Archive for January, 2011

Fireplaces Make For More Diners

January 31, 2011

This past Christmas, we’re willing to bet that you decided to sit in front of the fireplace with your family and enjoy a few moments of warmth in front of the hearth. It’s not just that the fireplace provides physical warmth. It also provides comfort and makes you feel good about life and the ways of the world. Well, what, we wondered about all those people who have to make do with baseline heating systems? Will they never know the wonder of sitting by the fireplace and enjoying a glass of fine wine?

You Can Provide it For Them

What we’re getting at here, of course, is not the question of whether someone tuned their TV set into the Yule log on Christmas day, but instead whether or not you, as a restaurateur might be able to profit (and profit handsomely) from the American fascination with fireplaces.

Fireplaces—Not for Everyone

Now certainly not every restaurant is a place where fireplaces make sense. And you’ll likely want a fake fireplace just to make sure that it stays clean and that the smoke doesn’t ever bother your diners. However, for those restaurants where it is possible or appropriate, we’ve found that diners often appreciate the feeling, especially during the cold winter months of sitting in front of the fireplace while enjoying a fine dinner at your establishment.

Lingering Longer

Customers also tend to linger longer when they have a fireplace to sit around and they’ll also be more likely to order the deserts which every restaurateur knows are a cash cow. That’s because people tend to think of eating in front of the fireplace as something to do with the family and especially tend to associate it with cold dishes like ice cream or warm drinks like coffee or hot chocolate. So, if your establishment has room for it, consider installing a fireplace. Ultimately, it’s likely to pay for itself.

New School Lunch Law Signed Toward the End of 2010

January 27, 2011

Mark 2010 down as being a landmark year for a number of important issues. The President signed into law a new tax cut, making an historic compromise with the Republicans in Congress. He also managed to sign the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell this past year and he signed a new law which will change the way school lunches are prepared.

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 was signed by the President toward the end of the year and is intended to re-write the rules for school lunches. The idea is to add in more whole fruits and vegetables in an attempt to combat obesity in children.

A Harbinger for Restaurateurs

The legislation, which was sponsored by Senator Blance Lincoln, Democrat of Arkansas also re-authorized certain federal food nutrition programs which had been in place since 1973. However, even more importantly, the fact that kid’s school lunches are supposed to start becoming healthier means that we as restaurateurs need to change as well. It’s time for us to take a cue from the small chains that have begun trying to offer healthier kids’ menus and to do it ourselves.

Yes, that Issue Again

We’ve talked about this before, however the fact is that even though we ultimately want to make money, we also need to consider the health of our youngest customers. Parents are concerned and the obesity epidemic is one that threatens to engulf the restaurant industry if something isn’t done about getting our kids onto healthier eating choices.

Taking a Page from the First Lady and Smaller Chains

We’ve written in this space about some restaurants that have begun to make the change and about how Michelle Obama has made this her signature initiative. We believe it’s an issue that’s not going to go away and that we as an industry need to learn from the examples set both by the President’s wife and by some of the smaller chains that have decided to try adopting healthy food choices for kids.

Is Fine Dining Dead?

January 25, 2011

Is fine dining dead? To hear some restaurateurs tell it, the whole concept went out the window when the housing market went south and the American public began to realize that they could no longer afford to go out to eat; at least not at fine dining establishments. However, a new survey was published recently by Restaurant Rx which seems to dispute that assertion.

Fine Dining is Evolving, Not Dead

Some make the claim that fine dining has gone the way of vinyl records, i.e., something a handful of connoisseurs still appreciate but that the masses, even those who could afford to care, have passed by. Yet others still claim that fine dining is alive and well. The only thing is that fine dining has been changing dramatically over the past few years.

Food Quality? Why Would You Even Ask?

One of the key points the study made was that food quality is really not even on the table as a definition for fine dining today. It’s simply assumed that it’s going to happen – of course we’ll see fine dining. However, the things those respondents to the survey still look for and define as part of the “fine dining” experience as opposed to casual dining is service and VIP treatment for their time in a restaurant. In other words, as always, it’s all about the experience – about being pampered and getting a wonderful experience.

