Posts Tagged restaurants

Upselling is Back

In the old world, as defined as a few years ago, the economy was flush and diners happily supported the restaurant industry without a blink about fancy meals and high price tabs. It was the world, and upselling was a prevalent theme. Make that “a problem.” Yes, waiters never seemed to tire of the million strategies to drive the bill. Then the recession hit and waiters, too, were happy to serve tap water or let diners share an entree. With the first visible positive signs of economic change or potential stability, waiters have returned to the 1000 ways to enhance your dinner or drive up the tab; your call as to how to define the strategy: rhythm or an incessant drumbeat from an earlier era?

Take a recent outing where the waiter quickly moved himself into the annoying corner as he seemed to meet resistance with his every ploy. Sparkling water became a spigot that was never shut off. You know how I feel about the restaurant versions of still and sparkling without a cost to the consumer.

When the waiter moved to a more profitable part of the menu as he  tried to sell truffles a thousand ways, he lost everyone at the banquette. The group preferred a conversation rather than a lesson in pricing or slicing. He was unstoppable as he moved through menu gyrations with the almost musical tone, “we could just add a thin truffle slice to make the dish purr.” Seriously, uninterested and turned off by this overpowering display of in-your-face possibilities. Let us dine. Let us relax and chat and welcome our dining choice rather than secretly dread the restaurant decision.  Did he mention the cost? No need; there were no bites at the table. He quickly tried another approach, also an unsuccessful strategy as he encouraged additional courses. He asked, “Is that it?” Not smooth; not impressive, and not a winning tool.

Yes, dining out can be complicated and expensive with rising food costs and creative plating as chefs struggle with all matters of pricing.  Yet, the annoyingly, cloying waiter needs to remain a caricature and not make a visible presence tableside. Let the diners’ imaginations go wild and let them initiate as in, “could I have the truffle atop that salad, or…”.  You get the picture. Food is expensive enough at high-tiered restaurants without the nagging upsell that has again entered the market space.

Let’s all be hospitable and relax.

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Eating with Uncle Sam

I can think of no better time than a few days before Labor Day to introduce you to a wonderful book from the National Archives. It is easy to think of this mammoth building as a holder of major historical documents. To us in the food community that includes recipes that parallel the important events of history.

The major undertaking of a food exhibit, “What’s Cooking Uncle Sam,” a pop-up restaurant, American Eats Tavern, and a cookbook, Eating with Uncle Sam, has added a whole new chapter to the collections from the Archives and the Presidential libraries. Yes, food has played an important role in our history and much of what we do and comment on today within the universe of food has its earliest roots tied into a major document that has been preserved. Think of the current trendy chef movement toward the healthy concept of Meatless Mondays. It was during World War II that Americans were asked to have a meatless day (Tuesday) and such a tradition remained a strong staple of households many years after the War ended.

Touring the exhibit at the Archives gives one a bountiful repast of our history and how food evolved within the culture. Dining nearby at the Jose Andres restaurant (America Eats Tavern), lets one celebrate our history with a taste of the original recipes. After all how many types of Catsup have evolved over the years! A good way to test your palate. Now it all comes together with this new book.

One of the most discussed posters in the exhibit is entitled “Eat the Carp” which serves as an introduction to the fish chapter which includes a recipe for Paprikosh (1917-20) which today we might call a fish hash. Or try Lady Bird Johnson’s famous Shrimp Squash Casserole.

If sweets are more to your liking, there are plenty of recipes to try including Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipe of Fruit Cake. After all, we wonder how some recipes ever evolved! How about a recipe for Fondant with the accompanying 1917-19 poster “Sugar: Save It.”

These little tastes should help you set a table of historical recipes. If you can’t make it to the Archives before the exhibit closes in early January, then take a You Tube tour.

In the meantime, enjoy the history and the recipes as you recognize the importance of keeping records.

