Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dolly Parton offers quite a pair to Cracker Barrel

Dolly Parton provided two big things to the Cracker Barrel family restaurant chain during the first quarter: Exclusive rights to sell a  limited-edition “Backwoods Barbie” CD, which cracked the Top 20 on Billboard’s country charts; and a deal to sell 1,350 special edition Dolly Parton rocking chairs for $199 each, with all but 13 sold as of May 27.   

That’s more than a quarter of a million in sales from the rockers alone, according to the company, which offered up those tidbits during its conference call yesterday with financial analysts.   

CEO Michael Woodhouse also revealed that the chain will roll out a new billboard campaign starting next month. Among the themes that will be featured is the tagline, “Half restaurant, half store, all country.”   

Woodhouse also disclosed that the home office has reconfigured its test kitchen to mimic the back-of-the-house of actual restaurants. Previously, he indicated, a new menu item had to be shipped to stores to gauge the ease of adoption and what adjustments would have to be made before a rollout, wasting time and effort.  Makes you wonder why officials would’ve allowed a different set-up to be used for R&D in the first place.  

Under probing from the analysts, Woodhouse noted that weekday dinner service has been the company’s most challenging sales time. People still go out for dinner on weekends as their treat, but are clearly cutting back during the week, he said. 

Do franchisees prefer a scooter or a stool?

Quiznos tested several prices for its 13-inch-long Torpedo heros before settling on $4, the lowest by at least 7%, CEO Rick Schaden recently revealed to the Associated Press.   

Forget for a moment the stunning revelation that sales-test participants preferred the lowest price. Since introducing the baguette-style sandwich, Schaden told the A.P., sales have increased by double digits and traffic has increased by about a third. It’s been a slam-dunk, an introduction that will serve as a new model for the all-franchised chain, Schaden said in another communiqué from headquarters.   

There’s just one problem: Franchisees complain that it’s tough to make any money off the item because the food and paper costs are too high. And to make matter worse, regular customers are trading down from sandwiches that provide a better margin.  

“Without high volume this Torpedo is a bust,” someone from the Toasted Subs Franchisee Association,  an owner-operator group, told me in an e-mail. Despite Schaden’s assertions, franchisees apparently aren’t wowed by the sales pop.   

Then again, Quiznos, as the franchisor of an all-franchised chain, doesn’t make its money off profits. Its royalties are assessed on owner-operators’ top line, underscoring the inherent conflict between franchisor and franchisee.   

Lately I’ve been writing a lot in my freelance work about McDonald’s, a business model that should be taught in grade school to help youngsters understand fairness.  Fred Turner, Ray Kroc’s grill man and early company leader, described the chain as a three-legged stool, with franchisees, the home office and suppliers playing an equal role in the success of the company. For that reason, Turner preached, each had a stake, each should have a say on the chain’s direction, and each would do its part for the success of the other two legs.   

It’s an idea that sounds kind of pollyannish. Indeed, when I worked for Nation’s Restaurant News during the 1980s, one of our parent company’s executives picked up the term to describe our business. Amongst ourselves, we snidely preferred to call our business the three-legged divan, the three-legged TV stand, or the three-legged  knickknack nook.   

Yet if you ask anyone at McDonald’s today to sum up the company’s attitude toward franchisees, they’ll mention the three-legged stool. So will the franchisees. They may have criticisms, which the home office encourages and heeds, but they feel they’re a pillar of the organization. A stool leg, so to speak. 

Turner, by the way, still has an office at the home office, and still talks about the three-legged stool.   And the chain that likens itself to a bar seat just posted a 6.1% increase in U.S. same-store sales for April. 

Quiznos recently adapted its own metaphor for the chain’s new attitude and business model. Schaden sent a scooter to all employees, explaining that it symbolized how the brand intended to respond faster and with more agility to market trends. He noted how the Torpedo line exemplified that new mindset, going from notion to promoted product in a relative flash.   

The scooter was why I e-mailed the Toasted Subs franchisee group. I didn’t quite get it, and suspected there may be more to the symbolism than I was seeing. And the franchisees?   “We have no idea what is behind these scooters, it strikes us as being very odd,” the spokesperson responded. 

