Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Finally! A list of the most common restaurant office sounds

There’s no shortage of rankings in the restaurant business, as you’ll discover when the October issue of Restaurant Business arrives (you can also view it via our free app from iTunes.) As we report, at least five new listings of the best and most loved restaurant chains were released toward the end of summer—revealing that the industry has no fewer than four “best” chains (add a fifth if you believe one of our competitor’s rankings, which appeared too late to be included in our print round-up.)

There’s none of that confusion in the roster that’s been conspicuously overlooked in the recent fit of ranking, listing and arraying. Damn the politics!

Here, plugging the gap at long last, is the Loudest Sounds Heard This Summer from Chain Headquarters:

'Hmmm.' The industry has been agog over the debut of Chipotle’s ShopHouse Southeast Asian fast-casual concept. But cooler heads have remembered that Chipotle isn’t the first celebrated restaurant operation to fire up the wok. Cheesecake Factory similarly quickened pulses when it unveiled RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen, and Ruby Tuesday tried unsuccessfully to keep the buzz down about its purchase of the Wok Hay fast-casual concept a few years ago. Neither of those have stunned the industry. Indeed, officials of both the casual dining chains say the ventures are still in the evaluation phase, and Ruby has transformed Wok Hay into something much different from what it bought.

Factor in the evident challenges of Pei Wei Asian Diner, P.F. Chang’s fast-casual sister, and you have several counterbalances to the ShopHouse hoopla. Of course, the whole MP3 phenomenon failed to boom until the iPod hit the market. But the breathless betters on ShopHouse’s success should at least splash some cold water on their faces and remember history.

‘Kill our signature’ When you’re known for your burger, it’s pretty dicey to mess with the recipe. Wendy’s says that’s why it spent four years on the development of the new Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy. Former CEO Roland Smith boasted that it’s better than anything you’ll get from In-N-Out or Five Guys (both of which appeared atop several of the Best lists.)

But the burger chain is hardly the only quick-service brand to mess with its signature. Witness Domino’s launch of artisan pizzas, which are specialized versions of the new pizza the chain added about a year and a half ago.

But the list goes on from there. Sonic revamped its Coney, a signature of the quirky chain. Burger King is messing with “stuffed burgers,” while Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s give “steakburgers” a try.

The one constant: All of the new items promise a considerable jump in quality, a reflection of the new mantra that value today means far better quality at a not-much-higher price.

‘I don’t care if sushi’s our specialty. Give me a burger!’ This is a really bad time to be a cow. Just when you think the upscale burger market has crested, along comes news of more big-name entrants, like Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan, or popular retail brands like Bubba Burger.

If the brand can’t do a true burger, it tries a similar product, like the steak sandwich at Panera Bread, or the countless cheeseburger pizzas that are now available.

Is it just me, or have the Chick-fil-A cows looked a little more nervous as of late?

‘Get me a headhunter! And keep them from calling the team!’ The restaurant industry has always been a continual game of musical chairs. When sales or profits sag and the music stops, a scramble erupts for new CEOs, ops specialists or marketing hotshots, which seem to be in greater than usual demand this year. Clearly we’re in the midst of that right now. Consider the recent changes: New CEOs or presidents at Wendy’s, Hooter’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Church’s, O’Charley’s, Texas Roadhouse, with a vacancy at Dunkin’ Brands’ international arm.

With industry veteran Brad Blum using his substantial stake in Cosi to demand the top job there, we might also add that situation to the tally.

Marketer changes include the departure of Dairy Queen’s chief brand officer, Michael Keller; the addition of Pepsico veteran Scott McDaniel to CEC, the parent of the Chuck E. Cheese’s chain; and the recruitment of Garfield the cartoon cat to serve as the new mascot of Straw Hat Pizza, the 53-year-old regional chain.

There are a number of executive placement services that work only within the restaurant industry. It’s a shame that they’re not publicly traded, or they’d bump Chipotle and McDonald’s as the hot foodservice stocks.

