Thursday, April 30, 2009

A sampling of restaurants' responses to swine flu

Certainly everyone in the restaurant business is talking about swine flu. But is anyone doing something about it?

The situation in Mexico City would suggest that health experts view restaurants as a critical control point in the outbreak, to use the HACCP term. Eateries there at Ground Zero have been ordered to stop serving dine-in patrons, though takeout is still permitted.
Yet, amid the 24/7 gush of swine-flu coverage, there’s been astoundingly little reporting on what U.S. restaurants are doing to cope. Here are some of the few examples I’ve been able to find: 

 Robbie Singh of Nashville was visiting his fiancé in Morelia, outside of Mexico City, marveling at the number of mask-clad locals he encountered. picks it up from there:
At the time, he was unaware that the swine flu had started to spread quickly until [he started] receiving text messages from his boss — Michael King, owner of Monell's family-style restaurant. 

"I was worried on several levels," King said. "I wanted him to be OK and didn't want him to bring it back either. Not in a restaurant. I told him to get checked the minute he got back. Then I was alarmed when the cases hit in New York. I had a customer eating with a facemask on, putting it down to put food in his mouth."
Singh reported to the local U.S. embassy in Morelia in case of quarantine and the shutting down of airports. He purchased masks and hand sanitizers. He was checked for the virus and cleared at a Nashville clinic Tuesday.
A unit of the Mellow Mushroom pizza chain in the Fort Worth area of Texas provided a preview of the nuts-and-bolts work that many restaurants in the U.S. might soon be undertaking. From the local paper, the Star-Telegram:
Less than a mile from McLean Middle School, where a student was diagnosed with swine flu, Mellow Mushroom was taking no chances. "We bleached down every surface people could touch — tabletops, chairs, booths and the handrails outside," said Mike Guinn, manager of the pizzeria on Bluebonnet Circle in southwest Fort Worth. "Then we went to Albertson’s and picked up about 10 hand sanitizer pump jars and put them on all the counters," he said. "Any one of those [McLean] kids or their parents could have been here." 
The manager said precautions include periodic Lysol spraying of the touch-screen cash registers. 

Disposable flu masks?

"I hope not," he said.
Having a name like Smithfield’s in the Carolinas might not be the ideal when many consumers are still mistakenly assuming that porl might be a source of the swine flu contamination. Unconfirmed speculation says the outbreak of Mexico may be linked to a hog farm that supplies Smithfield's, the giant U.S. meat processor.

The 45-year-old Smithfield’s Chicken chain, a Carolinas favorite, decided to deal with the the outbreak head-on. From QSR magazine:
"I didn't really want to put a sign on the window because that would give people the wrong idea," says Richard Averitte, marketing director for Smithfield's Chicken 'N Bar-B-Q, explaining his strategy for notify consumers about the outbreak.

 The company is taking a proactive approach, having already posted to its Web site, Facebook account, and Twitter feed to reassure consumers the Smithfield menu is safe. Averitte has also conducted several local interviews with radio and television outlets. 

"We just want to keep our customers informed," Averitte says. "I wanted to nip it in the bud right now. I wanted to make it crystal clear, get out all the confusion and questions, and state the facts."
Crisis-management experts may not cite the public respone of the Taco Shop in Palm Desert, Calif., as the consummate example of what do to in a media storm. But at least the manager indicated on the record that the joint is mindful of the situation and is taking action to protect patrons. Less-than-forceful reassurance strikes me as preferable than no reassurance at all—if not the shrug that most places seem to be giving the situation. Here’s the news report from the website of a local news station:
Restaurants across the Coachella Valley are taking some steps to keep their clients and employees safe. 

David Jimenez manages the Taco Shop in Palm Desert, and, with the recent flu alert around the world, he's on alert. 

"We got to follow the Health Department rules. The owner said to contact him if we feel sick, so he can take action."
Finally, kudos to the National Restaurant Association for setting up a website as a resource for restaurateurs who are wondering what to do about the situation. 

More important, the association hasn't responded to the opportunists who are using the crisis to push for paid sick leave, a mandate the industry steadfastly opposes. Pushing back would be as unsavory as the lobbying itself. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Panera keeps a cooler head

Panera Bread Co. is betting it can make more lettuce by boosting the quality of the garden variety. 

 The fast-casual chain has adopted “much tighter quality and much tighter temperature controls over our lettuce, all the way from the field through distribution to the bakery-café,” CEO Ron Shaich explained to investors during the franchisor’s quarterly conference call today. “Our lettuce will be far superior to anything you’ll find in the marketplace.”

Tighter management of the supply chain is a common objective of restaurant chains these days, though usually with the intent of squeezing out cost or better protecting the food from contamination or spoilage.  Shaich did not mention either of those advantages.

The fresher lettuce, he said, will help Panera offer $12-caliber salads for $8. Included will be two new ones: a chopped Cobb, and a barbecue chicken chopped salad. 

A wrong time to push

Exploiting the swine flu outbreak is like asking the widow at a funeral if the deceased’s season tickets are up for grabs. Yet two camps of interest to restaurants aren’t hesitating to capitalize on the situation.  And that should make the industry feel a little queasy.  

Yesterday an advocacy group in Oregon used an update on the swine flu situation to push unabashedly on its website for paid sick leave within the state. It noted the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that anyone who feels ill should stay home from work. Yet, it continued, fewer than half the state’s employers pay their workers for sick time. How can they afford to stay home?

“Will the Oregon legislature join San Francisco, Milwaukee and Washington, DC, in guaranteeing paid sick leave to all workers?” wrote Chuck Sheketoff, the leader of a public advocacy group in the state. “If not, why not?”

The plea was accompanied by what looked like a poster showing a young woman sneezing into a tissue. “She’ll be your server tonight,” it read, “and she’s pretty sure it’s contagious.”  

