Friday, October 26, 2012

Restaurant what-if's

Covering developments in the restaurant industry can be like chasing a pack of greyhounds after they’ve spotted a squirrel. With five of the former racers at home, I speak from experience.

Almost as challenging is contemplating what might happen in the business—how things could transpire if conditions, attitudes and variables were just a hair different. Some might say those scenarios are the preferable course.

Consider, for instance, these what-if’s:

What if Homeland Security is what puts the brakes on food trucks? The whistleblower website Public Intelligence got its hands on a PowerPoint presentation the Fire Department of New York (City) recently drafted about the potential dangers of food trucks. FDNY aired concerns that the wheeled kitchens could be used by terrorists because the vehicles are typically parked in high-value sites where a lot of damage could be inflicted.

At the very least, the department noted, yahoos could use the trucks as “an excellent surveillance platform” because they’re on the street for long stretches.

The audience for the presentation wasn’t identified. But a credible terrorism threat usually draws prompt and forceful action, regardless of who’s hearing the message.

What if chains have been wrong about the practicality of serving fresher, less-processed foods? The argument has always been that, first, customers don’t want it, and, second, that a multi-unit operation can’t afford the caliber of raw ingredients and prep talent to feature choices like seasonal produce. It’s just too pricey and time-consuming.

Yet Chipotle, Pizza Fusion, Jason’s Deli and a number of other freethinkers are proving the prevailing wisdom is inaccurate. Chipotle, for instance, recently revealed that it’s testing a GMO-free rice oil as a potential replacement for soybean oil because the environmental profile is preferable. In most instances, it’s already using sunflower oil.

Or consider the new prototype from LYFE Kitchen, the better-for-you quick-service concept that’s being developed by several McDonald’s alumni. The new design features an interior wall where 25 varieties of herbs and spices are grown, and a second growing area where vegetables are grown hydroponically.

The operation is already identifying the family-run farms that supply the concept.

Remember, this is quick-service, and the goal is to make it a multi-unit operation.

What if the outrage over Pizza Hut’s goofy presidential ploy is a sign the industry's marketing should grow up? In case you missed it, the chain was offering prize to any wiseass who’d use his question at the recent town hall-style presidential debate to ask the candidates about type of pizza they prefer.

The chain justifiably drew a storm of protest for trivializing an important event. It was offering a bribe to anyone who’d turn an education system into a publicity ploy. To its credit, the chain backed off and stopped promoting the offer, though it didn’t kill it altogether.

Contrast that with the most recent marketing tactic used by McDonald’s Canadian operations. That branch of the burger empire is airing a video that traces how its French fries are sourced, from farm to fryer.

The account isn’t sugarcoated. At one point a processor notes that the fries are rinsed in the plant with a solution to preserve their whitish color.

But overall the vid demonstrates that the fries are less processed than many customers might think. For instance, dispelled is the urban myth that the fries are formed from some kind of potato meal instead of being cut from peeled whole potatoes.

It’s serious input to the dialogue about food integrity.

What if the dominance of the CIA’s cross-country team is confirmation that tomorrow’s chefs are being trained to consider their own health along with the wellbeing of patrons? Yes, we’re talking here about our CIA, the Culinary Institute of America. The school’s women’s running team has finished first in its conference for three consecutive years.

If this what-if comes true, it’d be the end of a longstanding irony that reaffirmed the old adage about the cobbler’s children having holes in their shoes. While commercial kitchens were re-gearing to foster healthier eating habits among customers, many chefs still looked like the Before picture in an ad for a dieting aid. They weren’t practicing what they were passively preaching.

Okay, back to chasing those hounds now.

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