Monday, September 26, 2011

It's no rubber vomit

If you’re over 25 or haven’t worked a drive-thru window, you’ve probably not been splattered yet by the latest craze in restaurant prank-dom. But fear not, you legions who still chuckle at the thought of a Whoopee Cushion. This is no squirting lapel flower.

Indeed, coning may be the dumbest thing since the Macarena. Here’s how it works, as you can see for yourself via countless YouTube postings.

A customer pulls up to the drive-thru window of a fast-food place to get his or her soft-serve ice cream cone. But instead of taking the treat by the cone as it’s handed through the window, the perpetrator grabs it by the top so the ice cream squishes through the jokester’s fingers.

As far as I can tell, the hilarity is not seeing the ice cream fly in all directions, but in witnessing the restaurant employee’s face as the patron proves to be an ass. Ideally, the person in the passenger seat will capture the scene on a phone and post the video on a sharing site.

For added hilarity, keep holding the treat by the ice cream, turn your hand so the cone is on top, and start eating it that way, as if the situation is perfectly normal.

Video-taped perpetrators have included Justin Bieber, who should have his bowl-sculpted hair smacked, as well as several other young celebrities. Their clips have been viewed by millions of YouTube fans.

At least the prank isn’t as dangerous as the fire-in-the-hole gag that reigned a few years ago. With that fit of dumbness, a drive-thru customer would take a drink or a gooey item from the employee, yell “Fire in the hole!,” and fling it back at the staffer.

There, too, the objective was to have someone else in the car capture the scene on video and post it to YouTube or the like. But the fad came to a particularly ugly end when a prankster ran through the gag at a Boston Market, flinging a platter of hot mac and cheese at the drive-thru attendant. He suffered second-degree burns, and the jokester was arrested.

You can only hope that coning loses its appeal very quickly. Stupidity that profound is an embarrassment to us all.

Monday, September 19, 2011

'They keep pulling me back'

What is it about the restaurant industry that keeps pulling people back into the fray? In recent weeks we’ve had three more examples of grizzled vets who’ve made enough money to fund a life of leisure. But instead of spending their remaining days on a racetrack or golf course, they’re looking for a new restaurant concept to hatch or grow.

Consider, for instance, Brad Blum’s newfound interest in Cosi, the upscale sandwich concept. Blum rose to prominence as the cappo of Olive Garden, which was wheezing a bit when he took it over. He righted it and then moved on to Burger King, where a sale of the company did him no good. Most recently, he headed Romano’s Macaroni Grill, seemingly a natural fit after his stewardship of Olive Garden.

Last week Blum alerted the SEC that he’d amassed a 6.75% stake in Cosi. “As of Sept. 6, 2011, Blum Growth LLC is now an active investor,” Blum said through his investment concern.

The filing notes that Blum wants a say on the composition and top management of Cosi (its former CEO, Jim Hyatt, just resigned). I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that Blum wants a role in each governing body.

But he’s not the only vet who’s reactivated himself for a new restaurant challenge. Craig Nickoloff sold the high-volume Claim Jumper casual chain to the private equity company Leonard Green & Partners in 2005 for a reported $200 million. The amount seemed fitting for a concept that took the California gold rush as its theme.

Just to add a little icing to the case: Claim Jumper filed for bankruptcy a year ago.

Nickoloff could be kicking back with the wife he met while she was covering him and Claim Jumper for Nation’s Restaurant News, a distinction that made her a legend among those of us who write about the business (I’ve finally relinquished my dreams of a Rachel Rae Romeo, primarily because my current wife insisted.)

Instead, Nickoloff has teamed up with acclaimed West Coast chef Michael Cimarusti (of Providence restaurant) to buy Silver Spoon, described by Eater Los Angeles as “West Hollywood’s ancient coffee shop.” The pair hasn’t revealed its intentions for the space, but official filings say the location will do business as Connie and Ted’s.

Watchers are wondering if the venture might also involve Nickoloff’s son, Nick, who owns and operates three namesake restaurants.

