Thursday, May 31, 2007

Is Jupiter in the Seventh House?

On "Star Trek," they'd called it a rift in the space-time continuum. I prefer the less-dramatic notion that the apocalypse is upon us, but the full-moon theory could also fit. Clearly something paranormal must be happening to generate headlines like the ones we've been reading on the wire services all week.

Consider, for instance, the lethal dispute that erupted at a Wendy's unit in Miami over pepper sauce. A drive-thru customer wanted to singe his taste buds with enough of the chili-based condiment to fill a wading pool. But the crewmember reportedly held the line at three packets, citing the store's sauce-distribution policy. The patron insisted that he needed more sizzle, and demanded at least 10 packets. The employee astutely decided to bend the rules and handed over seven more of the foil containers, but the customer still wasn't happy. A manager went outside to defuse the situation, and was promptly shot in the arm by the guest, who zoomed off with his meal and 10 packets of hot stuff. News reports noted that the culprit was accompanied by a woman, who must have thanked the fates for bringing her such a catch. Fortunately, the manager's injuries were not life-threatening, according to the accounts, which noted that he was treated at a hospital and released.

It's a shame the guy with the smoking mouth (and gun) couldn't be used to demonstrate the new market-research tool that was rolled out of the lab this week by some white-coated types in New York. The technology gauges consumers' reactions to brands, products and packaging by scanning the brains of subjects as they look at the items, thereby revealing their "secret thoughts," the promoters explained. The approach is based on the sound science that different areas of the brain kick into motion for pleasure, while others rev up at times of revulsion or retching. By taking a snapshot of the mind in motion, marketers can tell what consumers really think of their products or advertising, instead of merely asking them. Mr. Sauce, I suspect, might've yielded a scan that could double as a desert-scene screensaver.

On their own, those news developments would have been shrugged off as mere curiosities. Suspicions of a pattern arose because they came too soon after an incident that prompted several of us to wonder if we just weren't getting some elaborate joke. Indeed, the editor who covered the situation for us filed her story with the preface, "Let the puns begin." You just don't get that many chances to write a restaurant-related article that pivots on the word "anus."

Yet that was the case when CKE Restaurants sued Jack in the Box last week for running commercials that knocked competitors' Angus burgers. In the opinion of the Carl's Jr. parent, the spots suggested that the name "Angus" is based on cattle anatomy, not breed. Jack owed it to the chains now selling the premium beef to point out that the meat isn't anus-based, CKE insisted.

If the situation had erupted one week hence, we might've indeed shrugged it off as a late April Fool's joke, or some tongue-in-cheek volleying by two arch-rival Southern California chains. But it did happen last week, and the moon won't be completely full until tonight.

Monday, May 28, 2007

It's good. But what is it?

Forget the light bulb queries. The question right now is how many restaurateurs it takes to agree on a definition. Clearly 73,000 aren’t enough, because attendees of last week’s restaurant convention in Chicago couldn’t decide on a label for the trend that colored the gathering. Yet designations were thrown around like restaurant recommendations, leaving no doubt the event marked a turning point for the trade. If only it could decide what to call the phenomenon.

“Going green,” maybe? Nope, snipped skeptics who don’t see that term applying to issues like how chickens live before they end up in a KFC bucket, or whether the day’s fresh fish is a species in danger of being wiped out. Ah, “sustainability,” then? No, not exactly, since what does the use of non-recycled building supplies have to do with fertilizer-free produce or buying from local growers? That’s sustainability. Of course, if you went to the seminar on sustainability and organics, you also heard about matters like truck-fuel consumption, and the use of growth hormones on dairy cows. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, given how much time was devoted during the going-green seminar to the popularity of organics.

The convention’s planners must have seen sustainability and green as two very different things. Why else would they have scheduled the sessions at exactly the same time, as if those topics appealed to audiences with far different sensibilities? Not that it mattered. One was standing-room-only; the other about 80 percent filled, or a box-office smash by NRA seminar standards.

Clearly the industry has awakened to an environmental responsibility—a sense that actions have to be adjusted to do the least harm to the globe and the carbon forms inhabiting it. But it’s still groping for the right vocabulary to designate its concerns and actions.

The problem goes beyond semantics. As several speakers noted, some charlatans are exploiting the lack of agreed-upon terms to designate their products as the greatest boon to the environment since Al Gore bought a Prius. If no baby seals were hurt in its production, why not label it “eco-friendly?” And it could conceivably be melted down and turned into plowshares. Why not market it as “recyclable,” even if not a one has indeed yet been recycled?

