Archive for September, 2010

San Francisco in Rare Restaurant Gold Rush

Monday, September 20th, 2010

While many will cite this as one of the worst years for restaurant openings across the U.S., especially in such cities as New York and Los Angeles, this fall San Francisco is bringing some of the most anticipated debuts in recent memory.

The effects of the recession can still be seen walking the streets of San Francisco, even on posh shopping strips such as Post Street, where a Diesel flagship once stood across from a multilevel Gap and next door to a trendy Mango boutique. All three are now closed. But in the food world it’s another story, one of a timely culmination of long-anticipated openings and hush-hush spinoffs of Michelin star chefs making their marks at the forefront of the modern American food movement.

BENU Benu is the most coveted of any dinner reservation in San Francisco right now. Its space at 22 Hawthorne — in the city’s once gritty, now gentrified South of Market neighborhood — is set back from the street, with private valet and a wall of glass that frames chefs and assistants working in a cloud of white uniforms and stainless steel. Two steps onto the property but still outside, a man in black bearing a small clipboard asks, “Do you have a reservation?” From there it’s through a small zen garden and glass doors that open to the breeze of busy workers seating diners without delay in a pristine dining room of Guggenheim-like design: sparely decorated walls, clothless tables and plush carpet, all by architect Richard Bloch of New York’s Masa and Bar Masa.

The restaurant’s chef, Corey Lee, has been lauded by James Beard and given three stars by Michelin; he was chef de cuisine at the French Laundry before opening Benu in late August. The restaurant offers a la carte and tasting menu options for $160, the latter requiring a 2.5-hour commitment on average but worth it judging by the oohs and ahhs for such dishes as creamy eggplant soup with semi-baked tomato; sea urchin risotto with sweet corn and black truffle; and artistically presented single lamb rack with homemade garlic sausage and cauliflower on dandelion-emblazoned Korean porcelain plates. The impressive staff of sommeliers and waiters was honed at local restaurants including Coi and La Toque. The service is so formal you wish you’d worn a jacket to what is sure to be a Michelin contender for years to come.

CPK Tests Tabletop Technology

Monday, September 20th, 2010

California Pizza Kitchen Inc. is testing a touch-screen device in at least three stores that lets guests pay their tabs from their tables, according to an analyst report.

CPK is also using the device to market menu items, conduct surveys and recruit loyalty program members, said Brad Ludington of Keybanc Capital Markets Inc., who follows CPK and is aware of some details of the trial through “channel checks.”

He added that the technology has possible positive ramifications for the struggling casual-dining segment.

“We believe that the potential cost savings, positive impact on
customer satisfaction, improved reads on new menu items and improved market research capabilities could not only help CPKI, but could be a trend seen across multiple casual-dining brands in the coming years,” Ludington said in a report Friday.

CPK is not ready to comment publicly about the technology trial, according to a representative of the Los Angeles-based company, which operates or franchises about 260 restaurants. Most of the company’s locations are casual-dining sites under its California Pizza Kitchen brand.

Word of the tabletop device test by CPK comes just days after the closure of the last of three “interactive restaurants” operated by uWink Inc., a startup by Atari and Chuck E. Cheese’s creator Nolan Bushnell.

The Sept. 12 closure of the uWink casual-dining restaurant at the Hollywood & Highland retail center in Los Angeles was noted at the company’s website. It followed the April 2009 shuttering of a uWink in Mountain View, Calif., and the closure in January of the company’s original three-year-old location in Woodland Hills, Calif.

UWink, which in 2008 began to suffer significant decreases in restaurant sales as the recession kicked in, spun off its technology development and sales arm, Tapcode Inc., last year, before it began closing its restaurant operations. The company’s technology had attracted widespread interest within the industry by permitting guests to order food and drinks, play games, watch movie trailers or other video content, and pay their tabs using a touch-screen terminal at each table.

