Friday, March 31, 2006

Why didn't we think of that?

Take down that “Help Wanted” sign and stock up on uniforms for new hires. The leading minds in our industry couldn’t manage it. But a U.S. Representative from California has resolved the labor shortage.

If you’re having trouble drawing sufficient employees, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher publicly commented yesterday, all you have to do is be more creative in your recruitment efforts.

Makes you go all weepy with relief, doesn’t it?

But the congressman didn’t stop there. He even offered an illustration of what he means about being inventive. If there truly are jobs that Americans won’t take, like picking fruit, then have prisoners do it as part of the payback for their crimes, the conservative Republican asserted.

You may need to let that sink in a bit, so here it is again, in his widely quoted exact words: “Let the prisoners pick the fruit,” Rohrabacher said. “We can do it without bringing in millions of foreigners.”

That’s why, he said, there’s no need to allow more immigrants into the country, a step the restaurant industry avidly wants the government to take. It’s pushing for a provision in the immigration bills currently before Congress that would allow foreigners to come and work in the United States temporarily, on a so-called guest-worker visa.

The trade also favors the development of programs for turning illegal immigrants into legal ones. The notion probably throws Rohrabacher into the sort of fit we’ve not seen since “Network” left the movie theaters.

Rohrabacher’s opposition to matching unfilled jobs with candidates eager to fill them is especially perplexing given his heritage. You so seldom see Native Americans with that surname.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Going to the dogs

A colleague at Nation’s Restaurant News is drafting a story about the efforts of full-service chains to pull more children—presumably with parents in tow—away from fast-food restaurants. Judging from what I hear over the cubicle partition, she’s uncovered plenty of activity. But you have to wonder, given recent news developments, if those places should be focusing on another member of the family. And not Mom or Dad, either. They’ve had their day in the cross hairs. The target of the spring and summer, believe it or not, could prove to be Fido.

Loyal readers will know I pulled a Jerry Seinfeld after legislation was proposed in Florida to permit human-canine co-seating in restaurants’ outdoor dining areas. I mean, what’s up with that? It’s not that the proposal is dumb. It’s just a patently trivial matter, given more pressing concerns like healthcare and immigration reform. And I say that as the housemate of two dogs who have lives most rock stars would envy.

Well, the proposal is well on its way to being passed. The surviving measure allows cities to exempt outdoor seating areas from state regulations that ban dogs from areas where food is served and consumed. Certain conditions have to be met, and the go-ahead is technically a three-year test, with a review expected at the conclusion of that period. But the cat lobby clearly failed, overcome by pro-dog support that could only be called rabid. Sheri McInvale, the bill’s sponsor, said her office heard more comment on the matter than it has on any other issue.

Yet, unlike having dinner at 4:30, that disposition is not peculiar to Florida. In Des Moines, café operator Holleen Lawrence reportedly wants to open a second outlet, called Buddy and Rosie’s Bark and Brew, where dogs would be welcomed. First she has to convince Iowa regulators to permit it. So far, it’s been a no-go. But she’s still trying.

And as I reported here earlier, an Austin, Texas, restaurant tried to get around the health regs in its state by deputizing someone at the higher end of a leash. The law clearly states that security personnel are allowed to bring dogs into restaurants. Make the two-legged component of a dog-human pairing a security officer, and any health-code violations disappear. It’s Texas ingenuity at work.

Countless restaurants in other areas merely look the other way. My dogs all but know how to adjust the café umbrella for maximum shade. And, not coincidentally, they’re in those places precisely because they’re permitted, albeit with a wink and a look the other way.

And you don’t even have to buy them a kids’ meal, which is a good thing. All they do is chew the toy to bits.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Not to be taken latte

To catch the full wallop of recent news developments, you’ll have to engage in some scary what-ifs. Imagine, for instance, that you woke up tomorrow and your business life had been reset, all the way back to zero. You had no career, no references, no reputation, no nest egg, no credit, no awards—nothing. All you could do is start over, in the sort of hourly positions you’ve struggled as a restaurateur to fill.

