Thursday, February 24, 2011

Roll 'em--1st green food-and-film festival?

I’m writing this at what might be the first-ever film festival devoted to green issues as they relate to food and restaurants. It’s a highly specialized event called Food For Thought, and it’s being hosted at the New York City campus of New York Institute of Technology, one of the Tri-State area’s hospitality and culinary-arts school.

It’s part of an effort by the city, its restaurants and its utility, Con Ed, to promote conservation and other eco-friendly practices. As part of that, the program is airing segments of films, as much a part of the city experience as restaurants, theaters, fashion and traffic. The notion is to celebrate sustainability in a fun, informative and totally New York way.

We’ll be seeing pieces of such sustainability-related documentaries as Food, Inc., Fresh, Flow, and an Oscar nominee, Gasland.

We’re also hearing from various figures in the local green and hospitality scene, including the city’s Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. David Bragdon is expected to explain Mayor Bloomberg’s plan for making Gotham a greener megalopolis. It’s called PlanYC.

I’d be posting this as I write, but the subterranean theater isn’t letting me snag an internet signal. But I’ll be giving you the highlights in more or less sequential order.

3 p.m.
Bragdon is on the stage now, and he’s finally gotten to the city’s plans for making its food supply more sustainable. “We have tried to focus on the things here we can influence,” he said. At the same time, those efforts have to be economically feasible and not a burden on the local business community.

One of the ways is encouraging the conversion of unused city-owned land into community gardens. Similarly, Bragdon said the city will adjust building codes, apparently to facilitate the start-up of more roof gardens.

He also mentioned an initiative to use trains more often to haul food supplies into the city. Right now, he explained, most of it comes off trucks, some of which idle all day at food depots like Hunts Point in the Bronx.

In addition, the city is attacking food deserts by helping fresh-food sellers open up shops in neighborhoods with limited healthful options.

A speaker has just revealed that the city has opened a “food and finance” school that teaches youngsters to become tomorrow’s chefs and restaurateurs. The facility features a hydroponic garden.

Similarly, she said, there’s a school in Queens that has a composting program.

The film segments were terrific. Now on the stage are the panelists for a discussion about green efforts in the city. Included is Alberto Gonzalez, operator of a celebrated all-organic restaurant in Greenwich Village called GustOrganics.

Moderator Marcel Van Ooyen, director of the nonprofit city agency that runs New York’s green markets, has started off the discussion by pointing out that restaurants are one of the commercial sector’s biggest producers of waste and carbon dioxide. He’s asked the panelists to cite the proverbial low-hanging fruit—what restaurants can do immediately to chip away at the volume.

Alan Someck, a former restaurateur who now runs an EPA-funded program to promote green restaurant practices, the Green Hospitality Initiative, noted how many harsh chemicals are routinely used in restaurants. He noted that there are alternatives entering the market today, giving the business a unique, easy opportunity.

Van Ooyen has asked Gonzalez to talk about the challenges of finding sufficient supplies of organics, especially when you’re located in one of the most densely populated areas in the world.

Gonzalez says 75-80% of his food comes from family-run farmers who “share our values.” But, he acknowledges, following adequately supply is a tough challenge.

Someck talks about a watershed that’s building in the restaurant industry to shift in a decidedly more sustainable method. It’s a combination, he said, of forward-thinking and responsible operators doing what’s right, and the pull of consumers demanding it.

Gonzalez, the organic restaurateur, says he’s working on a new concept that will be scalable yet true to his sustainability principles. But he’s not divulging details.

5 p.m.
Van Ooyen has just put the panel on the spot by asking what they regard as the greenest restaurant in the city. So far, there are two votes for Gonzalez’s operation.

Ron Bergamini, a composting expert, cast his vote for the restaurants run by Mario Batali and Danny Meyer.
A member of the audience has asked what the city is doing to encourage rooftop farming. Van Ooyen says a number of farms are being developed, but it remains to be seen if they’ll be economically viable.

And with that, the festival concluded.

What I've learned from restaurants

Recruiter and fellow blogger David Rose is conducting an interesting experiment via social media. He’s asking the sizeable number of restaurant vets who follow him as YellowDog_01 (his company is Yellow Dog Recruiting) to cite one thing they’ve learned from their years in the business.

