Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Let's hear it for carrots

This has been an exceptional week for carrots. First, lawmakers in Virginia decided to curb restaurant patrons’ exposure to cigarette smoke by leading consumers to places that voluntarily ban it, instead of ordering all establishments to snuff out the butts. A bill approved yesterday in one chamber of the state’s legislature would require places that permit smoking to post a sign forewarning customers of the proprietor’s choice. Proponents believe the measure will clear the air of more restaurants by giving them a business incentive to prohibit smoking.

Now comes word that Los Angeles County is trying to purge trans fats from the kitchens of its restaurants by offering a marketing incentive to places that voluntarily yank the heart clogger from their recipes. Under an agreement brokered by the local restaurant association, places that eliminate trans fats will be given a decal they can post in their windows, certifying that the establishment is heart-friendly. The signs presumably will shape consumer behavior, which in turn will lead more restaurants to rid their places of the partially hydrogenated oils.

By making a certain “go” more attractive, both areas may be able to avoid the flat-out “no” of bans.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

You'll pay one way or another

Restaurants’ traditional sick-leave policy can be summed up in four words: No work, no pay. That hard-nosed stance may be scorned by employees and faulted by the public, but the trade insists it’s necessary to avert red ink. How can a restaurant afford to pay an hourly staffer who’s out sick and the person who’s filling in for him or her? What’ll that do to margins that are already thinner than a crepe?

The industry is about to find out, beginning in San Francisco next week. The city is the first place in the country to mandate paid sick leave from restaurants and other employers, but it certainly won’t be the last. If public disdain for the industry’s current sick-leave standard doesn’t force the change, well-founded concerns about the health risks certainly will.

By all accounts, residents of San Francisco didn’t vote in a referendum to mandate paid sick leave in their city because of concerns that an ailing restaurant employee might pass along the infection to them. Rather, all the observers say the requirement was approved by 61 percent of voters out of a sense of fairness. How can you expect restaurant workers to get by if the flu or some other ailment waylays them for a week? It just didn’t seem right, at least if you viewed the situation from the employee’s standpoint.

So, starting Feb. 5, restaurant staffers will accrue one hour of paid sick-leave time for every 30 hours they work. Assuming that a server puts in five hours a day, six days a week, that waiter or waitress would be entitled to one paid sick day every five weeks, or 10 per year. In one of the regulations few qualifications, businesses that employ fewer than 10 people are protected by a cap of 40 hours of paid leave per year. For all others, the maximum benefit is 72 hours.

And it applies across the board, to part-time employees as well as full-timers. Opponents not that even a babysitter or the kid who cuts someone’s lawn would be entitled to the benefit.

That considerable burden to small businesses might serve as a yellow light to other areas. But the bright green signal is the health risk of a non-paid sickness policy. If people have to forego their income if they don’t work, they’re strongly motivated to clock in even if they’re running to the bathroom every few minutes. They’ll just have to hope their fellow kitchen workers will cover for them during those frequent breaks from their food-handling duties.

With the current prevalence of hepatitis A and norovirus, that situation could pose a profound community health hazard. Three employees of an Olive Garden in an Indianapolis suburb reportedly came to work while stricken with the latter ailment, more commonly known as the cruise-ship virus. About 370 customers were said to have taken ill afterward. No wonder local health officials indicated that they were speaking with representatives of the restaurant about its sick-leave policies.

The big question is, how can a restaurant extend paid sick leave to its employees without making its investors more than a little nauseous? This is one were the pressure on the industry may be reasonable, but so are the objections about the cost.

At the very least, it should take action instead of waiting until it’s ordered what to do, as it was in San Francisco. The trade was caught entirely unaware, and I’d bet to this day that most operators are oblivious to what’s about to happen out there.

The trade should push hard now to prevent the Bay City’s set-up from being adopted as a model by other municipalities, counties and possibly even states. The benefit that was mandated there is out of whack with any business sense.

It also needs to develop an alternative standard that addresses the public-health implications of the no work/no pay approach. Short of solution from Hogwarts, any change is going to cost the trade. But it may be better to find a way of assuming a small burden now, lest it be really saddled in the next election or food-borne-illness outbreak.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Pizza chains see America changing

A flurry of recent stories didn’t appear to have much of a connection beyond the mention in each of pizza. Yet the shared mindset given away by another common term suggests they’re actually as interwoven as the potholder a 7-year-old fashions at summer camp. Taken as a group, they’re strong evidence that the pizza posse is the first segment of the business to realize truly and zealously the potential of the Hispanic market.