Meanwhile, Ohio’s Cameron Mitchell is putting the finishing touches on his eighth Ocean Prime upscale “supper club,” in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. Two more branches are under development, according to Mitchell’s Columbus-based company.
The chain building comes just four years after Mitchell sold an earlier seafood chain, 19-unit Mitchell’s Fish Market, to Ruth’s Chris as part of a $94-million deal (two steakhouses were also part of the purchase).

To call Mitchell irrepressible is an understatement. I met him when he was sleeping on the floor of a co-worker’s hotel room so he could afford to attend an industry event. He was determined to open a restaurant concept of his own and wanted to learn everything he could.

Seems that desire has only grown stronger.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Blurring restaurant lines

You can make a strong argument that line-blurring has been the most successful restaurant strategy of the last 20 years. Without the daring to nudge a familiar type of restaurant into another category’s turf, we never would’ve had fast-casual, a blurring of the lines between fast-food and casual dining, or hybrids like burger joints run by celebrity chefs (think Daniel Boulud’s CBDB’s or Marcus Samuelsson’s Marc Burger).

Now two of the earliest and most successful proponents of line-blurring are smudging a different boundary.

By the industry’s standard definition, Mimi’s Café and Cracker Barrel fall into the category of family restaurants, or what were called coffee shops in the pre-Starbucks age. A key feature was serving breakfast, a rarity among full-service places. Indeed, a heavy morning clientele was one of their signatures. Ditto for selling more soft drinks than wine, beer or spirits. And their menus were as broad and mainstream as what we in the East would find at a classic diner.

But Mimi’s and Cracker Barrel never exactly fit the specs. Yeah, they do considerable breakfast business. But these aren’t your father’s Denny’s or Village Inn. Slip into a Mimi’s at lunch and you’ll find plenty of office workers, not families. And the menu is more ambitious than the roster for many upscale casual places.

Cracker Barrel also has that casual feel, and its reliance on a country-store schtick is reminiscent of the heavy-duty theming that’s common in casual dining (think Friday’s, Lone Star or Olive Garden).

Now those non-comformists are blurring the line again, this time by shifting into the pricing strata right below them. Both have just unveiled new lunch deals that rival the value and convenience afforded by fast-food outlets.

Cracker Barrel’s new offer is a line-up of daily specials that sell for $5.99 each. Consider for a moment that $5 is the going bargain rate for a sandwich at sub specialists like Subway. At Cracker Barrel you can pay just a buck more for meatloaf and mashed potatoes, a chicken pot pie, or a turkey platter with the usual trimmings.

Mimi’s is stressing speed of service along with the low prices of its midday options. It guarantees that its new Express Lunch service will take no more than 15 minutes. For $6.99, that gets the customer servings of soup and salad. For $1.50 more, they can get the soup or salad with half a sandwich. A soda adds just another $1 to the check.

Mimi’s may be venturing into fast-food territory, but it’s not dropping its competitive challenge to casual places. Also new on its menu is a takeout deal that might turn the heads of consumers who use casual restaurants’ curbside delivery services. Priced at $25 each, the meals are marketed as sufficient to feed a family of four. The options include such comfort favorites as pot roast, chicken parmigiana and turkey.

It’s also added a new Happy Hour deal: wine flights for $5.

Clearly the chalk marks between segments are still being smudged.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What I learned at school yesterday

Every semester I’m privileged to address a class at New York’s Institute for Culinary Education, a springboard for entrepreneurs to become restaurant proprietors. My assignment is to provide an overview of the hot and fading concepts of the moment. But I learn more than the students because their feedback provides a sense of the direction they intend to steer the business. And I’m here to attest we’re about to turn back to the classics.

The youngsters use the opportunity to ask me about the concepts that have caught their fancy and what they might like to open after graduation. In recent years their focus has been on the avant garde—places like marshmallow shops, carts of all stripes, a barbecue place that borrows the dress codes of Twin Peaks and Hooters, and a wine shop and bar for Gen Yers.