A similar message was issued Tuesday by a group called the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. It, too, asserted that some employees with swine flu may not be able to stay home because of the wages they’ll lose. That, it suggested, also poses a pronounced risk for school-age children. “Parents who cannot stay home with a sick child are more likely to send sick children to school or day care,” said the statement.

Those and other advocates for paid sick leave make a powerful argument. Indeed, I think the industry will eventually have to find a way to offer the benefit in some shape or form, as I’ve stressed before in this space. There are public health implications that the trade will have a tough time in countering. Public safety, after all, trumps economics.  

But, with so many restaurants struggling to survive even without a pandemic, is now really the time to push the measure? And aren’t these defenders of the average citizen being a little hypocritical in using the dire ailments of some to push a political agenda? It just doesn’t seem right. 

 Then again, at least they’re acting on a worthy principle. Not so the yahoos who are using the flu outbreak to justify their xenophobia. 

They’re pointing to the disease’s origination in Mexico as proof that the people of that nation are barely a step up from animals. It’s the ultimate argument, they smugly assert, as to why we shouldn’t let them immigrate here, and why we should ship back the ones who’ve slipped in. You know how Mexicans are, they say with a wink and a sneer. They’re constantly visiting people from the old country. Now they’re bringing killer germs with them.  

You wouldn’t wish swine flu on anyone. But I confess to feeling the temptation. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

5 questions about swine flu's effect on restaurants

1) Might this be a time when reason prevails?

The buzz on the internet could be characterized as cynicism rather than panic or fear. The consensus seems to be, “Isn’t this just the crisis du jour? And as long as it just gives me the flu, what’s the big deal?” If there’s fear, it’s not of eating pork or going to a restaurant. It seems to be prejudice-tinged worry about contamination from Mexicans. Which leads to….

2) What effect will this have on immigration reform?

From a Yahoo Answers message group:
“Most restaurants are saturated with Mexican workers, and I am sure many know someone that recently or constantly travel to/from Mexico; increasing the chance of contracting the Swine Flu. I personal believe we are at higher risk that we think if we often eat out at our local restaurants.”

Consider this snippet from a tirade on, a new network of citizen-journalist reporters and commentators. It comes from Frosty Woodbridge, a popular spokesman for the faction that believes the best immigration policy would be to shoot on sight:
"The current Swine flu spreading across Mexico providesAmericans a glimpse of their future if mass immigration from third world countries continues into the United States.

"It stems from cultural habits that cannot be changed once they migrate over U.S. borders. Third world people lack personal hygiene, collective health habits and educational understandings of how their personal actions promote disease transmission."

Much of the installment deals with toilet-paper disposal norms. I kid you not.

3) Will it affect the turnout for the National Restaurant Association’s big convention next month in Chicago?

4) Does anyone doubt, at least right now, that tourism will be the big loser?

The European Union has already advised residents of member nations to forego all but essential travel to the United States. The U.S. travel industry is clearly worried. The head of its promotional group, the U.S. Travel Association, issued a statement this morning that urges the government to weigh carefully what it says and does about the situation. “We must address the situation with measured, pragmatic responses so as not to cause panic and negative consequences to the economy if health risks are not imminent,” said CEO Roger Dow.

5) Where’s the original reporting on what this means to restaurants?

Where’s the coverage of how the outbreak has affected the sales of places along the border, or in San Diego, or in concepts that might be particularly vulnerable because of its clientele, like Chuck E. Cheese? How about the impact on a chain like Pizza Patron, a brand targeted at the Latino community in the United States?

This is undoubtedly the story of the moment, and restaurants, as the modern-day town square, are in the thick of it. Yet the reshuffling of McDonald’s beverage line-up has generated more coverage so far in the business media. Why are they ceding this story to Twitter?

Friday, April 24, 2009

At a time of menu makeovers, BJ's resets the bar

It looks as if restaurant chains have been pumping espresso into their menu development staffs again. A current project requires me to study recent changes in the bills of fare for several dozen major concepts, and the turnover is astounding. An OSHA crackdown may be in the offing, because some test-kitchen crews are clearly being worked 'round the clock.

Next month could bring a new standard to beat. Yesterday the CEO of BJ’s Restaurants ticked off the changes that’ll be evident in the casual chain’s May menu—as “many as 25 to 27,” said Jerry Deitchle.

Included, he said, will be “10 to 12 new bar drink recipes,” an effort that complements BJ’s ongoing efforts to add more craft beers, upgrade its wine selection, and adopt a “more contemporary” non-alcoholic beverage program.

Other changes include the addition of two new full-size pizzas, a flatbread appetizer pizza, an “absolutely terrific” Thai shrimp lettuce wrap, a new version of Texas-style chicken-fried steak, an updated pot roast, a revamped an renamed Italian chopped salad, and new presentations of its crispy potato skins and meatloaf.

The overhaul was based on a what officials described as a gap analysis of what competitors didn’t offer.

“We didn’t look and say, gee, we need to have a $5.95 lunch bowl or some $5.95 lunch item or a $9 item that we could bring in there,” CFO Greg Levin told analysts during the conference call. It's not "a value perspective that maybe you’re seeing from of [our] peers."

Meanwhile, a store in Austin is testing BJ’s gamble that it can become “the premiere retailer of craft beer in casual dining,” in Deitchle’s words. He explained that BJ’s proprietary brews are “surrounded” by 24 craft beers on tap. The set-up increased the likelihood that patrons would order beer, and boosted the overall average check, he disclosed.

The extended array has already been rolled into at least 20 more stores, Deitchle indicated. “We’re still learning a bit from it,” he said, but “every economic and consumer indication has been very, very positive.”

At the same time, just to keep corporate chef Ray Martin busy, BJ’s is working on a new kids’ menu.

Deitchle mentioned that Martin would be rewarded for his work with a free nine-month cruise around the world. Actually, he didn’t say that, but I figured I’d plant the idea. I feel for you, Ray.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Chipotle: 'Natural' may not be the hook it thought

Say it ain’t so, Steve. Chipotle’s use of natural ingredients was the example everyone cited to prove the consumer mainstream cared about more-wholesome foods. If a chain of more than 800 units could do it, and make a fortune in the process, couldn’t others? It was the reason chain execs across the spectrum were yelping out a “Yes I can!,” as if they were at a tent revival meeting.

