Thursday, July 27, 2006

Time for your cameo, Mr. DiSpirito

Rocco, Rocco, Rocco. You’ve had your day as a TV idol. Now pack it in and head back to the kitchen.

But some people just can’t forego that 16th minute of fame, and Rocco DiSpirito is evidently one of them. The star of the much-maligned “The Restaurant” reality program is reportedly taking another stab at entertainment stardom, this time in something even less likely to land him on “Hollywood Squares.” Judging from the news leaks, he’d be lucky afterward to snag a gig in training videos. According to the trade mag Daily Variety, the chef has been booked for a new show called “Rocco,” where he serves as a culinary therapist, curing the emotionally distressed with food.

His website,, offers more detail about the aid he’ll dispense: “Worried about that engagement dinner with your picky mother-in-law? Trying to win back that ex-girlfriend who's still mad at you for cheating on her? Trying to bury the hatchet with that outcast uncle at your family reunion cookout? Rocco wants to help you solve that problem!”

Of course, it doesn’t say exactly how he’ll do it. But he could ease please one fan by going back to being a chef instead of a celebrity.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Not your daughter's McDonald's

Snack-sized chicken wraps may be the lure McDonald's is fly-casting into the U.S. market this summer. But elsewhere in the world, the burger giant is figuring it can turn heads with far more ambitious bait. Consider, for instance, the silver-dome-worthy dishes it started testing today in Australia.

The experimental My Dinner Now menu features four dishes marketed as upscale fusion fare. There’s a lemongrass chicken with penne pasta, obviously combining Thai and Italian staples; rendang beef and penne, for someone with more of an Indian yen; beef Bolognese penne; and orange, lime and ginger chicken.

Remember, this is McDonald’s, a concept that had to yank a chipotle-flavored chicken sandwich from its permanent menu here in the States because of acceptance issues.

And the prices range from $7.95 to $8.95.

The chain didn’t release many details to the Australian press about how the dishes are prepared. But it did note fresh vegetables are used.

Who’d have thought that Americans would be laggard adapters?

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Foreign thinking

Imported from a place with its own business precepts, Aroma doesn’t always see the sense in American restaurant conventions, even as it chases such homegrown mega-successes as Starbucks. Consider, for instance, how the Israeli chain’s first U.S. outpost is using prices to manipulate customers’ behavior.

Most U.S. restaurateurs set their fees with the simple objective of maximizing revenues and traffic. It’s all about pulling volume through the door.

But Aroma wants to shoo customers out as much as it wants to woo them in. The beachhead sandwich and espresso shop, just south of New York University in New York City, offers a 10 percent discount on all to-go orders. The tactic allows the concept to minimize seating without antagonizing patrons who want a place to sit but can’t find one. And that plays into the larger goals of lowering costs and fostering traffic.

The practice is common in Israel, where it’s helped the chain maximize the profits of its 73 other Aromas, some of which reportedly take in the equivalent of $1.2 million annually. But over here, it’s a virtually unknown tactic, and one likely to be treated by U.S. restaurateurs as heresy, if not lunacy. Indeed, some brands here charge extra for takeout, since it involves additional packaging, just as others levy a delivery fee.

And what’s the sense of extending a discount on such a huge part of the business? How can you forgo such a big portion of a price that’s been calculated to realize a certain profit margin?

Maybe they’re just looking at the matter with an American bias. They see the take-out price as a discount, instead of viewing the eat-in charge as carrying a premium. If you want a sandwich and latte to go, you can get it at this price. If you want to stay and eat, you’ll have to pay one-ninth more for that added service.

And then there’s the effect on building costs, of leading customers to make you truly a take-out place, so you need fewer seats. It could mean a whole new calculus for projecting prices and profits.

It’s all about building on what you know, with what you wouldn’t have thought.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Pop-quiz time

This might seem like just another Friday to you. But any Catholic-school survivor from around here knows July 21 was the day Sister Doberman Intolerata logged her 13,412th career knuckle whack--fittingly, during summer school. It’s a record that will last long after humans are running three-minute miles and Joe DiMaggio is remembered more for marrying Marilyn Monroe than for hitting in 56 consecutive games.