Personalized Treatment Expected

Another thing respondents said they expect from fine dining establishments is the personal touch. They want to see that the waiters pamper them and cater to their needs. However, that said, respondents to the survey still noted that they would tend to favor restaurants based on the cuisine that was offered and whether they happened to enjoy it. They responded that they expect to dine repeatedly in restaurants that are “favorites” and will choose their favorites based on the food more than anything else.

Campbell’s Challenges Chefs – Show Us What You’ve Got

January 21, 2011

Chefs, this is your chance to show off how smart you are. Your challenge: turn a bowl of soup into something extraordinary. Yes, it’s that time of year again – Campbell’s soup is sponsoring a contest known as “It’s Amazing What Soup Can Do.” The contest started in November of 2010 and runs through January 31, 2011.

Extraordinary Things to Do with Soup

The idea is to prove that you can do something extraordinary with soup. Specifically, that you can do something amazing using a Campbell’s or Swanson branded soups which happen to come in 50 oz. food service sizes. In other words, unlike most contests that consumer brands run, this contest is specifically aimed at the industry rather than at housewives.

The reason for running the contest is simple: Campbell’s wants to sell you more soup. And no, they’re not just talking about the single 50 oz can you may buy for experimentation. They want you to consider using their readymade soups on a regular basis in your kitchen so that you can see the “benefits” of using their products to “increase efficiency.”

Eligible Campbell Soup Flavors for the Contest

The eligible soups include 15 different flavors of Healthy Request and condensed soups as well as Swanson broth in the 50 oz variety. Four chefs will be selected based on their recipes to come to a cook off at Campbell’s headquarters. The winner is to have his or her recipe featured on a can of Campbell’s soup and will also get a shopping spree at the Campbell’s store.

Campbell’s began their food service brand in 1965 with the intention of serving schools and restaurants. The division joined the existing consumer canned soups division which has been in operation since 1869. The Campbell’s brand also includes the V8 brand of healthy drinks, Pace and Prego sauces and Pepperidge Farm brand cookies and snacks.

How to Deal with Irate Diners

January 19, 2011

We’ve all had to deal with them at one time or another – the unhappy diner who simply blows up at your waiter because they felt the service offered wasn’t appropriate. Sometimes, the complaints are legitimate, such as when a waiter picks up a plate that has fallen on the floor and proceeds to serve it anyway or if a particular order comes out so late that the food is cold.

However, just as often, we find that the problem is one of perception. Perhaps, the customer expected one thing but got something else. How we deal with these kinds of problems, though, can be quite interesting. Then here are a few tips on dealing with irate diners:

Allow Waiters to Offer to Exchange a Meal for Something Else

Most restaurateurs who are worth their salt know that it’s well worth the loss of a few dollars worth of food to keep a customer happy. Therefore, they do this as a matter of course if a customer complains. The only time this isn’t appropriate to do is if a customer becomes a habitual complainer.

Offer a Coupon or a Free Desert

Another common tactic most seasoned restaurateurs are familiar with in order to defuse a problem is to offer something extra thrown in to make up for the problem.

Allow the Customer to Come Back to Your Office

This is probably one you haven’t thought of to try; however, it’s a really useful tool. An irate diner often just wants someone to take their complaint seriously. If you ask them to step into the back office so you can discuss the problem, you are not only validating their concerns but potentially avoiding a disturbance other diners who may not want to listen to your customer’s complaints.

Keep Calm and Make Things Personal

Finally, we suggest that if you are dealing with an irate customer that you start out by offering your name and asking the customer for their name by saying, “Hi, I’m Bob. How can I help you Mr…?” Then you proceed to continue using the customer’s name and try to make it feel more like a relationship between friends rather than a confrontation.

You’re more likely to walk away from the experience with a satisfied repeat customer rather than someone who will badmouth your establishment to his friends. And of course, it also helps tremendously if you keep your own temper in check so that it doesn’t devolve into a test of who can scream the loudest.

Don’t Cook and Drive

January 17, 2011

Don’t cook and drive – that’s the current rule in Chicago. Have you seen the ubiquitous trucks that park on street corners and offer everything from hot tamales to hot dogs? These are common in cities like New York and Los Angeles, but they are all but illegal in Chicago, where the restrictions mean that it’s impossible to get a hot meal from a food truck and even cold foods are a difficult thing to find.

