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Why Fine Dining Is Shedding Formal Dress Codes

Restaurant Fine Dining Dress CodesFine dining restaurants have been the hardest hit segment of the food service industry since the country slid into recession two years ago.  Many establishments have closed and other have turned to deep discounting to stay alive during a time when consumers just aren’t willing to spend a lot of money to go out to eat.

As if all that weren’t enough, many fine dining restaurants are having trouble attracting younger patrons because they seem stuffy and “old school” when it comes to atmosphere and dress code.  Affluent customers between the ages of 21 and 30 are much less likely to choose a restaurant that requires a sport coat and tie, once a standard in the fine dining segment.

Attitudes towards traditional dress codes have definitely shifted in the last 15 years.  Many younger consumers don’t even dress as formally as a tie and sport coat at work, and they definitely don’t want to be required to dress that way when they go out for dinner.

Some fine dining restaurants have started to recruit younger customers by changing their dress code.  Many have scrapped a dress code altogether in an effort to broaden their customer base.  In general, the reaction has been positive.  The trend towards more casual fashion has been building for a long time, and if the fine dining segment of the food service industry is going to thrive, it’s going to have to start catering to a younger customer base.

There will always be ultra formal restaurants that stick to a strict dress code and appeal to a very small segment of customers.  But as many restaurants have learned in the past couple years, your customers are perfectly willing to abandon you at the slightest sign of economic trouble, especially if your business model focuses on service and quality rather than price.

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, the customer hunt for value is here to stay, and represents a real shift in how restaurants get business.  For those that aren’t focused on competitive pricing, this shift in attitudes represents a real problem.  Old social morays like dress code don’t help the situation.  In an environment as competitive as food service, those that evolve to shifting customer attitudes are going to be the ones that survive.

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Tonight’s Special: Pork a la Petri

Late last month it was announced that scientists in Holland have successfully grown pork meat in a petri dish.  The meat was developed from special cells called myoblasts that are specifically programmed to repair muscles in a live animal.  If they are left in a super rich broth of nutrients, as the experiment in Holland shows, they will grow indefinitely, creating a possibly endless supply of synthetically grown, but otherwise identical meat for human consumption.

Proponents of the Dutch project say meat produced in this manner can save millions of tons of greenhouse gases each year by making the production of meat much more efficient.  There are also real concerns that as global populations grow, arable land will not be able to produce enough protein to keep up with demand.  Synthetically produced meats represent a solution to this problem.

Lab Grown PorkThe meat produced in this experiment was soggy and soft because it never exercised enough to give it firmness.  Scientists involved with the project said they are developing ways to stretch and work the meat so that it takes on the same consistency as natural meat.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to know how the meat actually tastes.  Laboratory rules forbid employees from tasting the experiment.

So will your restaurant be serving boneless pork chops grown in a lab sometime in the future?  Dutch scientists definitely think so, but they realize that if this meat doesn’t look, taste, and smell exactly like natural pork, there’s no way it can ever be marketed.

So would you ever eat pork, beef, lamb, or even fish grown in a lab if you couldn’t tell the difference between the synthetic and natural version?  Leave a comment below….

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The Public Smoking Ban Counterculture

public smoking bansThere has been much ongoing debate over the effect of public smoking bans on restaurant business.  As more and more states move to ban smoking in almost all public buildings, a counterculture has been pushing back by openly flouting the bans in their communities.

This counterculture is especially strong along the Illinois-Indiana border since Illinois passed a statewide public smoking ban earlier this year.  Indiana has no such ban, which has put an especially hard burden on bars and restaurants here, since their smoking customers can simply drive a few miles across the border to enjoy tobacco in public.

These unfortunate establishments have fought back by starting a fund to cover their costs if they are fined for violating the ban.  The Crowbar Inc. bar has a “smoke jar” – $5 for every customer who lights up.  They’ve been cited twice already, and the money from the smoke jar helped cover their costs.

The owner of the Crowbar defends his smoke jar as the only way he can keep customers from simply moving across the state line.  And perhaps he’s right in continuing to allow smokers to light up in his establishment.

But the hard reality is, public smoking bans are here to stay.  Eventually the day will come when every state in the union bans public smoking, and restaurants and bars are going to have to adjust to this fact sooner or later.  Yes it’s tough for these few places along the border just outside Chicago.  But they’re going to have to face the music sooner or later.

