Thursday, December 28, 2006

Wringing out New Year's Eve

There wasn’t a word about this on the major news sites, but this is big, people: In some parts of the country, revelers will have to remain stone sober this New Year’s Eve, even if they plunk down some serious coin for one of those fancy dinner-and-dancing restaurant packages. Which means the establishments in those areas are going to lose all those high-ticket Champagne, wine and cocktail orders that give them a nice start to the next 12 months.

The party pooper is the calendar. New Year’s Eve falls on a Sunday night, and many areas prohibit the sale of alcohol on the Christian Sabbath. So if residents of those areas want to toast 2007 with a glass of champagne at midnight, they’ll be doing it in their homes.

This is the first time this has happened since the year 2000. But there is a bright side: There won’t be a similar time warp back to Prohibition for another decade.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Some jousting within the King's court

Looks as if the King has discovered a joker within his ranks. The House of Whopper had to do some fast damage control after a European executive told a London newspaper that Burger King’s halt on advertising to kids in Great Britain would cut sales there “without doubt by approximately 10 to 15 percent." That translates into a loss of about $196 million, according to the Daily Telegraph story.

“It will have a major impact on our top line," Giorgio Minardi, vice president of Burger King’s northwest-Europe operations, explained to the paper. It noted that Minardi’s comments came in the first interview he’s granted since moving to BK from arch-rival McDonald’s earlier this year.

And he pretty much flubbed it, BK’s home office in Miami suggested a few hours later with a terse statement. Without mentioning Minardi or his prediction, the media release said the discontinuation of ads aimed at children would have “minimal impact.” Or at least on Burger King. The situation for Minardi’s former employer is a far different thing, suggested BK European president Peter Robinson.

"Our target consumer for many years has been 18 to 34 years old,” Robinson said in the statement. “We expect the advertising ban to have a far greater impact on our competitors who have previously targeted children as a core consumer."

Of course, those competitors won’t find out for several weeks after BK is gauging the actual impact of the halt in kids ads. The official “junk food” ban will be phased into effect starting at the end of January. But BK pledged in the fall to halt its commercials before Christmas, as indeed it did last week, in the midst of the busy holiday shopping season.

There’s been no response yet from Minardi about being contradicted by headquarters. Come to think of it, there’s been no word from him at all since his maiden interview. Why do I think it’ll be a long time until we hear from him again?

It’s a shame, too, because it’s nice to witness some actual candor in this age of media training, spin-doctoring and professional muzzlers.

Friday, December 22, 2006

6 things that shouldn’t survive 2006

When the big ball drops in Times Square on Dec. 31, we can only hope these industry annoyances pass with it:

The call-us-back-to-confirm-reservations ruse: Ahh, of course I’ll make it my responsibility to give you a confirmation call before I step into your restaurant to spend a few hundred dollars on a meal. It’s the least I can do to spare you lost sales and anxiety, not to mention effort and aggravation.

Hey, why don’t I just cook the food and serve it to myself, too? After I hang up my coat and fetch my wine selection, too.

Glasses of wine priced at the level of an entrée: America is drinking better, but price gouging has been elevated to an art. When you know a bottle of your wine selection would retail for less than twice the price of a glass, something’s wrong. Speaking as a consumer, I’d much rather pay a reasonable mark-up several times than pop for a single wallet-buster. And as a business person, I can’t help but wonder when there’ll be a backlash. Some companies are already rewriting their travel policies to deny reimbursement for alcoholic beverages consumed solo, as when you have a glass of wine with a late hotel dinner.

The pooh-poohing of the avian flu threat: Even the National Restaurant Association had predicted the much-feared disease would appear somewhere in the United States during 2006 (in the summertime, to be precise). As did many of the white-coated lab geeks who stepped before a camera now and again to warn of the dire possibilities. But, despite a few low-level scares, the dreaded disease never appeared as expected, and the public’s apprehension dissolved like Michael Jackson’s career. Which is frightening, because the danger wasn’t miscalculated; only the timing was. Yet the public seemingly believes the danger is past—that we dodged a bullet.

In truth, nothing’s changed but the perception. And that’s set the public up for a shock that could have consumers hunkering down in their basements with pots on their heads. The window for convincing them that the disease could be managed stayed open longer than expected, yet the opportunity wasn’t exploited. Instead, we have situations like the one in Marin County, Calif., where 40,000 school children recently brought home flyers warning their parents of the disease’s potentially devastating effects and encouraging them to stockpile water and other essential supplies. Oh, yeah, that’ll really help restaurant sales if an instance of avian flu is reported. And those mom and dads will be certain to let little Tyler or Tiffany head to their jobs at KFC, Houston’s, McDonald’s or any other place where they might be handling chicken.