Chicago Food Trucks under Strict Guidelines

First of all, it turns out that the requirements say that Chicago chefs who own food trucks may sell food out of their trucks – as long as the food was prepared elsewhere and is sold pre-packaged inside the truck. This means that not only are the hot tamales and hot dogs out, but so are many other kinds of foods.

If you’ve ever bitten into a tuna sandwich from one of those old style food vending machines…you know what we’re talking about. No one liked ‘em then and they pretty much disappeared in part because the bread would become mushy with a number of different kinds of “wet” foods in between the slices after a while.

As if that restriction weren’t bizarre enough however, the other thing that seems to be hindering the adoption of food trucks in the Windy City is the requirement that they must be parked more than 200 feet from the closest brick-n-mortar restaurant. This effectively makes the most lucrative parts of the town’s business centers off limits to mobile restaurateurs.

Start Up Costs of Food Trucks

The big issue it seems is that the food trucks are infinitely cheaper to set up than the traditional brick-n-mortar restaurant. While it’s estimated that a traditional restaurant would cost some $1 million to put together, a food truck business can get going for as little as $150,000. That difference often means the difference between starting a business and not starting a business, especially in this economy.

A new city ordinance is currently under consideration to try to get the law changed to make the city more friendly to food trucks, but unless and until it does get passed, chefs be warned – don’t cook and drive in the Windy City.

An Unusual Kitchen in New York – Open 24/7 with No Front End

January 11, 2011

They say that necessity is the mother of all invention and that certainly seems to be the case with a new kitchen in New York City. No, this isn’t some kind of an unusual restaurant – in fact nothing is served where the kitchen is located. Nor is it some kind of experimental lab for a food company.

Long Island Restaurant Work as a Cooperative for Unemployed Chefs

Instead, this kitchen, located in Long Island City, Queens, is in use 24/7 by a rotation of chefs who rent the space out and use it to create various foods and pastries, which they then sell at farmers’ markets and on the street in a very unique New York experiment.

The kitchen is funded by a variety of grants that help New Yorkers who are out of work to find a new way to spend their time – making food and hopefully making a living as well. The kitchen turns out a startling array of foods representing the diversity of New York cuisine, from Indian candies to whoopee pies to falafel.

There are several chefs who share the space, pool their orders together and use the kitchen not only to create food for sale, but also as a way to deal with having been laid off.

Unemployed Professionals Try Their Hand at Culinary Delights

What is particularly interesting about this kitchen is that none of the current residents was ever a professional chef.

Marissa Angebranndt, who makes the whoopee pies in the kitchen used to be a hedge fund manager but lost her job when Wall Street went south.

 Shefalee Patel, the Indian candymaker used to work in Dubai, helping to build the artificial islands off the coast of that tiny Middle Eastern nation.

Finally, Miguel Urrego, who creates the falafel at the kitchen has worked as a bartender’s assistant and waiter in New York (to be fair, he did work at one point as a cook as well, though we imagine not the on the scale he works at now).

All in all, it’s an experiment which seems to be paying dividends for the city, supporting a number of small businesses and making for a more interesting gastronomical experience in New York.

Increase in Catering Viewed as Good News for Restaurateurs

January 7, 2011

Are you finding that some of your regulars have decided to abandon the dining out scene? If so, you may want to consider expanding your catering offerings. That’s the advice we’re seeing lately from some of the nation’s restaurateurs who are seeing an uptick in the number of their customers interested in having affairs catered at home.

Consumers Like to Eat at Home—With a Caterer

While the Great Recession is slowly receding into the background (we hope for good), the reality is that the unemployment situation in this country is still quite stark. Conspicuous consumption is considered something a bit gauche. Therefore, we’re finding that even those who can afford to host dinners at restaurants are looking to entertain more at their homes.  The empathetic effort is out of respect for those suffering during hard economic times.

Restaurateurs Adapt to Changing Times

Many restaurateurs known for adapting to the tastes of the public have begun offering their wares to their customers at home or wherever it is that they want to have their parties entertained.