But the spirit didn’t move customers as much as everyone might have thought, Chipotle co-CEO and founder Steve Ells admitted to financial analysts Wednesday evening. Consumers would hear the chain’s Food with Integrity marketing promise and fail to see the light.

“One of the things that we found in our research is that we have not been getting credit for the Food with Integrity initiative,” Ells explained. “People understand that Chipotle food tastes better. They don't necessarily associate higher quality ingredients, sustainably raised ingredients, with Food with Integrity…These kinds of things are important, we think, in how we source our food, but our customers tell us this is not the kinds of things that are important to them."

So, he said, the chain will downplay the integrity boast in a new campaign that breaks next month, themed “My Chipotle.” Ells explained that the campaign will tout variety, customization and flavor, with the latter attributed in part to “great quality raw ingredients.” He did not give any indication that the chain would actually downplay its use of natural foodstuffs, just the crowing about it.

The heart of the My Chipotle campaign, Ells said, will be a new website,, where patrons can testify about their love for the food. Customers will be invited to post pictures, videos and audio clips about their favorite items on the menu. Some of that material may then be used in television, radio or print ads, he said.

Among the other gems served up during the quarterly conference call was a quantification of culture’s impact on Chipotle’s finances. Co-CEO Monty Moran observed that a typical outlet of the chain employed a crew of 22 people in 2006, when unit sales average $1.5 million. Today, he said, the headcount is down to 19 staffers, but the per-store mean has jumped to $1.75 million.

The cause, he said, was a carefully cultivated culture that aims to put “our highest performers in the highest impact positions.” In the past year, Moran added, favorable customer comments have doubled, while complaints have fallen.

A thank-you to for posting a transcript of yesterday’s call.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Join me in some machete work?

Those of you who have a life may not be aware that pubic companies have to tag just about everything they say or do with legal mumbo-jumbo that typically begins, “This presentation may contain forward-looking statements.” The drama quickly falls off from there.

The boilerplate legalese is mashed into financial press releases and even executives’ oral presentations by lawyers who hope to shield their clients from lawsuits. Actually, I suspect they really just want to justify an income that keeps them in Armani and Porsches. It’s hard to imagine a tense courtroom scene where the defense attorney reveals the plaintiff was clearly warned in the qualification statement that investors’ uncertainties include, but are not limited to, failure by management to generate sufficient sales. As the crowd gasps, the judge bangs a gavel and dismisses the case. The lawyer grabs a Starbucks for the Porsche ride home, worried his client might discover that the next line in the qualifier reads, “The walrus was Paul.”

I bring up all of this excitement because we’re in the heat of Earnings Season, the equivalent of Ben & Jerry’s Free Cone Day for those of us who pour over restaurant companies’ quarterly earnings releases. The first two days have been a veritable all-rides pass to Six Flags, with company after company reporting improved results. It’s been an extremely newsworthy cycle.

But someone has to point out that the CYA language is getting out of hand. Is it really necessary to include eye-openers like this tip from Yum! Brands’ press release on how to spot a forward-looking statement? To wit: “These statements often include words such as ‘may,’ ‘will,’ ‘estimate,’ ‘intend,’ ‘seek,’ ‘expect,’ ‘project,’ ‘anticipate,’ ‘believe,’ ‘plan,’ ‘should,’ or other similar terminology.” A guy standing in the rainforest with a bone in his nose would shake his head over the need for that heads-up.

So the heck with company earnings. I’m focusing this Earnings Season on lawyer-ly bleatings. Here’s a ranking of the companies that released their financial results yesterday and today, arrayed by the length of their qualifying statements.

And the winner?

Yum! Brands, with a 395-word statement!! But the race was close. P.F. Chang’s legal explanation ran a mere 189 words. But it tacked on another 203 words about GAAP reporting standards. And that stuff makes forward-looking boilerplate read like porn.

Chipotle wasn’t far behind with 377 words.

There was no correlation between company size and statement length. Brinker, for instance, needed only 195 words, and that included a calendar of upcoming forward-looking statements, the financial equivalent of a hidden bonus track on a CD. And McDonald’s, the giant in the field, was able to air the necessary warnings (“Forward-looking statements involve a number of risks and uncertainties.”) in just 73 words.

Forward-looking statements

Statements in this blog entry may not be purely historical. Nor, unfortunately, hysterical. The accuracy of these statements are hit or miss at best. Risk factors include injuries from the writer’s past head trauma, a possible brush with rabies, and repeated admonitions from college girlfriends’ parents. Results may differ materially from what has been shoveled onto the screen.

Off topic: Remembering the first Earth Day

Gather ‘round, youngsters, for a tale from the old guy about the first Earth Day, way back in 1970. It may be hard to believe, given how loudly businesses are crowing about Earth Day ’09 activities, but participating in that first observance was a highly controversial thing. It was intended as a virtual Woodstock of sorts, and taking action was a bold statement that you were going to let your freak flag fly.

So there I was in the big field outside St. Mary’s Elementary School in Roslyn, N.Y., sweating in my green plaid blazer and clip-on necktie as I stooped to pick up litter, the big environmental scourge back then. Our 7th Grade teacher, the young and nonconforming Mr. Casey, had decided we were going to observe this bit of harmonic convergence. Off we went with trash bags, no doubt walking to the field in a perfect line, the boys in their matching junior-executive attire, the girls in jumpers whose skirt had to be below the knee.

We drew plenty of stares from kids in the other classes, and the nuns must’ve been wilting their wimples. Because the field was by the road, cars would slow to take in this dangerous spectacle, the world unraveling right there in River City. This was the type of behavior that led to long hair and loud music, to which Mr. Casey was also introducing us. Regardless of how we looked, here's a picture of what those passers-by saw.

