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Archive | 2009

Why Card Check Is The Symptom, Not The Disease

Why Card Check Is The Symptom, Not The DiseaseLike it or not, small business owners like many in the food service industry are experiencing a period of drastic change labor laws.  As health care reform becomes a reality, several other projects championed by Democratic lawmakers will start nudging their way back to the top of the agenda – including the much maligned Employee Free Choice Act, also known as Card Check.

The legislation would change the way unions are formed in the workplace, making it easier for employees to mobilize and vote on unionization and limiting interference by employers.  Critics say unions would be able to intimidate workers into unionizing under card check.

Predictably, industry groups like the National Restaurant Association (NRA) are against card check, citing an insufferable increase in operating costs as their primary grievance.  The debate over card check heated up over the summer then died down with the emergence of health care reform.  But it will soon return as a hot button issue in 2010, and both sides are already starting to mobilize.

The irony is that health care reform and card check legislation are symptoms of a deeper problem, and are not in themselves the issue.  Restaurateurs and industry groups like the NRA would do well to recognize the trends in worker attitudes that have led to support for reform, rather than bemoaning the legislation that has been proposed as a result.
It all boils down to this: workers aren’t happy with their compensation or their benefits.  According to an article by Joseph Gravish, a human resources professional, employee surveys reveal that less than 35% of workers are satisfied with their benefits and 26% are satisfied with their compensation, and 80% would move to another job if the opportunity was better.Why Card Check Is The Symptom, Not The Disease

For restaurant owners and managers, it’s easy in a down labor market to take employees for granted.  Stories like the Applebee’s that opened in the Bronx last summer after receiving 6,500 applicants for 120 positions (Harvard has a higher acceptance rate) can lull you into a false sense of security: “If you don’t want to work here, I’ll find someone who does.”  Add the cash flow crisis that has resulted from the drop in consumer spending, and you get managers who just aren’t willing to spend any more than they absolutely have to on payroll.

The problem is, the labor market won’t be down forever.  Even worse, most businesses, especially in food service, didn’t invest much in their employees when times were good.  The result is an unhappy workforce ready for bills like Card Check to help them force positive change in the terms of their employment.

Creative compensation strategies and greater employee involvement in wage and benefit decisions are ways restaurants can avoid the unionization of their workforce.  As the NRA loves to point out, food service is one of the biggest employers by industry in the U.S.  Their point is that hurting their business hurts overall employment.  By the same token, food service should be taking a leadership role on labor issues, rather than squabbling with Congress over bills like card check.

Being proactive rather than reacting to symptoms of labor unrest like card check is food service’s recipe for better relations with their workers.  Trying to excuse your way out of dealing with worker dissatisfaction is a guaranteed way to cultivate the very thing most restaurateurs want to avoid: the unionization of their workforce.

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Why Fine Dining Is Shedding Formal Dress Codes

Why Fine Dining Is Shedding Formal Dress CodesFine dining restaurants have been the hardest hit segment of the food service industry since the country slid into recession two years ago.  Many establishments have closed and other have turned to deep discounting to stay alive during a time when consumers just aren’t willing to spend a lot of money to go out to eat.

As if all that weren’t enough, many fine dining restaurants are having trouble attracting younger patrons because they seem stuffy and “old school” when it comes to atmosphere and dress code.  Affluent customers between the ages of 21 and 30 are much less likely to choose a restaurant that requires a sport coat and tie, once a standard in the fine dining segment.

Attitudes towards traditional dress codes have definitely shifted in the last 15 years.  Many younger consumers don’t even dress as formally as a tie and sport coat at work, and they definitely don’t want to be required to dress that way when they go out for dinner.

Some fine dining restaurants have started to recruit younger customers by changing their dress code.  Many have scrapped a dress code altogether in an effort to broaden their customer base.  In general, the reaction has been positive.  The trend towards more casual fashion has been building for a long time, and if the fine dining segment of the food service industry is going to thrive, it’s going to have to start catering to a younger customer base.

There will always be ultra formal restaurants that stick to a strict dress code and appeal to a very small segment of customers.  But as many restaurants have learned in the past couple years, your customers are perfectly willing to abandon you at the slightest sign of economic trouble, especially if your business model focuses on service and quality rather than price.

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, the customer hunt for value is here to stay, and represents a real shift in how restaurants get business.  For those that aren’t focused on competitive pricing, this shift in attitudes represents a real problem.  Old social morays like dress code don’t help the situation.  In an environment as competitive as food service, those that evolve to shifting customer attitudes are going to be the ones that survive.

