Monday, September 29, 2008

A big caveat on menu labeling

The country is obviously tipping toward menu labeling, with mandates pending on the federal, state and local levels. But one of the nation’s most celebrated thought leaders is swinging in the opposite direction after discovering a hidden risk firsthand. Harvard University has pulled the nutrition information it formerly displayed in its foodservice operations because the disclosure of calorie counts could aggravate students’ eating disorders.

“Specifically, we needed to address the challenge a quiet and surprisingly large contingent of our community faces with eating disorders,” Ted Mayer, the executive director of Harvard’s dining services, said in his blog. “Those individuals can place an undue emphasis on calories and other literal food values, making their placement over every food item a real challenge. Thus, we did what we felt best addressed the special health needs of those individuals, much as we support people with food allergies or religious dietary preferences.”

Detailed nutrition information on what’s offered at the facilities is still available from the school’s website and onsite kiosks.

Posted comments on the decision have been mixed. Some students asserted that the situation mandates more effective counseling for persons suffering from eating disorders, not the removal of information that could benefit far greater numbers of people.

They also blasted the alternative of making nutrition information available via computers, noting that their meals are often a hurried, spontaneous affair. That objection could be echoed as the industry tries to deflect demand for on-menu postings by promoting online or kiosk postings as replacements.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

The White House story that wasn't

Colleagues attending the National Restaurant Association’s Public Affairs Conference alerted us Tuesday that a big story was shaping up in the host city, Washington, D.C. The Bush Administration had invited 200 restaurateurs from the conference to visit the White House Wednesday for an announcement from the President of a significant policy initiative. It had to be something of import to restaurants and other small businesses, or why would the attendees be summoned to serve as a backdrop? We geared up for what we thought would be a very newsworthy political development.

A few hours later, deputy managing editor Paul Frumkin called again from the PAC meeting: The White House had cancelled the invitation, saying the reason would become obvious. Clearly something bigger had trumped the meeting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

We now know that big development was Bush’s decision to address the nation last night about the bail-out package pending on Capitol Hill. What’s still a mystery is the policy initiative he was going to announce. NRA officials indicated that it would be of importance. But that covers a lot of ground, given how many industry-related political issues were apparently covered at the PAC conference.

All we can say is, Stay tuned.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Boobs for sure

PETA has either lost what little reason it had left, or it’s become the victim of an outstanding hoax. The news wires were humming this evening with the hard-to-believe story that the animal-rights zealots had asked Ben & Jerry’s to use human breast milk in place of the bovine sort in its ice creams. Funky Monkey indeed.

“If Ben and Jerry’s replaced the cow’s milk in its ice cream with breast milk, your customers—and cows—would reap the benefits,” explained a letter from Tracy Reiman, executive vice president for the group. “The breast is best!”

She stopped short of volunteering her services.

But Reiman did explain that dairy cows are kept pregnant to maintain their milk production, with considerable wear. It also noted that male calves are turned into veal because they don’t generate milk, a key biological fact that Reiman noted in her letter. Presumably some of the males are needed to make more baby cows, but there was no verification in the note.

The letter was sent to the ice cream chain’s co-founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. You can see it here, along with the press release that PETA distributed.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Toss those trays

College foodservice is often the incubator for trends that eventually spread into the restaurant mainstream. If that tradition holds true, get ready for two changes in the business: The end of the restaurant tray, and the emergence of a new foodservice position called “the forager.”

Dennis Pierce, the diretor of dining services for the University of Connecticut, provided a preview of both changes during the Food Safety Symposium on Sunday (see earlier posts for some context).

The forager, he explained, is a position that’s arising as a result of interest in procuring local produce and ingredients. “It’s someone who has a culinary background, as well as a procurement background,” said Pierce.

Because localized purchasing can require menu re-engineering, he continued, restaurants will need someone with the ability to adjust recipes or tweak the bill of fare as supplies change with the growing seasons. But at the same time, he noted, that person has to know how to adjudge how much of a local item will be needed, and where to get it a feasible price.

Pierce cited the hypothetical example of adding locally grown garlic. The forager would have to know what's needed, in terms of volume, and how to get it.

The other trend, he said, is already well underway in college dining. “If you’ve not heard about this,” he said, “you will. It’s trayless dining.”

He recounted how Middlebury College had eliminated trays from its feeding facilities as a way of saving water in its cleaning operations. That prompted UConn to give it a try last semester. For a week, two dining facilities operated as usual, but with Pierce and his team studying and apparently benchmarking certain variables. The next week, they educated the students about such issues as water conservation. The third week, they stopped using trays.

“We discovered that we had 900 lbs. less of food waste and saved 2,000 gallons of water,” he said.

That prompted the school to pull trays this semester from dining facilities that cater to freshmen, since they’ve not yet been accustomed to using trays.

Pierce also described the college’s newest sustainable venture, the use of a “pulper” to convert food waste into compost material, which the school plans to sell. The waste is pulverized and dumped into a bin, which is then heated. It apparently consolidates into what looks like dirt.

He also recounted the school's experiences with bee hives. It's already put in 10 hives, and is harvesting hundreds of pounds of honey. Ten more are coming. UConn plans not only to use the honey as a sweetener, but also to sell it in convenience stores.

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Putting a face on food safety

You have to appreciate the above-and-beyond efforts of the food-safety specialists attending the Food Safety Symposium this weekend in Charlotte, N.C. They could’ve kicked back last night with an extra hot chocolate, or maybe declared it a wild night because they had the three-custard dessert at the local hotspot where we had dinner. Instead, they insisted on demonstrating the germ-killing capabilities of alcoholic beverages. Again and again and again.

I, too, had a few drinks at the post-dinner party, presented by our hosts, Ecolab. But that doesn’t change the impact of today’s event, a look at how the restaurant industry is trying to protect guests more effectively from foodborne disease. The first session of our two-day conference was crammed with practical advice on safeguarding the food supply. But what really sticks with me is how the effort to avert foodborne disease was personified.

Instead of talking in stark scientific terms about bacteria and viruses, speaker after speaker put a human face on the issue. Dave Theno, our keynote speaker, explained that he was driven to push for food-safety improvements by memories of a six-year-old girl who died during the E. coli catastrophe that almost destroyed Jack in the Box in the early 1990s. He characterized the girl, the first child to die in the epidemic, as “the angel” who inspires him to keep driving for greater safeguards.

“I think of my 2-year-old and my 9-year-old. They’re my 6-year-old,” said Angel Sanford of the McAlister’s fast-casual chain. “Quality is something I take very, very personally.”

Kathy Means of the Produce Marketing Association showed pictures of Kyle Algood and Ruby Trautz, two victims of the spinach contamination of three years ago. Dr. Bruce Chords of Ecolab mentioned how his grandchildren had brought home a norovirus infection—which he then caught. My NRN colleague, Robin Allen, mentioned that her daughter had been hospitalized with the pathogen. Patrick Sterling of Texas Roadhouse recounted how he called all 150 victims of a norovirus outbreak that was believed to be connected with one of that chain’s restaurants.

Clearly, despite all the problems they've seen or noted, attendees regard the victims of a contagion as people, not statistics.

Attendees also heard terms like virons, lateral flow immunosensors and bacteriophages. But they and presenters never let the meeting drift too far from the sensibility that they are protecting people in restaurants, not working with petri dishes in some lab.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

The potential downside of buying local

We’re only one panel and one speaker into the Symposium (see the post below for some context), but already some definite themes are emerging. One, clearly, is the need for traceability, which by the consensus of presenters thus far is a particularly pointed need because of rising imports. The other, perhaps not surprisingly, is local sourcing, which has been largely cited as a food safety challenge.

