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TrendWire, November 2011

The Food Channel Trendwire
November 2011 •
IN THIS EDITION
  • School Lunch Quiz: Is Pizza Really a Vegetable?
  • Chipotle Founder’s New Asian Adventure
  • Vending Gets Meaty

School Lunch Quiz: Is Pizza Really a Vegetable?
In these days of low approval ratings for the U.S. Congress it’s no surprise that our government representatives have been getting hammered in the press for the recent school lunch legislation passed earlier this month. Specifically, the lawmakers came under fire for the bill’s designation of pizza as a vegetable.

Congress has since been pilloried in all media, with political pundits, late night talk show hosts and Saturday Night Live all taking shots at the pizza-as-vegetable concept.

Right off the bat we should clear something up. The bill does not really declare pizza to be a vegetable. The debate over school lunch guidelines between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Congress was really about potatoes, sodium and tomato paste.



The USDA, supported by the efforts of first lady Michelle Obama and her fight against childhood obesity, proposed new limitations on the use of potatoes on the school lunch line and a reduction in sodium content. The Obama administration also pushed for the serving of more whole grains. Congress effectively blocked or delayed all of those efforts.

In addition, the USDA sought to impose this new stipulation: “Schools would not be allowed to credit a volume of fruits or vegetables that is more than the actual serving size.” In other words, to qualify as a half-cup serving of vegetables, it actually must be a half-cup serving. Seems reasonable, right?

Well, not to the pizza lobby. They pushed lawmakers to continue the guideline that currently gives tomato paste outsized credit. One-eighth of a cup counts as a half cup serving of vegetables–essentially something four times larger.

This then became shorthand in the media as “Congress says pizza is a vegetable.” Okay, not exactly. But what the bill is saying is those couple of tablespoons of tomato sauce on a pizza will still count as a half-cup of vegetables.

This makes it simpler and cheaper for frozen pizza manufacturers, a mega-major supplier to school cafeterias, to qualify for the school lunch program.

The Obama administration guidelines, outlined last January, would have disallowed tomato paste’s extra credit, counting a half cup as a half cup. You’re not going to find a half-cup of tomato sauce on a slice of pizza.

Congress nixed that change. An eighth-cup of tomato paste will still get credited as a half-cup. It’s not saying pizza is a vegetable, it’s saying an eighth-cup of tomato paste (such as that schmear on a pizza) counts as a half-cup of veggies on the school lunch program.

School lunches that are subsidized by the federal government still require no more than one-third of daily recommended value in calories, and fat content must be less than 30 percent. These regulations have been in place for years.

However, according to a 2007 USDA audit, only about 20 percent of schools served meals that met federal guidelines for fat content. Hopefully it’s gotten better in recent years.

The whole “pizza is a vegetable” scenario reminded many of the Reagan-era school lunch controversy around “ketchup as a vegetable,” perceived by some as favoring business interests over children’s health.

The reality is the USDA and Obama administration lost this round to those who want to see fewer government regulations, those who are tired of what they perceive as the growing “nanny state,” of the federal government telling us what we can or cannot do, or can or cannot eat. In this anti-government climate, the result is not all that surprising.

While pizza is not and will never be a vegetable, it still counts as a half-cup serving of them according to federal school lunch guidelines, thanks to that one-eighth cup of tomato sauce on that slice of pepperoni.



Chipotle Founder’s New Asian Adventure
The entire restaurant industry, as well as many investment analysts, was in a heightened state of anticipation last week, eager to check out the latest concept from highly successful Chipotle founder Steve Ells.

Ells’ new concept has taken him a long way from the familiar Mexican territory he’s staked out with Chipotle. Ells is ready now to bring his fast casual style to the fare of the Far East.



This month’s opening of his ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen in Washington, D.C., has produced more excitement in the nation’s capital than anything on the recent political front, at least within restaurant and foodie circles.

Everyone wants to see if Ells’ magic touch will translate into anything approaching the success of his Chipotle chain. Analysts want to see if he can do something even McDonald’s hasn’t yet been able to accomplish: excel in two different restaurant concepts simultaneously.

The concept gets its name from the ShopHouse-style architecture popular in Southeast Asia where the owner and family typically live upstairs above the ground floor restaurant.

In an interview with USA Today, Ells explained that he plans to follow the same “food with integrity” principles that have guided him with Chipotle. Both concepts, he says, are about treating customers, employees, farmers, and animals with respect. “I’d like to change the way Americans think about and eat fast food,” Ells said.

As it is at Chipotle, all ingredients at ShopHouse are natural, some are organic, and the meats are free of antibiotics or added hormones.

Unlike typical Asian restaurants in the U.S., ShopHouse does not have an extensive menu with numerous choices in Column A and Column B. The simple menu offers bowls of beef, pork, chicken, or organic tofu, served with veggies, toppings, and garnish for around 7 bucks. Also offered are sandwiches featuring a choice of meat with papaya slaw, herbs and crushed peanuts for a bit less.

You also won’t find traditional choices like sweet-and-sour pork, wonton soup, or chow mein on the menu. The décor is pretty Spartan, too, with little in the way of Oriental wall décor or props. No chopsticks either.

As with Chipotle, customers move briskly through a cafeteria-style line and are asked for their selections by servers behind the counter. Ells says he acquired many of the recipes during his trips to Bangkok, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

You can take a tour of the D.C. restaurant at QSR Magazine’s website.

There’s certainly lots of opportunity in the Asian dining segment, which at $18.4 billion annually, is nearly as big in the U.S. as its Mexican counterpart.

Of course ShopHouse has a long way to go to catch up with Chipotle, which will open around 145 restaurants in the U.S. this year. The chain now has nearly 1,200 units, including several in Europe.

If all goes according to plan, Ells hopes to open one or two more ShopHouse locations in 2012. And everyone will be watching.



Vending Gets Meaty
Here’s a new concept: real, fresh meat from a vending machine. We’re talking pork chops, steaks and sausages.

The first of these refrigerated vending machines, called the “Smart Butcher,” is now operational and serving up carnivorous selections like those at the Lil Market in Odenville, Ala., a mini-mart near Birmingham.

Using cash or credit cards, customers can buy a 16-ounce tenderloin for $4, a 12-ounce rib-eye for $5 or a New York strip for $6.

The machine has only been in the c-store for a few weeks, but it’s been a hit, according to store manager, Anna Sagani. “We thought we could give it a try,” Sagani said. “We’ve never heard of something like this before.”

There’s only one Smart Machine on the market so far. The machine’s developers, Chase Evans and Rob Harrison, told the Birmingham News that they will plan to expand if the concept succeeds.

The concept of selling fresh meat or seafood through vending machines is successful in Asia, India and some European countries, so Harrison and Evans may have a winner on their hands.

We’re pulling for them.




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