Fortunately for guests, owners and fire marshals, I’ve never worked in a restaurant. But there have been plenty of a-ha moments during 30 years of covering it. Perhaps the most important lesson has been one of the major frustrations of my career.

Despite all the stories I’ve written, all of the columns, all of the blogs, all of the tweets, all of the speeches and panel participations, I’ve never been able to smash one of the public’s major misperceptions about the business.
After hearing what I do, acquaintances and even closer connections will rail about the exploitation of restaurants until they start to froth. Usually it starts with the food that chains serve, though the gripers typically indicate they’ve gobbled plenty of it and don’t intend to stop.

Then they shift to how deplorably the industry treats employees. You’d think the taskmasters running child-labor sweatshops in Asia would scare their charges with tales of working in U.S. restaurants. They make restaurant owners sound like they should be wearing Darth Vader get-ups to complete their mean, exploitative bearing.

I’ve come away with a much different impression. I remember visiting the owner of a family restaurant franchisee who proudly took me to see his outlets in rural Ohio one afternoon. At several of the stores, he stopped to ask a few of the younger workers if they’d done their homework yet. His explanation: Someone has to ask.

I think he was the one who told me about the franchisee of a rival chain who paid his high-school-aged hourlies to do their homework at an empty booth before the dinner rush. They could log another hour on the clock if they had their books out, maintained a certain grade average, and didn’t waste the time by gabbing.

Then there were the countless CEOs who I’ve seen ask youngsters during site visits about their families, their performance in last week’s high school game, or whether they’ve made a decision yet about college. Many would often demonstrate a trick they’d learned from their days of working at a restaurant—how to get a good grip on a tray, or how to turn the water pitcher so the ice didn’t plop out when you pour.

Movies are made about coaches or teachers who make a difference in their young charges’ lives. I submit that restaurant employers can and often do exert at least as much of an uplifting, directive influence. Many pick up where parents have left off, teaching the kids fundamental math—like how to make change—or when a pair of pants is too dirty to wear.

And as anyone in the business knows, they impart life skills, like the importance of being on time, committing to a schedule, being clean and presentable, and working with others.

What I’ve learned: The restaurant industry can leave as much of a stamp on young generations as institutions like schools, churches and families. As the National Restaurant Association recently pointed out, half of us will work in a restaurant at one point in our life. Not that many youngsters play sports or attend Bible class.

Fortunately, based on my observations, that influence is overwhelmingly positive.

And that, David, is the biggest thing I’ve taken away from watching restaurants all these years.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Life (and LYFE) after McDonald's

Once upon a time, ex-McDonald’s executives were harder to find than a Chicago Cubs World Series ring. It was a grill-cook-to-grave sort of company.

But times change. You can’t run an organization of McDonald’s size without some displacement of talent, whatever the reasons.
Fortunately for those of us who cover the business, the depart-ees can’t shake their unique McDonald’s upbringing—what some alumni call the special sauce. Apply that restaurant acumen to the white-boarding process and you end up with some of the industry’s most intriguing new concepts.

Consider Tom and Eddie’s, the fast-food time machine opened by “retired” McD’s USA president Ed Rensi and one-time exec VP Of operations Tom Dentice. The burgers-and-shakes place is drawing attention from far beyond its suburban Illinois market. The Fast Casual Industry Council made a point of stopping there as one of its dine-arounds in the Chicago area.

Rensi and Dentice have updated the drive-in format, just as the McDonald’s brothers did in the mid-1950s. Then, the breakthrough was a systemization that lowered the price of burgers to 15 cents. Now the innovation is using all-natural fresh ingredients, combined by hand and cooked with care and precision. They’ve tried to put the art back into the business.

But only restaurant geeks or hardcore foodies would appreciate those points. The buzz is because of the food. A longtime industry veteran told me the milkshakes were the best he’d ever tasted, and he downs enough in the course of his field work to affect milk futures.