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Mainstream G-F

We’ve talked before about how gluten-free products have become more readily available. Supermarkets have taken the plunge and recognized the large number of people diagnosed with celiac disease or those who find themselves gluten intolerant. Many sit-down restaurants have figured out the marketing potential and offer guests a gluten-free menu. Yet a more casual approach for people that avoid gluten products means limited sandwich options. They either make their own sandwich or have to listen to dining companions order something that sounds tempting or go to a higher price point. Nothing seems to cover the middle ground. That landscape has had a makeover. Now one nationwide restaurant chain has started a limited program that hopefully will go national.

The Subway chain in Oregon and Texas offers gluten-free sandwiches. (The program was rolled out several months ago, but I recently observed the process firsthand–quite different from a press release!) This is a big deal being advertised with banners and in-store literature. Anecdotally, they are reporting an impressive amount of interest and orders.

If you enter a Subway that offers a G-F menu, then you have hit the quick-service, made-to-order sandwich line. Before you scoff and say how could such a large chain pull off the G-F experience, let me share what I witnessed. The staff has been well trained and recognize the contamination possibilities. The roll comes wrapped but never even makes it to the counter until the sandwich person scrubs down the counter, announces that a G-F sandwich is about to be made, does a complete hand wash, and grabs a new pair of gloves. Pretty impressive actually! For those who worry about the isolation preparation. you have an advantage: You watch the process rather than speculate that caution is being followed!

When all is set and ready to go, the G-F sandwich gets further isolated during the preparation selection and ends up in its own specialty bag. What’s the upcharge for this attention to detail? A dollar more for a G-F sandwich: A price that goes down easily.

Maybe other fast food, casual restaurants, and nationwide chains will figure out that offering a gluten-free option is not price prohibitive but rather financially advantageous.

Marketing mainstream reality.

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A Server’s Responsibility

When a diner requests a dish prepared a certain way or asks if a dish is Vegan or Gluten-free, the server needs to be in the know or at the ready to get the answer. When a diner inquires about the spiciness of a dish, is it sufficient to say, “I don’t find it spicy.” What does a diner know about a server’s palate? Nothing. Silly answer. Instead should the server do a better job of explaining the intensity of a dish? I think so.

When a diner asks if a piquillo pepper is hot, and the server says “nope.” (That’s true, the piquillo adds a sense of sweetness.) Should the server explain that the heat in the dish comes from chili paprika or just answer the initial question? If a guest asks about spiciness, then the guest either prefers food spicy or wants little heat. It is the server’s responsibility to do a follow-up as in clarifying that the dish itself is spicy. “If you do not like food that spicy, we can prepare the dish without the hot or if you like your meat spiced up, you’ll be quite happy.”

In the particular dish, the spice was overwhelming. Every part of the plate, including the roasted potatoes, was seeped in heavy-handed paprika chiles. No discernible flavor. Just spice.

Who is at fault? Let’s start at the beginning with management. Is there anything more important than service or training, especially when entrees are in the mid 20′s? I firmly believe that training and information are essential components of any sit-down restaurant meal, at any and every price point. After all restaurants depend on diner dollars and diners go out with an expectation of value and pleasure. No one benefits from sloppy or non-existent training.

Diners have certainly become more savvy over the years and have a better understanding of what they are looking for in a meal. A diner does not eat out to take a bite out of a dish, be hit with high intensity heat, and then discover that the dish is cold. Fixing it after the fact is hardly the solution. Solve the problem in the kitchen. In this example we are talking about two levels of heat: Both critical to the success of dinner.

Half answers are reminiscent of the classic “Pink Panther” scene, does your dog bite. To refresh your memory, here is a You Tube clip.

Dining out should be an enjoyable experience. Sure we all eat out sometimes out of necessity, as in “I’m too tired to cook. Let’s grab a bite.” Yet when you make a reservation and have an  image in mind, the establishment needs to come close. Losing business helps no one.

Tell the whole story.



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I’ll Do It My Way: Chefs Say “NO”

Thanks, Frank (as in Frank Sinatra for the hip-hop focused), but that concept of doing it Your Way seems to be fraught with pugilistic intent when we speak of restaurants. Yes, chefs, want to be supreme and create what they want, how they want it, and often without adjustments. Diners, on the other hand, have become more than just restaurant novices and recognize that there are numerous ways to prepare a dish and having it only one set way may not be that appealing or healthy. Let’s play out the basic house salad scenario as an example.

