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The Skinny On The FDA’s 2009 Food Code

FDA 2009 Food CodeThe Food and Drug Administration has officially released an updated Food Code for the first time since 2005.  The Food Code details procedures for implementing a food safety program in any food service environment, from grocery stores to fine dining restaurants.  The agency updates the code every four years to accommodate new developments and address ongoing food safety issues.

The most significant changes to this year’s Food Code include:

  • Leafy greens must have a time and temperature control in a HACCP food safety program
  • New requirements focus on preventing the cross contamination of food allergens and aim to improve the awareness of allergens by food service workers
  • Children’s menus cannot include cooked-to-order meats
  • Revised cleaning and sanitizing procedures for restaurant equipment

Any restaurant’s food safety program should be informed by the guidelines set out in the Food Code.  This is especially true for restaurants employing a HACCP food safety program.  The updated code addresses two of the major food safety issues of the past couple years: allergens and pathogens in fresh uncooked greens like lettuce.

To view the complete 2009 Food Code, check out this link:

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Do Price Reductions Dilute Your Restaurant’s Brand?

Restaurant PricingIn a very well written post on titled “Self-Fulfilling Prophecies,” the author examined in-depth the price reduction strategies the owners of the two restaurants where he works have employed over the last year.  The main point revolved around how cut-rate specials were bringing in more traffic (although not more than before the recession) but that the reductions were hurting profits, check averages, and the restaurant’s brand overall.

Considerable worry has been circulating the food service industry about the issue of price reductions and customer expectations.  There is no doubt that most of the industry has embraced aggressive pricing as a way to keep traffic and sales up, and for the most part this strategy has accomplished those two goals.

But at what price?  Servers like the one on Waiternotes are understandably upset because check averages have surely plummeted and are unlikely to go up again any time in the near future.  Perhaps a more creative compensation strategy is in line.  The argument that this dilutes a restaurant’s brand and/or reputation is a compelling one, but not without its problems.

For starters, study after study have shown that the new economic reality means consumers are putting a premium on value.  The point is debatable, but in general this seems to be a function of consumers pinching their pennies even as the economy begins to improve.  Some have even suggested that the freewheeling heavy spending days of the recent past are permanently gone as consumer psyche shifts.

That means restaurants, along with most other businesses, are going to have to adjust their products and marketing to reflect new customer expectations.  Prix fixe dinners, half-portion specials, and all the other strategies restaurants are adopting to get customers in the door are a symptom of the times, rather than an ill-advised effect.

The jury is still very much out on whether restaurants can survive their own race to the proverbial bottom of the price (and consequently profit margin) barrel.  But I suspect that those who figure out how to walk that tightrope between value and profit will become the new power players in the food service industry.Subway's $5 Footlong Promotion

A good example is Subway’s $5 foot long promotion.  The price is through the floor.  The competition scrambled to catch up and then quickly undercut the $5 price.  The dark prophecies of brand devaluation and vanished profitability spread quickly through the crowd of panicked onlookers.  6 months after Subway launched the promotion, they’re rolling in profits.  It doesn’t matter that Quizno’s undercut their $5 price.  Customers still see a value there and Subway is doing much more business at a lower margin, which still translates into more net profit.

Which brings me to an interesting article from the Harvard Business e-newsletter titled “Why High Profit Margins Don’t Prove Smart Pricing.”  There is a trade-off between volume and margin.  Those two lines intersect at some point for any business.  For the past two decades, the prevailing model was to pursue higher margins in smaller and smaller niches.  Consumers, lulled into a false sense of security by easy credit, happily paid more for products that seemed suited just for them.

Now the trend has been reversed, and value is the watchword of the day.  That means price reductions are probably here to stay, and because consumer expectations have changed, will more than likely improve brand perception rather than dilute it.

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11 Hot Restaurant Trends

Restaurant TrendsKeeping up with the latest and hottest trends in food service could be a full time job in itself.  Luckily for you, The Back Burner is here to keep track and distill things down into manageable chunks.  This is a quick rundown of the trends we’ve been tracking over the past couple months, covering everything from weird new menu offerings to radical new approaches to management:

1.  The Conflict Between Local Food and Local Government – As I have noted on The Back Burner before, more and more restaurants are sourcing their food locally.  The trend has taken off quickly, and, at least in Culver City, CA, the municipal government is grappling with how to regulate urban gardens.

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

3.  Extreme Mixology: Inhaling Vaportinis– Mixology is a hot trend in food service.   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.

4.  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.  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.

5.  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.

