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.

No comments: