Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The myth of healthy eating

Sometimes as you go through life your observations provide evidence that things that you thought were true aren't true. For example, I once thought that government could solve all of our problems.

On the other hand, some beliefs are strengthened by evidence gathered over the years. I've always thought that the notion that Americans wanted healthier food when going out to eat was a media-generated myth. And the more I see, the more evidence I have that this is true.

Certainly some want to cut back on the carbs and calories but by and large anything goes when Americans dine out. The success of my last two employers, Applebee's and Panera Bread, are evidence of that. Sure, Applebee's has the Weight Watcher menu but the fried chicken fingers and brownie sundaes pay the rent. And at Panera, items labeled as low in fat are high in something else like carbohydrates or sodium (and the 99-cent add-on cookie, with 23 grams of fat and 59 grams of carbs, fly out of the baskets).

Outside of my own experience there is further evidence that healthy eating is a trend only in the minds of the media. I came across two articles today that help confirm my thesis. The most extreme example is the Heart Attack Grill in Chandler, Arizona. The motto, Food Worth Dying For, and the video explain it all (hat tip to Baltimore Dining Examiner Dara Bunjon)

Watch CBS Videos Online

Then there is the trend that catching on among some of America's most famous chefs, icons such as Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck. Seeing the forecasts that say that fast food will be a $130 billion business globally by 2012, they are opening up quick cuisine joints of their own. Flay has Bobby's Burger Palace on Long Island. The specialty of the house is a large juicy burger "crunchified", topped with crumbled potato chips.

Danny Meyer, a noted New York restaurateur, has the Shake Shack, another greasy burger joint that also sells carb- and fat- laden fries and, of course, creamy milk shakes.

Prices are kept reasonable with entrees going for well under ten bucks. That's not bad for a meal from a famed chef.

It's further proof that if Americans are going to spend their hard-earned money for restaurant food, they want to enjoy it and, generally speaking, what's good isn't good for you. While it's smart for restaurant operators to offer healthier options, the truth is that the meat and potatoes of virtually all restaurants is and is likely to remain, well, meat and potatoes.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

How many rules are enough?

There only are Seven Deadly Sins and Ten Commandments. A 12-step program can cure all sorts of ills.

But La Bernardin restaurant in New York City has 129 Cardinal Rules. Most of the no-no's in the restaurant—considered one of America's best for over 20 years—involve server sins. Here are a few random rules pulled off the list, posted by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on its website:

13. Salt and pepper shakers that are half empty.

14. Salt or sugar crusted inside the shakers.

15. Carelessly placed items on the tables.

16. Table linen with small holes, rips or burns.

Some of the rules are obvious like No. 71 (Serving with an elbow in the guest's face) while others, like No. 74 (Not moving with the "speed of the room") are a bit more obscure.

Some of them seem to be mutually exclusive. How can you follow No. 80 and clear plates promptly and stay in compliance with No. 78 by refraining from clearing any plates until all guests are done? I guess you could stay nearby until the last guest at a table finished the last bite on his plate and then swoop in and clear them, but in the meantime you could get busted on No. 89 (Standing around doing nothing.)

While this seems to be overkill, you have to applaud them for having clear standards. Apparently, it works for them. You can't argue with success.

And it appears that they are not committing to stopping at 129. The final entry on the list is, "To be continued. . ."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

McCafe heats up Mickey D’s

Some analysts are upgrading McDonald's stock based on the success of the McCafe program. The barista units have been installed in about 10,000 of the chain's 31,000 units.

Not content to build it and figure that they'll come, the company is making sure that everyone on the planet knows about its new offering. They are laying out a whopping $100 million in a marketing campaign that includes TV, outdoor, radio, print, and web (right now, there's an iced mocha staring at me from my Weather Channel desktop app).

Even at the relatively low price of about three bucks the product cost is great, not much more than about 10%. In the short term, with marketing keeping up barista business levels and sales strong, it's a winner.

The test of the program will be a year from now when the focus is on something else. Will lower-volume, even medium-volume, locations be able to keep the McCafe stations staffed? Or will the cashiers end up steaming the milk and bring the lines to a screeching halt?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Are you Twittering for money?

Are you using Twitter to promote your restaurant?

If the answer is yes, you are in a small but growing number of restaurants who are using the micro-blogging site to build their businesses.

If the answer is no, the follow-up question is: Why not?

The 140-character messages are perfect for letting your customers know what's happening at your place. Let them know it's karaoke night, that you have hot bagels coming out of the oven, that you just got in some tuna that was swimming this morning and you're grilling it up tonight.

If you don't have anything that's happening immediately, promote your regular fare. As bathing suit season approaches, remind people that you have a great selection of low-fat, low-carb items. When the thermometer hits triple digits tweet (that's what they call a Twitter message) that you're watching one of your associates pour a refreshing pina colada smoothie. At night when it cools off send out the word that the patio is packed and starting to rock!

You don't have to drag out the laptop or go back to the office. There are several simple applications that let you tweet from you cell phone or you can put the messages up via a text message.

Want to make your message visual? Snap a cell phone picture of that tall, cool smoothie with the condensation forming on the cup or of that succulent tuna steak with the perfect diamond grill marks and send it to a service like TwitPic. Your tweet will have a link to your picture. They'll be feasting with their eyes as they run to your location.

In order to receive your marketing message, a potential customer has to opt in. In Twitter-speak, they have to follow you. You can gain followers in any number of ways. Put your Twitter address on your business cards, your guest checks, your takeout menus, anything that a guest might take out of the restaurant. Get your staff to promote it; throw a pizza party if you get to 1,000 followers. And when someone follows you, follow them back.

When you start to get a following, don't go crazy tweeting dozens of times a day. If you do many more than three or four your message will get lost. And it least one a day should be about pop culture ("Can you believe that Kris won on Idol?") or sports ("Did you see the show that Kobe put on last night?") or something else that isn't a marketing message.

This is a very new marketing method and the results are as yet unknown. But the price is right. Twitter is absolutely free. All it will cost you is a few minutes to get an account established and a few minutes a day to send your messages. Then start building followers and see what happens.

If you've had any success or challenges using Twitter to market, let us know in the comments.