6.  Menu Trends: Hibiscus Flavors – Hibiscus, 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.

7.  California & Vermont Restaurants: Are You Compliant? – If 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.

8.  Restaurant Management: Use Creative Compensation Strategies – Some restaurants have begun to rethink their compensation plans.  The best kind of compensation is the kind that motivates the employee to bring their priorities in line with the priorities and goals of the restaurant.  These strategies are different depending on whether you’re talking about Front of House or Back of House employees.

9.  Are You Ready For Flu Season? – Unfortunately, the grim reality is everyone is going to have to take steps to combat the spread of flu this winter, and restaurants are no exception.  Organizations like the National Restaurant Association are already educating restaurants about ways to inhibit the spread of viruses, and the food service industry as a whole is taking this flu season very seriously.

10.  Restaurants Cooking With A South American Super Crop – This is a story about how an Incan super crop is starting to take over health food stores and trendy restaurants in the U.S.  The rest of the world is already on board with this mysterious super plant; we’re just now catching up.

11.  New York City Health Department Finds Menu Labeling Affects Consumer Behavior Nutrition information on menus is a trend in food service that doesn’t seem to be going away.  Legislation is still working its way through Congress that would require menu labeling.  In the meantime, New York City has had its own menu labeling law for fast food chains in place for some time now.  The question has been, as critics love to point out, exactly how effective is a list of nutrition information on helping consumers make better decisions?

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Louisiana Restaurant Association Fighting Back Against New FDA Regulations

FDA Regulations Of Louisiana OystersThe Food & Drug Administration announced in October that it would place a ban on untreated oysters coming from the Gulf of Mexico.  Louisiana is the primary harvester and exporter of Gulf oysters, and the industry accounts for $318 million dollars each year.

Gulf oysters have been deemed a food safety threat because a particularly nasty virus, vibrio vulnificus, can infect raw oysters during summer months.  About 15 people die in the United States every year as a result of consuming raw oysters infected with the virus.

The new FDA regulations will allow the sale of properly pasteurized oysters, but Louisiana restaurants and the oyster industry say pasteurization procedures will place a prohibitive cost on the industry and cause many oyster harvesters to shut down.  Perhaps predictably, Louisiana’s representatives in Congress have quickly voiced their opposition to the regulation proposal, citing the threat to jobs and increased costs.  A little more surprising (at least to me) is the opposition Louisiana Restaurant Association’s opposition to these regulations.

The evidence, however, leaves little doubt that regulating the Gulf oyster catch makes the public safer.  California has had a ban in place on untreated Gulf oysters for six years.  In that time, deaths from bad oysters went from 40 in the 10 year period leading up to the ban to zero.

Anyone in the restaurant industry knows how important food safety is, and restaurants have taken food safety very seriously for so long precisely because trust is a key element in the success of any place preparing and serving something that could potentially make customers sick.

That’s why I find the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s opposition to these new FDA regulations a little strange.  Sure, no one wants to see the operating costs of a vital local industry go up, especially in an area of the country that’s seen its fair share of hard times in recent years.  But how can anyone in the food service industry possibly justify opposing regulations on a type of food that has been proven to cause death in a certain segment of potential customers?

That segment is admittedly small.  Yet the number of actual deaths in the spinach and tomato scares of recent years was also extremely small, and yet every restaurant and industry association reacted by pulling those items off their menus and taking whatever steps were necessary to protect consumers and avoid a food safety issue.

The Louisiana Restaurant Association’s position seems inexplicable to me.  Perhaps someone would care to clarify for me – if so, leave a comment below.

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NYC Restaurants Make Smooth Transition Away From Trans Fats

Trans Fats Banned In New York City RestaurantsBack in 2006, despite objections from industry groups like the National Restaurant Association (NRA), New York City banned the use of trans fats in all foods served in the city’s restaurants.  At the time, the NRA said that municipal government had no place regulating restaurants, and the ban would put an undue burden on business.

The deadline for compliance with the new ban was last summer, and a new study came out recently that has shed some light on how valid the food service industry’s fears were when it comes to new regulations like this one.  The study found that 98% of NYC restaurants are compliant with the ban.  It also found that the transition away from trans fats has been cost neutral.  Restaurants were helped by manufacturers marketing trans fat free alternatives during the transition.

Trans fats are present in foods that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, a staple in many processed foods for the past 20 years.  They also occur naturally in meat fats and some dairy products.  Trans fats negatively affect cholesterol levels in humans because they raise LDL (so-called “bad” cholesterol) levels and depress HDL (“good” cholesterol) levels.

