Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Seeing red over doing good

For bulls, it’s a red cape, for werewolves, a full moon, and for linebackers, a football in the other team’s hands. If there’s a trigger that turns restaurateurs into mad, snorting beasts, it has to be the suggestion they do some social engineering because do-gooders think they should.

If Rosetta Stone wanted to add an Advanced Cursing language course, all it’d have to do is turn on a digital recorder and ask a restaurateur, Hey, couldn’t you do more on your menu to promote health? Or counter obesity? Or assist the working poor? Or help foreign-language speakers learn English?

The answers would be too extreme for a Sailors’ Cussing and Swear Words blog. For this more genteel niche of the blogosphere, suffice it to say the comebacks would range from, “Have you lost your friggin’ mind?” to “Kumbaya this!” [Insert corresponding hand gesture here.]

Mix in a few snipes about being business people, not sociologists or Mother Teresas, season it with a few muttered assertions about creeping communism, and you’ll have the dynamic we’re always covering online and on our pages. Because of the restaurant industry’s size and social penetration, someone is always proposing that it be a means for achieving some profound public good. And the business pushes back because that noble objective typically runs contrary to a profit motive.

Contrast that reflex with the mindset evident in foodservice operations that feed grade-schoolers, college students, hospital employees and staff, and company employees. FoodService Director, a sister magazine that serves the so-called non-commercial market, is constantly reporting on the efforts of high-volume facilities to feed kids a breakfast they’re too disadvantaged to get at home, or to make sure the clienteles eat fresher, more local and generally healthier fare.

Schools and colleges are planting gardens as an education tool and vegetable source, healthcare facilities are teaching elders how to cook nutritious meals for themselves, and green efforts across the board go much further than what’s done in the commercial sector.

In an upcoming issue of FoodService Director, you’ll read about a school foodservice director who started a new job by defining what constitutes good food and then revamping the recipes to fit his criteria—standards like no added sugar, and zero trans fats.

Restaurateurs dismiss that social sensitivity as a luxury enjoyed by professionals who don’t have the profit pressures that govern a street operator’s life. In that view, non-commercial foodservice is an amenity for the host site, not a moneymaker.

The notion is as antiquated as a hand-cranked eggbeater. Today, foodservice directors have to be mindful of what their charge is contributing to their employer, be it a college, school, or contract management concern.

The thresholds for revenues or traffic—participation, in non-commercial-speak—may not be as high as they are for restaurants. Ditto for the profits.

That still doesn’t explain why the director of a super-high-volume college operation would look at the windows of his dining room and think, Hmmm, what a good place for a hydroponic garden. You’ll read about that in an upcoming issue, too.

There’s more to the discrepancy than merely a difference in financial pressures. Perhaps the greater sensitivity is a result of dealing every moment with clienteles that need to be protected or nurtured—school kids, or young adults, or the ill and infirm.

Whatever the reason, non-commercial foodservice is proving that larger world issues don’t have to be ignored in the pursuit of sales and profits. Indeed, some of the most talked-about concepts on the restaurant side are underscoring the point—newcomers like LYFE Kitchen, or New Age strategists like Chipotle and Starbucks.

Where exercising that consciousness is feasible, it’s a happy situation indeed. It’s no bull, or certainly no reason to wave a red flag.

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