Archive for March, 2012

Eric Ripert: Diners Want Seasonal, Sustainable Foods

Monday, March 26th, 2012

Renowned chef Eric Ripert told attendees at the annual convention of the Research Chefs Association that consumers expect transparency and less processed foods.

Ripert — executive chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin in New York, television host and cookbook author — said in his keynote address Friday at the San Antonio convention that diners want to eat sustainably and are seeking more ingredients that are organic, fresh, flavorful, authentic, seasonal and local.

“People want their animals to be happy until we slaughter them,” he said.

Ripert, who recounted cooking with his family as early as age four and smelling the basil and breads in his local French markets, said he always wanted to be a chef.

“I was a very bad student to the point that at 15 years old, I was called to the principal with mom and dad,” Ripert recalled. “He said, ‘It’s no more school for your kid; he has to find a career.’ Of course, I was delighted and I finally could go to culinary school. All my life I wanted to be a chef.”

Ripert also discussed:

Transparency: “People want to know what is in their food,” Ripert said. “They look at the labeling more and more. Genetically modified foods are labeled in Europe but not in the United States.” That, he added, “creates wide imagination. It creates borderline paranoia in some people.”

Trends: More healthful and less processed food is big, Ripert said. Chefs are creating a fusion of cultures that show up on the plate, with much influence from Asia and South America.

Favorite cooking techniques: Poaching or baking are both excellent techniques for restaurants, Ripert said. “You can cook a lot of fish,” he said. “And what we learn from the Asian chefs is that if you poach fish in rich bouillon, which is thicker than the juice of the fish, all the juice stays in the fish. And when you take it out, it’s not dry. It’s very moist.”

Kitchen management: Ripert said he “was borderline intolerant” when he joined Le Bernardin 21 years ago, and admitted to having a temper.

“I learned the hard way very fast,” he said. “After a few months, I lost most of the team. I was almost by myself and very sad. I changed totally how to manage a team and how to be a leader. You live by example and you lead by inspiring.” He said most of his current management has been with him for 18 to 19 years. “We’re aging together there happily,” he said.

Menu philosophy: The fish is the star of the plate. “Whatever goes on the plate is to elevate the fish to the next level,” said Ripert, whose menu at Le Bernardin emphasizes seafood.

Molecular cuisine: Ripert sees it as an evolution of nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s, which he said introduced individually plated food. Molecular gastronomy provided something new.

“The result was delicious food that surprised people,” Ripert said. “Today it’s really, I want to say, disappearing from the vocabulary of chefs,” he said.

Even followers of molecular gastronomy pioneer Ferran Adria are moving on.

“The movement is integrated into a more classical way of cooking. It allows us to use those ingredients, those magic powders, and create a food that is lighter, that pays homage to the ingredients, but without the heaviness and the long process of cooking that we had before.”

Television celebrity: “I enjoy tremendously the media because it allows me to share my knowledge and to understand myself the process of cooking better,” he said, adding that his PBS show, “Avec Eric,” allows him to demystify cooking and inspire people to be curious about products and their origins.

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Umami Burger to Launch U-Mini To-Go Concept

Monday, March 26th, 2012

The Umami Burger chain is planning to debut another variant of the concept in Los Angeles this summer.

Parent company Los Angeles-based Umami Restaurant Group said Thursday it is planning to open a streamlined version of its full-service burger concept that also will serve as a test location for new menu items and technology innovations.

Dubbed U-Mini, the new variant will debut in a 1,200-square-foot space in Los Angeles’ Westwood Village, a neighborhood next to the UCLA campus. The company already operates a pizza concept called 800 Degrees nearby.

U-Mini will feature a limited version of the full-service Umami Burger menu with the addition of test products. The restaurant also will test web and app ordering, as well as tablet-only customer service.

With only about 45 seats, U-Mini will focus mostly on to-go business. Guests will be able to order in advance and pick up. Food will be served on biodegradable and compostable dishware.

