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Archive | October, 2010

Brazilian Chef Recognized On The International Stage

Chef Alex Atala, son of Lebanese immigrants and raised in Brazil, is himself a blending of cultures separated by huge geographical distances and divergent attitudes.  Perhaps this is why he is perfectly suited to bring the flavors of Brazil to global prominence.

Chef Atala achieved recognition by creating a hybrid cuisine from two very different worlds.  After receiving formal training in Europe, Atala returned to Brazil and began applying the French and Italian techniques he had learned to Brazilian ingredients like banana, maracuja (Passion Fruit), and tangerine. The result has been a refreshing, tropical take on traditional dishes like ravioli, mushroom consommé, and breaded oysters that has earned the rising chef an international name.

The tireless Atala has expanded to a new restaurant, called Dalva e Dito, which opened this January less than a block away from the legendary D.O.M.  The new restaurant features all the best dishes of Atala’s Euro-Amazonian cuisine, served tableside family style, just like a traditional French restaurant. The globalization of culinary techniques, ingredients, and flavors has led to unusual pairings like Atala’s Brazilian fare, with fascinating results.  A new generation of worldly chefs are creating exciting new cuisine that hails from very different cultures.  If the results are as delicious as Chef Atala’s, then the world is in for a golden age in fine dining.

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Green Restaurant Tips: Restaurant Energy Management Systems

Light BulbSome chain restaurants have started using comprehensive, fully automated energy management systems (EMS) to help reduce energy usage in their restaurants.  Restaurant energy management systems have been around for a couple decades, but recent technological advances have really improved what an EMS can do.

An EMS system can control air conditioning, hood exhaust fans, and equipment power-ups automatically.  Why is that good?  Imagine an employee deciding it’s too hot and dropping the thermostat to 50 and leaving it on overnight.  Or idle cooking equipment getting well ventilated by a hood fan on full blast.  How about the morning shift manager arriving a little late and cranking up the lights and equipment all at the same time?

Little things can turn into big energy expenses, especially when you can’t be there to manage how energy is used all the time.  The energy savings alone from having an automatic thermostat that drops the heat in winter and the cool in summer during off-business hours is significant. But an EMS goes much further.  An alarm will sound if the door to the walk-in has been left open for more than 10 minutes.  Employees walk into work in the morning with the lights already on and the equipment powered up and ready to go.  These increased efficiencies not only reduce the headache factor, they can translate into some real savings.

Granted, most smaller restaurateurs probably cannot afford a comprehensive EMS yet.  But as the technology gets cheaper and energy expenses continue their inevitable rise, the day may not be far off when it makes sense for even a Mom-and-Pop place to have a comprehensive, automated system managing their energy consumption.

In the meantime, why not set up your own restaurant energy management system?  It may not have all the same cool computer-powered features of a modern EMS, but it can be just as effective.
Consider setting up some guidelines for your staff on how to power up equipment and turn on lights in sequence when opening your restaurant.

  • Train kitchen staff to dial back ovens, ranges, and broilers during downtimes and cut back the hood exhaust.
  • Post guidelines and expectations for energy usage like closing refrigerators, and hand out rewards for energy efficient practices.
  • And most importantly, buy an Energy Star rated automatic thermostat!  It’s much less expensive than a fancy EMS, and accomplishes the same goal: automatically adjusting the thermostat during non-business hours.

The point is energy management is an important way to cut costs and reduce the carbon footprint of your business at the same time.  Cutting costs means more profits, and running a green restaurant will earn you customer respect.  It’s a win-win situation.

Energy Star

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Restaurants Use Nutrition Info To Add Value For Customers

Restaurants Nutrition LabelingIn a world of discounts, something besides price has to get your customers in the door.  It’s the new reality facing the food service industry these days, and many restaurants have already started devising ways to go the extra mile for customers.

Soon enough restaurants will be required to post nutrition information about each item they serve.  Study after study has shown that consumers prefer to have nutritional information available about the dishes they order – whether that information is good news for their diet or not.

Some restaurants have taken the trend towards healthier menu items and nutrition labeling and used it as a way to add value for their customers.  Moon Under Water, a restaurant in St. Petersburg, FL developed a computer program that allows you to punch in your meal and get back a full report of nutritional data about your choices.

