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Archive | September, 2009

California & Vermont Restaurants: Are You Compliant?

Lead Free Plumbing LegislationIf you’re in the food service industry in either California or Vermont, then this blog post is for you. New legislation in these two states changes the kind of faucets and pipe fittings that can be installed in restaurants and commercial kitchens starting early next year.  California Assembly Bill 1953 and Vermont Senate Bill S152 mandate all plumbing and fixtures that come into contact with water intended for human consumption through drinking or cooking must contain less than 0.25% lead by weight.

The new limit on the lead content of plumbing fixtures goes into effect January 1, 2010.  After that time, any new plumbing fixtures purchased in the states of California or Vermont must comply with the new lead limit.

Here’s the breakdown on how your restaurant will be affected:

You don’t have to replace existing fittings.  Whatever you’ve got now in your kitchen can stay until it needs to be replaced through normal wear and tear.  Just make sure that when you do buy new fittings, they comply with the 0.25% by weight lead limit and are properly certified.

Only plumbing fixtures that dispense water intended for human consumption must comply.  Hose reels, washdown stations, service sink faucets, and mop bucket sink faucets are exempt from the new standard.  Pantry, lavatory, hand sink, and pot filling faucets must all comply with these new standards, as well as pre-rinses.  Pipe fittings must also comply, so keep this in mind when you’re repairing an old faucet or installing a new one.  This includes faucet installation kits, foot pedals, and pre-rinse assemblies.

Fittings and fixtures that comply with 1953 and S152 must be certified by an independent third party organization.  Make sure the plumbing parts you buy are certified as containing less than 0.25% lead by weight.  These products will usually be stamped or labeled with a TSBCA0890compliance certification.

For restaurants in Vermont and California, coming into compliance with the new lead standard is as simple as purchasing properly certified plumbing fixtures and fittings after January 1, 2010.  Some manufacturers have products that are already compliant with the new standard, and several more are planning to offer compliant fixtures and fitting by January next year.

Find compliant plumbing fixtures here.

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Menu Trends: Ruby Red Hibiscus Flavors

Hibiscus Is A Hot New Menu TrendHibiscus, the beautiful tropical flower, is now making its way into cocktails, teas, and desserts in some of the trendiest urban restaurants.  The taste is described as both fruity and floral, with a tartness not unlike lemon.  From the perspective of presentation, hibiscus flavored drinks and desserts turn an appealing ruby red color.  Some supermarkets are even carrying hibiscus flavored drinks.

Our neighbors to the south in the Caribbean and Latin America have been enjoying hibiscus flavored drinks for years.  It’s only recently that the flower has become popular in the U.S. as a flavoring.  Watch for hibiscus flavors to start showing up in more and more restaurants soon.  If you’re looking for new menu items or cocktails in your restaurant, Caribbean style foods and drinks with hibiscus could add a tasty, exotic touch to your offerings.

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Restaurant Management: No Training Budget? Spend Nothing But Time And Succeed

According to a new study by the Council of Hotel And Restaurant Trainers (CHART), 53% of the restaurants surveyed had cut back on their employee training budgets.  Only 19% increased their budget, with the rest remaining the same.  The study covered a wide variety of restaurants, from small independents to large national chains, with the largest number of respondents falling into the small to mid-sized regional category.

These numbers obviously reflect the lean economic reality in which everybody in the food service industry is operating presently.  Cuts are inevitable as revenues fall.  But how much is too much?  Where is the line between trimming back and damaging a key pillar in your business: professional, experienced service?

New employees get some pretty good training for the first 90 days after hire, according to the respondents to this survey.  After that, wait and kitchen staff receive very little or no training, while management tends to receive more.  No matter what the size of your restaurant is, ongoing training should be a cornerstone of your overall strategy.  Research shows that employees who are given regular career training and whose company philosophy revolves around a reputation for service are much more likely to stay longer and perform better, which attacks the biggest monster in restaurant staff: high employee turnover.

