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Move Over Beer: Craft Cocktails The Latest Trend

Move Over Beer: Craft Cocktails The Latest TrendFor generations Americans have had a fairly straightforward approach to cocktails – gin and tonic, highball, rum and coke – without ever giving a second thought to the possibilities a true bartender genius is capable of when given the space.  Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, specialty cocktails were commonplace, featuring interesting flavor pairings and even more interesting names.

Those days are starting to come back as the craft cocktail movement gains momentum in big cities like New York and Los Angeles.  American tastes started evolving 25 years ago when wine was rediscovered in a big way.  That was followed by an extensive love affair with craft beer and the rise of the microbrewery across the U.S.  Now it’s finally the cocktail’s turn, and bars and restaurants that have tapped into the trend have flourished.

So what makes a craft cocktail a craft cocktail?

Some key attributes include:

  • Fresh ingredients, preferably locally sourced
  • In-house additives with unique flavors like bitters and syrups
  • Interesting flavor pairings, like sweet and nutty or lemons and bacon
  • Seasonal offerings like cider flavors in winter and mint in summer

Introducing a menu of your own craft cocktails is not only an adventure, it livens up your happy hour and grabs customer attention.  Some tips on how to craft your own cocktails:

Think outside the box
when you’re developing your drinks.  Interesting twists is the name of this game.  Intrigue your customers with exotic flavors and weird pairings.

Make it fresh as much as possible.
Flavorings made in-house and fresh ingredients help give your cocktails a flavor that can’t be captured in anything you get from the liquor distributor and helps your craft cocktail menu stand out.

Train bar staff well.
A proper craft cocktail menu will take some significant creative effort to create and perfect.  Nothing will lead those efforts to waste faster than a busy bar staff that doesn’t have the time or the training to get these cocktails just right.  This isn’t time for soda gun slinging.  Each cocktail should be made carefully and to specific standards to ensure a level of quality that allows you to charge that high price you should be asking.

Get some witty names.
The tradition of branding cocktails with clever double entendres, famous songs or people, and off-color puns is as old as the cocktail itself.  Engage your customer with some great names for your creations on the menu.

A quality menu of craft cocktails can be a great way to create some buzz around your restaurant or bar and get the word-of-mouth going.  It can also be a great outlet for your natural culinary inventiveness.  Done right, craft cocktails can be an outlet for your creative juices as well as a booster for your bottom line.

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Restaurants Report Customers Coming Back

Restaurants Report Customers Coming BackSome of the largest players in the food service industry, including Brinker International, McDonald’s, Chipotle, and The Cheesecake Factory are reporting sales and guest traffic up for the first quarter of 2010.  That meant good news for the rest of the sector, which had been hurting particularly badly after consumers went into recession mode last year.

The news brought back to the forefront a trend that has been observed in past recessions: restaurants tend to be the first to suffer in a down economy but also the first to come back after the worst has passed.

Over the past couple weeks more and more reports have found that the restaurant business is moving again.  And as spring kicks into full gear, along with Mother’s Day, the sailing should get a little smoother for most restaurants out there.

It appears now that customers have returned to the dining scene, they are patronizing their favorite haunts first – familiarity being the first thing customers want to experience.  That means restaurants should definitely target their regulars with any marketing and promotion weapons left in the arsenal as they will be the most likely to come in and visit after a long absence.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities out there for grabbing some market share.  Now that the market has come back, there are definitely fewer restaurants to service it.  If you are in a position to pursue new customers, now is the time while competition remains lower than it has been in past years.

Let’s hope the storm has truly passed and better times lay ahead!

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Could The iPad Change Food Service?

Could The iPad Change Food Service?The unveiling of the iPad earlier this month left a lot of people wondering what all the hype was all about.  For many, the mini-notebook looks and feels like an oversized iPhone without the ringtones.  But as the iPad hits the market and continues to sell well, more and more people have started to consider how to use the iPad in new ways.

Some tech savvy restaurateurs were among the first to see the potential effect of the iPad on their business.  Already some restaurants have explored the possibilities of replacing menus with iPads, turning a laundry list of entrees into an interactive experience for guests.

These iPad menus could feature entire albums of pictures spotlighting each entrée from many angles, the ingredients before they go in, and even video of the dish being prepared.  And after a guest has explored all of this digital eye candy to their heart’s content, they could even order directly from their iPad menu with a simple touch of the screen.