The warnings aren’t the problem. It’s the industry’s complacency that is. It should be teaching the public that this is a virus that dies with proper cooking, so cooked chicken and poultry aren’t a threat. Yet there’s not a peep from the trade.

We can only hope that reticence will end before we hear the yelp that avian flu has indeed landed here. And keep in mind that authorities have yet to say what killed more than 2,500 ducks in a matter of days near a spring in the wilds of Idaho in mid-December. They’ve acknowledged that they’re testing the carcasses for avian flu, so the alarm could be sounded soon.

Paris Hilton’s stardom: This has absolutely nothing to do with the restaurant industry. But my list of things that should end with 2006 would be deceitfully incomplete mentioning it.

Militant shareholders: Wall Street has crowed that activists like Bill Ackman, Nelson Peltz and the crew at Pirate Capital did a service for investors by goading management to make critical strategic changes. And, indeed, the share prices of victims like McDonald’s and Wendy’s have climbed. But that assessment is based on short-term gains, not the long range. Who among the gadflies has more money, a better business mind, or a healthier portfolio than Warrant Buffet? And his strategy? Buy and hold for the long range, and don’t interfere in the day to day.

Besides, it’s hard to support the very notion that shareholders can redirect a company’s activities on their whim. It’s like championing shower mold, or naming your kid after George Steinbrenner.

Nelson Peltz’s silence: I’m still hoping for an interview with the media-shy investment activist, something that I might’ve mentioned here a time or two, and maybe in my column in Nation’s Restaurant News.

Oh, well. It’s a brand-new year. Maybe he’ll come around in ’07.

In the meantime, a happy holiday to all you readers, and thanks for your attention during this first year of The Scoop.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Don't quit the day job, Greg

I’m just the messenger on this because I hadn’t seen the ads until tonight. But I don’t think the criticism was unjustly harsh or off-target. If my friends and colleagues are any indication, Taco Bell’s attempt to allay food-safety concerns with a commercial featuring chain president Greg Creed is a waste of money. It’s not as if those associates doubt the safety of Taco Bell. As one put it, the contamination of produce at the farm level has turned dining out into a crapshoot, and the lettuce-triggered outbreak of E. coli that sickened 71 Taco Bell customers was just a stroke of bad luck for a chain that apparently did nothing wrong.

But nor did it do right by airing the spots that feature Creed. There he appears in a unit, wearing a suit, assuring patrons that it’s safe to eat in Taco Bell restaurants again. As one colleague put it, the guy doesn’t look as if he’s eaten a taco in years. Another noted that she saw the spot in Atlanta, where fright levels were minimal to start because the outbreak hadn’t extend that far south. At best, the spots do no harm. At worst, they do no good.

The Yum! Brands-owned chain might have fared better if it’d heeded the advice of my wife, who views all major fast-food chains as the handiwork of Satan. Michael Jacobson of CSPI would blush at her vehemence.

But she may be onto something this time. If Taco Bell really wants to assure patrons that fears of a food-borne illness are ungrounded, then its executives should eat lunch and dinner in the once-contaminated stores for a week straight. The canaries who put themselves in the coal mine should include the units’ managers and regional directors.

And Creed should do the same. Ideally with his family. That would do a lot more to demonstrate confidence than the most aggressive television blitz.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Live from Indy, it's norovirus!

Welcome to Meet that Pathogen, the blog entry that introduces you to the viruses and bacteria making today’s headlines. And today’s focus is none other than that current page-one favorite, that star of radio, internet and health advisory alike, the veritable Tom Cruise of micro-organisms, the norovirus.

Currently making headlines for likely sickening 370 people who ate at an Olive Garden in the Indianapolis area, the bug has also been tagged the culprit for the 975-person outbreak linked to the famed Dinosaur restaurant in Syracuse, N.Y. Around the same time, it afflicted an Applebee’s in Michigan, where dozens of patrons were infected, forcing the restaurant to close. After the place reopened, more customers were stricken, pushing the toll of victims to 250 and forcing the outlet to shut again.

Despite that recent streak of damage, the virus is relatively unknown within the restaurant industry, where cries of “Food-borne illness!” usually signal outbreaks of E. coli, salmonella or listeria. Perhaps that’s because norovirus doesn’t have to be food-borne. Indeed, authorities say it’s much more likely to be passed from person-to-person, either through direct contract, or by touching surfaces like a bathroom doorknob. The Centers for Disease Control has reportedly looked at 11 norovirus outbreaks in New York State. Only two were the result of food being contaminated. Seven resulted from an infected person spreading the contagion, which is what authorities expect was the case at the Indianapolis-area Olive Garden.