U-Mini is not the same concept as the planned U-ko, another quick-service variation of Umami Burger, which the company is planning to unveil later this year.

Adam Fleischman, Umami Burger’s founder, said U-ko will be a “more standardized version that we’re hoping to roll out nationally and internationally.”

U-ko will feature burgers at a lower price point, for example, while U-Mini’s prices will be the same as Umami Burger, where burgers start at $10.

Founded in 2009, the eight-unit Umami Burger is expected to see rapid growth this year, reaching as many as 20 locations, including possibly in New York.

California locations scheduled to open this year include Costa Mesa, Anaheim, Thousand Oaks, Laguna Beach, and Oakland. A flagship Umami Burger also is expected to open this summer in Los Angeles at The Grove lifestyle center.

Earlier this year, Umami Restaurant Group opened UMAMIcatessen in downtown Los Angeles, a venue that includes a collection of five restaurant concepts, including an Umami Burger.

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Restaurant Sales Rose 3.4% in 2011

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Sales among the 500 largest restaurant chains in the United States rose 3.4 percent to $242 billion in 2011, compared with a 1.8-percent increase in annual sales in 2010, according to new research from Chicago-based Technomic.

In the market research firm’s annual look at the largest 500 restaurant chains, more than 60 percent of the Top 500 restaurant chains posted at least nominal sales increases; only 193 of these chains suffered sales declines in 2011, compared with 231 in 2010.

The fast-casual segment led the way in terms of sales and unit growth. The three fastest-growing chains among brands with at least $200 million were Five Guys Burgers and Fries, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Jimmy John’s, which posted U.S. systemwide sales increases of 32.8 percent, 23.4 percent and 21.8 percent, respectively.

Four other fast-casual chains had sales increases in the industry’s top 10 for 2011, Technomic reported: Firehouse Subs, 21.1 percent; Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, 18.2 percent; Noodles & Company, 14.9 percent; and Wingstop, 14.7 percent.

Limited-service restaurant brands, which include quick-service and fast-casual chains, recorded sales growth that outpaced that of full-service restaurants in 2011, Technomic found. Limited-service brands increased annual sales 7.1 percent compared with full service’s 2.8-percent increase.

The full-service segment’s recovery resulted from robust growth in its seafood and steak categories, Technomic said, with Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse and Texas Roadhouse posting systemwide sales increases larger than the segment average. Among limited-service brands, much of the growth came from coffeehouse, Mexican and sandwich chains, Technomic found.

Three casual-dining brands landed in the research firm’s list of fastest-growing chains for 2011: Yard House, with a 21.5-percent increase; BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, with a 20.9-percent jump; and Buffalo Wild Wings, with a 20.1-percent increase.

Collectively, the 10 fastest-growing brands’ systemwide sales in 2011 accounted for $8.2 billion, a 22-percent increase compared with 2010. Those chains grew their collective unit count by 15 percent.

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Sonic Focuses on Marketing, New Prototype to Drive Sales

Monday, March 19th, 2012

Sonic Corp. is tinkering with its marketing strategy as it adds new menu items to boost sales and a new drive-in prototype to reduce franchisee costs.

Oklahoma City-based Sonic late last week estimated a 3.4-percent increase in systemwide same-store sales for the second fiscal quarter ended Feb. 29.

Same-store sales reflected an estimated increase of 3.5 percent at franchise drive-ins and 3.1 percent at company drive-ins. Sonic will release its full second-quarter 2012 results after market on March 21.

Sonic executives separately outlined the company’s post-recession strategy at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch 2012 Consumer Conference, where they said the 3,555-unit quick-service chain would play to its strengths of five dayparts.

Sonic chief executive and chairman Clifford Hudson said slightly less than half of the chain’s sales come at lunch and dinner, with the rest spread across breakfast, afternoon snack and late-night dayparts.

Thirty-nine percent of sales come from fountain drinks and ice cream, he said.

“As our former CFO used to like to say, ‘Anything mixed with air or water, we love promoting it because we love those margins,’” Hudson said.

New advertising would help the company highlight “layered dayparts” and new items, he added.

“I think it will really help us from a breakthrough standpoint in terms of customer awareness of our commercials and usage of the brand as a result,” he said.

The “layered” approach, which is being implemented from March through August, will emphasize snacks and add-ons, such as the recently introduced Sweet Potato Tots.

The company is also bringing back popular spokesmen from 2002 to 2010, the “Two Guys of Sonic” played by actor-comedians T.J. Jagodowski and Peter Grosz.

Hudson said the “Two Guys” fit well with building sales across dayparts, because they could emphasize specific products.

“Their play in social media at this point is particularly strong opportunity for us,” Hudson said. The build-up to their television ad debut included Facebook and YouTube posts.

Hudson said Sonic, which moved its media buying from a regional to a national agency, has improved the effectiveness of marketing dollars and helped lead to an improved value perception among consumers.

“It’s a step from a standpoint in terms of reach and the impressions that a potential customer is likely to have from our advertising activity,” Hudson said.

While Sonic has grown unit counts historically by about 3 percent each year, recent growth has only been about 1 percent annually.

Sonic sees one component of unit growth as reducing the cost of entry, said Claudia San Pedro, head of Sonic’s investor relations.

“We’ve been working on a small-building prototype, where we’ve been able to reduce the cost of the building by about 15 to 20 percent,” she said, and the company expects franchisees over the next few years to adopt the smaller unit.

Sonic has units in 43 states.

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Gene Simmons’ Rock & Brews Concept Plans Growth

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Rock legend, reality television star and producer Gene Simmons is turning his classic-rock-themed restaurant concept Rock & Brews into a chain with global growth plans.

The craft-beer centric concept opened in Los Angeles about a year ago in a location “held together with duct tape and bungee chords,” said Simmons’ partner and restaurateur Michael Zislis.Rock & Brews was so successful, however, that the group decided to “invest real money,” Zislis said, purchasing the land and rebuilding the concept with plans to take it to other cities.

Three units are scheduled to open this year, including the reworked inaugural location in El Segundo, Calif., near Los Angeles International Airport, or LAX, which is scheduled to celebrate its grand re-opening on April 3.

A second licensed location is scheduled to open later this year in the Delta terminal at LAX. A third licensed unit is under construction in Tokyo and is expected to open by the summer.

Six Rock & Brews restaurants are planned for 2013, including more company-owned units, Zislis said. The operating company is Rock & Brews Licensing, based in Los Angeles.

The rebuilt original Rock & Brews restaurant doubled in size, growing to 200 seats within 5,000-square feet.

The redesign aims to evoke being back stage at a rock concert, with picnic tables, concert lighting, large-screen TVs and projection screens with a 360-degree speaker system. The venue will show concert videos and live recordings of rock performances.

The music of Rock & Brews will not be focused on KISS, but aims for a broader homage to classic rock bands in general, Zislis said.

The venue features themed nights for fans of bands such as Grateful Dead, Rush, The Who or the concert film “The Last Waltz,” which concert tour producer Dave Furano co-produced.

“I can’t tell you how religious people are about music,” Zislis said.

The new-and-improved location also has a vastly improved tap system that allows for 52 craft beers, with varying temperatures specific to the style of beer. For “beer geeks,” Zislis said, cellar temperatures are preferred for certain Belgian-style beers, for example.

The menu includes “craveable” casual-dining comfort foods, from burgers and sandwiches to salads and pizza, with prices ranging roughly from $8 to $20 for a family-style option.

The venue is also designed to be family- and dog-friendly, with a playground for kids and an open-air area for dogs.

Simmons also designed a “Wall of Rock” collage, featuring artists from Elvis to Kurt Cobain.

Rock & Brews is one of a growing number of music-themed concepts.

In December, a restaurant based on the 1970s Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd opened in Las Vegas. And in 2010, a restaurant and lounge inspired by the magazine Rolling Stone opened in Los Angeles.