I realize now that, at age 28, he was just a kid himself. I can only imagine what heat he drew from Sister Mary Robertine, the principal who probably studied the Third Reich for management tips. It was bad enough he played Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Tom Rush in our music class. Now he was turning us into hippies.

Today, of course, Earth Day has gone mainstream. That’s a great, great thing, but I’m proud to say that I was eco before eco was cool.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

It's 2 p.m. Do you know where your mascot is?

The restaurant industry continues to be troubled by a rash of celebrity kidnappings.

Fortunately, two of the recent victims were returned without mishap, leading authorities to suspect inside help in at least one of the capers. But the fate of a third remains unknown, stoking fears that Kimberly, Wisc., may never again see the clown to whom everyone looked up. At eight feet tall, he just about guaranteed it.

The fiberglass Ronald McDonald was taken on Saturday, the latest victim of the ongoing crime spree. The pink goat that hangs by the front door of New York City’s Cabrito was swiped about two months ago, and a bronze pig was abducted on April 5 from the front of Miguel’s Cocina, a restaurant in Chula Vista, Calif. Long after Big Boy's icon might as well have been wearing a “Steal Me” sign, mascot swiping is back in vogue.

Or is it? Fans of Cabrito say the restaurant’s beloved symbol would not have been easy to kidnap. It hovered a fair distance off the ground, and New Yorkers typically don’t drive around in cars, complicating getaways when a huge pink goat is involved.

They also note that flyers seeking the return of the goat were ready almost the second its absence was noted, and they were hardly the sloppy, hurried handbills that usually materialize when a cat or puppy goes missing. There’s a growing sense that the kidnapping was an inside job, undertaken with the help of management to generate some publicity. If so, the effort clearly succeeded on that basis.

The Cocina pig’s abduction was caught on video, much to the surprise of the kidnappers. Fearing they could be identified and ultimately, they alerted authorities that the brass mascot could be found unharmed outside the public library.

Media reports note the pig came back in a blanket.

There’s no news on the theft of the Ronald McDonald statue, which ironically had been given to Kimberly Village President Chuck Kuen for safekeeping in his backyard. The statue had formerly been standing near the McPlayland of a unit in nearby Fond du Lac. Its replacement value is set at more than $1,000, though Kuen is quoted as questioning how anyone can put a price tag on the statue’s life.

The Hamburglar has yet to be brought in for questioning.

Is Burger King looking at a new-day sloppy joe?

Call it the Great Sandwich Mystery.

A now-deleted posting on a consumer advocates’ website described what its anonymous author said was an unusual sloppy joe-based sandwich under consideration by Burger King.

The item featured a patty formed from sloppy joes, the chili-like mix of ground beef and sauce that’s typically served in a somewhat soupy state on a roll. The round of compressed sloppy joes depicted on was breaded and deep-fried, according to the post. Its anonymous author said he learned of the test product, and pinched a photo, while participating in a survey conducted by BK.

But the posting was quickly yanked by TheConsumerist, a website run by the same company that publishes Consumer Reports. No reason was given.

The item was apparently on the site long enough for others to re-blog some of the information. even got the photo, which you can see here.

Webizens have given the purported BK product a host of names, including The WTF and, in IckyPeople’s case, the Vomit Burger.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Hamburglar really wants to direct

McDonald’s is exploring the launch of a private TV channel that would provide entertainment and promotional content to patrons visiting one of the chain’s domestic stores, according to a vendor involved in the experiment. The test is scheduled to begin next month in 20 restaurants situated across the country.

A four-month-old showcase unit in Las Vegas and a store in Norwalk, Calif., already offer the McDonald’s Channel, according to the release issued this morning by the vendor, the tech giant Harris Corp.

The statement noted that the Channel would mix “info-tainment,” promotional messages and advertising into the entertainment feed. Examples weren’t provided.

McDonald's apparently hopes the Channel would keep customers in stores longer and provide another reason to visit. Here's a promotional video I stumbled across on YouTube:

McDonald’s has about 13,000 restaurants in the United States and about 30,000 worldwide.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Another ex-Quiznos heavyweight resurfaces

Steve Provost, the one-time George H. Bush speechwriter and longtime executive of KFC, has joined Brinker International's Maggiano's Little Italy chain as senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy. But the real point of dramatic interest is that he's no longer with Quiznos, which he served as chief marketing officer.

The announcement from Brinker, better known as the parent of Chili's, doesn't say when Provost (pronounced "pro-voe") left Quiznos. He was part of the dream team that Greg Brenneman, the turnaround specialist who led Burger King through its comeback effort, had assembled after buying a big stake in the franchisor. Among them was longtime Yum! operations chief Dave Deno, who was brought in as Quiznos' president in January 2008 and ultimately succeeded Brenneman as CEO. He was out five months later.

Provost, who joined Quiznos as CMO in 2007, was presumably one of Deno's direct reports.

Theno resigned for "personal reasons" in February, when Quiznos announced that top day-to-day responsibilities would be given back to Rick Schaden, a prior owner and franchisee of the company and still a significant stakeholder. Brenneman remains involved as executive chairman.

The other big-name member of the Deno team was Clyde Rucker, a Burger King alumnus who joined the sandwich franchisor at almost the same time as Provost did. In September, Rucker was named chief operating officer of Quiznos.

Quiznos, a virtually all-franchised chain, has been beset by rocky franchise relations for years. It recently has been very aggressive in marketing itself against competitors like Subway. Recent steps include the introduction of $5 toasted subs, which matched Subway's discounted price, and, more recently, the rollout of new sandwiches called Torpedos, as in the things that sink subs. They're priced at $4.

Quiznos has about 5,000 stores. Maggiano's has 45. Provost reports to Maggiano's president Wyman Roberts, who also serves as CMO for all of Brinker.

McD's own private Domino's

By now, even people with analog television service are likely aware of the shenanigans two Domino's employees pulled last week, tarnishing the image of the the chain (and some say all of foodservice). Now it looks as if McDonald's may have to do some damage control because of a YouTube posting.