Why Restaurants Are Increasing Stock of Chafing Dishes

 In order to make the transition from people coming into their restaurants to bringing the food to people’s homes, the business of home catering has improved and widened. Once relegated to rubbery-tasting, roasted chicken, it is now a booming industry where restaurateurs are reporting seeing a significant uptick in the number and variety of their requests for home orders.

Other Trends in Catering

Another interesting trend that we’re seeing is that some customers are asking for partial catering. They might decide to prepare a certain number of their own dishes at home and then supplement this with food from professional chefs. Thus again saving a few dollars while offering restaurateurs the chance to offer their wares to a new public. The bottom line: if you want to survive through a recession, be flexible and make sure your customers have all the options they want.

Kids’ Menus Start to Get a Little Healthier

January 5, 2011

We’ve written in this space on numerous occasions about the need to offer kid-friendly food that is also considered to be a healthier, lower calorie choice. The First Lady has been pushing the concept for school lunches and a number of parents, especially those who have higher levels of education have been demanding this for some time.

Changing the Menu Options on Kids’ Menus

Well, it seems that at least a few smaller restaurant chains have taken our advice to heart and are now offering revamped kids’ menus that offer kids the chance to eat healthy while still being kids.

Toronto-based Freshii Offers Healthy Kids’ Options

Freshii, a 31-restaurant chain based in Toronto was the latest to offer such a new menu, starting with a chicken quesadilla for $3.99. The sandwich is offered in honey wheat pita bread and a second option, offering fresh fruits, light cream cheese and granola is offered in a whole wheat tortilla for $3.99.

Other options on the new kids’ menu include a chicken teriyaki meal with broccoli, carrots, mushrooms and teriyaki sauce served on a bed of brown rice or rice noodles for $5.99 and a chicken noodle soup served with tomatoes and cheese for $5.99. Or, kids can also choose to create their own salad using up to four toppings and dressings for $4.99.

Austin-based Carino’s Italian Takes the Kid Menu Initiative

Another restaurant which took the low calorie kids’ menu plunge was Carino’s Italian, based in Austin, Texas. Each of the their $4.79 kids’ menu options has less than 500 calories and kids can choose from pizza pasta (spaghetti with tomato sauce and grilled chicken, pepperoni and mozzarella), chicken and broccoli with penne and Alfredo sauce, a Panini made of turkey and mozzarella, which is served with a side of mandarin oranges. Kids can also choose a plain grilled cheese Panini and grilled chicken with spaghetti and tomato sauce or Italian veggies.

Looking to Expand Your Wine List? Try Adding Viognier.

January 3, 2011

So here’s an interesting option to consider adding to your wine list: it’s a little known kind of grape from Northern Rhone called the Viognier (it’s pronounced vee-0-nier). The grade provides a fruity kind of wine which is quite different from the whites you probably are already offering your diners.

Unlike Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, which are all staples of any decent restaurant’s wine list, Viognier was considered an extreme rarity, offered from just a handful of vineyards and offered to the world’s wealthiest clientele.

Viognier Suppliers in High Demand

All that began to change around twenty years ago. Today, the grape is grown in a number of countries, including Australia, France, Chile, Spain and Israel to name a few. For those looking for more unusual wine manufacturers offering Viognier, consider Swiss, South African or even Lebanese Viogener.

Experts describe the wine as offering a more “fragrant aroma” than traditional whites and report aromas of peach, pear and apricot from the wine. It is reported as being a softer wine than traditional whites. It is often mixed with Shirax or Syrah grapes for an interesting experience, which also helps to stabilize the color of the vintage.

Offering Viognier on Your Wine List

While you should certainly continue to offer the more traditional wines on your wine list, we’re suggesting you ask your sommelier about Viogener in order to offer your guests a unique dining experience. The wine is generally offered as dry or semi dry so it is most appropriate with dishes traditionally served with white wines, such as fish.

Now you can acquire Viognier at reasonable prices. With bottles from some producers being offered at retail for as little as $10 (a far cry from the outrageous prices traditionally associated with this grape just a few years ago), it is appropriate for medium level restaurateurs to offer to their guests.