Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ready for Katrina II?

This serves as official notice of our diversification into the umbrella and galoshes trade. The brainstorm came yesterday afternoon, after catching the news from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration , the federal version of your local weather forecaster. Given how the announcement might affect you, we may want to include sedatives in our product line.

The news wasn’t wholly bad. Indeed, Part I was reason to crack open the Cold Duck: The hurricane season is officially over. After a record-setting five instances of cowering in front of a TV, wondering if the storm will affect your restaurants, the industry can expect six months of relatively normal weather.

But after that? Start guzzling.

Expect another season like the one that brought us Katrina and Rita, the NOAA warned. “I’d like to foretell that next year will be calmer, but I can’t,” said Conrad C. Lautenbacher, the Ph.D.-holding vice admiral who heads up the agency. “Historical trends say the atmosphere patterns and water temperatures are likely to force another active season upon us.”

An official, detailed forecast won’t be issued by the NOAA until May. But its leadership was confident enough of its misgivings to warn that areas start preparing now.

And what size umbrella would you prefer?

Monday, November 28, 2005

IL county to recommend restaurants?

Restaurant-inspection programs have undergone profound changes in recent years, largely as a result of efforts to trumpet the results. In some areas, patrons are greeted with a prominently posted grade—literally an A, B, or D—while in others, a mouse has undergone a social climb unseen since Mickey lifted Walt Disney out of the rat race. The computer version is now the messenger that allows patrons to get a complete lowdown on the eateries in their area, or at least the problems that concerned an inspector. Meanwhile, local radio and TV stations routinely ensure good ratings during sweeps weeks by scheduling “exposes” on popular restaurants that were rated less than perfect. It’s as sure-fire as promising naked news anchors.

As much of a shin kick as those new emphases might have been for restaurants, they’re just a tsk-tsk compared with the concerns likely to be raised by an initiative under consideration in Kane County, IL. Health officials there want to go beyond warning consumers about sub-standard restaurants, to guiding them to places adjudged by the regulators as being healthful. The area plans to publish a directory to its 1,500 eateries, rating them on sanitation-inspection scores; how smoke-free they are; and how many healthy choices they offer on the menu. The findings will be presented both as a printed guide and as an online resource.

As reported in The Chicago Tribune <>, the Kane Public Health Department has already contacted more than 200 restaurants to alert them to the guide. To be considered, the places have to submit a menu, which will be evaluated by a dietician.

The initiative is still in the what-if stage, but it will be formally proposed as a new undertaking for the county at a meeting on Dec. 27.

The folks at Zagat have yet to file their comments.

Friday, November 25, 2005

'Cheese this, hoser'

Here in the States, restaurant operators have been griping about rising food costs all year. Their cousins up in Canada have decided to stop merely carping and start fighting back.

A number of pizza chains operating north of the border have joined forces to counter what they see as unjustifiably high cheese prices. Starting next week, their carryout and delivery boxes will be affixed with stickers inciting consumers to sound off about the higher costs being passed along to them. “Cheesed off about high dairy prices?”, read the tags. It encourages them to visit a website set up by the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association,

The site looks like something from the Center for Consumer Freedom, the Doberman-like industry lobbying group here in the U.S. But it’s actually from the Canadian counterpart of our National Restaurant Association. The site uses an interactive graph to illustrate how regulators have hiked dairy prices by 49% since 1994 despite a 4.5% drop in the cost of producing milk. The click-to-run graphic’s headline reads, “Spot the Moostake.”

Another area of the site allows visitors to pass along their opinions to the Canadian Dairy Commission, the national body that sets dairy prices. The Commission is widely expected to raise the scale next month, after hiking prices by 7.8% earlier in 2005.

Restaurant operators can also use the site to get free downloadable protest posters for their stores. Of particular annoyance to the industry is the difference in the price of cheese sold to food processors for frozen pizzas and what pizzerias are charged. explains that the sky-high price of mozzarella prompted the Dairy Commission to extend a 30% discount to companies that manufacture frozen pizzas for sale in grocery stores, apparently to ease the impact on consumers.