Now comes word that another former McDonald’s president, former worldwide chief Mike Roberts, is also hatching a fast-casual entrant. The menu is being drafted by Tal Ronnen, a well-known vegetarian chef with a celebrity clientele (Ellen DeGeneres, Arianna Huffington), and Art Smith, the restaurateur (Chicago’s Table Fifty-Two, Washington’s Art and Soul) who formerly served as personal chef to Oprah Wynfrey.

Like Tom & Eddie’s, their LYFE (“Love Your Food Everyday”) will feature food that calls to mind farms, not factories. The team is pledging to use locally sourced materials and to keep all dishes’ calorie count below 600.

The prototype, under construction in Palo Alto, Calif., will feature breakfast, lunch and dinner. Its creators have promised to use eco-friendly building materials. Ditto for the food wrappers and containers.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A tradition creamed

Another wonderful tradition, tossed out like a used Wetnap: Tonight, for the first time in my life, I had to draw my own coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.

One of the chain’s service signatures was drawing and fixing every coffee to the customer’s specifications. The counter personnel didn’t hand you a cup and point to a press-pot pump dispenser; if you wanted a medium with milk and two sugars, that’s precisely what you were handed, even during the morning rush.

It was a subtle distinction that hadn’t really registered after a lifetime of frequenting Dunkin’ (when you grow up on the East Coast, you spend a lot of time during your teens with a Boston Crème in one hand and three or four Munchkins in the other). Lee Sanders, the current president of T.G.I. Friday’s operations, opened my eyes to the ironclad policy while he was working at Dunkin’ Brands, back in the years when it was owned by Allied Domecq. “You’ll never see a press pot at Dunkin, ever,” he said, explaining why the chain had hit some resistance as it moved into grab-and-go situations where speed of service was critical.

That policy has apparently been scuttled. For all I know, it was dropped years ago at some locations, and I just hadn’t encountered it. Then again, I’ve hit Dunkin’ units in all sorts of locations, from streetside New York City stores to train stations, airports, shopping malls and highway travel stops.

I learned of the tradition’s demise when I stopped at a gas station on Long Island that had just put a Dunkin’ station into its c-store area. I went to the counter and ordered a medium coffee with milk. The attendant didn’t even hand me a cup; he just pointed to a dispenser station. It was not an experience that defined hospitality.

Granted, I didn’t exactly risk Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from holding down a lever to fill a 12-ounce disposable cup. But it’s the principle, damn it.

Starbucks went through a wrenching retrenchment because the brand’s godfather and CEO, Howard Schultz, believed it’d drifted away from its culture and distinctions. Since that time, and not just for that reason, the brand’s fortunes have been revived.

I know of one Dunkin’ customer who hopes that venerable brand doesn’t drift away from what made it special.

Sizzle's coming back to steakhouses

Few types of restaurants were walloped as much by the Great Recession as upscale steakhouses. Already too pricey for many leisure diners, concepts like Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s watched their expense-account clientele back off from entertaining as companies slashed T&E budgets. Group and party business, another big part of the sector’s sales mix, similarly dropped like a T-bone slipping off a plate.

By mid-2009, Morton’s was posting a comp sales decline of 26.1%, and Ruth’s painfully notched a 23% fall. At the time, Ruth’s CEO Mike O’Donnell warned investors that a continuation of the trend would cost that chain lost sales of $1 million per store.

That’s why the last few days have been encouraging for restaurateurs trying to gauge where we are in the economic recovery. Ruth’s disclosed this morning that fourth-quarter comps for its namesake brand had risen 9.2%. Earlier in the week, OSI Restaurant Partners, better known as the parent of Outback Steakhouses, disclosed an 18.4% comp rise for its Fleming’s chain.

Granted, chains like those are comparing their recent results to the severely depressed sales levels of a year earlier. But you can’t discount the brands’ efforts to broaden their appeal by adding lower price levels to their menus and using their bars as a less-expensive alternative to their very own dining rooms. Those strategies seem to be working, judging from the comments of the chains’ executives.

O'Donnell, for instance, noted that group business, or what Ruth's calls Private Group Dining, increased 16% during the fourth quarter, the making the holiday season the chain's best since 2007.