The program doesn’t mean the restaurant’s high-calorie items don’t sell anymore, or that customers have been turned off by the numbers on their favorite dishes.  Instead, putting the program together helped Moon Under Water’s owner find some particularly unhealthy ingredients, like high sodium stocks, and replace them with healthier substitutes.  Many customers were surprised by the relatively low calorie counts of the dishes they ordered.

Mod Market, an eatery located in Boulder, CO, adds nutritional information to the items customers ordered on their receipt.  The restaurant is focused on fresh, healthy offerings, and adding calorie counts to the receipt gives them an opportunity to remind customers what they’re getting (or not getting, in the case of calories) out of a Mod Market meal.

These two restaurants gain two things from making nutritional information an after-meal interactive experience for customers.  First, it’s a way to showcase the menu and reinforce your brand in the mind of the customer.  Second, it gives restaurants a fresh look on their menus.  What items are customers ordering despite the high calorie count (“indulgence” items)?  Which items are customers choosing because they work into their diets well?  This gives you a third factor besides price and taste to rate your menu.

Naturally, providing nutrition information in the way Moon Under Water and Mod Market are doing doesn’t make sense for every segment of the food service industry.  But if you serve a customer who sees a real benefit in knowing the nutritional information associated with the dishes they ordered, providing a creative, interactive way for them to access this information is a great way to  add value to every visit.

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Does The Rise of the Spanish Mean the Death Of French Cuisine?

Classic Spanish FareFrench food has always been the gold standard in fine dining.  Over the years the fusion of French cuisine with flavors from around the world has bred a culture of ingenuity and dynamism that helped perpetuate French style cooking as the center for culinary excellence.  But recently some trends have started pointing in other directions, and author Michael Steinberger even argues in a new book that the decline of French cuisine will lead to the rise of Spanish fare.

Stepping into the opening void is internationally renowned Spanish chef David Munoz, whose Asian/Spanish fusion restaurant in Madrid, Spain has earned wide accolades and remains booked months in advance.  Munoz is a devout follower of Asian style cooking, and has turned in time at prestigious Asian fusion restaurants like Nobu of London.  The result of his obsession with Asian cuisine is exciting and fresh Spanish style dishes heavily seasoned with the rich flavors of the Orient.

Spanish chefs and new Spanish-themed restaurants have been gaining notoriety in major U.S. cities like New York and Los Angeles.  For David Munoz, Spanish cuisine is less about Spain and more about combining flavors from all over the world to create exciting new cuisine.  And maybe the new found trendiness of Spanish food has less to do with the decline of the French and more to do with a new willingness by diners and chefs alike to try new combinations and types of flavors and foods.  In an increasingly globalized world, it seems the domination of the French is giving way to the fusion of the rest of the world’s cooking styles.

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Bars and Restaurants Using Spotters To Increase Profits

Keeping an Eye on BartendersA bar spotter, or “nightclub secret shopper,” is a person sent into a bar by the owner or manager to conduct a secret quality control review of bar staff.  Spotters carefully observe bartenders and other employees, watching for telltale signs of theft and misconduct.  Most spotters were once bartenders themselves, and understand the industry and how it works.  Many companies across the U.S. have sprung up in recent years to meet the rising demand of restaurants and bars for spotters.

The worst thing a bartender can do is give away drinks for free by never ringing up the sale or just pocketing the cash.  Only about 10% of bartenders are caught stealing, however.  Most bar owners get a lot more value out of the other things a bar spotter watches for during their visit, like generous pours on drinks, failing to upsell customers on top shelf brands, and long wait times.

In general, bartenders are making a lot less than they used to from tips as patrons dial back on bar visits.  This has led many of them to try to earn tips in creative ways, like giving customers an extra long pour.  The drink rings up the same for the owner, however, and that costs the bar money.  And if bartenders simply push out well drinks whenever someone orders a rum and coke instead of asking the customer what kind of rum they would like, that’s costing bars money too.