CPK is testing the wireless Ziosk brand terminal technology of Dallas-based TableTop Media at single restaurants in the California cities of Huntington Beach and Long Beach, as well as in a Dallas location, NRN phone calls to a variety of CPK units determined.

The wireless Ziosk terminals also have been in trial or deployed for nearly three years at selected branches of the Cozymel’s Mexican Grill chain, including locations in Grapevine, Texas, and Manhattan Beach, Calif. TableTop Media and Cozymel’s share some ownership and executive leadership in Dallas entrepreneur Jack Baum.

Multiple franchised Chili’s Grill & Bar restaurants in the Chicago market operated by ERJ Dining of Louisville, Ky., are using the touch-screen devices, which also are under review or being tried by other national foodservice chains that TableTop officials would not identify because of non-disclosure agreements.

Financial analyst Ludington said CPK has been testing the Ziosk technology in selected restaurants since late last month. He said the pay-at-table feature in test “may be the most important function,” as it permits guests to split the check as they see fit and pay by swiping their own credit or debit card.

“We believe that this could increase throughput and significantly boost customer satisfaction scores as the customer gets to finish the experience on his or her own terms,” Ludington wrote.

CPK is not testing all Ziosk features, Ludington noted, but it is testing a “digital table tent” function that lets guests touch their way through multiple screens of images and information about drinks, appetizers, desserts and coffees.

“We believe that the interactive nature provided here will likely increase trail, which has always been an issue for CPK, as many customers just order their favorite item rather than look through the menu for new options,” the analyst said. “This will also help cut costs in the long term as the company could just send new promotions out digitally to the entire restaurant system rather than having to print out individual table tents each time.”

CPK is also testing Ziosk’s real-time guest surveying and interaction tools, including an E-Club loyalty program sign-up screen, Ludington said.

“We believe that this will not only significantly increase the survey response rate and improve the quality of CPKI’s market research,” he said, “but will also allow for real-time resolution of problems, as it has the capability to send out a manager alert if negative responses.”

If initial test results are positive, Ludington said he believes CPK will expand the test to other restaurants and possibly test additional features of the device.

Though CPK is unlikely to use such terminals to replace servers, Ludington said CPK may test letting guests order additional drinks and desserts using the devices and that the technology could help bolster loyalty and gift card programs and help meet pending government mandates to display menu item nutrition information.

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L.A. Chef David Myers Opens Restuarants in Japan

Monday, September 20th, 2010

Los Angeles chef David Myers opened two new concepts in Tokyo this week in his first foray overseas.

Known for his former Los Angeles restaurant Sona, which he closed in May with plans to reopen in the city next year, David Myers and his restaurant group operate Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa, Calif., as well as the French bistro Comme Ca in Los Angeles.

In Tokyo, Myers has developed a “California-inspired” concept called David Myers Café in the Mitsukoshi Ginza shopping center. Alongside the café, Myers has opened a high-end pastry shop called SOLA.

“I have been searching for years for the perfect opportunity to open in Tokyo,” Myers said in a statement. “It’s been a dream of mine to bring California cuisine to the world stage and I am thrilled to be amongst the world’s most inspiring chefs in an incredibly renowned location.”

The 40-seat David Myers Café showcases California cuisine using Japanese ingredients. The menu includes dishes such as corn agnolotti with ginger and honshimenji; a Japanese potato and miso soup with clams and mitsuba; and sake and harissa black cod with roasted spring onion and black olive.

The menu will also include the popular burger from Myers’ Comme Ca, as well as classic American sandwiches, such as a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich with garlic aioli.

SOLA offers traditional pastries with Japanese flavors, such as a green tea panna cotta cheesecake; or plum buckwheat crepes served with vanilla soy milk cream.

Later this year, David Myers Group is scheduled to open a second location of Comme Ca in Las Vegas at The Cosmopolitan hotel casino.

In 2011, the group also plans to reopen Sona, which the company describes as “a temple of haute modern cuisine with global influences,” in a new property in Hollywood.