Said Theno: “Many of these local suppliers do not have the sophisticated controls in place. [Yet] you need a lot of processes and process controls for food safety. Small does not necessarily mean bad;” some small players, he noted, do indeed put the necessary systems and safeguards in place. But, he suggested, a lot simply can’t afford it.

“ Sacrificing safety for the marketing aura of saying ‘locally produced’ is not wise,” he concluded.

Mike Reinert, VP of supply management, talked about the need of educating those small local suppliers, while applying the same sort of criteria that would be used for suppliers of any size: third-party audits, checking for a food-safety security plan, employee background checks.

The safeguards aren’t unique to that realm, he suggested. But the challenge is making sure that they’re applied. He indicated that Delaware North tries to do it by educating its suppliers. He also suggested that Delaware North personnel are also trained to ensure standards are met by the local players from which they buy.

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Live from the NRN Food Safety Symposium

Bacteria must be high-fiving and hooting with delight. Dave Theno, the food-safety guru who was brought in by Jack in the Box in the midst of the chain’s E. coli crisis to right the situation, has just noted that he’s retiring. His presentation, on where the restaurant industry is heading food-safety-wise, underscores what an arch-nemesis the pathogens are about to lose.

Indeed, Theno has just invited the audience of 40 or so chain food-safety experts to contact him if they’re getting pushback from upper-level executives about investing in food safety.

“You got a CEO who doesn’t get it? Say, ‘I got a guy you’ve gotta talk to.’ Set it up, and I’ll call the guy,” Theno said. “And afterward, he’s going to like you a lot more, because I’m a real asshole to talk with, so you’ll look a lot better.”

Theno ended his presentation by recounting how he met a woman from Safe Tables Our Priority, whose six-year-old daughter was the first child to die in the Jack in the Box E. coli crisis in the early 1990s. Theno recounted how the woman promised her lost daughter that she would press for reforms on the girl’s behalf. Theno said he saw the girl as his “personal angel” in helping him push for safer foods.

If you know someone in food safety, tell them or give them a six-year-old. Trust me, it’ll get a lot easier.

"Take home your own six-year-old," he said.

I’m writing this from Nation’s Restaurant News’ Food Safety Symposium in Charlotte, N.C. I’ll be posting updates here throughout the conference, hopefully on a near-live basis.

So stay tuned. And contact me if you’re a chain restaurant executive who’d like to reach Theno.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

'An order for Sec. Paulson'

I’ve gotta be quick here because a call from the federal bail-out specialists could come at any second. I alerted them yesterday that an institution crucial to the financial health of New York-area restaurants, a venerable borrower called Romeo Enterprises, was teetering on the brink of insolvency. If they were willing to lend AIG $85 billion, they can certainly toss a few grand my way.

Then again, the government’s rescue efforts have been decidedly selective. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae got a bailout, as did the insurance giant whose past CEO, Hank Greenberg, still prompts Wall Street insiders to cross themselves and mutter a protective spell at the mention of his name (he was forced out in 2005 because of fraud allegations leveled by New York’s attack-dog attorney general at the time, Elliot Spitzer, who subsequently dropped the charges). Curiously, AIG got into trouble by insuring very complex financial securities, in effect assuring the backers they wouldn’t lose everything. Investors always say you get rewarded for risk, but the insurer’s role was to provide a safety net so some really big paybacks would be protected. Speculation, indeed.

When it looked as if gazillions would indeed be lost because of AIG’s problems, the government stepped in, arguing that it had to avert economic disaster. And, indeed, the company’s failure might’ve emptied plenty of portfolios and pockets. Just ask the foodservice establishments that counted Lehman Brothers among their major sources of business. Delis and restaurants that served the banker are already feeling the loss, according to news reports, when Lehman filed for bankruptcy only a few days ago.

They and other small businesses are getting walloped because the feds decided Lehman had to sink or swim on its own strengths, whereas AIG is too big of a fish to let flounder.

In other words, if you’re wearing a suit, “Here’s a life preserver.” But if those are foodservice whites on your back, “We prefer to let the market regulate itself.” Size clearly does matter when it comes to portfolios and paychecks.