Okay, you say, I get it, employee training is important.  But I can’t afford it right now, so what should I do?  Well, as long as you are willing to take the time, staff training doesn’t necessarily have to cost a lot of money.  Sure, supplemental training materials and videos are more efficient, but when you need to cut back, canning expenses on training materials doesn’t have to spell the death of your training program.

Some ideas for training on the cheap:

Role play with employees.  Don’t take it the wrong way (and at least one person on your staff is going to snigger in the back every time you bring this up) but role playing customer service situations with your employees is a very effective way to train.  If you hold regular role playing sessions, the awkwardness will eventually wear off and very positive employee interactions will develop.

Start a mentoring program.  Assign your top servers and kitchen staff to one new employee each.  Have the new employee do nothing more than follow the more experienced members of your staff around for a shift a month.  Not only will the new employees learn by example, they will form relationships with your best employees, which encourages retention and improves performance.

Cross train employees.  Train servers how to be hosts, hosts how to be servers, line cooks how to expo, etc.  The benefits of cross training are twofold: your staff will be able to fill gaps on busy nights or when you have no shows, and they will better understand how the restaurant operates as a whole, which usually means they will work better as a team.

Whether money’s tight or pouring in, simple, effective training techniques usually translate into one simple principle: taking time out and spending it with your employees.  There is a cost associated with taking time, but the benefits far outweigh this costs.  Done right, interactive training will form the solid backbone of your business and position you to succeed no matter what the economic climate is like.

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Healthy Menu? Don’t Tell Your Customers

Ask anyone sitting on their couch around dinnertime if they want a healthy pizza, and you’ll probably get a lukewarm response.  Not that people don’t want to eat healthier.  Study after study has shown that consumers, when asked when they aren’t actively ordering food at a restaurant, want healthy menu options.  But as I have discussed in the past, that doesn’t always translate well to the moment of truth when a patron actually makes their decision.

A New Orleans pizza concept learned this lesson the hard way.  Calling themselves World’s Healthiest Pizza, they formed a menu based on the premise of making healthy taste great.  Response was lackluster from the start.  That’s because nobody wants to eat healthy pizza.  They want a pizza that tastes awesome, calories and fat be damned.  To most people, the word “healthy” doesn’t mean “enjoyable” or “tasty.”

For this reason, many restaurant chains don’t even tell customers new menu items are healthy, and they don’t make a big deal when they change the ingredients of existing meals that make them healthier.  The reasons are very simple: customers order things they think will taste good.  Customers also don’t associate healthy with good taste.

There is a small contingent who care passionately about eating healthy, reduced calorie and fat foods.  They are the ones who will read the nutrition facts on your menu and be satisfied when they discover just how healthy your menu is.  For the vast majority of patrons, however, your primary objective is to convince them that the items on your menu taste absolutely amazing.  After they fall in love with your menu, hopefully they’ll realize their favorite meals are also healthy eating, and you’ll have a customer for life.

As for World’s Healthiest Pizza, they changed their name to Naked Pizza earlier this year.  The concept’s owners remain dedicated to making great tasting pizza that’s also good for you.  They just don’t tell you about it until you’ve discovered just how great healthy tastes.

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The Casa Bonita Secret To Being A Successful Restaurant

Casa Bonita restaurant, Denver, Colorado

Want to know what makes a restaurant succeed where others fail?  Is it because your food is the best around?  Do you offer customers an incredible value for their buck they just can’t get anywhere else?  Or is your staff so professional, so incredibly well trained, that customers just can’t get enough of your efficient, friendly service?

Well, all those things are factors in your success, but there have been hundreds of restaurants, if not thousands, that have done all of those things relatively well and still failed.  So, how do you identify the key factor that makes one restaurant succeed where another fails?