So where would you go? The Gap? McDonald’s? Wal-Mart? A Mobile station? Even if you started at any of those places, you’d likely find yourself focusing before long on landing a job at Starbucks, a place to which you’ve likely lost a worker or two (or 12) over the years. Who, if you’re in a minimum-wage strata, wouldn’t head over for an application? You can get health care insurance, even if you only work part-time, and all sorts of benefits that even the managers in other systems can’t land. It’s also cool to work there, so your friends and family won’t view the job as a stigma. You don’t even have to wear a dorky uniform.

Now consider the recent news stories about what’s happening in Starbucks units, particularly in New York City. A labor organization that we all studied in history class, the 100-year-old Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies, is trying to unionize the chain. Among the stated goals of the drive is wresting more benefits and better wages from the coffee giant.

The union’s penetration is negligible to date, but it keeps plucking away. Recently it secured an agreement brokered by the National Labor Relations Board, obliging Starbucks to forego such anti-organization tactics as buying pizza for employees, or providing gym memberships, or tickets to a baseball game, and thereby currying favor with the employees. It can’t even bar the staffers from wearing pro-union buttons or pins. The list of Starbucks don’ts goes on and on, as you can read for yourself at And while you’re web-surfing, swoop on over to, to get a full picture of the organization effort.

Which brings us back to the really scary round of what-if: If the union is finding a modicum of success with Starbucks, imagine what it could do with some of the other companies out there. Like yours.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Windy City, blow this way

An Open Letter to the Residents of Chicago:

We, the restaurant trade and clientele of New York City, would like to settle this amicably, or at least with a minimum of slams against each other’s style of pizza. But a score has to be settled, and quickly. You constantly read on the business pages about the United States’ glaring imbalance in international trade. That’s nothing compared with the discrepancy between what we’ve sent you restaurant-wise, and the next-to-nothing we’ve gotten in return.

Just this week, for instance, your city was graced by the opening of an Il Mulino, a clone of the Greenwich Village institution that’s repeatedly cited as one of New York’s best Italian restaurants. You also were treated to a new steakhouse, David Burke’s Prime, which is admittedly a bit like bringing coals to Newcastle. It’s especially true since Burke came to prominence working for Smith & Wollensky, parent of the steakhouse chain of the same name, which of course has an outlet in your downtown area, along with a sister concept called Mrs. Park’s Tavern.

You have a Vong’s Thai Kitchen, an adaptation of the highly regarded New York outpost of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the world-renowned chef who now calls the Big Apple home.

Heck, you even have a branch of P.J. Clarke’s, the quintessential midtown watering hole.

And what have you sent us in return? Pizzeria Uno and McDonald’s—the latter a transplant itself, from the West Coast.

Granted, you’ve tried. In the 1980s, your concept phenom, the golden-handed Rich Melman, helped to open a new Playboy Club, of all things, in midtown Manhattan. Its sole point of notoriety was having beefcake waiters, called Rabbits, and certainly not the food.

Why aren’t you willing to share the wealth a little? Why not a Rick Tramonto outpost, or a glitzy place in the Meatpacking District from Melman? Heck, we’d settle for an Al’s #1 Italian Beef storefront, especially if it sold Old Style.

You’ve teased us with the prospect of getting a place from Charlie Trotter, veal-cheek to pig-jowl with Per Se and Masa in the Time Warner Center. But then he begged out, citing the costs. What’s a budget of $11.5 million?

But the time to pay up is here. If you take requests, we’d really like an outlet of Paul Kahan’s Blackbird, or a distillation of Everest. I’ve also always been partial to Shaw’s Crab House, and Hot Doug’s, the self-described encased meat emporium, tops my list of places to try the next time I’m in your city.

So get with it, Mon Ami Gabi. We need to correct this imbalance right now. Do it, and we might even let your baseball team play in the World Series again.

Tangled in tape

We’ve hit one of those troubling moments when technology forces us to make tough choices without much guidance from the past. The head-long slam into new realities came Monday in southern California, where the news media were expecting to see a video showing the murders of two customers and the critical wounding of two others at a Denny’s in Pismo Beach, Calif. The gunman, a homeless man who strutted into the restaurant with a gun in each hand, took his life after blasting indiscriminately for several moments. The suicide, too, was caught on the tape.