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Has the sizzle gone out of their fajitas?

Casual-chain execs should stop worrying about when the recession might end and turn their attention to the real issue of their segment: Has casual dining jumped the shark?  

There’s a mindset taking hold that young people in their late teens are forsaking the Chili’s, T.G.I. Friday’s and Applebee’s of the world. As a longtime veteran of that sector observed, his 19-year-old daughter wouldn’t be caught dead in one of those places. She and her friends prefer fast-casual specialists like Panera, Pei Wei or Chipotle—concepts that promise better, less-processed food at a more affordable price, without the complications of sit-down service. 

Drinks, a big part of casual restaurants’ appeal for Baby Boomers, aren't that much of a draw to the younger set. You can get a water, tea or Red Bull just about anywhere.   

Fellow blogger and casual-dining stalwart Lane Cardwell has similarly heard the rumblings. As he wrote in a recent posting…   
It appears from conversations with a large number of restaurant operators that there is a generational divide that exists between fast casual and casual dining. The younger Gen X'ers and older Millennials (ages 18-35 ) seem to prefer fast casual and Baby Boomers seem to prefer casual dining.
He speculates that younger patrons are drawn by the newness, faster pace and pricing of fast casual, while those of us with a few more miles on the chassis appreciate the familiarity of the big casual brands and the comfort of table service.   

It’s a generational divide the industry has seen before, ironically when casual dining really caught fire in the 1980s. Beforehand, one of the dominant chain sectors of the business had been family dining, populated by brands like Howard Johnson, Denny’s, Coco’s/Carrows, Village Inn/Bakers Square, Bob Evans, Big Boy, Shoney’s, JB’s and a host of others.   

It’s no secret that those concepts had the sort of experiences in the 1990s that could fuel a thousand blues songs. They had their fans, but their fans were growing older and older. The diehards' sons and daughters just didn't have the same regard for the brands.

Some are altogether gone today, and the others are far different animals than they were in their heyday.   The market moved on to other concepts, and they were left behind. 

Is the same thing happening to casual dining?   No one really knows. But it’s a much more deserving target of mental energy than trying to guess when consumers will spend again. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

Wear a pot as a helmet

You’re not going to believe this, but the restaurant industry is in the midst of an epidemic that’s turning innocent eateries into road kill. All they’re doing is serving up meals or topping off beverages as per the usual. Then, WHAM!, a 2-ton hunk of metal comes crashing through the wall in the form of a speeding Maxima or Silverado, the latest in a rash of restaurant rammings. And, no, folks, I’m not kidding, at least on this point. 

 The last few days brought seven news reports of moving car/stationary restaurant collisions. Think of how many façade benders must go unreported.   

Among the ones that did get media attention was the crash of a cab into Petterino’s, a hometown restaurant of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterpises, during the NRA Show.  Apparently the vehicle caromed off another cab before hitting the Loop-area restaurant. What’s amazing is that another cab had slammed into the place less than a month earlier. 

 “Petterino's isn't a drive-in restaurant in the Loop,” quipped “It just seems that way.”  

We’re not talking about a restaurant situated on a highway median. Petterino’s is on a corner of Chitown’s theater district, where stoplights theoretically govern traffic. It really takes some work to hit it.   

Even trickier was the crash involving In The Raw restaurant in Tulsa, Okla. The car that hit the place was actually a victim itself. Another vehicle being pursued by the police hit the car and sent it careening into the building, like some kind of fancy pool shot. 

 The news coverage doesn’t provide any clues as to why speeding cars are finding restaurants as unavoidable as the bumpers in a pinball machine.   Perhaps enforcement agencies are overtaxed during these tight-budgeted times. Police in New Jerseyneeded four months to find the driver who had crashed into Vito’s restaurant in Bridgeton in January.  The car was inoperable, but the driver’s legs clearly still worked. When you wreck a New Jersey restaurant owned by someone named Vito, you get moving even if you have to run on your hands.   