Simmons co-founded the rock band KISS, and more recently starred in the reality TV show “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels.” He has created several other television shows and also has film credits as an actor and producer. Simmons also owns the record company Simmons/Universal Music.

Zislis founded the craft-beer-focused Manhattan Beach Brewing Co., as well as the Mucho Ultima Mexicana and The Strand House concepts, all in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

In addition, Zislis created the three-unit Rock ‘N Fish seafood-and-steak chain with locations in downtown Los Angeles, Manhattan Beach and Laguna Beach, Calif.

Furano joins Zislis and Simmons as partner. He was president of Bill Graham Presents, which managed tours for the Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Led Zeppelin and George Harrison.

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Restaurants Host St. Patrick’s Day Events

Monday, March 12th, 2012

Irish-themed restaurants and pubs are taking advantage of St. Patrick’s Day, which falls on a Saturday this year, and spreading the cheer over several weekends.

The preceding weekends are becoming widely known as “St. Practice Day,” thanks to a promotion by an Ireland-based brewer.

The National Retail Federation said the March 17 holiday will likely boost retail sales and celebrations across the country.

“For many consumers, St. Patrick’s Day is the official kick-off to spring,” said NRF spokesperson Kathy Grannis.

According to a St. Patrick’s Day survey by, a consumer research portal, 54.4 percent of Americans said they will celebrate the holiday this year, the most in the survey’s nine-year history. Nearly three in 10 will attend a party at a bar or restaurant, in search of Irish beer, green beverages, and corned beef and cabbage.

The Dallas-based Bennigan’s casual-dining chain is sponsoring a sweepstakes event at its 80 restaurants by picking up game cards at its locations and registering online. The winner will receive a $2,500 “Pub in a Box,” including a full-service bar with pub mirror, two bar stools, bar supplies and wall art.

Bennigan’s said its locations worldwide will host St. Paddy’s Day-themed events throughout March, including $50 Bennigan’s Gift Card weekly drawings, photo opportunities with life-sized leprechaun cut-outs and a countdown to March 17. Additionally, Bennigan’s Twitter and Facebook sites will feature St. Patrick’s Day trivia and photos.

The month’s events will culminate on March 17 at Bennigan’s restaurants around the globe, with live music, outdoor tent parties, St. Paddy’s Day menus and drink specials, as well as the awarding of the “Pub in a Box” to one winner.

“St. Paddy’s Day is the most exciting day of the year for us,” said Bennigan’s president and chief executive Paul Mangiamele in a statement. “We have many incredible events planned, both in our restaurants and on our social media sites, which will give us the perfect opportunity to put our ‘Irish Hospitality’ on full display.”

The 14-unit Fado Irish Pub & Restaurant chain, several units of which operate under the Tigin name, is sponsoring an all-day celebration with the motto “can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning.” Several units also conducted pre-St. Pat’s weekend celebrations under the banner “St. Practice Day.”

McFadden’s Restaurant and Saloon’s Chicago location also has a “St. Practice Day” warm-up on the March 10 weekend and, on March 17, a $30 per person “Kegs ‘n’ Eggs” special from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., featuring green beer and a breakfast buffet.

The event will be broadcast on FM radio all day and features a stilt walker, a leprechaun and other events, such as body painting and contests, a McFadden’s spokesperson said.

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Chains Practice Premium Positioning

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Recent chain menu research and development has been heavily influenced by a trio of “-zations.” Customization allows patrons to mix and match meal components to suit the dining occasion. Miniaturization lets them control both calorie content and check size by means of creative small plates, bar bites and tiny treats. And premiumization provides customers with an affordable luxury, an indulgence that delivers superior value at a popular price point.

Premiumization, in particular, has picked up steam over the past few years. While the phenomenon predates the recession, it has developed into a reliable marketing tactic to convince cost-conscious consumers to treat themselves.

Premium proteins. Meat is both a major cost center and a focal point of operator upgrades. Protein wars have broken out across the industry, and the burger business has become a bit of a battleground.

