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The week’s 5 head-spinning moments

Chef, restaurateur, tech-head?

As if operating a kitchen or dining room weren’t enough, restaurateurs are getting into the tech business.

This week brought news of Robert Irvine’s partnership in an Austin, Texas-based start-up called Humm, which promises to elicit feedback from nine out of 10 customers by offering to collect it at the table. Irvine is no stranger to tech, both as a user and as a spokesperson for companies like Comcast.

The “Restaurant: Impossible” star is hardly alone in lending his name and dollars to a piece of restaurant technology. AJ Gilbert, CEO of Luna Park operator AJacks Restaurants, has launched an inventory-control and costing app called Chefsheet.

Among the investors in Venga, a reservations management system, are Jose Andres and the co-founder of the Lemonade fast-casual chain, Brad Zion.

Apparently the restaurant vets have spotted or created a product they view as well suited to the needs of restaurateurs, based on their personal experiences.  Expect to have your head turned by more affiliations of big-marquee names with upstart tech products. After all, that was how OpenTable got its start.

Sour news indeed

Germ-o-phobes were in need of a neck brace this week after having their heads spun by reports from HuffingtonPost and other media about the lemon slices many restaurants add to glasses of water for flavor and visual appeal. The stories recounted how researchers found the slice of citrus to be a veritable Petri dish of harmful bacteria; 70 percent of the samples surveyed were contaminated with health-threatening pathogens.

Lost in all the hand wringing was a crucial fact: The report that served as the basis for the last flurry of coverage was published in 2007. Huff Post cited the research in its response to present-day queries from consumers.  The data is too ancient to serve as a reliable weather vane for smart chains.

Some stories cited follow-up studies that confirmed those findings. But the bulk of those follow-ups were conducted no more recently than 2012. Heads spun for no reason; the data was old.

Plastic? Fantastic! So’s the dough.

Once again, Starbucks’ release of its most recent financial performance proved to be a leading cause of whiplash. Headlines focused on the chain’s acknowledgement that it was losing traffic in mall locations to online shopping; fewer people were stopping for a latte after popping into a Gap or Abercrombie & Finch because they’re more often clicking on an online catalog and having the products shipped to the house.

The more analytical coverage noted that consumers activated 2 million Starbucks cards per day in the run-up to Christmas, raising the total money loaded onto the electronic wallets to $1.4 billion. That’s business waiting to be transacted.

Presumably, many of those dollars will be spent on Starbucks’ new bakery line, which are provided by the company’s popular Bay Area bakery-café, La Boulange. The third of the Starbucks system that switched to La Boulange-branded products saw sales of items like buns and croissants double.

The news that wasn’t

To my knowledge, Bob Evans Farms is the only publicly owned restaurant chain to have alerted investors that frigid weather in many parts of the country is icing profits.

The family chain said about a week ago that recent severe chills in the Midwest and Northeast had ice-axed more than $3 million off sales projections for the current quarter. The cold also drove up costs by an unanticipated $1 million to $1.5 million, though the nature of the expenditures wasn't disclosed.

The real head-turner here: Where’s everyone else’s alerts? Certainly any chain operating in Atlanta this week had to be adversely and severely affected (except, perhaps, for Taco Bell, which served as a makeshift dormitory for truckers who were stranded on the road, according to news reports.) Look for those weather-damage reports to come in a flurry in the next few weeks.

Who’s eating Chipotle’s veggie item

Sofritas, the vegan item Chipotle Mexican Grill tested in Bay Area stores, now accounts for 3 percent of sales in the 40 percent of the system that now has it on the menu, co-CEO Steve Ells revealed this week. “What’s exciting is that about 40 percent of the Sofritas that we sell are being ordered by people who normally eat meat,” said Ells. He noted that the product will be rolled into more stores as the chain secures larger supplies of the dish’s main ingredient, an organic tofu.

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