Without a similar adjustment, the CRFA has said, Canadian pizzerias typically keep only 43 cents of every $13 pie they peddle.

The protest reportedly involves such U.S.-based corporate giants as Pizza Hut and Domino’s. But the effort is classic grass-roots rebellion.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Ronald's new hit

A full-page ad in a recent Rolling Stone shows a four-member rock band wailing away in a grainy black-and-white snapshot offset by a funky brown-and-black background. It could be the cover shot for a punk band’s boxed set, or maybe an art-house DVD. Indeed, it follows ads for new compilations from Franz Ferdinand, Ali G, and Spongebob Squarepants. Then you see the tagline—“I’m lovin’ it”—and catch the copy, about the joys of working for McDonald’s.

The recruitment ad complements today’s announcement from the fast-food Schwarzenegger: A reputable collegiate organization has recommended that employees completing the chain’s unit-manager and middle-management training program be eligible for up to 46 college credits.

Welcome to the State of Recruitment, circa 2006.

The business pages have been filled with stories about McDonald’s efforts to make itself more relevant by overhauling the menu. Just yesterday, for instance, the wire services quoted a McD exec in Australia as suggesting burgers and fries were not the chain’s future.

But the general media may not appreciate what a quantum leap the chain is making in its efforts to out-recruit the competition. Here again, it’s striving for relevancy. The Rolling Stone ad stresses that McDonald’s allows persons with aspirations to act, not wait. “Sound familiar? Maybe that’s because I’m someone just like you,” reads the copy.

The bigger breakthrough is the college-credit enticement. Think of it: You’re a young person looking to pack away some money for college. McDonald’s not only offers the pay, but less time in the college classroom, too. While other chains are still relying on bows and arrows, the segment leader has invented the heat-seeking missile.

Of course, the edge is likely to be dulled by all the other chains following suit. But that’s okay. Suddenly, foodservice would look like a passage, not a dead-end. And that’s good for everyone.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Turnaround is fair play. Delicious, too.

If it was a sit-com plot, you’d dismiss it as too perfect. But the Galley restaurant in Morro Bay, CA, has pulled a virtuoso turn-about that’s as real as it is brilliant. The place had been sued in 2004 by professional litigant Jack Molski, who was seeking damages for the emotional distress and mental anguish he claims to have suffered as a result of allegedly hurting himself at the restaurant. Molski is a paraplegic, and he insists that he was injured because the Galley wasn’t in compliance with accessibility rules. The 35-year-old wants $1.6 million in compensation, according to local press reports.

I don’t mean to be callous, but Molski should really look into home-delivery. He’s been similarly damaged some 400 previous times, or so he’s alleged in an equal number of lawsuits. He’s been in more courtrooms than a gavel. So many hear-ye’s have been sounded in his name that he’s been ruled a “vexatious litigant” and barred from filing any other accessibility suits in state courts. So now he’s working county courts.

Facing that kind of claimant across the aisle, the Galley’s co-owners decided Molski wasn’t the only one who’s suffered some mental anguish since he paid their place a visit. So they decided to sue him. They filed a lawsuit last week seeking compensation from him.

The proprietors have only asked for $3,000. But here’s the brilliant part: Their lawsuit in effect pivots on Molski’s motivation for seeking $1.6 million, according to local observers of the proceedings. Suddenly, he’s the one who has to justify himself.

Sometimes it seems as if the trophy business owes its livelihood to the restaurant trade. Name a discipline, and chances are there’s an award for it, from top up-and-comers to the latest inductees into the old guard. You can bag a loving cup for being the best stock-picker, the concept most loathed by dietary nags, the best place to work, or the most considerate neighbor.