It’s only fitting the day be commemorated in a fashion that would have pleased the lion-scaring sister, or at least put some extra zip in her ruler technique. What better way than with a pop quiz, guaranteed to catch you off-guard?

So grab a No. 2 pencil and choose the answer that best defines these recent additions to the foodservice vocabulary:

Food desert:
a) A common misspelling of an after-dinner treat.
b) What France would become after a really bad drought.
c) Social pundits’ new buzz-phrase for how fast food is supposedly undercutting the health of the disadvantaged. Gaining use in Chicago to denote poor inner-city areas where quick-service restaurants abound but grocery stores are rarer than J.Crew outlets. Typically not used in a favorable sense, as in “Our neighborhood is a food desert where children are getting fat because all they can eat is junk!”

a) A new rap artist affiliated with Buckethead, the former Guns N’ Roses guitarist who wears an actual KFC bucket over his head to maintain anonymity. .
b) The new PC term for “fried,” as in “Bonzo Burger’s new Crispy Chicken Sandwich.”
c) The cereal mascot originally matched with Snap and Crackle until Pop aced the audition.

a) A shortened version of the rite for male Jewish infants.
b) A low-cost knock-off of the Jet Ski.
c) The chain Menu Item of the Moment, added this summer to the bills of fare for T.G.I. Friday’s, Quiznos and others. Indeed, barbecue of all types is being avidly adopted this season, greasing the way for it to join Cajun and Buffalo as a home-grown staple flavor for chains. New converts may be able to pick up excess inventory at a discount from Darden’s Smokey Bones chain, which is running counter-trend with a push to downplay its barbecue DNA.

a) A term invented by a brilliant foodservice blogger to designate the decidedly Berkeley-like tendencies of Chicago in recent weeks. The California city may still be a haven of activism, prone to using legislation to right social wrongs seldom addressed outside of a commune. But it’s been laissez-faire in comparison with the recent hyperactivity of the Midwestern metropolis. The City of Big Shoulders could be renamed Burg of the Heavy Handed, outlawing the sale of foie gras, eying restrictions on trans-fats, and looking at the canine rights of restaurant patrons, vis-à-vis a movement to allow dogs in outdoor dining areas.
b) Starbucks’ new offering, a particularly zany chai blend.
c) Bucket Head’s porn name.

Okay, pencils down! Please grade yourself on the honor system. And don’t worry. For those who failed, KFC buckets will be provided.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A burning idea

The idea hit Louis Osteen, the James Beard Award-winning chef from Pawleys Island, S.C., while he was visiting an organic-foods producer in California. He was toque-deep in “tree huggers,” as he put it, and not a few were extolling the benefits of draining restaurant fryers--not for any health benefits, but to offset the high price of gasoline. The proponents were collecting the used oil, otherwise destined for disposal, and turning it into bio-diesel for their tractors and trucks, right “in their garages,” Osteen said. “It seems to be a not-too-difficult process.”

And that got him thinking, as he wrote in an e-mail to me late last week. “Who’s the largest user of fryers in the country? I’ll bet it’s McDonald’s,” he wrote, undoubtedly pegging that answer. “They could install converters in each of their stores, make the fuel, pump it to where a diesel generator resided, and co-generate their electricity. I’ll bet their consolidated eletric bill is in the billions. If they could save 15 to 20 percent, it would flow directly to their bottom line and increase shareholder value.” The government might even pay for the effort, since the switch would appreciably lessen demand for overseas oil.

“Then some entrepreneurs will start making smaller units for independents like me, and I’ll save a few bucks,” he noted. “Lots of good things will happen,” including a reconsideration of the knock against fried foods.

Louis wanted my feedback on the idea, and I noted that a newspaper in his part of the country had just run a story that lent credence to his notion. The town of Summerville, S.C., is in the process of adapting selected trucks from its service fleet to burn used fryer oil. French Fry One, a converted 1995 Chevrolet Suburban, is already on the road, and a dump truck might be the next piece of equipment to be retrofitted, according to the article in The Post and Courier.

