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.


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