But there isn’t a prize yet forged that adequately honors the Galley’s proprietors for their legal ju-jitsu. If the situation is what it seems, they deserve an industrywide standing ovation.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Another side of running a restaurant

What kind of weekend did restaurants have? Judging from news reports, a sporadically violent one. A Google search reveals that eateries were the scene of one rape, seven shootings, one murder, an armed robbery, a full-tilt drug raid, a slashing, a stabbing, a break-in, two car crashes, four fires, and a prolonged, heated dispute over a dog’s name (Pink, the rules-disdaining rock star, kept calling her obscenely named pooch while visiting a Beverly Hills place, much to the outrage of patrons dining with children). And there’s no reason to think that the most recent Thursday-through-Sunday stretch is any different than most.

Granted, the affected places represent an infinitesimal portion of the more than 800,000 food outlets that were in operation during the last four days. But those are only the crimes that made the news. It’s rare, but it does happen. It’s an aspect of the business that isn’t worked into restaurant-based sitcoms or reality shows.

That’s a good thing, given how difficult it is to recruit workers without that added drag. But it’s a shame the hazard wasn’t appreciated by more outsiders, especially the folks who view the restaurant business as a lark, the sort of trade that anyone could take up. Make a mean omelet? Get raves every Thanksgiving for your hors d’ouevres? Like interacting with people? Dine out all the time? Hey, why not open a restaurant? It’ll be a blast. So much better than a real job.

They have no idea how difficult the trade actually is—the hours, the attention and diligence that’s required, the headaches of having a largely young workforce serving a clientele with sky-high demands. And then there are the real undersides to the business, like crime, or dealing with drunks, or the job’s disproportionately high divorce and alcoholism rates.

Maybe if the public knew more of the downside, it’d think twice about casually burdening restaurants with new fees, regulations and social responsibilities. It might moderate it’s stance of give, give, give, and consider what a restaurant sometimes has to take.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Definitely a rubber-glove situation

It looks as if the restaurants of Pennsylvania have been caught in a political crossfire.

At 11:15 this morning, Auditor General Jack Wagner issued the results of a “special audit” of the state’s restaurant-inspection system. The report all but accused the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the program’s administrator, of farming rats and cockroaches in the places it was supposed to keep clean and sanitary. Instead, said Wagner’s office, the “Department of Agriculture was putting public health at risk.”

The Department of the Auditor General noted that restaurants in the state have to renew their licenses annually. To re-up, they first have to be inspected. Yet 4,000 of the state’s 17,597 establishments holding valid permits had not been inspected in at least two years, Wagner’s office said. It cited one restaurant that hadn’t been inspected for six years—literally since the last century.

And even if a place was inspected, the report asserted, it could serve bacteria culture in petrie dishes without fear of being sanctioned. Fines were seldom levied, according to the Auditor General, and other penalties were both “rare” and “insignificant.” It noted that establishments written up for health-code violations like the presence of rodents or “deficient sewage” were allowed to remain in operation; not one license was pulled during the two-year period that was the focus of the audit (Jan. 1, 2002 through Dec. 31, 2004; curiously, no reason was given for the 11-month lag in releasing the findings, despite the Auditor’s repeated warnings that they underscore a dire health threat).

In most instances, the report suggested, not even a warning letter was sent out. “Consequently, public eating and drinking places had little incentive to make changes,” Wagner was quoted as saying in a press release.

His office offered 20 recommendations to remedy the situation, including such radical measures as inspecting each restaurant once a year.

At 12:33 that afternoon, the Department of Agriculture responded. It announced that it would start to fix its admittedly “antiquated” inspection system by spending $600,000--$600,000!—on a website where restaurants’ inspection scores could be posted. I spend almost as much on gas for my car.

It’s a shot of Bactine for a sucking chest wound.

You just know where this is heading. One government agency slams another for its laxity. Either the criticized agency loses its mandate—and you get the sense that the Department of the Auditor General wouldn’t mind such an occurrence—or it becomes Wyatt Earp, proving it’s the baddest law enforcer ever to wield the ability to fine. If a restaurant is the scene of so much as a gnat fly-over, it’ll be called to task.

