Monday, December 31, 2012

Gee, thanks, Santa

Complaint Department
Santa Enterprises LLP
North Pole

Dear Obesity Statistic,

You totally screwed up this year, Fat Man. My pre-holiday letter could not have been clearer: Bring. Better. Times. Instead, here we sit cliff-side, waiting for the world to sour for restaurants and virtually every retail business except pawnshops. Maybe I should add bankruptcy lawyers to the list, too.

If Congress fails to do its job today, and that appears all but inevitable as of noon, disposable income is going to take a short-term hit as tax rates automatically climb. But that’s sort of academic, isn’t it, White Beard? The real economic calamity will be the blow to consumer confidence, which will dash what had been the restaurant industry’s best hope for a rosier 2013.

As the National Restaurant Association noted in its 2013 business forecast, consumers want to buy more of their meals from restaurants, but are too uptight about their financial situations to indulge. Smart restaurateurs will figure out how to “unlock that pent-up demand,” in the words of the Association’s economic Obi-Wan Kenobe, Hudson Riehle.

Now, thanks to the fakers who profess to be the nation’s leaders and public servants, consumers are going to get their biggest fright since 2007. And the dollars fueling the economy will be in shorter supply because the IRS will take significantly more of them. That kicks off a vicious cycle of consumers spending less, businesses cutting staff to protect profits, and the downsized meting out their savings just to survive.

But the damage for restaurants doesn’t end there. The federal food safety and public health watchdogs will have their budgets cut, which obviously means less oversight. The industry has been largely spared food-safety crises like the lettuce and spinach contaminations of 2006. What happens if that lull should end? How weakened will our safeguards be?

The list of aftershocks from the cliff dive is long and sobering. Santa, isn’t there a Naughty Intervention you can invoke to get some decent behavior from our federal politicians?  Maybe threaten them with the possibility of ugly sweaters under the tree next year? Or use their lawns the next time you take the reindeer for a walk?

Maybe you could let them graze a bit, too. If going over the cliff is as bad as expected, reindeer steaks may be the best treat we could afford next Christmas.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Why restaurants should stop hitting themselves in the head with a hammer

If a business repeatedly draws fire for a routine action, it usually realizes the practice needs to be changed. But restaurants apparently have a blind spot, which is making them look like the biggest goobers this side of Honey Boo Boo.

Every week seems to bring another controversy over a thumbnail description some eating establishment printed on its receipts to identify the party. Most recently the publicity storm was ignited by “FAT GIRLS,” typed by a server named Jeff onto the order slip that was given to the women as a receipt by Chilly D’s in Stockton, Calif.

That tag was merely unflattering. Others have been outright racist or just plain dumb, like describing the patron as a bitch or the party as a “100 % shit show,” as if those are identifying characteristic for an order runner dashing through the dining room.
There are so many instances of restaurants blundering in that fashion that has created a standing Receiptrocity tag for stories about Ripley's-caliber I.D.'s that came to light.

It happens so often that you have to wonder why an establishment wouldn’t re-write its procedures to avert any risk. Why, for instance, don’t they use table numbers in full-service places, or take the name and call it in takeout situations?

Years ago, I asked the hostess at a crowded New York hotspot about how she finds parties at the bar when their tables are ready. She explained that she jots down the style and colors of their shoes, then looks at feet as she navigates her way through the lounge area.

There have to be any number of ways of getting away from the use of physical attributes as the identifier. Go by the color of the orderer’s coat, or limit the palate to positive features.

Do anything but print an insult on a piece of paper that’s presented to the guest, as if he or she isn’t going to notice. If an order-taker can’t handle a challenge that small, maybe it’s time to re-think the whole receipt-I.D. system. Or maybe who you’re paying to take orders.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Restaurants' best bet: The frustrated consumer

The silver lining of an otherwise grey-skies outlook for the restaurant business may be the public’s pronounced frustration, according to new research (and maybe a dash of psychoanalysis) from the National Restaurant Association.

In the words of NRA statistical guru Hudson Riehle, the Average Joe isn’t getting enough, and the Average Jill is even more unsatisfied. Observes Riehle: “You can see as a result of the weaker economic environment a substantial pent-up demand that exists among consumers to use restaurants.”

As he explained Tuesday in delivering the association’s 2013 sales forecast, about 40% of adult consumers would like to frequent a restaurant more often than they currently do. That compares with a frustration index of 31% in 2007.

The unfulfilled desire runs higher in women. “One out of every two adult women in America are not eating in restaurants as much as they would like,” comments Riehle. Since women are still the primary meal preparers for families, that finding suggests how much restaurant-meal replacement is happening in America today.