With that sort of medicine-show grifting, restaurants could act in good conscience yet still find themselves being picketed by activists with a different read. Or they could just get turned off by all the hucksterism and step back from what is fast becoming a movement.

If the industry is serious about being more environmentally responsible—and the gathering last week in Chicago strongly suggested that it is—then the trade would be smart to draft its own eco-definitions and terms. It needs a language, a set of common terms used and understood by operators and suppliers alike. Only then can it determine what will truly fertilize the movement, and what's your garden-variety BS.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Save the pool table!

The foosball table, I regret to inform you, is in grave danger. Once as important to a bar’s success as a good jukebox, the tavern athlete’s game of choice is being hustled off to basements and store rooms by a movement that could ultimately jeopardize the pool table or bar TV if it goes unchecked: The neighborhood watering hole is being gentrified. Give it a better menu, hire a genuine chef to handle the kitchen, and suddenly it’s a gastro-pub. So long, foosball. And don’t even ask about the pinball machine.

The trend started off with great promise in New York. The prototype was The Spotted Pig, which reigned as my favorite restaurant after its opening in the far reaches of western Greenwich Village. This was truly a pub, and truly deserving of the gastro designation. It’s corn soup was the stuff of daydreams. And its gnocchi-like signature dish was something to build a vacation around. Then it became so popular that I couldn’t get near it, even at lunch. Not exactly the true pub it purported to be.

Later incarnations of the trend seemed more diner-bar than gastro-pub. The menu might have aimed far higher than nachos, burgers, chicken wings and sandwiches. But the execution was a different matter. And the ambience didn’t have that coziness of a pub. They were dressed up bars trying to ride the latest foodie fancy.

A visit last week to what claims to be Chicago’s first gastro-pub did little to revive the hopes that were kindled by The Spotted Pig. Called BB’s, it sported a menu of comfort foods ranging from tiny burgers to chicken schnitzel, mac and cheese, chicken pot pie and beef stroganoff. If the latter was any indication, the place earned a big check next to the gastro descriptor.

But it was no pub. Though it was described as a neighborhood bar, it would only fit the bill if Thurston Howell III lived nearby. Gastro-bar would have been a better description. Restaurant-with-big-bar would be closer to the truth. Ambience-wise, it just didn’t deliver the same low-key feel you’d expect after reading about the gastro-pubs of London, where the concept is an integrated part of the culinary array.

And—need I say it?—I didn't spy a foosball table.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Strands of industry DNA

In Phase 1 of his immigration, Atour Eyvazian kept himself alive by scraping snow off the Iranian mountainside and eating anything green he could scavenge from the frozen ground. The grass diet kept him from losing more than 40 lbs. as he clawed his way up and across the mountains for 20 hours each day. His motivation was hardly the love of adventure that drives people up Mount Everest. Iran’s fundamentalist thugs were chasing him, eager to pull him back to his possible death. And he wanted to get to the America.

The 19-year-old evaded the Revolutionary Guard—only to be nabbed on the other side of the mountains by the Turkish police. This is a bit of conjecture, but they weren’t hung up on that Miranda thing back in 1984. Eyvazian had to bribe them with $200 his mother had sewn into his pair of 501 jeans. He was already dressing the part of an American. And now he was a step closer to becoming one.

Eventually he would get there. And just as he’d suspected, there was a great opportunity awaiting him—as a janitor in a Jack in the Box.

Today, some 23 years later, Eyvazian is still with the West Coast chain. Indeed, he now owns 10 franchises in Sacramento. The distance he traveled can’t be measured in mere miles.

In any other industry, people would nudge one another and point to him as he moved through a crowd. Here, beyond a doubt, was a person with a story to recount in hushed whispers. But such tales are as common as forks in the restaurant business. It’s a unique but uncelebrated distinction of the business.

And now a bunch of those stories are being told, out loud and for thunderous applause. The National Restaurant Association has instituted a new program called the Faces of Diversity Awards, recognizing industry members like Eyvazian. He was the inaugural winner of the American Dream prize.