This being 2006, and Denny’s being a 24-hour restaurant, the place was outfitted with security cameras. Understandably, the tapes from last Wednesday were turned over to the police, who are still trying to determine what motivated the shooter. So far, it’s a simple and straightforward situation.

But here’s where it gets complicated: The tapes became part of the police investigation, which, several local newspapers argued, makes them part of the public record. And as such, the media asserted, the videos should be accessible to the public’s proxies, the organizations that gather and deliver the news. It’s a matter, they said, of being able to see exactly what happened, and thereby accurately recount a public occurrence to a disturbed host community.

Local police officials agreed that the media had a right to see the tapes. After all, snippets of the 911 calls from witnesses to the shootings were already being played in radio and television news reports.

The authorities scheduled a viewing for reporters. But before the newspeople gathered, Denny’s Inc. convinced a judge to halt the release, at least until the matter could be argued and examined fully in a court of law. The franchisor’s lawyer argued that the tapes focused on gruesome murders, not issues that affected the public’s well-being. “There is…no public interest to be served by airing these videos,” Denny’s explained in a statement widely quoted by the local media—the very papers who were denied access to the tape. “Airing them only panders to the fascinations of those who view violence and gore as entertainment even when it is delivered in a news context. We cannot in good conscience allow this to occur without challenge.”

Superior Court judge Roger Picquet was sufficiently swayed to bar a public showing of the video until a formal hearing could be held on May 4.

But in the meantime, a grave debate will likely grind on. Yes, I’m speaking as a member of the media when I say this, but the public good would indeed be served by allowing local newspapers, television stations and radio programs to view the tape. How can they be expected to capture the news completely accurately if they’re closed off from an official account?

Yet at the same time, you have to feel for the family of Harold Hatley and Frank Valesquez, the two men who were shot dead at the restaurant. And you just know those images will drift sooner or later to the internet, where they’ll be sheer entertainment for the yahoos who watch NASCAR races in hopes of catching a dramatic crash.

Whatever the outcome of the hearing, it will likely be a preview of what we can expect in the months and years ahead, as surveillance cameras become commonplace within the industry. It promises to be an emotional debate, but not a pleasant one.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

These just in

To make sure we haven’t missed a news development at NRN, I scan anywhere from 100 to 500 wire stories a day. Sometimes, I can’t believe the restaurant-related headlines I read, like these grabbers from today:

“Body Found in Calgary Restaurant Being Treated As Suspicious.” Um, yeah.

“Pizza Tossing Turns Pro in Pittsburgh.” The National Calzone League must be on strike. This is a town clearly in need of a curling team.

“Al & Al’s owner forced into spotlight.” Some free consulting: Reclusive restaurateurs seldom make it.

“Restaurant to be cleaned before it opens.” Okay, this is one that shouldn’t be the stuff of jokes. It refers to the Denny’s in Pismo Beach, Calif., where a homeless gunman went berserk last week, killing two and wounding two others before taking his own life. The story, by the Santa Maria Times, specified that a private cleaning company was retained to clean up the blood and “other biologically hazardous materials” before the restaurant was adjudged ready to re-open. We wish the restaurant and its staff well. We wish the newspaper might play this one a little straighter, and perhaps remember that not every bit of information has to be reported.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Safety rules. Already.

If a tree falls in the forest, does it pose a danger? Unless the government certifies it as safe, you’d better believe it, say the watchdogs of public well-being in New York City. Heck, without guidelines in place to avert potential harm, it shouldn’t be permitted to happen. This is a situation in need of regulation!

Okay, health officials might not have used those exact words. But it’s virtually their rationale for the regulatory about-face that had some of New York’s top-name chefs cussing like libertarians from Idaho last week. One day they’re preparing meals using sous vide, the decades-old technique of sealing foods in air-tight pouches to preserve the flavor and freshness until the contents can be re-heated and served. The next, they’re being told they can no longer do it because it’s not sufficiently regulated, and hence poses an acute public danger.

Mind you, it’s not as if New Yorkers were staggering out of WD-50 or Daniel to toss their foie gras and flag down an ambulance. As far as we’ve been able to determine in covering the matter, there’s not been a single incident of someone getting ill in the city because of sous vide. The practitioners could not have adopted that prep method lightly, given the technological requirements. And these are some of the world’s leading culinarians, professionals who presumably know far more about food and its qualities than a person who joined the health department because he or she couldn’t pass the NYPD entry exam. They’re well-versed in the standards and techniques that have been used for generations in Europe, where sous vide is nearly as commonplace as the garlic press.

