Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Way better than Padma

I don't know why Hardee's is bothering with yet another racing-themed marketing push when it's already using the gold standard against which all other racing commercials will be forever judged. Indeed, I can't understand why this campaign (I think we're up to episode six) isn't getting more attention. Check it out:

The industry has to rethink paid sick leave

My friends accuse me of being a shill for the restaurant industry because I won’t condemn the chains, a requisite for anyone who wants to wear black and discuss the latest Vanity Fair. But that doesn’t mean I support everything thing the trade oes, particularly when it comes to legislation. Consider, for instance, the prickly matter of paid sick leave.

A proposal reportedly gaining favor in Connecticut would require restaurants and other businesses that employ more than 50 people to provide 6.5 paid sick days per year. If the measure proceeds, the state would become the first in the nation to mandate the benefit, though Massachusetts and Illinois may not be far behind. San Francisco and Washington, D.C., already have a requirement on their books. Milwaukee residents approved a ballot initiative last year that called for paid sick leave, but the early February start date has been postponed because of a legal challenge from employers.

The restaurant industry insists it can’t afford to double up on pay for a position whose holder has taken sick—what the ill individual would get, plus what a replacement would collect. I don’t disagree.

But consider the alternative to paid sick leave. A restaurant employee is vomiting and suffering from diarrhea. He or she has a choice of either coming in and getting paid, or staying home and foregoing the money. There’s not much to weigh there, at least not from their standpoint. And that’s even if they work in the kitchen.

An employee in that condition is supposed to stay home, but there’s certainly an incentive to flout the rules. If the problem is viral, the employee is almost certainly still infectious. Indeed, research indicates that someone can still pass along a norovirus, the cause of what most people would characterize as the flu, considerably longer than they’re symptomatic.

Gloves, hand washing, the use of utensils and other precautions can avert risk. But they’re less than fool-proof in a harried restaurant kitchen, where a staff in the weeds might forget or skip what they’d recognize in cooler moments as a must-do.

In that environment, a sick employee poses a danger, to guests, co-workers and the business, if there’s a publicized outbreak of an illness. Moving the person out of the kitchen would be one potential remedy, if another staffer could be displaced or directed to trade places. Now you have a possibly infectious person in the dining room or bar.

A better solution is paid sick leave. The unsolved problem is how to make it affordable.

Somehow, the industry has to find a way of doing it. The obvious one is some sort of pool, where everyone pays in a little so contributors can draw out the shared funds when they’re the ones who need it.

But few operators want to hear that. They’d rather bet they can hold the line and fend off an expense that really could put them under, as a straight employer mandate might.

The situation in Connecticut and elsewhere will hopefully prompt them to reconsider, before their options are narrowed to paying a fortune or facing costly sanctions.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Have enough seagull eggs in the fridge?

Yum! Brands’ investment in an Asian “hot pot” concept is a reminder that the global culinary world has yet to be fully mapped and catalogued. We have a fondue specialist or two here in the United States, but I can’t recall anyone talking about the new hot pot place that just opened over on Main Street, next to the Mongolian barbecue outlet. Indeed, the very notion sounds exotic and alien: Giving patrons a caldron of hot broth so they can cook their own meat and vegetables at the table.

All the continents may have been found and explored long ago, but TV and the internet haven’t erased profound differences and outright peculiarities in regional fare. For instance, while foodies on this side of the Atlantic were off “ramping,” a rite of spring not even familiar to many in the States, their counterparts in the United Kingdom were bemoaning this year’s shortage of seagull eggs. More precisely, the eggs of black-headed seagulls, a delicacy enjoyed by the British upper crust and sports diners.

The problem isn’t a lack of eggs, it's the shortage of harvesters. According to a report in the London Telegram, only about 25 U.K-ers are licensed to gather the eggs, which, the article points out, can cost around $7 each in U.S. dollars. Because a license is a privilege of class, few new ones are granted, and the current ones are held by old sots with thick monocles and a proclivity to remember that dodgy fox hunt of ’59. Only about a third of the holders still prowl the coast marshes looking for the eggs, according to the Telegram.

Meanwhile, fashionistas in Budapest had to add a new restaurant to their must-try list. It specializes in meats that are cooked with an old-style iron, apparently a venerable Hungarian method. That distinction is reportedly conveyed in the place’s name, Husvasalo, but my Hungarian is a little rusty.

Other specialties of the place include a dessert called milk cake, which is likened to a U.S. pancake, and potato donuts.

The world may be getting smaller, but the list of known local specialties just keeps getting long and longer.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Caterers protest the protests against biz events

Consider this scenario: Mega Screw & Trust, a New York bank, is teetering on the brink of insolvency until feds showed up with bags of greenbacks from the Troubled Assets Relief Program. It stays open, and even decides to proceed with the big party it was planning for 20-year veterans who met their cost-cutting goals. But the press finds out and makes a stink, prompting MST to cancel the five-figure fete.

Sunshine Bank & Kitten Saver, a medium-sized competitor that stayed financially fit, witnesses the fallout and decides it’d better pull the plug on a celebration honoring the employees who came up with the best give-back programs for local charities. It alerts Joe’s Neighborhood Grill that it won’t be taking the back room next Friday. The banquet’s off.

Edmund Schmoe III, a former Mega Screw & Trust VP who now works as a banquet waiter at Joe’s, finds out he won’t be needed next Friday. His first response is letting his brothers know they can’t count on a contribution from him for the catered party they were planning for their father’s birthday. The siblings decide to cancel.

That sequence of events, or at least a segment of it, has transpired often enough to prompt a muted outcry from the National Association of Catering Executives. Treading carefully, the group yesterday released survey results that indicate 90% of the nation’s caterers and meeting planners have lost business because of the outcry over businesses holding events in the current economic climate. Almost the same percentage of respondents say the public outrage has made that climate worse.

"While I understand that in these times it is important to spend carefully, the bashing of the catering, events, meetings and travel business is not only unfair and prejudicial to our industry, it is counterproductive to economic recovery," said Greg Casella, the San Jose, Calif., caterer who serves as president of NACE.

If the situation is that bad for caterers, imagine the fallout for restaurants. Not only are they losing party and banquet business, but even routine expense account meals.

The question is, what can be done about it? As Restaurant Reality Check previously reported, the National Restaurant Association quietly pushed back last month against federal legislation that would have mandated cuts in banquets, catering and other foodservice expenses by companies receiving bailout funds. How can any group publicly call for those types of expenses to continue when so many people are struggling to afford groceries, never mind a party?

Still, NACE deserves a lot of credit for spotlighting a facet of the situation that deserves consideration. As it noted in releasing yesterday’s statement, its membership extends to 4,000 businesses, which obviously must employ a big multiple of that number. Those people are struggling to eat, too.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Shifts in the dining-out infrastructure?