For now the cost of the iPad makes it a pretty expensive menu, but the time is not very far off where a handheld device similar to today’s iPad could be affordable enough to make it a very compelling option for restaurants.  Like most technology, high-end establishments will probably be the first adopters, followed by the rest of the industry as price points fall.

An interactive digital menu has many intriguing effects on the operation of a restaurant, effectively digitizing the marketing of entrees and automating the ordering process.  This could free servers to focus on achieving top-notch customer service for every guest – and make their experience in your restaurant truly unique.

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The Yelp Drama Continues

The Yelp Drama ContinuesI’ve written several times about Yelp – a San Francisco based website that collects and publishes reviews about local small businesses in many cities across the country.  Naturally, restaurants are one of the most commonly reviewed businesses on the site.

Over the past year a steady grumbling has risen about the way in which Yelp pursues advertising revenue – by calling small business owners and offering some small review manipulations in exchange for a $300 – $1,000 monthly fee.  That grumbling arrived at a crescendo last month when several businesses filed a class action lawsuit accusing the company of extortion.

For their part, Yelp has always maintained they do not manipulate reviews and that they are simply trying to provide a service to consumers and an advertising channel to businesses.  Yet two factors have left the majority of business owners suspicious: the fact that businesses who pay the monthly fee get to pick the top review on their company’s Yelp profile, and the murky process the site uses to filter reviews (many have long been suspicious that advertisers get preferential treatment).

Last week Yelp decided to address these two primary concerns with an important announcement.  First, advertisers will no longer be able to choose their top review.  Second, Yelp is throwing open the door and shining some light on the process they use to decide which reviews get deleted, which ones stay, and how the site decides to rank them.

Yelp’s leadership remains confident these measures will exonerate the company from the myriad “conspiracy theories” with which they feel the public has victimized them.

Yet as far as I can tell, Yelp’s practice of using hard sell tactics (calling up business owners and pressuring them to become advertisers) will remain.  As I wrote in February, the trouble with Yelp is not their murky review ranking process, their hard-charging salesmen, or their preferential treatment of paying advertisers.

The real problem is the inherent negative motivation the company’s business plan creates: pay Yelp to get people to stop saying bad things about you on Yelp.

No one likes how that feels.  And I imagine Yelp’s public relations problems will continue unless they change this basic truth about their approach to online reviews.

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The Trouble With Yelp

The Trouble With YelpThe food service industry as a whole has had decidedly mixed feelings about Yelp, the San Francisco-based internet company that provides user-generated reviews about a variety of businesses, including restaurants.

As I wrote last year, Yelp had many owners suspicious because it seemed like the only way to get good reviews to display at the top of a restaurant’s profile was to shell out a monthly “advertising” fee.  The fee has been pushed hard by Yelp sales reps and can run anywhere from $300 to $1,000 a month.

Paying the fee allowed owners to choose the top five reviews for their restaurant to display.  It seemed most restaurant owners had one of two reactions: resignation at having to pay the fee to avoid bad reviews or outraged, stubborn resistance to being forced to pay to make bad reviews go away.

Over and over again Yelp has denied manipulating bad reviews in order to generate sales of their advertising packages to small businesses.  And still to this day the suspicion remains among many inside the restaurant industry and out that Yelp just isn’t squaring with the subjects of their reviews on how the process really works.

Yelp’s decision to walk away from a $550 million dollar offer from Google late last year didn’t help the company’s image any either.  The inherent trust most people place in the Google brand could have gone a long way towards clearing the air with Yelp’s small business customers.The Trouble With Yelp

The public relations problems that continue to dog Yelp seem to be a fix of their own making.  This is what you get for tangling with the strongest tradition on the internet: fostering the free flow of ideas and information.  Companies like Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook have succeeded because they opened up access to information and placed few filters on how that access was used and digested.

Yelp’s business model seems brilliant, even revolutionary on paper: collect user-generated reviews about local small businesses and then sell the opportunity to manage those reviews back to the businesses being reviewed.  But the approach flies in the face of what the internet has been all about since its inception.  It would be like Google selling celebrities “advertising” memberships to have bad stories about them pushed down in the rankings on search results pages.

Yelp’s leadership probably thought they were just following a Google-esque model: get businesses to pay for top search results.  After all, Google’s pay-per-click advertising is what has transformed that company into a multi-billion dollar operation.

But there is a key distinction here: Google’s paid listings come from a positive motivation – businesses wanting to sell products or be seen for specific keywords.  Yelp’s model comes from an inherently negative motivation: get people to stop saying bad things about you on Yelp.  No wonder they have an image problem.

