Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A flight of news

The Scoop usually strives to mound your plate with news and insights. But, in a blatant rip-off of the small-plates phenomenon, today's installment takes more of a sampler approach. The day has brought a smattering of interesting bite-sized developments, worthy of a taste but not sufficient for a main course. Consider these tidbits, for instance:

The 1,799 items that were a no-go: In an interview published today by The Orange County Register , McDonald’s menu planner Dan Coudreaut was asked how many potential new products his R&D department considers in the course of the year. His answer: 1,500 to 1,800. That’s 125 a month, more than 30 a week, and an average of six per day.

Out of that torrent emerged the Snack Wrap, a chicken finger wrapped in a tortilla. McD’s needed some time to get it right, Coudreaut confided to the Register. Initially, the chain was looking at a quesadilla made with the strips of chicken that are sold separately as Chicken Selects. But test-subjects balked.

The Culinary Institute of America grad said his menu-development team will be focusing near-term on new kids’ items, desserts and beverages, but he did not divulge any specifics.

The next high-art culinary craze to captivate mainstream America: Gelee. The Akron-Beacon Journal informed Ohioans this morning that chefs and foodies alike are going ga-ga over creative riffs on gelatin, a.k.a gelee to any urban sophisticate. Of course, the story did refer to it as Jell-O, and advised readers to experiment with a variations of the Knox brand before moving on to preparations like Ginger Ale Gelee or a Creamsicle-like orange and yogurt gelee treat. Curiously, none of the recipes or examples were taken from local restaurants.

South Korea loses its mind over bird flu: Officials of the Asian nation disclosed Monday that the national government will begin destroying cats and dogs to stifle outbreaks of bird flu. Never mind that scientists don’t know if the virus that causes the disease can even be passed to and from the pets. With a second outbreak in three years confirmed by authorities earlier this week, the nation is willing to err far on the side of caution to contain the ailment.

N.J.’s smoking ban could apply to Atlantic City: Trenton legislators caved to the casino lobby when they outlawed smoking in restaurants, bars, bowling alleys and every other public place in the state. But now the plucky officials of Atlantic City have vowed to close the exemption that was handed to their city’s casinos, which whined that they’d lose business under an across-the-board snuff-out. Never mind that restaurants and other establishments had said the same thing.

If Atlantic City’s City Council has its way, as many observers expect, the playing field may finally be leveled in Jersey, to the delight of restaurateurs who feel they’re losing smokers to the casions.

Catherine Zeta-Jones goes back to working in restaurants: The film star and cell-phone spokes-gal has reportedly been working in the kitchen of an unnamed London restaurant. Britain’s notorious slander sheets have gone easy on her, saying she landed the gig to research an upcoming role as a chef in a flick called No Reservation. They did note her confession that a stab at cooking for hubby Michael Douglas resulted in a decent-sized kitchen fire. But the tabs completely overlooked her serial foodservice employment, including a gig at the well-known Fiamma restaurant in New York City earlier this year. That time around, she was supposedly gathering real-life experience for yet another movie role—that time, too, as a chef.

The Scoop can see right through her subterfuge: Ten or twenty million doesn’t buy what it once did, and she and Michael are feeling the pinch. What better way to pick up some cash than putting in a few weeks at a restaurant? Especially around the holidays.

What she should really do is rent herself out as a salt lick: She works at a restaurant, and you get to hire all the people who want to work with her. I guarantee you’ll have a line of applicants at your back door.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Getting clogged at 30,000 feet

Perhaps the clean-artery commandos prefer to drive wherever they go. Certainly they’re not flying. If they were, they’d stop screeching about fast-food chains’ use of partially hydrogenated oils and start harping at the airlines for what they serve in-flight. Unless you pay for first-class accommodations, or luck out and land a seat on one of the blue yonder’s mavericks, your in-flight food options amount to trans fat, trans fat, or trans fat. With a beverage of your choice.

Typically the only variable is what form it takes. Would you prefer chips, crackers, muffins, cookies, or that dried-cat-food analog they call “snack mix”? Look for “partially hydrogenated oil” on the wrapper, and you’ll find it more readily than you will your luggage.