Maybe those strained delis and restaurants can reach out to AIG’s business associates. Perhaps with a promotional Fat Cat sandwich, made with pork, of course.

And they should be sure to come up with something higher end for the big-portfolio'd sort who’s expected by many in the blogosphere to be brought in as AIG's savior. His name is Hank Greenberg.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Did a Next Big Thing find me?

Some trends emerge from the undergrounds of New York, L.A. or San Francisco, pushed along by sub-cultures with a penchant for black clothes and body piercing. Other times they crop up in the checkout lines of suburban supermarkets, alongside the string cheese and Swifter refills. So it was this weekend, when one household had to choose between turning the cupboard into a bookcase or actually going grocery shopping. I knew I should’ve just started slotting the books instead of risking a coin toss. But at least I got a glimpse of what could become a popular menu item, judging from how quickly it’s spreading in white-Zinfandel America.

I first spotted it a week earlier in a sleepy burb called Hampton Bays, where one of the new dining choices is a breakfast and lunch place with a Latino flavor. Waiting for my sandwich, I saw that a whole rack of a soft drink cooler had filled with 16-ounce, lidded plastic cups, each containing a liquid the color of a cantaloupe. Pieces of fruit seemed to have settled in the bottom of each clear cup.

As I was waiting, a patron came in and grabbed one from the case. He drank the liquid in a flash, then used his straw to spear the fruit. Then he took another.

Another customer came in. He took one of the items, too. Same process.

And another.

“Hey,” I asked the clerk, “what are those?”

“They’re a drink made with a little fruit juice and cut-up melon, pineapple, mango and papaya. They’re two-fifty each.”

“I’ll take one…What do you call them?”

“We call them frutas.” Others use the more proper name of aqua fresca de fruta.

Fast-forward five days, to the moment our pantry spider webs were to be cleared by a rare supermarket expedition. As usual, I was forbidden to go, a sentence I’ll serve for life because I tend to buy nothing but peanut butter, a packet of sauerkraut, and maybe some Scottish shortbread.

When my wife returned, I started un-bagging the bounty with the zeal of Robinson Crusoe on a cruise liner home. “Did you see this?” she asked. Plunk. She puts down a pre-packaged fruta made with peaches. Plunk. Another, also pre-packaged, made with grapefruit. Plunk. Yet another, also made with grapefruit. “It’s something new. Looks good, doesn’t it?”

She wasn’t with me when I had my first fruta encounter. Clearly this was something viral.

Each contained about 100 calories a serving, and was presented as a refresher, with fruta never appearing on the packaging.

The drinks may be nothing new to those of you who live in Texas or California. The same likely holds true for hardcore foodies. But I can’t recall seeing aqua fresca de frutas before in the mainstream suburbs of the Northeast, even in the Latino delis that have been sprouting up in recent years. All of a sudden, they're as prevalent as pomegranate juice.

The combination of fresh fruit, real juices, a lot of flavor and a sense of healthfulness, coming at a time of intense interest in beverages, could propel frutas very quickly into the restaurant mainstream.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Early restaurant news out of Texas is far from good

Hurricane Ike's damage to Texas' restaurant industry is starting to be assessed, but it remains unclear whether the storm caused or merely contributed to the demise of a dining landmark. Brennan’s, a longtime favorite of Houston, was “left in ashes” by a fire that erupted about the time the storm was making landfall, according to a report in the Houston Chronicle. The report noted that it was still undetermined as of Saturday afternoon if Ike caused the blaze. It appears certain, however, that the hurricane fanned the flames and kept firemen away.

It seems as if Mother Nature was extracting revenge on the landmark for earlier defying its wrath. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of New Orleans, many staffers of that city’s Commander’s Palace were taken in by Brennan’s. Both landmarks are run by the Brennan family, one of the nation’s foremost restaurant clan.