The swing back to eating at home is old news by now. But that’s not the only way in which restaurants’ social role is being challenged. The industry rightly describes itself as a cornerstone of the community. Look hard and you’ll see where that foundation caught a few hammer whacks in recent days.

For instance, the trade takes justifiable pride in the charity work it does. Indeed, the propensity to raise money and awareness for public causes—large or small, national or local—is part of the business’ very essence. Dining out and a giveback mentality are as intertwined as Starbucks and coffee.

Consider, then, the announcement on Monday of a new charitable campaign: Dine-In to Fight Childhood Hunger. Stouffer’s, one of foodservice’s most revered suppliers, has teamed up with Reader’s Digest, the Walter Cronkite of media, to alert consumers that they can help hungry children by eating at home. Participants are encouraged to host a Dine-In Dinner for friends and family, where the participants can discuss the problem of hunger and how they can help. If they donate to a group called Feeding America, Stouffer’s will chip in another $5 per contribution.

It also helps to make the dinner a success by donating a “toolkit” to the host family. Included are activity suggestions, discussion points and relevant information provided in a format peculiar to restaurants, the table tent.

Call me a cynic, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Stouffer’s launched a new retail line the week earlier called Stouffer’s Corner Bistro, consisting of six meals “that bring the restaurant experience to your table or desk.”

Hey, anything that fights childhood hunger is a great thing. But I think I’ll stick with Share Our Strength and Taste of the Nation as my means of assisting. It’s especially important now because participants say the children of families that depend on the restaurant industry for their livelihood are showing up more often among the beneficiaries. It’s a matter of the industry helping its own as we trudge through these grueling times.

Good times will no doubt return, but they’ll undoubtedly be different ones for the restaurant industry. Consider what’s happening in culinary education. It’s still the mill that supplies the nation’s restaurant kitchens with talent. But a new generation of institutions is springing up, with a focus on teaching people to cook at home rather than for profit. They sport names like the Taste of Home Cooking School, or Come Home to Cooking. There’s even a new franchise chain, the Creative Cooking School, that aims to put recreational and professional chefs through the same education process.

The industry is pre-occupied with the shift to dining at home and the resulting drop-off in traffic. But it also needs to be aware of how the situation is being altered on a more fundamental basis to favor home cooking.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Good, bad and ugly behind today's headlines

Sometimes it's difficult to cover the news and remain impartial. Wait a minute--I don't report for a paper anymore! I can be as judgmental as I want!! With that in mind, here are my nay's, yea's and to-the-gallows uptakes on a few restaurant-industry developments that came to light today:

  • A shout-out to the Maine Restaurant Association for including a mushroom-picking guide on its website. At a time when the restaurant industry is trying to incorporate more local, fresh ingredients, the association is providing information that can help members be part of the trend. It’s a nice touch--and so distinctly Maine.

  • A big Good, Eh? to Canada for emerging as a nation of foodservice thought leaders. This Saturday, McDonald’s units there will be turning off roadside signs and rooftop lighting for Earth Hour, a concentrated version of our Earth Day. The units are also ahead of their Yank counterparts in trying a new Snack Wrap made with burger patties, a favored contender for No Brainer Potential Hit of the Year. And how do we repay our neighbor to the North? By abandoning some of its markets, as Outback Steakhouse is doing in shutting all nine of its Ontario stores. The country that gave the world Timbits definitely deserves better.

  • A definite raised eyebrow is turned to the parents in Bellevue, Wash., who formed a group to teach their children how to eat better. The notion is noble, but the name raises some concern about the mindset that’s being instilled: Future Foodies of America. Little kids dressed in black, pairing juice to chicken fingers? Insisting that the fingers be of the free-range variety? And specifying that only an aged Wisconsin variety will do for their grilled cheese? I’ll have to look for the pint-sized members at the James Beard Awards. And I guess it could be worse. Minis for Molecular Gastronomy would’ve been cause for an intervention.

  • A hearty slurp for the James Beard Awards, the industry's version of the Oscars. It's a celebration not only of the nation's best chefs, but also the often-overlooked communications side of the business. Full disclosure: I was a judge of the journalism competition. We’ve got a lot of smart people in the U.S. media who can write beautifully and provocatively about food and food-related issues. I’ll bet we could whup Canada’s ass on that front any time.

  • A definite raspberry to Maryland officials for blowing the dust off a regulation that probably hadn’t been applied since spats. They’re employing it now as a sneaky way to squeeze a few more dollars out of restaurants and bars. The measure mandates that soda fountains pay a licensing fee. Isn’t a soft drink tower or a fountain gun nothing more than a modern day version of the soda fountain? That’s what the officials are arguing as they hit up anyplace that doesn’t sell soda exclusively in bottles. Fortunately, the fee can be as low as $10. Still, it’s something you’d expect from a guy in a white straw hat as he pushes snake oil. How about levying an ice-wagon fee for each reach-in?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Why guns shouldn't be permitted in restaurants

As I've reported here and in my Fohboh blog, gun advocates contend that it's ridiculous to prohibit restaurant patrons from toting concealed weapons into a place that serves alcohol. In jurisdictions stretching from Virginia to Arizona, they're hell bent on changing the laws.

Here are a few recent news developments that they may want to consider before resuming their crusade:
A man displaying a gun in a restaurant accidentally fired it early Saturday morning, killing an acquaintance who was there with him, according to Phoenix police.--AZCentral.com

A man who had a concealed-weapons permit accidentally fired his gun inside a Provo restaurant, hitting his chair. Police say they cited Ernest Fichler for discharging the weapon in city limits. They seized his 9 mm automatic pistol and turned in his license to carry a concealed weapon for state review.--Salt Lake City Tribune

Last year, eight people were slain at bars or clubs in Orlando and unincorporated Orange County, often in disputes with people they barely knew. In one case from east Orange, the deadly brawl literally started over spilled beer and ended with gunfire.--OrlandoSentinel.com

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A political dilemma for restaurants

After losing three potent allies in its struggle to avert a tilt toward unionization, the restaurant industry faces a dilemma this week of nuclear proportions.

The trade has steadfastly resisted what it and other employer groups have dubbed the card check bill, a measure that would greatly ease the organization of more restaurant and small-business staffs into collective bargaining units. It was joined in that effort by a sizable swath of non-unionized corporate America, a veritable Who’s Who of big retailers and service providers, along with the associations that represent them.

But on Saturday, the opposition splintered. Starbucks, Costco and Whole Foods announced they were forming a separate coalition to find a “third way,” a middle path between the legislation posed by unions and the no-way/no-how stance of business. In short, they offered to compromise, and even listed some concessions they would make. Those bargaining chips include allowing union representatives to make their pitch to employees, and moving more quickly to correct employers’ violations of labor laws.