This might sound as if I’m lambasting a sector of our very own industry. That’s because I am. The chains targeted by the health zealots typically contend that their obligation is to offer choices, so that consumers can opt for better-for-you fare. They argue, rightfully so, that a decision on health should not be made for patrons.

Many feeders-in-the-sky offer no choice, or at best a limited one. And it’s not as if you can vote against all the options with your feet. The restaurant industry’s fear of losing patrons to the place next door just doesn’t hold at 30,000 feet. It’s take it or leave it. And after 12 or 14 straight hours of travel, you’re not going to leave it, even if they’re serving wood chips.

Of course, if you leave it, these days they may not care. As it is, they have too few seats for all the butts that want to fill them. And study after study has shown that people choose flights on the basis of schedule and cost, not the potential effects on their circulation.

It’s just a shame that the pressure exerted elsewhere doesn’t fall on a sector that might need that push to change its cholesterol-boosting ways.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The CIA's lovin' it

McDonald’s has enlisted a surprising ally in its ongoing struggle to cut prep times and thereby serve hotter, juicier meals: The Culinary Institute of America.

The Harvard of foodservice education revealed in the new edition of its alumni magazine that it’s been retained by the quick-service giant to find and test new high-tech cooking equipment.

The article noted that the school is exploring such NASA-caliber advances as “multi-wave/convection/moist-heat combination technology,” pressurized-steam apparatus, and hybrids that combine the function of a microwave with impingement cooking, or blasting all surfaces of the food with hot-air jets, usually as it moves on a conveyor.

In laymen’s terms: The gizmos cook food faster, without letting it dry out.

The discovery of a breakthrough grill or oven could satisfy the chain’s decades-long quest for a way to serve meals in a flash without batch-cooking the components ahead of time. The difficulties of delivering convenience without losing the positives of a fresh-from-the-grill burger or chicken sandwich was what tripped up the brand in the mid-1990s, when it began the tailspin that has only recently been reversed.

At the time, McDonald’s spent upwards of a quarter of a billion dollars to install a new high-tech cooking system called Made For You, a label that emphasized the added benefit of allowing units to customize orders, since they were cooked on demand. As has been noted other times in The Scoop, that system is in the process of being replaced by a new “cooking platform.”

The article in the CIA’s Mise En Place publication quotes a CIA official as speculating that faster kitchen equipment could also allow McDonald’s to improve the integrity of its ingredients. “These technologies that reduce cooking cycle time allow you to prepare foods that don’t have added hormones, steroids, or artificial additives,” said Ron Desantis, director of the school’s new consultancy service, the Industry Solutions Group.

The issue of Mise En Place notes elsewhere that the CIA has also consulted to Burger King, Wendy’s, Starbucks, T.G.I. Friday’s and Panera Bread.

And it observes that the McDonald’s outlet closest to the school’s main campus, in Hyde Park, N.Y., is managed by a CIA grad.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Lettuce Keep You Healthy

Rich Melman routinely delights consumers with his dozens of Chicago restaurants. Now he wants to disinfect them, too.

That sounds harsh, but the concept mastermind is acting out of extreme benevolence. He recently told the Chicago Tribune that his Lettuce Entertain You dining empire is striving to keep patrons healthy this winter by urging them to take the sort of precautions that a parent might press on a youngster.

Signs posted in all 30-something of Lettuce’s restaurants urge customers as well as employees to wash their hands. According to the Trib, the alerts point out that that “handwashing is the most effective way to reduce the effects of colds and flu.”

Signs in the Gents and Ladies also advise visitors to grab restroom door handles with a paper towel, not their bare hands, which can pick up germs from such a surface that’s been touched again and again and again. Melman acknowledged in the story that Lettuce is “without question” spending more on paper towels, but told reporter Janet Franz that “it’s a small price to pay.” As he noted, people don’t dine in any restaurant when they’re knocked flat by a cold or the flu.