The video shows a garbage-strewn interior of a McD's unit in Australia. The camera scans a dining area that's ankle-deep in trash, then pans to a counter where customers are nonetheless still being served. The postings on YouTube (they were still there as of this morning) carry headlines along the lines of, "The Worst McDonald's."

Although the clip was filmed in Australia, it's reportedly getting big play in the United States because it was picked up by The Drudge Report, the popular muckraking (some say scandal-mongering) website.

But it's hardly the only posting on YouTube that casts a fast-food brand in an unfavorable light. Search around enough and you can probably find some bashing of virtually all the quick-service giants.

Two days ago, in the course of reporting unrelated stories, I spoke with a quick-service exec who brought up the Domino's situation. He wondered aloud if chains will now have to come up with a social media code of conduct for their employees. He didn't have to explain how thorny that would be.

But he's undoubtedly correct that the industry has to do something to address the situation. As the New York Times reported yesterday, Domino's initially figured the controversy would fade away if headquarters just ignored the original post and the early fallout. Big mistake.

I wrote to an industry association yesterday, suggesting it take the lead in airing the issue and encouraging chains to hammer out a list of best practices for addressing the situation. I have yet to get a response, which makes me think I may have to peddle the notion elsewhere.

Somehow, someway, the industry has to pool its brainpower to deal with the issue. In the meantime, the doorknob-headed perpetrators are going to continue to act, since they already have their own associations. They're called YouTube and Twitter.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

May the Noid befoul them

The disguise shouldn’t affect my typing, though the fur is starting to itch. I had to go incognito the instant I heard about the Domino’s video, and a Chewbacca get-up from the Halloween of ’84 was the only dodge I could find. It was no picnic, people. Twenty-five years will definitely shrink a hair-covered jumpsuit.

But losing circulation is preferable to hearing my knuckleheaded friends spout urban myths about the restaurant business, as they’re prone to do after an industry gross-out like the YouTube posting. Who knows how far they’ll stretch after an ewww of that dimension? In case you missed it, a thirtysomething making sandwiches in a North Carolina unit shoves cheese up his nose and waves the cold cuts under his butt for what I’ll politely call a crop-dusting. Then the ingredients go back on sandwiches.

The escapade was caught for posterity by a uniformed co-worker of equal vintage, who regards the prank as the biggest knee-slapper since Jerry Lewis was in his prime. With presumed pride, the clip was posted on YouTube, where the wedgie-loving crowd can detect such things the way a starved spaniel can sniff out a chewy.

And who said our younger generations have lost their way?

But back to my friends, who tend to view such outrageous transgressions as validation of their worst restaurant fears. They haven’t had fodder quite this rich since rats were spotted in a halftime dance routine inside a New York Taco Bell two years ago. Now they’ll be absolutely certain that servers would as soon spit on the food as swallow, that restaurant ice harbors more bacteria than a germ-weapons research center, that listed calorie counts are about a tenth of the actual content, and that valet attendants have a non-stop demolition derby underway a few blocks over.

Never mind that the Domino’s vid stars were instantly fired, criminal complaints were later filed, and the pair ultimately gave themselves up to authorities, who charged them with food-tampering. Here's what Domino's had to say about the situation in its follow-up YouTube post:

Yet people are going to look at the shenanigans of two lowlifes employed by a chain in one North Carolina restaurant as symptomatic behavior, not an aberration. And they’re going to tell me all about it as they tsk-tsk my naivete about what happens on the other side of kitchen doors.

So I’d just as soon hide in my modified ape suit and marvel at how much damage two wing nuts can do to the industry’s reputation with so many enablers waiting on the sidelines.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Check out what's happening in hotels

Staying in a hotel may feel a little different in the not-too-distant future.

For one thing, Marriott said Monday that it would stop delivering newspapers to guests’ doors unless the daily dose of news is requested.

Then Dunkin’ Donuts announced today that it’s mounting a campaign to put its coffee and donuts within reach of more inn sleepers. The chain explained that it’s developed an array of new sales stations that could be slipped into hotels, motels or resorts, from the sort of shop you might expect to see streetside, to self-serve coffee stations that could be nestled in a gift shop.

The statement noted that the donuts and other baked treats would be made within the kitchen of the host property, using “some simple equipment” from the franchisor. Curiously, the announcement stresses the business advantage of being able to match baked-good supply with demand and thus “manage product inventory.” Wouldn’t that arrangement also allow the site to offer fresh product throughout the day?

In disclosing the new expansion push, Dunkin’ said it’d already put one of its hotel prototypes into the Great Wolf Lodge in Concord, N.C. The outlet features Dunkin’s low-cholesterol flatbread breakfast sandwiches as well as donuts, coffee, muffins and cold drinks.

Party on, Texas Roadhouse

Restaurateurs’ arms must be getting sore from all the self-flagellation.Luckily the truly spasmed can pass the rod to any number of would-be de Sades for a few more licks, from investors to health advocates, politicians, animal-rights groups, eco-terrorists, chain haters or your garden-variety scold. This is no time for high spirits or a positive outlook on a business so hard-pressed,or at least that’s the prevailing sentiment.

That’s why you have to give a big woot-woot to G.J. Hart and his team at Texas Roadhouse, the publicly traded steakhouse chain. Last week the company spent upwards of $2 million to gather 1,000 chain standouts for a five-day fest in San Francisco. They stayed at The Fairmont and The Ritz-Carlton, enjoyed events like a barbecue and a Summer of Love-themed party, and cheered on the five contenders in the annual Roadhouse Meat Cutting Challenge (the top cleaver heaver wins $20,000 and a year’s worth of bragging rights for his store.)

The celebration was so out of sync with the dourness of the times that it snagged coverage on CNBC’s Squawk Box, the financial network’s primetime show for investors. Reports also showed up on the CBS affiliates of major cities and in media like the High Plains Journal in Sioux Falls, S.D., and station KXMB in Bismark,N.D.

