Thursday, September 30, 2010

What they're saying about Eataly

A snippets of conversations overheard at lunchtime today in Eataly, the new Italian food complex opened in New York City by Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich, Joe Bastianich and several other big-name kitchen stars:

Thirtysomething man in casual business attire, about to hurt his neck as his head snaps around to take it all in--the restaurants, the food stalls, the displays of cheese and salumi: This place is sick.

Thirtysomething female companion, apparently a co-worker, after nodding vigorishly: I could live here.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Local movement hits a turnip in the road

Wanted: Enough locally grown hemp to weave a few nooses. Locavores are ready to string some beans after being conned by an opportunist or two with field mud on their boots.

It’s not uncommon for the growers who populate farmers markets to use natural fertilizers on their crops. A few, it seems, have been slinging BS of a different sort. Products they’ve been hawking as locally grown were actually harvested hundreds of miles away and warehoused, as several investigative reports have revealed.

The Pulitzer Prize-worthy piece was last week’s report by the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles. Reporters for the station bought produce at local farmers markets, then paid surprise visits to the farms where the items were purportedly being grown. Instead of planted fields, they found weed-covered lots.

Presented with the evidence, some of the lying growers ‘fessed up. Hence the hemp request. Locavores regard farmers markets as sacred grounds. These slicksters in overalls were desecrating the virtual birthplaces of the buy-local movement.

Refuting claims of a food being locally sourced has become downright popular in the United Kingdom. The London Mail focused on restaurants’ deceptions, noting that lambs supposedly from the countryside had actually been raised and butchered in New Zealand, on the other side of the globe. A locally made pie of locally grown apples actually came from a supermarket aisle, the story noted. And half the local cheeses it investigated were actually imported from other nations.

Don’t mash my turnips for saying this, but it’s not surprising that such a thing could happen. Sales of locally sourced foods are skyrocketing, in part because of the prices they can command.. The poor schlub who grows nothing but peanuts for a big multinational food processor doesn’t want to miss the opportunity.

Clearly safeguards will have to be implemented to verify the origins of what markets and restaurants sell as locally grown. That, unfortunately, flies in the face of the movement’s informality and almost bohemian sense.

But doing nothing will open the produce stalls to more charlatans, and that would certainly hamper the sea-salt change that’s taking place in America’s eating habits.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Better fare to be the bomb this fall

Who knew foodies were lurking beneath the beer-can hats and face paint? There’s no denying that today’s football fan, and the tailgating variety in particular, have been splicing some Rachel Ray episodes into the ESPN highlight reels.

Consider the findings of the Weber grill company’s annual survey of NFL ticket holders: Half of tailgaters, the fanatics who host a pre-game cookout outside the stadium, regard themselves as gourmets.

Half those parking-lot culinarians prefer to grill seafood instead of the usual burgers and brats. Perhaps not surprisingly, they tend to draw 20 fellow fans to sample their fare, compared with a mean of 14 for the pedestrian grillers.

Even more telling are stadium feeders’ announcements of the new restaurants they’re showcasing at pro arenas this season. The localization trend hasn’t taken a time-out during gridiron season. Contract management companies like Centerplate and Delaware North have added feeding stations that specialize in home-city favorites, from crab cakes at the Baltimore’s Raven’s home roost to a fried pork tenderloin sandwich at the Indianapolis Colts’ ballpark.

A competitor, Delaware North’s Sportservcie, said it searched for menu ideas in the New Jersey towns surrounding the concessionaire’s newest charge, the Meadowlands home of the Jets and the Giants. The rookie stadium is featuring such “Jersey Shore”-authentic fare as pepper and egg sandwiches and Nonna Fusco’s Meatballs, made from the recipe of Sportservice executive chef Eric Borgia.

Still, the management companies aren’t neglecting fans with more traditional stadium tastes. Centerplate-managed facilities will feature a 2 Point Conversion deal, or two hot dogs available at a combo price, and a refillable peanut cup for anyone who buys a drink to accompany the snack.