Melman indicated that his company will spend far bigger dollars with its next health-oriented move. Among the company’s more intriguing operations is foodlife, a collection of themed food stations, were customers can try just about any of the ethnic or trendy cuisines they read about in Bon Appetit. They record whatever they’ve ordered from the stations on a single magnetic card, then pay the total charged amount when they settle up with a centralized cashier.

Melman told the Trib that he plans to add yet another out-of-the-ordinary feature to the Watertower Place food court: Public sinks in the dining area. Patrons will be able to set down their trays of food and wash their hands before starting to eat.

He attributed his newfound focus on customers’ health to serving on the board of a local hospital.

If anyone else had pushed his company to adopt similar safeguards, he or she might’ve been tarred as a nut. But this is Rich Melman, undoubtedly one of the richest persons in the business, and beyond a doubt one of the most prescient. He’s been ahead of any number of trends that eventually went mainstream.

You can only hope that this focus, as strange as it may initially seem, is added to the list.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Catching more than fish. And it stinks.

A rose is a rose is a rose. But down in Florida, the grouper could be anyone’s guess. An investigation several weeks ago by the Daytona Beach News-Journal found that four of 10 local restaurants were trying to pass off cheaper white fish as grouper. And the determination wasn’t made with a quick eyeball of whatever the investigators were served (Vietnamese catfish in three of the instances, emperor fish in the other). The newspaper sent samples to a lab for DNA testing.

The testing facility then told the Associated Press that similar checks of seafood from 24 U.S. cities revealed consumers have less than a 50:50 chance of being served the variety of fish they ordered.

Authorities in Florida have begun an investigation into the fish faking, according to the AP. A (sorry about the pun) bait and switch could cost a restaurant $15,000 per fake-out.

But follow-up news coverage has suggested that restaurants may not be the culprit. Some have said they, too, were duped—by their seafood suppliers.

The situation is reminiscent of the short-lived scandal that erupted in New York City about 18 months ago, when The New York Times analyzed what was being sold or served as wild-caught salmon. The probe revealed that a high percentage of establishments were buying farm-raised fish for about a third of what they’d have paid for the wild version, then selling it as the Alaskan variety for a huge mark-up.

And restaurant old-timers recall a time when a low-priced veal dish on a menu meant someone had pounded a chicken breast flat in the kitchen and cooked it Milanese-style. But today’s consumer, they attest, is probably too sophisticated to fall prey to that ruse.

It’s a shame that some restaurateurs spoil it for everyone by cheating like that. After being told non-stop how the industry is making them fat, short-changing them with skimpy wages, littering their streets with wrappers, and closing up their arteries with trans fats, the last thing consumers need to hear is how they’re being ripped off as well.

There’s no mystery about what kind of louts the perpetrators are. A crook is a crook is a crook.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Better off red?

If researchers discover one more benefit of drinking red wine, it’ll be a matter of time before moms start serving merlot instead of milk, pharmacies replace their vitamins with a selection of zinfandels, and marathon water stops run red with Chianti. Less clear is how restaurants will exploit the advantage of being a longtime purveyor of what is truly beginning to sound like a health elixir.

For starters, perhaps they should crack open a top-notch Cab and invite some researchers over for a review of the favorable data that’s poured out of vino-focused labs in recent months. First, by altering the diet of tee-totaling mice, the white-coat set was able to determine that a red-wine ingredient called resveratrol can prolong life dramatically. We’re talking in the neighborhood of 30 percent.

Or at least it can stretch the life of a rodent; conclusive studies have yet to be conducted on humans. But the information was sufficient to spark a run on resveratrol, which was an unusual item for even health-food stores to stock. Now you can’t find it anywhere. But, undoubtedly, that will change as marketers cash in. It remains to be seen if restaurants will enjoy a similar surge in demand for their resveratrol reserves, which are typically meted out by the bottle.

Just a few days after the anti-aging qualities of resveratrol were revealed, medical journals were set abuzz again by a separate round of research. Those studies had found that the red-wine ingredient could counteract at least some ill effects of a high-fat diet, including obesity and diabetes. Here again, the research subjects were mice, but experts have already said the effects should be translatable to humans.

To recap: Resveratrol can make you live longer, and better. Two big reasons to drink red wine, from highly respected health officials.

