Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Are cashier receipts a health hazard?

McDonald’s has categorically declared that Ronald McDonald’s will not be retiring, despite the protests from advocates who say the icon is leading kids down a dangerous path. But has anyone asked the clown how he feels? Clutching a fishing rod or four iron in those white-gloved mitts may not be so bad given the new allegations of how families are being put at risk.

First there’s an outcry because a 4-year-old took part of a toy from a Happy Meal, a piece intended to be used as a wrist bracelet, and wrapped it around his neck instead. The boy lost consciousness but was revived by his mother.

Tragedy was narrowly averted—so narrowly that the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection says it’s investigating the toy’s safety, which McDonald’s says it verified before using the “Air Bender”-themed giveaway as a premium.

The Department might want to check the mother’s credentials as a mom first, particularly her abilities as a teacher. What if she doesn’t tell the lad he shouldn’t tear off pieces of a burger and use them to plug up his nose and throat? Or not to take a lamp cord and wrap it around his neck? But, hey, that’s just one blogger’s opinion.

And now there’s a new safety allegation being leveled at the Golden Arches—presumably a first-of-its-kind in the restaurant and retailing industries. A child-safety watchdog group has alleged that the chain and many other service businesses are posing a risk to mom because of the receipts they provide.

The slips have a two-in-five chance of being contaminated with high levels of bisphenal A, a plastics byproduct that can affect human reproduction and intellectual development, according to a new report from the Environmental Working Group.
Online coverage has speculated that the tainted receipts paper an also pose a risk to cashiers.

The accusations are based on a study by the EWG of receipts collected from McDonald’s, KFC, Whole Foods, Walmarts and a number of other service businesses. Forty percent had levels of BPA adjudged by the group to be high.

McDonald’s had yet to respond publicly as of this posting. Reports of Ronald shopping for a condo in Boca Raton have not been confirmed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Ruby Tuesday to become a multi-concept co. again

About two years ago, the CEO of Ruby Tuesday was asked during a financial conference call about Wok Hay, a fast-casual Asian concept the full-service chain had purchased as what it later termed an experiment. The executive, Sandy Beall, confessed that he didn’t know what the questioner was talking about; he’d forgotten that Ruby even owned the brand, which apparently never grew beyond two stores. It was all but forgotten since then.

But now the concept’s getting a green light. Beall told investors yesterday that Ruby will turn a unit or two of its namesake restaurants into Wok Hay outlets. A few more Ruby Tuesdays will be recast as branches of Jim ‘N Nick's BBQ or Truffles, two groups that recently signed Ruby as a licensee.

Longer term, "whether we convert 20 or 50 or 300, I don't know," Beall said during yesterday's conference call.

Alabama-based Jim ‘N Nick's appears the more downscale of Ruby’s new partners. The most expensive item on the menu of the 27-unit chain is the ribeye steak, at $16.99, baked potato and salad included. Much of the menu consists of sandwiches, salads and burgers, most priced under $10, and everything is made from scratch.

A "Jim & Nick's will do $2.5 million on a bad day," Beall commented, apparently meaning a bad year.

Truffles appears to be Truffles Cafe, a fairly up-market concept with two locations.

There’s also a single Truffles Grill, a tonier variation, on Hilton Head Island. On the concept’s Facebook page, a fan named Sandy Beall has posted his opinion that it’s the “best on Hilton Head.”

It was not clear from the conference-call transcripts if Ruby Tuesday will develop both Truffles brands.

It’s not the first time that Ruby Tuesday has operated a variety of concepts. It once owned the Tia’s Tex-Mex chain, the brainchild of Chili’s founder Larry Lavine.

It’s not the first time that Ruby Tuesday has operated a variety of concepts. It once owned the Tia’s Tex-Mex chain, the brainchild of Chili’s founder Larry Lavine.

It also came about a pen stroke away from buying Pizzeria Uno at one point.

For awhile, through a merger with Morrison’s, Ruby was part of a veritable restaurant empire, with concepts that ranged from cafeterias to contract feeding operations and buffet places. When the parent spun of Ruby as a separate company, the casual chain took several sister concepts with it, including Mozzarella’s, Silver Spoon Café and L&N Seafood Grill.

Each was subsequently sold off, paring back the company to Ruby once again.

Beall, who co-founded Ruby Tuesday while still in college, didn’t explain why he’s resorting back to multiple concepts, other than to cryptically note, "we don't want to manage young brands."