Sportservice said it will have 91 portable beer carts at the new Meadowland stadium.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A chef decides it's better to be all a-Twitter

Many of my colleagues in the general media have been ga-ga over 4Food, the quickservice upstart that says it’ll reward customers who create a new menu item. Patrons can create their own burger order, give it a name, and promote it via social media. The more times it’s ordered, the more rewards they’ll garner from the place.

That’s an interesting application of Twitter and its ilk. But more impressive is the virtually overlooked new venture of Brett McGee, the Charleston, S.C. chef who recently packed in a conventional culinary career to bet on something social-media based. Indeed, it may be the more reliant on viral communication networks than any foodservice venture we’ve seen to date, including Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ truck.

McKee recently turned in is toque at the Charleston institutions where he mans the kitchens, the acclaimed Oak Steakhouse and O-Ku. He says he’d rather devote his energies to building a fleet of mobile restaurants bearing the brandname Roadside Kitchens. Like many truck ventures, the first two Kitchens rely heavily on social media. That’s how they tell customers where to buy the concept’s comfort foods.

But in a marked twist, Roadside Kitchens will use social media to determine what items to put on the menu. As it moves into new areas, McKee has indicated to local media, Kitchens will ask consumers to post what items they’d like to find on the menu. Roadside Kitchens plans to put those requests on the menu, McKee indicated.

We’re just starting to see the power of social media. But in quick order, we’ve seen how it’s likely to remake menus in the near-term.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Real-life perspective on guns in restaurants

Jim Balloch, a veteran reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel, was eating in a local S&S Cafeteria last week when he heard a commotion from the cashier’s booth a few feet away. What happened next is a nightmare familiar to many of you who operate restaurants, a damnable side effect of keeping the doors open to everyone. No one could have prevented what happened, but some contend there’d be greater safety in what the industry blasts as a pronounced danger. Clarification on that in a moment.

First, I’ll let Jim describe what happened, as he did in this first-person account for the paper:
I stood up and started to walk to the booth to see if I could help when I heard the shot. It was a dull, flat pop, not as loud as would be expected of a shot fired inside a room.

From my angle, I could see a semiautomatic pistol, angled slightly downward. I could barely see the hand that was holding it. At that precise second, all sights, sounds and senses of time and motion were compressed into a queasy netherworld.

Balloch dove under a table, as did many of the other customers. They came out when someone yelled that the cashier, a 60-year-old retired accountant six weeks into the job, had been shot during the robbery. Dan Giles couldn’t be saved.

The Sentinel reported this week that authorities suspect the robber was a former S&S employee who killed Giles to avoid being identified. When the police went to arrest the suspect, 54-year-old Michael Chesney, he fired at them, hitting one officer. The others shot back and killed Chesney.

Balloch wrote the story.

If that had happened outside of Tennessee, I probably wouldn’t be writing this. But the state is a flashpoint in the debate over expanded gun-possession laws. The statutes were recently amended to permit consumers with a concealed-gun permit to visit alcohol-serving establishments while armed, a move that strikes many of us as increasing the chances of a shooting, not averting situations like the S&S murder.

Proponents counter that residents should be able to defend themselves in all situations, and stress that the new law doesn’t permit the gun bearer to drink.

The state’s restaurant industry, like the trade of virtually every other state that allows hidden guns in bars, has argued vehemently that the temptation might be too great. They also fret that arguments involving only one combatant stoked by drink could still lead to nose-to-barrel confrontations. The combination of alcohol and guns is just too potentially dangerous, they assert.

A restaurant server who agrees recently filed a complaint with the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He asserted that the law is putting him at considerable risk on the job. The safety watchdogs have yet to rule on the matter.

S&S Cafeterias typically don’t serve alcohol. In an e-mail to me, Balloch noted that an armed patron wouldn’t have been able to protect Giles because the cashier’s booth is tucked out of diners’ sight lines. “So in this situation, especially since it happened so quickly, there would not have even been time for a permit holder to act to even save Mr. Giles' life,” he wrote.

But if the shooter had gone on a rampage, a la what happened in Killeen, Texas, years ago, “then I would wager that everyone in the cafeteria would hope that at least someone among them had a means to resist,” Balloch said.