To answer that question, think back to some of the most memorable restaurants you have ever been to.  I personally have been to hundreds of restaurants all over the United States, Mexico, and South America, and out of all those establishments, one pops up in my head first, just about every time: Casa Bonita in Denver, Colorado. If you’ve never heard of Casa Bonita, it’s a Mexican themed restaurant with a summer carnival feel.  There are games like skee-ball.  There’s a massive waterfall in the middle where cliff divers regularly plunge at least 60 feet.  And, of course, there’s Black Bart’s Cave, which goes behind the waterfall and is full of treasure and dead pirates.  In short, the place is a kid’s paradise, and when I was young, it was the best restaurant I had ever seen.

The place is so unique the popular cartoon series South Park even devoted a whole episode to it (yes, South Park fans, Casa Bonita exists!). To be honest, the food is at best mediocre.  I don’t even remember what the service was like and I don’t care.  And I know the prices were outrageous.  But just writing about Casa Bonita makes me want to go back. Why?  Because you can’t get Casa Bonita anywhere else.  Out here in Colorado, Mexican restaurants are a dime a dozen.  Some are good, some are bad, and many struggle to attract customers.  They all compete on price.  They all have hard working wait staff.  Most have great food.  None of them are unique enough for me to remember, with the exception of the Rio in Boulder, which has the best margarita in Colorado – hands down. The point is that you have to make your restaurant unique.  No matter what kind of food, what segment of the population you’re targeting, where you are located, your restaurant must stand out.  You don’t need a 60 foot waterfall to be unique… maybe your happy hour features the only all-you-can-eat nachos in town.  Or perhaps your patio is lush with flowers and greenery every summer.  Something must make your restaurant stand out. Some restaurant concepts even use rude service as a gimmick to make themselves different.  It’s not about the best entrée in town.

It’s about the atmosphere.

This is not to say you don’t need well trained staff and great food that’s competitively priced.  It is to say that word-of-mouth is your best weapon, and when people think back to the experience they had at your restaurant, are they going to mention the incredible enchilada dish that was better than any they’d ever had before, or are they going to mention the free salsa dancing lessons?  You decide.

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Extreme Mixology: Inhaling Vaportinis

Inhale A Vaportini at The Red KivaMixology is a hot trend in food service.  More and more bars and restaurants are investing in exotic flavors and unique blends to make cocktails that draw customers in and tantalize their taste buds.  There are even professional “mixologists” who dedicate their time to the art of developing the next trendy cocktail.

The Red Kiva Lounge in Chicago has apparently taken mixology to a new level with Vaportinis: a shot of alcohol that’s heated, and, instead of being drunk, is inhaled as it evaporates from the heat.  The result is a head rush akin to smoking a cigarette as the alcohol is absorbed through the lungs.

The owner of The Red Kiva got the idea for Vaportinis after a trip to Finland, where vodka is poured over hot coals and then inhaled during an annual winter festival.  After developing a special container that heats the alcohol and then allows the customer to inhale through a straw, The Red Kiva started offering several different types of alcohol in their Vaportinis.

The more exotic mixology gets, the more interesting the ways people will find to ingest alcohol.  The quest for the next trendy drink continues to yield innovations like the Vaportini.  The biggest hurdle to this drink is reminding people that inhaling alcohol still gets you drunk.  No word on how a breathalyzer reacts to someone whose been “smoking” alcohol.

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For All The Hype, Are Restaurants Really Using Social Media?

Restaurants Are Not Using Social Media For MarketingFor all the buzz around using social media like Twitter and Facebook as marketing tools for restaurants, a recent study by indicates the majority of restaurants aren’t catching on.  Establishments in three major urban centers, New York, San Francisco, and Portland, OR were surveyed about their internet and social media marketing strategies.

The results are interesting, and definitely surprising.  Some highlights:

While about 80% of restaurants in New York and Portland have a website, only about 50% of restaurants in San Francisco do.  This is especially surprising when you consider the fact that San Francisco is home to Silicon Valley, the cradle of the internet.  I wonder if the dominance of Yelp, which calls San Francisco home, has preempted restaurants from developing their own website.  Yelp is used in San Francisco more than any other city.