Pardon me while I wipe away a tear. I wouldn’t want it falling in my pinot.

Unfortunately, scientists noted at the time that humans probably couldn’t drink enough red wine to absorb the amounts of resveratrol that are needed to combat obesity and aging. Clearly they never belonged to a fraternity.

But even if the required intake is prohibitive, that’s not going to dissuade consumers from ordering red more readily. Remember, this is a society that equates the descriptor “fresh” with “healthy,” even if it’s being applied to lard. A little knowledge sometimes works in the industry’s favor.

Then this weekend came news of yet another finding about resveratrol. When lab mice were given the compound and put on tiny treadmills, they could run twice as long, with the reduced heart rate and other signs of conditioning you’d expect in athlete rodents. Researchers concluded that the substance dramatically boosted endurance. And this time, the scientists didn’t rule out that salutary effects could come from relatively small doses of the compound.

A glass or two, maybe?

Of course, the research also didn’t speak to motivation. Who’d want to get on a treadmill to prove enhanced endurance when there’s more wine to drink? No pain, no pain—yet lots of gain.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Talking dirty

Scandalous food-safety conditions came to light this week in Chicago and Philadelphia, but restaurants there are looking like potential victims rather than the culprits. Government hearings held almost simultaneously in the cities left little doubt that eateries and their patrons are facing a significant health risk because neither municipality has hired enough safety inspectors.

Chicago, for instance, has a field force of 46 people to monitor 15,500 food outlets. To inspect each of them once a year, the germ chasers would have to hit 1.3 establishments per day. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that a place be checked every four months, which would mean inspecting five outlets in an eight-hour day, week in and week out.

Instead, an official reportedly told a city-council committee that the inspectors get to about 6,000 restaurants and food stores per year, and those tend to be the places most in need of scrutiny. Despite the high management turnover of the restaurant business, the other places are left alone because no infractions were detected during a prior visit, which could have come more than a year beforehand.

In 1982, noted a Chicago Sun Times story on the city council hearings, the health department had 150 sanitation inspectors, and presumably far fewer restaurants to check.

Still, the situation in the Windy City seems preferable to conditions in Philadelphia, judging from coverage of the city council hearings held there on Thursday. Officials noted that the City of Brotherly Love has 15,000 restaurants and just 32 safety inspectors.

The industry has long bemoaned certain aspects of sanitation inspections. In particular, chains and multiple-restaurant operators complain that the regulations tend to vary from one jurisdiction to another, or even from inspector to inspector. The lack of consistency makes training that much more difficult.

And then there’s the lack of knowledge shown by some inspectors. The ideal safety guardian, restaurateurs assert, would be someone who wants to help them protect customers. That means teaching operators the right procedures and processes, instead of merely playing cop and walloping them with sanctions or a bad grade. Yet the inspectors are often as green as bread mold, and know far less than the restaurateurs they should be counseling.

It looks as if restaurateurs in Chicago and Philly—and, presumably, other areas—can put another item atop their gripe list.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Now in blogs! 'Truth or Fad'!!

Amid the features of, a site launched recently for fifty-somethings by a co-founder of, are brain teasers, puzzles and other mental challenges intended to keep visitors’ minds in Jack La Lanne shape. It’s only appropriate that The Scoop similarly aid readers of a certain vintage with its own dash of cerebral diversion. Hence the incorporation within this installment of that ever-popular foodservice parlor game, Trend or Fad.

A quick review of the rules: I describe the development that has the business currently atwitter, and you decided if it’s a hula hoop or the next iPod. Then I give you the correct answer, which, just coincidentally, happens to be my opinion on the matter. So here we go.

Truth or fad: The new meal-assembly concepts like Dinner By Design, Let’s Dish!, Super Supers and easily a half-dozen others.

In case you’re not familiar with these newcomers, you need to come out of your cave and take a look, especially if you’re involved in franchising. They’ve been growing by leaps and bounds, in part by signing restaurant operators as licensees.

