|June 2012 •|
IN THIS EDITION
Beef Issues Force Restaurants to Get Creative
The recent report of mad cow disease in California, coupled with the flap over “pink slime,” has the beef industry reeling a bit, and the one-two punch to the gut has had an impact on U.S. restaurants.
Record-high beef prices, hovering at around $5 per pound, haven’t helped either.'
Steakhouses have responded by offering new cuts of beef, sometimes doing so with chic-sounding, unfamiliar names like “rib cap.”
The most common new cut being offered in restaurants these days is the flat iron, a tender but relatively inexpensive cut. It is filleted out of the chuck or shoulder to avoid a (chewy) tendon. Another new cut that’s begun to show up on menus is called the Denver Steak, which is also cut from the shoulder.
As noted in the Wall Street Journal, some steakhouses have retooled menus in an effort to make prices more palatable, and some have strayed from the traditional rustic steakhouse décor, transitioning to a more contemporary interior appearance.
Gordon Ramsay’s new Las Vegas steakhouse, Gordon Ramsay Steak, has a décor created to evoke “cool Britannia,” according to the “Hell’s Kitchen” TV celebrity chef. The interior features a Union Jack flag on the ceiling while an up-tempo music beat keeps the energy level high.
"We are all using the same product [beef] and there is only so much you can do," Ramsay told the Journal.
STK is a six-restaurant chain that markets itself as a club-style, female-friendly, “sexy” steakhouse option. STK has a DJ that rocks the house with music most nights, and a menu that offers a range of choices from a smallish filet medallion to a cowboy rib steak for those who are really hungry.
Texas Roadhouse, the number two American steak chain behind Outback Steakhouse, added a $21 bone-in ribeye this year and has recently introduced a 23-ounce porterhouse.
Many steakhouses actually did quite well in 2011. According to Technomic Inc., sales at steak-themed restaurants with waiters grew 3.5 percent last year, while all restaurants with waiters grew at an average rate of 1.8 percent.
Some eateries have reacted to beef’s recent problems by shining the menu spotlight on chicken, according to new data released by market research firm Mintel.
“In addition to the recent health-related issues surrounding beef, and the already high beef prices, we expect restaurants to start focusing their attention on other proteins,” said Kathy Hayden, foodservice analyst at Mintel, in a recent issue of QSR Magazine.
“Steakhouses have been struggling in this rough economy and have tried to compensate by offering smaller cuts or more surf and turf options, but ultimately, chicken menu innovation is giving restaurant-goers a fresh and less expensive option while dining out,” Hayden said.
U.S. menu items with poultry as an ingredient are up an average of 12 percent in the past three years, according to Mintel Menu Insights, with the greatest growth coming from the casual dining segment, and fast casual restaurants. Chicken fingers, the most frequent poultry dish on menus is up 10 percent over that period. Buffalo wings menu mentions are soaring, too—up 19 percent since 2009.
More restaurants are menuing chicken wraps, and using chicken as a snack item with products such as McDonald’s Chicken McBites and Whataburger’s new Whatachick’n Bites. Chicken as a pizza topping is also up more than 25 percent.
"Chicken is a versatile ingredient,” Hayden says. “In the future, you can expect to see it used in more ways, from pulled chicken sandwiches and bowls to more home-styled meals, like pot pies and stews."
The Confusing World of Food Certifications
A recent report on National Public Radio discussed the current mixed bag of food certifications that offer farmers’ and food companies’ promises to be good to the environment, treat animals humanely and/or promote healthy eating.
As more and more people all over the world demand food that’s organic, fair trade, gluten-free, etc., new food certifications pop up in an effort to reassure consumers, restaurants and foodservice companies about these concerns.
In the NPR story, Margaret Henry, director of sustainability and corporate social responsibility performance for foodservice supplier Sodexo, says keeping track of more than 300 certifications is a pain in the neck.
Among the certifications to sort through and issues to deal with are things like cages for chickens, gestation crates for pigs, and genetically engineered seeds.
There are various seals and certifications for animal welfare, energy usage, and whether animals roamed freely—which is somehow different from free-range.
Here are some of the food certifications currently on the market.
(Whew.) And there are many, many more.