And, most important of all, a number of chains in that sector are actually doing something about it. The industry has been squawking about the opportunity since right after Columbus arrived. Yet it took the apparent success of a concept that dared to leave the conga line and move to its own beat for others to give some bold moves a try.

Let’s pick it up with the story posted a few weeks ago about Peter Piper Pizza being purchased by a private equity company that specializes in businesses serving the Hispanic trade. The buyer, Washington, D.C.-based ACON Investments, indicated that it would intensify the Southwestern chain’s focus on Latinos. “We see a terrific opportunity to take advantage of the continued growth and expanding purchasing power of the Hispanic population,” ACON managing partner Daniel Jinich said in a statement announcing the deal, without revealing how much he and his partners paid for the 130-unit chain.

Now jump to today’s batch of news stories. You’ll find one about Pizza Hut adding a feature to the Spanish-language version of its website that allows visitors to order online, as far in advance as a week of when they want their pies. It’s likely to be a real boon for people planning a family gathering or other sizeable get-togethers.

No doubt the chain was “inspired” by the success that arch-rival Papa John’s says it’s had with a very similar set-up. That organization added the service in October.

In our Financial News section, you’ll see why so many pizza chains have suddenly become infatuated with the Hispanic market. For reasons that may have more to do with soliciting expansion partners than informing financial ones, privately held Pizza Patron disclosed that October-through-December sales at its units had shot past the tally for the last quarter of 2005 by an average of 34.6 percent. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, Pizza Patron (pronounced pa-trone, not pay-trin) was conceived as a brand that would serve Hispanic consumers and communities.

As we reported last week, as part of that effort, the chain undertook a limited-time offer in which it accepted pesos as well as dollars. It drew scathing criticism from people who believed it was pandering to illegal immigrants, but the brand let its targeted clientele know that it’s serving them.

And now, as we’ll likely to continue to report in coming weeks, it’s hardly alone in undertaking that mission.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Having a cow over rBGH

Keep this to yourself, but disagreements erupt fairly frequently within the editorial staff of Nation’s Restaurant News, just as they do in any other newspaper. But the one that simmered at a low level for several days last week should be of four-alarm interest to any restaurateur who uses a dairy product or sells a hamburger. It’s a preview of an issue that could become a hot one for the trade, in part because it’s the first to be fanned by that powerful new instigator of public outrage, the blogosphere.

For the sake of full disclosure, I’m compelled to note that I was one of the disputers. I’m not going to identify the colleague who took the other side. All you need to know is that we both have more than 20 years of experience in covering the business, and hold comparable positions within the organization. And that he was right, though both you and your potential adversaries—a formidable lot, to be sure—would probably both line up behind me. That’s precisely the problem.

The flashpoint was a news short I wrote up for about a change underway at Starbucks. The coffee giant divulged that it’s switching exclusively to milk and dairy products that contain no recombinant bovine growth hormone, a controversial genetically engineered substance known as rBGH. Or as a spokesman told the Reuters news service, "We are actively engaged with all our dairy suppliers to explore converting our core dairy products to be rBGH-free in our U.S. company-owned stores.” That’s how the home office put it—a switch to rBGH-free milk, half-and-half and whipped cream.

That might be what they said, my colleague observed after he saw the item, but it makes no sense. rBGH is a compound that’s injected into cows to boost their milk output. There’s more milk coming out of a treated cow, but the fluid itself is as rBGH-free as the output of a non-injected animal, as the Food & Drug Administration and the scientific community has concluded. Indeed, dairies that market their milk as coming from untreated cows have to alert consumers that the milk is no different from what a rBGH-injected cow produces.

What Starbucks really means, my co-worker continued, is that it’ll switch to dairy products made with milk from cows that weren’t given the hormone. Authorities say the use of rBGH increases an animal’s chances of an udder infection, called mastitis, which is then treated with antibiotics. Watchdogs have contended that the antibiotics and pus from the infections can get into the milk from those cattle.

My position was, and remains, that my story had to recount what Starbucks said, not how it should have articulated the point. But my friend is correct. The trouble is, Starbucks apparently didn’t appreciate what he did. Nor do the bloggers and internet-focused advocacy groups who drove the chain to make its pledge to go rBGH-free.

A group called the Cancer Prevention Coalition has this posted on its website, as I discovered by Googling rBGH: “rBGH milk differs from natural milk chemically, nutritionally, pharmacologically and immunologically.”