But his selection couldn’t have been a slam-dunk. In announcing the winners during its convention here, the NRA provided the stories of 48 finalists for the Faces of Diversity honors. Whole movie studios could be built around the collection of accounts, with enough riveting scripts to keep audiences enrapt for decades. Like Klara Cvitanovich, the owner of Drago’s Seafood Restaurant in Metairie, La. As a girl in Yugoslavia, she watched the Nazis burn her father’s business. They were succeeded by Tito’s Communists, who jailed him. Decades later, after a life of poverty, she came to the United States with her new husband, Drago, and eventually settled in the New Orleans area, opening up a restaurant that’s now a pillar of the local dining scene.

Or Joe Machicote of Compass Group, a familiar figure to anyone who attends the industry’s human-resources-focused conferences. Lesser known is his rise from difficult circumstances in Harlem and the Bronx, with ugly instances of prejudice mixed in along the way.

Or Koshy Chacko, who grew up in a mud hut in India, leaving that bleak situation in his teens to scavenge for food in the streets. But a stint as a soldier taught him how to type, and that was the springboard to eventually getting his Ph. D. in world economics. Yet when he came to the United States, the only job he could land was in a deli. Now he owns a humming restaurant in the northern suburbs of New York City, called the Fair Deal Café. Its stated niche is serving good food for an affordable price to average people.

Remember, there are 48 accounts of that sort. And this is Year One of the program.

By the standards of anyone but a trophy-shop owner, our industry gives out enough awards to make even the un-cynical wonder what’s left to celebrate. But this program is an extremely welcome addition. Indeed, it’s overdue.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Who's turning green?

Is one of the big national chains about to market itself as "green"? During a seminar this afternoon at the National Restaurant Association's mega-convention in Chicago, Michael Oshman, executive director of the Green Restaurant Association, said he'd met with the CEO of a chain that ranks among the industry's 10 largest. Oshman didn't reveal the name, but cited it as an example of how restaurant operations big and small are looking to become more ecologically responsible. "The restaurant industry was not at the forefront" of the green movement, Oshman said, "But it's happening," and not just to land green-sensitive customers. "It's also about employees," he said.

His contention was amply supported by other developments during the first day and a half of the show. The NRA, for instance, revealed that its board is forming a new green task force, to look at what operators can do to address ecological concerns. Oshman's seminar on the marketing benefits of going green drew a healthy turnout; the session held simultaneously in the room next door, on sustainability and organics, had a standing-room-only crowd. The content of the two programs were almost interchangeable at times.

Meanwhile, a number of suppliers used words like "sustainable," "recyclable" or "ecologically responsible" to tout new products. Coke, for instance, unveiled a new bag-in-box concentrated syrup that yields more cups of soft drinks per container, which saves on cardboard and the fuel needed for shipping.

Oshman was guarded about what chains or independents have sought out the services of his non-profit organization, which helps operations develop the basis to market themselves as green. But he noted that Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a Southern California beverage chain with a cult-like following, is now the Green Restaurant Association's biggest collaborator.

He also addressed fears that going green can carry a prohibitive price, suggesting there may be some justification for the concern. But, he indicated, operators can push back on suppliers more effectively than they might think. Or such was the case with the $1,000 toilet.

Oshman explained that an operation looking to earn the GRA's green designation had been advised by the group to install toilets that use less water than standard models. The restaurant was quoted a price of $1,000, versus what Oshman said is a price of about $300 for a conventional toilet. It was a no-go. But, Oshman said, the GRA was able to convince the supplier to knock 70 percent off the price. Unfortunately, he didn't reveal why the vendor was cooperative.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Flooding the market with memories

Watching the chains churn out their new menu items for spring and summer, you quickly reach two conclusions: CKE Restaurants’ R&D team should be checked for steroids, and nostalgia is in.

Hardee’s, CKE’s southeastern chain, is where the two trends intertwine. Earlier this week, the burger specialist added a patty melt, a sandwich I first encountered when my folks took me to Howard Johnson’s. Hardee’s version is a bit different from the sandwich that shared the HoJo menu with specialties like Welsh Rarebit and the two-hotdog Daily Double. True to the prevailing current in fast-food, it’s more upscale than your father’s patty melt (the patty is Angus). Yet it also manages to fit the sector’s other key dynamic of heft (it’s the latest in Hardee’s Thickburger line). All for $2.99.

The patty melt follows the limited introduction just a few weeks ago of the Big Shef, the signature sandwich of Burger Chef, a chain that was ultimately absorbed into Hardee’s. For all extents and purposes, it’s not been on the scene for 20 years. Yet Hardee’s brought it back to play off fond memories.