In essence, the concepts occupy the grey area between restaurants and supermarkets. Patrons go online to select meals they’d like their families to eat, and to schedule a time when they can visit the meal-assembly center to put the selected dinners together. The place buys and prepares the ingredients ahead of time, so all the heavy lifting is done by the time the customer arrives. The guests assemble the components into a family-sized portion that’s ready to be slipped into an oven. Then they lug it home, to be either cooked then or slipped into the freezer for some later date.

The industry largely scoffed when these concepts first appeared on the scene about two years ago. Who’s going to spend their evenings in some communal kitchen with strangers, putting together meals they still have to cook? It’s neither convenient, effortless nor a dodge of stove time.

What the skeptics under-appreciated was the appeal of the social component. Customers apparently like the quilting-bee aspect of the assembly process, and the opportunity it affords to chat with new acquaintances as you engage in the redeeming activity of providing for your family. For many, it’s better than having a few drinks or spending date night at a conversation-less two-hour movie. Indeed, some of the concepts are marketing themselves as party places for groups of friends, or as an activity for businesses that want to foster some bonding among employees.

But doubts still abound. Chief among them: How fresh are the meals, and how much will that weigh against acceptance when consumers are demanding fresh above all else? There’s also been some snippiness about the quality of the ingredients provided. Are chefs doing the slicing and dicing, or some minimum-wage college student?

So what are these places, a flash in the pan or a major new consumer option that’s here to stay?

The correct answer: These places are going to become part of the dinner-options spectrum, but not in the numbers they’ll reach if they keep growing at the present rate. As with many Next Big Things, the potential is soon overshot by development and there’s a shakeout, with a few survivors serving what remains of the market after the initial excitement cools. This could be the textbook example of that familiar dynamic.

Truth or fad: Molecular gastronomy, or the desire by some chefs to play a mad scientist who lost it right after culinary school. Using gizmos like lasers or high-tech chillers and ingredients that sound like the chemicals that were kept in a locked glass cabinet in the high school lab, this new breed of culinarian is employing science in the pursuit of new dining adventures. The results include flavored foams, “caviar” beads of different flavors, or any number of mutations where a familiar food is given an unexpected texture or taste, like bacon ice cream.

I’ve been a hardcore skeptic from the get-go. Meanwhile, chefs are lining up to cook for free at the temple of the high priest of molecular gastronomy, Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Spain, in hopes of absorbing his brilliance. And the consumer food books are anointing Chicago’s Alinea, the high temple of the gastro-science on this side of the Atlantic, as the nation’s best restaurant.

As difficult as the admission may be for me and other fans of food that looks, feels and tastes as you expect it would, this looks as if it could be a trend, though one that may never trickle down to the broad-based dining-out market. It’s hard to imagine a Chili’s entrée where you start with a pillow of scented air, or a new fir-tree-flavored cream puff from Dunkin’ Donuts. Sadly, as the counterbalance to the ongoing appreciation of comfort foods, this appears to be a trend.

Trend or fad: Advertising to space aliens, as KFC is doing in its latest publicity stunt. The chicken chain fitted together 65,000 painted tiles in the notorious Area 51 of the Nevada desert to form 87,500-sq.-ft. portrait of the concept’s founder, Col. Harlan Sanders. Headquarters is crowing that it’s the first brand icon to be visible from space, an achievement that school children will someday sing of.

The question, of course, is why? The highly cynical should be forewarned that the official rationale could cause uncontrollable twitching and outbursts of sarcasm: “The Colonel is truly a global icon and we want everyone in the universe to see KFC's new look of the future," KFC president Gregg Dedrick was quoted as saying in a press release. KFC is updating its design, as Nation’s Restaurant News reported some time ago, and this is its way of getting attention. The specifics of the overhaul, like the inclusion of a free digital jukebox, just aren’t going to snag the attention of the YouTube generation.

And, just to be doubly sure it appeals to the X-Files crowd, the chain is touting the incidental benefit of having a billboard that even near-sighted Martians could spot. “If there are extraterrestrials in outer space, KFC wants to become their restaurant of choice,” Dedrick is quoted as quipping.

So, what is it? A gimmick, a gimmick or a gimmick?