The Chronicle story noted that co-proprietor Alex Brennan-Martin couldn't speak when he learned of the fire because he was apparently too broken up.

As with Hurricane Gustav, last night’s storm dominated the airwaves. Yet mentions of southern Texas restaurants were rare, as opposed to the detailed reports about how New Orleans dining cathedrals were faring when Gustav hit. The contrast underscores how important eateries are to the Big Easy economy. Most of the economy-related TV and internet reports on Ike focused on the local oil trade.

But a reporter stationed in Galveston by a Houston ABC affiliate noted that a popular beachside restaurant “was literally gone.” I thought he said it was The Stockade, but I couldn’t find a listing for that. A scan of all the eating places listed in local tourist guides mentioned only who’s name sounded similar, the Spot, though I haven’t been able to confirm that through other means.

Meanwhile, another report noted that the Kemah Boardwalk, a tourist facility run by Landry’s Restaurants, couldn’t even be reached on foot or by car. Among the restaurants located on the waterside attraction is one of Landry’s newest concepts, Red Sushi Habachi Grill, a slight variation on the Red sushi restaurant in Las Vegas’ Golden Nugget casino.

Though the news on restaurants affected by the hurricane hasn’t been abundant—and blogs offered less information than they did during Gustav—the situation has to be deplorable. Power companies are saying that power won’t be restored in some areas for three weeks to a month. Many areas are advising residents to stay away if they can, and a lengthy list of towns and cities are imposing curfews to avert looting and lawlessness.

If you’re reading this and know what’s happening with the restaurant industry in southern Texas, please share the info.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Hey, maybe we all can get along

I’m usually skeptical when I hear government or industry beating a drum for collaboration in lieu of regulation. In the midst of the tomato/jalapeno/Serrano salmonella epidemic, for instance, the Food and Drug Administration’s call for more industry responsibility and involvement came off as nothing more than finger-pointing—“This wouldn’t be happening if industry did a better job of record-keeping. After all, we don’t have the money to do that ourselves.”

And the private sector’s frequent cries for cooperation sound like thinly masked pleas to be left alone: “We prefer that boards of health and other government watchdogs work with us, not against us. It’s merely a coincidence that we hate paying fines and being forced to meet their standards.”

Then comes yesterday’s news from Oregon. As reported, the state’s restaurateurs and Occupational Safety and Health Department have forged an agreement committed to paper—a veritable contract—to work in tandem for the safety of foodservice employees.

According to coverage in Oregon’s press, this was no photo op pretending to be a significant announcement. As part of the deal, state experts will be dispatched to consult with restaurateurs in their establishments about ways of making the operations safer. An examination of the safeguards already in place would presumably be part of that process, along with a diagnosis of what the restaurant is doing wrong. But the restaurateurs have the assurance that they won’t be penalized for what the state reps might find.

It’s as if the state is sending a force of consultants into the trade, without the follow-up invoices that typically follow consultants more closely than their shadows.

Safety officials, meanwhile, can focus on safety, without the usual sword fighting about blame, fines and being realistic. Not that their fencing abilities will be allowed to lapse. Oregon’s workplace safety inspectors will continue to do their job, and will issue fines accordingly, local press reports note. Presumably the task will just be a lot easier, since restaurants will have a clearer idea of what they should be doing, and virtually no excuse if they don’t heed the advice.

And in a state where reportedly one out of every 14 state residents is employed by a foodservice establishment, that’s good thing.

So kudos to the Oregon Restaurant Association for entering into the deal and thereby blazing a path for peers in other locations to possibly follow. The agreement it signed could prove a welcome model for all sorts of regulatory agencies in all kinds of jurisdictions.

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

The aftermath of Gustav

Clay Dover, president and chief marketing officer of the Louisiana-based Raising Cane's quick-service chain, sent us this note yesterday about the aftermath of Monday's storm:

Hurricane Gustav forced Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers to close 35 of its 58 company owned stores in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. (We have 73 total). As of Wednesday, September 03, 2008 we have been able to re-open 18 locations.