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Michelle Obama urges industry to step up efforts in Obesity Fight

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

First lady Michelle Obama called on restaurateurs to help put an end to childhood obesity in an address made Monday to the National Restaurant Association’s board of directors at their fall meeting in Washington, D.C.

Thanking those in the foodservice industry who already have made an effort to address the problem, Obama urged restaurateurs to go even further.

“The reality is, it’s just not enough,” she said. “Together we have to do more. We have to go further. And we need your help to lead the effort.”

NRA president and chief executive Dawn Sweeney also addressed the gathering, emphasizing that consumers are demanding more healthful options.

“The restaurant industry is responding to consumer preferences by providing options for their tastes and dietary needs,” Sweeney said. “Offering more menu choices, cooking with healthier ingredients, and providing nutrition information for guests are just a few of the ways restaurants are answering consumers’ interest in more healthful food options.”

Noting that one-third of all meals today are eaten in restaurants, the first lady urged operators to use their creativity to reduce the number of empty calories Americans consume. And while “we are programmed to crave sugary, fatty, salty foods,” she added, “with a little persistence and creativity, we can also turn them on to higher quality, healthier foods.”

Obama also recommended that restaurateurs offer more healthful menu options for children, adding, “most kids’ menus look pretty much the same.” She cited one survey that found that “90 percent of [children’s] menus includes mac and cheese,” while 80 percent includes chicken fingers and 60 percent includes burgers or cheeseburgers.

“Some options weigh in at over 1,000 calories, and that’s close to the recommended amount that a child should have for the entire day,” she said.

“That’s why I want to challenge every restaurant to offer healthy menu options and then provide them up front so that parents don’t have to hunt around and read the small print to find an appropriately sized portion that doesn’t contain high levels of fat, salt and sugar.”

The first lady told operators she was not “asking any of you to make drastic changes to every single one of your recipes or to totally change the way you do business. But what I am asking is that you consider reformulating your menu in pragmatic and incremental ways to create healthier versions of the foods that we all love.”

She said that could mean substituting wheat pasta for white pasta, taking an existing dish and cutting the amount of butter or cream, or using 1 percent or skim milk.

“Or you could make healthy sides like apple slices or carrots the default choice in a menu and make fries something customers have to request — which would hurt me deeply. I’m a fry lover,” she said, drawing a laugh from the audience.

While telling operators that “as a mom, I know it is my responsibility and no one else’s to raise my kids,” she said foodservice marketing practices make it challenging to alter children’s eating habits.

“We have to ask ourselves, what does it mean when so many parents are finding their best efforts undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at our kids,” she said.

She cited a study that found only a small portion of advertising targeting children promoted healthy foods, while most promoted foods with a low nutritional value. “And let’s be clear: It’s not enough just to limit ads for foods that aren’t healthy,” she said. “It’s also going to be critical to increase marketing for foods that are healthy.”

Obama also thanked the NRA for supporting menu labeling in restaurants, and encouraged restaurants that do not provide calorie counts to join in.

“So I hope that all of you will join with us in these efforts,” she said. “Together, we can help make sure that every family that walks into a restaurant can make an easy, healthy choice.”

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New Restaurant at Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

PHOENIX 9/13/10 — People showed up before dawn Monday hoping to get one of about 100 jobs at a new restaurant at Biltmore Fashion Park in Phoenix.

Managers at the Seasons 52 restaurant, which opens this fall at 24th Street and Camelback, began interviews earlier than 8 a.m., as planned, because of the crowd. Job seekers began arriving at 5 a.m.

“Being a brand-new restaurant in Phoenix, I think that’s a draw. I think with our benefits package, that’s really going to bring people in. People are looking for work; they want a company that’s going to take care of them.”

Culley pointed out that Seasons 52 offers a complete benefits package.

The company held one-on-one interviews for jobs of all kinds: servers, front staff, bartenders, line cook and back kitchen workers.