“Obviously those customers, as a result of what’s going on with their net worth and uncertainty over the economic outlook, have moderated their dining-out behavior,” Riehle says.

But he’s a table-half-full kind of guy. People are denying themselves the pleasure of dining out, but “the savvy restaurant operators know [how] and will continue to execute to unlock this pent-up demand.”

And, he notes, “the industry is fortunate in that consumers love to go to restaurants. Ninety-three percent, over nine out of every 10 American adults, report that they enjoy going to restaurants.

“This is a very important competitive hallmark of the industry,” he stresses.

The NRA is forecasting a sales increase for 2013 of 3.8%, or just under 1% if menu price increases are factored out. It expects menu prices to rise by 2.9% on a rise in wholesale food prices of 4.2%, meaning that margins will take a hit.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Restaurants' new new-revenue source

Once upon a time, restaurants were places where you ate a meal. Then takeout, delivery and catering transformed them into outlets that sold meals with or without serving them. Now come unmistakable signs of another evolutionary advance for the business. Believers call it pack-and-go, but it amounts to mothballing the home stove during weekends and holidays.
The most familiar example is Thanksgiving dinner to go, where the establishment does everything but plate the food. It cooks the turkey and possibly the sides, which the customer picks up and serves at home. Popeyes’ Cajun turkeys have been a boon for the chain for sometime, and countless gourmet shops in the New York area have been sparing Mom or Dad that wear and tear almost since the days of the Pilgrims.
Now restaurants are pushing harder for that big-meal bonanza. Part of the effort is varying what’s offered. Boston Market said it saw a 10% increase this Thanksgiving in the sale of what it calls Heat & Serve, or meals that are sold chilled rather than hot and ready to eat.
At the same time, places are chasing other pack-and-go occasions. Mimi’s, for instance, just added a new option called Brunch Feast To Go, a $39.99 meal that serves at least six people. The components include six muffins and six quiches.
Special-occasion or holiday meals for up to 100 people can be ordered from the casual chain via a special website.
 Bad Wolf Bar B Q in Roanoke, Va., is one of the many restaurants, and barbecue places in particular, that offers tailgate party packs (for four, eight or 24 people).
Rancho A Go Go Barbecue in Orange, Calif., will slow-roast a turkey or prime rib for your Christmas meal. You can also buy one of its party packs for a bachelorette party (no extra-sauce jokes, please)  or wedding rehearsal dinner.
And need we mention Super Bowl pack-and-go’s?
You can argue that this is just catering in a different form. But it’s different in that the food is more ambitious—a slow-roasted turkey, not an eight-foot-long hero—and serves a different need. This is a matter of replacing the holiday meal, or a version of the family dinner that seemed safe from restaurant rivalry.
No matter how you categorize it, pack-and-go has the feel of a major new revenue stream for restaurants. It’s furthering their evolution from a getaway to a replacement kitchen. And that’s a very good thing for the business.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Restaurants' newest LTO: Design

To understand a shift underway in the chain restaurant business, consider that you can sip a martini at the bar of Denny’s newest restaurant while waiting to get married in the on-premise wedding chapel.
Then re-watch “All About Eve,” the classic film about an understudy who eventually grabs the spotlight from the established star. Restaurant design is growing beyond its supporting role to rival menus as the marquee draw.
Less noticeable is how that’s affecting headquarters’ fundamental strategy. Once, renovations were something a chain undertook maybe every five years, more likely every seven or 10, and quite often not for more than a decade. Now a concept’s layout and look are getting tweaked on a refresh cycle that’s closer to the constant updating of menus.
A case in point: Kona Grill ended its recent announcement of a new “swanky” design with the promise to adjust the look as the chain fields reactions from customers. "We are excited for our guests to come and see our new design and will incorporate their feedback as we utilize this new look for future restaurants and remodels," said CEO Berke Bakay.
The 23-unit polished-casual brand isn’t alone in trying to deliver a more sophisticated setting to customers. TCBY is trumpeting a new format that includes a Live Culture Bar where patrons can sip smoothies made with anti-oxidant-packed juices and Greek-style yogurt.
O’Charley’s turnaround efforts pivot on a new look that includes a showcase bar called The Charles, after founder Charles Watkins. Also included are what the chain calls “signature rooms,” like The Porch and The Piedmont. “Signature,” of course, is a term that’s usually reserved for distinctive menu items.
Denny’s is quick to note that its newest restaurant, in the downtown area of Las Vegas, is a one-of-a-kind. Indeed, it even has its own name, Denny’s on Fremont, the street it fronts.
Sounds as if the chain may be borrowing a page from Starbucks’ strategy plan. The coffee giant has also started naming its outlets by location. Each differs from the other—not necessarily in menu, but in design.