But he did note that a Ruby Tuesday can be converted to any of the three alternative concepts for about $400,000, and that each reborn store should take in about $1 million more annually than the format it replaced.

Chipotle takes steps to speed service

Chipotle has established a new serving-line position as part of stepped-up effort to handle more customers during lunch and dinner rushes.

The expediter scrambles to complete a patron’s order—adding the drink, grabbing some chips or extra guacamole, bagging to-go items—so the cashier can focus on ringing up the order. Executives explained to investors yesterday that the set-up speeds service because the cashier now handles only the sales transaction, instead of juggling that function with finishing an order.

The high-flying burrito chain is also trying to handle more customers during crunch periods by ensuring that all prep work is completed before the rushes hit. Instead of chopping or slicing, staffers can be on the line, handling orders.

Executives said the production of stores is being boosted without an increase in labor costs through more astute scheduling and deployment.

They were less forthcoming about another new initiative for the chain, Burritos by the Box. They declined to answer questions about the Box, a program for handling bulk orders.

According to earlier press reports, each Box contains six identical burritos or burrito bowls, along with containers of guacamole, sour cream and salsa so the items can be customized before being eaten. The Box order, which also includes six bags of chips, is reportedly selling for just under $44, or roughly $7.30 per person.

The program was being tested in Las Vegas and California.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Raising Cain, of The Hermanator sort

If you’re still a little woozy from Bristol Palin’s engagement announcement, brace yourself for another percussion bomb: Joe the Plumber, the 15-minute celebrity from the last presidential election, is already talking up a candidate for the next go-round.

But here’s the real stunner if you’re in the restaurant business: Joe’s preferred contender is none other than Herman Cain, a.k.a. The Hermanator, the one-time head of the National Restaurant Association, a familiar speaker at industry events, and a former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza.

Cain, now a talk-radio personality in the Atlanta market, has been drawing attention in the blogosphere as a potential candidate, even though he’s yet to say definitively if he intends to run. There’s already a Draft Cain website; an affiliated political action fund, The Hermanator PAC; and a Draft Cain Facebook page, with about 1,000 fans.

Don’t confuse the latter with three apparently older Draft Cain pages on Facebook: One for the U.S. Senate, one for vice president (under McCain, apparently), and one for the governorship of Georgia.

Significantly, the latter features a riff on the now-famous Barack Obama poster, depicting Cain instead of the President. Much of the online coverage underscores that Cain is an African-American and hence a Republican candidate who could erode the President’s popularity among blacks. “Herman Cain may be Michael Steele with out the baggage,” Matt Lewis writes on the website Politics Daily, referring to the beleagured chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Regardless of what you think of Cain, it’s a shame his race is figuring so prominently into the discussion of a possible presidential bid. During his rise to prominence in the restaurant business, at a time when the leadership was nearly all white and male, Cain downplayed his historic role. When he was named the first-ever black head of the National Restaurant Association, I asked him if he felt any additional pressure, or expected any greater criticism, because of his race. He hesitated and joked, “I’ve been black all my life. I have no basis of comparison.”

He would, however, talk about his humble beginnings. His father was a chauffeur for the top brass at Coca-Cola, a company that ironically would court Herman for business from Godfather’s and his previous employer and then-sister brand, Burger King. The senior Cain worked a second job to give his children a better life. In some of his addresses to the industry, Herman would recall his father’s pride at being able to buy the family a house.

Those of us who covered Cain came to realize that his charm and pronounced oratorical gifts could screen some shortcomings in other respects. We noted, for instance, that he always talked publicly about empowering employees, and how important it was to broaden their horizons. Yet I can’t recall him bringing low- or even mid-level members of his organization to any industry event. The only person who usually accompanied him was a member of the PR department.

Similarly, insiders reported that his remake of the restaurant association wasn’t as phenomenally positive as Cain and his supporters incessantly asserted.

Still, the man has an ability to excite people, and certainly makes an impression. If he does run for president, and many of the blogo-pundits are already predicting he will, then we’ll all be in store for a lively, interesting race.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The jug is up

Did I miss the pronouncement of a change in the standard serving procedures of New York restaurants? The tweak may be minor, but it’s the sort of shift that throws sport diners into fits of chatter and blogging. Global warming was likely worsened exponentially by the fatuous yakking about common tables and square dinner plates. Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find so much as a tweet about the wholesale shift to water jugs.