For bar owners, revenue is down as well.  Many have found that the solution, counter-intuitive as it may be, is to spend money on a bar spotter to identify places where thin profits are leaking out.  Hiring a bar spotter isn’t cheap, often running into the hundreds of dollars per visit, but the invaluable information you can gain from having an anonymous person observe your bar staff has proven to be more than worth the cost.

Finding a bar spotting company is relatively easy.  Just type “bar spotter” into a Google search and you’ll find several companies that offer services across the country.

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Why Chipotle’s Food With Integrity Is Good Business

Everybody in the food service industry is talking about locally sourced food these days.  The National Restaurant Association has called local,organic and sustainable ingredients one of the biggest trends of 2010, and consumers have defied logic by proving they are willing to pay more for better quality.

The Mexican-themed chain Chipotle has carved a niche out of the higher end of the fast-casual market by holding themselves to a higher standard the company calls “Food With Integrity.”  Fresh local produce has always been a focus for Chipotle, even before the concept had the widespread appeal it enjoys today. With 900 locations and 2.5 million customers a week, Chipotle’s commitment to quality, sustainable ingredients makes it a driving force in the organic food market.  But perhaps the most important contribution they’ve made to the organic movement in general is the education of consumers. The fruits of that education process can be seen in the loyalty of Chipotle’s customers to the brand, despite the menu’s noticeably higher price point.  The difference in taste and quality has shown consumers the value of high quality ingredients.

Now local fresh organic ingredients has turned into a major movement within the food service industry.  More and more restaurants have started responding to consumer demand, and that only reinforces Chipotle’s leadership role as one of the pioneers in organic ingredient sourcing. Many independent restaurants have marketed locally sourced, sustainable  ingredients on their menus with great success.  If you’re considering adding such ingredients to your restaurant’s menu, keep a couple things in mind:

Tell people about it! Chipotle has done a masterful job of associating their brand name with organic ingredients and local sourcing.  Their customers know before they ever walk through the door exactly how Chipotle sources their ingredients, and those customers don’t even flinch at the cash register. It’s vital that you get the word out about your menu’s organic and locally sourced ingredients.  More than likely those ingredients are going to force you into a higher price point, and when your customers see this they had better know exactly why.  Once they understand the quality of your ingredients (and taste the difference), they’ll accept your higher price point.

Take full advantage of better quality.
Better ingredients means a higher price, but it should also mean a much better taste.  Now is your opportunity to get really creative with your dishes and make sure your organic ingredients really shine. A great way to do this is to create dishes and recipes around a centerpiece organic ingredient.  For instance, if you’re sourcing organic chicken from a local farm, say so on the menu first, then create a dish that perfectly compliments that chicken breast and makes it the centerpiece of the entrée.

Give customers the option. Especially when you’re first venturing into the world of organic ingredients, give customers the option between more traditional fare and your exciting new entrees.  You don’t want to alienate your regulars with more expensive (albeit much better) dishes.  Instead, entice them into tasting the difference with some well placed specials and then watch them convert to your new approach.

The success of Chipotle has proven that customers will buy into the concept of better food for a higher price.  Independent operators can really take advantage of the education pioneers like Chipotle have provided consumers in general to enhance their menu with ingredients that are better tasting, better for the environment, and still great for the bottom line.

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Use Twitter To Market Your Restaurant: 4 Strategies For Success


So, have you jumped on the Twitter bandwagon yet?  Or are you sick and tired of hearing about tweets, tweeting, and all other variations of bird noises?  Are you wondering what the heck I’m talking about?

For those of you who answered “yes” to the last question, you’ve got some catching up to do.  Twitter is a “micro blog” tool that allows users to send short 140 character messages to a list of subscribers.  Although the stated goal of the site is to give friends a way to update each other on what they’re doing, Twitter has quickly become much more than that.

Celebrities are using Twitter to gain large followings of loyal fans.  There are massive lists of users who share information and news through links that spread quickly through the entire Twitter community.  And, of course, marketers are using Twitter to reach customers.

In the food service industry, the Kogi Taco Truck in Los Angeles pioneered Twitter marketing by using tweets to broadcast their stops around the city and build buzz.  The meteoric success of Kogi has everyone in the restaurant industry trying to figure out how to use Twitter to their own advantage.