It’s hardly alone in taking that tack. Wendy’s is expected to introduce what amount to ice cream floats—soft-serve ice cream mixed with cola or root beer. Jack in the Box added a grilled-cheese sandwich. Bennigan’s recently promoted fajitas, a staple of casual dining since the 1980s.One of the latest additions to the menu of Shari’s, the Northwestern family chain, was kielbasa, the Eastern European comfort food. Burger King is embracing iced coffee.

Perhaps those chains are reaching back for updates on classics in part out of sheer necessity. Chain R&D teams seemingly need to come up with so many more menu additions or limited-time offers these days. Not a day seems to go by without some system fly-casting a potential new customer lure into the market.

The volume leaders in that respect have to be Jack in the Box, which seems to introduce new products the way an independent spotlights specials, and Hardee’s. On the same day the introduction of the Big Shef was introduced, Hardee’s also aired plans to start serving turkey at breakfast as part of yet another nostalgic item, a club sandwich. And that intro came merely a few months after the launch of a spicy Buffalo-style chicken sandwich at both Hardee’s and its CKE sister, Carl’s Jr. Which, in turn, came just weeks after Hardee’s resurrected its Monster mega-burger.

Maybe there’s not much else to do in Hardee’s hometown of St. Louis except develop new menu items.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Buy or birth?

Not a word will be said here about that baseball team from the Bronx that looks phenomenal on paper but somehow fails to deliver in the field. Nope, this is an installment about Darden Restaurants. Which, these days, might be especially sympathetic to the Ya—oops, almost said it. I have to remember I’m writing about the other party that’s having a tough time developing young talent to complement the aging all-stars who stud its roster.

Not that Darden doesn’t have an astounding rookie in Seasons 52, the all-fresh-ingredients concept that it’s been cultivating as carefully as a patch of heirloom zucchini. But it was only a week ago that it decided the slightly older Smokey Bones would never meet home-office hopes, 86ing it like Albert Bell. More quietly, it also cut its next-youngest brand, Bahama Breeze, by nearly a third, shuttering nine of 32 units. Despite its indisputable and long-time success, Darden hasn’t exactly bedazzled as a farm system for tomorrow’s brands.

But the failure of Smokey Bones calls into question more than Darden’s ability to develop new concepts. Indeed, it raises a larger question, of whether casual-dining’s dynasties can still hatch big-league new brands. As multi-billion-dollar companies with the extensive infrastructures typical of Fortune 500 institutions, can they still come up with the winning idea?

Already, many of the leaders are acting in a way that barks “No!” Outback parent OSI gave up on the home-grown route long ago, extending its roster since its ill-fated New Orleans concept by buying young brands with promise. Roy’s, Fleming’s, Leroy Selmon’s, Bonefish Grill, even the new Blue Coral—all were the brainchildren of outside entrepreneurs, not a corporate new-business team. Ditto with Brinker International, with Maggiano’s, On the Border and Romano’s Macaroni Grill.

And now Darden is taking the same on-ramp. Two days after the company’s weekend announcement about Smokey Bones, CEO Clarence Otis confirmed to investors that the divestiture of roughly half the chain and the closing of the rest would facilitate the company’s purchase of a new growth vehicle. For the first time since it collaborated with the legendary Thad Eure on the development of a now-divested casual concept called Darryl’s, the company is going to let someone else do the development and incubation.

The drama arises from more than a big-name player’s break with tradition. For one thing, OSI and Brinker have had mixed results with the adoption approach. Before greenlighting Blue Coral, a seafood concept conjured up by Paul Fleming in collaboration with longtime partner and current OSI CEO Bill Allen, the company scrapped Fleming’s notion of a lower-priced P.F. Chang’s, called Paul Lee’s Chinese Kitchen. And Chili’s sold Corner Bakery, a venture it’d purchased from Rich Melman, the Dumbledore of restaurant concepts.

There’s also the sport of having two top challengers stick with the self-development approach. Last fall P.F. Chang’s banged the dinner gong of its new Taneko Japanese Tavern, its home-cultivated take on the neighborhood bars of Japan. And just a few weeks ago, The Cheesecake Factory disclosed that it’s cooking up a new venture called Rock Sugar Pan Asian Kitchen, featuring an eclectic Southeast Asian menu.

