Friday, August 31, 2007

An Open Letter to Leona Helmsley's Dog

Dear Scruffy, Wiggles or whatever cutesy name they've etched on your Hermes collar,

Actually, I've just been informed by my dog—my male, SINGLE dog—that your true name is Trouble. Oh, that Leona! What a card.

Anyways, I'm writing for two reasons. First, I realize the celebrity canine circuit must be a lonely place, even for a knockout single bee-atch like yourself. If only I knew a male, SINGLE dog who enjoyed long walks on the beach, cuddling in front of the TV, and co-gnawing the occasional rawhide treat. I'll have to give that some thought.

But the more important matter is where you might be spending the $12 million that Leona left you in her will. Oh, sure, you could burn through it with some hunky mastiff in Paris or Milan. But why not employ it for the betterment of restaurants in Chicago, not to mention pooches everywhere?

Your former mistress may have sniffed at the notion of opening hotels there, but Chicago is a very progressive restaurant town. Now it's debating whether to take the highly charged step of allowing dogs to sit with their masters in outdoor dining areas.

I have to tell you, Muffin, that this is the polarizing issue of our day. Indeed, even we here at NRN are split on the topic. During a recent conference call, one of our Chicagoans brought up the proposal with a tinge of amusement in his voice. How, he asked, could there be any dispute over a matter this black-and-white? He then reeled off his preference for keeping dogs away from any place where food is served, be it al fresco or at a chef's table. The damned puppy kicker.

Those of use who have dogs—did I mention my male, single pal?—were of course aghast. Imagine, objecting to a tableside setter because a hair or two could conceivably waft its way to a neighbor's plate if wind patterns were right. Or some dowager could pull her spoiled Maltese out of a carrier and plop it on the very table you'll be occupying next. Pffft. As if any true animal lover would be put off by such things. We know our dogs are probably more hygienic than their owners, not to mention most of the two-legged population.

And yet the controversy rages, in Chicago and plenty of other places. Clearly the movement to open cafes to canines is gaining steam.

Opponents should learn from Florida, whose legislature passed a measure in 2006 that allowed jurisdictions to open outdoor dining areas to dogs by amending the local sanitation code. The state has yet to be plagued by excessive slobber, much less rabies or distemper.

So I think you need to get out there, Mittens, with checkbook in hand. Do what's necessary to let restaurants decide if they want a Pekinese among the people.

Of course, you probably would appreciate some companionship. Did I mention my male, utterly marriageable canine companion?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The No. 1 reason to fear a Letterman mention

Having your brand mentioned on David Letterman's show is usually a marketer's equivalent to winning the lottery. But Jamba Juice may have a different valuation after being discussed at length during a broadcast aired last week and preserved on countless digital recorders, including mine.

All initially went well, with Dave lauding the chain's smoothies and acknowledging that he's an enthusiastic customer. He also noted how much you get for your money, vertically spreading his hands by at least a foot in an exaggeration of the serving size. And that's when the plug "gunny-sacked," to use his synonym for a train wreck.

The problem, he quipped to sidekick Paul Schaffer, was a tendency to suck it all down. It'll bloat you up like a Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, he asserted, noting that he'd already cut down his usual order from two cups to one.

Within minutes, Letterman was suggesting the chain change its name to Jamba Bloat, and recommended that it print an alert on its cups: "Warning, could cause bloating."

His discomfort became a running gag during the show, leading to the exclamation at one point that his liver was being shoved against his pancreas. He also took to chanting "Jamba" to Tina Fey, his first guest, as she described a noxious-looking and nauseating potion that she quaffed daily as an energy potion.

There is no such thing as bad publicity, according to the old adage. But the performance was a veritable Top 10 List of why that maxim should bear an asterisk.

Friday, August 24, 2007

McDonald's and nudity

Yesterday brought two interesting headlines: McDonald’s spent almost $170,000 during the first half of 2007 on national-level lobbying, and Brattleboro, Vt., voted to legalize public nudity. But why waste time on the ho-hum? Let’s talk McDonald’s.

Because it’s the news about McDonald’s that’s really scintillating. Once upon a time, the burger giant was cursed by other restaurateurs for not adding its powerful name to high-profile campaigns against detrimental governmental measures, like federal wage hikes. Ray Kroc had famously remarked that if he saw a competitor drowning, he’d stick a hose in the lout’s mouth. Why abandon that mindset for a common defense? Instead of joining competitors on the ramparts, McDonald’s fought behind the scenes or on its own, if it joined an industrywide campaign at all.

Now, the Associated Press reported, just the home office is spending at the rate of $340,000 a year—huge money by lobbying standards—to shape federal regulations on menu labeling, immigration and food safety, among other issues. Some franchisees probably add to that sum with their own contributions to political action committees and other government-related causes.

The A.P. story was based on a regulatory filing. Similar disclosures are probably submitted as a standard procedure by powerhouses like Yum! Brands, Darden or OSI. And yet the news service treated the McDonald’s filing as a revelation.