Then again, police have clearly not been bystanders to the epidemic. The speeding vehicle that collided with a Chinese restaurant last week in Brookline, Mass., was a police cruiser. In fairness, it should be noted that the car was in pursuit of a perp.  

The carnage of the crash rash has yet to be tallied. Fortunately, though, no casualties have been reported. But the pain is evident. After being walloped by an out-of-control Impala, the Old Well Grill in Drytown, Calif., needed about eight weeks of recuperation before it could recover. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A spokesperson for 13M restaurant employees

From time to time, the National Restaurant Association and its state affiliates have waged marketing campaigns to encourage dining out. If the groups are considering a similar drive during these trying times, they should save their money and just lift a snippet from a video aired by a panelist at the association’s just-completed convention in Chicago. All they’d have to do is run the clip with a caption reading, “This is the person you’d be helping.” 

The video was run by Burgerville, a 40-unit fast-food chain, during an educational session on the top-line benefits of pursuing sustainability. The segment featured an employee identified as a “team member,” who earnestly explains how she looks up to the managers who have been her bosses and tries to model her life after theirs.  

“I didn’t really have that when I was growing up,” she says to the camera. 

Now, she says, she has her own house and some money together.  

I really, really doubt that she was reading off a teleprompter.   

Let Madison Ave. stick with ads for breakfast cereal and car insurance. The restaurant industry has stumbled on an eloquent spokeswoman who can articulate its genuine economic importance. All it needs to do is remind consumers that patronizing restaurants helps far more people than just the stockholders of McDonald’s and Darden.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The top surprises of NRA Show '09

That familiar foot pain is back, and I still haven’t shaken my persona non grata status at the Nathan’s booth (like there’s really a Chicago law on how many franks you can give away to one person). But there were some definite surprises to this year’s National Restaurant Show:

It was a high-commerce show. There’s no doubt that turnout was down considerably from prior years. But vendors say the restaurateurs on the show floor were there to do business. Ones who I knew cited lists of what they wanted to see, from dishes to desserts to new apple products. It seems the economic downturn filtered out the half-hearted shoppers who really came for the free pens and food giveaways, or to say hello to old friends. The ones who still came were there to buy, an assertion heard repeatedly.

Even advocates are airing second thoughts about always buying local. Heightened interest in buying seasonal produce or other types of supplies from local providers was plainly evident during educational presentations or even off-the-cuff conversations. But some converts voiced second thoughts. For one thing, they said, locally grown doesn’t always equate to better quality or flavor. Others noted that some jurisdictions are now requiring foodservice operators that do business with the government to buy equipment and supplies from concerns in the area. That can take quality considerations out of the process, and the price could be a wallop if there's insufficient competition to hold down the charges.

Green and grey can co-exist. Most of the educational sessions I’d selected to attend were focused on green matters, rousing fears of being surrounded by skateboarders in iPod buds who’d call me Gramps. Yet the sessions, which tended to draw well, were attended by the tattooed and un-pierced alike. Interest in sustainability may still be more common among younger dudes and dudettes, but the industry’s green movement is snagging interest from all age groups.

Remember swine flu? The big fear of a few weeks earlier seemed like a dim memory during the show. Sure, there were the 130 hand-sanitizer dispensers that Ecolab had installed for the event, and clearly they were getting a workout. But I had only one person who balked at shaking hands, and I didn’t see one mask. Nor was the matter a common topic of conversation. I attended one education session on H1N1, and it was sparsely attended.

Viral marketing has arrived for foodservice. One of the most-talked-about presentations during Convention Week was the explanation of how a supplier called BlendTec had created a global marketing campaign with a $50 budget. As executives explained to the Marketing Executives Group , whose conference leads into the NRA Show, the solution for the company was YouTube. It posted videos that showed a lab-coated representative using a BlendTec blender to grind up things like an iPhone. Before long, fans were contacting the firm with requests of what they wanted to see minced.