The Ethicurean was one of the bloggers who urged consumers to participate in a virtual protest by calling Starbucks en masse on Dec. 5 to “let them know that you want your milk rBGH-free.” In other words, to pursue a fallacy.

Food & Water Watch also implored the public to participate in Starbucks National Call-In Day. “In fact, any day is a good day to tell Starbucks to switch to rBGH-free milk,” the advocacy group says on its website,

Clearly, the facts are getting lost. And it’s not just a matter of semantics. By suggesting there’s a genetically engineered growth hormone in the milk your child might be drinking, the advocates are conjuring up a danger that doesn’t exist.

One other thing the restaurant industry should consider: Right now the focus is on milk. But advocates assert that rBGH taints the flesh of injected cows as well, even though authorities have dismissed that contention as groundless. And 40 percent of the cattle whose meat is ground into hamburger are old dairy cows, as one of the anti-rBGH sites notes.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Is the King's a real Whopper?

Burger King’s mascot must not have apprenticed for his kingship in Great Britain, where you’d expect royal etiquette to be taught in the monarchy’s grade schools, along with jousting and defense against the dark arts. How else can you explain why the wooden-faced King and his minions keep getting into trouble over there?

As The Scoop reported, a high-level BK executive risked dungeon time a few weeks ago by asserting that the chain’s U.K. operation would probably lose at least 10 percent of its sales to a ban there on fast-food advertising during children’s telly programs. Within hours, BK headquarters in Miami was scrambling to halt the damage, asserting in a terse statement that the effect of the ban would actually be negligible. The quick sword work likely tempered the dip in the franchisor’s stock price.

Now comes word from across the pond that the King had turned knave again. The House of Whopper has been told to yank its television ads for the Double Whopper because of complaints that the specimen shown in the commercials is far larger than the sandwich sold in units. The Advertising Standards Authority agreed that the spots were misleading, and banished the King to darkness, at least for come-ons for that product.

There’s no word yet on how BK will close the gap between what’s shown in the commercials—or adverts, as the British call them—and what’s sold in the stores. Put another way, it’s not sure what the chain will upgrade, the floor model or the inventory.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Who's smarter, Ronald or the lobster?

Two of the industry’s largest and most successful companies divulged radically different strategies last week for maintaining those distinctions. McDonald’s acknowledged (with enough qualifications to please any lawyer) that it may indeed part with its Boston Market business in the near future to focus singularly on its resurging hamburger chain. Almost simultaneously, Darden Restaurants confided to investors that it may pursue the acquisition of a mid-sized chain—possibly even one that’s franchised—as a shot of Viagra for the greybeard of casual dining.

Two stellar successes, both hailed for their management acumen, each having changed the trade with their substance and styles, now reading the near-term future of the business in decidedly different ways. The question is, which one is right?

History clearly gives McD’s the better odds. Time and again, single-chain over-achievers have attempted to parlay their success into a foodservice version of the super-group. And with memorably few exceptions, the effort fails more miserably than NBC’s typical fall line-up. Burger King gave it a try with Godfather’s, Quick Wok and Haagen-Dazs, at a time when the burger chain was itself a part of a Pillsbury Corp. portfolio that included Steak and Ale and Bennigan’s. A bridge game on the Titanic would have been a more-reminisced gathering.

McDonald’s itself has tried its hand at empire building several times, starting in the days when Ray Kroc added a pie concept called Lisa Dobbins Pie Tree and a namesake gourmet burger venture called Ramond’s. More recently, its basket of brands has included Chipotle Mexican Grill, Donatos Pizza, Fazoli’s, McDonald’s with a Diner Inside, Golden Arch Café and McCafe, among others. If it indeed spins off Boston Markets, its lone remaining diversification would be a one-third stake in the Pret A Manger sandwich chain, a London powerhouse that has yet to wow Americans in its sole U.S. market of New York.

Fast-food giants aren’t the only ones who’ve stumbled in trying to add side projects. Applebee’s thought it found a new growth vehicle in Rio Bravo, a Mexican concept that had been started by its founder, Bill Palmer, who now runs the successful Up the Creek casual chain. It was more of a disaster than a teen bringing his tattooist home to meet the folks.

But there’s a profound argument in favor of growing through the addition of new brands: Darden itself. Its Olive Garden holding is arguably now overshadowing the company’s firstborn, Red Lobster. And Seasons 52, just now moving up from farm-league status for a shot at the big leagues, has been lauded as a Derek Jeter-caliber prospect. Diversification has clearly worked for the multi-billion-dollar heavyweight.