Which, of course, leads us to the Vermont situation. A news brief about the Brattleboro’s new briefs-optional statute appeared in no less of an institution than The New York Times. Curiously, the same edition also carried a story about efforts elsewhere to permit the arrest of individuals who are inappropriately interested in the public show of flesh, such as when a woman in a skirt walks up a staircase.

I don’t think those two developments are contradictory, since the latter is intended to provide a legal basis for cracking down on true peeping toms. But some libertarians might believe so.

But I do think it’s significant the newswires were filled with tidbits about immigration and public-health proposals on the same day the A.P. reported solely on McDonald’s attempts to factor the industry’s interests into those discussions.

The burger giant may have been slow in assuming the industry’s standard, but it certainly seems to be leading the charge today.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Swallowing some strong medicine

The realization might not have sunk in yet, but the industry learned last week that it’s heading toward universal paid sick-leave, with the mandate likely to come from health officials rather than lawmakers. It’s my prediction that the grease on the skids will be the formation of new government-regulated funding pools, a la unemployment insurance, to pay for it. It’s an expense the industry shouldn’t oppose until it considers the alternatives, which could change the industry’s fortunes far more profoundly.

The catalyst is new research that redefines how long a restaurant employee may be able to pass along norovirus, the leading cause of food-borne illness, to co-workers and guests. The convention in the trade right now is to keep workers out of the dining room or kitchen if they’re vomiting or suffering from diarrhea, a short stretch when they’re virtually walking Petri dishes for the gastroenteritis-causing microbe. In keeping with model practices, the staffers are usually benched for an additional two days to ensure they’re past the infectious stage.

But a study from Emory University viral expert Christine Moe has determined that the workers actually pose a significant contamination risk for five weeks longer. The results were revealed at last week’ Viruses conference, the subject of an earlier posting here.

The day after Moe dropped jaws with her finding, the Food & Drug Administration’s Alan Tart showed the audience what that could mean for the industry. The employees are still a contamination risk because they “shed” the norovirus, or excrete it in their stool. One gram of that feces contains about 10 million norovirus particles. If an employee had that tiny amount of residue on his hands after using the bathroom, and scrubbed them like crazy, science has shown that 10,000 of the organism will still likely make it into the place’s food. With only 10 viruses needed to infect someone, 1,000 patrons could be sickened.

One thousand people spreading the word that they got sick in that establishment. One thousand potential lawsuits, perhaps suing not only for damages to themselves but their families, since they, too, would shed the norovirus and pose a contamination risk. One thousand chances of destroying a business.

The ironclad solution, of course, would be to keep employees out of work for the 20 to 35 additional days that they’d be shedding the pathogen. But even Moe, a person outside the industry, could spot the problem of that approach. “You can’t ask someone to forego work and pay for that stretch,” she commented. “I don’t see a way of getting around having someone with the virus come back into the kitchen.”

But if they could stay home and still get paid? A possible solution, or at least a possible one in the eyes of health officials and politicians hoping to look tough on public-safety matters. Lest you doubt it, restaurant-labor representatives in New York City have already used that safety argument to call for universal paid sick leave. It was also raised in San Francisco, where a paid sick-leave mandate has already been passed through a ballot referendum.

And, remember, we’re in the area of Law by Health Official Decree, which has given us the recent rash of trans-fat bans and menu-labeling mandates. If they can say, “No more trans fat because it’s a health issue,” why can’t they say, “Pay your employees to stay home because of the health risk it averts.”

Curiously, in some give and take with other speakers, Moe raised the possibility of cooperative solutions. She was speaking about the use of nurses to determine if workers who profess to be sick should actually be kept out of work that day. She raised the notion of a third-party service, to which restaurant operators could refer their employees, instead of having to play health professional and make the work-or-no-work decision themselves.

But her notion could be applicable to paid sick leave. If operators contributed on a per-paycheck basis into a pool, with the fund tapped to pay an employee who has to be out of work for a stretch because of a norovirus infection, the financial impact could be greatly lessened. Indeed, even with the added expense of paying into the fund, that approach would be much more practical than grappling with the problem alone. That’s especially true when you consider that 23 million Americans suffer norovirus-induced gastroenteritis every year, and about 9 million of them contract it from a restaurant. Clearly there’s a lot of norovirus in the industry.

But the industry has to find a way of eradicating it without making all of its members sick, including restaurant owners.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Reason to feel a little queasy

Sitting here at an industry conference on viruses, I need to dispense with the myths first. No, we’re not all wearing face masks and gloves, and, yes, people do shake hands. No one decides what to take from the breakfast buffet by watching what the germ experts eat, and I’ve not seen a single swab dragged across a surface. Indeed, a passer-by wouldn’t suspect the gathering was devoted to restaurant viruses if it weren’t for the obvious shivering and cold sweats of one participant. That, unfortunately, would be me.