But yesterday’s class asked about formats like cafes, bistros, wings places, tapas bars, neighborhood pubs and sports bars. It wasn’t as if they were oblivious to how many examples of those concepts are in the market already. To the contrary, they were one of the more informed groups I’ve addressed; they’d clearly done their homework in scoping out the state of the industry and where opportunities might lay.

That research had convinced them there’s room in those crowded fields for a newcomer that could differentiate itself through execution. And they had some definite ideas about how they could do it better.

I was struck by how many times the students mentioned comfort as one of the attributes that would push their ventures ahead of the pack. Novelty wasn’t that important to them.

It was a marked difference in orientation from past groups, but this old-is-new mindset makes sense. The sport-dining sensibility that reached its apex with molecular gastronomy is giving way to a more grounded appreciation of fundamentals—good food in a comfortable atmosphere with friendly service.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

'Attention, Central Casting'

We’ve decided to recount the week’s restaurant-related developments in cinematic form. So heads up, Casting. Here’re the players we’ll need to play the central characters.

Grab a guy in whites and put him in a serious suit. Yesterday’s announcement of a new president for the La Madeleine bakery-café chain probably took no one by surprise. Phil Costner, as COO, was the heir apparent. Still, his appointment is remarkable, especially for industry professionals who make their living in a kitchen. As far as we know, he’s the only chain president to reach that perch through menu R&D, and he’s one of the few chefs to head a system of significant size (Steve Ells of Chipotle and Kerry Kramp of Sizzler being the others).

Put Sigourney Weaver in a Cracker Barrel cap… As tough as she was in “Alien,” the veteran actress will have to show more fortitude in her depiction of Sandra Cochran, the new CEO of the family restaurant chain. On Day Two of the job, Cochran had to contend with a demand by shareholder and takeover artist Sardar Biglari that he be ceded a seat on Cracker Barrel’s board. The demand was put forth on a website created by Biglari to blast the chain’s direction and management. And then, just to add the icing on the cake, Cracker Barrel reported a 36% decline in quarterly net income. You have to wonder if prior CEO Michael Woodhouse called to provide moral support—the Bishop to Weaver’s Ridley.

…And get me one of The Borg guys from “Star Trek” to play Biglari. “You shall be assimilated. Resistance is futile.” The thirtysomething activist shareholder followed the same plan he’s pursuing at Cracker Barrel to wrest control of Steak ‘n Shake and Western Sizzlin’. Clearly he intends to prevail similarly at Cracker Barrel, his most mainstream target to date.

Who’s today’s Jimmy Stewart? Whoever he is, get him to play Craig Meier, the CEO of the Frisch’s family restaurant chain, which also operates a number of Golden Corral franchisees. The company’s sales dropped 4.6%, so Meier took a 26% pay cut. Clearly this guy couldn’t work on Wall Street without being some suit’s bitch. The cut brought his pay down to about $700,000—for overseeing a company that brought in $303 million. Take that, Gordon Gekko.

Okay, who’d be a good Lazarus? See if you can make him look like Craig Nickoloff, the founder of the Claim Jumper chain. Nickoloff sold the chain, second only to Cheesecake Factory in average unit volumes, to private-equity concerns that watched sales drop and drop and drop. Eventually, Claim Jumper went bankrupt and was bought at a bargain rate by Landry Restaurants’ Tillman Fertitta. Nickoloff had it made. But of instead of working up a sweat on a golf course, he just teamed up with the celebrated chef Michael Cimaruti to buy Silver Spoon, a wheezing landmark of the Los Angeles dining scene. They’ve indicated that the West Hollywood outlet will be converted into a restaurant called Connie and Ted’s, but haven’t yet revealed what the new concept will be like.

Okay, time to sketch out the storyboards….

