely eat it, yet juicy enough to risk burnt fingertips. The spicing was perfect—deep and complex, with “brown” flavors like nutmeg or cinnamon blending with the pepper. It was spicy, not fiery.

Spencer proudly announced that I was having the best jerk chicken in all of St. Lucia. I didn’t doubt him.

Local “beers”: We tried two sorts: One, a golden brew with a stronger taste than pilsner, called Piton. It had a heartier taste than the piss water that’s peddled as premium beer in the States, yet surprisingly thirst-quenching, too. Judging from the minimum buzz it provided, I’m sure it’s also lower in alcohol.

The other quaff is what Spencer termed “a lady’s beer,” called Shandi. I didn’t have it, but a member of our crew did. He described it as fruit punch in a bottle, with an undetectable level of alcohol (1.5 proof or 3%, not even enough to catch a tingle on a fiercely hot day).

Spencer was kind enough to take us to a roadside market selling local produce, so we could see a few a West Indian specialties in their raw state. He pointed out nutmeg, aki, cocoa and several types of yams, still in the form in which they’re taken from the wild. Later at a stop in a botanical garden, he plucked a leaf off a tree, snapped it, and gave us a smell. We sniffed a delightful perfume of fresh cinnamon.

Now, on to another local specialty. I do think it’s rum time here in the Caribbean.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Food safety in action

At least I didn’t bring a camera into the bathroom. But the thought did cross my mind. After covering norovirus outbreaks in restaurants since the near-epidemic of 2007, I was eager to see how cruise ships combat the flu-causing pathogen. They, after all, were the hospitality sector that made the germ famous, and have a lead of at least a decade in figuring out how to avert or contain an outbreak. As any newspaper reader knows, they’ve had ample practice.

A cruise-line executive detailed a few of the preventive measures at a conference back in the fall of ’07, still known to some food-safety geeks as the Year of the Virus.

The speaker cited such practices as having room service kitchens alert Guest Relations if a passenger asks for bullion, custard or other easy-on-the-stomach fare. A cancelled spa appointment might also prompt a check with the guest. Similarly, room attendants are trained to alert superiors if they find a guest bedded down and complaining of flu-like symptoms.

Earlier today I witnessed that latter safeguard in action. An attendant was at the door, delicately questioning a young woman about why she was in bed and sleeping at 6:30. “Are you not feeling well?” she probed. “I’m sorry to wake you, but is everything all right?”

A fellow traveler noted that the on-board store has a sign near the toiletries, urging passengers to let ship authorities know if they’re in need of upset-stomach or diarrhea remedies. Each day’s listing of activities, a printed bulletin provided the night before to every stateroom, urges guests to wash their hands after each trip to the bathroom and before any meal. People beset with stomach ailments are directed to seek consultation with on-board officials.

Plenty of other precautions are taken to stop germs from being passed from surfaces to passenger’s hands. Signs in the bathrooms encourage guests, not staff, to wash their hands. And some public bathrooms feature a paper towel dispenser on the exit door. You can readily figure out that you’re supposed to use one of the towels to shield your hands from contamination when opening the door. Then you dispose of the towel in a receptacle on the back of the door.

Curiously, fellow travelers noted that the hand sanitizing stations they found on earlier cruises have been removed. One recounted how she read that passengers were lulled into a false sense of security by the gel that was dispensed. It’s a bacterial agent, not anything that can kill viruses.

In their place are signs encouraging passengers to wash their hands. I’d take a picture but—well, you know. I don’t want to be labeled a germ geek.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The dangers of cruise-ship dining

I’m lucky to be writing this. Twice now I’ve put my life at risk by violating the cardinal rule of taking a cruise: Never, ever, ever be in the buffet-style restaurant when the feeding frenzy hits. As any crowd-control expert knows, do not be anywhere near the place at the start of a meal.

Fortunately I must’ve entered near the Rice Cakes/Lite Fare station at lunch, because I managed to find the down-traffic side of a pillar and ride out the stampede. The glassy-eyed horde was far more interested in the pizza/burger/hotdog area. And from there, it’s just a short charge to the Hot Ethnic Foods table. Not a pretty sight.

But the worst carnage came near the dessert stand, where a family of slender Brazilians never made it to the frozen-yogurt dispenser. All that was found of them were a free cruise line T-shirt and a hair barrette.