Certainly it seems like a situation that has to be fixed. But the solution will hopefully address the risk, such as it is, instead of being forged by political considerations. And yet we know that politicians just can't help themselves. In this case, maybe they won't be helping restaurants, either.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Going to the dogs

More than 300 legislative proposals have already been slotted for consideration during Florida’s 2006 legislative session, which doesn’t begin until March, the Florida Restaurant Association notes. Hopefully 299 are more important than the restaurant-related initiative that was effectively killed on Monday. It’s proof that restaurants aren’t going to the dogs. But, most definitely, the canines are coming to them.

Indeed, anecdotal evidence shows conclusively that more and more patrons want to yank their dogs along when they grab a latte or wolf down a brunch omelet at an open-air café. And why not? It’s not like the kitchen is out there, or that a banquette’s edge might be mistaken for a tree.

Or at least that must have been what Florida lawmakers reasoned when they concocted a plan to seat dogs as well as humans in the outdoor dining areas of Orlando restaurants. A state representative from the theme-park capital wanted to push a bill that would exempt local restaurants from the state health department’s prohibition of dogs from every section of an eating place. After three years, legislators could decide if they wanted to extend the measure statewide, or re-instate the coast-to-coast ban.

Other Orlando legislators, no doubt controlled by the cat lobby, said they couldn’t use the statehouse to pass what was in effect a local bill. Without their support, the measure is doomed. Hungry pomeranians have no doubt been whining since they got the word. Their owners might howl if they defied the health regulations and were caught bringing the pooch along for some al fresco dining. The fine is $5,000.

It may sound like a silly matter. But when does reason come into play when you’re talking about dog owners (this writer included)? In Austin, TX, a restaurant decided to evade similar health regulations by exploiting a loophole. The code notes that patrol dogs accompanying police or security officers can stay with their masters in an open-air dining area. So Freddie’s Place paid leash-toting patrons a penny to wear a badge that reads, “Freddie’s Official Security Officer.” Clearly the officers' llahsa apsos and shitzuhs are guard dogs, and hence exempt from the law.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Judge Alito on restaurants

It was bound to happen. Partisans are CAT-scanning everything Judge Samuel Alito has ever written, said or done, hoping to sluice some indication of his thinking on the flashpoint issues likely to be put before a Supreme Court that includes him. With that sort of scrutiny, it was only a matter of time until his past handling of restaurants and their employees was brought to light. And, no, we don’t mean his preference for the ethnic places of his native New Jersey.

One of the cases cited by critics wary of Alito’s civil-rights orientation is a 1996 discrimination case involving the dining-room captain of a restaurant in the landmark Hotel DuPont, in Wilmington, DE. After Barbara Sheridan was fired from the post in 1991, she alleged in a lawsuit that she had been sexually harassed by a superior, and denied a promotion because of it. When she complained, the 12-year Hotel DuPont veteran asserted in the filing, she was fired.

A jury disagreed with Sheridan’s contention that she had been harassed and denied a promotion out of spite, but still awarded her $30,000 in lost wages because it sympathized with her assertions that she had been unjustly fired. The presiding judge overturned the jury’s award, however, prompting Sheridan to appeal.

Alito sat on the appeals court that was given the case. It decided that Sheridan was entitled to the money because a jury was the appropriate body to determine whether a payment should be made, not the judge. The majority decision stated that Sheridan appeared to have evidence that she was the victim of discrimination, and that her employer failed to offer an adequate alternative explanation.

Alito dissented, arguing that an employee in such a case has to prove the employer discriminated against him or her, and not merely air a possibility that the employer fails to disprove.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the AFL-CIO has urged the Senate to reject Alito’s candidacy. In issuing its thumbs-down decision, the eroded labor union noted that the Supreme Court will likely hear a case next year involving a small New Orleans restaurant that fired a female employee in 2001. The woman then sued, alleging discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. But that Act only applies to establishments with 15 or more employees. The restaurant, Y&H, said it did not meet that threshold because the proprietors, their wives, and drivers did not figure into the count.