In exchange, the splinter group—the Committee for a Level Playing Field for Union Elections—asked for several major changes in the legislation, including the omission of the all-important card-check provision. That component is seen as critical to labor, and unacceptable to employers, because of the turbo-charge it’d give to unionization. To become the bargaining representative for employees, a union would merely need the signatures of at least half the staff. The decision to sign or not sign the unionization card would be made in public, a process that would replace secret ballots.

Restaurants and other businesses fear the elimination of the secret ballot would subject employees to pressure from organizers and pro-union peers. People would sign the card out of fear, not out of a desire to join a union, they argue.

Labor counters that the bill merely simplifies the process of choosing. The measure’s official name is the Employee Free Choice Act.

The Committee’s breakaway move was quickly blasted both by proponents of the bill and the various businesses and alliances that had stood in unified opposition. I couldn’t find any public statement from the National Restaurant Association, but a number of its allies, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, were pointed in their criticism.

The industry may want to think long and hard before it responds. The card-check bill is favored by the White House and the Democratic Party, and it passed the House during the last session of Congress. Now both chambers are controlled by the Democrats. The legislation's passage doesn't seem far-fetched at all.

Opposition on principle is a laudable thing. But should the industry keep up a fight that it and its allies are doomed to lose? Or should it consider the more moderate proposal put forth by Starbucks, Costco and Whole Foods? Should it consider joining the Committee?

Yeah, it would mean accepting some potentially dangerous provisions, such as the requirement that union representatives be given face-time with staffs (in a neutral place, with a provision as well for employers to make their appeal against unionization). But if the card-check provision is really the rub, might the trade be better off with a third way?

I don’t profess to have the answer. I just hope the industry explores its options and acts on the basis of practical evaluation, not knee-jerk principle.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

No limo drive-thrus for this Presidency

Much has been written about the White House's planned organic garden, where children--presumably the President's as well as others--can learn about healthy eating. Sasha and Malia have already absorbed the concept that fast-food can be very bad for you--much to the frustration of Michelle Obama. Here's an excerpt from a story that was published yesterday on the New York Times' website:
Yet her efforts to teach her daughters about eating right have been successful enough that there are now certain fast-food places — she declined to identify them — where the girls themselves refuse to go.

“Some of them I want to go to, because it’s quick and easy,” Mrs. Obama said, “and you figure, ‘Well, we ate fine all week, guys, let’s go get this.’ They’re like, ‘No, Mommy, we won’t be eating there.’ And I feel like, ‘Darn, where are we going to go?’

The article also reveals that Mrs. Obama is a big fan of French fries. “I could live on French fries,” she said.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Fast-food's new stealth ad

There's nothing in a buzz-stoking new restaurant commercial that identifies the advertiser or what it's pushing. But it's obvious burgers aren't the product. An artist supposedly uses 10 of them (he says 14 in web postings) to recreate an art masterpiece in grease. Only when you go to the touted website, burgergreaseart.com, do you learn who's really plugging what. A hint: Siblings don't always play nice.

See the commercial for yourself:

Wake up and smell the tamarind

This is a Detroit-inspired overture to the restaurant industry's suppliers: We need to talk.

Two weeks ago, at an industry trade show, I heard the executive chef of Princeton University detail the preferences of his young and very particular clientele. The hands-down Number One trend, he stressed, is authentic Indian food.

Coming out of the presentation, I figured I'd see what resources a restaurateur would find on the exhibit floor to ride that trend. The answer was quickly obvious: zero. There wasn't one company listed in the exhibitor directory as being a supplier of Indian fare. Visits to the booths of several mainstream spice, sauce and soup suppliers, including many of the biggest names in the business, verified that I was unlikely to find a single Indian-inspired product, much less something authentic.

I didn't find a hint of the Subcontinent. In some instances, I also didn't find much traffic. The salesmen seemed bored, if not angry and frustrated. I didn't recognize any of them from the breakout presentation I'd just left.

In the course of my search, I saw a booth that was absolutely slammed with shoppers. It was selling what it called micro-greens, including herbs that chefs could grow in windows of their kitchens and pluck for a fresh dash of flavor.

I remembered that the Princeton chef, Bob Harbison, had noted that sauces are regarded by the students he feeds as flavor-maskers, not enhancers, and hence regarded as heavy-handed and unattractive. What's in, he said, are aromatic, fresh herbs.

There, in a slider-sized portion, is my analysis of a major problem for the industry's vendors.

Like my media brethren who remain fixated on print, they're trying to find a way back to the good old days when their products and services were in demand. Short of discovering a time machine, they're going to be bankrupted intellectually (and possibly financially) by that attitude of selling what they know and have, not what their customers' customers want. As a Southern congressman colorfully put it in his recent characterization of the first TARP outlay, "They're shooting behind the rabbit."

It's a dangerous mindset, as General Motors, Chrysler and Ford are currently learning. I have a lot of respect for the major soft-drink companies, but clearly they fell victim to that inertia as Snapple and Red Bull stole new generations of customers. Ditto for newspapers.

I'd hate to see the restaurant industry's suppliers fall prey to that same myopia of "We were making a ton of money off this stuff in better times. We will again when things get better." The operative word there is, were.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Jack to the King: We're the place to have it your way

A new commercial resurrects the classic fast-food promise of customers being able to have it their way. But this time, it's Jack in the Box that's doing the crowing. The chain's globe-headed mascot even threatens to fight Burger King if the bigger brand isn't happy about being challenged on its rights to the slogan.

Folks, I can't make this stuff up. See for yourselves:

NYC passes allergy-related requirement

New York City, the new role model for health departments worldwide, has adopted another food-safety requirement for restaurants. Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a bill yesterday that will require all restaurants in the city to display posters aimed at educating staffs about the dangers of food allergies, according to the Food Allergy Initiative.

Restaurants that fail to post the placard in a place viewable by employees would be subject to $100 fines, according to a draft posted by New York City Council speaker Chris Quinn. The measure didn’t indicate whether eateries would be given the posters or would have to buy them.

FAI announced this morning that it will collaborate with the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to develop the poster. The placard will also be translated into Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Russian languages, to reflect the diversity of New York’s foodservice workforce.

A statement from the mayor was posted today on his website.

Lately, the city’s health department has become the standard-seter for similar operations as far away as London. It banned trans fat use by restaurants, and the trend quickly swept westward. It mandated that calorie counts be posted on chain menus, and everyplace from Philadelphia to California followed suit. Indeed, its decision to address salt content in chain-restaurant food was regarded as a development with national implications.

Is there any doubt that more allergy-related requirements are going to follow in the wake of New York's measure? At least that initiative seems like a relatively effortless one.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

IHOP tries new drinks-focused cafe concept

IHOP is following Burger King’s lead by experimenting with a trendier, downsized take-off that focuses on a few signature products—in the case of the IHOP Café, silver dollar pancakes and coffee drinks.