The gee-wiz aspect of the campaign was demonstrated at MEG by a BlendTec representative, who turned a garden-variety garden rake into sawdust with the blender he had on stage. As a gift, he was given a box of chattering teeth--which he then put into the blender.

I didn’t attend the MEG conference, which is off the record for reporters in any case. But I heard about it from a number of people who attended. Virally, you might say.

Ted Turner on life as a bison

Ted Turner shared the business rationale behind his 20-million-acre bison-ranching operation during his appearance on a panel at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago.

“We produce more male bisons than we need,” said the founder of CNN and the co-owner of the Ted’s Montana Grill casual-dining chain. “You only need one male for every 10 females to build your herd, so there’s a surplus. So…we eat them.”

“It’s tough being a male bison,” observed moderator Christopher Koetke, a.k.a. dean of the culinary program of Kendall College in Chicago.

“If you’re a surplus male, but not if you're a brood male,” retorted Turner. “They have it made.”

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Goading green

There was a passing mention here, a quick aside there, an oh-by-the-way tangent to a speaker’s larger point. But the five or six references, coming on a single day of the restaurant show, suggest the industry may soon have to contend with a new dose of government agita, this time dealing with conservation.

At least two of the day’s presenters mentioned a growing interest among public officials in obliging restaurants to operate in a greener fashion. A representative of Energy Star, a federal resource for cutting energy consumption, advised restaurants to benchmark their demand on utilities in part to protect themselves from heightened government scrutiny. You want to be able to show what you’d done to conserve, just in case, she explained. But she didn’t specify why regulators or lawmakers might be gauging restaurants’ efforts to cut their power consumption, or what actions they may be contemplating.

A representative of IPC Subway, an independent purchasing cooperative for the chain, was far more explicit. Tina Fitzgerald, director of produce and social responsibility for IPC, cited interest by some nations, states and counties in outlawing certain types of containers or packaging materials, like plastic bags or plastifoam boxes. She noted that Canada is already levying a tax based on “how much packaging goes out the door,” a spur to cutting how many containers or wraps come in through the back.

Fitzgerald also recounted how Subway sent an energy-saving CFL bulb to every franchisee to encourage the replacement of less-efficient incandescent bulbs. She indicated that the franchisees have found religion, so to speak, and then commented that mandates might soon force the non-believers to make the changeover in any case.

I don’t think she meant the franchisor would levy that demand. The aside seemed to fit her point that governments are becoming more active in regulating green.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Fingers may be sorer than feet this NRA show

Let it be noted that this is the year social media changed the dynamics of the NRA show.

The convention hasn’t even officially started, yet Twitter and Facebook are already being used with all the ordinariness of breathing to make acquaintances, tout products, provide weather updates, share travel tips, recommend cocktails, bemoan hectic schedules, flag good parties, and promote educational events.

Twitter will be used to solicit questions for show speakers and to cover the convention, by media old and new. There’s an official Tweet Up, as well as a meeting of Fohboh, one of the industry’s social media. Meanwhile, the tweets keep coming, highlighting the mundane, the hilarious, and genuinely rich fodder for thought.

It’s as if one big conversation is underway as everyone goes about their usual show business. And anyone can tune in, with no introduction needed. Eavesdropping is encouraged.

It’s an instant interconnection the industry has never seen before—still small, but used enough already to be felt at the show.

But the phenomenon could prove more than just a curious new means of instant communication. It could be a way to bolster the show’s effectiveness by bringing seeker more readily together with provider. Tweet a need, be it information, a product or a contact, and a 140-character lead could be provided rapid-fire by someone who’s monitoring this extensive and hyperactive foodservice party line.

It could also draw more young people off the sidelines and into the game. Because social media is a preferred form of interaction for industry members of a tender vintage, it’s a comfortable way of plugging into the restaurant community, which in turn can foster involvement—going to shows, participating in associations, working on common causes, sounding off on shared threats, thinking about larger industry issues. In short, contributing more than 140 characters of input on restaurant issues.