What seems to have roused health officials is not any evidence of public danger, but the lack of civic regulations. The food-safety code for restaurants covers traditional prep methods, not this extension into ungoverned territory. And if there aren’t rules saying what can or can’t be done, these lifelong, highly trained, profoundly knowledgeable food handlers have complete freedom to do something wrong. In the minds of the officials, safety equals regulation; lack of regulation means intolerable risk. They can’t believe that professionals will act in a safe manner out of choice, rather than from the fear of being sanctioned. In other words, you’ll do wrong unless laws force you to right.

In fairness, I should point out that the officials’ main gripe is with the sous vide treatment some chefs are giving raw ingredients, a variation not used in Europe. Yet, at the very least, why didn’t the regulators just suspend that variation until standards and safeguards could be put in place? Instead they’ve advised chefs to halt the practice altogether until a HACCP plan is drafted and submitted by the restaurant for each food it prepares sous vide.

Doing it takes a great deal of time and money. No wonder some chefs are just ignoring the ban, at least until outside experts can complete the HACCP plans and submit them for approval. They figure the $300 fine is a risk worth taking. We learned that firsthand when a bunch of us went to dinner at a Manhattan restaurant as a colleague was still researching a story on the topic. On the menu of the place where we ate: A sous vide lamb entrée, explicitly described as such.

It wasn’t clear if the proprietor kept the item on the menu because of economic considerations, or as a protest against muddled government thinking. Either way, it was an act of civil disobedience we were glad to support with our patronage.

Living in New York, we know that the city fosters a renegade spirit. But in this instance, regulators are being far too heavy-handed and untrusting.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

An Rx you could like

We set out to write a story about Arkansas’ new healthcare program, which has been hailed by many as the remedy small business has been seeking. It promises to extend reasonable coverage to the 100-or-less employees of concerns that currently don’t offer health insurance, at a price that won’t bankrupt the employers, the state, or the covered individuals. It seems almost too good to be true—as, we quickly learned, it is, if the small business happens to be a restaurant.

Or at least that will be the case if the program isn’t modified after a pilot test that commences later this year, involving 25,000 participants. Here’s how it will work during the burn-in phase: Companies that employ fewer than 100 employees and haven’t offered them health insurance during the prior 12 months can enroll every employee—and that’s not a variable; it has to be every employee—in the state-run plan. The employer pays $100 per month for an employee who earns more than $19,600, or twice the federal poverty level for an individual, but only $15 for each staffer below that pay threshold. A participating company could require employees to contribute some or all of the fees, state officials explained to the media.

In exchange, the employees get a package of bare-bones services, so minimal the state had to get approval from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services before it could offer the sub-Medicaid level of care. Enrollees are entitled annually to six visits to a doctor, seven days in a hospital, two outpatient procedures or emergency-room visits, and two prescriptions per month. Enrollees have a $100 yearly deductible and pay 15% of the fees for the services, up to a maximum of $1,000 a year.

It ain’t grand, by any stretch. But, to put it frankly, it’s better than no coverage at all.

And certainly that level of coverage, at an affordable rate, would be a godsend to restaurant operators and their employees. But one provision of the package will render most of them ineligible: Either all your employees have to agree to enroll, or none of them can. It’s an all-or-nothing thing.

The state-administered program is being funded in part from the settlement fees that big tobacco companies paid Arkansas and the other states several years ago to avert future liability lawsuits, along with dollars from the federal government. But a big part of the expense will have to be shouldered by employers, and, at a maximum contribution of 100 per employee, widespread participation is necessary to deepen the pool of available funds. Apparently that was the reason behind the all-or-nothing provision; the state is clearly betting the enticement will convince whole staffs to opt for participation.

Clearly they haven’t met many restaurant staffs. They don’t know that youngsters think they’re invulnerable and can’t see any benefit in wasting money on something like health insurance, when it could be used for important things like buying iTunes and clothes.