Overall, public smoking bans are not bad for business.  Many studies have shown that restaurant traffic stays steady or even increases after a ban is passed.  Unfortunately, certain segments of the restaurant industry, particularly bars and restaurants that cater to the blue collar (who are also more apt to smoke) are hit very hard.

That doesn’t change the fact that public smoking bans have an immediate and measurable effect on public health.  Heart attacks in public venues has been shown to drop as much as 40% after the passage of a public smoking ban.  This is because nicotine, even small amounts ingested through second hand smoke, constrict blood vessels and raise blood pressure.  Add in all the other negative effects of tobacco smoke and those that try to justify allowing public smoking sound like a pretty callous lot.

The bottom line is, smoking in public is not only bad for you, it’s bad for those around you.  Choosing to smoke is and should remain an individual’s own bad decision.  But when you start affecting other people’s health by your bad choice, something must be done.  And that’s why public smoking bans will and should continue.  Restaurants are just going to have to deal with any lost business, real or imagined.

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These Guys Boosted Sales 400% With Creative Marketing

Restaurant Marketing Social Media

Photo by Dean Rutz, Seattle Times

Ivar’s Seafood Restaurant in Seattle, Washington pulled off a brilliant piece of restaurant marketing recently, resulting in a 400% increase in clam chowder sales.

How did they do it?

Well, it’s a funny story actually.  Ivar’s dreamed up this scheme to get a kooky story going in the local media and virally on the web.  The tall tale went like this: the restaurant’s founder, Ivar Haglund, long since dead, had arranged for billboards advertising his restaurant to be planted on the bottom of Puget Sound in the 1950s.  Apparently Haglund fervently believed that people of the future would travel the depths of the Sound via submarine, and his billboards would one day be perfectly located.

Ivar’s let the story steep in the media for a couple weeks, then staged a recovery of the billboards, which got a lot of attention.  Unbeknownst to the media or the masses, the billboards had been planted a few short weeks before the “recovery.”

The restaurant then announced they would roll back the price of a bowl of clam chowder to 1950s prices to celebrate the discovery of the long lost billboards.  The story blew up all over the internet, and soon Ivar’s had a lot of new business on their hands, leading to the 400% increase in clam chowder sales.

The story reveals how effective a well-designed marketing campaign aimed at social media can be.  The food service industry in general are slow adopters when it comes to technology, and as I’ve discussed here on The Back Burner before, it remains unclear how much restaurants are even using social media, despite the steady stream of articles and experts saying how great this new kind of marketing is.

Ivar’s has proven that innovative thinking and a willingness to go all in can bring astounding results if it’s properly executed.  This example also makes it clear just how effective “new” marketing can be.

So how do you plan to use social media to boost your restaurant’s sales 400%?  If you’re like most restaurateurs, you haven’t even thought about it.  As Ivar’s has proven, it’s clearly time to start.

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Is There Money To Be Made After Hours?

Late Night Restaurant DiningThe 24/7 lifestyle has been creeping further and further into American cities over the course of this decade.  People are out later more frequently, and many restaurants, especially in urban centers, are responding by catering to late night diners.  If done right, the late night scene can energize your restaurant and your bottom line.

To be sure, late night dining isn’t right for every restaurant.  Several factors must converge for an after-hours strategy to work for your establishment.  First on the list, as usual, is location.  Areas with high concentrations of young people (hip neighborhoods, college towns, etc.) are an obvious choice, but don’t discount proximity to entertainment venues for older couples as well.

If you decide your restaurant is well suited to start cashing in on the late night crowd, some additional work is going to be needed to ensure your success.  Here’s three tips to help you get your late night shift started on the right foot:

Adjust menus. Obviously, you don’t need or want your kitchen running on full dinner rush steam.  More importantly, the late night crowd isn’t going to want filets and big entrees.  Experiment with fun finger foods and other creative items that are easily prepared, high margin, and easy to share.

Adjust atmosphere. You don’t have to make a big production out of it, but it is important to create an atmosphere that communicates “late night” rather than “dinnertime.”  Some simple adjustments include rocking out the music a little more, brightening the lighting, and opening up the dining area to allow more of a party style gathering rather than secluded dining.

Adjust staff attitudes. Serving on the late night shift isn’t for everyone.  Finding the right kind of person to complete your restaurant’s party vibe is essential to making the whole thing work.  Getting that person is much easier if you relax dress codes and encourage a more laid-back atmosphere.  You want to do that anyway to cater to the crowd you’ll be expecting, so it may make sense to change your expectations for late night servers.