And stranger ideas have become accepted business options. Co-generation, for instance, was once regarded as a crackpot suggestion from do-gooders who’d hugged one too many spotted owls. Then, after the energy crunch of the late ‘70s, disparagers started re-thinking the idea of allowing businesses to burn their garbage as a way of generating heat and electricity. By the mid-1980s, hotels were considering, and hospitals were trying it. The harebrained suddenly looked creative and feasible.

But that’s my opinion, not Jim Skinner’s. And getting the CEO of McDonald’s on the phone could prove as difficult for Louis as getting Dick Cheney to return a voice-mail message. If Osteen’s idea ever generates action, it will likely be the result of widespread discussion within the trade.

Which leads to the real purpose of this: What do you think of his notion? Is the oil in your fryers an overlooked way of easing your utility or gas costs?

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Peltz catches some mud

Duck behind this rock, put this sauce pot over your head, and watch the bullets fly. Neither combatant is a restaurant chain, but what happens in this firefight could influence what happens to any number of big-name foodservice companies—or possibly their suppliers—in the months ahead.

On one side of No Man’s Land is H.J. Heinz Co., the ketchup king. And dug in across the barbed wire is Nelson Peltz, corporate raider extraordinaire. He’s once again boasting that he can deliver far more growth in a company’s stock by directing its management, as he did with Wendy’s. In the instance of Heinz, he’s demanding the right to fill more board seats than Yankees typically do in their bleacher section. Peltz wants five chairs in all, out of a total of 12.

He’ll likely prevail, but not without catching a few hurled bricks in the process. Heinz’s management, not surprisingly, has rebuffed Peltz’s demands. Last week it sent a letter to shareholders, imploring them to cast their proxy votes against the corporate raider’s candidates. Why, it argued, should shareholders elect directors who wouldn’t meet the company’s governance standards?

As the letter noted, the candidates include not only Peltz himself, but also his son-in-law, Edward Gardiner; his friend, the former pro golfer Greg Norman; his longtime business partner, Peter May; and a former employee, Michael Weinstein. Although Heinz stops short of saying the set-up would reek of cronyism, it asserts that votes would be cast in a block for the what’s in the best interest of Peltz and his partners, not necessarily the company’s body of shareholders.

The letter also asks why 42 percent of the board’s seats should be controlled by someone who holds 5.5 percent of Heinz’s stock.

Tucked here and there are a few subtler putdowns of Peltz and his colleagues, like the observation that their Trian Group is an off-shore operation, technically headquartered in the Cayman Islands. It also asserts that Peltz and May were censured by the London Stock Exchange in 1991 in connection with an overseas investment, and made payments to settle claims of securities fraud.

Peltz hasn’t sat idly in his foxhole while the mortar shells fell. His Trian Group investment group has countered with a letter to shareholders, urging them to opt for more riches than they’ll get under Heinz’s current management. As the communication notes, someone who bought $100 worth of Heinz stock in 1998, when current CEO William R. Johnson ascended to that post, would had a stake worth $62 as of February of this year.

It also asserts that the Trian-nominated board candidates are “independent” and “highly qualified.”

The matter will be settled by a vote of shareholders that concludes at Heinz’s annual meeting on Aug. 16.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The novelty of choice

Could it be? After decades of nudging their menus closer and closer to one another's, burger giants have finally found it in their buns to offer an unmistakeable difference.

Or at least two of them have. As we reported online today, Wendy’s is putting more fire into a chicken sandwich already marketed as a scorcher. And as we reported yesterday, McDonald’s is putting its sizzler of a chicken sandwich back in the fridge. A franchisee might pull it out from time to time for a quick sales pop. But it's there for menu cameos, not for a starring role.

You’re no doubt as stunned as I am by the sheer coincidence of the developments. What are the odds that Wendy’s would lift the silver dome off its new 4-Alarm Spicy Chicken Sandwich less than a day after stories broke (on and elsewhere) that McDonald’s was downgrading its Spicy Premium Chicken Sandwich to a menu option?To think otherwise would mean Wendy’s exploited the situation, and that’s not often been said about the chain in recent years.