Other municipalities and local governments across the nation have started to follow New York’s example.  Given the fact that New York restaurants were able to accomplish a full transition away from trans fats in two short years in a way that did not negatively impact business, the entire U.S. should be seriously considering ways to follow suit.  High cholesterol levels contribute to many health problems, including heart disease, obesity, and heart attacks.  There’s no reason why industry groups like the NRA, who once cried foul over trans fat bans, shouldn’t start to take the lead on such an important, and easily fixed, national health issue.

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Chefs Make Their Own Honey

Chefs Raise HoneybeesWe’ve been hearing more and more about the local sourcing of ingredients in the food service industry.  By far the most common form local sourcing takes is a small independent restaurant working out a deal for locally grown vegetables and herbs, or maybe even some locally raised meat.

Of course, restaurants in large urban areas have a much harder time finding local sources because farms are so much farther away.  Some have turned to growing their own food in small rooftop gardens or on empty lots near the restaurant.  These little chef gardens are a great way for a restaurant to get premium fresh ingredients from a truly local source.

Now some chefs have taken the grow-it-yourself trend to a whole new level: they’ve become beekeepers.  Two large urban hotels have allowed their chefs to keep beehives on the rooftop, one in Washington, D.C. and one in Atlanta.  The resulting honey is put to good use in the restaurant, where it makes a much more intricate and interesting sweetener than refined sugar.

Honeybee colonies all over North America have been suffering from a mysterious disease called colony collapse syndrome.  The honeybee pollinates at least a third of the vegetables and herbs humans eat and plays a vital role in the pollination of many other plants.  While a couple executive chefs aren’t going to make much of a difference in the overall bee population, it’s just another example of how the local sourcing of all types of ingredients has become an interesting trend in food service.

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4 Things You Can Learn From Restaurant Chains

4 Hot Restaurant TrendsBig operators like Chili’s, Applebees, The Cheesecake Factory, and others are always looking for ways to improve taste and customer experience while increasing efficiency.  These companies spend a lot of money every year in research and development, and studying the trends that come out of the big chain restaurant’s R&D can be very informative.

Here are four trends on the rise in the food service industry:

1.  Maximizing ingredients. Inventory control is vital to managing what is typically the second largest monthly expense for any restaurant: food.  The more inventory you have, the harder it is to control, and that is the idea behind using the same ingredients in multiple menu items.  That makes purchasing, regulating temperature, and managing First In First Out (FIFO) practices much, much easier.

2. Diversifying menus. Culinary fusion has long been the norm in fine dining, and now this trend has gone mainstream.  American diners have been exposed to a much more diverse range of ethnic foods than ever before, and restaurant chains are bringing in new and exotic flavors and styles because their customers are much more familiar with the world’s cuisine.Jumping on the Gastropub Bandwagon

3. Jumping on the gastropub bandwagon. The success over the past two decades of “gastropubs,” or beer pubs that also serve high quality menu items, has grabbed the attention of menu developers for large chains.  It’s also changed customer expectations when they see a menu.  Potatoes, meat, and other standard pub fare isn’t good enough anymore, and many chains have responded by offering an increasingly diverse and higher quality menu selection.

4. Sweet & Spicy and Sweet & Salty. Adding a kick to new menu items has become a popular trend as chefs expand the flavor horizons of their guests with unique combinations.  Contrasting flavor combinations give simple menu items like salads or appetizers a fresh tasting kick.

These trends seem to reveal a food service industry that reflecting the times in which we live: unprecedented globalization and cultural integration has opened the palates of the average American diner, and if a restaurant can bring fresh takes and flavors to classic dishes, that’s a recipe for success.  Of course, figuring out how to do that while managing to keep inventory under strict control is how you make money here.  Finding that balance is any restaurateur’s challenge, and mastering it is the key.

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Menu Trends: Smaller Portion Sizes Seen As A Big Value

Menu Trends: Smaller Portion SizesNational chains like The Cheesecake Factory, Chili’s, and T.G.I. Friday’s have rolled out smaller, leaner, competitively priced menu items that are having considerable success targeting two primary consumer concerns: watching their weight and watching their wallets.

For years the trend in the food service industry was towards bigger and bigger portion sizes.  The “bigger is better” approach worked as long as customers were willing to pay more for more food.  The financial crisis and ensuing economic downturn turned that strategy on its head, and the restaurant industry is starting to respond.

Independent operators can take advantage of this trend as well.  The best way to implement it is to take perennial favorites from your existing menu and trim down the size and the price, then feature these new items on a special menu.  This approach highlights the new items and gives your offerings a fresh look that will help get customers in the door.