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Tonight’s Special: Pork a la Petri

Late last month it was announced that scientists in Holland have successfully grown pork meat in a petri dish.  The meat was developed from special cells called myoblasts that are specifically programmed to repair muscles in a live animal.  If they are left in a super rich broth of nutrients, as the experiment in Holland shows, they will grow indefinitely, creating a possibly endless supply of synthetically grown, but otherwise identical meat for human consumption.

Proponents of the Dutch project say meat produced in this manner can save millions of tons of greenhouse gases each year by making the production of meat much more efficient.  There are also real concerns that as global populations grow, arable land will not be able to produce enough protein to keep up with demand.  Synthetically produced meats represent a solution to this problem.

Tonights Special: Pork a la PetriThe meat produced in this experiment was soggy and soft because it never exercised enough to give it firmness.  Scientists involved with the project said they are developing ways to stretch and work the meat so that it takes on the same consistency as natural meat.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to know how the meat actually tastes.  Laboratory rules forbid employees from tasting the experiment.

So will your restaurant be serving boneless pork chops grown in a lab sometime in the future?  Dutch scientists definitely think so, but they realize that if this meat doesn’t look, taste, and smell exactly like natural pork, there’s no way it can ever be marketed.

So would you ever eat pork, beef, lamb, or even fish grown in a lab if you couldn’t tell the difference between the synthetic and natural version?  Leave a comment below….

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Identifying Commercial Refrigeration Thermostats

There are two types of temperature controls used in commercial refrigeration:

1. Thermostatic: either an Air Sensing type or Evaporator Coil Sensing type
2. Low pressure controlIdentifying Commercial Refrigeration Thermostats

Let’s start with thermostatic type controls.  An air-sensing thermostat does just that: it senses air temperature.  The control sensor tube is usually mounted in the evaporator housing.  The evaporator is located inside the unit, usually at the top where the fan motor is mounted.  The thermostat has a straight capillary or sensor.  The capillary tube is mounted on the outside of the evaporator coil usually pushed into a tube that is mounted in the front of the evaporator.

Identifying Commercial Refrigeration ThermostatsAn evaporator-sensing thermostat has a coiled capillary tube attached to it, which you can see pictured as a tight spiral to the left.  The evaporative sensing capillary or coiled tube end push into a hole that is in the evaporator.  It senses the temperature of the evaporator coil rather than air temperature.

These two controls are not interchangeable. If you put an air sensing control in place of an evaporative sensing control, the evaporator unit will shut off permanently, causing the temperature to rise.  If you put an evaporative sensing control in place of an air sensing control the unit will continue to run, causing the evaporator to freeze up.  If this happens there will be very little airflow, causing the temperature to rise.

The other type of control is a low-pressure control.  These are usually located in the compressor compartment.

A low-pressure control is connected into the refrigeration lines and controls the temperature by using the pressure of refrigerant flowing through the line.  This type of control requires a service technician to replace.

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This Isn’t Your Mother’s Happy Hour

The happy hour has long been the domain of college bars, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and after-work watering holes.  These establishments always understood a cardinal rule in driving business: a busy place is a place people want to be, and the easiest way to fill up a bar or dining room early is with a happy hour special.

Of course, many restaurants focused on good food, excellent service, and solid advertising to drive business, and for a long time it was easy to fill dining room and pack bars without having to discount during happy hour.

That model is working less and less as customers in all segments of the food service industry continue to insist on deals and discounts to get them to buy.  As a result, fine dining has started getting into the happy hour game in order to get butts in seats and keep them there.

This also isn’t the happy hour you might remember from five years ago.  It isn’t just a couple domestic beers on tap for $2 anymore.  Many restaurants are taking their happy hour all out, with special tapas style menus at bargain-basement prices and premium cocktails for $5.  Happy hour has also gotten much longer, from 2-3 hours to 4-5 hours of deals.

The effect in restaurants and bars that have gotten aggressive with their happy hours is noticeable.  Customer traffic tends to peak in the last hour, and that makes the place look active and exciting to potential walk-ins.  It beats the heck out of a couple quiet diners whispering over cocktails at two tables in the corner.