But it’s late on Friday night, and I need to be fresh for tomorrow’s inaugural show event: A sessions for chain executives on the use of social networks and other word-of-mouth media. Which, by the way, I'm tweeting.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Putting some merry olde English on gift card sales

 A reading from the sacred sales scripture of Hallmark Cards:   

And the idea came unto them who were called marketers: If-ith  thou can silence the swine in Finance with the merciful sales of a special occasion, why canst thou not create more special occasions? Why, if Mother’s Day proves bountiful, could there not be a Secretary’s Day, a De-Louse Your Wench Day, a Thank the Hangman Tuesday?   

And so it was done, and many greeting cards were sold.   

And thus it came unto the special breed known as restaurant marketers: If-ith thou sold a shit-load of gift cards for the year-end holidays, couldst thou not invent another time to push-eth the cards like hell?   

And so were born the new restaurant card occasions, known to those far and near as Father’s Day and graduation. Merrymakers would christen the opportunity “Dads & Grads.”   

Few were the early converts—sage seers like Buffalo Wild Wings, which gave a $5 kickback to anyone buying a $20 card for males who hath spawned or youngsters who had known the chalk. Sonic, too, waved the banner, though it focused on the family and friends of graduates.   

Others, like Hooters, promoted myrrh and other presents specifically for Dads & Grads, but failed to offer gift cards. Still, industrious bloggers frequently checked the website, just to be certain. Perhaps would-be recipients feared the battle axe of Mom or Wife.   

Soon, many of the fork were featuring gift cards as a standard choice for Dads & Grads. The magic of the cards would wane as (Burger) King and clown all hawked their versions. But the sellers savored the spring sales bump, and the investors amongst them rejoiced and grew mellow with wine.   

And thus it came to be that Hallmark  introduced its Glad You’re Out of Rehab  and Enjoy Your Ferrari cards.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A different sort of stock market rise

It’s not unusual today for public restaurant companies to hold “investor events,” where portfolio managers are given a close-up view of the operation and what it sells. But the one scheduled for tomorrow by Rick’s Cabaret International, the publicly traded string of “gentlemen’s clubs,” will likely be different from most.   

After investors are briefed on Rick’s second-quarter financial results, the “financial industry professionals” will be welcomed at the company’s outlet in New York for what Rick's calls the Due Diligence Ball.  The announcement highlights such attractions as free hors d’oeuvres and discounted drinks. But you have to wonder if perhaps the “live adult entertainment” might not be part of the draw. Rick’s, after all, operates what we restaurant writers refer to among ourselves as breast-aurants.   

Anytime a financial press release has to specify that “sexual contact is not permitted” within the issuer’s business establishments, you know you’re a long way from a McDonald’s earnings report. 

Blood stains on NY's white tablecloths

Mumsy, Biff-ster, alert the help to prepare for class war. Turns out there’s a recession underway, and it’s cutting our New York dining options. Pizza from Ray’s just won’t do, old boy. If this keeps up we’ll be dressing in black and eating downtown at one of Keith McNally’s places.   

Lever House, Country and Atria have already closed. Now Tailor, that quaint place in Soho with all the crazy desserts and cocktails, has gone bankrupt. There’s talk of Le Bernardin hanging up the fillet knife, and even Sirio is complaining about business at Le Cirque. We should’ve suspected something when Per Se put in a bar menu.   

It seems hedge-fund managers and other hoi polloi just can’t afford to drop hundreds or thousands a night, and there aren’t enough of us sclerotics left to keep a starched-tablecloth place in the black.  

Landlords set their rents with the expectation that restaurant prices and spending could climb forever, much the way new money types bet all those houses between Park Avenue and the Hamptons would keep rising in value. But gravity won out.   

Now the places of the moment are burger joints, and people are getting the visas needed to dine in Brooklyn—out past Peter Luger! Could jaunts to Queens be far behind?   

So rally the staff to dress us for an old-time hurrah, a true blue-blood blowout on the town. And what’ll it be? Russian Tea Room, the Rainbow Room, or Tavern on the Green?

Friday, May 8, 2009

YouTube: Good for the soul?

Catholics use the confessional to ask for forgiveness. Restaurant executives seem to prefer YouTube.   