Under 10% of restaurants in any of these three cities uses Facebook or Twitter.  The vast majority of restaurants in three of the most tech-savvy cities in the country aren’t using social media to market to customers, despite the mountains of press about the benefits of doing so.  I can only imagine what the percentages of social media marketing restaurants are in other areas of the country.

So what is the disconnect between people who write about the food service industry (including me) and the people who actually work in the food service industry?  Are restaurants unaware of the benefits of social media marketing?  Unwilling to invest in social media marketing?  Unconvinced of the benefits of social media marketing?

As I have said previously on this blog, the beauty of social media marketing is the only it costs you is time.  Granted, as a busy restaurateur, time is also a very precious commodity.  But when you think about the very real dollars you must spend to advertise in traditional channels like radio, print, etc., and when you take into account how easy it is to measure the success of a social media campaign, the reasons for not utilizing social media become few indeed.

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Restaurant Promotion Gone Afoul: The Most Expensive Free I’ve Ever Seen…

Ok, so this hit my desk in the early AM on 9/9/09: “ Stretches the Dollar with 90% off Gift Certificates”.

A limited time promotion they are running using the date of 9/9/09 as an excuse. I don’t care what day it is on the calendar this is a terrible promotion. Well, let me clarify that – this is a terrible promotion for any client. Who can deny it’s a good deal for the customer – A $25 certificate, which they usually discount to $10 anyway, is then $1 – yes, one dollar. And customers are indeed going crazy for it – a quick search on Twitter shows countless people sharing the news. That’s all well and good – but from the restaurant side, I find the promotion disgusting. I know if I was a restaurant on their site, I would call up and immediately cancel with them. Of course, they lock restaurants in for 12 months so that’s not really an option – and I guess they hope that restaurants forget about these kinds of promotions when it comes time to renew.

So, let me elaborate. I’m a restaurant and I’ve got a pretty nice place. And some lame-brain marketing person desperate for sales at makes my $25 certificate worth a buck! That makes me and my restaurant look like an ass.

I’ll say it again – like an absolute ass.

Here’s the deal…

  • Restaurant ABC signs up for “free” to
  • Restaurant ABC receives a decent looking presentation of their restaurant on the website
  • Restaurant ABC decided on a couple of certificate offers to make available – i.e. $10 for a $25 certificate and decides on the restrictions for it – i.e. with the purchase of $50 or more..
    – Restaurant ABC agrees to redeem the certificates when they come in the restaurant

Ok, maybe that’s a good idea – I strongly say no it’s not – but let’s continue to go with it.

Here’s the rub…

  • doesn’t share any of the dollars from the sale of certificates with the restaurants.
  • For example, in the case above, would receive the $10.
  • Or as the case would be in this 90% sale, the $1
  • Since they don’t have to worry about sharing this revenue and it’s all just digital certificates they hold a wacky sale like this.

Good for them, because consumers flock to buy these cheap certificates – well “coupons” really – it’s a very big stretch to call these things gift certificates. And they get some sales volume and new customers and media attention, etc.

But is it good for the restaurants – their so called “partners”?

Well maybe if the restaurant just wants someone to walk through the door at any price. But certainly not if the restaurant has any inkling of branding and image. It’s hard to look cool, hip and happening when they are shilling your $25 certificate for a measly dollar. It’s just the wrong impression. It’s just the wrong tactic. It’s just wrong.

There are countless ways to do better restaurant marketing. The marketing machine of has somehow fooled thousands of restaurants. Maybe because it seems easy and free, restaurants say what the heck and give it a try. Well, let me just say that “free” can sometimes be very, very expensive. And that is the case here.

Maybe you think different – that’s fine – post your comment. And forward a link to the people, they are welcome to respond as well.