It took the company a long time to crack the code, however. At one time, its holdings extended to ventures like The Good Earth, a healthfood restaurant chain, and a higher-end T.G.I. Friday’s challenger named Darryl’s. And any observer of the sector knows that recent side projects have not gone well, from China Coast to Bahama Breeze and Smokey Bones.

Its experience underscores that it’s not a matter of acquisitions per se being helpful or detrimental. It’s more a matter of how astutely a buyer shops. Addressing investors and analysts last Thursday and Friday, Darden was specific about what kind of restaurant operation it might buy: One with about 100 units and a national reputation. And, presumably, a strong performer already in whatever nook of casual dining it plans to make its own.

Yeah, but every acquirer sets out to make a smart purchase. The issue is that few succeed.

So which is the better strategy, McDonald’s laser focus on one brand, or Darden’s scenario of buying a growth ticket if conditions are just right?

Bookmark, and we’ll be sure to let you know.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Perfect pairings

Ever on the prowl for ways to serve the restaurant community, The Scoop has decided to give matchmaking a try. And what better way to start than with these obvious pairings, suggested by recent headlines?

David Rockwell and McDonald’s – Rockwell, the rock star of interior design, is know for the sense of theater he instills in his creations, be it a restaurant (Nobu, Ruby Foo’s), a casino (Mohegan Sun) or an actual stage (the sets for the Broadway hit “Hairspray”).

And now, The New York Times reported Wednesday, Rockwell is turning his attention to the sandbox. A page-one story noted that the much-in-demand designer has agreed to come up with a 21st-Century version of the children’s playground for the City of New York. Although details have apparently not been finalized, the plans call for features like wooden ramps that tykes can run up and down; a “water zone;” and a mini-crane the kids could use as a group to fill things with sand. A prototype will be built in Manhattan, with other areas of the city encouraged to copycat it at will.

Now consider what McDonald’s is doing with its Playland indoor rec areas, one of the sleeper factors in the chain’s success. Headquarters has said it wants to convert those facilities into mini-exercise centers, called R Gyms, where kids can pedal stationary bikes, zip through an obstacle course, work up a sweat at air hockey, or shoot hoops. The stated mission is encouraging mini-patrons to be more active. Cynics contend that McD’s merely wants to mute the criticism that it’s plumping up kids without a thought about their health.

Whatever theory you buy, there’s no disputing the chain’s intent to cop a more contemporary approach to play. What better way than having Rockwell come up with something that would be to indoor playgrounds what Starbucks was to the old coffee shop?

Bubba Gump and Chris Thomas – Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., a sleeper in its own right, announced yesterday that it’s willing to sell a stake in the 24-unit chain to generate expansion capital. Last week, Sizzler and Planet Hollywood vet Chris Thomas got together with his similarly seasoned partners, former Chart House chief John Creed and one-time Embassy Suites head Clyde Culp, to announce they’d amassed a bushel of cash for restaurant acquisitions.

Is this matchmaking stuff a breeze or what?

Thomas’ firm, Restaurant Acquisition Partners, raised the money through a stock offering on Dec. 15, without an operating business currently in its fold. As what’s known as a blank-check company, it generates capital first, then hunts for a business where it could be put to use.

Creed comes from a seafood chain that preferred showcase locations; Thomas knows about Hollywood-themed movies; and Culp is an old hand at franchising and site development. Gump is a seafood dinnerhouse brand inspired by a hit flick, and franchises its big, high-volume restaurants, often in tourist destinations.

Their families should meet.

Meth Coffee and Miss Manners– It is the policy of The Scoop to avoid supplier brand names so you won’t suspect me of whoring for an advertiser. I don’t think there’ll be much risk of that here. Yesterday brought the announcement of a new hot beverage, presumably for the grocery market, but possibly slated for a subsequent push into foodservice. It’s called Meth Coffee, a “hard-hitting coffee roast for energy addicts,” ideal for “boosting stamina and mental clarity,” the promotional materials explained.

Targeted customers, the announcement continued, include “thrill seekers” and “workaholics” in need of a “jumpstart.”

Okay, we get it. It’s the crystal meth of coffee. And what could be funnier or more clever than trying to push your product by playing off a drug epidemic? Why not market it with some Crack Cakes, or a line of doughnuts called Drunk Dunks?