The latest mea culpa was posted Thursday by KFC, after it infuriated freebie hounds by suspending a much-ballyhooed giveaway of grilled chicken.  “On behalf of all our employees and franchisees, I just wanted to apologize to you. The response to our Kentucky Grilled Chicken has been overwhelming,” chain president Roger Eaton says in the video. “So we can’t redeem your free coupon at this time.”   

Translation: Our chicken was so good that the moochers scarfed up all the samples we were willing to give away. But here’s a raincheck and a promise of a soft drink for your troubles.   

He should’ve studied Domino’s handling of the employee shenanigans at a North Carolina unit to see what a regretful chain executive looks like. Patrick Doyle, the pizza chain’s U.S. president, came across as genuinely sorry and outraged that two knucklehead employees would mess with a restaurant’s food. “It sickens me,” says Doyle. “We sincerely apologize for this incidence…We are taking this incredibly seriously.”   

Let that be a lesson to any chain that’s considering a YouTube apology for lapses like, oh, maybe serving a snake’s head in some broccoli, or selling a Happy Meal with a condom inside.

That’s assuming T.G.I. Friday’s and McDonald’s will turn to the Tube for their make-nice efforts. Several other chains didn't use the video-sharing site to explain their big-time blunders. Instead, Quiznos just let its recent free-subs fiasco reek in public for awhile.  Crain’s Chicago Business quoted an official as charactering the Million Subs Giveaway as a marketing home run despite the fallout with some customers.   

Burger King apologized via more traditional media for its “little Mexican” depiction in a European ad campaign, but it has yet to address parents who are outraged by the chain’s SpongeBob SquarePants commercial for U.S. youngsters.   

Hey, it’s worth 15 minutes and the investment in a Flip video camera. 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Restaurant association to offer more flu resources

The National Restaurant Association will post a "tool kit" of resources on its website in the next 24 hours to help restaurateurs deal with the swine flu, a representative said this afternoon during a webinar on the epidemic. 

He did not provide details.

The association's website is It also has a special page set up to provide information about the flu. 

The webinar also revealed that hand sanitizers can be an effective way of killing the swine-flu virus on hands, provided at least 60% of the type being used consists of ethanol. 

Bruce Cords, an infectious disease expert for webinar sponsor Ecolab, also noted that differentiating between swine flu and other forms of flu may become important when restaurants have to decide when to allow a recovered employee back to work. Viruses like norovirus can presumably last a lot longer and pose more of a risk. 

Among the other interesting tidbits:

--Encourage guests and employees to avoid a recontamination while washing their hands by leaving the water running. The hand washer should grab a paper towel, thoroughly dry his or her hands, and then use the towel to clean off the faucet.

--The swine flu virus only survives on hands for about five minutes.

--However, hard surfaces like kitchen counters can harbor the virus for up to 48 hours, and can be spread to hands on contact for 24 hours.

--The virus almost certainly cannot be spread via the surfaces of foods, like melons from Mexico, because it doesn't survive that long on porous surfaces.

Big names to profit from OpenTable stock offer

OpenTable should’ve pushed up the start date of its initial public offering and just auctioned off the shares at the Beard Awards. Many of the sellers were likely there, including Danny Meyer (selling roughly 69,000 shares, keeping around 124,000), Tim and Nina Zagat (selling all 155,000 of their shares), Rich Melman and Kevin Brown of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (selling about 26,000 shares through their partnership). 

Securities documents indicate the online reservation service expects to sell about 3 million shares for its stakeholders at an anticipated price of around $13 each.  

The filings show that OpenTable lost about $1 million last year on revenues of $55.8 million, after making more than  $9 million in 2007. Last year’s intake represented a 31% jump from the ’07 revenue figure.  The company was profitable during the first quarter of this year, according to figures cited in the prospectus. 

Monday, May 4, 2009

The coffee (plot) thickens

You have to get up pretty early in the morning to get the jump on Dunkin’ Donuts, a concept that once advertised how ridiculously early it arises to make the doughnuts.   