Monday, November 13, 2006

In wake of finger scam, more allegations surface

If you can’t tell the players apart without a scorecard, chances are you’ll really flub which restaurant allegedly served the rodent and which purportedly added the marijuana.

Indeed, with all the allegations in recent weeks of patrons finding alien objects in their food, it’s tough to keep the potential scandals straight. That’s assuming, of course, you hear of them at all, an uncertainty that’s probably for the best. In the wake of the finger-in-the-chili scam that a desperate couple tried to pull last year on Wendy’s, public suspicions have largely pushed reports of unwanted ingredients out of the mainstream news. But there’re always the web, the blogosphere and local radio stations to keep stomachs turning with reports of fingers being where they shouldn’t.

Like the one that a woman asserts she found in the cheese-steak sandwich sold to her by a Subway in Chowchilla, Calif. According to local radio reports, the patron came back to the store with the alleged digit several hours after she’d bought the sandwich. The unit stopped selling steak for two days, and Subway said it would investigate. The results of that inquiry have yet to be made public, and the customer has not announced plans to seek any redress in the courtroom.

Not so with the two law enforcement officers who claim they were served burgers laced with marijuana at a Burger King in Los Lunas, N.M. News reports say that three employees at the unit were arrested for pot-peppering the officers’ meals. Now the policemen, who work for the Isleta Pueblo tribe’s police force, are suing the chain’s franchisor, Burger King Holdings.

There’s no word yet on how sharply sales spiked afterward among college students.

A lawsuit has also been filed by the Dallas Cowboys staff member who told the media he was sold a salad containing a dead rat by a McDonald’s in Southlake, Texas. Todd Haley, his wife, Christine, and their au pair, Kathryn Kelley, say they are collectively seeking $1.7 million in compensation for their physical and mental distress (the salad was part of a larger take-out order for the three).

The operator of the franchised McDonald’s store told local media that it’s investigating the situation.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

'Didn't clean your plate? Here's your fine.'

For years, activists have blasted restaurants for serving unnecessarily large portions. Now some establishments in Montreal are reportedly turning the tables and fining guests who opt for more than they can eat. It’s their way of enlisting patrons in the cause of holding down food costs.

The Gazette, a Montreal daily, reported today that at least two local Japanese places tack a surcharge onto the tabs of guests who eat only the fish part of their sushi and leave the rice behind. Odaki justifies its $10 penalty fee as the difference between the restaurant’s $22 all-you-can-eat sushi deal and the $32 eat-till-you-burst sashimi offer. After all, the rice-skippers are presumably downing more fish, which is why the sashimi meal was priced higher in the first place.

Kanda Sushi Bar charges by the piece—in this case, not for the sushi patrons order, but for the pieces they leave behind. If guests opt for the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat deal and then fail to consume every item they choose, they’re hit with a $1-per-piece leftover charge. It doesn’t come as a surprise; the surcharge policy is spelled out on the menu in an apparent attempt to discourage food waste.

A vegetarian outlet, Spirite Lounge, similarly levies a surcharge if patrons fail to clean their plates. And in addition to the $2 penalty, they’re denied dessert, and may be turned away the next time they try to dine there. Its mission is raising awareness of world hunger and food waste. “I’ve got to tell you, this is without a doubt, hands down, the absolute strangest restaurant I’ve ever been in,” Shelley Macdonald wrote in her review of the place for

You can read about the Montreal restaurants’ anti-waste policies at

One hot spot to another

Robert Gates, President Bush’s nominee to succeed Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of Defense, is no stranger to life during wartime. He’s a director of Brinker International, the casual-dining behemoth that’s felt the sector’s downturn this year. The company’s stock-rating has been downgraded by three financial-research firms since Oct. 6.

Gates is also a past director of the CIA, as in “Central Intelligence Agency,” not “Culinary Institute of America.” No doubt his prior experience has informed Brinker’s strategy for dealing with the media. Or not dealing with it, to be more precise.