And judging from recent news stories coming out of places like Kansas City and Boston, Twitter is turning out to be a very effective marketing tool for restaurants.  Chefs are using the site to engage customers by giving out recipes and asking for feedback on new dishes and ingredients.  Other restaurants are advertising meal specials and events to draw in loyal customers are specific days.  And one restaurant in Boston even started tweeting months before the doors opened for the first time.  Potential customers followed the new restaurant’s progression and the result was a packed opening night.

If you do decide to use Twitter, here are some best practices that will help you succeed and get the most out of your efforts:

Post regularly. Some Twitter users send out several tweets every day.  You probably don’t want to annoy your customers with a lot of updates, especially at first.  But you should definitely choose a schedule and stick with it.  That way your followers know when to expect an update and (hopefully) they look forward to your next one.

Be creative. 140 characters doesn’t give you a lot of space.  It also doesn’t give you a lot of time to catch someone’s attention.  Boring tweets will get deleted, guaranteed.  Straight-up sales pitches will also be ignored, trust me.  Instead, use colorful, creative language to engage your subscribers and draw them in.

Do more than just sell. Yes, the ultimate goal here is to get people through the door of your business.  But if all you do is sell, sell, sell, you’ll start seeing unsubscribe notices pouring in.  Throw your customers a few juicy bones before you set the hook.  Give out a few recipes.  Tell a story about the behind-the-scenes action.  Ask for opinions on a new dish.  Get them looking forward to your next tweet.  Then hit ‘em with a dinner special.

Customize offers. Want to know how much all your hard work is paying off?  Offer a special meal deal to your Twitter subscribers only.  Give out a special code that allows them to redeem the deal.  Every time a customer uses the code, you know they are there because of your Twitter efforts.  This strategy has the added benefit of making your twitter followers feel special because they are the only ones getting a special deal.

As I concluded in a post about the benefits of Facebook to restaurants a while back, Twitter can’t hurt your restaurant.  And chances are good new social media like Twitter and Facebook will help you connect with your customers and encourage them to come in and eat.  The best part is, using these services only requires your time.  You don’t have to develop some big marketing budget and fret over the return on investment.  Not counting your time, it’s free!


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Is The Grocery Store Stealing Your Business?

restaurant marketingThe days of visiting your local grocery store once a week to stock up on food supplies is starting to give way to more frequent, even daily visits, and customers are buying a lot more than a gallon of milk.  What started as a simple salad bar and deli in supermarkets in the ‘80s and ‘90s has grown into a full-blown restaurant industry inside American grocery stores.

The variety of prepared food offerings now available in supermarkets is rivaled only by their rapidly increasing quality.  Pioneers like Whole Foods have changed how consumers view the local grocery store, and the space inside many stores is evolving into a more comfortable dining environment.

All of this means supermarkets are fast becoming competition for any restaurant in the same neighborhood.  Many in the food service industry contend the local grocery will never be able to compete with a restaurant’s service and atmosphere, no matter how sophisticated their menu gets.  That may be true, but the unparalleled convenience of blending the traditional grocery with fast-casual dining at an affordable price means customers are going to have a higher tolerance for the perks of a restaurant.

As supermarkets expand their offerings and develop even better menus and spaces, the risk to nearby restaurants will only grow.

So how can restaurants compete?  As the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em:

Get in the game. Approach your local grocery owners and propose a fast-casual version of your restaurant in their store.  If you’re a local favorite, it should be an easy sell to convince them that an already well-known brand will do well.

Of course, dealing with bigger chain supermarkets won’t be easy.  Most probably already have partnerships and rules about who can be involved in the store.  If that’s the case, try to get them to allow you to set up a tent in front of the store or in the parking lot.  You could even invest in a mobile food truck (a huge trend these days) and use that to market your restaurant in front of several area grocery stores.

The point is that as customers associate dining out with grocery stores more and more, a presence there is going to become more and more important for your restaurant.  Besides being a good opportunity to make some money, the marketing and brand exposure you gain for your restaurant is priceless.

Make yourself more convenient.
The supermarket-as-restaurant trend owes its success primarily to the convenience customers get when they combine a trip to the grocery with their dining out plans.  Most big restaurant chains figured out a long time ago that locating next to a shopping center or mall was a no-brainer for business.