If you’re considering adding a happy hour or spicing up the one you’ve got, keep a few key factors in mind:

Happy hours should make the customer happy.  These days, your customers aren’t looking for a dollar off a Budweiser.  They want more, and they’re getting it as restaurateurs continue to fight for business.  Make your happy hour a smokin’ deal if you really want to ratchet up the buzz and the traffic.

Create a special menu.  There’s no need to lose your butt on your dinner apps just to stay competitive.  Take your highest margin apps and entrees and turn them into smart, fun, finger-style dishes that can be prepared fast and efficiently, preferably with a margin you can’t lose on.

Spend some money advertising.  If you’re changing up the menu and slashing drink prices, you need volume.  You’re not going to get volume if you don’t get the word out.  Start with your regular customers and then hit the rest of the market with whatever you’ve got (and whatever you can afford): email marketing, local ads, flyers, etc.

Once you’ve got ‘em in the door, keep ‘em!  Customers are there because you’ve gotten their attention with some good deals.  There’s never been a better opportunity to get them to stay.  Use happy hour menus to advertise dinner specials and train your staff to drop some great deals on happy hour patrons before they leave.  At the very least, they may come back for dinner another time after learning that your deals don’t end at 7 pm.

From the looks of it, happy hour specials are here to stay, and if you’re not in the game, your competition is or will be soon.  Many restaurateurs accept this as a fact of life and have already gone after happy hour crowds.  Fine dining, on the other hand, has held on to their prices and focused on the value of their service and product for as long as possible, but now event these places are slipping into the discount game.

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The Public Smoking Ban Counterculture

The Public Smoking Ban CountercultureThere has been much ongoing debate over the effect of public smoking bans on restaurant business.  As more and more states move to ban smoking in almost all public buildings, a counterculture has been pushing back by openly flouting the bans in their communities.

This counterculture is especially strong along the Illinois-Indiana border since Illinois passed a statewide public smoking ban earlier this year.  Indiana has no such ban, which has put an especially hard burden on bars and restaurants here, since their smoking customers can simply drive a few miles across the border to enjoy tobacco in public.

These unfortunate establishments have fought back by starting a fund to cover their costs if they are fined for violating the ban.  The Crowbar Inc. bar has a “smoke jar” – $5 for every customer who lights up.  They’ve been cited twice already, and the money from the smoke jar helped cover their costs.

The owner of the Crowbar defends his smoke jar as the only way he can keep customers from simply moving across the state line.  And perhaps he’s right in continuing to allow smokers to light up in his establishment.

But the hard reality is, public smoking bans are here to stay.  Eventually the day will come when every state in the union bans public smoking, and restaurants and bars are going to have to adjust to this fact sooner or later.  Yes it’s tough for these few places along the border just outside Chicago.  But they’re going to have to face the music sooner or later.

Overall, public smoking bans are not bad for business.  Many studies have shown that restaurant traffic stays steady or even increases after a ban is passed.  Unfortunately, certain segments of the restaurant industry, particularly bars and restaurants that cater to the blue collar (who are also more apt to smoke) are hit very hard.

That doesn’t change the fact that public smoking bans have an immediate and measurable effect on public health.  Heart attacks in public venues has been shown to drop as much as 40% after the passage of a public smoking ban.  This is because nicotine, even small amounts ingested through second hand smoke, constrict blood vessels and raise blood pressure.  Add in all the other negative effects of tobacco smoke and those that try to justify allowing public smoking sound like a pretty callous lot.

The bottom line is, smoking in public is not only bad for you, it’s bad for those around you.  Choosing to smoke is and should remain an individual’s own bad decision.  But when you start affecting other people’s health by your bad choice, something must be done.  And that’s why public smoking bans will and should continue.  Restaurants are just going to have to deal with any lost business, real or imagined.

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Boulder Restaurants Getting Some National Respect

Boulder Restaurants Getting Some National RespectBoulder area restaurants are garnering some respect on the national scene, including a write-up in the Wall Street Journal.  As you may know, The Back Burner is based in Boulder, so we took it as a great sign that some of our favorite restaurants in our own backyard have been recognized on the national scene.

Between well-known chef Radek Cerny’s French fusion cuisine at L’Atelier, The Kitchen’s gourmet sustainable fare, and Black Cat’s chef Eric Skokan’s recent appearance at the famed James Beard house in New York City, Boulder’s restaurant scene seems to be maturing very nicely.

Boulder’s restaurant scene is home to a great concentration of highly diverse, sustainably driven, and ultimately very high quality menus, and if you’re visiting the area any time in the future, we encourage you to take the time to enjoy this vibrant local scene as much as we do.