McDonald’s is rolling its McCafe line-up of beverages into the Greater New York area. Starbucks announces that it’ll be selectively reducing prices in some markets, which means some stores in the Tri-State Area could be among the discounters. So what’s Dunkin’ doing? Rolling back its latte prices in a pre-emptive strike.   

The chain announced today that it’ll be permanently discounting the prices of “all sizes, flavors and varieties” of latte drinks by about 15%. No reason was given in English for the haircut, though there was some corpo-blather about the changes being consistent with the current “You ‘kin do it” ad slogan.  

Restaurants adjust ops to swine flu realities

Visits here are spiking as people search via Google for what restaurants are doing about swine flu. My hit-counter program shows what query terms are being input, but not who’s doing the seeking. Are these consumers looking for reassurance, or restaurateurs scouting for safeguards they could readily adopt? Presumably both camps have been active, since there’s surprisingly little information for either.   

A previous post provided a sampling of what restaurants were doing. Here are a few more responses that came to light in recent days: 

Golden Corral has reportedly changed its operating procedures to require handwashing by all restaurant employees three times an hour. According to a news story carried by a Greenville, S.C., TV station, a “Code 100” is called every 20 minutes. That mustering call requires every staffer to immediately wash his or her hands, the report says.

More intense attention is directed at employees who handle money, the story says. Hand sanitizers are positioned near cash registers, where patrons can also give their mitts a shot of disinfectant.   Of course, experts say hand sanitizers aren’t a magic bullet against viruses.

Steak-Out, the steak delivery chain, provides patrons with what amounts to FAQs about swine flu. Included on the handout is ample advice that has nothing to do with being a Steak-Out customer, a PSA of sorts that leaves he impression that the chain is on top of the situation. 

Also provided is this more focused assurance:  
Our commitment to our customers during this outbreak is to make sure Steak-Out employees are following all safe handling procedures including frequent hand washing, proper cooking procedures and making sure only healthy employees are allowed to work, handle, and deliver your meal.
The chain is also looking at ways of lessening contact with customers while fears of contamination still hover in the stratosphere.

Experts have given that general dynamic, evident everywhere from schools to sporting events, the label of “social distancing.”     It's being put forth as the prudent mindset as the tally of infections continues to rise.

And that’s posing a dilemma for the high-society greeters at some playgrounds for the boldfaced-name set: To air-kiss or not to air-kiss, as the New York Times recently put it. 
As James Barron writes…
Julian Niccolini, an owner of the Four Seasons restaurant on East 52nd Street, said there were signs of anxiety in the power-lunch crowd his restaurant is famous for. “For the first time, some people said, ‘I don’t think I should shake your hand’ ” on Thursday, he said, “but most of them shook my hand anyway.” And at a birthday party there that evening, he said, “Everybody was still kissing everybody.”  
 Indeed, some are not giving a kiss a second thought.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Re-thinking show etiquette in the swine-flu era

Rumors of exhibitors giving away logo’d face masks at the National Restaurant Association’s upcoming convention are completely unfounded. Ditto for the promise of free Tamiflu inoculations at one vendor’s booth.  I say that with complete assurance because I made up both notions. (Important note to vendors who now have a figurative light bulb above their heads: A copyright fee applies.)   

But more than a few of the social conventions evident at a trade show may well be reconsidered this time around. For instance, the convention is largely a series of awards ceremonies with several hundred booths, seminars and parties mixed in. A handshake is de rigueur for accepting whatever honor is being bestowed. Might that tradition become a victim of the outbreak?   

The same holds true for the obligatory grip-and-grin photo that accompanies each prize presentation. It’ll be a tough adjustment for photographers, so don’t be judgmental if you see a few shutterbugs sulking around the Jim Beam booth.   

You also have to wonder about the taxi line at McCormick Place, which can look around 3 o’clock or so like Section J of Wrigley Field.  Will people start leaving more space between themselves and the next person in the queue? That could extend the line by two or three more miles.   

My prediction: The Ecolab booth will be particularly busy this year as some attendees stop by and beg for a complete spray-down.