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Archive | 2009

Crazy Eats: Cuy Will Make You Smarter

Crazy Eats: Cuy Will Make You Smarter

Two cuy dishes from Peru

Yes, your favorite childhood pet is also a favored delicacy in the Andes.

Called “cuy,” (coo-wee) by locals in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, roasted guinea pig has a gamey taste similar to rabbit and is said to improve intelligence and focus if eaten regularly.

In Cuzco, Peru, cuy is roasted like a suckling pig and served with hot peppers.  Other regions fry several cuy whole and serve them with a hot pepper or achiote sauce over rice or potatoes.

Crazy Eats: Cuy Will Make You Smarter

A view of Machu Piccu, the former stronghold of Incan Kings

Cuy is a traditional source of protein in the Andes going back centuries before the arrival of Columbus, when the Incan nobility dined on cuy exclusively and used their entrails to foretell the future.

Now guinea pigs are raised commercially and can be found in markets all over the Andes.

So if you’re ever in South America, and you don’t want to eat your childhood pet’s cousin, stay away from the cuy!

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The Obama Room Angers Restaurant’s Patrons

The Anaheim White House, a fine dining restaurant in Anaheim, CA, drew an unexpected amount of criticism recently after renaming one of 12 presidential-themed private dining rooms the Obama Room.

Irate customers asked to be removed from the restaurant’s email list and others swore they would never patronize the restaurant again as a result of the renaming.

The Obama Room Angers Restaurants Patrons

The Obama Room at the Anaheim White House Restaurant

The White House is located in a solidly Republican district, which may explain some of the anger.

But owner Bruno Serato pointed out that naming other private dining rooms after Democratic icons like John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter didn’t result in such a negative response.

The restaurant even rechristened the unpopular George W. Bush room for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis without much complaint.

And angry diners could always opt for the Reagan or Nixon room if the Obama room isn’t to their liking.  For some reason the Obama Room has really stirred up a negative response.

Regardless, Serato remains determined to keep the Obama Room.  He says the historic nature of the last election is too important to ignore, even if a few customers are angered by it.

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A Restaurant Survival Guide (continued)

The Back Burner’s Restaurant Survival Guide continues with some more tips on how to keep customers coming in the door in these tough economic times.

Take your product to the customer. You have already developed delicious entrees, trained your kitchen staff to cook them, and purchased all the equipment you need to produce on a large scale.

Yet your restaurant is seeing falling or stagnant visits every month.

You’re all dressed up with nowhere to go.  So go out.

Many large chains like Applebees, Chili’s, and O’Charley’s have developed very successful fast takeout operations to supplement sales of their core menu items.

Now some of these businesses are getting into full catering services as a way to boost sales in a gloomy economic environment.

Recent surveys of restaurant patrons have indicated they plan to stay home in record numbers in 2009, but that doesn’t mean they always want to fire up the home kitchen.

And small to medium sized get-togethers (of 10 – 50 people) still happen all the time, just not at your restaurant.  Customers see a great value in serving familiar foods from their favorite eatery right in their home, and you already have the staff and tools to service them there.

A little marketing, a slight adjustment in your menu offerings, and you’re on your way to finding your customers even if they aren’t coming to your restaurant as often as they used to.

Gift cards help. More and more chains are marketing gift cards, and smaller operations can do the same.  Not only are gift cards a quick and convenient gift for your customer, but they guarantee future sales that can help you through slow times.

They can also help bring in new clientele if they are offered as a promotion.  And best of all, customers who use gift cards tend to overspend the gift card amount, which means some added sales for you.

Meanwhile, the customer leaves full and happy, having spent less than he or she expected.

You can survive. The salient point here is that customers still want your product.  They haven’t forgotten how good it tasted two years ago.

They just don’t want to pay the same amount for it.

You have rising expenses to deal with, but that doesn’t mean a little repackaging and some clever marketing can’t help your customer realize exactly why they fell in love with your restaurant in the first place.

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A Restaurant Survival Guide

A Restaurant Survival GuideThe current economic downturn has affected every aspect of the American economy, including the food service industry.

The NRA has projected a 1% drop in all restaurant sales for 2009 (when adjusted for inflation), potentially making 2008 and 2009 the only two consecutive years where restaurant sales have fallen since the NRA started keeping track in 1971.

That’s sobering news for any restaurateur, and many restaurant managers can tell you after a quick glance over last quarter’s books that this NRA prediction isn’t coming as a huge surprise.

But there is silver all over the huge cloud bank of gloom that is our economy, and a smart business owner should be able to hang on until the ride is over.