But the germ has become as common as deck chairs in the cruise-ship industry. And, indeed, one of its many aliases is cruise-ship virus. It’s also well-known as the Norwalk virus, so named after Norwalk, Ohio, where it caused a highly publicized and extensive outbreak among grade-schoolers in 1968.

The symptoms it evokes have generated a list of names for the collection of ailments, including winter vomiting disease, stomach flu and the catch-all term food poisoning. The signs include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pains, nausea, and fever is common, all of which typically pass in a matter of days.

Sanitation geeks usually wince and curse when they hear any of the bug’s names being used, not so much because of its effects on humans, but because it’s relatively difficult to eradicate. In Indianapolis, for instance, authorities reportedly told the unit’s managers to clean every hard surface with a bleach solution. The chain kept the store closed for two days to sanitize it.

This is a pathogen that, sadly, is likely to become more familiar to the foodservice industry as more outbreaks are logged. The industry perhaps has work to do in strengthening its defenses. In Indiana, officials are understandably speaking with the Olive Garden’s management about hand-washing policies. But they’re also discussing the outlet’s sick-leave policy, since three employees have tested positive for the virus.

Well, we’re out of time. Next on Meet the Pathogen: An interview with Listeria.

Friday, December 15, 2006


Taco Bell executives insist the chain’s outlets are completely safe again, but the kid-packed town of Port Washington, N.Y., apparently didn’t get the memo. A unit there, smack in the hot zone where dozens of Taco Bell patrons were sickened by E. coli in recent weeks, is usually a choice place to observe the current waistband heights and mating rituals of the skateboarding masses. But a visit during dinner tonight found the place completely empty. The only customer was an absolute imbecile who risked his health and his family’s well-being for the asinine reason of doing research for a blog that probably will be the death of him, unless he’s murdered first by his spouse, as one commentator put it. But I think my wife is starting to calm down.

Of course, it didn’t help my cause to parrot Taco Bell’s assertions that its outlets are safer than an Idaho mother’s milk, and that germ sniffers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have adjudged the outbreak officially over. Her exact response: “And you believe those idiots?”

As I saw during my visit to our local Taco Bell, she is far, far from being the only person with that conviction. After reading about outbreaks involving spinach, tomatoes, Taco Bell, Applebee’s, Taco John’s, lettuce and Olive Garden, she’s written off the chain sector as the Chernobyl of the restaurant industry, with inherent dangers that only a Borat-caliber moron would brave for the sake of a chalupa. And the people safeguarding that noxious lot, she and others seem convinced, are as spin-doctor-y and smoke-spouting as the Moscow bureaucrats who tried to explain away the clouds that had cows in Belgium veritably glowing with radiation.

That skepticism came to mind as I was sitting in the Port Washington Taco Bell and watching the two persons on duty. They were cleaning when I came into the store; they stopped and washed their hands before one took my order and the other prepared it; and then they plunged back into their cleaning spree. The unit made a hospital O.R. seem like the men’s room at Penn Station.

Yet a crowd was at the Burger King next door, and the pair running the Taco Bell looked resigned to a shift that would pass with the speed of a kindergarten’s dance recital.

The industry has lost its credibility, yet it’s not doing enough to restore it. Sure, it’s looking at various ways it can prevent food-safety crises, and that’s a great thing. Taco Bell, for instance, said twice this week that it plans to lead the formation of a coalition that would set new safeguards for the industry’s supply chain. That ad hoc group would include competitors, regulators and suppliers, it said.

A noble gesture, indeed. And something that surely shows Taco Bell’s seriousness about averting catastrophes like the recent E. coli outbreaks. Except that a group very much like it already exists. It was formed this fall, around the time of the spinach-related E. coli outbreak, by the National Restaurant Association, with the express purpose of setting standards for produce. Why doesn’t Taco Bell know about that if it’s really serious about fostering safety on a macro level?

Indeed, the chain needs to watch what it says and does. I participated in the media conference that the chain hastily called on Monday night (it alerted the general media 26 minutes ahead of the start time, or about 5:34 in the evening). Taco Bell president Greg Creed was the featured presenter. But I kept expecting Rod Serling to butt in.

Creed gave the impression that extensive testing had found no traces of E. coli in any ingredients used by the Taco Bells in the four-state area of the outbreak. Then I asked him about white onions. Oh, yeah, testing did find some E. coli in those, but it wasn’t the same strain as the one that had made everyone sick, he said.

