Friday, September 29, 2006

Slain Colo. girl was one of our own

The 16-year-old girl who was killed by a homeless man who took her hostage in a Colorado high school on Wednesday has been identified as one of our own. Emily Keyes worked in a Bailey, Colo., restaurant called the Cutthroat Café. A story in the Rocky Mountain News said her name was still on the work schedule as of yesterday.

The article said the café has become a place for locals to gather in hopes that grieving together may be better than trying to contend with the tragedy alone. A jar was set on the counter yesterday for donations to the girl's family. By noon, the local paper reported, the container was filled. Among the bills jammed inside was a $500 note.

In case you missed it, Emily was one of six girls that a gun-toting 53-year-old took hostage in Bailey’s Platte Canyon High School on Wednesday. Duane Morrison reportedly released four of the girls, then used Emily as a human shield when police stormed the place in hopes of rescuing her and the other remaining hostage. Morrison shot Emily in the back of the head and then killed himself.

If I learn how anyone without access to the jar can make a donation, I’ll pass that info along here.

Moddelmog named to head Susan G. Komen group

The restaurant industry’s ties to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation were seemingly strengthened yesterday when the charity, a favorite of many independents and chains alike, named Hala Moddelmog as its new CEO. Moddelmog, a consultant in recent years, is well known in foodservice from her many years of running the Church’s Chicken chain for AFC Enterprises. She parted with the chain when it was sold.

Moddelmog has also been very active in the Women’s Foodservice Forum and industry events.

A restaurant connection is hardly new for the Komen Foundation. It was named after the sister of founder Nancy Brinker, the former wife of Norman Brinker. Susan Komen lost her life to breast cancer in 1980 at age 36. Nancy Brinker subsequently devoted much of her life to fighting the disease. She was the CEO until surrendering that role to Hala.

This week alone, Panera Bread announced that its stores in southeastern Pennsylvania would generate funds this month for the Komen Foundation. Units there are selling a special pink bagel, like the pink ribbons worn by persons whose lives have been affected by breast cancer, to raise public awareness along with some dough. During October, a quarter from each bagel sale will go to the charity.

Restaurants in New York’s Chautauqua County are having a Dine Out-type function to raise funds. And countless restaurants elsewhere are doing their part to raise money and awareness during what is officially Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Bad timing, but who knew?

You can’t help but sympathize with Max & Erma’s, the 100-unit casual-dining chain. It announced a line-up of fall menu specials last Tuesday with the usual drum rolls and trumpet blasts. No fanfare was likely need for one of the limited-time items. Who wouldn’t notice a ravioli dish made with baby spinach, when health authorities were posting daily updates of how many people had been sickened and hospitalized from eating the green?

The unfortunate timing certainly wasn’t Max & Erma’s fault. No doubt its new Italian array was under development for months, starting back in the days when spinach was viewed as something that fostered health. And the menu is slated for the fall; who knows what the status of the spinach situation will be next week, never mind early December? Would it have made sense to hold back on a ravioli dish that features spinach when the vegetable might be re-designated as safe by the time guests roll into restaurants to give the new menu a try? Perhaps. But, for the sake of prudence, why not forego a mention of the product, at least in press announcements that the media will likely pass along to consumers?

Of course, Max & Erma’s is hardly the only chain to put the spotlight on an item that might have better been left under wraps. On Aug. 25, just about the time state health officials were fielding reports of people getting sick from eating spinach, Applebee’s scored the publicity coup of disclosing that celebrity chef/TV star/heartthrob Tyler Florence had developed four menu items for the mega-chain. One is an interesting poultry dish, called Crispy Brick Chicken, which is made by splitting a chicken and pressing it against a red-hot grill, according to the announcement that flooded the media. But in a regrettable twist of timing, it’s accompanied by a fresh spinach salad.

Applebee’s apparently kept the chicken, but smartly pulled the accompanying salad.