Still, the biggest factor, and the one that should hearten any higher-end restaurateur, is the apparent return of expense-account spending and travel. Executives had accurately surmised that the business community couldn’t manacle sales teams to their headquarters desks and still expect revenues to grow.

Any way you slice, the trend is encouraging.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Helping the legal profession's recovery

I’ll probably be served with court papers at any moment for using “restaurant” in the name of this space. One of the big chains is sure to claim it holds exclusive rights to the term, at least on this side of the sun.

As our sister publication reported this morning, Subway’s lawyers are squaring off with the Casey’s c-store chain over use of the term “footlong.” Casey’s wants to use it as a generic descriptor of its own sandwiches, but Subway says it holds exclusive rights to the term whenever it’s applied to heros, as per a trademark request currently before the government.

But that federal case is hardly the only dispute underway over the use of restaurant—sorry, counselors, I meant “foodservice”—names, slogans and terms.

Tavern on the Green, New York’s bankrupt landmark, isn’t in business any longer. But that hasn’t stopped the bankruptcy trustee from harrumphing at a Marriott in Indianapolis that wantes to call its lounge JW’s Tavern on the Plaza. Like Casey’s, the would-be operators of the Plaza are suing the trustees because they feel “Tavern on the [blank]” won’t be confused with a now-gone place in New York City. Global warming will no doubt get a considerable boost of hot lawyer breath before the matter is settled.

Then there’s the battle that drew page-one coverage yesterday from the New York Times, just under its reportage from Egypt and Tunisia, a few column inches away from a report on the inability of many states to pay pensioners’ health benefits. A chain that admittedly ripped off the Kentucky Fried Chicken name during the 1960s is battling with other operations that are using names too close to its moniker, Kennedy Fried Chicken.

Somewhere, a lawyer is weeping with delight.

There are also ongoing disputes over variations of El Pollo Loco, Jason’s Deli (specifically, Chef Jason’s Deli & Pastries), and the Batman logo, which DC Comics alleged was being used by a barbecue place that named itself BATS, after its owners (Beau and Travis).

But I have more pressing matters, like what to call my dogs after a certain transportation company learns that I identify them as greyhounds.

Keep away, Kanye West

Restaurant Reality Check has been ranked No. 15 on a newly released listing of the 60 best blogs for the restaurant industry.

The survey and ranking was conducted by, a reference site for people looking for MBA programs. You can see it in its entirety here.

Thanks for the shout-out, BSchool.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A peck of--well, you can guess

Now for some tongue aerobics: Burger chains are picking peppers with plenty of pop as their present promotion for pulling patrons.

The translation for lounge-chair linguists: Whataburger has joined McDonald’s and Burger King, among others, in trying hot peppers this winter as a means of putting some sizzle in sales.

Starting today, the Texas titan is celebrating Jalapeno Week, when customers can get free jalapenos—whole, sliced or grilled—on any sandwich or main item. The chain says it usually fields about 200,000 requests a week for the pepper add-on, apparently for an extra charge.

The chain’s cult-like fans won’t be the only ones gulping more soda this month. McDonald’s is inviting patrons for a limited time to punch up their Angus burgers and snack wraps with a chipotle barbecue sauce.

Bits of jalapeno are part of the draw for Burger King’s ballyhooed new Stuffed Steakhouse. The diced peppers are mixed into the ground beef, along with cheddar cheese.

The latter has been the subject of considerable buzz online—and not all of it good. The speckled appearance has drawn a fair amount of snarky commentary, with more than a few critics likening the sandwich to meatloaf on a bun. They’ve been much kinder in addressing the taste.

It remains to be seen if Whataburger’s promo will get some extra lift from the bigger chains’ pepper-y pushes.
Sorry about all the alliteration. It’s sort of a reflex when you mention peppers to a guy named Peter.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Dead-end business? Yeah, right.

This is for all the blowhards who pontificate that restaurants are a graveyard of ambition. I know that for a certainty, they confidently enlighten us, because I (take your pick here) waited tables, bussed dishes, worked a fast-food counter, delivered pizzas, valet-parked cars—all for minimum wage. It’s a bust.