For starters, the food service industry isn’t hurting as badly as other sectors of the economy (at least you’re not a UAW member, right?), and typically restaurants are the first to turn around after a slump.

The key lies in holding down costs while attracting new customers and retaining existing ones.  Sounds easy enough, right?  Right.

Here’s a few food service trends that can help you survive:

Comfort foods are rising in demand. Chicken, beans, and even spam all saw significant increases in sales in the last quarter of 2008.

These products can help your business manage costs while you portray them to the customer as a “value” menu item (well, maybe not spam), especially if you highlight them against perceived “luxury” items like beef.

Put together a value menu of comfort foods to bring customers in, then hope they decide on dessert.

Divide best sellers into smaller portions. Popular menu items are always going to be popular, no matter what the economy is like.  It’s just that when your customer takes his wife out this month, he doesn’t want to spend like he did in the freewheeling days of 2007.

Many restaurants are responding by taking popular menu items and offering an appetizer version of the same thing, or a two person value platter that can be shared.

Taking your core product offerings and making them affordable to your customer is a great way to retain your faithful base while enticing new customers who are searching for value.

Stay tuned for some more Restaurant Survival Tips from The Back Burner in the coming days.

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Menu Labeling Law Being Considered in Congress

The movement to accurately label menu items with nutrition information is gaining ground at a remarkable pace.  In 2008, the state of California, the cities of New York and Philadelphia, and two counties in Washington and Oregon passed legislation requiring restaurants to provide nutrition information to their customers.

20 more cities, counties, and states currently have similar laws on their dockets.

Studies have shown that 75% of consumers favor mandatory menu labeling in food service establishments.  Consumers are already familiar with nutrition labeling since it became standard on food products, and most want the same information when they dine out.

Critics cite the cost of analyzing menu items for their nutritional content as being prohibitively expensive for most small and mid-size food service businesses.

They also say menu variety will disappear because once a recipe is analyzed for its content, it cannot be changed even slightly since this will alter nutrition information.

However, the NRAsupports menu labeling legislation, but has chosen to lobby for a national bill that will preempt the growing patchwork of local and state laws regulating menu labeling and set a single national standard for menu labeling.

Menu Labeling Law Being Considered in Congress

The LEAN Act is currently being considered in Congress

The Labeling Education and Nutrition (LEAN) Act was introduced in 2008 and sets a national standard for restaurant menu labeling.  It is supported by the NRA and the Coalition for Responsible Nutrition Information (CRNI), an NRA-led advocacy group.  LEAN is currently in front of Congress and awaits a vote.

As restaurants in places like California begin the process of evaluating their menu nutrition information, a new industry has sprung up around nutrition.

One of those companies is MenuCalc, a San Francisco based organization that has compiled a huge database of laboratory analyses of common food ingredients.  Restaurateurs can use this information, which is accessible through the web, to create their own menu nutrition data.

No matter what, menu labeling is probably a trend in the food service industry that is beyond the point of no return.

It’s likely that in 10 years nutrition information will be as common on menus as Nutrition Facts labels are on food products today, and that leaves restaurateurs two choices:

Analyze and post nutrition information for their menu items today, or put it off for tomorrow.

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Hot Restaurant Trend: Menu Nutrition Labeling

Nutrition labeling is nothing new in the food industry.  Nutrition Facts have become ubiquitous on everything from milk cartons to candy bars.

But up until recently nutrition information on menus was largely absent.

That’s changing, and places like California and New York city have already passed legislation requiring nutrition information be displayed on menus.

Complying with new regulations is a compelling reason to begin recipe analyses, but it shouldn’t be the only reason why you start labeling your menu items with nutritional information.

Providing nutrition information creates customer loyalty and gives healthy menu claims credibility.

In an increasingly health conscious society, consumers want access to nutrition information.  The advent of nutrition labeling on grocery products has made them familiar with nutrition information and restaurants that have tried labeling have received an overwhelmingly positive response.

And menu labeling is a great way for you to market healthy menu choices because customers have all the information they need right in front of them.

Conducting recipe analysis will help you improve ingredient choices and streamline food preparation.  The process of analyzing the ingredients and preparation process you use for each recipe on your menu means you can reassess how you prepare menu items.

Often better ingredients can be employed to improve a recipe’s nutritional value.  Simple changes in food preparation methods can also improve nutritional value.