Many restaurants who have recognized that their location affords them the unique opportunity to catch an after-hours crowd have taken advantage of this underserved segment, and the results have been very positive.  If your location fits the bill, you’ve also got an opportunity to expand your customer base and the number of hours in a day your business makes money.  And that’s never a bad thing.

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Is This A Drill? How A Missouri Sonic Manager Trains For Robberies

Sonic Manager Stages Fake RobberyWe’ve all had one of those managers who’s just a little bit more hardcore than everybody else.  Usually they’re pretty harmless, if not a little annoying.  You just have to roll your eyes and get through the extra training seminar they scheduled.

A St. Joseph, Missouri Sonic manager probably takes the cake when it comes to overzealous middle management taking things a little too far, however.  This guy decided to test his Sonic team’s (read: two bored teenagers and a fat guy who still lives with his mom) readiness in case of an attempted robbery at the restaurant.

The solution: have a friend walk into the Sonic, pull a fake gun, and start taking people hostage.

Seriously, that was this guy’s solution.

Frantic Sonic patrons immediately called 911, and soon the place was surrounded by patrol cars and cops ready for a full-blown hostage situation.  The scene was probably reminiscent of the classic movie Dog Day Afternoon, except at least Al Pacino had a real gun in that flick.

Needless to say, the cops were not happy to learn the whole thing was meant to be a training exercise.  And I doubt those customers will be enjoying a Sonic Coney hot dog again anytime soon.

No word on whether Sonic corporate has upped their robbery preparedness rating for St. Joseph Sonic locations.

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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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Food Service Industry Groups Voice Their Opposition To The House’s Health Care Reform Bill

Health Care Reform and Restaurant IndustryHouse Bill 3962 passed the U.S. House of Representatives last Saturday, and with the vote, which was a close one, the first steps have been taken towards comprehensive health care reform in America.  The primary provisions of the bill include:

  • Roughly 96% of Americans would be covered
  • Businesses with less than $500,000 in payroll costs would be exempt from providing mandatory health care
  • Businesses and individuals would be able to shop for and purchase health care in a new Health Insurance Exchange, which would feature insurance options from private companies, co-ops, and a new government run option
  • Businesses with over $500,000 in payroll costs who do not provide their employees with health insurance would pay a 2% – 8% tax that would be paid into the Health Insurance Exchange
  • Individuals cannot be denied coverage because of preexisting conditions

Here’s what Dawn Sweeney, president of the National Restaurant Association (NRA) had to say last week, as quoted in Nation’s Restaurant News: “Unless portions of the legislation are tailored to reflect the economic and operational realities facing our industry, we will be forced to oppose the bill.”  The NRA and several other industry groups have actively voiced their opposition to the House version of the health care bill.  Most of these groups also say they favor some kind of reform, as long as it doesn’t put an undue burden on business.

Obviously, the most contentious part of this bill for restaurateurs is the requirement to provide coverage for employees if your annual payroll exceeds $500,000.  Yet 90% of businesses in the restaurant industry have less than 50 employees.  Additionally, the 2% penalty for not providing health coverage to your business’ employees could actually provide an affordable and easy out for many mid-sized businesses.  That’s because 2% of your payroll is cheaper than providing health coverage for your employees.

The obvious counterpoint to this is that these businesses don’t have to pay anything at all for health care now, so any increase, whether through mandated coverage or the penalty that results from avoiding this coverage, puts a burden on an already struggling industry.

It’s difficult to balance the concerns of business versus the health coverage needs of employees and individuals.  The debate surrounding health care reform is a virtual minefield of misinformation, confusing provisions, and contentious debate.  And it’s certain that the House health care bill will change significantly once it meets a very different version currently being considered in the Senate.

All this means we don’t know what we can expect from the legislative process regarding health care reform.  No matter what, many people are going to be unhappy.  Others are going to wonder what it all really means.  And no one is really going to know how this reform is going to affect them for some time to come.

What’s your opinion on health care reform and how it will affect the food service industry?  Leave a comment below!

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Campus Dining Trends: Going Trayless

Campus Dining Trends: Going TraylessOne of the big things in campus cafeterias over the last couple years has been trayless dining. Several hundred college food service operations removed trays from their dining facilities, and left the students to eat what they could carry. The initial programs were a huge success, and continue to be widely popular.