And that’s been the most difficult thing about the current climate in the food service industry: getting customers to actually come out to eat.  A leaner, more affordable menu doesn’t do you any good if your customers stay home because they don’t know about it.  Getting the word out is vital to the success of slimmed down menu offerings.  If marketed right, your new menu should be the reason why customers go out to eat in the first place.

No restaurant can afford to look like they are out of touch with the times, and adjusting portion sizes kills two birds with one stone: addressing customer health concerns and dinner price points.

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Restaurant Management Tips: Stay Safe With Alcohol Service Training

Smart Alcohol Serving TipsThe level of liability restaurant managers and owners face in alcohol related incidents can be shockingly high.  Protecting yourself, your staff, and your customers from dangerous alcohol related situations should be a top priority for your business.  And the best way to protect yourself is to make sure your staff is properly trained for alcohol service.  Some tips on how to train your staff:

Be aware of local and state laws.  More than likely you learned the local and state laws that apply to alcohol when you applied for your liquor license.  However, your staff may not be aware of these laws and there may have been changes or amendments since you applied for a license.  Make sure you take the time to educate yourself and your staff on all liquor laws that apply to your establishment.

Create a standardized alcohol service policy.  Set a standard policy and train your staff to follow this policy strictly.  While you will probably need to include some unique clauses for your particular situation, here are some good ideas on what to include:

Train staff to observe patron behavior and identify those who are becoming intoxicated.  Many establishments use a color coded system: green for little or no intoxication, yellow for becoming intoxicated, and red for time to cut off.

Mandate communication between staff, customers, and management.  Staff should know how to communicate your establishment’s alcohol policy to customers.  They should also be encouraged to notify managers of potential problems before they become situations.

Train staff to count drinks and know the difference between alcohol types.  Counting drinks helps avoid problems with patrons who do not exhibit an obvious change in behavior as they become intoxicated.  However, your staff should also know the alcohol content of what they’re serving.  Four domestic beers is very different from four long island ice teas, so make sure your staff knows the difference.

Also train staff to factor in time and food consumption when evaluating the intoxication of a customer.  Four drinks consumed over the course of four hours is much different than four drink consumed in half an hour.  Food, especially fatty or high protein foods, help slow the rate of alcohol absorption into the bloodstream, which in turn affects the likely intoxication level of the customer.  Encourage “yellow” intoxicated customers to eat and make sure appetizers or quickly prepared menu items are readily available to drinking customers

Implement strategies to avoid alcohol related situations.  A well trained staff with a clear set of guidelines to follow is the first and most important line of defense in helping you mitigate alcohol liability.  The second line of defense is the implementation of some key strategies that will help you avoid alcohol related problems.  Some examples:

Encourage parties to identify a designated driver and incentivize DD’s by offering free non-alcoholic beverages and appetizers.

Form a good relationship with a reputable cab company and advertise their number for free in your establishment.

Include local police when setting your alcohol service standards and use them as a resource for avoiding and handling alcohol related incidents in your establishment.Stop Alcohol Related Incidents

How to protect yourself if an incident does occur.  If an alcohol related incident does occur in your establishment, make sure you document as much as you can.  Record eyewitness accounts of what happened and what you and your staff did to control customer intoxication.  This documentation will prove to be worth its weight in gold if litigation arises as a result of an incident connected with your business.

Having clear strategies to control intoxication in your establishment is no longer an optional  policy.  Cases that have been settled in the past five years have shown that you are not only potentially liable for injury that occurs as a result of an alcohol related incident in your establishment but outside it as well, most notably in drunk driving cases.  Such litigation can ruin your business and your life, so taking precautions when serving alcohol is a vital part of operating in the food service industry.

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Menu Trends: The Rise of The Cuban Sandwich

cubanAfter about a century, the Cuban sandwich is finally getting its due respect.  The sandwich was first developed in Florida for the purpose of feeding hungry cigar factory workers, and the cigars are probably more responsible for the sandwich’s namesake than any connection with the long isolated island nation.

What is a Cuban?  It’s roast pork and ham served with Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles on big slabs of ciabatta bread.  What makes this sandwich so tasty is the flash grilling in a Panini grill that melts the cheese and turns this sandwich into a toasted delight.

The Cuban has been circulating on the brew pub and steakhouse circuit for a few years now, but recently it has made the jump to fine dining, with some increasingly creative interpretations and presentations.  The vitality of the Cuban, and its versatility, has endeared it to many chefs looking for new menu additions.  Its simplicity is also a strength, giving chefs a strong foundation on which to develop their own masterpiece.

From a worker’s lunch to the Peninsula hotel, the Cuban has come a long way in the past 100 years, and the sheer pleasure of eating a good Cuban will probably ensure its continued presence in all kinds of restaurants for years to come.

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