Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hosing down the trucks

There’s a heretic loose at the NRA show, so keep a sharp stick handy. The lout is actually shaking his head over the truck-restaurant hoopla, wondering aloud why everyone’s going ga-ga over an industry offshoot that may not provide the financial miles per gallon that operators expect.

“It’s just like running any other restaurant, except now you have to deal with parking,” he lamented. If establishing a brick-and-morter restaurant is challenging, what happens when traffic, more permits and gas prices are added to the usual worries?

“See here, man, you must be mistaken,” I barked back, regretting once again that dueling’s passé. “Look at the crowds in the truck section, the turnout at the truck education sessions, the woohoo’s to the mere mention of a truck restaurant during a presentation. You must have your toque in a knot.”

My acquaintance, a chef and obervant journalist, wasn’t to be intimidated by my brutal comeback. He calmly explained how you’re still cooking or assembling meals, in a tinier space than you might have in a regular kitchen, with a smaller staff. What’s more, there are peculiarities in terms of food safety, not to mention issues like having access to water, and bathrooms.

I cleverly countered with some of the sales figures that have been offered during the show by rolling restaurateurs. All the lad could do was nod his head knowingly. “I’m not saying they can’t be a success,” he noted. “I’m just saying it may not be as easy as some people seem to think.”

Luckily for him, a distraction provided an opportunity to bolt. But I’m still trying to track him down, following the splashes of cold water.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Party on, industry

Listen hard at the restaurant show and you can almost hear the crack of the economic freeze as it starts to break.

Aisles are packed, booths are busy, and attendees are asking for product demo’s and more information, not for another sample to munch as they scout for more freebies.

I saw franchisees and executives of a sizeable chain descend on the booth of a supplier with a $32,000 piece of technology. There was no doubt the seller was going to get the contract, which would probably run far into six figures.

Then again, the exhibitor had already sold the equipment on display. A sign identified the buyer, a high-volume independent.

A walk down the aisles devoted to natural and organic products provided a looped rerun of that scene. Operators were asking precise questions about cost and supply logistics, which meant they were there to buy.

The show is the strongest sign I’ve seen that the industry is bouncing back, hard and fast.

Day One take-aways from the NRA show

What I learned so far during the NRA show:

The McDonald’s at McCormick Place doesn’t have a Dollar Menu. Reports that it’s the test site for a new Twenty Menu are probably just rumors.

College and university foodservices are way ahead of restaurants in composting food waste, but they face an inherent and peculiar problem>. “It’s widely done [on campuses], but it’s typically led by a student, a champion. So—guess what?—every four years they have a change in leadership,” explained Richard Young, senior engineer and director of education for the Food Service Technology Center, a facility that tests commercial kitchen equipment to determine its efficiency.

Young explained that schools feel the need to put it in place so they avert that four-year freshman-to-senior cycle.
His comments came during a presentation at the Conserve Solutions Center, a new feature of this year’s show. The section of the show floor features several green-focused suppliers and is presenting a slew of eco-minded education programs. Young participated in a session that highlighted a grant program run by the Hobart Center for Foodservice Sustainability. The prize is awarded annually to what the judges choose as the most innovative and well-educated sustainability project of the year (details are available here).

Truck restaurants will drive away with new respect and plenty of leads on would-be partners. The rolling-restaurant phenomenon officially moves mainstream with this year’s show. I had the good fortune of serving on two panels with Scott Baitinger, one of the principals in Milwaukee’s Street-za pizzeria-on-wheels, and it may be the closest I come to rubbing elbows with Mick Jagger or other rock stars. He drew a tremendous number of questions, and then was besieged with attendees afterward, pressing him for information. Others mobbed his truck, which was part of the show’s Truck Food Stop area. Once blasted as roach coaches, truck restaurants may be the hottest concept to emerge from the convention.

When worlds collide

One of the stranger aspects of this year’s show is meeting people you previously knew only through Twitter. It would’ve helped if they’d worn a sign that read "#acquaintance," because it takes a minute to place someone when they're freakishly using their real nam, not their Twitter ID. Having a microscopic picture as a reference point isn't a huge help, either.

Fortunately the conversations haven't come in 140-character bytes.

In one instance I looked up to realize I was sitting two rows behind a new follower during a presentation.

She and I were of course both tweeting.

Friday, May 21, 2010

When trends collide

If you heard a sonic boom yesterday, it might’ve been the collision of two mega-trends. The National Restaurant Association’s annual convention hasn’t even officially started, but it’s clear the proliferation of truck restaurants and move to local purchasing will be major themes.