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering the details

A few days after 9/11, I was staring at a blank computer screen, my fingers on the keyboard, wondering what the hell I could say. I had a column due for Restaurant Business magazine, and of course the matter on every reader’s mind would be the terrorist attack. But, even having seen the events at close range, how could I adequately address the pain and uncertainty restaurateurs were feeling along with everyone else?

We decided as a staff that the only suitable commentary would be a head bowed to the industry’s victims. I don’t know how she did it, and was advised that it might be best if I never find out, but the indomitable Andrea Cohen, now a well-known food writer, secured a list of the 74 industry employees who were known as of that point to have perished.

I skipped a recollection of 9/11 in 2001, but I vowed never to let the date pass in the years afterward without remembering it in a column or blog. So I hope you’ll indulge me a break from covering restaurants for a recount of how my business reacted to those terrible days.

I was editor of Restaurant Business at the time, working with a gifted staff unmatched in its professionalism. Indeed, that was one of our dilemmas at the time. We were smack against a deadline for our next issue, yet here was the biggest story of our time. How could we go to print with articles about Dollar Menus and new pumpkin pie recipes when the restaurant industry had just had a hole punched through it?

We begged and pleaded with our parent company, a $5-billion-a-year publicly owned bureaucracy, for the dollars needed to buy time from our printer. Astoundingly, maybe because the accountants didn’t find a yea on their lengthy list of no-no’s, we got it.

But our offices were so close to the World Trade Center that officials shut our building for several days. We actually had a staff member, now-publicist photographer Katherine Bryant, sneak into the building so we could send out our daily e-mail newsletter on Sept. 14, explaining that we’d be out of commission for a few days. (“For God’s sake, don’t worry. Just be safe,” responded a subscriber in Australia whom we hadn’t known we had.)

That didn’t stop us from pursuing several ambitious feature articles. But the stories that stick with me, and presumably always will, are the ones that were brought to our attention by restaurateurs and other journalists who learned what we were doing and knew of a situation that deserved a spotlight.

Former New York Times reviewer Bryan Miller sent me an e-mail about one of his successors, Ruth Reichl, showing up near Ground Zero in a white Land Rover, the back packed with vats of soup, to help feed the relief efforts.

Our former food editor, Paula Disbrowe, provided first-person details of those MASH-like feeding operations, where she was volunteering with then-boyfriend and Bouley Bakery chief David Norman. Famed chefs were cooking whatever they could whip together from limited supplies. We had a lot of heroes in uniform those days. A lot of them wore foodservice whites.

Most of us had stories of our own to recount. Knowing Michael Lomonaco was executive chef at Windows of the World, I had glumly presumed he’d perished, a profound sadness for me. I didn’t know Michael well, but, learning that my wife and I were hunting for homes outside of New York, he’d graciously invited us to come visit the place he’d purchased in the Hudson Valley. We’d also shared some great conversation dinner during a Culinary Institute of America event, and I of course had enjoyed his cooking a bunch of times.

Days after 9/11, I was reading my New York Times when I literally had to sit down. There, in passing, was a quote from Lomonaco. The story explained that he’d stopped by an optometrist that morning to pick up a pair of glasses. The first plane hit while he was walking toward the World Trade elevator.

The staff was walloped with sadness to see that Heather Ho, Window’s pastry chef, was also among the victims. We’d featured her in the magazine just a few issues beforehand, and she was generally acknowledged among the staff as someone whose career we needed to follow, since we was going to be a big star.

Being New Yorkers, we also had our non-industry connections to the tragedy. One of our senior staff members remarked for several days that he’d not heard from one of his friends. He presumed the guy was safe because his office was uptown. Finally, the editor checked the last e-mail he’d gotten from his friend, who worked as a computer consultant. It’d been sent from the guest account of a company headquartered in the towers during the week of the attack.

Another staffer wasn’t able to contact her sister-in-law, who lived blocks from World Trade. She was eventually tracked down to a hospital, where she’d been taken after debris from the North Tower struck her as she’d been walking the dog.