Yet the proof of an overnight changeover is everywhere. The last four times I dined out, in Manhattan and in the burbs, our table was provided with menus, a greeting, and then the literal vessel for the trend, some type of refillable water container. One night, it was a green screw-top bottle that looked as if it could’ve once held olive oil. The next, we refilled our water glasses with what looked like an old-fashioned beer bottle, complete with swivel-type stopper. On that same day, a runner outfitted our table with a bread basket and what could’ve also served as a vase for long-stem roses, though it was filled with drinking water instead.

All were riffs on what appears to be the trend standard, a wine carafe filled instead with tap water.

The reasons for no longer serving water glass by glass are easy to deduce. Providing a table with a whole jug spares the runners considerable wear and tear. No longer do they have to scramble just to keep the glasses filled.

If other customers are like me, patrons appreciate that they no longer have to depend on the runners or a server for refills.

There’s very likely a green benefit to the new hydration approach, though it’s not as crystal clear as the output of a mountain spring. The same number of glasses have to be washed, and plenty of water will be wasted. Still, eco enthusiasts would probably prefer tipping a few ounces down the drain to unscrewing a bottle of water that was shipped from thousands of miles away.

I’ve rummaged through the U Store It stalls of recent memory for a recollection of seeing water jugs in the cities I’ve recently visited. None registered.

So the wave may still be rolling west. But the speed with which it infiltrated New York suggests it’ll be flowing through the mainland with Category 4 velocity.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wendy's bold salad bid

By 2002, most fast-food chains were offering a salad of some shape or form, and it was fine.

Then Wendy’s replaced its greens with an upscale line, and it was better. Much, much better. Before long, the burger chain’s sales were soaring, and every other brand, from McDonald’s down, was replacing its plate of wilted iceberg lettuce with fresher, higher-quality ingredients.

They’d eventually catch up and outperform Wendy’s, in part because they’d matched its bid for women and the health-oriented, in larger part because they added more menu items targeted at the quality-conscious. Price and consistency remained important, but fast-food shifted decidedly up-market. Witness the rise of fast-casual challengers like Chipotle and Five Guys.

Now Wendy’s is replacing its Garden Sensations line with an even more ambitious array of salads. They feature ingredients like crumbled bleu cheese, applewood-smoked bacon, fresh pico de gallo made on premise, and a mix of spring field greens. Included are some locally purchased ingredients, according to Rick Tramonto, the white-tablecloth chef who was retained by Wendy’s to help introduce the salads at a press function today in New York.

As executives explain, the new choices are intended to be as good as what you might order in a well-rated independent café. But, at $5.99, they’re priced at a relative bargain rate.

So the hanging question is, Will lightning strike twice? Will this be the entry that restores Wendy’s reputation as the high-quality entrant among the mainstream quick-service chains?

I tried two of the salads, the BLT Cobb and the Apple Pecan, at the press function, and they were good. Very good. A Wendy’s representative noted that the salads had been delivered by a nearby unit; the chain didn’t stack the deck by having Tramonto prepare the batch, though he did demonstrate how they were made.

As far as quality goes, Wendy’s has nailed it. The price is also a bargain, at least by New York standards. We abound in tossed-to-order salad places, where you pick the ingredients and they’re combined for you—at a cost of roughly $6 to $12.
A $5.99 price tag might be a bit steep for some areas, but of course there’s no reason every market has to charge that much, especially when the replaced salads sold for a dollar less.

But there are two important differences between Wendy’s game-changing 2002 introduction and its current salad update.
Back then, it seemed almost reckless in aiming so high with a fast-food product. Mandarin orange sections? On a salad that’s sold via a drive-thru? What’s next, grilled ribs on a burger menu?

Being best-in-class is tougher these days. Consider, for instance, the salmon-topped salad that Panera Bread offered as a limited-time offer. Even when more mundane toppings are used, Panera can boast about the special supply process it engineered to keep the lettuce fresher and crisper.

The competition is clearly steeper these days. Still, Wendy’s doesn’t have to tip its salad tongs to anyone. If it can consistently deliver at the level of quality that was evident today, it’s making a legitimate claim to being the sector’s standard.

But there is another factor that comes into play. The sales setting for fast-food is far more important today than it was back in 2002. As I noted in an earlier post, the grab-and-go brands now want you to sit for awhile, or at least feel as if you’re in a restaurant rather than some food factory. A slew of chains are trying to close the gap on full-service restaurants in terms of design as well as menu.