Regardless, this is a monumental development. If a fast-food fan wants spice—specifically a chipotle heat—he knows Wendy’s has a chicken item that delivers it, and that McDonald’s doesn’t.

If this keeps up, think of what could happen. Chains might carve out distinct niches again. Consumers might base their fast-food choice on something other than price or volume. Loyalty could be cultivated again. Brand personality could be revived.

Oh, my.

But before we get too light-headed here, I’m obliged to cite the other quick-service story we've covered online: Burger King also tweaked its menu. In its case, it added a line of mega-sandwiches dubbed Stackers, so called because they consist of burger patties stacked atop one another, with cheese and bacon layered in between. The objective is turning heads with heft, or exactly what Carl’s Jr. has done with its Six Dollar Burger, and Hardee’s is striving to do with its Thickburgers. And the approach is exactly what Wendy’s has used from its very beginning; its Classic Double and Triple are made by stacking burger patties into belly fillers you have to lift with two hands.

BK has shown through its advertising—even the spots for the new Stackers—that it’s willing to take the risk of doing something distinctive. But it doesn’t seem to be doing it this time with its menu.

Sunday, July 9, 2006

Say what, Pa.?

Some onlookers might wonder what they’re smoking in Pennsylvania these days. But if the state’s restaurant industry has its way, you can bet it won’t be tobacco.

The Pennsylvania Restaurant Association delivered a real jaw-dropper last week when it sent letters to state lawmakers, urging them to ban smoking in all public places, eateries included. There was no proposal before the legislature. No referendum was about to be put to voters. Indeed, there seemed to be no harebrained measure afoot that the trade was hoping to pre-empt with a more reasonable proposal. From all appearances and known circumstances, it seemed the association was taking the initiative on a no-smoking law. And the association didn’t say otherwise.

It asserted publicly that it was moved by a report from the U.S. surgeon general that found second-hand smoke to be a significant health risk to non-smokers. Yet association officials told deputy managing editor Paul Frumkin that they decided to call for the ban a day before the surgeon general’s findings were released.

We wondered aloud in our New York office about the possibility of liability lawsuits based on the surgeon general’s study, and if the PRA was trying to shield its members from litigation down the road. But that notion was put forth by us, not the association.

However, tea leaves and other indicators suggest the PRA may have a motive other than merely protecting servers and bartenders from second-hand smoke. Association chief Patrick Conway told Frumkin that the industry staked out “the high ground” because “we might be better positioned to guide the debate at the state level.” And if that’s the case, the PRA’s actions may be well-conceived.

Its about-face in calling for the prohibition, after steadfastly resisting a ban for years, came to notice almost in the same hour news reports surfaced in Louisiana about the restaurant industry suing the state over a recently-passed smoking law. Operators there are furious because a new ban exempts casinos, just as New Jersey’s law does. In both states, the trade has argued that the exemption gives casinos an unfair advantage in the battle for consumers’ disposable income.

And there’s absolutely, positively no doubt they’re right; the exemption is patently fair. The casinos argued that they’d lose money if smoking was banned on their premises, just as restaurants have. But casinos spent more money to make that argument heard, and they have the added weapon of generating hundreds of millions in tax revenues for their host states. In short, restaurants couldn’t control the conversation in those locales. They were over-shouted by a more powerful and persuasive voice.

Pennsylvania has no casinos as of right now, but the state has been empowered to license 14 gaming halls. By stressing the need to put health considerations above business concerns, the PRA may be able to frame the discussion of any bill that emerges from the legislature. It may have acted shrewdly to prevent a repeat on the unfairness against restaurants that prevails in New Jersey and Louisiana.

What looks like insanity could prove a brilliant move, a true flash of fire behind the smoke.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

So long, Tom

My job abounds in good aspects, but I’ll be damned if I could think of one this afternoon. Maybe I should be grateful I only had to edit the obit on my friend Tom Crawford, instead of having to write it.