Seasons 52 Located at Biltmore Fashion Park Mall 2502 East Camelback Road Phoenix, AZ 85016

Toppers Taps Five Guys Vet for Franchising Role

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

Toppers Pizza has hired a franchising expert, most recently from Five Guys, to spearhead its own expansion plans, which include growing the 20-year-old chain from its current 26 units to 500 by 2020.

Brett Larrabee, the fast-casual pizza chain’s new director of franchise development, most recently was director of New York City operations for Five Guys Burgers & Fries, which has undergone rapid expansion over the past few years. Before Five Guys, Larrabee was director of franchising at Pancheros Mexican Grill in Coralville, Iowa, and before that he was a Subway franchisee.

Larrabee said he moved to Whitewater, Wis., to join Toppers because he liked the economics of the restaurants, which in 2009 had average unit sales of $966,000 and $186,250 in profit — a margin of more than 19 percent.

“There are few opportunities that have strong economics that are consistent and viable,” Larrabee said, pointing to the chain’s 20-year track record as an asset.

Toppers prides itself on its positioning as an irreverent brand that resonates with young people and offers unusual items, like baked potato pizza and mac and cheese pizza. Many of its stores are in areas with a heavy late-night crowd and all of the restaurants stay open until at least 3 a.m.

Larrabee said Toppers would be focusing on developing stores in Minneapolis and Chicago for 2011, but that the company would open locations wherever they were viable. He said he is seeking franchisees who want to open multiple units in a fairly dense concentration — opening one unit for every 30,000 households.

Toppers founder and chief executive Scott Gittrich said the company was slated to open its first Cincinnati unit on Oct. 2 and that a franchisee was opening another restaurant in Milwaukee, which already has a number of Toppers, on Oct. 16.

Gittrich said the company had doubled in size — both in terms of number of units and sales — since 2007, “and we’re in a good spot to move forward quickly.”

He added that the company planned to open 80 stores over the next three years and said about half of those restaurants were already under contract and the rest were with existing franchisees that are currently in the middle of development agreements.

A number of corporate stores also were being opened, Gittrich said. Currently eight of the chain’s 26 units are company-owned.

A Toppers spokeswoman said franchisees were required to have minimum liquidity of $150,000 and a net worth of at least $300,000. The average cost to open a Toppers is $400,000, she said.

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Restaurants are feeling the pain of immigration crackdown

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

The Obama administration’s tougher stance on immigration-law enforcement is hitting the restaurant industry, The New York Times reports. Restaurants traditionally hire a large number of immigrants to staff their kitchens, a practice that until recently went largely unscrambled by law enforcement. Now, eatery owners such as Michel Malecot, the owner of San Diego’s 45-seat French Gourmet, may face hefty fines, property forfeiture and even jail time.

Bars offer a final taste of summer

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

As summer draws to a close, many restaurants and bars are using their cocktail menus to help guests capture a final taste of the season before fall sets in.

While some drinks will be offered only through the end of summer Sept. 22, others are being incorporated onto permanent menus.

A look back at the drinks of summer

Haru Sushi features a different cocktail each month, and all three drinks from the summer months have been added to the permanent menu.

Last month’s drink, the Harupolitan, is made with shochu, Ty Ku Citrus Liqueur and Cointreau with fresh pineapple and orange juices. In July, Haru featured a Watermelon Fizz, which followed the Peach Fuzz in June.

The featured drinks were offered for $6 during their respective months at Haru locations in Boston and Philadelphia, and sold for $7 during “Sake Hour” at New York units. At the end of each month, the featured cocktail “graduated” to the permanent menu and the price increases to $12.

For September, the nine-unit chain is featuring Haru’s Painkiller, made with two different rums, pineapple and orange juices, and a splash of coconut cream. The drink is topped with fresh nutmeg and garnished with a pineapple slice and a cherry.