Ah, I see. It’s a completely different contamination. A flukey coincidence. But, um, what about that assertion that all ingredients are safe?

He also said that federal officials had identified lettuce, cheese and beef as the statistically probable causes of the outbreak. But since it couldn’t be beef or cheese—the former’s cooked, the latter’s pasteurized—lettuce had to be the culprit.

Well, if it couldn’t be cheese or beef, why did the Centers for Disease Control say those ingredients were also under suspicion? And why did Taco Bell throw out shipments of those foodstuffs from a particular supplier and then change vendors? Wasn’t it all safe by virtue of the processes that prompted Taco Bell to declare lettuce the “most probable” cause?

And it didn’t exactly calm fears when it stressed that it only used a small portion of the lettuce that was under suspicion. Creed emphasized that Taco Bell buys only 20 percent of the implicated vendor’s shredded lettuce, which meant that a lot of tainted greens could’ve been floating out in the market. Of course, that raises the likelihood that E. coli victims could have ingested the bug at other places, a significant finding when you’ve already been sued by two parties, with more lawsuits almost certain to follow.

If my one-unit mystery-shop was any indication, the chain is doing a great job of safeguarding the public (and, indeed, no one disputes that the problem was an ingredient shipped into the unit in a contaminated form, rather than any mistake the chain or its units might have made). But it needs to allay the concerns of folks like my wife. Because I'd like to get my stuffed burrito without a dessert of abuse. And that couple working at my local unit sure looked as if they'd appreciate the business.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Take this pitch and shove it

Covering food-borne illnesses for the last week hasn’t been pleasant, and not merely because the volume has been unparalleled (about 1,400 people sickened in at least five outbreaks involving five well-known restaurant operations). The unease is more a result of the yuck factor: Journalists have to eat, too, and we in the foodservice media probably do it more often in restaurants, including chain facilities, than your typical E.coli-averse person.

What increases the nausea are the walking chancre sores who see kidney failure and the hospitalization of kids as an opportunity to land some ink. Since news reports of the E.coli and norovirus situations first emerged, we’ve been besieged by parties who smell an opportunity. This one has a widget that certainly would have averted an E.coli outbreak like the one that hit Taco Bell. Curiously, Company B has a miracle-working gizmo that’s even better, and is willing to grant us an opportunity to learn why it outstrips everything offered by respectable suppliers with proven products.

More lawyers than you’d normally see behind an ambulance have called because they have some thoughts on E.coli-related litigation that would be great fodder for our stories, if not the basis for an article just on them. Translation: Write me up and maybe someone reading it might hire me to sue a restaurant chain on their behalf.

Ditto for insurance advisors, who merely want to explain in print how essential it is to have coverage against a food-safety catastrophe. It’ll all be totally generic, they assure us. It’s merely a coincidence that the form of coverage they recommend is exactly the sort their firm offers. Sorry, but I’m only taking calls from the Geico lizard from this point forward.

Then there are the consultants who know precisely what mistakes an afflicted chain made that resulted in the outbreaks, and want to enlighten our readers at absolutely no charge. Right. From their in-home study, they were able to determine sight-unseen what the likes of Taco Bell and Applebee’s were too dumb to realize. Never mind that some of the affected restaurants appear to be victims themselves, stung by produce that was likely contaminated when it was still in the ground.

They’re like plastic surgeons standing at the sight of a serious car crash, passing out business cards.

Actually, there’s a name for opportunists who feed on tragedy like that. Oh, gosh, what is it again? Oh, yeah, I remember now—maggots.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Like father, like son?

With the volume of executives who've moved from Dallas-based Brinker International to Phoenix-headquartered P.F. Chang’s, some industry wags have taken to calling the Asian-chain operator "Brinker West." From Chang’s CEO Rick Federico to president Bert Vivian and director Lane Cardwell, there have been enough defect-ees to wear a footpath between the casual-dining giants.

Now the overlap is spreading to a second generation. Yesterday, Chang’s named sports marketer Tim McDougall as its chief marketing officer. He earned that responsibility by heading the marketing operations of pro basketball’s New Orleans Hornets and Houston Rockets. But his new employer must hope he’s inherited some restaurant acumen, too. He’s the son of Ron McDougall, Brinker International’s former CEO.

Not coincidentally, the elder McDougall rose to that post through marketing, serving under Norman Brinker when both were at Pillsbury. Ron was Norm’s second in command throughout the formative years of Chili’s and their early subsidiary concepts, Macaroni Grill and On The Border.