A jury sided with the discharged employee, Jennifer Arbaugh. But that decision has been repealed. The AFL-CIO cited it as one of “several anti-worker rulings” in which Alito has been involved.

Alito also heard a case in which Marriott Hotels was being sued by a housekeeping manager who alleged she was denied a promotion because of her race. The court found in favor of the woman, but Alito dissented, arguing that the plaintiff had failed to refute all of the reasons Marriott had provided for elevating someone else.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

What's sufficient punishment?

Which plan would turn more illegal immigrants into legitimate workers, judging from your experience in employing non-natives?

Plan A would require foreign-born workers here illegally to pay a fine for their transgression. The payment would also entitle them to a three-year employment visa, renewable at the end of that time for another three-year permit. If they fail to naturalize by the end of the six years, they have to head back to their country of origin.

Plan B would require the illegal immigrants to head home first, as punishment for being here in violation of the law. Only then could they apply for a three-year employment permit, which could be renewed for another three-year stint.

Plan A is being pushed by the Republicans. Guess what party has put forth Option B?

Try the Republicans.

Last week, according to a story carried exclusively in The New York Times <>, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is circulating a copy of Plan B as a rigid-right alternative to Plan A, which has been aired by the White House. An initiative similar to the Bush Administration’s has also been put forward by—steel yourself—Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Specter, a usually moderate GOPer who first represented the Keystone State during the White House tenure of Ted’s brother, reportedly sent a letter to colleagues, assuring them he was only stimulating discussion, according to the Times. He out-and-out said he doesn’t support every component of his own plan. Huh.

Sounds more like an olive branch to Party hardliners who can’t abide the notion of giving legal temporary-worker status to immigrants who are here illegally. Would they be paying a fine to get a work permit, or posting a processing fee? Isn’t it just amnesty, with a nominal charge tagged on to make the process more palatable to persons who actually heed the law?

You may have a much better gauge on that than the lawmakers in D.C. Do you think immigrant employees would regard a fee of several thousands dollars as a nothing, a low hurdle that would allow them to become legal with virtually no pain?

And how many of them do you think would seek legal status by heading home first, then applying for a temporary-worker’s permit, then coming back? Does anyone truly believe that illegals will take that route, instead of merely staying here illegally?

The industry may be standing side by side with some unusual allies on the matter. But it’s really clear what position it should maintain.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Mandated healthcare becomes a real possibility

Did we sell Massachusetts back to the British? Or give it as a welcome present to Prince Charles and Consort Camella? Maybe it was spun off into its own nation, so the Red Sox could finally dominate a league.

There has to be some Ripley’s reason for the silence that prevails as restaurateurs there contend with the industry equivalent of having a guy in a hockey mask ring your doorbell with the blade of a meat cleaver. Between now and next Tuesday, the state legislature will likely enact some major measure to expand healthcare coverage. Actually, two bills have already been passed by either the House or Senate, including one that would levy a 5% to 7% payroll tax on all employers who don’t provide health insurance to employees. The other will require that a new $105 million healthcare outlay be split in a different way. The immediate query might be which one will prevail. But the real question is, Are we seeing the start of mandated healthcare?

First, the basic facts: Yesterday. Massachusetts’ Senate unanimously approved a bill that would extend the state’s Medicaid program to about half the 500,000 Bay Staters who currently don’t have insurance. The measure was much milder than the industry might have feared. A leading alternative called for billing companies for healthcare expenses incurred by the employees they hadn’t provided with coverage. As a colleague noted, the charge just for Wal-Mart employees, and just in California, is reportedly $30 million annually.

The passage of the Senate bill follows last week’s lopsided approval in the House of the payroll-tax initiative, which would affect any business with more than 10 employees. Now the two measures have to be reconciled. That sometimes fractious process may be particularly pressured this time around because Gov. Mitt Romney has let it be known that he wants a reform bill on his desk before the legislature recesses. Romney is widely expected to be a candidate for the U.S. presidency in 2008, and a healthcare repair measure could snag him national attention.