There’s no doubt that restaurants are a tough slog. The hours are long, the work is intense, and there are more moving parts than a Lady GaGa dance outfit. But for those who view the dining room as a Broadway stage with napkins, who vibrate with delight every time a guest walks out with a smile, there’s no better opportunity. This is where they’re striving to make their mark—with all the relish of an aspiring rock star.

That’s borne out by new research from the National Restaurant Association. Elsewhere in the economy, minorities are hamstrung by systematic disadvantage that's hard to spot because it's so ingrained. The NRA data proves that restaurants have given minorities more management jobs than they’ve found anywhere else.

The ownership findings are even more impressive. The number of Hispanic restaurant proprietors has soared by 42% in five years, according to the NRA.

Women have also made dizzying strides. In 2002, women owned only 25.8% of independent restaurants, and just 13.2% of franchised outlets, according to a study released at the time by the International Franchise Association. Currently, according to the NRA data, women pay the taxes and manage the P&L’s of nearly half of all U.S. restaurants, which number nearly 1 million in total.

Clearly the restaurant industry has its challenges. Indeed, its unparalleled opportunities often land a young person in a management position that requires 110% of their people skills, a situation the business is constantly addressing.
But lack of opportunity is not one of its shortcomings.

Friday, February 11, 2011

What Cheesecake Factory is thinking

Cheesecake Factory’s quarterly analysts call revealed some interesting details of the casual-dining giant's post-Recession strategy.

For instance, executives explained why you won’t see frozen Navajo sandwiches, a Cheesecake specialty, in the freezer case of your nearest SuperValue. The company’s menu signatures are usually too expensive to sell well in mass-market supermarkets, explained CEO David Overton.

“That’s why we have done so well in the warehouse clubs,” where the slighter markup makes Cheesecake-branded products a bargain, said Overton. He pegged the company’s sales through that channel at $30 million to $40 million, minimum.

Overton also noted that all of the chain’s salad greens are now organic, and that stores already offer a choice of brown or white rice. Cheesecake Factories also serve sweet potato fries, which some perceive as more healthful than the standard version.

Health will continue to be a concern as the chain evolves its menu, said Overton. But he noted that the effort will be a process, not a wholesale changeover, a reflection of consumer preferences. The company has restaurants in 12 areas that already require chain operations to post calorie counts on the menu, and “there’s been virtually no change in what people are buying,” he said. “They’re not buying less desserts. So when people go out to eat, they really want what they want.”

Portfolio managers participating in the call pressed the Cheesecake officials for their views on buying or starting a new chain with all the cash they have on hand. The executives didn’t respond squarely to the quasi-suggestion that they diversify, noting that the company could double in size just from the expansion of its namesake brand.

Overton did note that a new smaller-sized Grand Lux Café will make its debut later this year, and that a RockSuger Pan Asian Kitchen, Cheesecake’s upstart concept, will add a unit.

In one of the strangest asides I can recall from an analysts’ conference call, Overton also cited a news report that nose jobs are increasing in number and that economists read that as a positive omen for the economy.

Hey, the man has built one of the most phenomenal sales machines in the business. If plastic surgery is a gauge for him, I suggest we start a rhinoplasty index.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

We put the winners in the envelope

I’m in Chicago to help in picking this year’s Silver Plate Award winners, the foodservice equivalent of baseball’s Hall of Fame inductees. Past winners have included such legends as Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s, and Carl Karcher, his counterpart at Carl’s Jr. Danny Meyer won a Plate in the Independents category, as did Ella Brennan, the grande dame of New Orleans’ dining scene, and Jerry Berns, the soul of “21.” The list of past winners reads like a Wikipedia entry on who shaped the modern restaurant business into what it is.

The awards are presented by the industry’s trade group for suppliers, the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association, which must’ve been watching what the Academy has done with the Oscar Awards. It, too, has revamped the selection process this year, though only the judges will likely be aware of the alterations in the process. Suffice it to say the process has been streamlined, which allows us to spend more time debating the merits and worthiness of the candidates.

In the past, there’s been no shortage of “discussion” of the potential Plate winners, who are chosen by a combination of past winners and editors who specialize in foodservice coverage. So this year should be particularly spirited.