The prototype for the new concept, first reported by Chris Wolfe on Fohboh, is located in the suburbs of San Antonio. IHOP has already set up a web page, IHOPcafe.com, to tout the venture.

The coffee-heavy menu also extends to smoothies and milkshakes. Food offerings include wraps and sandwich melts.

The IHOP Café came to light just a two weeks after BK unveiled its new Whopper Bar. It, too, is a scaled down, modernized riff that focuses tightly on the chain’s hallmark products.

Bernard Madoff, restaurateur

Oh, no—he was one of ours!

A newly released listing of Bernie Madoff’s assets shows the confessed swindler held an interest in such restaurants as the P.J. Clarke’s in New York’s Wall Street area and the famed La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles, the Bloomberg News Service reported this morning. Now prosecutors say they intend to seize those holdings, along with a slew of others, to recoup what they can for victims of Madoff’s $65-billion Ponzi scheme.

The Bloomberg report, based on documents released Tuesday, also show that Madoff was an investor in an unnamed online delivery service.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Retailers have Xmas, restaurants have the NCAA

With the match-ups set, teams from coast to coast are braced for the tip-off that officially starts March Madness. Some even play basketball.

Far, far more are restaurant staffs braced for what was once merely the NCAA playoffs, the rapid-fire series of elimination games that determines the nation’s best college basketball team. Today, the multi-week stretch clearly reigns along with Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and New Year’s Eve as one of the restaurant industry’s biggest promotional opportunities.

The big chains try to squeeze traffic out of the contest through tie-ins that extend far beyond traditional advertising. Papa John’s, for instance, is the official sponsor of the official March Madness bracket, the schematic that traces who wins or loses at each level of elimination, on Facebook. Arby’s announced a sandwich giveaway that kicks in only if one of the lesser-ranked NCAA contestants should beat a top seed in the first round of games.

Taco Bell has one of the stronger connections. The Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho, is hosting the first series of games.

Raising Cane’s, the chicken-finger specialist, is using the NCAA Tournament as a touchstone for its first-ever targeted marketing campaign. The effort plays off dunking—in its case, the type that involves sauce and chicken-finger-dipping. Fans who want a quick party meal are encouraged to take home one of the 80-unit chain’s Tailgate ready-to-serve platters.

The chains try to connect their brand name to the high-profile tourney. But countless independents and small multi-units use the event as a direct source of business, encouraging fans to watch the games in their booths and bar stools. The Berghoff, a landmark restaurant in Chicago, will be offering $3 “Bar Bites,” free raffle tickets, and beer and bourbon tastings between 2 and 7 p.m. everyday for the next 16 days.

Restaurants in Annapolis, Md., are joining forces in a March Madness-meets-Restaurant-Week sort of promotion, which in turn is tied into a larger sales push by the Annapolis Business Association. For a three-day stretch starting March 27, local merchants will conduct a sidewalk clearance sale, while their foodservice colleagues offer food and drink specials. The intent is to pull residents downtown, where one spouse can shop while the other warms a bar stool, yells at the TV screen, and has a beer.

With the increased reliance on March Madness as a key promotional opportunity has come stepped-up risk as well. Buffalo Wild Wings has warned investors when Ohio State was eliminated early from the tournament. The chain’s units in Ohio are popular places to watch the Buckeyes, and if they’re out of it, who cares how Michigan State might be doing? The fans stay home. (OSU is ranked third in its division this year.)

The rules of promotion are also being formalized. Establishments in Kansas City are reportedly being warned of a crackdown by NCAA enforcers on the unlicensed use of the athletic association’s patented trademarks, including March Madness, the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight.

It's not exactly a key concern for my alma mater, New York University. Once again our team, the fierce-sounding Violets, have yet to be invited to the dance.

The tournament begins Thursday.

Memo to Domino's: Think AIG, dammit

Domino’s has been hooking its marketing efforts to high-profile developments in Washington, like Obama’s appointment of a cabinet (the pizza chain now has a Secretary of Taste) or the bank bailout (today it launched the Big Taste Bailout, a promotion of $5 pizzas and sandwiches). But it’s squandering an opportunity by not jumping on the obvious take-off: The AIG Bonus Package.

“A deal so good they’ll try to overturn it,” the voice-over would explain. “No matter how badly you’ve screwed up, you deserve a payout for the ages. Now, at Domino’s, a soda’s only $1.65 for the first million served—or until the government stops us.”

Think I’ll send it off to Domino’s CEO David Brandon. There could be a free pizza in this for me.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Blue Sage gives patrons final say in pricing

Coming from a restaurant family, Chris Dussin presumably knows all the tricks for pulling first-time customers into a place. But the one he started using last week at The Dussin Group’s two Blue Sage Cafes in Portland, Ore., is probably a first for the son of Old Spaghetti Factory founder Gus Dussin. Indeed, the ploy is novel enough to snag headlines in several local media outlets, helping to achieve the desired end without a separate outlay for marketing or public relations.

Not that the technique is unkonwn. At least one restaurant in the United States has similarly let patrons set the price of what they’re served. The approach has more recently snagged publicity for restaurants in Toronto and the United Kingdom. It may be a matter of time until places embrace the name-your-price tactic as a standard promotional device for the Great Recession, similar to product giveaways in fast-food or the bundling that’s now widely evident in casual dining.

Dussin’s approach has a little more structure than some of the early pay-what-you-want incarnations. In at least a few of those pioneering efforts, patrons were asked after eating to fork over whatever they felt the meal was worth.

Dussin provides guests with what amounts to a manufacturer’s suggested retail price for food items. Customers are presented after the meal with a tab listing the prices of what they ordered. They in effect decide whether that price was worth it. If not, they counter with their final offer. Dussin told OregonLive.com that some guests had indeed penciled in a zero for their charge, but that others had volunteered to pay more than the listed price.

The Your Price is Right promo is scheduled to run at the two casual restaurants until early next month.

The Dussin Group also operates the Old Spaghetti Warehouse chain and another full-service concept called Fenouil.

Obama set to encourage restaurant lending

I’ve slipped on my thick plastic glasses with the tape on the nosepiece because it’s Geek Time. With the possible exception of insurance policies and nuns—wait, scratch nuns—nothing is less sexy than the Small Business Administration and its loans process. Tax forms read like porn in comparison.

Yet the White House is expected to make an announcement today about the SBA that’s of crucial importance to restaurants, and that needs to be noted. Press reports that hit in a flurry yesterday say President Obama will channel some $375 million from the stimulus spending kitty into the SBA’s loan program, a pipeline regularly used by restaurant franchisees. Indeed, the restaurant business is reportedly the most frequent user of SBA loans, which are channeled to small enterprises through designated local banks.