Gates’ day job had been president of Texas A&M, where he’d earlier been dean of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service. What a coincidence that he’s been offered a job by George W. Bush.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Tallying the elections’ costs

Restaurateurs are going to pay for last night’s elections, and I mean that literally. Five of the six ballot initiatives calling for increases in their respective state’s minimum wage have been approved, and the yeas were outscoring the nays in preliminary tabulations within the sixth, Colorado (the count is expected to be completed there today, and hike proponents say they'll hold off on celebrating until it's official).

Some of those wage increases could be rendered unnecessary by the situation on the national level. Before the Democrats were even projected to win the U.S. House, CNN’s Lou Dobbs asked Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Rahm Emanuel, a Representative from Illinois, how a victory by his party would change Congress’ agenda. Emanuel spouted the usual PC happy-speak about helping orphans and the patriots who want to better their family’s lot, which would apply to everyone but Lord Voldemort. But he did cite one specific measure the Democrats would hammer through: A minimum-wage increase.

The states that passed wage-hike initiatives are Arizona, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio.

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Culture shock for cafeteria ladies

The chalk line between restaurants and gourmet food shops will be further smudged this winter with the opening of a new concept called Kidfresh. Like a Balducci’s or the grab-and-go sections of a Whole Foods, the New York City prototype will offer upscale fare. But like a restaurant, everything will be ready to eat. And unlike both types of food outlets, this one will exclusively stock ingestibles for kids.

The tykes can yank in Mom or Dad for a ready-for-school lunch, a packaged breakfast for the next morning, a snack for right then, or a dinner they can munch while the parental units slurp their spaghetti Bolognese.

Promotional materials say the meals will be healthy, with at least some prepared with natural, organic or additive-free ingredients. The announcement notes that items will be freshly made, though it wasn’t clear if that translates into “made daily” or “prepared to order.”

Restaurant veterans are apparently not among the founders, but Kidfresh said its launch team would include an award-winning chef, who was not identified.

Menu choices will include Star Shaped Pancakes with homemade chocolate dip; Honey Teriyaki Chicken Tenders with rice and edamame; and “pizza bites.”

Pointedly named as members of the start-up group were two marketing veterans, Dannon alumnus Gilles Deloux and Ralph Lauren Childrenswear veteran Samira Samii Mahboubian. They join the father who came up with the idea for Kidfresh, former management consultant Mathias Cohen.

Monday, November 6, 2006

Founders keepers

After aspiring for years to become an heir, I’m redirecting my career effort to finding work as a founder. Judging from today’s events, it’s a far, far more lucrative gig.

First, the trio who gave us the Outback Steakhouse chain—Chris Sullivan, Bob Basham and Tim Gannon—come forward to say they’re buying back their brainchild with help from some big-time financiers. Bain Capital, the one-time owner of Domino’s Pizza and co-owner of Burger King, is joining forces with one of the more intriguing and hyperactive private-equity firms buying into restaurant companies, Catterton Partners, to provide part of the $3.2 billion that Sullivan’s group has offered for Outback (now known as OSI Restaurant Partners). If you don’t know Catterton, you’re likely familiar with some of its holdings: Stakes in P.F. Chang’s and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new string of hotel restaurants, Spice Market, along with up-and-coming brands like the First Watch breakfast concept, or the Cheddars chain.

I’m surprised that a guy like Sullivan, who comes to the starchiest industry event dressed in a Mister Rodgers-like cardigan, would even know folks like the suits at Bain. And now he and his cohorts are going into partnerships with the Boston firm, which probably has a portrait of Thurston Howell III hanging in its hallway.

Of course, it’s not clear how the founding trio will participate in the buyout. They’re all major stakeholders. And they’re offering $40 per share to buy all of OSI’s stock. So they’ll pay themselves $40 for each share they hold? Something about that just doesn’t seem right. That’s presuming, of course, that they maintain their current stakes.

A deal of that scale had us buzzing at work today. But within hours, it was eclipsed by an even bigger industry deal, at least in terms of the dollars that will be spent. And—surprise, surprise—it was led by yet another founder.