Theirs is hardly the only family affair in foodservice. The Hislop family’s boys, Mike and Steve, both formerly oversaw chains (Il Fornaio and O’Charley’s, respectively). John Metz built a sizeable contract-management concern before becoming a T.G.I. Friday’s franchisee, and son John, Jr. is part of that business now, too, after opening some fine-dining restaurants in Atlanta. Former IHOP marketer Steve Pettise was followed into the business by his son, as was Rich Hohman, the late one-time chief of Country Kitchen. And, of course, there are the Marriott boys, Bill and Dick.

For an industry that supposedly dehumanizes people with the baseness of its work, foodservice certainly draws a lot of individuals who have plunged in after watching their parents or siblings toiling in the trade. They know exactly what that career track holds, and they chose the life nonetheless. Detractors call it a dead-end field, but clearly they're missing what people-in-the-know readily see. Why else would they follow in a close relative's footsteps?

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Humans 0, Germs 1,189, Radioactivity favored

The war against dangerous microbes hasn’t been going well for the human side. Thirty-nine people were reportedly sickened by bacteria linked to New York-area Taco Bell restaurants, 900 were struck by a viral contamination traced to the famed Dinosaur barbecue outlet in Syracuse, N.Y., and at least 250 customers and employees of an Applebee’s in Michigan have been afflicted with the gastrointestinal maladies of a norovirus infection, which has yet to be contained there. And that’s all in the last few weeks.

There’s no consolation there even for the hardest-hearted competitors, since any place can be tarred with suspicions if one of its kind is implicated in an outbreak. Besides, who wants to best a rival in that fashion?

But from Great Britain comes an astounding indication that consumers may run hot or cold on being poisoned. A Polish restaurant in the city of Sheffield is doing killer business because of its name: The Polonium. That moniker was little more than a curiosity (it was the name of the properietor’s Polish folk band) until cold-war spy and Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive isotope. Since he died, and left a compelling mystery as to why he was poisoned and by whom, The Polonium has been enjoying an upsurge in business.

Ditto, reportedly, for outlets of the sushi chain whose London unit was where the polonium-210 may have been slipped into Litvinenko’s food. Traces of the radioactive material have been founded in that branch of Itsu, but it hasn’t kept customers away, according to British press reports.

Who’d have thought a poisoning could be a traffic generator?

Sunday, December 3, 2006

'Yes, we can. Er, no we can't.'

Ronald McDonald should be redrafting his holiday gift list to put “walkie-talkies for all executives” smack at the top. Maybe then they’d say the same thing about McDonald’s readiness for New York City’s planned trans-fat restrictions, which are expected to be approved Tuesday.

Instead, the public pronouncements have shown little of the chain’s famous consistency. A few weeks ago, CEO Jim Skinner told a group of portfolio managers that McDonald’s would be ready to replace its partially hydrogenated fryer oil with a zero-trans-fat variety if the restriction on restaurants is adopted. His assurance was reported in a slew of news reports, including the lead story of a recent Nation’s Restaurant News.

Then, on Thursday, articles in The Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal had the chain singing a much-different tune (“We’re not lovin’ it”?) Granted, that revised assessment came second-hand. Both papers said they’d been told by Peter Vallone Jr., a city councilman best known for being the son of a like-named political luminary, that McDonald’s would not be able to comply with the measure in its current form until June 2008. Yet the restriction on restaurants’ use of the artery clogger would be put in place a year earlier. The younger Vallone said he’d been given that message by a McDonald’s lobbyist, Patrick Thiesen.

Both publications tried to check the assertion with McDonald’s, but the company would neither confirm nor deny the reports. However, a spokesperson told the Journal that the chain would indeed be able to comply with the ban if it’s enacted.


Clearly some spin-doctoring is being done here. But the proponents aren’t staying on message. Can McDonald’s comply or not? At other times, representatives have suggested that the chain couldn’t switch to a trans-fat-free oil at this point because the choices available would affect the taste of the famous McDonald’s French fries. Yet the Golden Arch-studded restaurants in Australia, among other places, have already made the switch.

Are we to believe that McDonald’s simultaneously a) can’t make the switch; b) actually can make the switch; c) would never sacrifice the taste of its fries; d) doesn’t have an oil ready that will preserve the current gold-standard taste of its signature side dish; e) will indeed make the change if required? All simultaneously? Even Hogwarts couldn’t deliver that sort of magic.

Ronald McDonald’s title is technically chief smile officer. But with that kind of hedging, he’s might be getting some memos from the top about excessive frowning.