It’s going to be a tough-sell for restaurateurs. You can only hope they focus their attention on the state and push as one to bend the all-or-nothing provision. They’ll have a few opportunities to do so. The program is the brainchild of Gov. Mike Huckabee, who wants to de-bug the program with that first 25,000-person trial before expanding it, first to 80,000 participants, and then to the whole state.

Hopefully the industry will be able to fine-tune the program, for the benefit not just of operators in Arkansas. According to The New York Times, the federal government is already eying the set-up as a model that could be rolled with its encouragement into other states. It already looks that good.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Picture this

My success as a prognosticator has been limited to buying VHS instead of Beta and picking George Michael as the one who’d become the star after Wham!. But I’m going to test my powers of prophecy with another prediction, this time specifically for the restaurant business: The new piece of technology you’ll all be embracing in the near future is neither a self-service guest ordering kiosk, a hand-held credit-card processor for servers, nor tabletop TVs for customer’s entertainment, despite the intriguing potential of those gizmos. Judging from recent events, the next Device of the Moment—the industry’s equivalent of the iPod—will be that new-age security guardian, the digital video camera. And with it, predictably, will come a fair amount of controversy.

You might recall the dust-up of about a year ago, when news reports revealed that some fine-dining restaurants had fixed cameras on guest tables so the kitchen could monitor how a meal was progressing and pace the preparation accordingly. There was a short-lived fit of head-shaking about the propriety of having Big Chef watching you, or the garde manger possibly playing voyeur as he cleaned the lettuce.

A louder yelp will likely be sounded by the public when cameras become as commonplace in dining rooms and walk-up service areas as they presently are in banks. Customers may not appreciate that the optical monitoring was undertaken for their safety. A test of sorts will soon commence in Australia, where cameras are reportedly being installed and trained on the salad bars of 28 Sizzlers to avert the sort of tampering that recently prompted the chain to close the outlets for a few days. A 57-year-old guest, now in custody, had allegedly sprinkled rat-poison pellets into soup tureens on the bars of two restaurants, making several other customers sick.

The U.S.-based chain’s Australian operation is apparently taking no chances of a copy-cat incident. But are customers going to like being taped as they mound their plates with potato salad and bacon bits?

Guests might object to the scrutiny, but restaurants could have no choice but to install the monitoring equipment. A high-profile measure under consideration in Chicago would require any business open for at least 15 hours to install security cameras both within and outside the premises. Eating places could find themselves back in the rock-and-a-hard-place squeeze they lamented when smoking restrictions were first being put into place. Customers won’t understand that their host is merely the agent of an unpopular law, not the author. The establishment becomes the lightning rod.

Patrons may not be the only ones who dislike the use of cameras to keep a watchful eye on a restaurant’s activities. In Pike County, Ky., a former employee of a Papa John’s pizza franchise has reportedly sued the proprietor for installing a video camera in a rest room for two days last month. According to news reports, the plaintiff was told the device was installed to detect drug-related activities. But the woman alleged that her privacy had been violated in the process. It’s difficult not to be sympathetic, though the purported reason for using the camera, if true, is also worthy of merit.

Balancing security benefits against guests’ discomfort at being watched while they order or eat is a tough task. Add such considerations as expense-account customers not wanting to be video’d while they conduct business, or couples not desiring to be recorded as they bill and coo on a date, and you’ve got a picture that’s filled with static. But I think it is indeed date-stamped, “Tomorrow.”

Friday, March 10, 2006

Monumental problems for D.C. operators

Have a good thought for your colleagues in Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Congress is considering a bill that would devastate the local dining scene. The measure, already approved by the Senate, would prohibit congressmen from accepting a meal from a lobbyist. Think about that for a minute. The industry felt the squeeze when Congress merely discouraged business meals by rolling back the 100% tax deduction for restaurant entertaining. Imagine the effect on your business of banning business meals altogether.

Yet that, in essence, is exactly what Congress is looking to do in the District. The business of Washington is politics, and restaurants are where much of that business is conducted. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington has estimated that as much as 30% of the city’s fine-dining revenues come from keeping congressmen fed and happy. And that’s with a $50 per-meal cap on any meal purchased for a pol by a lobbyist. The law would make a free Slim Jim illegal.