Indeed, the product is noteworthy. It sets a new standard in poor taste.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Big chains go Islamic

In the beginning, one version had to fit all eaters. Restaurant chains were founded on the principle of menu conformity, in part because patrons equated variation with unpleasant surprises, and largely to lower prices through mass production. Their burger was the burger you got, regardless of how you wanted it.

But in recent years, even the mass-market giants have eased their insistence on one choice for all. You can not only custom-spec your burger, but also opt for products that were developed for a particular sector of the market, be it the health-conscious or the skateboard set.

Now the industry’s mass producers are going further and addressing an inch-wide but rapidly expanding splinter of the U.S. marketplace: Followers of Islam. As the Chicago Tribune reported last week, a number of the major chains, from KFC to McDonald’s and Subway, are revamping their recipes to offer signatures that conform to Islamic dietary law. That entails using halal meat, or the flesh of chickens and cattle that are slaughtered in an approved fashion.

And don’t forget lamb. Outback now offers a dish made with a type of New Zealand lamb that qualifies as halal.

It’s not as if a halal chicken is perceivably different from a typical unsanctioned bird, as I can attest from personal experience. At least once a week, deputy editor Paul Frumkin and I head down the street here in New York for some halal chicken. We could get it from any of probably 15 carts within a half-mile radius.

We couldn’t care less that the chicken topping our rice platters is halal. But halal choices tend to be offered in New York—and presumably a number of other major cities—by Middle Eastern immigrants who cook in the style of their homelands. That means marinated and highly spiced proteins garnished with fiery or palate-cooling sauces, and often both. The chicken tastes no different per se, but vendors of the halal version tend to spice it distinctively.

The U.S. chains experimenting with halal choices are holding to their current recipes; they’re merely using halal beef or chicken in place of the non-blessed variety. And those variations have been extremely limited in scale. McDonald’s has two halal outlets, according to the Tribune story, and other press reports indicate that KFC also has only two halal outlets. Subway reportedly has a lone outlet, in New Jersey.

But those limited endeavors have been enough to stir up controversy, because the halal designation requires those mega-volume feeders to veer far from their normal supply route. They have to buy the meat of animals that were blessed in accordance with Islamic law, then slaughtered in ritualistic fashion (i.e., the throat slit by a holy person, and the blood drained).

The halal KFC stores have been assailed by some Islamic believers for selling chicken that was blessed but mechanically slaughtered. The critics say that’s the reformed version of hala, not the true form. And that’s not kosher in their eyes.

It’s also unclear how a halal quick-service outlet would handle breakfast. Pork is patently a disqualifier, which means a store would have to forego bacon and pork sausage if it wanted to keep its halal designation.

The halal units opened thus far by the big U.S. quick-service chains are all in areas with sizeable Muslim populations. It remains to be seen how stores with that designation would be received in mainstream areas. But how could they miss? With the exception of some tweaks to the breakfast menu, non-Islamic customers would not have to sacrifice a thing. And they could count on the business of Frumkin and me, which is fairly considerable.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Dam that sentiment


Looks as if the price of bottled water isn’t as elastic as restaurateurs might have thought. After charging as much for H20 as they once collected for a dinner’s complement of wine, the trade has triggered a full-fledged backlash, replete with an advocacy group, a deeply felt cause, and a loudly articulated action plan. The battle cry: Drink tap instead.

The only good news, at least from the restaurant industry’s perspective, is that the British-born crusade has yet to jump across the pond to the U.S.

If American restaurateurs are smart, they’ll try to contain the movement to Europe, like Mad Cow Disease, or the popularity of Jerry Lewis. Over there, a group calling itself the Consumer Council for Water—CCWater, for short—is arguing that patrons should forego the higher ticket of bottled waters, not only for the sake of economic sense, but also for ecological reasons. When you pop for a liter of spring water, you end up not only with dirty water glasses, but also a bottle that has to be channeled to a landfill.

What’s more, the group suggests, bottled water can be wasteful. With H20 diminishing in supply, it’s far more appropriate to drink as you go, glass by glass, instead of consuming in liter-sized increments that may not be entirely consumed.

The group isn’t a bunch of yahoos, as you can tell from a visit to its site, Its larger goal is conserving water, and it cites indications that 76 percent of British consumers don’t believe water companies do enough to conserve. It’s presumably speaking there about utilities, not water bottlers. But it’s just a slight extension to include those parties in their scope.