Gun enthusiasts would seize on that sentiment as validation for permitting weapons everywhere, from parent teacher meetings to picnics in the park. But I still don’t see how packing guns in restaurants, especially ones that serve alcohol, averts rather than fosters danger. For every Luby’s shooting, which we’re still discussing some 20 years later because of its rarity, there might be X accidental shootings, or rash gun play sparked by anger, machismo, or a few Jack Daniels downed in defiance of the law.

Those concerns should be part of the discussion, just as the potential safety might. Which is why I’ve tried to air both sides here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The future checks in

In the not-too-distant future, restaurant employees will try to land a new job by showing the would-be hirer how many service compliments they’ve garnered on Foursquare. The applicants might hear of the opening from an alert their cell phones deliver as they drive past the understaffed place.

That’s not what-if stuff, but capabilities being refined right now, says Nate DaPore, a software veteran who’s about to launch a new suite of HR products for the restaurant business. He thinks the industry is poised for a quantum leap in its ability to find, train and retain the best personnel, or what HR professionals call “talent management.” The springboard, he says, will be technology based on the sort of devices the restaurant labor pool increasingly uses, like smart phones and iPads.

That’s not exactly a new world view. The a-ha to DaPore’s expectations—near-term ones, he stresses—is what personnel information those devices will generate, collect and provide on demand for employer and employee alike.

For instance, the portable databases will soon serve up detailed records of what training a job applicant has undergone, including ServSafe certification, he says. That’s in addition to a detailed work history, a resume-in-bytes, so to speak.

Some of that banked information will come from customers, he says. Through an application already being written, DaPore explains, Foursquare users will be able to rate the performance of employees at restaurants where they’ve checked in. Those “merit badges” will go into the staffer’s file, which will travel with the staffers as their foodservice career progresses. “They’ll take their merit badges and job history with them as they move from job to job,” says DaPore.

He wouldn’t say precisely when those capabilities would be introduced, which isn’t what restaurateurs like to hear. After years of hearing technology promises, many are skeptical until they see the new tools in use.

But DaPore suggests that HR technology has leapt farther than many restaurateurs realize. He notes that his company, People Matters, is about to introduce a system that determines if new hires are eligible for tax credits, which the program then automatically secures and processes.

He’s not alone in that regard. Technology suppliers stress that foodservice employers have a host of new capabilities available to them. Decisions that were once made on a purely gut level—a go or no-go on a frontline hire, for instance—are being simplified by new screening or evaluation tools. They suggest that operators were so focused on surviving, understandably, that they haven’t noticed significant advances in the HR technology available to them.
Better times, of course, could be the eye-opener.

Finally, an aside to regular readers: You’d be hard-pressed to find a mention of many other vendors in this space. Indeed, I’ve avoided it out of habit. Business writers have to avert readers’ suspicions that a company is being named because of some quid pro quo. The safest course is not to mention advertisers, potential advertisers, non-advertisers or just about any brand name you can possibly avoid. If there’s not so much as a reference, how can there be some financial agenda?

But because I don’t accept advertising here, and don’t make a dime off this blog, I’m suspending that policy. I’m in the enviable position of being able to write what I want without any taint of a financial connection. I can’t be called a whore if there’s no money on the pillow.

It’s freeing because many suppliers have a wealth of information and insight on the problems hamstringing restaurateurs. That potential assistance doesn’t get an airing because it’s suspected of being a sales pitch, if not an empty come-on.

If something worth telling should arise from the supplier community, I’m no longer going to dismiss it per se.
But you operators have to ensure I’m not misled or duped. If I fall for some supplier’s BS, please yell. Loudly.

Friday, September 3, 2010

These dogs can hunt

The wags have it wrong about old dogs and new tricks. A few stalwarts of the restaurant business are pulling off fresh feats as if they were mere pups.

For Andrew Cherng, maybe “panda cub” would be more appropriate. He and his wife, Peggy, founded and built Panda Restaurant Group, a collection of more than 1,200 quick-service and casual Asian restaurants. With the company reporting annual sales of more than $1 billion, it may be the quietest giant in foodservice. Little has been written about it, and in almost 30 years of covering the restaurant business I don’t think I’ve met more than two people who worked for the Cherngs and moved on. It’s been a black box of information.

