The drumbeat began this week for huge regulatory moves that would leave the restaurant industry doubled over. Even the trade’s most ardent Trump haters would likely take comfort in assuming the chief executive would never allow such anvils to fall on the trade’s head. But four or eight years is a blink when you’re talking about a push for menu labeling for all restaurants, or a mandated steep increase in the cost of sugared sodas.
And those are only a few of the head-turning research results that came to light in recent days. They signal such concerns as another onslaught from food trucks, this time led by price, and a sincere playing of taps for a certain type of restaurant seating.
Read on, helmet firmly strapped in place.
1. Menu labeling for all restaurants?
Menu-disclosure requirements for chain restaurants have yet to take effect, but research published this week suggests health officials should start thinking about spreading the mandate to other types of eating places.
Without an expansion of the scope, calorie counts will be provided by only 17.6% of the nation’s dining choices when the disclosure becomes mandatory in May, according to a new study by Arizona State University. As it noted, the obligation falls only on chain restaurants, not independents.
The availability of that information will also skew toward affluent areas, where residents are more likely than the inhabitants of poorer areas to be aware of sound health practices, the researchers found.
Their recommendation: Reconsider the scope of the FDA’s pending requirements. “Additional strategies are needed to help consumers make healthy choices at restaurants not affected by the menu-labeling law,” concluded the research published in the American Journal of Public Health. “These findings have implications for designing implementation strategies for the law and for evaluating its impact.”
2. A national soda tax?
Another report in the Journal recommends the federal government consider adopting a nationwide tax on sugary beverages, a development right up there with discovering a sinkhole has opened in your parking lot.
A group of researchers studied the impact of soda taxes in places like Berkeley, Calif., and Philadelphia, no doubt drawn by the yelps of local restaurateurs. They concluded that the penny-an-ounce surcharges are effective in discouraging the consumption of calorie-packed drinks, but can easily be evaded by dining and shopping outside town limits.
"Whereas local taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages are rapidly growing in popularity and political acceptance, these do not have the broad effects that a national tax might have," the researchers concluded. They also noted that such a tax appears to be perfectly legal.
It’s not clear whether the data collectors spoke with merchants and lawmakers in Chicago, where a soda tax lasted only four months because of the outcry from consumers, retailers and restaurateurs. The charge was levied on all sweetened drinks, even zero-calorie preparations made with artificial sweeteners. Prices climbed to one of the highest levels in the nation.
3. What customers hate the most about restaurants
Excessive noise has edged out bad service (24% vs. 23%) as the aspect of dining out that’s most loathed by consumers, according to Zagat’s annual survey of restaurant customers. Also on the shame list: crowds (hated by 15%), high prices (12%) and parking (10%).
But the users of Zagat guides apparently have a particularly deep hatred of backless stools, a form of seating that’s been in vogue in recent years. Seven of 10 consumers summarized their attitude by saying “over it,” Zagat reported.
4. Now, driverless food trucks
Not all of the research results came in the form of new data. Consider the toaster on wheels that Toyota unveiled as a fruit of its R&D efforts. Most of the coverage centered on the possibility of using the new driverless vehicles as Pizza Hut delivery wagons. Yet something else Toyota revealed at the unveiling should be of greater concern to the restaurant industry.
The vehicles, Toyota explained, are intended to serve as rolling retail spaces, and not just as pizza haulers. Among the applications it cited as a strong possibility: using the all-automatic contraptions as driverless (and presumably crewless) food trucks.
It cited the hypothetical example of dispatching a fleet of robotic food trucks to the Burning Man festival. Presumably it might drop off a few pizzas along the way.
5. Focus group of one
Sometimes, a large universe of research participants isn’t needed to reach a solid conclusion. We’re able to declare, for instance, that the public sees no need for a $300 Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s.
Our nitty-gritty research: the closing of Denny’s uber-upscale unit in the financial district of New York City. The high-end place looked more like a casual-dining place like a Houston’s than one of the family chain’s usual branches.
The place’s signature menu item was the Grand Cru Slam, or two conventional Grand Slams accompanied by a bottle of Dom Perignon Premier Cru.
It was also one of the few Denny’s units to sport a bar.