In the world of grassroots restaurant financing, this is hot. Angelina Jolie hot.

Lending to small businesses would also be helped by the infusion of $10 billion in stimulus funds into the secondary credit market. The planned injection is intended to encourage the flow of capital to small businesses by increasing lenders’ confidence they can sell the loans on the so-called secondary market, thereby turning that deal into cash they can then use to make another loan.

Unfreezing capital for restaurant expansion or renovation would be a tremendous boon to the industry. Obama appears to have a blowtorch in one hand, the match in the other.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Germ Fighter in Chief

It was probably just an innocent oversight. “The United States is one of the safest places in the world to buy groceries at a supermarket or pills at a drugstore,” President Obama observed during his weekly radio address this morning. And meals from restaurants, an option apparently appreciated by our Consumer in Chief? Why wasn’t that thrown in there? Did his speechwriters get burned in the Quiznos giveaway fiasco and now harbor a grudge?

It may be an academic point. The President used his address to announce the formation of a Cabinet-level task force, the Food safety Working Group, to hammer out ways of better safeguarding our food supply. Presumably our whole food supply, including that branch of the pipeline that ends on a restaurant plate or sandwich wrapper.

Given how many things must be starred on Obama’s to-do list, the inclusion of “Improve food safety” underscores just how off-kilter the food protection system has been knocked. It should also stop the industry’s grousing that the party it traditionally favors isn’t sitting in that big cornerless office on Pennsylvania Avenue. Coming on the eve of what food safety specialists know as E. coli Season, the efforts by a Democratic White House can only be a good thing for a business that makes its money by selling food.

Best of all, the Administration is spending $1 billion on an upgrade of food-safety labs and the hiring of more Food & Drug Administration inspectors. It’s the additional funding that all stakeholders, from consumer advocates to food manufacturers to trade associations, have cited as critical to reinvigorating a withered FDA. The only party that seemed to disagree was the one previously occupying the West Wing.

More funding is still needed to help local jurisdictions hire sanitation inspectors, the individuals who visit restaurants to ensure they’re helping themselves in averting food-borne illness. Some towns have cut back or altogether eliminated those frontline watchdogs because of forced cutbacks.

Seems to me the industry has never had a better chance of making sure those grass-roots safeguards are in place.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Diet group vows to go gut-to-gut with fast food

An advocacy group called Corporate Accountability International sent letters today to the Big Four U.S. fast-food companies, basically telling them, “You’re mine, bitch.” As a simultaneous press announcement explained, the group is commencing a war to secure such concessions as having McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s/Arby’s and Yum! Brands pick up the health-care expenses for diet-related illnesses.

The Boston-based organization has targeted those companies and their nine chains, but its mission extends to the whole fast-food sector. For instance, it wants to stop fast-food advertising and promotions aimed at minors. It’s also calling on the business to “not interfere” in efforts to ban or limit fast-food sales.

“The campaign aims to stem the global tide of diet-related disease, in which fast food giants are playing a central role,” states the press release.

The 32-year-old CAI claims it’s been successful in curbing past abuses by corporate giants (and foodservice industry vendors) like Nestle and General Electric. Tobacco and bottled water, a major product line of Nestle, seem like particular areas of pressure.

The text of the letters was not disclosed, so it’s unclear if the tone was cordial, demanding or out-and-out threatening. I’m putting my money on the latter. Check out the group’s special industry-related website to find out why.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bourbon burgers further blur the lines

Be careful where you stand in today's restaurant market, because the ground appears to be melting. Turf that once defined a segment is oozing into other realms, blurring consumers' perceptions of where they can get a certain product and what they'll likely pay. That's good news if you're a fast-food concept catching consumers on the way down, but more reason to whine and thump your chest if casual dining is the ground you've homesteaded. Witness, for instance, the advent this week of fast-food whiskey--available just as a flavoring at this point.

Ribs or burgers flavored with bourbon or Jack Daniels were once the signatures of casual dining. Indeed, T.G.I. Friday's Jack Daniels grill menu was undoubtedly one of the most successful undertakings of its time.

But as of today you can get a Kentucky Bourbon Burger at Carl's Jr. Yesterday, Burger King unveiled its Bourbon Whopper, one of the new sandwiches showcased at the chain's new Whopper Bar, itself a deliberate encroachment on casual dining's turf.

I don't have the prices of the new burgers, but presumably they're a significant step down from the charge on casual dining menus. It's Carl's Six Dollar Burger mentality, carried to the next logical product.

Then again, turnaround is fair play. One of casual dining's big successes in recent years has been the introduction of sliders, the little burgers that were once a mainstay of the quick-service sector. Now the big fast-food chains like Burger King, Jack in the Box and McDonald's are copying the casual dining specialists who copycatted fast-food brethren like White Castle and Krystal, the originators of sliders.

Similarly, casual dining made a grab for traditional quick-service turf when it moved chain by chain into the take-out market, cleverly differentiated from the fast-food variety by the name "curbside takeaway."

Ironically, if the industry was smart, it'd stop stealing ideas in-house and try to, um, catch some inspiration from today's true foodservice successes, the supermarket/takeout shop hybrids like Tesco's Fresh & Easy and Walmart's Marketside. They've hit on some Harry Potter formulas that could make life extremely difficult for restaurants, regardless of whether they're competing on price, convenience or even quality. They're the innovators whose ideas should be plundered--er, complimented, I meant to say, as in imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

8 restaurant cos. put on Moody's 'death watch'

Eight restaurant companies, including the parents of Outback Steakhouse and Arby’s, have been included on a list of companies rated by Moody's as the most likely to default on their debts.

In addition to OSI Restaurant Partners and Arby’s Restaurant Group, presumably a predecessor of what’s now Wendy’s/Arby’s Restaurant Group, the 283-company list includes El Pollo Loco Inc.; Perkins & Marie Callender’s Inc.; Chevys and El Torito parent Real Mex Restaurants; and Sagittarius Retaurants Inc., apparently an affiliate of Del Taco and Captain D’s parent Sagittarius Brands.

The roster also lists a company called Rare Restaurant Group LLC, identified as being in the fast-food business, which suggests it is not connected with Rare Hospitality, the steakhouse operator that’s now part of Darden Restaurants.

The list has been posted in its entirety by the financial website SeekingAlpha.com.

Moody’s calls the list The Bottom Rung, but media reports have opted for more colorful slugs, including "company dead pool"; "dead companies walking"; and "the death watch."

Most also note the credibility of Moody’s Investors Service has been called into question by its failure to anticipate the meltdown in mortgage-backed investments. The catastrophic collapse was not foreshadowed by the risk ratings of Moody’s or the two other major financial rating services.

Moody’s is quoted as saying about 45% of the Bottom Rung concerns will default on their debts during the next year. One list-ee, Eastman Kodak, has already blasted the report as “irresponsible” and inaccurate.