If the caliber of nominees is any indication, the revamp of the process is worth it. The field of contestants we’ll be discussing is among the most outstanding group I can remember from my many, many years of judging.

I can’t say more about who’s in contention, but I won’t be indiscreet in saying it’s a roster of true stars, with enough lesser-known but superbly qualified candidates to fend off any criticism that this is a popularity contest.

I’ll use this space to reveal the finalists after IFMA notifies them.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The dough must go on

Domino's is distributing this photo as proof that it's living up to an internal motto, "First to open, last to close." Its supply trucks kept rolling during the heart of the midwestern snow storms, says headquarters, which supplied the snapshot from Bartlesville, Okla., as proof.

Throwing in the napkin on high-cost states

The cost and aggravation of meeting government requirements may be bad for restaurants, but they’re proving a boon for moving companies. The home office of Carl’s Jr. says it’s had enough of California’s regulatory and tax burdens and will carefully study brochures for a possible new home in Texas.

The pronouncement from Andy Puzder, CEO of parent company CKE Restaurants, follows the throw-up-his-hands gesture a few weeks ago from Jimmy John Liautaud, founder of the Illinois-based Jimmy John’s sandwich chain. The step-up in the state’s tax rate was the last straw for him. Now, he told the local media, he’s considering a relocation to a more business-friendly state.

The two may be starting a parade. Both their states are contending with huge budget deficits that have many observers fretting about insolvency (bankruptcy is not an option for states, so they merely default and stop paying their bills; Illinois has already reneged on costs like medical reimbursements to some institutions).

The list of other states in that plight is a long one. On Tuesday, for instance, Gov. Andrew Cuomo described New York as being functionally bankrupt.

Fortunately for those of us who live and work in the state, he’s emphasizing efficiency and cost cuts over tax increases. But the Empire State is unique in that respect. Consider, for instance, that Illinois raised its corporate income tax by 46%, to seven cents of every dollar in income. It makes you want to help Liautaud with the packing.

Some cities have tried to turn that situation into fertilizer, so to speak. Knowing how burdens can drive businesses away, they’re striving to streamline the permitting process and even cut some of the costs of doing business. New York, for instance, is trying to make the Big Apple an easier place for small businesses to reside. Mayor Bloomberg has also thrown such bones as promising not to wallop businesses with fines under the city’s new letter-graded inspection system.

Chicago, meanwhile, has a neat program that doesn’t get much attention: If a restaurant or other start-up businesses is set up to be green, the city will work with the entrepreneur to streamline the permitting process. As any operator who’s braved the Long Island market or many areas of California will attest, that’s a considerable enticement.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Handcuffs, not fisticuffs

In Egypt, violence is the cost of pushing out a tyrant. Here in the United States, it’s a lark for young people who don’t know how to behave in a restaurant and want a tough rep. Witness the two videos that went viral in the past week or so.

One depicts a Wendy’s employee being attacked because she tried to calm a conflict between some youngsters frequenting a unit in Queens. She walked from behind the counter to tamp down what could’ve been an explosive situation. Then someone throws something at her from behind. The next second, they’re piling on her. It’s all caught on someone’s cell phone.

You can see the clip here.

It has a rival for attention in the clip that’s being circulated of a fight that erupted in December inside an upstate McDonald’s. It is, to put it mildly, a melee, with chairs flying and two groups pounding the hell out of one another.

It's embedded in this news report.

The common feature of each is the amusement of the onlookers. You can hear them laughing at times. There’s no evidence of disgust, concern about safety, or even real fear.

Is that what you felt when watching them?

Probably not, which is why I’ve posted them here. It’s as if reality is suspended and the perpetrators look at the restaurant as a movie scene they’re stepping into, or maybe a video game. The consequences escape them.

Look at the recent catastrophe at a Boston Market, when an employee at the drive-thru suffered second-degree burns because kids threw an order of macaroni and cheese at him as a joke.

Fortunately, authorities seem to be taking the situations seriously. The knuckleheads are caught on video, and the police are using the images to track down the offending parties.

In the meantime, you have to hope only the videos are going viral, not the practice.