One of the few exceptions to that trend, at least at present, appears to be Wendy’s.

For the convenience-minded, that’s not an issue. But if food quality and the caliber of the setting are indeed becoming intertwined in the mind of the up-market fast-food customer, Wendy’s may have to hire an interior designer quickly.
The new salads could be the recruitment enticement—and the inspiration for a new generation of Wendy’s.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Twitter's most popular restaurant chains

In an industry of chain Goliaths, Twitter is where the Davids can strut like kings.

Sure, there’s a correlation between an operation’s size and its placement on the Restaurant Twitter 50, a ranking of restaurant tweeters by number of followers. But a breakout of the most popular chains proves brains and bravado can still best bigness when marketing’s delivered in 140-character bites.

Consider, for instance, that this is the rare ranking that McDonald’s doesn’t top. With some 31,000 stores, it’s still in the rarified territory of sixth place, but behind 7,000-unit Starbucks and 3,000-store Dunkin’ Donuts, or just 3,000 followers ahead of the greybearded Pizza Hut.

Meanwhile, burger upstarts like The Counter, Five Guys, and Mooyah Burgers scored far higher than their size might suggest (about 21, 600, and 14 units, respectively). They, of course, enjoy a cultlike following, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that glassy-eyed fanatics would seize any means they can to foster a connection with the brand. Indeed, you can put Culvers in that class, too, with 4,662 fans.

Yet In N Out, the consummate craze brand, has mustered a mere 1,939 followers.

And what about Burger King, the resurging giant of the field? It’s apparently sitting out the medium. It’s hard to tell if either of two brand-affiliated tweeters, BurgerKing_ or BurgerKingFan, is even official. In any case, neither has more than 2,000 followers, and Burger_King hasn’t posted a single tweet.

The big full-service chains can identify. Most are similarly leaving the twitter-sphere to sassy, younger and far smaller brands, including such relatively unknown ones as Zippy’s and Busboys.


Chain TweeterFollowers
Starbucks 946,396
DunkinDonuts 54,100
JackBox (Jack in the Box)17,667
KFC_colonel (KFC)14,731
DairyQueen 7,434
CounterBurger (The Counter chain)7,364
NaplesTomato (Naples Tomato chain)6,575
Hooters 6,458
CalPizzaKitchen (California Pizza Kitchen) 6,243
BusboysAndPoets (D.C. area’s Busboys chain) 5,950
Five_Guys(Five Guys Burgers & Fries)5,826
MOOYAHburger 4,565
Zippys (Zippy’s chain, Hawaii) 4,147

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Restaurant Twitter 50

It’s hardly a jaw-dropper that Starbucks, with nearly 1 million followers, is the restaurant industry’s most popular tweeter. But what do you make of the Kogi Truck ranking second, with double the followers of McDonald’s, about 62,000 more fans than chef Thomas Keller, and six times the audience of the most-followed full-service chain?

That, by the way, wouldn’t be Applebee’s, Chili’s, Red Lobster, T.G.I. Friday’s or any of the other casual-dining giants. To put it in perspective, Olive Garden has 195 followers; Ruby Tuesday, a mere 75, and the segment’s largest player, 1,000-plus-unit Applebee’s, just 145. The Twitter heartthrob of the sector, Maggiano's, might pick up that many followers in a month, with the tally currently standing at 11,522.

Before I explain what this is all about, savor one more bombshell discovery from a few hours spent trawling the Twitter-verse. The most popular individual tweeter in the restaurant industry, as determined by the number of followers, is celebrity chef Rick Bayless, with more than 60,000 followers, a quantum leap from peers in white like Thomas Keller (5,064 fans) and Emeril Lagasse (2,023).

But close on his heels is Paul Barron, the founder of and a frequent speaker on the show circuit, with 52,308 followers. A hit TV show and winning a celebrity-studded, televised culinary competition are not among his list of accomplishments.

The other industry figures meriting a star on the Twitter Walk of Fame are the anonymous DenverChefDude, with 41,753 followers; consultant Jeffrey Summers, with 25,539; consultant Amanda Hite, a.k.a. SexyThinker, 21,000; Orrick Nepomuceno, the Denver-based headhunter, with 6,498 followers for his Orrickn identity; and Joni Doolin, the CEO of People Repor, with 6,021 fans for her postings as LuckyPenny.

So what’s this all about?