There’s no word yet on what Max & Erma’s plans to do if the spinach crisis continues, as it likely will to some degree. Fortunately, the new Italian menu includes three other dishes that can be touted. But it’d be a shame that all that the outcome of all that R&D work might have to be a raincheck.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

WARNING: Writer is not responsible for this content

The most telling proof to date that corporate-governance watchdogs desperately need to be put on a leash: CBRL Group, the parent of Cracker Barrel and Logan’s, today issued a statement declaring its quarterly dividend. The actual disclosure of the financial information required 97 words.

The qualifiers, disclaimers and other defensive statements required by lawyers extended to 656 words.

The notable excerpts included an explanation that “forward-looking terminology” could include such words as would, could, regular or continue—“or the negative or other derivatives of each of these terms”; the warnings that business could be affected by avian flu or mad cow disease; and the heads-up that an executive’s inadvertent glimpse of a black cat could bring nine years of bad luck.

Okay, we made that last one up. But it kind of fits, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The other side of the dark underbelly

Covering the restaurant business may not be war correspondence, but it has its unsettling experiences, be it writing about spinach poisonings (after you’ve consumed one of the brands cited by authorities as suspect), recounting the random shooting of 24 people in a Texas Luby’s, or reporting the illegal shenanigans of a CEO whom you regarded as a friend. And then there’s the story of Drago’s, the seafood restaurant in Metairie, La.

Like most of the dining establishments in and around New Orleans, the place was walloped by Hurricane Katrina last year. Two employees had insisted on staying inside the restaurant during the storm, which spared it from looting or vandalism. But they and colleagues from the area knew all that choice seafood, meat and frozen supplies they had on hand would spoil long before the restaurant could even dream of re-opening—a tragedy, given how many people in the area were without anything to eat. They figured they might as well serve it up. But here was one problem: They had no power to run a stove, oven or even a microwave.

But they improvised, doing whatever they could. Within a week, the staff was feeding the Coast Guard personnel who were struggling to plug the infamous 17th St. Levy levy breach. When Drago’s supplies ran out, proprietor Tommy Cvitanovich pressed his suppliers to pony up their supplies before that food went bad. Before long, he was hitting up every supplier and vendor he could. “We didn’t even buy from some of these people,” he would later say.

Yet the food donations poured in, as did a refrigerated trailer where the food could be kept. When locals came by for a hot meal, they’d stop by the trailer afterward to pick up cold cuts or other ready-to-eat foods they could bring to whatever shelter they were using. A trip would yield two or three meals.

It was an offer too good for the hungry and newly homeless to resist; At one point, Drago’s was feeding 3,500 meals a day, though it settled into a routine of a mere 1,500 a day. All supplied free, prepared free, and consumed for free.

As conditions improved, the restaurant raised its scope. It served 400 steak dinners to policemen, firemen and other recovery workers on Thanksgiving. And it started holding charity benefits to help out the fisherman who’d supplied the restaurant in better days. A Sunday lunch generated $21,000, all of which went to local oyster men.

By the time the restaurant was ready to resume commercial operations, it had fed an estimated 77,000 people for free.

Drago’s efforts led to its selection this year as a winner of the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Neighbor Award, an honor bestowed annually on four operations that embody the association’s core principle that restaurants are the cornerstones of their communities. Yet when Cvitanovich was presented with the $5,000 check that comes with the award, he said he couldn’t take it.

Instead, he explained, the restaurant was going to match the prize with $5,000 of its own money, and pool that with the matching awards Cvitanovich had successfully solicited from three other parties in the industry. “And I’m not done yet,” he said. The funds are already earmarked for a New Orleans-area high school that had to be rebuilt. “We want to make sure it has a kitchen in it when it reopens,” so youngsters could develop the skills needed to bring the area’s renowned foodservice industry back to what it was pre-Katrina.

At check presentation, an NRA official ad-libbed that he wished the industry’s detractors would think of Drago’s social contribution before they slam the trade as a bunch of burger flippers.

A negative side effect of this job is the cynicism if fosters. Then you hear of a situation like that, and the battle-weariness lifts. You realize it’s not always about money, ego or any other of the baser motivators. The bad may still seem pretty bad, but the good seems so dramatically underscored.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

'When did the industry stop beating its spouse?'

If the Democrats take control of the U.S. House of Representatives this November, as many pundits predict, what can the restaurant industry expect from the presumably anti-business shift in power? Perhaps not what you’d think.