All the best,
– Jaime

P.S. Don’t take this as a harsh criticism if your restaurant has chosen to use Do take it as a constructive critique that you can do better with your marketing and be more creative and inventive and build true value with your marketing programs. That’s what we help with – we have tons of marketing resources for folks at and

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Restaurant Marketing Goes Hyperlocal

Foursquare Is A Hot New iPhone AppThere’s a new movement afoot in the urban centers of this country.  It started sometime last year and is still in its infancy, but given enough time, it could become the next MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter of the social media revolution.

It’s called “hyperlocal” social media.  One of the pioneers of the movement, Everyblock, provides all kinds of information about every single block in a city, from restaurant reviews to police reports to foreclosure information.  A more recent, and for restaurateurs a much more intriguing, option came online earlier this year.  Foursquare describes itself as 50% friend finder, 30% city guide, and 20% nightlife game.

It works like this: as you patronize your favorite local haunts, you “check-in” with Foursquare, which allows you to see if friends are nearby and post tips/information about the venue you’re currently in.  The more you check-in, the more “badges,” or awards, you get.  For instance, you can become the mayor of certain bar or club if you check-in the most times from that location in 60 days.

Tech-savvy restaurants and bars caught wind of the mayor and other Foursquare badges and started advertising to this ready-made customer base, offering free drinks and other comps to the Foursquare mayors of their establishment.  Most people had no idea what the heck a mayor was, but those that did quickly spread the word to their friends, and it turned out to be a hot way for restaurants and bars to market themselves effectively to their hippest customers.

In general the hyperlocal movement is beneficial to the food service industry because it provides a real time medium through which restaurants can advertise to their customers.  For now, Foursquare and the inevitable copycats that are forthcoming will be largely limited to big urban centers like New York, Chicago, and L.A., but it’s not that farfetched to imagine a hyperlocal medium of one kind or another servicing communities of all sizes.

For those of you who are located in ultra-competitive large urban centers, you can’t afford to ignore this new phenomenon.  If you haven’t already, start advertising to your Foursquare customers.  Offer some sort of discount to regular customers.  Some have gotten creative with the scheme, like putting the word out through the web application that anyone who barks like a dog on Thursdays gets a free drink.  Others ask to view their customer’s iPhone to verify they have actually checked-in at their restaurant.

No matter what your scheme, Foursquare can become an important vehicle for driving buzz and traffic to your front door.  For the rest of us, located outside the super hip downtown scene of the big city, we can only shake our heads at the pace of technology and wonder when these trends are coming to our neck of the woods.

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The Conflict Between Local Food And Local Government

Restaurants Using Urban GardensAs I have noted on The Back Burner before, more and more restaurants are sourcing their food locally.  And restaurants in urban areas are even turning vacant lots, empty roofs, and bare terraces into herb and vegetable gardens, yielding fresh produce for their customers.  The trend has taken off quickly, and, at least in Culver City, CA, the municipal government is grappling with how to regulate urban gardens.

The problem started when the owner of the Bluebird Café approached the owner of a long-vacant strip of land near the restaurant that was formerly part of a railroad spur.  The restaurateur soon convinced the developer to let him use the land to grow crops that would supply fresh produce for the restaurant, including 535 tomato plants and 40 fruit trees.

Everything was going fine until municipal officials caught wind of the operation and pointed out that city zoning laws prohibited the pair from selling any of the produce that came out of their impromptu garden.  Anything used for personal consumption was fine, but for sale was illegal.

As cities and suburbs have grown bigger they have covered more and more farmland, and as consumers demand locally sourced, organically grown produce, a conflict has arisen between antiquated zoning laws and the realities of the modern landscape.  The result is a growing need for more progressive municipal laws that allow both citizens and local businesses to maximize land use in their communities.  Such progressive thinking not only addresses the growing desire for locally sourced foods but improves the municipal scenery and helps the local economy.

Concerns over water use, toxins and pollutants in urban soil, and the taxation of sold produce are all things that can be readily addressed by revised zoning laws.  It’s merely a matter of pushing those changes through the bureaucracy of local government.

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