The class action lawsuit against Yelp everyone’s buzzing about these days seems to be the natural culmination of a long-term problem the company has had dealing with its customers.  Regardless of how the suit turns out, the basic flaws of the Yelp model will remain.  And that is a lesson any business can benefit from.

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Mission Street Food: The Non-Profit Restaurant

Mission Street Food: The Non Profit RestaurantSome restaurant owners may feel sometimes like they’re running a not-for-profit restaurant, especially after last year, but for most the intention has always been to create a successful and profitable business.

That’s not the case at Mission Street Food in San Francisco, where a couple of ambitious restaurateurs are trying to raise enough money to launch a mostly non-profit restaurant.  They’re asking for 100 $500 donors to get off the ground.  Each donor would be considered an “investor” and receive a reasonable dividend each year from the profits made by the restaurant.  After salaries and expenses, however, the rest of Mission Street Food’s profits would go to charity.

The idea for Mission Street Food grew out of a program held at the Lung Shan Chinese restaurant on Mission Street in San Francisco.  Every Thursday and Saturday a volunteer chef from the area donated a night’s worth of cuisine to patrons and donated the profits to charity.  Soon organizers of the event started thinking: why not have a full time restaurant?

After Mission Street secures seed money, they plan to purchase a space for the restaurant in the San Francisco area and begin operations, with the goal of generating between $40,000 and $90,000 for local charities in their first year of business.

If the twice-a-week event that gave birth to this idea is any indication, Mission Street shouldn’t have any problems meeting their goals if they can get off the ground.  Lung Shan is routinely packed with diners happy to enjoy a special night of unique cuisine while donating to charity at the same time.

While you may not be going the full Mission Street just yet with your restaurant, that doesn’t mean there’s not an important lesson to learn from their success.  Sponsoring a charity event at your restaurant is a great way to give back to your community, get some great PR going for your business, and feel good about yourself all at the same time.  The possibilities are endless, and I guarantee you’ll gain a lot of respect and customer loyalty for your restaurant if you take the time to host Mission Street style event.

For those of you who are interested, you can donate to Mission Street Food here.

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Is Your Food Safety Program This Hardcore? It Should Be.

Is Your Food Safety Program This Hardcore? It Should Be.McDonald’s hasn’t grown into a multinational restaurant chain without doing a lot of things right.  And whatever you think of their culinary achievements (or lack thereof), you can’t deny that they’ve built an empire in food service. If one lesson is clear from the rise of McDonald’s, it should be that you don’t build an empire without a premier food safety program.  As a recent article in USA Today revealed, McDonald’s is one of the best rated companies for food safety in the U.S.

How do you get that kind of recognition for your food safety program?
Through a very clear, extremely stringent program that addresses temperature and contamination issues at every stage in the food preparation process.  Incidentally, these are the same principles called for in a HACCP food safety program.  The only difference here is one of degree.

So what does a hardcore food safety program look like?

Beef is trucked to a McDonald’s food processing plant in huge steel boxes secured by a steel bolt that can only be cut by an employee at the plant.  If it’s opened any other way, they send it back.Is Your Food Safety Program This Hardcore? It Should Be.

The beef is tested for four or five different pathogens before it arrives at the plant, randomly during processing, and after the meat has been shaped into patties and frozen.  If a test comes back positive, two hours’ worth of processed beef is disposed of, as well as another two hours’ worth before and after the affected batch.

With those kinds of standards, McDonald’s can be fairly certain their beef patties will show up at any one of their locations clean and ready to serve.  And that’s when another round of food safety kicks in.

Each manager kicks off their shift by calibrating their thermometer.  Then each meat type that will be served during that shift (chicken nuggets, patties, etc.) is cooked according to specification and then temperature tested to make sure the product is out of the temperature danger zone.

McDonald’s also ensures every patty is cooked properly with a specially designed clamshell grill that does not open until the proper temperature has been reached.  That way even the greenest line cook can’t serve undercooked meat.  In a high turnover environment like food service, foolproof safeguards when it comes to meeting temperature requirements is key.

Finally, McDonald’s doesn’t forget about the most basic component of any food safety campaign: proper handwashing.  At the start of every hour every employee washes their hands, starting with management.  And at the half hour hand sanitizer is passed around for a quick cleanup.

Unfortunately, not every restaurant out there has a food safety program even approaching McDonald’s hardcore approach.  And not many have the resources or the buying power to dictate exact standards to their suppliers.   However, there are some basic things that McDonald’s does very well that can be applied to any food safety program, no matter what your budget is, including standardized temperature and handwashing procedures, a quantitative way to qualify suppliers and the product they provide you, and a system for disposing product that is suspect.