Baton Rouge has been a challenge due to massive power outages. Additionally some of our outlying restaurant locations were hard hit, including Houma, where Gustav made landfall. We plan on opening the restaurants located in New Orleans beginning Thursday a.m. with full crews.

We were able to reopen quickly because we were very proactive in our preparation both in preparation and recovery.

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

New heat-beaters--and a Happy New Year

I’ve put my finger precisely on The Cheesecake Factory’s recent traffic problems: Calendar confusion. Yesterday, Sept. 2, the mega-volume chain announced that it was rolling out its new summer menu. “Take a break from the summer heat and visit The Cheesecake Factory,” gushed the announcement.

Labor Day is popularly recognized as the end of summer, but maybe Cheesecake prefers the official closing date. That would give the chain easily three more weeks to promote its new hot-weather selections. By then, maybe it’ll be ready with a new Halloween lemonade, or maybe a Christmas fresh-fruit salad.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

How's the chow in today's modern military?

The presidential election has repeatedly raised the question of when our troops may be coming home from Iraq. Left unasked is how our service men and women are being treated until then. How, for instance, is the food? We decided to find out, using a source we know and respect. His name is Bill Addison, associate editor of Nation’s Restaurant News’ sister publication, Home Channel News. These days he goes by Specialist Bill Addison, 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, New Jersey Army National Guard.

Bill was called up for a tour of duty that will soon take him from McGregor Base Camp in New Mexico to Kuwait and then Iraq. Hopefully he won’t lose more weight than the 17 pounds he’s already dropped—one soldier’s statement on the food served in MacGregor’s main dining service.

“Most of it is due to my inability to eat much of what is being served,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The food is horrendous.”

But there is a saving grace: Chains ranging from Blimpie to Fuddrucker’s periodically roll kitchens into the base to give the soldiers a taste of home. The Post Exchange also provides an alternative to the base’s main feeding operation, known in military parlance as the Dining Facilty, or DFAC. The Exchange features several proprietary brands that resemble streetside fast-food places, in trade dress as well as quality, Addison wrote.

Military feeders have proudly embraced both national and proprietary brands as an important morale booster. They say it provides the soldiers with a momentary trip back home, since they could be back on Fast-Food Row. Addison agrees.

But, he added, there are a few downsides to the trend.

For one thing, having a few brand-name restaurants to serve a sprawling base of hungry young people is going to result in DisneyWorld-scale lines. That means standing in the New Mexican sun for a considerable chunk of time to get a sandwich you might’ve been able to grab in seconds back in civilian life.

With the national brands, there’s also the issue of price. “$3.20 per slice and $8.50 for a hamburger can stretch a soldier’s
budget,” he wrote.

It can also prompt questions about the intentions of those amenity providers. While these services are indeed welcome, and a chance to get out of the DFAC once in a while, I cannot help [but] feel exploited by these companies,” Addison wrote.

And that applies not just to the consumer-brand restaurants on base. Addison noted that a major electronics retailer sends members of its well-known computer fix-it squad to McGregor to provide free assessments of the soldiers’ laptops. If the service men or women decide to follow the recommendations for repairs or upgrades, they have to pay.

As for the food, Addison stresses that you can’t qualify all base services on what he’s experiencing at McGregor. He’s spent nine years in the service, he said, and the quality has varied greatly, a function on the base and who’s operating it. At Ft. Dix, for instance, “the food was always pretty good.” And, he stresses, we’re obviously taking a survey of one person.

“Please remember that this is just one soldiers
opinion,” Addison wrote. “I recognize that we have it better of than in any previous war, and that any other countries military would be jealous of what is afforded to us.”

Bill promised to give us the lowdown on the foodservices when he’s in Iraq. Hopefully, that won’t be a long stay. And afterwards, when he’s back in his cubicles a few rows from mine, the burgers are definitely on me.

You can learn more about what Bill’s life is like at present by going here.

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