Perhaps most valuable to restaurateurs is the standardization of the food preparation process.  Small changes in how food is prepared, like variations in sauce and ingredient amounts and cooking times, can drastically change the nutritional value of a menu item.  Recipe analysis means you must prepare menu items the same way every time to maintain accurate nutritional labeling, and this has the valuable side effect of improving kitchen efficiency and reducing waste.

Laboratory Analysis vs. Database Analysis

Restaurateurs have two choices when deciding how to analyze their menus: a laboratory analysis of nutritional content or the computer database analysis of recipe ingredients based upon previous laboratory analyses of those ingredients.

Laboratory analyses are conducted by an independent laboratory, where each ingredient in a recipe is studied and it’s nutritional value calculated through testing.

This method is:

  • Generally used for standardized products with large distributions
  • Used by many large chain restaurants
  • Necessary for fried food products, because the variations in cooking times and the fat absorption qualities of individual foods require case-by-case analysis
  • Typically do not provide nutritional breakdowns of individual ingredients in a recipe, making it more difficult to adjust preparation methods and ingredients to achieve more healthy combinations
  • Requires a standardized food preparation method to ensure the accuracy of the analysis.  Slight variations in food preparation or ingredient amounts
  • Is much more expensive and time consuming than a database analysis

Database analyses collect the results from lab tests already conducted on a wide range of common recipe ingredients, eliminating the need to pay a laboratory to conduct a new test.

Access to database analyses:

  • Are much more affordable and less time consuming than lab analyses
  • Yield breakdowns of different recipe elements like sauces and condiments, giving you a more accurate picture of the nutritional content of each menu item
  • Allow you to adjust recipe ingredients and preparation methods to improve nutritional content and market claims like low sodium, fat free, etc.

Hot Restaurant Trend: Menu Nutrition LabelingMenuCalc is an online tool that uses database analysis to calculate the nutritional value of your menu’s recipes instantly.

You can do the analyses yourself using their wizard style interface and also get help from their experienced staff to create accurate menu labeling for your business.

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Aztec “Beer” Makes a Comeback

Aztec Beer Makes a Comeback

The traditional Aztec drink pulque

Pulque is a thick, milky alcoholic drink first enjoyed by Aztec kings in the centuries before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors.  It is fermented from the juice of the maguey plant, which is an aloe-like relative of the agave, the source of tequila and mezcal.  After the fall of the Aztec empire, the masses of poor mestizos in colonial Mexico adopted the drink and pulque consumption soared.

Fermented maguey is mixed with any of a number of flavors including pineapple, pistachio, strawberry, and even celery to mask its bitter taste.  Places that serve pulque, called pulquerias, have been going out of business one by one over the past century as its popularity dwindled among the working classes of Mexico.

Then, suddenly, young people in the heart of Mexico City rediscovered pulque and now the few surviving pulquerias are thriving hangout spots for Mexican youth.

Technology has also lent a helping hand  as modern pasteurization has led to the bottling and canning of pulque, which traditionally had a shelf life of only a few days.

A few companies have even begun to import the drink to the United States, in hopes of capturing the attention of homesick Mexicans and tuned-in hipsters.  After a hundred years of decline, pulque has made a comeback.  Montezuma would be proud.

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Is Yelp Helping or Hurting You?

If you responded to this question with a confused look and the response “What is Yelp?” then you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.  Forces have been at work that you didn’t even know about, and that can be a scary thing.

Yelp is an online review site for restaurants, bars, retail stores, and spas.  Users post their reviews of these businesses, and many others read reviews to help them decide where to eat when dining out.  Which means that Yelp could be helping or hurting you right now, depending on the nature of the reviews posted about your restaurant.

The problem is, your competition can also post a review about you that is probably less than accurate, hurting your chances of converting those increasingly scarce customers into visitors to your restaurant.

It’s a dog eat dog cyberworld out there and Yelp has become a key battleground for the hearts and minds of stingy customers.

Yelp takes advantage of this situation by allowing restaurants to pay to have bad reviews suppressed and good reviews highlighted.  These “sponsorships” start at $150 per month and comprise Yelp’s primary source of revenue.

Some restaurateurs love Yelp.  Their clientele use the site on a regular business and the favorable listings and review postings given to sponsors means a noticeable increase in business that more than justifies the cost per month.

Others view the monthly payment as necessary to prevent bad reviews from hurting business.

Regardless, less than 1% of the businesses reviewed on Yelp have become site sponsors, which is probably more a function of restaurateur ignorance than an unwillingness to pay for a sponsorship.

No matter what, anonymous, user-generated online reviews are the trend of the future, and the day is not far off when most potential patrons of your restaurant will learn about you through Yelp or a similar site on the internet.