I won’t even describe the breakfast charge, when the crowd was whipped into a George Romero plotline by having forgone food for a whole five hours. Just the carnage from over-laden plates of eggs made a soccer riot look like a church picnic.

Uh-oh. The ship calendar lists freshly griddled pancakes as tomorrow’s breakfast special. I’m not going near the dining room before 10:30.

But I have to be wary of catching the early edge of the lunch throng. Tomorrow's the Sloppy Joes Fest.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

A unique taste of Old San Juan

This morning our posse headed down to Old San Juan, an area more European than New World in its feel, to hit a landmark for breakfast. La Bombonera is worth the pilgrimage for any self-respecting dining enthusiast, drawing enough locals and tourists to keep a highly international line extending out the door.

The attraction is majorca, a Spanish pastry that combines savory ingredients like cheese and ham with a dusting of powdered sugar, all wrapped in chewy dough. It’s similar to what they try to pass off in the mainland States as chocolate or savory-filled croissants. The La Bombonera combines salty and sweet in a near-perfect balance. Add a good cup of café con leche, and the rating bumps up to ideal.

The place is a classic—in essence a bakery at the front of the storefront, extending into a two-level coffee shop that looks like something out of Spain or Cuba of the ‘50s.

Part of the appeal is the price. Even with a serious effort to stick tourists for what amounts to a piece of pastry, breakfast amounted to just $28 for four Americanos.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The view from San Juan

Being air-dropped today into Puerto Rico’s restaurant scene revealed a few interesting points about the trade’s situation back home. For one thing, operators here have worries yet to befall their mainland American cousins. Many eating places are also clearly ahead in the evolution of their bathrooms, specifically in giving patrons flush options instead of a single-strength wooosh!

And then there’s the mystery of why more restaurants in New York City, despite its huge Puerto Rican population, don’t feature a local specialty that is universally available here. Indeed, I had to come to the source to have my first taste of mofongo relleno.

It was my dinner tonight, a delight that capped a long day of checking out menus in a search of places that would be acceptable to all four ugly Americans in our posse. Along the way, we noticed that every establishment had a sign posted at its cash registers to trumpet what appears to be a new regulation. The notice, coming from the Department of Consumer Affairs, alerts patrons that places promoting a particular item can’t pull a bait and switch. If the restaurant says it has run out of the discounted item, management has to provide something similar at the same price, or issue a rain check. Violators could be fined up to $10,000.

I thought the requirement was a bit over-reaching until we settled on a place for dinner. One of the attractions was the inclusion on the menu of several vegetarian choices. But when we tried to order something from that section, we were told the place was out of it. Ditto for iced tea—and, in slapping contrast to today’s New York weather, it’s hot down here.

We also overheard the waiter telling the family at the next table that the macaroni and cheese listed as an option for kids was not available today. Hmmm. Curious. The family looked as if it was going to bail, even though the adults had cracked open their beers. But the parents settled on a plain pork chop as an alternative for the little girl in the party. Presumably that pork chop, even plain, cost considerably more than a kid-sized serving of mac and cheese.

But, of course, the place had plenty of mofongo—fried plantains mashed with spices, olive oil and pork, into which is mixed vegetables or a protein of your choice. You’d have an easier time finding mofongo in San Juan than you would hunting down a burger in New York. A mofongo with seafood can run into the mid-$20 range; one with chicken or pork is usually around $11.

It had the consistency of mashed potatoes that have set too long, though the texture was extremely comforting. And it was engagingly spiced—complex, but not overpowering or sheer heat.

The cubed chicken in my mofongo also yielded an interesting amalgamation of textures. A member of our party attested that it had the same consistency—and much the same taste—as stuffed derma.

It was one of the marvels uncovered in our explorations. But the other find might be more noteworthy for restaurateurs back home. Several times, we encountered toilets that I also saw during my visit to Italy in the spring. The johns featured two flush buttons—one positioned next to four raised dots, presumably for blind customers, and the other next to six. The presentation clearly conveyed that the number of dots was correlated to, um, volume. One was the flush of choice for purely liquid situations. The other—well, you get the picture.

The objective is obviously to use less water by matching the volume of the flush to the type of disposal, and hence the size of the job. It’s an idea that the U.S. industry has been slow to embrace. Mainland restaurateurs need to spend more time in San Juan bathrooms—especially when much of the Lower 48 is in the throes of a cold snap. And they should try the mofongo while they’re here.