Late on the night of 9/11, I’d walked up to the center of my town where a blood drive was being held. The organizers were stockpiling supplies in the belief hundreds of injured people would be pulled the next morning from the rubble. On the way I passed the train station, where thousands of people left every morning for jobs in Manhattan. Despite the hour, there were about 20 cars still in the parking lot. I was trying to figure out why when it struck me: Those owners weren’t coming back for their vehicles.

For weeks and months afterward, we’d be jolted out of our routines by the New York Times, which had admirably decided to profile every person killed in the New York attacks. You’d be drinking your coffee and come across a mention of someone you knew from high school, a person on your floor at college, or someone you’d routinely see on your train line.

There are so many details emblazoned in my memory: Seeing the ash-covered people streaming past Restaurant Business’ offices, which were about 30 blocks from World Trade. Going to my wife’s office, which hadn’t been able to contact a satellite office across the street from the towers. Employees of that location were staggering up to the midtown skyscraper where my wife worked. Eight people never showed.

Seeing fighter planes in the skies over Manhattan. The downtown area suddenly swamped with military vehicles and personnel. Restaurants turning us away because they were hoarding supplies until distribution trucks would be allowed into the city again. The dozens and dozens of people buttonholing you in the week afterward, shoving a picture in your face and asking if you’d happened to see their loved one, who’d been missing since 9/11. Veteran newscasters breaking down on the air and crying.

As painful as those memories are, I hope I never lose them. More important, I hope the world forever remembers the tragedies, so it continuously strives to avert a repeat.

Thanks for letting me do my small part to keep those recollections.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Cue the 'Dragnet' music

After a Jack in the Box in northern California was robbed, assistant manager Jeanette Gallo filed for workers’ comp because of the stress she’d suffered. Under state regulations, it would’ve been a routine situation if Gallo hadn’t had one extraordinary circumstance: She’d helped to rob the place.

Apparently she was no master thief, and an even worse liar. The restaurant’s franchisees were tipped off by her early arrival on the morning of the heist. Their suspicions were confirmed by watching how she handled herself during the robbery, which was caught on a video monitor.

She was arrested first for grand theft, then for two felony counts of insurance fraud, to which she pleaded guilty.

Another criminal mastermind, cut short in the bloom of her career.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Jamba's juiced-up turnaround

This is the final installment of a three-part celebration of the industry's top turnaround stars. You can read the first installment, on Popeye’s Cheryl Bachelder, here, and the second, on Ruth’s Chris’ Michael O’Donnell, here.

Under the cobwebs in some business school’s library is a volume entitled, “Standard Procedures in Restaurant Turnarounds.” It’ll be covered with an inch of dust because anyone who’s spent time in the business will know the prescription: Expand your menu to draw new customers while tapping wholly new sources of revenue like catering.

Rare is the executive who hasn’t thought along those lines. Scarcer still is the one who was able to make the plan work.
So meet James D. White, the CEO of Jamba Juice. You might not know him, or of him, because he’s kept a low profile. But he’s quietly engineered what may be one of the most astounding turnarounds in foodservice.

White took over the chain in late 2008, as its glitter was starting to wear off. It’d drawn considerable attention, from consumers as much as the industry, as a “lifestyle brand”—a Starbucks that sold cold drinks instead of hot ones.

That’s great for a niche brand. But the concept’s limitations were becoming evident. It actually sold a liquid meal replacement in a cup—a relatively high-ticket smoothie that takes a considerable amount of time to finish, if you can consume it all. To say it’s filling is like referring to Lady Gaga as kind of different.

Jamba wasn’t where you’d stop for breakfast, lunch and dinner, day after day after day.

The chain’s management was addressing the problem by adding a smaller-sized serving and adding breakfasts you could suck up through a straw.

Enter White, who, significantly, was recruited from the grocery business, not another restaurant chain. He’d developed proprietary brands for the Safeway supermarket chain.

White quickly came up with a strategy. If you’d stopped any attendee of the Restaurant Leadership Conference and asked them on the spot for a plan, you’d have gotten almost the same thing:

--Cut expenses
--Expand the menu to bolster traffic
--Focus on service
--Emphasize franchising
--Expand overseas
--License your name to food products.

Fast-forward to the present. The chain now features products as diverse as soft yogurt and steel-cut oatmeal. Breakfast wraps are being tested in more than 200 stores.

Jamba’s memorable name appears on retail products ranging from trail mix to toy blenders. G&A costs were cut by more than 14%. Its franchisees include tennis superstar Venus Williams. “And we have zero debt on the books,” White told investors two weeks ago.

As far as we can tell, White didn’t log any time at Hogwarts before joining the restaurant business. He has no pact with the devil that we’re aware of. Nor is he using some special ray gun.

Yet he was able to execute a plan that stymied other chains, of all shapes and sizes. There’s no magic to it. Indeed, the difference was as simple as drinking a smoothie through a straw: He built a team and instilled a culture that enabled the strategy to work. The “how’s” were details that management could supply because of its experience and insights.
White provided the leadership to make the thinking and execution possible.

It sounds like an easy formula. But as Vince Lombardi famously said, You can use my playbook, but you still have to beat me on the field.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Cheesed up

Playing off the never-waning popularity of comfort foods, restaurant chains are elevating a tried-and-true ingredient to Big Lure status this month: Cheese.

Not that the uses are routine. Denny’s, for instance, is currently touting mac & cheese, but as a sandwich topping, not a side or entrée. The result is the Mac ‘n Cheese Big Daddy Patty Melt, a burger dressed not only with the comfort favorite, but also additional cheddar cheese and a mayonnaise-y sauce.

The limited-time selection, a cornerstone of the chain’s new Let’s Get Cheesy menu, is the latest in the chain’s tribute to cheesy excess. Last year it showcased the Fried Cheese Melt, essentially four fried mozzarella sticks inserted inside a more traditional grilled-cheese sandwich.

It packed nearly 900 calories. But that could’ve been a diet selection compared with the Big Daddy. Denny’s hasn’t posted the new sandwich’s calorie count, but a regular patty melt is listed as having 1,040 calories, and other authorities have estimated the count at just about 1,700 calories.

The Big Daddy is one of six new cheese selections. Most of the others consist of familiar items, like a country-fried steak with eggs, garnished with cheese. As part of the promotion, cheese can be added to any menu item for an extra charge of 69 cents.

Denny’s isn’t the only chain on a quest to keep cows at full employment. The Qdoba burrito chain is calling attention to one of its signature ingredients with the launch of the Queso Quest truck in Chicago. A comedian is driving the truck around the Windy City to get locals to try the chain’s three-cheese queso as a topping on popular local foods.

It wasn’t crystal clear, to me at least, how queso on a deep-dish pizza is going to drive more people to Qdoba, and I’m a fan of the chain.

Then there’s the sizzle surrounding The Melt, the grilled-cheese sandwich concept that hit the pan this week in San Francisco.

Intended to serve as a chain prototype, the new outlet probably would have gone unnoticed for some time if it hadn’t been for two things: It’s the brainchild of Jonathan Kaplan, the inventor of The Flip inexpensive video recorder; and it uses what may be the most technologically advanced system in the industry for ordering a sandwich.Patrons use their smart phones to select what cheese, bread and other elements they want in their sandwich. The order is translated into a QR code that’s read at the store, so the order is automatically channeled back to the kitchen.

Cheesy? The initial reports from citizen reviewers have been very positive.

But not all the recent news has been good for cheese lovers. It slipped past the business press, but the industry lost one of its gods last week, and one who owed his notoriety largely to cheese.

Yes, Joey Vento, a.k.a. the founder of south Philly’s Geno’s (cheese) Steaks, died at age 71. Pat’s might be better known, but Geno’s could go onion to onion with its arch-rival, which was situated virtually across the street.

All we can say is, “Whiz, with, Joey. Whiz with.”