So which method is going to be the big winner, buying a starter kit, or developing the prototype in your own garage? Why don’t I just predict how many games ahead of the Sox the Yankees will be by September?

Monday, May 7, 2007

Spin doctor, heal thyself

I keep scanning the offbeat sections of the big news sites, but all I find is the same old stuff about Ted Williams’ head escaping from the cryogenics center and Kermit’s ill-advised visit to the kitchen of a French restaurant. There’s not a word about whatever death ray, killer fungus or genetically modified kudzu is eating the brains of some restaurant public relations people. And yet I see the terrifying damage every day.

Today, for instance, we were pursuing a story about a possible major setback for a chain that seemed to be going out of its way to push past a major setback without any public disclosure. Our queries appeared to upset the plan, so we played what amounts to a media version of Space Invaders, trying to hit a contact with a question as our deadline marched inexorably toward us. And yet we kept missing. Putting a bowtie on a yeti would have been an easier bull’s eye.

Finally, though we never linked up, information was provided about the brand in question. I kept thinking that I’d mistakenly intercepted some application for sainthood, because the effusive account of the concept’s situation and recent performance would have made Eddie Haskell blush. The PR person all but credited it with the decline in childhood tooth decay. Strangely, though, he made no mention of the very matter we’d called to probe, which was damning. Nor did he mention the Tooth Fairy or Tinker Bell, though either would have fit the Candy Land he described.

I don’t understand how he could believe that splash of whitewash would work. Once upon a time, companies might’ve controlled the information circulating about them. They, of course, were the major source of it. But with the blog- and media-studded web, that’s just not going to happen any more. I could probably learn about a bruise on one of the strawberries sold at Ed’s Grocery in Myrtle Hills within three Google searches.

To be sure, I don’t intend to use a broad brush here. There are many, many fine and capable chain communications contacts with whom we deal day in and day out. But the best among them understand that smoke screens just don’t work anymore. The web turns every one of your employees—hell, each of your customers, too—into a prospective source for us. They know that the media abhors a vacuum, and if they don’t fill it with accurate, complete information, will fill the void.

But I gotta run. Fox just reported that Ted Kennedy’s hair is actually an endangered seal pup that works for less than the minimum wage.

Friday, May 4, 2007

A penny for your controversy

A controversy has erupted in New York City over 10 cents. The amount isn't in dispute, but the form it should take is a topic of spirited conversation this morning, courtesy of a high-profile story in The New York Times. It seems that a mom-and-pop Chinese restaurant in the Bronx, an area you probably won't see as a backdrop to "Friends," refused to accept 10 cents of a customer's payment in the form of pennies. It was unclear why the counter-server balked, but it was suggested that she didn't want to count that much change, or go through the hassle of placing 10 coins in the till.

The Great Wall Chinese Restaurant later denied the incident happened, but by that time the outraged patron had already alerted politicians, hoping to trigger some sort of official reaction.

Sure enough, a state senator held a press conference outside the restaurant, calling for legislation that would require restaurants to accept any form of legal tender that's provided. Ruben Diaz cast the issue as a matter of discrimination against the less fortunate, presumably because they'd be more likely to scrape together change.

This must be an echo of the conversations that took place when some restaurateur of yesteryear suggested the hitching racks out in front be torn down to provide parking spaces for Model A's. The penny is becoming an anachronism; before long, even wishing wells will be accepting cashless payment via card, cell phone or EZ Pass. The changeover is certainly happening fast in the restaurant industry, but until currency-less payment becomes the norm, why quibble over pennies, one way or another. The place should've either taken the coins, even if they ended up in a help-yourself cup on the counter, or refused them and eaten the 10 cents.

Then we New Yorkers could've spent our time at the coffee machine debating the controversial memo sent by Morgan Stanley to its executives, forbidding them from entertaining customers at a local restaurant called Hawaiian Tropic Zone. The place is the brainchild of famed chef David Burke and veteran local operator Dennis Riese, the one-time owner of Houlihan's. But it's perhaps better known for putting its female servers in bikinis and sarongs, which the old-line financial institution has adjudged to be inappropriate stage dressing for the negotiation of serious business deals. We tried to get our hands on the e-mail memo, but employees were too scared to forward it, given the brouhaha that has erupted. Morgan Stanley has been portrayed as being puritanical, though some media reports say the same no-lei policy has been set by Lehman Bros. and Smith Barney.

At least it's likely that the employees wouldn't be paying in pennies.