In 2007, Jack in the Box jumped in with the first 100-percent-sirloin burger offered by a major chain. Angus beef soon became a flashpoint, and while a number of competitors like Back Yard Burgers already offered the product, it was the national rollout of McDonald’s Angus Third Pounders in 2009 that raised the bar on consumer awareness and expectations.

California-based Ruby’s Diner picked up the gauntlet with a promotional Kobe burger that has since been supplanted by pasture-grass-fed, all-natural USDA choice beef.

Sandwich specialist Arby’s pulled off a major coup last year with new Ultimate Angus items made with Angus beef that the chain roasts to medium rare. It was a breakout move in line with Technomic Inc. research that shows about two-thirds of consumers believe that beef or pork products with premium descriptors actually taste better.

The seafood segment has seen similar enhancement, led, not surprisingly, by Red Lobster’s aggressive promotions such as the recurring Lobsterfest. Lobster represents a gold standard that appears regularly in limited-time offerings, including Rubio’s Langostino Lobster Tacos and T.G.I. Friday’s Langostino Lobster Topped Premium Entrees.

The ultimate in protein nirvana may be Outback Steakhouse’s Steak & Seafood Mixed Grill, an up-market mashup of land and sea that puts sirloin steak, shrimp and scallops on the same plate.

Premium peripherals. Other parts of the menu have provided equally fertile opportunities for upscaling. The premium ingredient category is especially active, as at IHOP, where crêpes are topped with Italian chocolate-and-hazelnut sauce, rather than generic chocolate. Wendy’s broke new ground by putting sea salt atop its French fries, while fast-casual Smashburger upped the ante with fries tossed with shaved Parmesan and truffle essence.

Truffles also figured in Romano’s Macaroni Grill’s seasonal Parmesan-Crusted Veal Chop finished with truffle demi-glace, and Butternut Asiago Tortellaci crowned with truffle cream.

Side dishes are really ripe for rehab, and though much of the focus has been on French fries, premium touches appear elsewhere. Good examples include Rock Bottom’s red-ale rice, Smashburger’s flash-fried asparagus spears and Houlihan’s peanut-ginger slaw.

High spirits. The addition of alcohol elevates the image of any dish, and corporate chefs have broken out the bottles in a wide range of applications.

Especially notable is the use of grape varietals to replace the previous, one-size-fits-all “red wine sauce.” Olive Garden braises short ribs in Chianti, and Panera Bread drizzles its Steak & Blue Cheese Chopped Salad with a Cabernet reduction. California Pizza Kitchen offers a Champagne vinaigrette, while Rock Bottom’s dessert list includes rum-butter sauce and stout fudge.

Bourbon has received a boost of late, driven in part by its affinity with both barbecue and burgers. To address that compatibility, Red Robin offered a bourbon-glazed beef patty in its Bacon Swiss Burger holiday promotion. Patrons over 21 could also add a shot to their Gingerbread Shake. Also at year’s end, T.G.I. Friday’s featured rib-eye and salmon marinated in a house-made whiskey brine.

Looking ahead, consumer expectations have nowhere to go but up, as operators have trained diners to expect premium touches. Taco Bell recently began testing higher-end items like corn salsa and seasoned white rice to better compete with fast-casual phenomenon Chipotle, and Wendy’s is also in test with burgers dubbed Black Label, a name that evokes the glamour and exclusivity of good Scotch.

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Regulation Nation

Monday, March 5th, 2012

In late January, attorney Matthew Deffebach was in the middle of three trials involving the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and he says he expects that number to grow.

Deffebach, a partner with Haynes and Boone LLP, heads up the law firm’s OSHA practice in Houston, a vantage point from which he has seen the federal agency ramp up its enforcement efforts in the past few years.

While OSHA once focused on blue-collar industries, its sights have expanded to include more retail and other service businesses, including restaurants, he said. And a pending rule that would require employers nationwide to create Injury and Illness Prevention Programs could mean even more scrutiny from OSHA investigators, with the potential for legal actions.