The coverage posed an obvious question: Isn’t this kind of indulgence inappropriate for the times? Was the 325-unit chain pulling the sort of move you might have expected from an AIG?

“People are the biggest asset we’ve got,” CEO Hart explained on Squawk Box. “The investment in our people will yield us big returns.”

He indicated that the investment may be even bigger than other coverage let on. In addition to spending from $2 million to $2.5 million of the company’s travel budget on the five-day event, another $1 million in supplies and effort would be put into local charities; a full day would be spent by the participants in a giveback to the host community, even though Texas Roadhouse has only three restaurants in all of California. Just one is in the greater San Francisco area.

But giving back, Hart explained, is part of the company’s philosophy and culture. It’s all about feeding that spirit and nurturing a sense of hospitality, which will ultimately help with sales and traffic.

Gauging the effects on morale and motivation while the conference was still underway, Hart told Squawk Box that he was already seeing “a great return on investment.” You have to raise a cold longneck to leadership like that.

Monday, April 13, 2009

What you won't read in the papers

Last week delivered a few indications the restaurant industry may be entering a recovery. Relief couldn't come too soon, given how the trade appears to be one moon howl away from snapping. A bunch of places have even forgotten they're supposed to charge for food instead of doling it out for a reminder of what customers look like.

In all the craziness, some urban myths have clearly taken hold. Here, as a public service, is a delineation of fact and fiction:

  • There’s absolutely no truth to reports that T.G.I. Friday’s is giving away a restaurant franchise with every appetizer ordered this week. You have to buy an entrée, too, though they’re down to $1.

  • Michelle Obama has not challenged Alice Waters to go hoe-to-hoe over who has the best organic string beans. Nor will Bo the Dog be trained to bite Waters in the onions. Or not as long as she shuts up about a First Garden.

  • It’s a complete myth that restaurants’ latest promotion is giving customers the keys and asking them to lock up when they’re done gorging for free. Denny’s, however, declined to comment.

  • Tao, pegged by Restaurants & Institutions as having sales in excess of $68 million a year, is not buying General Motors to replace valet parking with a car giveaway program.

  • Steve Wynn is not relocating the state of Rhode Island into his restaurant-studded Encore casino as an entertainment feature. However, the governor of Maryland commented that he’s constitutionally obliged to do what’s financially best for constituents.

  • Gordon Ramsay has not been serially watching “The Wrestler” in hopes of aping Mickey Rourke’s career comeback.

  • Police discount reports that hundreds of seders were wrecked when college-aged participants insisted that Chipotle’s Steve Ells is really the prophet Elijah. They also wanted to know where the bitter herbs had been grown.

Friday, April 10, 2009

A pager pilferer sees the light

Many restaurateurs would identify with Sam Mercurio, co-owner of Domenico’s on California’s Monterey Bay. He’d see lost customers milling on the wharf outside his waterside establishment as they waited for a table at the nearby Old Fisherman’s Grotto, pagers in hand. So he decided to mount a conversion effort.

People with names on the Grotto’s wait list were invited to take a table immediately at Domenico’s. Mercurio would apparently escort them himself to a seat, and even offered to take care of their pagers. Then someone would go outside and fling the devices into the water.

Grotto owner Chris Shake must have lost enough business and pagers to suspect something was amiss. Surmising the problem, he hired divers to scour the bay’s floor. They found 10 of his pagers a stone’s throw, quite literally, from Domenico's and a few other restaurants on the popular Fisherman’s Wharf.

The police were alerted. Two undercover cops agreed to pose as Grotto customers who were waiting for a table. Sure enough, Mercurio reportedly invited them into his place and offered to return their pager. But Shake never saw it again.

Mercurio was charged with petty theft, a misdemeanor to which he pleaded not guilty. Shake told the media he would file a lawsuit to recover the $3,000 he lost in pilfered pagers.

But there’s a happy ending to the story. Local media reported yesterday that Mercurio apologized to Shake, shook his hand, and offered to pay nearly $7,000 for the estimated 40 pagers that the Grotto had lost. The charges were dropped.

“We’ll work it out,” Mercurio told KSBW, a local TV station. “Everything will be fine.”

The battle's turning, but so is the body count

Heard the good news? The worst is over for restaurants, or at least that’s what several research and news reports indicated this week. There’s just one problem: A lot of places won’t be there to enjoy it. They’re part of what’s starting to look like a tsunami of restaurant bankruptcies and forced closings.

Two subsidiaries of the Fatburger fast-casual chain filed for protection from creditors yesterday. A day earlier, Crain’s New York Business reported that Town, the highly rated New York outpost of chef Geoffrey Zakarian, was being pressured by two vendors to file for bankruptcy because the place hadn’t paid their bills.

The Pink Taco, an unqualified smash when it opened in Scottsdale to controversy over its name, has closed its legs for good. Also gone is another one-time hotspot in the area, the Fox Sports Grill.

The franchisor of the 37-unit Tumbleweed dinnerhouse chain threw in the napkin last week. Outback shuttered all nine of its steakhouses in Ontario. The lone Bob’s Big Boy in Glendale, Calif., the chain’s birthplace, is changing into something else.

The casualty list goes on and on, of places famous (Fior d’Italia, the San Francisco outlet that bills itself as America’s first Italian restaurant) or only locally known (the two Risotto’s MedRim Bistros in south Texas).

Yet the surging shakeout is hardly a contradiction of the positive outlook some are now airing for the business. It’s much more of a necessary correction, a painful symptom that has to be weathered while the trade’s overall health improves. Just as economists are predicting more job losses as the nation’s financial well-being starts to turn for the better, the industry is going to lose a lot of outlets, and not an insignificant number of brands. It’s part of the healing.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Why no helping hand for restaurants?

I’m not sure what restaurants did to piss off government, but it had to be something awful to merit the treatment they’ve been getting. Anything less than keying an official car or hitting on a spouse just wouldn’t explain it.