Those of you who’ve attended a Restaurant Leadership Conference, or supported it as a sponsor, will readily understand. The annual conference, a sort of class trip/think tank/celeb fest for restaurant franchisees and franchisors, was Tom’s charge, and it reflected a personality that both admirers and detractors termed “unique." The three-day retreat had started as a perk for the customers and would-be clients of Franchise Financial Corp. of America, a lend-lease giant that has since been absorbed into GE Capital. It was subsequently reorganized into a independent event operated by a freestanding entity called the Leadership Network Corp., which Tom was tapped to head.

He could have had an easy time of it, booking some high-ticket resort and marching a parade of the usual retired sports stars or inspirational presenters to the podium. Throw in a barbecue, luau or pig roast, or bring in some past-prime talent for a grand banquet, and you'd have had a perfectly acceptable boondoggle.

Instead, Tom decided to rethink what an industry meeting should be, using the famous Sun Valley conference as his inspiration. That gathering, in Sun Valley, Idaho, drew the gods of the technology industry by providing a chance for true interaction and mind-melding.

At the time, most foodservice events consisted of talking heads standing at a podium or sitting on a panel, broadcasting their wisdom to a passive (or sometimes napping) audience. Two days of lectures, with maybe a half-day golf outing where the real mental and social connecting took place. If the recreational and social activities are where attendees gain the most, Crawford reasoned, why not make those components the major part of the conference? And if they want to learn from savants, why not get people who really fit the bill, regardless of what’s required to bring them there?

It probably wasn’t the first time a conference producer had been filled with that religion. But, bless him, Crawford made it happen, and it was magical. You could go horseback riding in the Arizona desert, or book a Hummer and tear around off-road. One year, he arranged to have dozens of hot-air balloons take us all up for a ride. Another time, he brought in a rodeo. One of my favorite recollections was watching a spring-training game with Dave Winfield, a New York Yankee before he became a Burger King franchisee and fast-food service provider. The Giants were playing the Cubs, and when Barry Bonds homered, Winfield yelled his praise. Bonds saluted in recognition, and might have even smiled. And I sat there with a cold beer, part of the scene, as were the attendees with whom I had become friends.

And then there were the speakers. Jack Kemp, around the time he ran as Bob Dole’s vice-presidential candidate. And Dan Quayle, the year he ran for president. George Will, the noted political and baseball writer, was a regular. Last year, Tom somehow lured former Disney CEO Michael Eisner to speak. On the same program was John Walsh, host of “America’s Most Wanted,” and one day started with a self-defense expert who taught the Walter Mitty's in attendance how to fend off an attacker.

Another year, he not only secured Jerry Colangelo, owner of the Phoenix Suns and Diamondbacks, but booked him to speak in the Diamondbacks’ spectacular retractable-dome stadium. The conference opened with all of us sitting there in an otherwise empty stadium, and the dome suddenly opening to let the sunlight brighten the infield grass to the color of pool-table felt. Tom, our emcee, stood just in front of the pitcher's mound, beaming.

His conferences were so unusual, so anything-goes, as long as the anything fit his goals of stimulating thought or fostering interaction. You never knew who he’d schedule, or what type of recreation he’d add.

Which is why it was chilling to learn this morning that Crawford died from a mountain-biking accident. I was just beginning to mountain-bike when I started attending the Leadership Conference. I used to joke with Tom that he should add off-road riding as an activity at the meeting. He’d nod, then threaten to leave me behind in the desert if we ever hit the trails on our bikes. And then he’d suggest that I come out to Phoenix early for the next conference, so we really could go out and ride together.

And that was him. He could throw his jabs, but it was always in fun. And he was absolutely graceful when a few barbs caught him. One year, before the conference had officially begun, I saw him hobbling about in a foot cast. “What happened?” I asked. “Get your foot caught on a molar?” He flushed, then retold the joke at his expense a few dozen times. I like that mental image, of how he’d laugh each time, usually more heartily than his audience.

You were a class act, Tom, with a big heart and an inquisitive mind. And among all of us who were lucky enough to make your acquaintance, you will be sorely, sorely missed.