The governor himself leans toward something more sweeping than what the Senate has OK’d.

The Massachusetts Restaurant Association is of course fighting the payroll tax idea. It had not released any formal comment on the Senate measure as of this writing.

Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Chain haters try a new slam

Chain haters have a new epithet for McDonald’s, Red Lobster and the like: “formula restaurants.”

Among the more interesting initiatives put before voters yesterday was a proposal to ban formula restaurants in the coastal town of Ogunquit, ME. The measure passed by more than a 2:1 ratio (506 to 207).

Lest you wonder what constitutes a formula restaurant, the ordinance spells it out. Such an accursed establishment has "standardized features which cause the restaurant to be substantially identical to another restaurant regardless of ownership or location," it reads.

According to an Associated Press story posted on, Ogunquit joins at least a dozen other towns in banning formula businesses. Other news reports indicated that the Ogunquit initiative was drafted and promoted by a local bakery operator who heard that a Dunkin’ Donuts might open in the town.

Monday, November 7, 2005

Is Len Roberts coming back?

Whether you loved or loathed him, chances are you remember Len Roberts, one of the industry’s standouts during the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Now come indications, as reported in today’s Nation’s Restaurant News, that you could see him back in the business, albeit in a tangential role.

Not surprisingly, the possibility carries some complications, not the least of them being Roberts’ day job as executive chairman of Radio Shack. Controversy dogged Roberts during his relatively brief foodservice career, though he always sported a white hat. At the height of his prominence, as the franchisee-adored CEO of the Arby’s roast-beef chain, he was fired by then-owner Victor Posner for recommending consideration of a $200 million purchase offer. Although historical documentation is sketchy, Posner might have been Saddam Hussein’s role mode for governing Iraqi. The financier, a convicted felon, was so brutal and tyrannical that shareholders and franchisees both tried to force him out. Roberts got the boot first.

He turned up at the helm of Shoney’s not long after the family chain had been hit with a landmark racial-discrimination lawsuit. Similar suits against other restaurant chains would follow, but at that point the industry had never seen anything like it. The action could have irreparably damaged the southern chain’s reputation, while miring it in a lengthy court case that would have likely ended in devastating damages being levied on Shoney’s. Roberts instead negotiated a settlement for $105 million and took bold action to change Shoney’s culture.

Not long afterward, he was packaged out. A page-one Wall Street Journal article suggested that Roberts had annoyed Shoney’s old guard by agreeing to the settlement and pushing too hard for anti-discrimination measures. Insiders told a different story, about Roberts alienating long-time executives with his New Age-sounding theories and programs. They also questioned the need to keep a high-paid franchising specialist in the corner office when the company was discontinuing its licensing efforts.

Roberts was subsequently hired to head Radio Shack, the string of electronic-gizmo stores. He moved up the rank to become CEO of its parent company, a job he relinquished this past May. He has remained executive chairman.

The possibility of a return to the business surfaced a few weeks ago when a newsletter speculated that Roberts was leading a buyout of Radio Shack. He refuted those reports, though he acknowledged that he had been asked by several equity firms to join them with the express purpose of identifying restaurant and retail acquisition candidates.

In an e-mail to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Radio Shack’s hometown paper, Roberts reportedly said he would not leave Radio Shack to join an equity firm. Nor would he risk a conflict of interest by participating in such a deal.

But, he reportedly said, he would be willing to help with the due diligence, and might even serve on the board of an acquired company.

Friday, November 4, 2005

Channel-surfing to the future

Columbia University offered a preview this week of the media that will likely carry your marketing messages to the public after conventional advertising loses its sway. Which should be around next Tuesday, if the session participants had an accurate read.

The seminar, offered through Columbia’s vaunted Graduate School of Journalism, was intended to ease communicators with a print or broadcast bent into a scrambled world where consumers' info pipeline of choice could be a pair of iPod ear buds. Several presenters indicated that the traditional ways of shaping commercial impressions--like television commercials--are already being rivaled.