The victory would likely be a squeaker, not the sort of rout that would enable the Dems to ramrod sweetheart legislation through the system, according to John Gay, who heads up lobbying for the National Restaurant Association (and hence for the industry as a whole.). In a briefing with Nation’s Restaurant News at our New York headquarters last week, Gay speculated that the new Congressional captains would have a tough time mustering sufficient votes to pass controversial measures like healthcare mandates.

But, he warned, the industry may still feel plenty of heat, much of it radiating from TV cameras and blistering attacks in newspaper op-ed pages. The Democrats would likely use their control of the committee system to schedule high-profile hearings on exposed-nerve issues pertaining to restaurants, like acrylomides, the suspected carcinogen that can be found in French fries, or obesity, and specifically how soft drinks might contribute to the problem. He asserted that restaurant executives could be summoned to the Hill for a public grilling or the forced application of a black hat. Ditto for some suppliers. The battle would shift from pushing legislation that makes the industry wince, to fostering an impression that the trade kicks puppies.

The antidote, speakers agreed during the NRA’s Public Affairs Conference earlier in the week in Washingon, is getting involved, at least to the point of casting a vote. Or as Richard Snead put it, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

Snead was speaking as chairman of the NRA’s SAFE initiative, a grassroots lobbying program that you’ll no doubt be reading about more frequently in Nation’s Restaurant News as we get closer to the elections. His day job is running Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, the mega-sized parent of T.G.I. Friday’s and Pick Up Stix.

That sounds like a nearly overwhelming job. And yet he’s assumed the added duties of overseeing a $2 million political-action fund. And he asserts, very convincingly, that his political efforts may have to extend considerably beyond that role. As he puts it, “I will not let unreasonable legislation upset the growth of our company.”

You may not agree with the industry’s pro-Republican slant. But it’s hard to argue with Snead and other leaders about the importance of acting on your convictions, at least to the point of learning the issues and responsibly placing a vote.

You can find a roundup on the industry-specific matters at the NRA’s website,

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Tall double-shot of trouble

These haven't been the best of times for Starbucks.

First the caffeine specialist finds itself in hot-tea water because of a promotional giveaway that goes awry. Employees were invited to pass along a chit for a free iced latte to friends and relatives. So many staffers obliged that the chain decided to rescind the offer. Bad, bad move.

Caribou, a small but plucky competitor, tweaked the tiger’s tail by offering to honor Starbucks’ coupons. Then a Starbucks customer filed a lawsuit seeking redress for the discontinuation of the deal. She’s asking for $114 million, which is a lot of coffee even at Starbucks’ prices. But she asserts the chain would’ve spent that much on the free lattes, and wants to collect the money through a class-action suit for distribution to the people who were left dry.

Then some of the chain’s baristas decided that enough was enough; they couldn’t keep idly watching while customers bilked the chain. It seems that some patrons were asking for lower priced menu options, then doctoring them with Starbucks’ free milk to made a close approximation of pricier quaffs. Add enough half-and-half to an iced Americano, stir vigorously, and you have a more-than-passable ersatz iced latte, for half the price of the genuine item..

Employees decided to blow the whistle on the cheats by disclosing their ploy an a website for devoted Starbucks followers,, But instead of rousing outrage, the postings opened an easy path to the Dark Side for heretofore honest customers. Some hardcore fans no doubt figured they’d give the trick a try and order the lower-ticket drinks.

It’s another indication the chain may be getting some pushback on its prices. Earlier, reports had surfaced of die-hard fans rethinking their preference after noting how they burned through money loaded on their Starbucks cards. You may not appreciate the aggregate outlay to the chain when you casually spend four or five dollars at each visit. But with the cards, you can’t help but notice that a $50 balance is gone in a week.

As if financial outrage wasn’t bad enough, Starbucks found its morals being slammed after headquarters resurrected the brand’s original logo for an anniversary celebration. Like the present-day version, the retro trademark features a mermaid. But you’re reminded much more, um, pointedly in the older incarnation that the Starbucks mermaid didn’t wear a bikini top. It’s hardly a Paris Hilton commercial, but it was racy enough to outrage an elementary school principle in the chain’s home state of Washington, as extensive press coverage attested.