For independents, it’s a lot harder to break into that market.  Rents are higher and competing with chains for the same customers difficult.  However, you  may be able to find some cracks in the strip mall armor.  Try partnering with a small organic grocery or some other specialty food shop to make a trip to your restaurant more of an all-purpose outing.

If you can’t take yourself to the grocery store, bring the grocery store to you. Cracker Barrel and, very recently Bob Evans, both dominant Midwestern chains, devote half the space in their restaurants to selling things besides food.  If you can’t break into the grocery store market, try diversifying the offerings in your restaurant.

A simple place to start is with “secret recipe” sauces and spices that come right from your kitchen.  Getting production rolling can be a pain, but many restaurants have had great success with marketing their own sauces and recipes.

At some point the convenience factor offered by grocery stores gives way to the service and experience factors restaurants bring, but that doesn’t mean restaurant owners should sit idly by and let supermarkets move in on their business.  Your restaurant can be a convenient destination as well if you’re willing to invest in positioning your brand and your products just right.

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New Bill To Hike Tax Deductibility of Business Meals

H.R. 3333 Would Increase The Deductibility of Business MealsA bill was introduced to the House of Representatives recently that proposes to increase the percentage of a business related meal that can be deducted from 50% to 80%.  The bill, sponsored by Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI), has twice been introduced in past sessions of Congress and has twice failed to become law.

Opponents say the bill will reduce tax revenue for the federal government in a time when deficits are running extremely high.  Proponents of the bill say the increased business that results from the bill will more than recoup any tax loss and help drive job creation in the United States’ largest single industry: food service.

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) has already voiced its support for the bill, citing its own research, which found that the deduction hike would spur $6 billion in annual sales for the restaurant industry.

Business related meals used to be 100% deductible until they were decreased by Congress to 80% in 1986 and then to 50% in 1993.  The restaurant industry has been lobbying for a restoration of the previously high level of deductibility since.  This bill, H.R. 3333, has been referred to committee and awaits their vote before it goes before the entire House of Representatives.

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7 Sustainability Tips For Your Restaurant

Restaurant SustainabilityMore and more restaurants are exploring ways to make their operations “sustainable.”  Yes, it’s a buzzword, and yes, it’s a trend most commonly associated with San Francisco restaurants and other yuppie hideouts.  That doesn’t mean most of the restaurants out there can’t utilize sustainability in their operations.

Trends show that consumers are increasingly educated about the benefits of sustainability and advertising your green practices will help reinforce positive images of your brand.  And, of course, you can feel good about the food you serve, which can be a reward in itself.

Some tips on making your restaurant sustainable:

Who Wants Some Iridescent Shark? – As world fish populations face serious decline, the demand for seafood has only risen.  The striped pangasius, a type of catfish native to southeast Asia, has become a great farmed alternative to white fish species like orange roughy.Sustainable Seafood

Serve Sustainable Seafood – The Monterey Bay Aquarium has developed a list of sustainable fish species so that consumers and restaurateurs can make informed choices when it comes to serving and eating seafood.

Restaurants and Farmers Work Together To Reduce Food Waste And Improve Crop Yields – A collective of San Francisco farmers and restaurants have developed a system that works to everyone’s benefit: taking food waste and using it as a very effective fertilizer on local farms.

Greener And Cheaper: Restaurants Grow Their Own Food – More and more chefs are investing time into their own personal gardens to help supplement the fresh produce available in their kitchen.

Darden Group Driving Sustainable Seafood Practices – The Darden restaurant group, owner of the Red Lobster chain, has taken a serious interest in using seafood sustainably.  They view it as a vital long-term business decision.  Learn more in this post.

Sardines: Sustainable AND Delectable? – Most people associate the sardine with oily tin cans full of a mushy fish.  But fresh sardines are actually very good, and a sustainable fish population as well.

The Kitchen Cafe’s Sustainable Restaurant Ethos – The Kitchen Cafe in Boulder, CO, takes it’s role in the community very seriously, and they view part of that role as promoting and using sustainable practices.  Learn how in this post.

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