The industry, though showing a few hopeful signs this week, has been walloped by the economy, just as the housing, auto and finance businesses have been clobbered. But those victims are being shored up with government dollars—bags and bags of it. And what’re restaurants getting? Burden after burden after burden.

Down in Alabama, eateries might soon have to rewrite their menus to indicate the source of any catfish they serve, and presumably they serve a lot of it (some locally farmed, an increasing amount purchased from Asia because it’s of cheaper and of lower quality; hence the legislation). In Washington, D.C., and New York City, the next big thing might be levying a fee on bags. New York restaurants already know for certain they’ll soon be required to erect wall posters that educate the staff about common allergies.

Restaurateurs in other areas are adjusting to bans on Styrofoam takeout containers, a requirement that’s increasingly being viewed as a green step all restaurants should take.

And, of course, municipalities, counties and states are continuing to eye menu-labeling provisions, even as the industry pushes for a single national mandate.

The industry is fighting most of the other measures with its usual pitched resistance. Actually, I think some of initiatives are true advances that at any other time should be readily accepted, like the allergy poster requirement, or even the bag fees. But right now? No way.

Lawmakers are being unfair in imposing those added responsibilities as the industry contends with dropping traffic and slipping check averages. Restaurateurs already have enough matters to address, especially as staff cutbacks forces them to assume nuts-and-bolts work. Maybe the industry can’t be helped with a few billion of the money that’s flowing to the finance business. But at least legislatures could agree to a moratorium on most new responsibilities until economic conditions improve.

Otherwise they may get their laws, but fewer businesses to which they’ll apply.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Can the birthday baloney

Restaurants routinely honor birthday celebrants with a free dessert, possibly a kooky hat, and almost certainly a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” from the staff. Yet, speaking as a consumer who’s witnessed those situations too many times, I’d like to suggest a new standard amenity: Cattle prods. They should be distributed to the guests sitting around the birthday boy or girl so we can drive away the singing servers before they interrupt our conversation and otherwise wreck the meal.

Apparently I’m not alone in my birthday Scrooge-ism. A recent news story points out that some restaurant chains are rethinking their birthday hilarity because other guests resent the disruption. Some are reclassifying the once-obligatory song as an option rather than a standard operating procedure.

This, my fellow dining Americans, is a breakthrough for mankind. Never again will we have to grit our teeth as servers deliver a song to some stranger whom they’re treating as a best bud for three minutes, only to turn around and hit the table with a check. Nor will the reveler have to persevere through that often unwanted attention. And everyone else can relish conversation, one of the factors that makes a meal truly memorable.

Happy anniversary to an American icon

Growing up in the New York area during the 1960s and ‘70s, there were two absolutes to life: The Yankees were a much cooler team than the Mets, even when they stunk, and nothing was funnier than a dead-on Tom Carvel impression.

Those of you exposed to the spots are undoubtedly aping Carvel’s unique voice right now. His plugs for Fudgie the Whale, Cookie Puss, Tom the Turkey and a surreal Christmas cake are indelibly stamped into your memories. But for the sake of those who were cursed to live outside the cult of the spinning Carvel cone, let me explain.

Carvel was the founder and longtime chairman of a soft-serve ice cream chain that was integral to life in the New York suburbs. Carvel’s signature products were cones—15 cents for a small, 25 cents for a large, which was big enough to feed all of Paraguay for a year. Yet Tom would come on the air to push his higher-ticket cakes—most of which were made from the same mold. Somehow, the shape of a chocolate whale could be reconfigured into a big-cheeked Santa Claus around Christmas. The spots were our equivalent of Cal Worthington or Earl Scheib commercials, or any number of late-night local station ads. They were downright campy from the get-go.

Yet you couldn’t help but regard Tom as sort of an eccentric uncle, because his business was an integral part of our lives. My father would usually treat us to a Carvel visit ever Sunday night. We’d park in front of a walk-up window with the spinning giant cone atop the building, then get out to ogle the Brown and Cherry Bonnets. When my 8th Grade baseball team pulled out a big win, the coach took us to a Carvel. And every birthday or other special occasion was celebrated in grade school with a box of Carvel Flying Saucers, the chain's take on the ice cream sandwich.

We, of course, never comprehended that Tom Carvel was a pioneer of the restaurant business, a true trailblazer in franchising. Unfortunately, part of his legacy was a lawsuit that forever determined that franchisors couldn’t force franchisees to buy particular products from the home office. He might’ve also been the consummate example of a concept founder who should’ve been more open to new ideas. By the time he passed away, Carvel had to do a lot of catching up with the times. It also had a heap of problems with franchisees, many of whom were second or third-generation owners.

The concept was eventually sold to Focus Brands, which today also owns Moe’s Southwest Grill, Schlotzsky’s and Cinnabon. It’s corrected much of the neglect that was visited upon the brand under the later years of Tom Carvel’s stewardship, and is growing the business again.

All of this comes to mind because this is Carvel’s 75th anniversary. For those of us who cheered the Yankees and booed the Mets, this is an important occasion. I might celebrate by having a whole Fudgie the Whale on my own.

For the rest of you, trust me when I say that this is an occasion to salute a true American icon. Let’s hear it for Tom, Carvel, and of course Cookie Puss.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Tune in to the real game: labeling leapfrog

You may be getting your sports jollies this weekend from the Final Four contests. Me? I’ll be watching one of the great leapfrog races of all time, played out by lawmakers as restaurateurs stand attentively on the sidelines. Regardless of who comes in first, the industry is likely to see the adoption of second-generation menu-labeling rules that extend beyond a city or county, and possibly even a whole state.

New York state, for instance, is considering the overturn of New York City’s labeling law, the one that started it all. Bills introduced in both chambers of the legislature would supplant the city’s rules with a new statewide mandate. Lawmakers argue that a single set of regulations from Staten Island to Syracuse would help chains, the target of Gotham’s requirement. The multi-units would only have to meet one standard, regardless of were they opened in New York.