Everyone in the restaurant industry is talking about Twitter, but no one’s doing anything to measure it. So I decided last week to look at every industry tweeter that came to mind—about 400, by my estimation—and see how many followers each has drawn. Below is the Twitter 50, a definite popularity contest. But note that this master ranking is limited to restaurant chains, operators, chefs, consultants and industry-specific media. Suppliers aren’t included, though I will have a ranking of them in the near future.

Nor does the popularity extend to consumer-focused parties that tweet about where to eat, like a Gawker or an Eater. It’s also limited to U.S. tweeters.

The folks at Nielsen [full disclosure: a former employer] probably aren’t quaking in their neatly tied oxfords, but this may be as scientific a ranking as you’ll currently find.

I’m going to follow this overall ranking with a list tomorrow of the individuals with the most followers, then the industry media with the biggest audiences.

No doubt I’ve missed some people, and follower counts can rise and fall so quickly that the snapshot might be a little dated, even though it was taken last week.

So I’m welcoming comments, suggestions and criticisms, since I plan to give Nielsen a run for its money when it comes to industry social media.

Only kidding, Scary Guy I Used To See on the Elevator.


Tweeter IDFollowers
Starbucks 946,396
Kogibbq (Kogi Truck)67,325
DunkinDonuts 54,100
DenverChefDude (anonymous Denver chef) 41,747
Sexythinker (Amanda Hite)20,819
JackBox (Jack in the Box)17,667
TidBitBistro (Seattle indy)16,166
KFC_colonel (KFC)14,731
QMG (Restaurant Marketing/Aaron Allen)9,090
Kimpton (Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants)8,314
DairyQueen 7,434
CounterBurger (The Counter chain)7,364
NaplesTomato (Naples Tomato chain)6,575
AJBombers (Milwaukee burger joint)6,549
Orrickn (Orrick Nepomuceno)6,498
Hooters 6,458
SepthAndTheGoat (chef Stephanie Izard) 6,354
CalPizzaKitchen (California Pizza Kitchen) 6,243
LuckyPenny (Joni Doolin) 6,021
BusboysAndPoets (D.C. area’s Busboys chain) 5,950
Five_Guys(Five Guys Burgers & Fries)5,826
RickshawTruck (NYC dumpling truck)5,677
FoodBizTweet (anonymous 'Celeb Chef')5,337
NRNonline (Nation’s Restaurant News)5,242
Thomas Keller5,064
CalbiBBQ (Calbi BBQ truck)5,063
ChefTony (Chef Tony Marciante)4,778
Burger_Lounge (Burger Lounge, San Diego) 4,593
MOOYAHburger 4,565
ChefTramanto (chef Rick Tramanto)4,427
StreetzaPizza (Milwaukee pizza truck)4,440
CIACulinary (Culinary Institute of America)4,181

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Set a spell--and buy, buy, buy

Restaurants once competed with home kitchens. Now the challenge is shifting to the living room.

Fast-food places wove themselves into the social fabric in part by moving customers in and out before their French fries could cool. The faster the service, the faster the meal could be consumed, the quicker fast-paced lives could resume.

But now the quick-service sector is recasting itself as a place to sit for a spell. New design packages invite patrons to kick back and relax. Sip your cappucino! Surf the net! Check out our new entertainment features! What's the rush, Bunkie? Rest up a bit before resuming the grind.

That about-face is evident in the new prototypes of virtually all the major chains, from McDonald's to Panera Bread, Jack in the Box, Burger King, even Baskin-Robbins and Krystal. Today brought news that Taco Bell is similarly turning part of its dining rooms into a living-room-away-from-home, at least on a test basis. A new store in Baton Rouge, La., will outfit a portion of its eating space with cushy seats and computer hook-ups, so students from nearby Louisiana State University can hang out and study.

Some contend the residential trend in fast-food design was set in motion by Starbucks, which wanted to be a lifestyle destination, not the place to gulp down a $4 coffee. Not surprisingly, the java king continues to outpace all others in positioning its units as away-from-home dens. It's not only experimenting with highly localized cafes, each sporting a unique name inspired by the localation, but also Starbucks-branded units where you can nurse a beer or sip a chardonnay while chatting online.

If any retailer should be worried about the trend, it's Barnes & Noble, a lounge that just happens to sell books. I'd love to see the analysis of how it's come-and-linger strategy has affected sales.

But I think my desire would be second to Taco Bell's at this point. You have to wonder if kids shopping for a $2 meal will want to give their skateboards a prolonged rest.