Thursday, March 28, 2013

NYC restaurants get some bad news

For once, Mayor Bloomberg isn’t the villain behind a regulatory burden that’s about to drop on New York restaurant. But he’s not strong enough politically to be the hero, either. Despite the Mayor’s resistance, restaurants and other businesses in the city will likely be hit with a requirement to provide paid sick leave for employees.

The mandate wouldn’t go into effect until April 2014, and initially some small places would get a reprieve. A business would not be required to provide the five days of paid sick leave until it employed at least 20 people. Eighteen months later, the threshold would drop to 15 staffers.

Restaurants of course fall squarely within that target group. Those small enough to be exempt will be obliged to allow employees to take five days of unpaid sick leave without risk of losing their jobs.

Mayor Bloomberg is expected to veto the paid sick leave bill, which was pushed through the City Council by a consortium of labor groups. But the Council has enough votes to override his rejection.

The key figure in the wranglings: Speaker Christine Quinn, who is expected to succeed Bloomberg as mayor. She had been a staunch opponent of paid sick leave, but caved under pressure by big get-out-the-vote groups.

However, her attempts to temper the bill were lauded by the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a year-old trade group that represents restaurants and hotels in the New York area.

"We believe that this new 100% employer funded mandate properly belongs in discussion in the New York State Legislature where the cost can be funded by employers and employees, and administered by the State," executive director Andrew Rigie said in a prepared statement. "However, we recognize the political realities in New York City do not presently allow for this...We thank Speaker Quinn for standing up for the small business community in these difficult economic times."

Sunday, March 17, 2013

What I'm hearing

Here’s a download of the more intriguing speculations that reached my ears as I made the airline and hotel industries a little richer these past few weeks.

Cheese is the new bacon. It’s far from the only ingredient to be hailed as the next palate obsession. Restaurant sages have predicted a passing of the mantle to all sorts of flavorful treats, from higher-end chocolate to srirachi to other parts of a pig (ears and cracklings, among others.) But you can’t help noticing how much is happening right now with cheese, the tangy foundation for a number of oddball restaurant concepts (mac and cheese joints, grilled-cheese sandwich shoppes, and, if you stretch the notion a bit, a slew of better pizzerias and pies.) Clearly it’s a major component of the artisanal and local shifts. Good work, cows, goats and sheep.
Menus may be the next area of personalization. Any number of online shopping services now automatically present a list of choices that fit your consumption patterns. Why couldn’t the same be done with the new generation of restaurant menus? Technomic’s Darren Tristano predicts a day when menu boards will scramble and reform for each customer so patrons won’t have to scour the whole listing for what they like to eat.

Forgoing parking lots could gain traction as a green gesture. If you build one, they’ll definitely come, most likely in their carbon-spewing cars. So what happens if you don’t? Will that encourage the use of bikes, sidewalks, public transportation, or, at the very worst, municipal lots that spare more planted downtown spaces from being turned into macadam and concrete lots? LYFE Kitchen, a concept that could become the next Chipotle, is already pursuing a no-lot policy.
Ice, ice baby. Design kitchens, once arguably the old bacon, are being rivaled as a must-have cool feature by the ice bar, a drink counter or common table made of frozen water.  Once, they were the sort of decadent design element you saw in Las Vegas, along with waitresses in skimpy outfits and feathered headdresses. Now you can spot them at airports and business hotels. Can ice castles on Main Street be far behind?

Monday, March 11, 2013

We lean toward leaning forward. Amen to that.

A new phrase has entered the vernacular, courtesy of the fast-selling new book from Google COO Sheryl Sandburg: Lean forward. You may not have heard it uttered in the restaurant business, but that’s only because our paradigms of female success have been too busy advancing to master the lingo.

Sandburg’s thesis is a contradiction of the idea that women lean back from ambition. We need to sit her down with a margarita and a burger and do some serious talking, because female ambition and success are hardly a novelty in our business. Our women have been leaning forward since the days of Allie Marriott, Joan Kroc, June Martino, Esther Snyder, Sue Aramian, Ella Brennan and Maude Chasen.

Forget for a minute the women who’ve risen to top jobs by proving that smarts trump testosterone anytime. Liz Smith heads Bloomin’ Brands, a.k.a. Outback Steakhouse, an operation that all but required its executives to wear a jock and cup. She’s a former president of Avon, but you’re a fool if you doubt she can play as hard-knuckles as need be in headquarters, the boardroom, and meetings with investors.

Sandra Cochran is the CEO of Cracker Barrel, a company founded by a brilliant but old-school force who referred to powerful women like Hillary Clinton as femin-Nazis. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest it wasn’t easy for a woman to rise in that culture. Anyone think she’s not been masterful in handling a takeover challenge from Sardar Biglari?

If there’s a better quick-service turnaround artist than Cheryl Bachelder, the Harry Potter who’s resurrected Popeyes despite the Vegas odds, please point her out. But don’t waste your time by singing the praises of Linda Lang, chief of Jack in the Box. I got religion on her, dude. She’s the real deal. I said “turnaround.”

Do I need to mention Sally Smith, the CEO of Buffalo Wild Wings, or Julia Stewart, the deal maker who turned IHOP into the most powerful franchisor this side of McDonald’s? They lean forward so much that I fear a fall.

And don’t forget the other side of the foodservice business, the so-called non-commercial sector. Lorna Donatone is COO of the school feeding operations of Sodexo, the contract-feeding giant.  What she does day to day should be an inspiration to any government bureaucrat—wracking up accomplishments, with a budget that sounds like a college student’s allowance.

Mary Molt, assistant director of Kansas State University’s dining operations, literally wrote the book on high-volume feeding. If your child ate in a school cafeteria, wolfed down a college breakfast, or even ate a tray-delivered lunch in a hospital, the meal was a lot better because of the practices that Mary codified.  I’d suggest she’s been leaning forward for decades, but I’d fear a slap for suggesting she’s out of her 20s (I wouldn’t suggest such a thing, but some say that Mary is about to start her fourth decade in the business.)

We in foodservice have had women leaning forward since the industry’s birth. But we welcome Sandburg’s advisory to seize ambition and aim for the big jobs.

Ours is an industry of opportunity. Any theory that underscores that point will get an amen from us. And a big cheer for all those who’ve proven in our business that ability trumps gender, regardless of how your body is leaning.