But wait—there’s more.

News emerged this weekend of yet another lawsuit filed against the latte maker, this time by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for violating the rights of a disabled former employee. The woman parted with the chain in May 2004 because, the EEOC asserted, her psychiatric conditions weren’t accommodated under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It contends that Starbucks knew the woman had issues when it hired her three years earlier. Concessions were extended to her during the early years of her tenure, but that tolerance changed when a new manager assumed responsibility for the plaintiff’s store, the suit alleges.

Even if all that agitation is counterbalanced by the purchase of 46 coffeehouses from Diedrich Coffee for a mere $13.5 million, it still has to be a bitter brew to swallow.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Meanwhile, in McDonald's outer boroughs...

Some of the most interesting news about McDonald’s these days is coming from abroad, where the chain seems more willing to take a risk. Consider the reports that surfaced just in the last two days:

In Japan, notes a website where visitors can post science and technology news, Big Mac is trying high-tech food wrappers. Each is embossed with a barcode-like pattern that the camera in a patron’s cell phone can decode into a URL. A web-enabled phone automatically connects to the website, where nutritional information about the item in the wrapper is displayed. From the user’s standpoint, you hold your phone to the wrapper, and calorie and fat info is instantly depicted on the handset’s display window.

Interestingly, said one reader who commented on the posting, the technology has been around for a long time—six months. Others indicated that such a system could work in Japan because everyone there has web-enabled picture phones. In comparison, Americans are still turning a crank on a wall unit and asking Clara the Operator to connect them.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s found itself in a pickle in Europe because of a new program it’s trying there. Employers are provided with a McPassport, which allows them to work in any McD’s unit within the European Union if a job is available, a set-up similar to one used by T.G.I. Friday’s in the States. McDonald’s said it regarded the McPassport as a perk, a benefit that gives its employees greater mobility. If a college-aged crewmember was leaving his or her job to travel, the chain might still pick up an hour or two a week from that individual during the roadtrip, or after they’ve relocated elsewhere for school.

It sounded like a positive gesture. Yet critics all but hanged Ronald. They alleged that McPassport is just a diabolical ruse to lure lower-paid workers from Eastern Europe into higher-wage jobs in the western part of the ECM. They portrayed the McPassport as a chit entitling the bearer to one (1) job.

It’s unclear—to me at least—why McDonald’s couldn’t attain the same end merely by offering jobs to the easterners. Why is a McPassport needed to hire them? Of course, I never understood Jerry Lewis’ popularity among the French, either.

Finally, news reports from Ireland say McD’s is making a bold move there to address health concerns. The stories say McDonald’s Restaurants of Ireland have offered to halve the salt content of a French fries serving within a matter of weeks. The sodium in McNuggets has already been cut by 30 percent, and the McChicken Sandwich is 20 percent less salty than it was, according to the reports.

And what news did the chain disseminate here in the U.S. during the same timeframe? Boy, those $1.29 Snack Wraps are sure selling well.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

We'll always have Paris

I’m on my knees, imploring you for mercy. But I realize forgiveness will be hard to muster. Seldom is a blogger afforded an opportunity like the situation that arose last week. Paris Hilton is arrested for driving with a snoot full en route to indulging her burger jones at an In ‘N Out Burger, not an outlet of the chain that paid her to savor its burger with near-orgasmic delight in a soft-porn commercial last year. And I almost miss it and the opportunity to note it here. If it weren’t for a heads-up from West Coast editor Lisa Jennings, I might’ve torn up a winning lottery ticket, so to speak.

But four days after non-stop coverage of the lodging heiress’ arrest for driving with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent, I’m hoping to redeem myself by recounting the rest of the story. It seems that Hilton insisted she was merely famished, not smashed. She explained to a Los Angeles radio station that she had a craving for a burger, an In ‘N Out burger, to be exact. She not only mentioned that brand name, but seemingly stressed it.

And, no, she hadn’t suffered any blows to the head before offering that explanation. There’s a reason stars have handlers.