One of the scarier new methods was suggested by Craig Newmark, the founder of If you don’t know what that is, you a) are likely over 27; b) probably haven’t been in the market for an apartment since fajitas were the new big thing; and c) may not realize that break dancing is passe. It’s probably as interwoven into youngsters’ lives as the nightly news was in older generations’. Strictly speaking, it’s a classified-ad site, primarily for persons looking to rent or sublet apartments. But around that function have sprouted message boards and other means for visitors to communicate with one another, resulting in a tight-knit community that shares information on everything from love to lava lamps. Food is definitely one of the major nodes of discussion.

The potential danger, Newmark suggested, is the opportunity for scalliwags to disseminate opinions and feedback that are purposely skewed to serve an unstated agenda. Like political sympathies, or perhaps even payment from a viral-marketing company. Posts lauding a chain's new sandwich would likely convince some List-heads to give it a try, the way their parents or older siblings might have been prompted by the luscious food shots in a 60-second commercial. But messages could also slam a particular product, without 'fessing up that the poster may not be your average visitor. Comparative advertising is part of the marketing mix today, but at least the viewer knows that a vested interest is involved.

On the web, “dis-information is a huge issue,” Newmark acknowledged, explaining that he personally often combs his sites to yank the bogus material.

Other speakers cited new media like vlogs—video web logs, or diaries, already being used by such old-guard media giants as The New York Times—and live local online chats that turn high-school sports stars into local celebs. Why not product spokespersons, too?

It might have all sounded a little Star Trek-ish if the news about Burger King’s latest off-beat-marketing effort hadn’t broken today. Various online media carried a story about the chain’s sponsorship of several on-demand files that visitors to a site called can download to video iPods, once those new devices become readily available. In the meantime, the spots—amateur clips made by regulars—can be viewed at the site,

And what sort of commercial messages are delivered by these new-age marketing efforts? None, actually. The clips show a guy in king's robes and a mask of the Burger King mascot, going through the drive-thru of McDonald’s as he doubles over in laughter at times. That's it. No lingering product shots, no put-downs of what the BK-garbed consumer is getting from McDonald's, no sense of dismay that he didn't hit a BK instead.

Must be a youth thing, because I just didn't get it. I can only hope for another Columbia seminar, Understanding Tomorrow's Marketing Messages.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Feds issue kitchen guidelines for halting avian flu

It almost went unnoticed, but the federal government issued guidelines today for protecting your employees from exposure to the avian flu, the viral infection that health experts characterize as one of the direst potential health threats the U.S. has ever faced.

In a comprehensive but undetailed plan released yesterday by President Bush, foodhandlers were one of only five types of workers for whom security measures were suggested. That dubious distinction put restaurant kitchen staffers in the same high-risk category as lab workers, farm and ranch hands, emergency-room personnel, and flight attendants.

The guidelines were posed specifically for “foodhandlers,” not kitchen workers. The label could just as easily apply to people working in food-processing plants.

But the guidelines underscore the potential vulnerability of back-of-the-house staffers. In the broadest of terms, the recommendations called for careful handling of raw poultry, eggs, and egg products, all of which could contain the virus. The advisory also noted that the virus is destroyed in poultry cooked at a temperature of at least 180 degrees.

As we noted here three weeks ago, the U.S. and the rest of the world is bracing for the possibility that avian flu, a bird-based disease that has thus far jumped to only a few hundred humans, could morph into an illness transferable from person to person. If that happens, a pandemic surpassing the flu outbreak of the early 20th Century could erupt. As President Bush noted in releasing his defensive strategy, some 500,000 Americans died during that plague. Death projections for an avian pandemic have run as high as 1.9 million in the U.S. alone.

“At this moment, there is no pandemic influenza in the United States or the world,” President Bush said this morning at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. “But if history is our guide, there is reason to be concerned.”

A wealth of information about the disease and the defenses against it is posted on a site created by the White House,