The two coincided during a presentation at the Marketing Executives Group’s meeting, a two-day get-together that traditionally precedes the main show. Scott Baitinger , a recent entrant in the booming truck-restaurant business, was explaining one of the twists to his venture, a pizzeria-on-wheels called Street-za. The truck will soon be zipping around its home base of Milwaukee to pick up whatever tomatoes and other produce home-gardeners would like to sell. “Then we’ll sell it back to them as pizza,” explained Baitinger.

Baitinger’s presentation was far from the only mention of truck restaurants and local purchasing during the MEG conference. Speakers cited restaurants-on-wheels ranging from the famous Kogi truck to the Blizzard Mobile that Dairy Queen plans to roll this summer.

Others noted that chains aren’t sitting idle as the industry shifts to local purchasing. One pointed out that McCormick & Schmick’s has long purchased local seafood. Now the dinnerhouse chain is featuring local produce in its salads, a MEG speaker noted.

The topics will be frequent areas of focus during the convention. Baitinger, for instance, will be discussing his mobile restaurant during the Restaurant Executive Breakfast at 8:30 tomorrow morning in room N427 (attendance is limited to chain executives). The session, which I’m moderating, will also feature Susan Shield of Jamba Juice, speaking about licensing and catering, and John Inserra of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, who’ll address educational sessions for consumers as a new revenue stream for restaurants.

What’s more, Baitinger’s truck restaurant will be one of several featured in a special section of the show floor, The Food Truck Spot.

Local purchasing will be the focus of several education sessions at the show, including “’Local’ Making You Loco?,” Sunday, 2 to 3:30 p.m., and “Are Sourcing Local and Sustainable Food Mutually Exclusive?”, Monday, 2 to 3:30. All education sessions will be held in the North building at McCormick Place.

Hope to see you at tomorrow’s breakfast session.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Getting caught up on the news

A surge in work is typical before the NRA Show, and even a freelance restaurant writer wasn’t exempted this year, a sign itself that business conditions are improving. A barrage of assignments frustrated RestaurantRealityCheck from reporting several trends that merit winces or ooohs from the industry. Here, in several installments, are a few newsreel-worthy subjects that shouldn’t slip past unnoticed.

The obesity witch hunt is waning. Chain restaurants have been vilified for years as the agents of excess who made kids fat. If those glitzy temples didn’t sell families so many shakes and fries, the argument holds, the tykes wouldn’t be consuming more calories than they burn. We wouldn’t have a childhood obesity problem in the United States.

Somewhere along the way, reason snuck into the discussion. Talk of who’s to blame has given way to a new topic of discourse, the encouraging concept of “healthy communities.”

A more holistic approach, it holds that the problem has to be rectified by overhauling communities—their infrastructures and their sensibilities—instead of hanging one component as the culprit.

In this fresher way of thinking, communities have to consider such factors as how they inadvertently discourage routine exercise. Do they have sidewalks? Safe playgrounds? Bike paths? Can kids walk to school, or have the layout and customs all but guarantee that youngsters get a ride?

Similarly, are healthful options even present? Are there markets where the right sort of foods can be purchased, or has the community lapsed into a nutritional desert, where most of the choices come in single-serving cellophane bags?

Fast-food places are still part of the scrutiny, as any food emporium should be in a broad-stroke approach. After all, the very notion is that every component of a community has to do its part.

So proponents look at factors like the ratio of processed-food outlets to markets featuring fresh, ideally locally grown fare.
Similarly, they haven’t abandoned the controversial notion that restaurants should filter their communications to children since parents often don’t.

Indeed, under pressure from no less a force than the White House, where First Lady Michelle Obama is championing the healthy communities approach, the Federal Trade Commission plans to start taking fast-food marketers to task. The watchdog agency’s chairman has indicated that he may subpoena chains to see if they upheld promises made in 2005 to change what and how they market to kids. He’s suggested that regulation may be the fallback if volunteer curbs weren’t implemented.

Similarly, a report issued earlier this week by the White House has stoked calls for a heavier sales tax on foods that pose a health risk.

After reviewing all the obesity-focused legislation passed by states last year, the National Conference of State Legislatures concluded that children’s health advocates are increasingly framing their efforts as the pursuit of healthy communities. It’s clearly become the prevailing way of looking at the issue, a refreshing change from the blame game.

Restaurants need to embrace and promote that more reasonable approach, even if it means shouldering some responsibility and making some significant changes.

Meatless Mondays find a broader audience

Industry watchdogs have warned for years that animal-rights activists’ real agenda in attacking restaurants is halting the consumption of meat regardless of how its source is raised. By that gauge, the forces of vegetarianism have recruited some potent new allies recently, including the city of San Francisco.

Their rallying cry is Meatless Monday, a program that encourages the public to skip meat at least one day a week. Forging animal protein on Mondays, the advocates argue, will be boon to public health.