Utah looks to liberalize serving laws. To a point.

Some of us discovered yesterday that we’d failed to set our clocks ahead over the weekend, leaving us an hour behind everyone else. In Utah, lawmakers must’ve looked at their calendars and realized their gap was more like a century. They agreed to catch up, more or less, by updating liquor-serving laws that had stigmatized their restaurants as the Amish of foodservice.

Under an accord that was hammered out as a way to boost tourism, no longer will someone in the state have to join a “club,” with minimum annual dues of $12, if they wanted a drink with dinner. Nor will restaurants be required anymore to separate patrons from the bartender by a screens, known as Zion curtains, or a 10-foot wall, as one lawmaker had urged. A bartender could pour a drink and hand it to the patron, a quantum leap from where the heavily Mormon state had been in its attitude toward drink sales.

But reason didn’t totally prevail, not by a long shot. Patrons are to be carded until age 35. The proof of age is not only checked, but scanned or otherwise captured by the serving establishment and kept for a week, a probable spoiler for anyone concerned about identity theft.

And the 10-foot-wall requirement wasn’t scuttled, just narrowed in its focus. New restaurants will have to include the partition, so children can’t see drinks being mixed or poured, and existing places would be required to add one if they renovate.

The compromise measure has yet to be put to a vote, but proponents and opponents agree that it will likely be passed, and quickly. If passed, the new law would go into effect in mid-May.

Friday, March 6, 2009

YouTube may be more their tube after all

Online videos are supposed to be a great leveler, allowing any pulse-bearer with a camera to become a star. Think of YouTube celebrities like “unsexy newsman” Philip DeFranco, “dance historian” Judson Laipply, or even the skateboarding bulldog.

Yet the big and supposedly un-cool restaurant chains are clearly making more of a splash in that grassroots medium than independents or regional brands. Yesterday proved the point, with the internet buzzing about this goof on KFC from Mel Gibson and Jimmy Kimmel Live!...

…and this response from KFC’s mega-sized parent, Yum! Brands:

And let’s not forget the latest from Jack in the Box, which has been on a video binge with its recent focus on the near-death experiences of mascot Jack Box:

Contrast that with this YouTube video from Pal’s Sudden Service, a regional quick-service chain with a cult following:

…Or this spot from an independent in Utah:

Clearly the big brands are digging into their deeper pockets to come up with better conceived and executed spots. Money, it appears, can indeed buy edginess.

More blurring of retail/restaurant line

The resilience of the fast-food market during these perilous times hasn’t gone unnoticed by BJ’s, the regional club store chain. Executives told investors the warehouse membership chain expects revenues to rise by 4 to 6% during 2009, driven by increased sales at in-store food courts. And that’s after a 4% rise in revenues during the last three months of ’08, which they attributed to only two factors: food courts and propane sales.

Understandably, the retailer cited food courts as a primary strategic focus for 2009, along with product demos, a signature of arch-rival Costco.

Costco, meanwhile, says its food court business is also going strong, though officials did not divulge figures during their conference call with investors. They did note, however, that sales of take-home items like pizza have soared "dramatically." Costco's signature deal is a quarter-pound hot dog and a 24-oz. soda, sold as a meal for $1.50.

BJ's execs attributed the improved performance of that chain’s food courts to an emphasis on quality and the addition of such brands as Uno’s, Ben & Jerry’s and Green Mountain Coffee. BJ’s currently has 180 stores in 15 states.

The officials noted that sales of prepared meals were strong during the fourth quarter of 2008, but did not break out figures.

Meanwhile, they said, stores’ frozen-food departments saw “very strong sales” of products affiliated with restaurant chains, including The Cheesecake Factory, the Fresh City fast-casual chain, Panera Bread Co., Legal Sea Foods and Boston Market. The retailer also now stocks products licensed by Todd English, the famed chef.

Another point likely of interest to restaurateurs: BJ’s sales of organic and natural foods soared 20%.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Why YOU need a Romeo Decoder Ring

Orders for my patented Restaurant Industry Decoder Ring have fallen sharply since the economy tanked. Perhaps a live demonstration would reverse the trend. And what better opportunity than this evening’s announcement from Brinker International?

The statement hails the “organizational changes” that were undertaken by the parent of Chili’s and Maggiano’s to “maximize leadership talent and create additional synergies.”

Wow!! I'm not sure of what that means, but it sounds big. A groundbreaking new business model, perhaps? With an org chart that looks like the playbook diagram for a triple quarterback sneak?

Nope. Indeed, all the statement could’ve been de-hyped into what is now the fifth paragraph, with two follow-up sentences. Dave Orenstein, president of Brinker’s On The Border brand, is parting with the company. His duties are being assumed by Todd Diener, who’ll continue to lead Chili’s, as he has for 10 years. I know that because Brinker felt obliged to tout his 27 years of leadership with more spin than a rinse cycle.

Less clear is why Wyman Robert, president of the Maggiano’s chain, is also assuming the duties of chief marketing officer. Two for the price of one, maybe?

Sorry. Let me put that in corporate-ese: To optimize payroll expenditures with synergistic governance and minimized potential for miscommunication within the leadership ranks, two positions were synergized into a lone assignment.

I don’t understand why Corporate America still believes anyone would be fooled by language straight out of a script for “The Office.”

Okay, back to perfecting my next invention, the Summer Snuggie. With the right catalog photography, no one's going to think, "hospital gown."

Jack in the Box avoids that kind of box

Jack is back. Sorry that I wanted to kill you, Big Fella. That kooky campaign was just getting to me. Sort of the way a car alarm gets to you when it keeps blaring for three or four hours.

Turns out I wasn't alone, either. Forty-five percent of the readers who expressed a preference on your fate said they favored pulling the plug. But we did feel your memory should be kept alive through a nose transplant, even if the schnoz would've looked ridiculous on anyone but Frosty the Snowman.

Anyways, I'm making it up to you by showcasing the new logo, which appears to be one of the prime reasons for your hit-by-a-bus campaign. Next time, just go for the press conference and maybe a YouTube video.

Restaurant bars: The devil's YouTube?

I don’t know why the nation is preoccupied with fluff like the economy or wars when our very future is being threatened—-by Chili’s, no less. Our youths are probably imperiled by the likes of Applebee’s, T.G.I. Friday’s and Ruby Tuesday, too, but they weren’t singled out by the president of Utah’s senate, who wants walls built between restaurants’ bars and the areas used by the public. Otherwise, fears Republican Michael Waddoups, youngsters can see drinks being made! Why not just sit ‘em down and slide a cosmo their way?

In any other state, such a suggestion would be dismissed as outlandish showboating for the fundamentalist right. But not in Utah, where headlines announced yesterday that full-strength beer can now be sold. Because of the Mormon population, drinking can be as contentious there as abortion is elsewhere.