Check out all of Boulder’s offerings here.

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Fixing Commercial Gas Equipment: No Gas To The Burner

If you’re not getting gas to the burner on gas equipment, you can check several things in a process of elimination to determine what the problem is.  First things first: check the gas regulator.  Gas regulators are directional, which means gas will not flow if they are installed backwards.  Check the arrow on the regulator and make sure it’s installed properly!

More often than not, the problem is the safety valve.  Check out this Tech Talk post to learn how to identify and replace safety valves.  Before you replace the safety valve, however, try

Fixing Commercial Gas Equipment: No Gas To The Burner

tapping on the valve and see if that gets gas to flow.  Sometimes the plunger that blocks gas flow in the safety valve sticks and tapping on it will get it to move.  This is an indication that your safety valve is going bad however, and will probably need to be replaced to soon.

Another possibility is that your thermostat is bad.  There are two types of gas thermostats: BJWA and FDO type thermostats.  BJWA thermostats are the most common type and older ones can be identified by the nickel sized hole on the front where the knob attaches.  However, newer BJWA thermostats may not have that hole.  FDO thermostats are usually found on pizza ovens and can be identified by the disc with numbers on it that sits behing the knob stem.

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Fixing Commercial Ovens: Not Cooking Evenly

All the thermostats have a capillary tube with a bulb attached to the end of it.  This is the part that senses the temperature in the oven.  The bulb is attached to clips inside the oven.  If the bulb is not put back in the same place, i.e. it’s just stuck in the oven cavity and left hanging, then the thermostat will run “wild,” meaning the oven cooks unevenly.  Fixing Commercial Ovens: Not Cooking Evenly

Remember to get that bulb back into those clips no matter how hard it may be. 

If your oven is running wild check and make sure the bulb is installed properly.  Another reason for the oven running wild is that the thermostat is totally defective and in this case must be replaced.

There are two types of gas thermostats: BJWA and FDO type thermostats.  BJWA thermostats are the most common type and older ones can be identified by the nickel sized hole on the front where the knob attaches.  (See picture above)  However, newer BJWA thermostats may not have that hole.  FDO thermostats are usually found on pizza ovens and can be identified by the disc with numbers on it that sits behing the knob stem.

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Fixing Commercial Ovens: Trouble Maintaining Temperature

This is usually a thermostat problem.  When you set the thermostat at a set temperature and it does not reach that point it may be one of two problems: Fixing Commercial Ovens: Trouble Maintaining Temperature

1. The thermostat may be defective.
2. The thermostat may be out of calibration.  To check the calibration get a thermometer that you know is accurate.  Put it in the oven and set the thermostat to 250º.  Open the kick plate below the oven door and watch the burner flame, if it goes off before the oven reaches 250º you may be able to calibrate it.

To calibrate a thermostat remove the knob and check to see what type of thermostat you have.  The thermostat is either a type with a round disk that has two screws holding it in place or it will have a D shaft with a small screw in the center of it.  In either case only turn the disc or screw a fraction of a turn at a time and no more than a quarter turn either direction.

Continue to turn the disc or screw a fraction of a turn each time until you see the burner come back on.   If you reach that quarter of a turn point and the burner does not come back on, the thermostat is defective and must be replaced.  If the burner comes back on, watch the temperature of the oven and if it gets to within 5 or 10° of the preset temperature, you are good to go.  It may take several tries to get it properly calibrated.

If you still can not get it calibrated within the temperature range, you need to replace the thermostat.  All thermostats are preset from the factory and should not require calibration when installed.  If you find that the new thermostat does require calibrating, follow the previous instructions.

When replacing your thermostat, remember: all the thermostats have a capillary tube with a bulb attached to the end of it.  This is the part that senses the temperature in the oven.  The bulb is attached to clips inside the oven.  If the bulb is not put back in the same place, i.e. it’s just stuck in the oven cavity and left hanging, then the thermostat will run “wild,” meaning the oven cooks unevenly.

Remember to get that bulb back into those clips no matter how hard it may be. 

There are two types of gas thermostats: BJWA and FDO type thermostats.  BJWA thermostats are the most common type and older ones can be identified by the nickel sized hole on the front where the knob attaches.  However, newer BJWA thermostats may not have that hole.  FDO thermostats are usually found on pizza ovens and can be identified by the disc with numbers on it that sits behind the knob stem.

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