Granted, a few politicians abused the situation, as has been noted here several times. But there’s a big difference between five figures’ worth of free meals and a $35 lunch where politician and stakeholder discuss the pros and cons of complicated legislative matters. The pendulum is swinging too far back the other way.

The senators and congressmen will no doubt continue to eat just fine. It’s the city’s restaurateurs who will forego their daily bread.

Thursday, March 9, 2006

Exciting news!

A note to all the restaurant publicists out there who grind out release after release (after release after release) to announce additions to their chain clients’ menus: Grab a latte, find the crossword puzzle in today’s paper, check your eBay bids, or otherwise catch a breather. We’re about to take the labor out of that bread-and-butter task by giving you a fool-proof template for touting virtually any new-product introduction. Or at least the sort that have been clogging our e-mail inboxes as of late.

We’ve even put it in a customizable, fill-in-the-blanks form:

[Insert headquarters city] – [BoBo’s, Krusty’s, Fat & Fried, other chain name], an [innovative, exciting, orgasm-producing, other breathless descriptor] new type of [quick-service, family, pancake] restaurant, is inviting lovers of [lobster, porterhouse, caviar, other high-end foodstuff]to sate their craving for a [fraction, bare trace, teensy-weensy bit, other synonym for negligible amount]of the price they’d pay in [Per Se, Spago, Tru, Gary Danko, Mansion on Turtle Creek, other fine-dining standout].

“We’ve introduced a new [Frutta di Mare Burger, Tiger-Prawn Salad, Moroccan Prime Rib Sandwich, other highfalutin-sounding product] to let customers enjoy the finer things in life without going broke,” said [insert name], chief executive of the [see earlier unabashedly effusive descriptor] chain. “It’s what customers could previously only get in a fine-dining restaurant, now available in a form that meets their budget and need for convenience.”

Of course your bosses will wonder how you drafted such an insightful, dead-on document, perfectly attuned to the trend in menu making at the low end of the chain spectrum. But we’re watching your back there, bunky. You merely need to explain that you’ve been monitoring the news lately, and see that Champagne-at-a-beer-price has been the siren for most of the sector’s new products in recent weeks. Think about it: You can now get lobster (or at least langostino) at Long John’s, Kobe beef at Ruby’s, prime rib at Quiznos, steak at Taco John’s, oversized shrimp at Sizzler, premium coffee at McDonald’s and Del Taco, and, soon, possibly, salmon at McAlister’s Deli and McDonald’s.

Food available at a bargain price has been one of the key draws for fast food and family since A&W and Hot Shoppes respectively dominated those market in the mid-20th century. Now the formula has been modified a bit, to tout better food at a slightly higher price.

But it shouldn’t be a worry for you. With the raise and bonus you’ll get from presenting our snazzy new announcement, you’ll be able to afford lobster or steak anywhere you’d want.

Friday, March 3, 2006

A four-door by the window?

America’s penchant for dashboard dining has already transformed the foodservice industry, with drive-thrus presumably providing most of the 33 restaurant meals that consumers each munched in their Chevys, Fords and Hyundais last year. Now the phenomenon is reshaping the dashboard part of the phenomenon, as automakers add ease of eating to the list of reasons for considering their brands.

Amenities that turn cars into better four-wheeled dining rooms have been much noted in coverage of this season’s auto shows. The trend that began with cup holders is now stretching to include scaled-down kitchen appliances, including an in-car microwave, according to some of the news reports.

Those features may be years away. But you’ll be able to spec a mini-refrigerator for your Dodge Caliber starting in 2007. Ford’s Volvo division is already including fold-out snack track trays in the newest version of its XC90 SUV, including one for the driver. And Honda’s Pilot SUV comes with a rear console specially configured to accommodate the dipping sauces for passengers’ chicken nuggets.

Most are intended to minimize the danger of spills. But Jeep, inexplicably expecting its customers to use their Grand Cherokees and Commanders for actual off-road riding, is playing it safe. It’s reportedly focusing on new anti-stain seat covers with microbe-inhibiting qualities.

Thursday, March 2, 2006

Religious freedoms

The uproar over newspaper cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad have been a dramatic illustration of how religious tenets can clash with broader societal norms. The restaurant industry hasn’t been without its examples, either, though fortunately the effects have been far less profound.