Places that serve liquor already have to isolate drink prep areas with a partition, known locally as a Zion curtain. But it can be a short partition made of glass, which still exposes young people to the glamour of alcohol, in the view of abundant pro-temperance forcese.

Waddoups learned that firsthand when he visited a Chili’s in January, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. The paper reported that a bill introduced this week would require the construction of a wall at least 10 feet high between bartenders' work areas and where patrons mill about. It was introduced not by Waddoups but by a fellow Republican, state Sen. John Valentine.

The initiative does provide for an alternative: Mix and pour the drinks away from public view in a back room. Which, in at least some instances, might have to be constructed.

The measure has already been approved by the Senate Business and Labor Committee, according to the Trib.

The proposal to halt public drink preparation was filed as Utah pols were considering a measure that would eliminate the need for even the Zion curtain. Proponents like the governor argue that Utah has to catch up with the times if it wants to foster tourism, and that means loosening up the state’s serving laws. For instance, restaurants’ bars would be acknowledged for what they are, not private clubs nestled check-to-jowl with dining rooms, as the law currently regards them. Visitors wanting a beer would not have to go through the charade of joining a “club.”

The Senate is debating the perils of drinks being mixed in full view after passing a measure Tuesday that permits employees to bring guns into the parking lots of the places where they work.

Seems to me they may want to rethink priorities.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Arby's tries a Jan Brady strategy

Who would’ve picked Wendy’s as the better performer for its new parent? Yet the burger chain clearly left its sister, the Arby’s sandwich concept, getting cold under the heat lamps at the end of 2008.

The sandwich chain will attempt to close the gap this year with what could be dubbed the Jan Brady Defense, a.k.a. I’ll Show That Marcia: Hit your sibling with a putdown while trying to be just like her.

The putdown part is everywhere, from Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue to social-media sites like Twitter and gads of internet pages where moms share coupons for free stuff. The chain will be the sponsor latter this month of the NCAA March Madness playoff brackets showcased on Facebook. The promotional efforts all tout Arby’s new Roastburgers, “the burger done better.”

The next phase will be claiming the high ground in the sandwich segment, just as Wendy’s asserts it's the best in burgers. Slated for later this year are introductions of more premium sandwiches made with roasted meats, including turkey, ham, and one of Wendy’s staples, chicken.

But, like Wendy’s, Arby’s is trying to win bargain-hunters at the same time by studding its menu boards with a few head-turning deals. CEO Roland Smith said the sandwich chain has concluded tests of a dollar menu, a pick-four-for-$5 bundling deal, and $1.99 roast beef “patty melts.” The most successful of those trial items, he told investors yesterday, will be introduced later this year. But, of course, he didn’t say which of those it would be. The tease came after he'd attributed the chain’s drop in comparable sales at the end of 2008 to heavy discounting by other fast-food sandwich specialists.

Smith may have foreshadowed Arby’s discounting efforts by talking about Wendy’s roster of bargains, all priced at 99 cents. The line-up has been trimmed down, with such choices as chili, a baked potato and chicken nuggets shifted off that section of the menu and repriced at $1.19 to $1.39. A new ad campaign spotlights three of the remaining value lures, including a double burger.

That re-engineering has lowered the percentage of sales generated by the value menu to 15%, compared with 20% a year earlier. Smith called that mix “more in line with our peers.”

Smith suggested that Wendy’s margins might be helped by a plan to launch a purchasing co-op later this year.

Meanwhile, he revealed, the burger specialist will try to underscore its premium position by upgrading its sandwich buns, adding new premium chicken items, and developing a signature hamburger that commemorates the concept's 40th anniversary.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Is CSR the industry's next big issue?

Welcome to the new frontier for the restaurant industry, and its big players in particular. Of course you’d never know that from the turnout of foodservice concerns at this first-of-a-kind meeting, a conference on corporate social responsibility. Representation from the trade amounts to two companies: McDonald’s and Sodexo, the giant contract catering concern. And Sodexho was thwarted from attending today’s event, where I’m writing this, by the snowstorm that hit New York City.

Full disclosure: I was only there because my wife works on conferences for the Financial Times, the event’s presenter. Indeed, I kept stumbling over the topic. Corporate what? Isn’t that the same as being green? And how much social investing is actually being done? It can’t be a big deal, right? And if it is such a major emerging trend, wouldn’t the restaurant industry be aware of it?

My ignorance was promptly corrected, and not for the first time.

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is already a familiar term in plenty of other businesses. Not so within foodservice, or at least not yet. Yum! Brands, the parent of Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, generated headlines in the trade media when it issued a CSR report in December, detailing what it’s doing in areas ranging from sustainability to sourcing, transparency in governance, hiring practices, community involvement and fighting obesity.

As usual, McDonald’s is also taking a leadership position on the matter.

Once you get past a handful of forward-thinking concerns, there’s virtually no talk of CSR, just a discussion of two important components, sustainability and workforce diversity. That’s puzzling, given the industry’s pride in being part of the social fabric, a veritable cornerstone of the community and economy.

That inattention could be a problem. As speakers here at the conference repeatedly stressed, more and more investors are now evaluating CSR in deciding what companies get their money. A keener interest is also evident among consumers. Employees, too, especially the generations marching behind the Baby Boomers. Wal-Mart, for instance, now works with its employees to help them identify and pursue a personal sustainability program, a component of the retailing giant’s ambitious CSR effort, as a speaker explained from the podium.

Indeed, CSR seems to be of as much interest within the larger business community as sustainability currently is in foodservice. It’s only a matter of time until restaurant operators realize that CSR isn’t a hit TV series.

“It is not a genie that’s going back in the bottle. It’s part of the new world we’re facing,” said Tim Smith, a senior vice president of Walden Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm that handles a $1.7 billion portfolio for institutions and wealthy individuals.

One speaker noted that New York City and Florida, among other jurisdictions, now have CSR questions on the forms all fund managers have to fill out when they hope to handle any of the government's institutional funds, like pensions. The forms ask about the managers' social-responsibility investment strategies--what criteria they use to pick the companies whose securities they're willing to buy. If a restaurant concern didn't meet those standards, it's out of consideration.

Because the topic encompasses so much, from sourcing to packaging to board composition, and preoccupies investors as well as staff and patrons, it promises to hit foodservice with a wallop. Part of the impact, I fear, will be sheer surprise.

Fortunately for the business, much of the content at the conference dealt with the fundamentals of CSR—sourcing with social responsibility in mind, what socially responsible investors look for, how CSR can be pushed forward, what coalitions should be formed, and what all stakeholders could do to promote social consciousness in business. Much of the content dealt with sustainability, an aspect familiar to restaurants.