Hey, I understand that viruses have their place in the biological world. I just wish that place wasn’t increasingly a restaurant. As one speaker put it during the first-of-its-kind conference, “last winter was an enormous winter” for the sub-microscopic bugs, and a variant called the norovirus in particular. Its success in contaminating restaurants at the tail end of 2006 is “probably why you’re having this meeting,” Jan Vinje of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remarked to the audience of restaurateurs, suppliers and regulators.

He noted that 18 states recorded increases in food-related norovirus outbreaks during 2006, many by factors of several hundred percent.

He and others noted that norovirus is already the leading cause of food-borne illness, with restaurants and delis figuring by far as the major source of the outbreaks. The industry has been implicated in 41 percent of the situations, far ahead of the home kitchen. Clearly viruses, and norovirus in particular, are emerging as a major threat to the nation’s eating places, if not the safety threat that trumps all others.

The march of the pathogen is scary, but what had me hyperventilating into a paper bag is the difficulty of beating the bug. Research presented at the conference, straightforwardly knighted Viruses, showed that a type of norovirus can survive on kitchens and baths for three to six weeks after a contamination.

Even worse, Christine Moe of Emory University revealed that restaurant employees infected with norovirus can stop showing symptoms long before they cease “shedding” the virus, or excreting large amounts of it in their feces. Typically a worker sickened by the virus is allowed to return to the job two or three days after the symptoms disappear, on the assumption they’re no longer infectious. In reality, Moe indicated, the danger to other employees or guests could persist for weeks. A person shedding the virus is just an inadvertent touch away from infecting others.

As she noted, that raises tough questions about restaurants’ sick-leave policies. You can’t keep an employee from earning a wage for several weeks at a stretch because they were sickened by a virus. But how do you protect guests and other employees from being infected if the carrier resumes the job?

The solution, Moe stressed, is aggressive handwashing and glove wear. But as another speaker pointed out, that’s easier said than done. A recent study looked at how often food handlers should be washing their hands to avert the safety risks they routinely encounter. It adjudged that average at 8.6 times per hour per employee, recounted Carol Selman of the CDC. “I tried it myself,” she explained, acknowledging that she had to stop because the eight-times-an-hour pace chapped her hands.

Day One provided plenty of bracing moments, but was light on solutions. Speakers noted that work on a norovirus vaccine is just beginning, and pointed out that laboratories had just recently discovered how to “culture” a version that could be used for research. Nor is there a simple, quick test to determine if a person suffering from flu-like symptoms is indeed infected with norovirus. Five states can’t even do the testing through more elaborate means.

So what’s the solution? Hopefully I’ll find out tomorrow, when the focus shifts to defense against viruses.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Another health breakthrough

Health enthusiasts can now munch a fried Twinkie at the Indiana State Fair without having to fret about what kind of oil was used to cook it. Organizers say the event, underway as of Wednesday, is the first state fair in the nation to outlaw the use of trans-fat fryer oil. Funnel cakes, zeppolis, corn fritters, corn dogs —all are being cooked in fats other than the partially hydrogenated vegetable oils that infuse trans fats into fried food.

Of course, the requirement has yet to transform deep-fried Snickers into the equivalent of a side salad. As one local story noted, your average funnel cake packs 760 calories and 44 grams of fat.

Three days into the Indiana festival, organizers have yet to predict if they’ve started a trend with their ban. Or, for that matter, if anyone has really noticed as they wolf down a corn dog and fries.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Dolts at the drive-thru

This is what we get for letting boneheads drive. Carloads of them are rolling up to drive-thru windows across the country to pull off the latest breakthrough in jackass humor, which requires inflicting harm on the staffer who hands them their order. The driver takes a drink from the employee, yanks off the cover, and then hurls the cup’s contents back at the worker, yelling, “Fire in the hole!” And all while someone else in the car videotapes the antics on a cell phone for posting later on YouTube or a similar website.

There are more malicious variations, too, where you hurl a whole drink—cup, cover and all—as if it were a cannonball. News reports also cite instances where the jokesters in the car fling liquids they bring with them, like Bloody Mary mix, so it burns the staffer’s eyes.

There’s always that knucklehead who takes delight in harming any victim he can bully. But this not-so-harmless prank seems to be going mainstream. It also appears to be spreading from one region to another, fanned by the internet. A Google search not only turned up ample examples of videos available right now for viewing, but also some favorable discussion of the craze on message boards.

It’s not surprising that law-enforcement authorities in Pittsburgh are warning local drive-thru workers to be on the alert for fire-in-the-hole antics. News reports say the craze has just caught on there, prompting the police to crackdown on the pranksters.

Presumably it’d be easy to identify who they are. When you have a buddy tape your infraction and post it on a website visited by millions of people, chances are high that the authorities could generate a description or that someone might recognize you.

Criminal masterminds they’re not. But plenty of other intelligence-related descriptors come to mind.