“That regulation would be a game changer,” Deffebach said, “because it would require employers to have an ongoing, investigative, preventative process in place instead of being reactive [and addressing problems after an accident occurs].”

Often referred to as I2P2, the new rule would require employers to identify and address potential problems before injuries occur, with the goal of reducing the number and severity of workplace injuries and the costs associated with them, according to OSHA officials.

“OSHA believes that workers will be better protected if each employer develops a proactive program to help them find hazards in their workplaces and develop a process to fix those hazards so that employees don’t get hurt,” the agency wrote in a white paper issued in January.

That same white paper noted that although the number of workplace deaths and injuries has dropped by 60 percent in the four decades since OSHA was created, the numbers still remain high. Twelve workers die daily, which translates to almost 4,500 deaths a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, more than 3.3 million workers suffer serious work-related injury or illness annually. Together, deaths and injuries cost about $1 billion a week, OSHA said.

Thirty-four states already have some type of Illness and Injury Prevention Program in place, and 15 states have mandatory programs affecting all or select employers, including California, Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

Fatality rates in California, Hawaii and Washington, where prevention programs are in effect, were almost 31 percent below national averages in 2009, OSHA noted in its white paper. And the agency estimates that a federal program could reduce injuries by 15 percent to 35 percent for employers who do not now have safety and health programs, saving $9 billion to $23 billion per year in workers’ compensation costs, respectively.

In May 2012, OSHA published its proposed I2P2 rule, noting that it would address:

• Management duties, such as establishing policies, allocating resources and communicating roles and responsibilities

• Employee participation in establishing, maintaining and evaluating the program 

• Hazard identification and assessment

• Hazard prevention and control

• Education and training

• Program evaluation and improvement.

In short, I2P2 would require employers to assess their work processes, identify potential hazards, and correct or minimize those hazards, Deffebach explained. But while such a process is well and good for a manufacturing facility where processes and employees remain relatively unchanged for long periods of time, restaurants are different, he said.

“What happens when a new mixer is brought into the kitchen?” he asked, noting that restaurant employers could spend an inordinate amount of time assessing potential hazards and training employees — many of whom are young and speak different languages. 

“The biggest concern for the restaurant and service industries is they have a lot of … employee turnover,” he said. “It’s very different than if I run a plant and make something. The way I do it is not going to change dramatically, so it’s easier to create a catalog of processes. It’s an administrative nightmare for restaurants and retail.”

That prospect has government and many businesses locking horns. After OSHA published its proposed I2P2 rule in May 2010, it conducted five stakeholder meetings that same year, one each in Dallas; East Brunswick, N.J.; and Sacramento, Calif.; and two in Washington, D.C.

Up for debate was the scope of the rule, including what industries, business sizes and hazards it should apply to, as well as how it should be organized and regulated.

OSHA summarized the meetings as having “spirited discussion” between those in favor of the new rule and those who urged the agency to work with regulations already on the books.

“Other disagreements included whether a new law should cover all businesses or exempt smaller employers, the efficacy of mandating management/employee committees, the value and best implementation of a record-
keeping component, and, finally, what the economic impact of a rule would be,” OSHA officials said in a written statement.

The agency is expected to release a proposed rule this month, and then will gather comments from small businesses during the small business review process before issuing a formal proposal, Deffebach said. After that, a comment period and public hearings will follow.

In all, OSHA officials said it’s likely that a final rule won’t be published until mid- to late 2013.

Deffebach noted that the agency is being smart in making sure that the eventual rule can withstand legal challenges. And, of course, a change in administration could scuttle the I2P2 efforts completely. 

In the meantime, he advised that restaurant employers who aren’t already focusing on safety issues would be wise to start. Even as I2P2 wends its way through the regulatory process, employers should begin assessing hazards and training employees how to avoid injury.

“If OSHA comes in and realizes that an employer isn’t even trying, then investigators and lawyers will look on them as a bad actor,” he said. “Those kinds of employers could end up in a bad place with the agency.”

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