But the conference left no doubt that more and more restaurant companies will be forced by the attention of Wall Street and Main Street to make CSR a part of their vocabularies.

“It not something that’s nice to have. It’s not a new philanthropy. It’s not something that falls by the wayside when times get tough,” remarked an executive of Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical giant. It’s a new business reality, she stressed.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Caffeine capers on the rise?

It’s a weekday morning and you’re waiting for your chai latte with the other sleepy Starbucks customers crowding around the pick-up counter. Finally, the barista shouts, “John, chai latte.” A fellow a few yards over utters a “Right here!” and picks up the drink. A coincidence, sure, but not exactly one for Ripley’s.

So you wait and wait. Finally, you approach someone behind the counter. The drink was served up long ago, they explain. Someone else took it. And there’s not another chai latte for John on order.

That sequence of events has been happening frequently enough to prompt Starbucks outlets at the University of Tennessee to start checking a customer's receipt before handing over a drink, according to a website run by the school’s journalism program.

Given the economy, does anyone doubt it’s a mild scam that’ll soon be on the rise?

California about to ban plastifoam?

California is "on the verge" of passing a statewide ban on Styrofoam, Michael Oshman, executive director of the Green Restaurant Association, told a thinly populated room of restaurateurs at the New York restaurant show.

Oshman also warned that legislation discouraging or banning the use of plastic bags is sweeping the nation.

Oshman was addressing why restaurateurs should consider making their operations and menus more environmentally friendly. One of the advantages of acting now, he stressed, was looking like a forward-thinker before green measures are mandated by law. "It's going to happen anyway. Why not look like a hero?" he said.

And rest assure, he addedr, green "legislation is going to shoot up even more than it has already."

Oshman noted that a number of municipalities in California have already banned plastifoam. They include several cities in the Bay Area. The next step would be rolling the ban across the state, and asserted the state government is already close to doing so.

Industry lobbyists look to walk a fine line

The restaurant industry will have to be careful as it contends with a legislative threat that arose last week on Capitol Hill. A provision introduced in the Senate would prohibit the 421 financial institutions receiving federal bailout assistance from holding parties, celebratory dinners or other entertainment-type events, according to Michael Kaufman, the current chairman of the National Restaurant Association.

“Think of the effects of that bill on the hospitality industry,” Kaufman said during a presentation at the New York restaurant show this afternoon in New York City.

Kaufman cited the initiative as an example of the legislative proposals the Association regularly monitors and attempts to temper or defeat.

Good luck this time around. Lynch mobs probably formed after word leaked out of lavish parties being held by some of the banks that received billions in aid from the U.S. Treasury Department. The NRA will have to move delicately as it tries to preserve a lucrative source of event business for restaurants. Otherwise, it’ll look as if the industry is an enabler for the banks’ lavish shenanigans.

During his presentation, Kaufman also revealed the NRA is in the later stages of developing a new healthcare insurance program for the industry. He noted that the Association’s current chief, Dawn Sweeney, joined the group about a year ago after helping AARP develop a breakthrough healthcare program for its members. That acumen, he suggested, is being applied to the industry’s longstanding quest for affordable insurance for the rank-and-file.

An NRA director in attendance said he believes the program under development could cut the healthcare bill for him and his wife by more than $3,000.

What the Millenials are eating

Chef Robert Harbison, executive chef of Princeton University, provided a rundown during the New York show of Gen Y-ers’s dining preferences, as indicated by what his 7,000 customer-students want or don’t want to eat. Here are what he identified as the new favorites of that younger generation, along with a few comments:

--“The biggest trend right now? Authentic Indian cuisine is huge. It is taken off to the point where we’re having a hard time in keeping up.”

--“Flatbreads are the new pizzas. What’s good about it? It’s a very inexpensive product, much less expensive than a dough ball. My margins are great. You can’t put a lot of stuff on there because it has to cook fast. You put a little bit of stuff, with intense flavors.”

--Authentic street foods are big, he said, citing crepes in particular. The students went crazy when he tried them, Harbison recounted. “There again, the margins are great.”

--Noodle bars, despite the execution challenges.

--Sliders. “I do a lot of slider desserts. I’ll do a strawberry shortcake slider. A gelato ice-cream sandwich. I can get a pretty good dollar for these, and they cost us nothing.”

“We don’t use ‘tiny’ or ‘small,’ we use ‘flights,’ or ‘tapas.’ Or ‘sliders.’ We want to say this is something different,” not something that’s been trimmed or skimped down.

--“Functional food is hot right now, and will continue to be hot. But we’ll be looking at the origins of these foods. They’ll prefer to take foods with natural characteristics instead of artificial ones.”

--Aromatic herbs, not reductions, sauces and other flavor maskers.

--“They’re buying coffee at a younger age. It’s amazing to see someone who’s 12-years-old buying a mocciatta.”

“Why is this happening? They’re not drinking as much alcohol. Cigarettes aren’t as cool as they were for us, and they need their stimulants.”

-- “Wrapped over all of this, and I can’t stress this enough, is sustainability. We’re using local cheeses, local breads, using organic deli meats.”

He also provided a few heads-up about what the so-called Millenials don’t like:

--“Genetically modified organisms—that is a huge topic. It’s going to be a mess. That is a big can of worms. These kids today are pretty freaked out by it.”

--Reductions. “Kids don’t know what a reduction is.” If you have a good flavor in the basic ingredients, like the chicken you’re using, a sauce isn’t needed, he explained. The students are accustomed to those clean yet pronounced tastes.

Encouraging signs from the NY restaurant show

Today I’m attending the International Restaurant & Foodservice Show of New York, a regional gathering that has managed to draw bodies despite a dramatic drop-off in traffic at most industry meetings of recent years. Especially hard-hit have been the big national conferences, with local events like this one picking up some of the fall-out.

This year doesn’t appear to be an exception, despite the economic climate. The first educational session I attended, on the menu preferences of the so-called Millenial Generation, had a turnout that would be good in the best of times. We’re talking 11:30 on a cold, snowy Sunday. Yet there had to be at least 40 people there.

The same pleasant surprise was served up on the show floor. There was actually a back-up at the entry points as attendees tried to thread their way into the exhibit area. At midday, I couldn’t get down some aisles.

But that didn’t mean all booths were busy. Indeed, there were glimmers of a pattern. Artisan products like cheeses or desserts seemed to be drawing interest, whereas the booths of some well-known industry brands seemed to have far less traffic. New products, like micro-greens, had a throng. Not so some of the old familiar sorts of products.

Interestingly, the first session this morning was on the eating habits of Gen Y-ers. The hottest trend within that crop of tomorrow’s customers, according to presenter-slash-Princeton Executive chef Robert Harbison, is authentic Indian cuisine.

I wasn’t exactly tripping over booths hawking those sorts of products on the show floor.