Have you ever sat in a dining room and listened to table talk. I can almost guarantee that if you are in the axis of five tables and someone at each of the tables orders a house salad, not very many will accept it with the designated salad dressing, even with truffle oil! You’ll hear can I have it on the side, or, how about a different dressing. Who’s right? Who gets to make the decision? A significant part of that answer rests with price point. High-end chefs believe more fervently about their decisions.

Diners want some control, and chefs want to maintain head toque control. Last week the New York Times ran a front page article about chefs who absolutely, positively refuse to make adjustments. A few days later, the paper ran opinion responses. We’ve all been in the situation when dining out where we love what is described but have a small, wee, minor change we’d like to make. Not everyone is pleased with this strategy.B_2_3_Technische_CM_02

So who’s right? The issue is far greater than placing a simple order. There are ever so many people who either through preference or dietary restrictions want to dine at the best, the very latest, the top places. They want to experience what they have been reading about and do not want to be left out of the dining frenzy that is making all the headlines.  Not every chef welcomes the diner who needs adjustments or wants to tweak a dish. Should top restaurants be off limits to guests who want the experience but may be unable to have it as the chef envisions? Should chefs bend or diners skip?

Yes, it is the hospitality industry, and yes, diners have become particular about their flavors and specifics, but should top tier chefs have to accommodate everyone, of every dining ilk, health or otherwise? For many of these restaurants it is not about the customer is always right, but rather a fact of life: This is the way I create. Come to my temple and experience what I can do.

Sorry, many chefs say when they are unable or unwilling to accommodate. Is the ability to pay and to pay handsomely enough to be able to experience almost all the ingredients the chef envisions.

This is a complicated issue on both sides of the table.

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A More Careful Fish Selection

Following on the heels of environmentally unfriendly containers, it’s time to have a good news story about a company that has taken the plunge. I’m talking Costco. They have decided to join the ranks of purveyors of socially acceptable fish. No longer will they sell those varieties that have been listed as overfished. They will instead continue to grow their farmed fish purveyor program and offer customers fish that meets the guidelines set forth by the World Wildlife Fund. Their further involvement with sustainability in the seafood arena will benefit us all.

The specifics are important. First of all they will stop selling (yes, first they have to finish their stock and commitment orders) the wild species they call at the greatest risk of being overfished. That list includes Atlantic cod and halibut, Chilean sea bass, halibut from Greenland, grouper, monkfish, orange roughy, redfish, shark, skates and rays, swordfish and bluefin tuna. They do not plan to reintroduce these fish into their lineup unless the sources are certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The Council identifies itself as “the world’s leading certification  and ecolabelling program for sustainable seafood.”image_small

Secondly, Costco has expanded its relationship with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a non-governmental organization that works closely on sustainable aquaculture issues. Costco has charged them with determining how well the Thailand-based companies that supply farmed shrimp are working to meet the defined standards for shrimp farming. That same approach is being studied with farmed Atlantic salmon. As any Costco shopper knows, Atlantic salmon is a majoone who visits a Costco knows is a major fish product for the company. Again Costco is working with suppliers and making certain that standards are being adhered.

What does this all mean for consumers? Maybe the first step is to applaud Costco’s decision (and other companies that are taking these bold steps) and follow that strategy into our own shopping, regardless of the marketplace. Similarly, when we dine out and find these overfished varietiess on menus, we need to question the establishment. Chefs have plenty of fish to work with that meet sustainability standards and can become beautiful center-of-the plate entrees.

Let’s applaud companies that have solid sustainability programs and likewise recognize restaurants that demonstrate responsible, sustainable performance.

We will all be better off with these actions!

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Plant-Based Universe

It has been an interesting year in the food world to watch grocers and some restaurants take a liking, a reality-based liking, to providing gluten-free foods. The strategy was as much about marketing as it was about honoring requests as more individuals began to understand how gluten-based products were affecting their digestive tract. Now that many have called G-F marketing a mainstream approach, step aside and watch a new darling unfold: Plant-based Diets.