CCWater realizes that one of the major difficulties in getting consumers to specify tap water instead of the bottled variety is the stigma involved. Patrons are embarrassed about going with the free stuff because they’re afraid it’ll make them look cheap and uncouth.

But no one wants to look like a fool, either. And that’s how patrons might feel if they discover they’re paying as much for their water as they might for an entrée or dessert.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Bye to hockey pucks, cash, Peltz's silence

It’s a little-known nugget of trivia, but George Romero patterned the zombies in “Night of the Living Dead” after journalists who’ve just changed their calendars to a new year. They’ll stop for nothing—not a Tom Cruise meltdown, not a free buffet, not even an open bar—until they’ve sated whatever supernatural force compels them to greet Jan. 1 with a slate of predictions.

And who am I to shoo swallows away from Capistrano, or to deflect salmon from swimming upstream? In keeping with natural law, here are my prognostications for 2007.

Hockey pucks are doomed: If restaurant trends really do start in fine dining and trickle down, then we’re about to see fast-food chains reconsider those granite-like frozen rounds they plunk on their grills for conversion into what they now peddle as burgers. One of the dominant high-end trends of 2006 was a sharp interest among big-name chefs in the possibilities of the burger. Kitchen stars with names you usually see boldfaced in the consumer media were suddenly experimenting with new meats (think Angus or Kobe), new grinds (more fat content), or ingredients (especially foie gras and truffles. And, seemingly, it’s worked. The pack of high-end new burger places in New York are packed.

We’re already seeing it happen in the quick-service market with Carl’s Jr.’s Six Dollar Burger, which is several years old by this point. But look for more regional chains and upstarts to try upscale riffs on the American classic, followed by the mega-brands like McDonald’s and Burger King. We’ll soon be seeing menus studded with descriptors like “hand-formed,” “custom ground” and “never frozen.”

Cash, once king, heads into exile: Last year brought us what is probably the industry’s first cashless restaurant, a Washington, D.C. café called Snaps. The only green or silver it wants to see is the glint of a credit or debit card.

That’s a little extreme, given how few kids carry plastic, or even wallets. Ditto for lots of college kids. But more places—at the low-end, not the high—will likely urge patrons in subtle ways to forego the time needed to process a cash transaction. They’ll wager that whatever additional amounts they pay in processing fees will be offset by the higher volume they can generate during peak hours.

They key, obviously, will be new technology, like devices that allow servers to settle a credit-card tab right at the table, or EZ Pass-like automatic charge systems. That fits into the next big trend of 2007…

Transaction compression will be the new byword: Restaurateurs and customers may have different reasons, but both will celebrate new technology and procedures that streamline the necessary evil of settling tabs. Operators, and fast-food managers in particular, want to slash that time so they can handle more patrons, and make time-crunched customers that much happier. Guests just see no benefit in the process being dragged out, and will become more strident in letting that be known.

This is one of those rare situations where there’s no down side, provided the gizmos and set-ups work as promised.

Group business becomes the new takeout: Is there a full-service restaurant built today that doesn’t have a party room, or a space that could be turned into one? And would it likely forego catering?

Is there a sandwich chain or other fast-casual concept that enters the market without a strategy for landing big orders, be it a business’ lunch order for a meeting, a meal for the doctor’s office that a pharmaceutical salesperson wants to woo, or all the fixings for a Raven fan’s Super Bowl party?

Restaurateurs of all stripes have individually discovered the potential for those large orders. In 2007, the industry as a whole is going to awaken to the prospect. Casual concepts that don’t open for lunch may instead offer in-office catering services at midday. We’ll see innovation in packaging that allows big-order specialists to capture the soft-drink sales they’re currently failing to land, and anyone with an oven will be experimenting with travel-friendly new entrees, like lasagna, or casseroles rechristened with a sexier name. It will become one of the major targets of the new year, just as takeout zoomed out of nowhere to become a prized opportunity for casual chains a few years back.

Nelson Peltz socks Michael Jacobson: Angered by the profit-shaving cost of trans-fat-free oils, activist shareholders turn on the consumer advocates who pressed restaurant companies to adopt the healthier (but costlier) frying medium. In one memorable exchange, Nelson Peltz breaks his public silence to challenge CSPI chief Michael Jacobson to a joust—polo ponies at 20 yards. Jacobson declines, citing the potential for cruelty to animals, and they thumb-wrestle instead.

Actually, I don’t think that’ll happen at all. But a man can dream, can’t he?