Poor Carl’s, the chain that paid her to appear in one of the industry’s most controversial commercials. It catches more than a little heat for airing the spots. And then it’s dissed by Hilton after she downs what she insists was only one margarita. It should buy the Taco Bell chihuahua and sic it on Hilton’s exalted rat.

Of course, it could try spin-doctoring. It could put forth the idea that it’s burgers are so large and nourishing that Hilton only eats them after working up a sweat while washing her car or vigorously doing other chores around the house. No doubt in a bikini. Soaked.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Jokesters unmasked

Regular readers know that we at Nation’s Restaurant News have been trying to deduce who’s been lampooning us—admittedly gently—in an irregularly published electronic newsletter called Food Channel Month Daily (“Fake Insights for Restaurant Executives.”) As gumshoes, we’re not fit to carry Columbo’s raincoat (explanation for younger readers: He was a popular TV detective back in the days before every cop show started with “CSI” or “Law & Order.” We’d watch it on the Philco after parking the DeSoto and slipping off our spats).

We couldn’t figure out who the jokesters were, but this is a good time for apologies to my friend Bill and the others we suspected. Though, truth be told, they should be flattered we adjudged them capable of chicanery of that league. FCMD made us laugh, sometimes loudly, and we can be as mirthless and cynical as tax collectors.

But the Zoros who’d been good-naturedly jabbing us have taken off their masks at last. Turns out the satire was the brain discharge of an off-beat ad agency called G&M Plumbing, best known for the “Dan” campaign it developed for Del Taco. In a note you can read for yourself at, the daffy lot acknowledged they were hoping to snag some publicity and thereby land a customer or two in the restaurant field.

As you can imagine, parties of all sorts are constantly trying to con, cajole or blackmail us into giving them coverage. Usually, the very attempt leaves us all huffy (see our Food Writer’s Diary blog, written by my colleague Bret Thorn, for tips on how not to write a press release or otherwise pitch us).

But in this case, it doesn’t feel so bad. If you’re going to fall victim to viral marketing, it’s best to go down laughing.

The Wal-Mart way

The Great Price Rollback is officially underway.

Exhibit 1: A press release issued last Thursday by T.G.I. Friday’s, touting new riffs on appetizer staples like Buffalo chicken wings, quesadillas and loaded potato skins, along with such new meal starters as Fried Mac & Cheese and a sizzling cheese dip. The price: just $4 if you pop for an entrée, too, at least through mid-October. That’s such a small fraction of Friday’s usual appetizer price that a buyer would have enough left over to afford gas for the trip home. Which is, of course, the point.

Exhibit 2: Shoney’s has lifted the silver dome off its new sandwiches, including such hot options as a Philly cheesesteak and a pot roast selection, as well as a turkey club. The price: $4.99, until the end of October. Five bucks for a hot sandwich served by a waiter or waitress at your table, though you have to settle for potato chips instead of fries. I recently had a cheesesteak at Denny’s that cost me at least 40 percent more, though it was accompanied by hash browns.My usual sandwich from a Subway is more than $6, and you’d be lucky to get out of McDonald’s or Wendy’s for a mere five spot.

And the clincher, the sure-fire indicator that should have margin-minded restaurateurs wondering how far the pricing retreat will go: The quote two weeks ago in USA Today from Outback president Paul Avery, about the price cuts set to be adopted by the steakhouse chain in November: "We've lowered prices from time to time, but never this magnitude."

More alarming than the depth of the discounting may be the duration. Are gas prices ever going to fall below $2.25? The automobile manufacturers aren’t betting on it; they’re radically shifting their showroom mixes in anticipation for a prolonged, perhaps permanent adjustment in the way consumers shop.

And is the credit situation going to ease overnight? The economists have been warning about a blow from that dynamic for years. To assume it’ll be gone in a blink is just wishful thinking.

Perhaps the better fodder for thought is how to present value to consumers, without too much of a sacrifice in margins.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Chill pills

Burger King was recently sued in California for not warning customers about the potential risks of eating meat that’s been broiled over flames, a process presently being scrutinized for health risks. What’ll be the next concern to preoccupy the public? Sunshine?

Try water.