Pitchers with outdoor dining

Carte Blanche Café and Bar at Gansevoort Hotel in New York is promoting its seasonal cocktails in carafes, including its most popular drink this summer, the Strawberry Splash, made with vodka, lemon juice and muddled strawberries.

The restaurant models itself after Parisian-style sidewalk cafes and is located in the hotel’s lobby, which extends outside, so the concept markets its pitcher cocktails as a perfect match for outdoor dining while the weather is still mild.

Other pitcher drinks available at Carte Blanche include the Tough Puppy, made with gin, grapefruit, white peach and granny apple juice, and the Lemongrass Mint Mojito, which features lemon-flavored rum, light rum, fresh muddle mint & lemongrass.

Still time for tiki time

Until Sept. 21, customers at the Majestic in Alexandria, Va., can still enjoy tropically inspired tiki drinks created by mixologist Todd Thrasher, who designed the cocktails with fresh and house-made ingredients.

For example, the Tiki Bowl uses house-made orgeat syrup, an almond-flavored syrup made with toasted almonds, agave nectar and almond extract. Other ingredients in this drink include orange juice, two types of rum, brandy and lemon juice.

The summer menu also features the classic Zombie tiki cocktail, but made for two or more guests. A mixture of two different rums, Cointreau, Pernod, lemon juice, orange juice, papaya juice, grenadine and orgeat syrup is served in a tiki bowl with ice and two straws. A center bowl is filled with more rum that is flamed.

An alcoholic summer treat may become dessert

Ofrenda Cocina Mexicana in New York is offering “pop shots,” which pair artisanal spirits with locally made Mexican ice pops. The pop shots were introduced in August, and are available at $8 with flavors like coconut with rum, avocado with mescal, and hibiscus with tequila.

While the drinks are available officially until the end of summer, the restaurant will keep the pop shots on the menu as long as the weather is warm, and is considering adding them to the dessert menu along with sipping tequilas.

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California food-safety training bill sent to governor

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

A California bill requiring food-safety training for all retail and restaurant food handlers was sent this week to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for his consideration, but proponents are concerned it may get killed in a battle of political wills over a massive budget deficit.

Senate Bill 602 was passed by the state Senate on a 30-1 vote Aug. 27, after having been approved 74-1 by the Assembly on Aug. 16.

SB 602 — which was created in a collaborative effort by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, his co-sponsors, the California Restaurant Association and county health officials — is described as a “landmark” bill by CRA spokesman Daniel Conway. It is based on existing mandatory food-handler-certification programs in the counties of Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego, where foodborne illness outbreaks have decreased by 79 percent since the implementation of those measures, the bill’s backers said.

If signed by Schwarzenegger, SB 602 would require anyone who prepares, stores or serves food to undergo food-safety training and testing to receive a certification card good for three years. The proposed law requires that at least one training option cost no more than $15 per person and that training be made available online.

Existing California law requires each foodservice facility to have at least one owner or employee certified in safe food-handling practices so that they can train other workers.

The CRA supported a statewide measure in the form of SB 602, in part, to prevent a situation in which members had to deal with different food-safety certification rules in each of the state’s 58 counties.

But political tensions in the state capital, where the budget is two months overdue as lawmakers argue over how to eliminate a projected $19 billion deficit, could foil the trade group and other supporters of the bill.

Two years ago, in a similar state fiscal environment, Gov. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, issued a blanket veto for all “policy bills,” such as SB 602, taking the position he would not consider such measures until the budget and deficit were taken care of, Conway of the CRA explained. This year, the political stakes are even higher, he indicated, given the supercharged partisan atmosphere among lawmakers heading into the fall general election and the fact that Schwarzenegger is in his final year of office and pushing strongly for budget and pension reform.

Despite the importance of the changes that may be brought about by SB 602 and its widespread support, the CRA is not yet ready to pop any champagne corks, Conway said.

“It would be unwise for us to take it [Schwarzenegger’s signature] for granted,” Conway said. “ It’s still a bill, not a law.”

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