Rightly so. Campus food service operations are seeing anywhere from a 20-50% reduction in food and beverage waste, which makes a big contribution to the bottom line of the facility and the environment. Less food is wasted therefore less food needs to be prepped, which means less labor, lower energy bills, less dishes, and less hot water not to mention smaller waste hauling bills. It’s basically a win, win, win for the operations.

Food service management companies like Aramark and Sodexho are rolling out trayless programs in the majority of their campuses, and it is predicted that the majority of schools nationwide will be trayless in the next several year. In a survey conducted by Aramark in 2008, 79% of the 92,000 students surveyed said they support trayless dining programs.

One university chef I spoke with said the majority of people that complained when they took away the trays were the university staff. Maybe the colleges could hire some local waiters to teach the students and staff how to carry multiple plates without spilling anything…

So what is the next big thing for non-commercial food service? While many organizations are opting for biodegradable products, I personally think reusable take-out containers are going to be the next step for non-commercial operations interested in reducing their environmental footprint.

Up until a few years ago there was not a commercial, reusable take-out container on the market. That is until Eckerd College student Audrey Copeland came up with the idea for one. While a sophomore at Eckerd, Audrey audited the food service program’s use of Styrofoam take-out containers and decided there should be a more sustainable option.

Over the next several years she wrote a grant to fund a pilot reusable container program, contracted a company to produce the container, helped design the products and created a program for her college to implement the containers into their food service operations. She is now the Sustainable Products Manager for G.E.T., the company that manufactures the “Eco-Takeouts,” and has introduced the containers to Bon-Appetit, Sodexho, Google, Nestle, various healthcare facilities, and Aramark, which made a commitment to introduce the container to 100 of its university accounts. My props to Audrey for single-handedly swaying a huge industry.

The containers are basically a poly-propylene clam shell container (though there are other styles available) that the students have the option of using for a $5 deposit. They then simply exchange the container for a clean one at no additional cost the next time they visit one of the food service options.

Again, these programs are showing a huge financial benefit for the food service operations, and lets the students dine anywhere they want without the “eco-guilt” of using another take-out container. Several facilities are achieving a 40% reduction in their use of take-out boxes, while other schools that made the containers mandatory for students living in the dorms are seeing nearly a 100% reduction in container use. 100% savings sounds good to me…

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Obstacles to Nutrition Labeling for Restaurants

Menu LabelingSince 1993, the FDA has required manufacturers to print nutrition labels on food packages. As Americans become increasingly obese, health-consciousness has powered the trend toward full nutrition disclosure in restaurants as well. The theory is that if we see the caloric impact of foods, we will make healthier choices and lose weight collectively. One study showed that even a tiny change in eating habits among just 10 percent of the population would avert a whopping 39 percent of weight gain for the whole population. That’s a serious benefit!

So, are restaurants jumping at the chance to display calorie contents on their menu boards? Not exactly. A Purdue University study examined the obstacles for restaurant operators that prevented them from analyzing their menus’ nutrition and labeling their menus. At the time of the survey, which was conducted in 1994, only about 39 percent of top-grossing restaurant chains were voluntarily analyzing the nutrition of their menu items. In most eateries, nutrition info was available upon request, but not as a part of menus.

Although the survey was conducted 15 years ago, the obstacles to menu-labeling remain. Some reasons survey respondents gave for not analyzing menu-item nutrition:

  • Too many menu variations
  • Limited space on the menu for labeling
  • Difficulty in training personnel to implement labeling
  • Not enough time to implement labeling
  • Variations in ingredients
  • Variations in preparation based on diners’ special requests
  • Inadequacy of nutrient database information
  • Cost of laboratory analysis of nutrition
  • Inconsistency in portion size

Today, operators would likely cite these same obstacles preventing them from labeling their menus. Personnel issues aside, the cost of nutrition analysis alone would be prohibitive to most small-scale operations. But the i-COOK Professional system offers a free and simple solution.

i-COOK Professional is free for a limited time. That means that an e-mail address is all operators need to gain unlimited access to the nutrition analysis based on ESHA data, which maps more than 30,000 ingredients. Try it today at

Source: Almanza, Barbara A., Stella Chai, and Douglas Nelson. “Obstacles to nutrition labeling in restaurants.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 97.2 (1997): 157-161.

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