Instead of shrugging me off or giving me the weirdo look, stop and listen. The old world word of choice was VEGAN, but through smart analysis the baggage that term carried with it was replaced with a phrase that seemed to have greater appeal. Yes, there are still plenty of items with the easily tagged V on the label, but the term getting much greater attention is that of plant-based. People who espoused vegetarianism for their whole life seem to have gradually moved in this direction. Anyway, many vegetarians defined their diet with different proteins as in “I’m a vegetarian, but I eat dairy and fish or sometimes, chicken.” It seemed personalized. That seems less true for those who follow the plant-based approach which eliminates dairy all together and strict adherents cut out all animal-based products. Yet, as with vegetarianism, there are numerous products that simulate taste for those who still, for example, want that cream cheese (tofu-based) on their morning bagel.

As we watched the product expansion in the G-F line, so will this particular food emergence continue to grow. When a small, non-chain restaurant readily understands you want your burrito without cheese and answers, “no problem, vegan, right,” you know the impact will spread. When you talk to former vegetarians who switched to the complete elimination of animal byproducts, the one sentence you hear repeatedly is “I feel healthier.” Anecdotal, for sure, but if it works, it works. 

Oprah ran a week of shows about eliminating all animal-based products from your diet. Those who follow what former President Bill Clinton is up to will note that his weight loss has been significant. It is about more than weight-loss that proves to be an attractive factor. The well-recognized book, The China Study spells it out as does research from numerous doctors and medical facilities in terms of helping people lower cholesterol, lessen the likelihood of various diseases,  and be able to live a healthier life.

Will you lose weight or generally be a healthier person without all the additives that regularly get added to food? A note of importance: As with all food selections, look for those with the purest, fewest ingredients. When you can, the rule of five–that’s a good ingredient maximum. No matter your approach, you know what the vitamin and mineral rituals you need to follow. President Clinton begins his day with a protein supplement. Know what you need. prod_full-tofu-silken-chocolate

In the meantime, watch the shelves fill with improved selections as plant-based living becomes this year’s G-F darling. No one denies that some diseases command G-F products or that health reasons dictate becoming a Vegan, but those who follow trends will notice an increase in shelf-space for those with a “V.”

Overall, a healthier society with the less is more approach.

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Policy Shifts: The Shrinking Plate

You can always tell when an industry starts to feel some strength under its wings. When promos start to slide and prices start to creep upwards. Another way to watch the food and beverage industry is to see how the center of the plate changes. Sometimes a restaurant tries a campaign and discovers that it is a losing proposition. For instance, take the issue of sides.

Giving them away as an all-inclusive price does not necessarily succeed for a long-term, non restaurant week basis. Yet when a restaurant decides that they can adjust their prices by eliminating the “included” in favor of charging for sides, the diner is left with an important decision. The prior $24 meal with two sides now costs over $30. The restaurant benefits. The customer needs to decide. This side-no side entree scenario is becoming more commonplace in the mid-tier market. Restaurants feel the same food pinch that home chefs and families feel: Rising food costs. Making this type of menu shift where the diner decides about an additional plate item can especially benefit a mid-tier restaurant.

Other changes a customer might notice is the center of the plate concept. More restaurants are shifting to increased garnishes as in a larger handful of chopped lettuce so the plate does not sit empty. One tiny piece of parsley does not do the trick! We know how everyone can save some money: Skip the tomatoes until they are again tasty and bursting with flavor. Not now!

Eliminating included sides or salads, increasing garnishes, and switching cuts of meat are three strategies becoming more prevalent in the current restaurant climate. The meat industry has plenty of so-called lesser cuts that work as well in maintaining price. We are seeing more hanger and flat iron steaks, for instance, for nightly dinner specials as they can be made juicy and tasty with the right cooking technique but save the restaurant and the diner an appreciable amount of money.banner2

All these trends are at work almost simultaneously as the diner continues to watch his dining out dollars and restaurants find themselves struggling with spiraling food costs and potential waste.