Your program may never get to be as hardcore as McDonald’s.  But if you want to build a food service empire, or even stay in business for any length of time, you’d do well to take your food safety to the next level.

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Asian Carp Have Only One Predator: Restaurants

Asian Carp Have Only One Predator: RestaurantsInvasive species take over new habitats so quickly because they usually have no natural predators in their new home, allowing them to reproduce quickly and overwhelm native populations competing for the same food.  The latest foreign invader to make headlines in the U.S. is Asian Carp, a fast-moving, quick-breeding intruder that has taken over the Mississippi and Ohio watersheds with amazing speed.

The carp was originally brought to the U.S. by catfish farmers in southern states to control plant growth in stock ponds.  Unfortunately, they escaped during seasonal flooding and ended up in the lower Mississippi.  Within a few years Asian Carp were being discovered all over the upper Mississippi and Ohio rivers.  Now many conservationists fear the carp will end up in the Great Lakes, placing that entire ecosystem at risk.

The problem with Asian Carp is they don’t have any natural predators in American waters.  Some restaurateurs on the Upper Mississippi near Minnesota’s Twin Cities are looking to change that.

They’ve proposed placing Asian Carp on menus along the entire Mississippi and Ohio watershed in order to encourage a fishing industry that could lead to the decimation of the invader’s population.  Apparently, Asian Carp has a mild white meat with relatively few bones, which appeals perfectly to American palates.

The main obstacle in the way of successfully marketing Asian Carp on menus across the midsection of the U.S. is the name Asian Carp itself.  Nobody wants to eat a carp.  Some have suggested renaming the fish “Silverfin” to make it sound more appealing to hungry restaurant patrons.

Renaming worked for Chilean Seabass and Orange Roughy, both restaurant staples with previously unappealing names (“Patagonian toothfish” and “slimehead,” respectively).  Marketing silverfin has yet to find any serious traction, but it seems like it would take a relatively small amount of seed money to make it popular on menus from Minnesota to New Orleans.

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What To Watch For In 2010

What To Watch For In 2010About this time every year the food service industry starts buzzing about the trends that will shape consumer preferences and affect business in the next 12 months.  We are lucky enough (or unlucky, depending on how you view it) to be in the midst of a transition period for many restaurants, and that makes the trends for 2010 even more compelling.

These trends have already been covered extensively, but if you need a refresher course, here’s the synopsis:

  1. Familiar, simple foods sell well. Unique spins on burgers and other classic foods save restaurants R & D and are popular with customers looking for value.
  2. The ethnic twist. Korean BBQ tacos and other ethnic flavors are making their way into the mainstream more and more.  Combine those flavors with comfort foods and you’ve got a sure winner.
  3. Ingredient sourcing is more and more important. Restaurants growing their own produce and sourcing from local organic farms retain a particular appeal to customers and allow you to attach a unique value to your brand.
  4. All day breakfast. Everybody loves breakfast, and since these menu items are usually hearty and affordable, consumers have grown to love them even more.  Many chains are starting to make their breakfast menus available all day, and other segments in the food service industry will probably follow suit soon.

So what do these trends say about where food service is headed?  Overall it looks like restaurants are responding to the consumer watchword of 2009: value.  Your customers aren’t looking for something flashy and never-before-seen.  They just want the same things they’ve always enjoyed, with maybe a little Korean BBQ sauce on the side.

Many trend watchers are also focused on the menu side of the equation rather than the business side, but if large national chains are any indication of what’s to come in 2010, then it seems apparent that heavy discounting and health consciousness are the watchwords of the day.

Several chains have redoubled their efforts at attracting new business with continued discounts.  Meanwhile, even Taco Bell is getting into the healthy food game, with new ads claiming that items of their new healthy menu will make you a whole new kind of Subway Jared.

Again, it looks like everything comes back to value: discounted food that’s familiar, tastes good, and is even healthy to eat.  For restaurants walking that edge between survival and profitability, positioning yourself in the sweet spot where customers find value in what you serve while you gain revenue is paramount.

The recipe that works is going to be unique for every restaurant.  Many failed in 2009 while searching for it, and unfortunately more are going to fail in 2010.  But for those that survive, the lessons learned in providing value to every customer will be essential to their success for years to come.

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Why Card Check Is The Symptom, Not The Disease

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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