Thursday, September 17, 2009

You have the answers?

Recent days have left me with some nagging questions about the restaurant industry. For instance…

What if “local” doesn’t necessarily mean “better”? Patrons are clamoring right now for more local ingredients in their restaurant meals, a propensity stoked by the belief that foodstuffs grown nearby have to be fresher, more flavorful and more nutritious.

But does that equation pencil out? Don’t growing conditions make some areas the ideal source for produce, even if they’re hundreds or thousands of miles away? And can a farmer with a truck always beat a well-oiled supply chain in getting materials to a kitchen?

That thought came to mind as I was making a salad with lettuce I’d grabbed up in my local supermarket because the bag was marked, “Grown Here On Long Island!” A half-hour later, I was trying to chop the leathery Romaine, a task akin to slicing wet tissues. The heads might’ve been produced locally, but perhaps not in the current calendar year.

Nor was the flavor as good as some of the mass-market brands available here, like Andy Boy or Dole.

Lest you think I’m palate-damaged numbskull who can't grasp the advantages of local fare, keep in mind that my father ran a millionaire’s estate/farm when I was growing up. One of my jobs was to head down to the garden and get the lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes that would figure into my family’s dinner, typically served a few minutes later. I know freshness, and I know what good lettuce tastes like. And, in my experience, local lettuce doesn’t always equate to better. Ditto for strawberries, melons, tomatoes and broccoli.

What happened to our outrage? Kanye West pulls a dunderheaded move for the ages and, justifiably, he’s almost voted off the planet. On the same day his transgression comes to light, Share Our Strength reports the first flush of an investigation into classroom hunger. Teachers were asked. “Do you see child hunger in your classroom?”

Quoted was a San Antonio instructor identified as Kate, who spoke about a second-grader in her school named Kimberly. The child must have qualified for the school lunch or breakfast program, because, Kate noted, she could count on getting a meal at school.

“Anytime we had leftovers,” Kate said, “she would always want to take them home. She’d wrap up the leftover food to take home to her little brothers and sisters. She was a second grader trying to make sure her family got fed.”

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have had a chance if it weren’t for school. It was still the great equalizer in my day, the opportunity that largely offset the accidents of birth. And today we have 7 or 8-year-olds whose attention is diverted from basic math or reading by the need to feed her siblings.

With all due respect to music stars, isn’t that a little more galling than Taylor Swift getting dissed?

Who drugged the nation’s restaurateurs? Being a geek, I peruse virtually all the financial reports of publicly owned restaurant companies. It's like packing your iPod with blues songs and dirges, then putting it on Shuffle mode.

Lately, just to get a bit of relief, I’ve taken to reading the reports of supermarket and c-store chains. They should be delivered with confetti, noisemakers and party hats. The big source of their growth is in prepared meals, partially prepared meals, and rawer foodstuffs that can be turned into meals in lieu of a restaurant outing. In short, they’re eating the industry’s lunch.

Yet the restaurant trade seems oblivious to the loss. The only noticeable reaction has been to strike more licensing deals with food processors. That way, the chains figure, they at least pocket a few pennies from the dollars being spent on frozen entrees and other grocery products.

If you can’t compete on price, as restaurants likely can’t, at least the industry should tout service. Yet have you heard much about experience in restaurants’ commercials or other promotional efforts? Can you recall any marketing push that made a convincing case for restaurant service?

It’s as if the industry is ceding its dinner business, with vows to win it back once the economic climate improves.

But that recovery effort could be far, far more difficult than the industry imagines.

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