The improved dining out scene still faces tumultuous times. We can survive together.

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Thank You, Oil Companies

I’m not talking olive oil, safflower, or canola, but the big guys. The oil companies as in Exxon, BP, and their kindred spirits. I’m sure you’re well aware how much money that fill-up is costing, but the spillover effects are even more noticeable. Have you watched your grocery bill start its skyrocket spiral? How about your daily extra special coffee treat? Or, your restaurant meal? Everything food-related is going for the stratosphere and predictions are that whatever we are experiencing now will only continue to escalate. Swell.

Yes, few people will notice the difference between a 5 or a 6 oz serving of a chicken breast, but will notice that the plate is filled with an assortment of other foods so the main protein does not look so lonely. A handful of lettuce, although its price has gone up handsomely, too, is still less expensive for a restaurant than sticking with the larger ounced protein.

Portion sizes are not the only items shrinking. At the grocery store, many companies have left a product’s price the same, but reduced its size. Tricky, eh! Add 10 minutes for additional label-reading.

Maybe food delivery services will continue to thrive (Amazon is planning a major new national program roll-out) as consumers  feel more secure trying to make that $4 a gallon gas last longer and take advantage of delivery specials! The program worked in Washington state so why not Washington, DC? The East Coast awaits.41IodTSAjVL._SL160__SS120__SS100_

Some of the obvious jumps are in foods from Florida or California and the end result, as in orange juice. Way up. Grain prices are way up so bread costs are higher which means your favorite sandwich will be a more precious commodity.

Every business is struggling to figure out how to make money and not raise prices too much. It’s kind of a good news-bad news scenario. As in hotels which have been holding prices down and offering lots of sales, but now that consumers are traveling more again, you guessed it: Prices are up.

The consumer is at the other end of the equation trying to figure out what to buy and what needs to be shelved. This equation has few easy answers. As some would say, time will tell or it’s time to make lemonade!

In the meantime, watch how the price of gas, the cost of products, and the sheer energy involved in production affect our bottom line! Not pretty.

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The New Hotel Restaurant

There are a million ways to judge the economy and uncover how life is improving, or not. How about numbers that indicate business travel is improving somewhat. That’s an important barometer! The upcoming Fall market will tell.

One hotel brand is not sitting by and waiting for guests to fill their dining room. That would be Marriott’s Courtyard brand. Not one to do commercials for a property or a restaurant, I still need to applaud the new bistro concept. The re-energized approach has solved a number of problems, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

As an aside it should be noted that I have eaten in a broad-range of hotel restaurants run by famous chefs and those that exist merely to service guests. Not all are destination restaurants and many hotel chains have gone out of their way to dismiss the dining experience at hotels.images

What used to be pro forma for a Courtyard has changed. All new properties are designed with an open feel and dining is no longer the boring breakfast buffet, but a bistro-type experience that extends its offerings into all meal parts. Staffing needs are minimal depending on the time of day, and guest requests are easily served.

The breakfast restaurant/buffet concept has been replaced by a much more user-friendly approach that incorporates a grab-n-go philosophy with a limited hot order menu. Another plus is that service is available through the three meal parts, and tables are ready with free coffee urns ready to make any wait a more pleasant experience.

How about several computer stations adjacent to the table space and a more casual adjacent living room! All pluses and major improvements over the older format.

Why does this work? First off, the food options are manageable in terms of execution and price. If you want a cup of fruit or yogurt, that’s an option just as a scrambler breakfast choice. For those who have special coffee needs, ahem, me, they can make a Starbucks espresso or cappuccino, or your favorite combination. No need to take your money out of house!

Concepts are only as good as the times. The times have changed. More travelers are on limited travel budgets with greater receipt scrutiny. The Courtyard’s open environment makes such an adjustment a pleasant one.

Now if they would only change all of their older properties into this new, more welcoming approach with its accessible food option, then the words hotel and restaurant would not be approached with a scowl.

This proves it can work, and the traveling public has an affordable food-friendly option.

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