From here and there come indications that persnickety consumers are thinking heatedly about that most basic of pours—not just to avoid the slim threat of contamination, but because H20 represents an opportunity to promote wellbeing, like everything else they eat (from Whole Foods), drink (pomegranate-based, please), or do (drive their Prius to a spa, where they’re bake in a seaweed wrap). Standard tap issue, or even a bottled mass-market brand, just isn’t loaded with enough positives. But ice melt from a glacier, perceived to be as pure as angels’ tears, is another matter. Ditto for cubes made from water that could best be described as having a pedigree. Maybe it came from purified rainwater, or was taken from a spring, frozen, and sealed in an airtight container, all without being touched by the walking petrie dishes known as humans. Some of the suppliers are already talking about enhancing their water rocks with vitamins.

They may blast common ice and the purported detriments to health and flavor it poses, but they’re certainly willing to embrace old-guard marketing techniques. The alternatives to the mundane output of commercial ice makers have been christened designer ice, and priced accordingly, at about a dime a cube.

Right now, it’s still a novelty, largely limited to specialty retailers and presumably the kind of nightclub club where you wait outside behind a velvet rope. But is there any doubt it will arrive at a certain echelon of restaurants before long, satisfying patrons who fear they’ll fall out of the avant-garde, into the dreaded class of the merely trendy?

It may take awhile for the public’s interest to reach that point, but there’s already pressure building to use something better in a drink served on the rocks. NRN consumer insights editor Erica Duecy recently returned from Tales of the Cocktail, a relatively new conference that brings together cocktail enthusiasts from both sides of the bar. The restaurateurs there, Duecy reported, compared notes about how to meet mounting demand for harder ice delivered in more functional shapes, with the completely neutral tate that makes them an ideal complement to super-premium spirits or the cocktails made with them.

Think about it: If we’d told you three years ago that flavored foam and similar touches of food chemistry would be all the rage within fine-dining, you’d suggest a first-hand look at continuing-care feeding, from the patient’s viewpoint. And now that’s one of the driving forces behind the high-end sector. It’s already trickling down to lower-priced places through flavored sprays. Might this be something that hits the broad market even faster?

Makes you want a scotch on glacier ice.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

And now, a word about gender equality

Before we shift the discussion to world peace, it’s essential that we right the wrong that’s been visited by the industry upon dads in recent months. During this age of shameless hype, when marketers can pump smoke through all sorts of media to snag attention for their brands, why shouldn’t the old man get a chance to be part of the publicity ploys?

But it’s Mom, Mom, Mom. Look at KFC’s announcement of two weeks ago, about the formation of a kitchen cabinet to counsel executives on the brand’s direction. Promising “a meaningful agenda,” the chicken chain said “the Advisory Board will meet in person bi-annually, hold quarterly conference calls and host monthly dinner meetings to gain information and advise KFC on everything from trends that affect families to new product ideas.” And what type of individuals is it seeking for that essential work? You can have an MBA, a resume listing one blockbuster feat after another, or a wand given to you personally by Harry Potter. But unless you’ve experienced childbirth, you’re not getting on the panel. Dubbed, in typical marketing reserve, the KFC Moms Matter! Advisory Board, it’s the panel of all mothers. KFC says it plans to draw them from all walks of life, starting with your typical author, radio personality, former TV anchor, and family-communications theorist, Julienne Smith.

Of course, cynics might say the panel was formed to shape KFC’s image more than its policies. But, regardless, why shouldn’t Dad get his time in the spotlight, even if it’s the modern-day equivalent of flag-pole sitting? Besides, the 13 members have already been treated to an all-expenses-paid trip to Louisville, Ken., KFC’s hometown.

Then again, it’s not as if Dad’s unaccustomed to this sort of rejection. In May, McDonald’s trumpeted the formation of a new advisory panel of consumers drawn from all over the world. They were selected as founts of advice from all walks of life, and duly celebrated in McDonald’s announcement of the initiative. The one unifying factor: They were all moms. The group is called the Global Moms Panel. Not the Global Parents Advisory Team, or the Childhood Savants Braintrust.

Clearly a pattern is forming here. Maybe it’s because no trust is left in men’s restaurant judgment after the start-up of Hooters.