That’s why yesterday’s news flash was such a head-turner. Cherng has secured rights to open 150 branches of the new Tide Dry Cleaning chain being developed by Proctor & Gamble, according to the Bloomberg Business Week report. He likened the opportunity to being part of McDonald’s during its start-up mode, which suggests the venture will be getting a great deal of his attention. Panda’s website still lists him as splitting chairman duties with his wife.

The Business Week story noted that the Tide chain is one of several franchising businesses P&G is exploring with the guidance of another longtime chain-restaurant veteran, Bill Van Epps.

Perhaps it's not a coincidence that one of Tide's point of differentiation is a drive-thru lane so patrons don't have to exit their cars.

Cherng and Van Epps aren't the only long-timers taking new paths. Nation’s Restaurant News reported a few days ago that White Castle, one of the business’ oldest chain operations, is testing three start-up concepts that could be shoehorned into its iconic burger outlets.

Not long ago, White Castle’s resistance to change made In-N-Out look downright reckless. It featured its signature sliders with cheese, but that was about as much variation as the all-company-operated chain could tolerate.

More recently it moved into products like pulled-pork and chicken sliders, but it still wasn’t exactly rivaling Jack in the Box or Burger King as a product innovator.

Now, according to my former colleagues at NRN, the familiar castle-themed brand is experimenting with three retrofit-able stations, each with its own name and identity. The ventures would diversify White Castle’s into pressed sandwiches, noodles and barbecue specialties of various global regions.

I don’t know why we should be surprised to see the old guard embrace change. In-N-Out did add a new diet soda a few years ago.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Good work, Dr. Freud

Sanity seems to be making a comeback.

Oh, sure, there’s still the potent counterargument of Sarah Palin’s popularity. But consider the recent developments where reason clearly prevailed, rescuing restaurants and other service businesses from a Twilight Zone episode.

Take today's news from Tennessee, for instance. An employee of a restaurant there has reportedly petitioned the state’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration to do its job of protecting workers. In his case, the danger isn’t an ungrounded piece of electrical equipment or a slippery floor, but guns. The state is one of several that recently bowed to the gun lobby by agreeing to let licensed patrons carry concealed weapons inside alcohol-serving establishments.

Think of how many bar fights you’ve witnessed, or perhaps been pulled into. Now consider how the outcome might’ve been different if one or several of the combatants had been armed.

According to news reports, a server at a bar and grill in Hillsboro Village can anticipate the danger—not only to the persons waging the dispute, but to himself. Bullets aren’t that discriminatory.

He's reportedly filed a complaint with the state OSHA because he believes the presence of guns in a drinking establishment poses an on-the-job hazard.

Attention, those of you who are about to brand me a tool of the liberal conspiracy: Yes, the news reports quoted co-workers of the complainant as saying they feel safer knowing patrons may be carrying. Many many people in the state do like guns, and see no reason why you can't be packing when softball team heads out after the game for some adult rehydration.

But the logic eludes a lot of restaurateurs. Sanity would suggest you keep guns and alcohol separate, even if the bearer is technically forbidden to imbibe. Why mix flame and dynamite?

That’s not the only hopeful development of recent days. Consider the wholesale shift of public companies to private-owners status, a movement that could soon claim Burger King, if the Wall Street Journal’s bombshell report is accurate.

Public ownership has morphed into insanity, with analysts and shareholders squawking like third-world dictators when a company tempers its financial predictions for three or nine months out. They start tying a noose if the management team is so foolhardy as to miss the projections.

It’s ridiculous to think that multi-billion-dollar companies should be managed for three-month returns, when far greater paybacks could be engineered if a longer timeframe was allowed by investors. “Longer” being eons of, say, a year or more. A shift away from a public-ownership model makes sense.

Of course, certain pockets of insanity are proving immune to reason. Consider, for instance, the situation in Brookfield, Mass., where civic leaders decided that the center of town would be marred by the development of drive-thru restaurants. They ramrodded through a ban on the eateries—only to discover they’d inadvertently outlawed drive-thru banks and pharmacies as well. Getting out of your car for a Big Mac might be okay, but for a refill of Viagra? Pffft.

The town amended the law to permit the development of all drive-thrus except restaurants.