Henry admits, “This is my job and I can’t keep them all straight.” She says she has seen “farmers filling out 40 checklists a month for these things.”
What makes matters even worse is that the advocacy groups behind many of these programs often can’t agree on things like what constitutes sustainable beef or fish, or healthy vegetables. Plus, there’s a good deal of competition and one-upsmanship among the certification groups.
Henry says Sodexo is looking into supporting the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which is a group of NGOs like the Rainforest Alliance and The Nature Conservancy, as well as major buyers of beef such as McDonald’s, Walmart and Cargill.
The roundtable is hoping to come up with a new standard for beef production that incorporates social and environmental concerns.
The website Lifehacker.com offers what it calls The Common Sense Guide to “Organic” and Other Food Labels. The site notes that even if one has little interest in food sourcing and handling, “it helps to know what you’re getting when you’re forced to pay more for certain goods.”
Perhaps we’ll reach a point when the government steps in and helps to consolidate this plethora of certification programs into a select few similar to the USDA meat grade system. Maybe then professionals like Margaret Henry and everyday consumers like you and me can figure it all out. We can only hope.
Restaurant Soundtracks Get Sophisticated
Music has been played in restaurants since, well, probably since the first one opened up shortly after the discovery of fire.
Whether it’s a live performance by a pianist or acoustic guitarist, or recorded music played over a speaker system, few would argue that the sound of music generally makes for an enhanced dining experience.
But lately, some restaurants have been fine-tuning their dining room soundtracks, attempting to better match the tastes of their clientele. They’re paying much closer attention to which music tracks best accompany their menu, as reported by Betty Hallock, in a feature story for the L.A. Times.
Restaurateur Bill Chait, the man behind a number of restaurants in Los Angeles (Short Order, Picca, Sotto, and Playa) says music sets the tone for the dining experience. Until the appetizer arrives at the table, “it’s all visual and aural,” Chait says. “People consider the music a demonstration of whether this place is for them.”
Savvy restaurateurs check out what’s on their employees’ iPods, consult with club DJs, and seek out companies that create custom-made playlists that will fit their customers’ demographics.
We’re starting to hear the term “music sommelier” and learning how restaurants endeavor to create a “sonic identity.”
A restaurant catering to a Baby Boomer crowd might want a mix of artists including the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor, while an establishment that has a younger following might feature a playlist with a lineup of acts such as Jack White, Arcade Fire, and Lady Gaga.
Prescriptive Music, based in Woodland Hills, Calif., is one of the companies that creates highly customized playlists. Founder Allen Klevens says sales were up 40 percent in 2011, with more than a third of its business coming from restaurants. Among its clients are Cut in Beverly Hills, and the Umami Burger Chain.
A new Italian restaurant, Gusto, in L.A., is a client of Prescriptive Music. Gusto’s Vic Casanova said he wanted his music “fine-tuned to the roots of my cooking and the space, not just a channel such as Muzak’s “Italian Rock.”
Hoping not to get bypassed in the custom soundtrack trend, Muzak now offers what it calls “micro-genres” as well as the services of media consultants for “a music experience handcrafted at the track level,” according to its website.
“Music has been part of a restaurant-industry transformation,” Hallock writes. “Ever since Mario Batali blasted Led Zeppelin at Babbo in New York and Wolfgang Puck did much the same at Cut, rock-'n'-roll's push into the dining room has been part of the casual-izing of even haute cuisine.
Another L.A. music company, Playlist Generation, uses survey questions to determine soundtrack recommendations for restaurants and other clients. It offers such subgenres as electronic, dream pop, and ethnicity (including Scandinavian, Jamaican, and Japanese), as well as by emotional keywords like “quirky,” “sexy,” and “trippy.” You can also select from specific years or eras.
Does it help business? One study titled “The Influence of Background Music on Restaurant Patrons” claimed that sales increased more than 11 percent when uptempo music was played during lunch. And it’s said that people drink more when loud music is blasting from the speakers.
Next time you enter a restaurant, make a note of the soundtrack being played. Does it fit the place? Does it match your tastes? Or does it sound like your kid’s iPod playlist? And does it make you want to eat and run, or linger over a cup of coffee or after-dinner drink?
Chances are, quite a bit of thinking went into the selection of tunes being played.
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