Tuesday, April 17, 2012

New thinking about role of restaurants

Late on a Wednesday morning, an industry savant treated a roomful of restaurant-chain executives to an explanation of his business philosophy. This is the sort of guy who flies in private jets and has serious need of estate planning, with a $4-billion chain in his charge. Yet here’s the magic Ron Shaich said he’d learned from building Panera Bread: Aim for richer lives and a better society, not bigger profits.

Two weeks later, students at New York’s Institute of Culinary Education were completing their foodservice curriculum with a walk-through of the ventures they hoped to start after graduation. By design, these were formal business plans, presented to a panel of industry vets who gently assessed both the ideas and the appropriateness of the presentation. Of the five students who aired their ideas on the day I served as a greybeard, all but one pledged that their businesses would deliver societal benefits along with dollar-and-cents returns.

A stellar success and a handful of aspirants just starting out: They hail from opposing ends of the experience spectrum, but they share a view of what a restaurant business should be. With that mindset evident at both poles, is there any doubt it’ll seep into the mainstream of the business?

There are ample signs that it’s happening already, as you’ll see in our upcoming issue. And more keep coming. This week, for instance, Chipotle scolded the Food & Drug Administration for its regulatory stance on the use of pesticides on food crops. The one-time McDonald’s holding said point-blank that it wants the agency to take a harder line on processes that boost yields and hence temper food costs. It’s just not good for farm sustainability, the fast-food chain said in a press release.

This is no longer Kumbaya stuff. Chipotle and Panera are big corporations owned by Wall Street. It’s not that they’ve veered left toward the nearest ashram. It’s that a broader, more responsible sensibility is shifting into the business world, restaurants included.

You’ll learn in our May issue about Panera’s embrace of this broader-minded strain of capitalism. But how about the students and their business plans?

Here’s how they’re hoping to meld a social consciousness with an old-fashioned profit motive:

Katy Severson, who drove around the country before culinary school to learn regional cuisines firsthand, wants to open a gastropub, The Mayflower, where she can feature the best of what she sampled. “Food has a history and a soul,” she explains in her business plan. “This philosophy will be reflected in the way The Mayflower operates in every facet: from the way we source our food and how that food is treated before it sits on our plates, to the way we treat our staff, to the way we decorate our restaurants, plate our food, and most importantly treat our customers.”

She’d penciled out a pro-forma P&L that allowed for healthcare coverage for employees. “I have experience with not getting benefits,” she explained to her classmates and the judging panel.

Mitchell Dorsey intends to feature only “responsibly sourced” foods in Burg Inn, the farm-to-fork restaurant he plans to open in East Williamsburg, a gentrifying corner of Brooklyn.
Sergio Gutierrez plans to showcase aspiring local musicians in his La Maja, one of the community ties he’s planning for the Monterey, Mexico, gastropub.

A classmate planning a Brooklyn tapas bar pledged that it would be “not just another business in the area, but also a part of [the] local community and its needs.”

Using local ingredients, previously the flag signaling a socially conscious restaurant, was the rule for all the student presenters, not the exception.

Not surprisingly, before Shaich spoke at our Restaurant Leadership Conference, another presenter was asked about the viability of chains purchasing locally.

The industry has sufficiently tempered its cheap-and-easy sourcing mindset to shift local purchasing into the industry consciousness.

All signs say it’s just the beginning of a change in attitudes.

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