Take the situation in Rexburg, Idaho, where it’s illegal to sell liquor by the glass. Not coincidentally, the town is the home of Brigham Young University-Idaho, an institution affiliated with the Church of Latter Day Saints, which forbids members to drink. Now local economic-development forces are hoping to improve the surrounding county’s financial health by luring franchises of national restaurant chains to the area. What casual-dining chain wants to invest in an outlet that has to forego the booster-rocket effect of bar sales? After 59 years, some civic visionaries are saying enough is enough. They’re urging local lawmakers to consider more than the convictions of a vocal minority, and to allow visitors or residents to enjoy a margarita with their fajitas. You can know the resistance will be significant.

But you never know how business sensibilities can temper an ideological matter. In my experience, no restaurant chain has been more steadfast in preserving the attributes of the brand than McDonald’s, and no icon has been more sacred to that system than the Golden Arches, the brainchild of no less a god than Dick McDonald himself.

Yet when a Tel Aviv rabbi kvetched that Israelis had no signal that McDonald’s burgers are kosher (as long as they’re cheese-free). Amazingly, the chain agreed to beam that fact from two units in the Israel city by changing the background color behind its Golden Arches to blue, instead of the customary red. Blue, like the color of the Star of David on the Israeli flag, would be a stronger suggestion that the places offered kosher items. Just to reinforce that fact, the word “kosher” was worked into the trademark.

Remember, this is McDonald’s, a chain that refused to so much as offer any non-branded McDonald’s products except soft drinks until just a few years ago.

But it adapted this time, and the Golden Arches didn’t tremble and crack. It strikes me as a very wise decision, a laudable middle path between religious and business considerations.

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

No such thing as a free lunch?

The bugle has been sounded so often in this space that my lips are in danger of freezing in a pucker. Yet the industry slumbers on, oblivious to the business that’s at risk.

If you doubt it, consider an Associated Press story that moved on the wires today about Santa Fe, N.M., a town that doesn’t exactly rival Las Vegas or New Orleans as a lost-weekend setting. Yet in a single 30-day legislative session, wrote Barry Massey, lobbyists peeled $230,307 from their bankrolls to wine and dine politicians in the state capital.

Indeed, mandated filings of the lobbyists’ expenditures suggest a whole corporate-donors wing should be added to our Rogues Gallery, a virtual pantheon of outstanding politicians-turned-freebie-sponges. Regular readers will recall that prior inductees include Duke Cunningham, the disgraced California congressman who has confessed to accepting bribes, including more than $10,000 in free restaurant meals and hotel rooms. And then there’s former Illinois governor George Ryan, who’s been accused in his corruption trial of running up a $7,500 bill at a single Florida restaurant.

But those purported excesses seem like a split watercress sandwich compared with some of the indulgences that were noted in Albuquerque. Mind you, the latter instances were all completely legal and proper; I don’t mean to suggest the entertain-ees engaged in the sort of shenanigans that were ascribed to Cunningham and Ryan. But they certainly didn’t balk at being pampered by influence-peddlers, including Presbyterian Health Care Services. The religion-affiliated wellness concern threw a $20,190 dinner for legislators and the governor. It also spent more than $13,000 on a prayer breakfast for the governor. The virtues of poverty were likely not the topic.

Of course, similar outlays are probably expensed every day in the other 49 state capitals. It’s just a cost of legislative business—the fee for making sausage, you might say.

Yet, with an ear cocked to scandals like Cunningham and Ryan’s and an eye on this fall’s elections, the beneficiaries themselves are starting to feel squeamish about how much money is flowing to you on their behalf. Lobbying-reform measures are under consideration in a number of states, as they are in Washington, D.C. Consider, for instances, the new mindset taking hold in Albany, where meals purchased by a lobbyist for an elected official have long been capped at $35. Once, the rule was applied on a per-meal basis. Now the authorities are asserting that the $35 is an annual cap. Fortunately, we do have White Castles in the state.

On the industry’s list of legislative or regulatory worries, the impact of lobbying reforms probably falls close to the bottom. But that won’t soften the wallop to the relatively few places that count on lobbyists for a big chunk of their trade.