That assertion was convincing enough to merit a non-binding resolution from the City by the Bay that restaurants, stores and schools offer only vegetarian options on the first day of the work week. Right now it’s merely a recommendation, not a requirement.

The Meatless Monday movement also got a boost from rockstar chef Mario Batali, who disclosed a few days ago that all 14 of his restaurants will steer customers toward veggie selections on Mondays. At least two meatless options will be offered as specials on those days, the redheaded celebrity explained via the media to his considerable public following.

He’s hardly the only big name proponent of Meatless Monday. Other converts include Al Gore, Simon Cowles and Paul McCartney.
The movement has already won the allegiance of several dozen colleges and all of Baltimore’s schools. Chains have not made a splash by jumping on the bandwagon, but it’s probably just a matter of time.

‘You’re selling? Then we’re suing.'

Lawyers specializing in shareholder litigation must spend their days crouched like sprinters, the necessary court papers in hand.

Hours after the pending sale of the Rubio’s fish taco chain was announced, lawsuits alleging a breach of fiduciary responsibility by the seller had already been filed. Emergency-room doctors don't work that fast.

Suits accusing current owners for selling too low have now become as commonplace as the need to hire an army of lawyers to steer a deal through to its consummation. All those counselors involved for both parties, and there’s still room for their brethren of the bar to lodge a court challenge?

Sounds as if something’s not right there.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

How did the world miss this?

Looks as if the Krystal burger chain is giving The King a taste of his own wise-ass marketing. Check out this little-noticed poke from a David that's not intimidated by a segment Goliath (though you have to assume lawyers are involved by this point):

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Clarifying who's not involved

About two months ago, i speculated here that investor Sardar Biglari may be an unnamed co-conspirator in the effort to take control of Denny's board. Biglari, after all, had used a similar strategy to add Steak n Shake to his holdings. One of his advisors in that takeover, Jonathan Dash, had been one of the three dissident shareholders who were making the run on Denny's director seats.

Today Biglari's company, Biglari Holdings, issued this statement on the matter:
Biglari Holdings Inc. wishes to apprise its shareholders as well as Denny's stockholders that we have absolutely no involvement in Denny's Corporation (Nasdaq:DENN - News). Without our approval, references to our company, including its subsidiaries, contain misinformation. However, we do not intend to correct any of these errors.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Guns in restaurants? Right.

Gun enthusiasts won’t be happy until swimsuits and strollers come with built-in holsters. Described below is a situation that should prompt them to stop and reconsider their drive to allow loaded pistols anywhere, including the interiors of restaurants and bars.

But first, having learned firsthand how personal a discussion like this can become, let me provide some pre-emptive qualifiers to tamp down the name-calling.

No, I’m not a communist.

No, I don’t have an issue with guns per se. I owned them as a youngster, and will soon inherit a .22 that my father-in-law purchased in the early 1960s to defend himself in the even of a Russian invasion (remember, pro-carry forces, he’s one of yours.)

No, I’m not homosexual, though that should have no bearing on this discussion.

Yes, I eat meat.

Yes, I support our troops.

Yes, I have witnessed violent crimes (two murders—one committed by a civilian with a gun who fired amidst a crowd). No, I didn’t wish I was armed in either instance.

No, I have no agenda other than protecting the restaurant industry from a bad name.

And now the clip, run in exactly the same form this morning by the Calhoun (Ga.) Times and the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune:

An altercation over steak led to the arrest of an Adairsville man on Sunday afternoon at Ryan’s Steakhouse in Calhoun.

According to the Calhoun Police Department:

David Anthony Bogue, 47, of 1141 Hall Station Road in Adairsville, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct around 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

The officer was dispatched to the restaurant where the manager said two men were arguing over waiting for a steak and that one had a gun. The officer stated that he removed the gun from a holster on Bogue’s side. The officer took Bogue and the other man, Richard Norris, 35, of 314 Liberty Road, outside to speak with them.

According to the report, Norris was behind Bogue at the steak grill. Bogue ordered his steak medium well and Norris ordered his rare. When Norris received his steak first, Bogue began to complain and curse at Norris and the cook.

Norris allegedly told Bogue there was “no reason to be cussing and stuff around these people and kids.” When the suggestion to go outside came up, Norris allegedly asked Bogue if he really wanted to go outside over a piece of steak. That’s when Bogue produced his concealed weapon permit and pulled his shirt back to show the weapon.

Bogue allegedly then said, “Do you want to go outside? Real smart.” Norris told police he then became intimidated.

Another manager saw the weapon and told him if he would sit down, she would bring him his steak. He showed her his permit and his weapon.

Bogue told the officer that Norris cut in line and that he never showed his weapon. The officer made the decision to arrest Bogue, but because of the offender’s health issues, he was taken to the Calhoun Police Department, where he was released to his father on bond.