Monday, July 13, 2009

This just in

Here’s a quick sampler of news tidbits that might have slipped past you this Monday. Indeed, they seem to have escaped attention by the restaurant industry in general, which is strange, given the surprise they pack. And that surprise isn’t going to be regarded by all as pleasant.

Chris Sullivan is building another chain. The co-founder of Outback Steakhouse and an icon of the business is a partner in a fledgling casual-dining chain called Café Caturra, the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported Friday. A spokesperson for OSI Restaurant Partners, the current parent of Outback, describes Sullivan’s role as being “more of a mentor” for the Richmond, Va.-based start-up. But the article suggests his participation is more extensive than that.

Chipotle pushes “Food, Inc.”, the controversial documentary about factory farming and the ills ascribed to it, including E. coli outbreaks. Chipotle is sponsoring free airings of the movie in 32 cities, and units are also urging patrons to see the flick. The burrito chain said it add a bonus feature to the DVD of the film when it’s released later this year to highlight Chipotle’s commitment to sustainable agriculture.

Terms of the promotional arrangement weren’t revealed.

In years past, a mob of noose-wielding restaurateurs would have formed if one of their own had supported sharp criticism of the food served in their establishments. Chipotle suggests it’s supporting the flick in a classic show of capitalism, albeit from a unusual vantage point. “I hope that all our customers see this film,” said Chipotle founder and co-CEO Steve Ells. “The more they know about where their food comes from, the more they will appreciate what we do.”

In any case, the chain is bravely taking a different stance in the ongoing debate over how the nation’s feeders—the very food supply system—may be contributing to major societal ills.

Jason’s Deli goes on the road with a health message. Chipotle’s claims about the purity and sustainability of its food are well known to the general public. Indeed, “Food with integrity” is a key marketing message.

Lesser known, probably, is the pure-foods stance of Jason’s Deli, the 200-unit southern chain (as compared with Chipotle’s 800-plus stores). It can’t crow as loudly about its extensive use of organic ingredients, and its efforts to reduce the salt, fat and calorie content of its fast-casual fare.

Now Jason’s is going on tour to spread the word about the importance of consuming such fare—not to consumers, but to school-board officials, academics and even fellow restaurateurs. Execs are traveling the country to meet with educators in 14 nations for a discussion of food’s impact on health, according to a news report last week in The Packer, a publication for the food industry. In addition, “We’re trying to get restaurants interested in cleaning up their menus,” Jason’s co-owner Rusty Coco told The Packer.

The same posse that might’ve formed for Ells in bygone years would no doubt have had Coco’s name right below his.

Sir Richard Branson, restaurateur. The mogul behind the various Virgin businesses—airlines, record stores, etc.—has quietly added a U.S. foodservice holding to his empire. The avid environmentalist is building a “farm-to-fork” eco-resort, Natirar, in Raritan, N.J., not far outside New York City (Natirar is Raritan spelled backwards).

The facility sounds as if it will be a Stone Barns-like complex, with fields growing the produce served in a restaurant on the grounds. The twist is the eco-minded cooking school also envisioned for the 90-acre complex.

It’s scheduled to open later this summer. Perhaps Chipotle could lend it a copy of “Food, Inc.,” with an intro from Jason’s.

No comments: