Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Savory tidbits

Here's a grab bag of news developments and trends that promise to influence the restaurant business near and longterm:

--A history pop quiz: What major city was the first to mandate calorie disclosures on chain menus? How about the elimination of trans fats? And voluntary reductions of salt content? If you correctly answered “New York” to all of the above, and your market hasn’t yet adopted letter-style sanitation scores, carefully consider the statement Gotham issued today.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg told the press today that salmonella cases dropped 14% in New York during the first year of the city's new sanitation grading system. The controversial program requires restaurants to post their sanitation letter grades in windows visible to potential customers. Before it went into effect, operators complained that too much weight would be given to a single visit by a possibly subjective inspector, and that a bad grade would leave a damning impression in the public's mind. Restaurants would be unjustly killed by technical violations that customers couldn't grasp in the first place.

Contrary to those dire predictions, restaurant revenues grew during the first year of the grading system by 9.3%, to $800 million, Bloomberg pointed out.

He also dashed objections that the carrot approach was wishful thinking. Since the posting requirement went into effect, the proportion of restaurants acing their sanitation inspections has jumped by seven points, to 72%, according to Bloomberg.

No wonder, he suggested, that the publicly visible letter grades are favored by 91% of New Yorkers, and that 88% of Big Apple consumers say they factor the posted scores into their choice of a restaurant.

If you don't have a letter-grading system in your area, you might want to start cleaning a space right now on your front window.

--Fear not, those of you who can't get enough of chiseled athletes hawking fast food their trainers may or may not let them eat. The sports star endorsement is very much alive. Witness yesterday's announcement that LeBron James will be the face of Dunkin' Donuts and Baskin-Robbins in Asia, or that linebacker Troy Palomalu has signed on as a spokesman for the upstart LYFE Kitchen fast-casual concept.

They're the latest in a string of paid affiliations that once put Joe Namath in pantyhose and O.J. Simpson in a flat-out run for airport daylight.

--If you need any further indication that retailers are nipping at restaurateurs' heels, consider that the next generation of WaWa convenience stores will feature display kitchens. And we’re not talking roller dogs.

--The National Restaurant Association had to reschedule its annual mega-convention for 2012 because Chicago double-booked the G8 international economic summit for the original show dates. Yesterday the location of the G8 was shifted to Camp David, leaving lots of hotel rooms likely up for grabs come late May. That crunching sound you hear is likely the teeth gnashing of NRA officials.

--An unusual restaurant promotion will be launched by Starbucks later this week. According to Zacks Equity Research, customers who buy a coffee before 11 a.m. can come back after 2 p.m. for a second cup at half-price. The offer will run from March 8 thru March 11, Zacks said.

--I admit I’m prejudiced, but it’s not easy to accept that a guy named Yorgo Koutsogiorgas is leading a pizza chain, even if it specializes in that deep-dish faux stuff that Chicago tries to pass off as real pizza. Yet there he sits atop Giordano's. At least the company has an Italian name. Maybe Yorgo is known to friends as Luigi or Angelo.

--From the Not All People Should Procreate evidence file: A couple in Maryland didn’t realize they’d left their 3-year-old daughter at a local Chuck E. Cheese’s until a local news broadcast aired a story about how the girl had been found alone in the restaurant, asking the staff for something to drink. The parents were in their home at the time—some three hours after they’d left the restaurant.

--Utah is close to passing a bill that would allow restaurateurs to try an array of wines or spirits before deciding which to stock in their establishments. Sampling is currently illegal in the state, even for wholesale buyers.

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