It’s therefore up to you to at least know what is being said about your business online, and figure out how your customers are hearing about you.

Conduct a survey of customers to gauge how many came to you as a result of an online review site like Yelp.   Track reviews on the site and ask loyal patrons to post reviews.  You could even offer a free appetizer or other incentive for posting a review.

And if you find that a large portion of your clientele is using Yelp to find and learn about your restaurant, perhaps a sponsorship is the right route to take.

The younger and more urban the customer base, the more likely the need for you to reach customers through new media like Yelp.

Either way, take the time to learn where your customers are coming from and what people are saying about you on Yelp.  Knowledge is power, and you can’t afford to not know what’s being said about your business out in cyberspace.

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Hot Chef Trends for 2009

Despite the economic downturn you’re sick of hearing about (unless you’ve been under a rock), two trends remain hot for the food service industry in 2009: food nutrition and sustainability.

Even as consumers tighten belts and close wallets, they’re looking for healthy foods brought to them in an environmentally sustainable way, and if they think they can afford it, they’ll go for the product with the “green” label every time.

An older trend that’s still going strong is healthy and nutritious foods.

Most customers have started to blend green or organic food with healthy food, which makes it easy for you to blend the two into your menu for 2009.

Here are some tips to help you keep up with the times:

Customers want healthy choices, not demands. In other words, they appreciate healthy options on a menu but don’t want to be forced to eat them.  Menu diversity is nothing new, but it would surprise you how many restaurants have made the mistake of getting a little overzealous with healthy menu options.

Sometimes customers just want a burger and fries.

Advertise your sustainability. In recent years, your business has more than likely adopted cost cutting measures like recycling, energy conservation, and buying local products.

Let your customer know!

These are things they can connect with that make them feel good about consuming your product and bringing them back for more.

Back your claims up with green certification. Claiming to be green is one thing.  Getting certified is an entirely different matter.

The Green Restaurant Association has been promoting sustainable restaurant practices since 1990.

Getting your restaurant certified green will not only help you cut costs, it will give you and your product legitimacy in the eyes of the customer, enhancing their loyalty and increasing person-to-person buzz about your business.

Oh, and you’re helping the environment!

A healthy kids menu equals happy customers. Gone are the days of giving little Jimmy a burger and fries off the kid’s menu while Mom and Dad enjoy their entrees.

Today’s parents want nutritious offerings for their kids that will be eaten with all the enthusiasm of a Happy Meal.

Coming up with creative menu items for kids that are both healthy and satisfying can be a challenge, but the chef who pulls it off can count on happy customers coming back with the entire family.

Buy local (thinking global optional). As energy costs rose in the past few years, buying produce, ingredients, and meats locally became a red hot trend in the food service industry.

Not only does buying locally cut costs, it affords chefs and restaurant managers more purchasing flexibility.

Add in customer appreciation because your business is saving energy and investing locally, and you’ve got a winning combination.

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Welcome to The Back Burner

The food service industry is an amazingly diverse and complex world.

Every day millions of meals are served by all kinds of establishments across the country.

Small independent restaurants function as local hangouts where neighbors enjoy coffee or a beer while watching the game.  Huge commercial kitchens serve thousands of people at once every day in prisons, hospitals, and schools.  And national chain restaurants and quick service outlets feed millions in thousands of locations across the country.

Every kitchen in this vast constellation uses specialized equipment and tools to prepare each meal.

Staff, managers, and owners use strategies particular to food service to make their businesses successful.  The world of food service is uniquely separate from most other business, and yet few other industries are so pervasive.

Welcome to The Back Burner, a blog written by employees of eTundra.com, an online food service equipment, parts, and supplies distributor.  Tundra is based in Boulder, CO, and has been distributing food service products for over 16 years.

Let us just say now that this blog isn’t about Tundra; it’s about the complex and infinitely interesting world of food service.

Yes, we make our living here, and yes, we’d love to sell more of every product we carry.

But we’re also fascinated by how food service works, and we’ve spent years accumulating knowledge and experience about the industry.

And now we’d like to share that knowledge and experience with you, and, in turn, continue to learn.

The Back Burner is intended to assist in that endeavor by functioning as a medium for the wide dissemination of food service information.

We hope that you benefit from our contributions.  We also hope to benefit from yours.

Life in food service can be hectic and crazy.  It can also be incredibly rewarding.  Regardless, it’s always interesting, so no matter which way the pot’s boiling, take a moment to visit us here on The Back Burner.

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