For the same reason, Oregon is considering a statewide labeling law. It would override the law already enacted in Mutnomah County, where Portland is located, and a similar measure under consideration in Lane County.

A similar situation can be found in a number of states. In each, the argument is made that a single statewide requirement might be better than a quilt work of rules and regulations. But a cynic might conclude that the measures are a sly way of slipping statewide labeling mandates onto the books. The proposals are sugarcoated as a preferable alternative to a hodgepodge.

The National Restaurant Association and its state affiliates maintain that the best option would be to carry the one-size-fits-all approach to its logical conclusion. They’re publicly supporting the passage of a national law, the Labeling Education and Nutrition Act.

There’s been no word yet from the G20 meetings about a proposal for an international labeling law.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bag-fee proposals now extending to restaurants

Restaurants in the nation’s capital are contending with a proposal that might be the next type of legislation to spread from coast to coast, following in the wagon ruts of trans fat bans and menu-labeling bills. Indeed, it’s surprising the industry has been spared the fight this long.

A number of jurisdictions—including New York City, the Start Here for the trans fat and menu labeling movements—have already considered the imposition of a charge on disposable bags. But most of those initiatives had been limited to the plastic or paper sacks provided to patrons by groceries and drug stores, with gourmet takeout shops perhaps added here or there (as was the case with the measure floated in New York in November, though it was limited to plastic bags).

Now bag-fee proposals are cropping up again, most noticeably along the coasts, and some aren’t exempting restaurants this time. Among them is New York, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg dusted off his plan and re-proposed it in late January, this time with restaurants included. He presented it as a way of combating litter, but noted it would also raise much-needed funds for Gotham.

Washington, D.C., is looking squarely at restaurants with its proposal that consumers pay a nickel fee for every bag, paper or plastic, they’re issued with a purchase. The measure is intended to cut litter, both by discouraging the use of disposable bags and raising money that could be used for clean-up and awareness campaigns.

Curiously, reports theWashington Business Journal, some D.C. restaurants support the measure because of its environmental benefits. The paper quotes one restaurateur as saying that a nickel surcharge isn’t really going to change consumer behavior.

It’s not a view shared by local industry lobbyists. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington has argued that the industry is strained enough without the added burden of collecting a fee and potentially chasing away cost-conscious customers.

Proponents of bag fees point out that the adoption of cloth or other reusable bags would solve the problem. They note that reusables are commonplace in Europe, and that the trend is catching on in the States.

It looks as if we may soon learn how American consumers feel about it. The Washington measure is still being considered by the D.C. Council, with handicappers declining to say which way the rule-making body might lean.

The status of the New York proposal is unclear at this point. The mayor estimates that the measure would raise an additional $144 million for the city, at a time when it’s feeling the same financial pressures of every other jurisdictions. That alone is a tough argument to counter.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

McD's cameo in a campaign against frivolous lawsuits

A business advocacy group aiming to curb bounty-hunting lawsuits has enlisted a restaurateur as its new poster person. But apparently the chain of which he is a part, a burger outfit called McDonald's, doesn't want a listing in the credits.

The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform has posted a video on its Faces Of Lawsuit Abuse website that stars Ron Piazza, identified as a fast-food restaurateur in Downey, Calif. The clip, also posted on YouTube, shows Piazza recounting how his Downey, Calif., restaurant was sued because a men's room mirror was two inches higher than the height standard indicated in American With Disabilities Act regulations.

Piazza explains that the violation innocently occurred because vandals had destroyed a mirror that was in compliance with the rules. Inadvertently, the staff had replaced it with a slightly shorter one. When Piazza learned of the inadvertent violation, he recounts on camera, he replaced it with a regulation mirror.

But in the meantime, he says, certain parties--identified by Piazza, but presumably disabled persons--visited the restaurant 27 times, saving their receipts as proof. About four months ago, they sued Piazza for failing to meet ADA specifications.

Piazza noted that his name and telephone number is on all of the restaurant's receipts. If the parties had a legitimate gripe, or felt the mirror's height was a problem for them, they could have called, he points out. He also asserts that they seemed organized, and the Chamber indicates that the same parties sued other restaurants in the area for ADA infractions.

The point is obvious: Bounty hunters picked Piazza's restaurants for one of their legal shake-downs. They did it in an opportunity-hunting fashion that has prompted some to tag the resulting legal actions as drive-by lawsuits.

What's puzzling is why Piazza's restaurant isn't identified by name. A Google search reveals that it's one of the original McDonald's unit, a store that opened back in 1953, when Speedee was still the concept's mascot. Indeed, the place is even listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Those details underscore how ridiculous the lawsuit is. Clearly the plaintiffs were aware of the restaurant's affiliation with such a deep-pocketed chain. And what better place to hunt for ADA infractions than in a 56-year-old facility?

Still, you have to wonder why McDonald's wouldn't allow its name to be mentioned. Perhaps it doesn't want to give other bounty hunters ideas. The Chamber's attempt to curb frivolous lawsuits may be ambitious indeed.

Here's the video:

McD's poke at BK Down Under

Those kooks in McDonald's Australian operations are poking a little fun at Burger King today. The fast-food giant's Down Under arm sent the media vials of what was labeled Baked Fresh Daily Essential Oil. McD's explained that the scent would replicate the aroma of Aussie stores' new baked goods line.

The ploy is reminiscent of BK's launch last holiday season of Flame, a body spray that supposedly captures the allure and sensuality of the Whopper. The scent was sold via a cosmetic-store chain in New York City and the chain's website.

But there's one big difference in McDonald's effort: It's all a joke. After all, Aussie McD's website notes, it is April Fool's Day.

Likely more interesting to competitors back in the United States are the new baked goods, offered through Australia's version of the McCafe concept. (Over there, the concept is a free-standing, scaled-back concept, not a section of a McDonald's store, as it is in the States.) The line includes Mini Muffins and Spinach & Feta Strudel.