The person this time was Izzy Sharp, co-founder and longtime CEO of Four Seasons Hotels. Sharp and his family already hold a controlling stake in the luxury lodging chain. To buy the rest, he really went big-league. His collaborators in the deal are none other than Bill Gates, of Microsoft fame, and His Royal Highness Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Adulaziz Alsad of Saudi Arabia, the kind of guy whose private jet is a 727, and uses a real cannon for his marker when he plays Monopoly. Which, no doubt, he does with real money.

Together, the three are bidding $3.7 billion, or $82 per share, for the hotel company, or about a third more than Wall Street had adjudged it to be worth in trading during the prior six months.

Twenty percent? Pfft. But 33 percent? These are not the sort of guys you want for your next game of Texas Hold ‘Em.

And why do men as rich as Gates and the prince want with a hotel company? I can only suspect that they hate having to use Expedia for reservations, and this way a room will always be waiting for them.

Well, gotta run here. This founders correspondence course takes more work than you’d think.

Friday, November 3, 2006

Time for a sales boost

When the government does something that’ll likely boost sales, you’d think the restaurant industry would throw Capital Hill a parade. Yet, despite the pointed reminder of last weekend, the trade has been quieter than the Mark Foley re-election campaign.

Last Sunday, you’ll recall, most of us turned our clocks back an hour, officially ending Daylight Savings Time. Largely unnoticed was the larger significance of the occasion: It actually marked the end of DST as we know it.

Starting next year, we’ll be getting that extra hour of daylight for 34 out of 52 weeks, rather than the present 30. The whole nation will spring ahead in March, and stay on that schedule until November.

Proponents say the move will save the United States about 300,000 barrels of oil that would otherwise be used to generate light. What should interest restaurateurs, especially ones who cater to families, are the objections of the critics. They contend that the fuel saved from generating less electricity will be offset, if not eclipsed, by the additional gas that consumers tend to use during DST. The detractors point to indications that a later dusk tends to draw more people onto the roads for a longer stretch into the night. That’s why, they say, the alteration has been supported by places like amusement parks, malls and retailers.

Presumably, if those families are using the extra daylight to be out and about, they’re likely to grab a bite from establishments like yours rather than prepare something in their kitchens. It may not be a factor that makes or breaks the year sales-wise, but it could be an instance of the tide rising an inch or two, to float all boats that much higher.

If you're wondering how the extension of DST came about, you can credit Washington. The provision was slipped into the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which President Bush signed into law in August 2005.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

The joys of dying earlier

If customers have a choice of living longer or eating in your restaurants, which way are they going to lean? That all depends on whom you regard as weirder, me or my wife.

My child-bride has been positively obsessed with the outpouring of stories in the last week about CR—calorie restriction, for those of you who don’t have a cryogenics pamphlet tucked away somewhere. It’s a new way of eating—or, actually, not eating—to promote longevity. In essence, you drop your calorie intake by about a third. We’re not talking here about cutting back to a mere Wendy’s Double from the previous standard order of a Triple. Ingesting 2,000 or so calories a day puts you in the realm of indulging in a few romaine leaves for Thanksgiving.

Yet the payback can be considerable. As recent stories in The Wall Street Journal and New York Times pointed out, CR is believed by a growing body of scientists (and, presumably, certified nut bars) to prolong life expectancy by as much as 40 years. They say adherents could easily log 110 or even 120 years, most of them Viagra-free.

There’s indeed a strong incentive there for the public to cut back its eating. My MBA degree hasn’t arrived yet, primarily because I’ve not so much as enrolled, but it seems to me that a drop in food consumption would be less than ideal for an industry that feeds people.

Which is why my wife has been stage-whispering comments about the restaurant industry taking a major fall. I hear it with each CR story that’s published. So, lately, only a Cubs fan would know more doom.

But I parry her assertions with a highly personal argument: I’d rather be gone next week than give up pizza. Or pumpkin pie. Or a chef’s salad. Or tofu, even.

And I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment. Why live if you can’t truly eat? I equate CR with living in a bubble. She insists it’s a bubble that restaurant patrons will readily enter as they learn more about the life-prolonging benefits of eating like a fashion model.

But decide for yourself. You can find the New York Times article here: And if you want to tell my wife she's wrong, feel free. Just know that CR would be kind of academic at that point.