The week’s 5 head-spinning moments

Marketing message of the week

In a refreshing break from restaurant chains’ usual hucksterism ("Act now and get this sandwich for just 99 cents!"), several mass-market brands sounded a message of social responsibility this week in their outreach to consumers.

On its own, each advertising or publicity effort would have rotated heads nary an inch. The neck pivot comes from viewing the freeze-frames in movie mode. Subway announced it would stop bleaching bread with a chemical used to make foam mats and faux leather. Chick-fil-A gave the kowz a day off to crow instead about a shift to antibiotic-free chicken, albeit by 2019. And Long John Silver’s stopped talking like a pirate to speak in an adult voice about a commitment to sustainability.

The Grimace may have to join the Hamburglar in pursuing a life of crime. Food integrity and sustainability are replacing clowns, kings and pigtailed redheads as the hooks for mainstream attention.

'E-commerce mauling malls? Who cares.'

Not every mall-restaurant operator is seeking solace in the aromatherapy shop after witnessing the surge in online shopping last holiday season.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz spun heads when he observed a few weeks back that mall refuelers like his brand saw a thinner stream of consumers outside their entrances during the year-end rush. Would-be customers were clearly forsaking The Gap, Foot Locker and Victoria’s Secret for the ease and comfort of shopping from their desktops, and that hurts, he declared.  But The Cheesecake Factory, another major mall presence, isn’t wincing.

Sure, there’s a symbiotic relationship between a mall and the restaurants it houses, CFO Douglas Benn acknowledged to investors this week. But in Cheesecake’s case, it’s the feeder, not the feed-ee. “We've always brought business to malls versus feeding off of them,” Benn said, according to a transcript posted by SeekingAlpha.com. “We're busy after the mall closes, we are busy with many, many people [from] outside the mall.”

During the same call with analysts, Cheesecake CEO David Overton professed little interest in the technology that’s been embraced by several lower-ticket competitors in casual dining. Texting guests when their tables are ready? Maybe. But tabletop ordering? Don’t bet on it, Overton said.

Policing what’s really housemade? Oui.

Don’t let this get back to kitchen traditionalists who believe there are only two kinds of chefs in the world (French ones and swine), but the birthplace of fine dining may have served up its best culinary idea this week since pomme frites

A bill introduced into the French legislature would prohibit any restaurant from labeling a dish as "homemade" unless it was made on-premise from fresh ingredients. In other words, homemade would no longer be an empty marketing slogan, but a designation of culinary art. The law is viewed as a way of preserving French cooking traditions, or what many natives view as the one true way of preparing food.

A similar convention in the States would help consumers separate the true kitchen craftsmen, even on a chain level, from all the mix-and-plate processors who try to pull off a con by wearing chef’s whites.

Forget a tip-credit freeze

Don’t expect Congress to leave servers’ minimum hourly wage at $2.13, as it has for almost 18 years. Or at least that was the most gulp-worthy speculation to leak out of Capitol Hill this week.

Lawmakers privy to their leaders’ thinking said the strongest advocates of a $10.10 pay floor are just as determined to raise the lowest legal pay for waiters and waitresses to about $7 an hour, or 70 percent of the lowest legal pay for employees who don’t count on gratuities for the bulk of their take-home.

The cost of a clean-up

Redemption is costly, as disgraced restaurateur and TV star Paula Deen can attest.  As numerous gossip rags reported this week, the Deep South queen has landed a $75-million investment to strengthen her food-focused media company.

Why should restaurateurs care? Not all executives in the business are without sins of their own. There will be at least two attendees at the Restaurant Leadership Conference who served time for infractions. But the bigger lesson is remembering how damaging a slip of the tongue can be, financially and career-wise. Just ask the CEO of AOL.

As for Deen, she should have gone halfsies on the clean-up effort with Justin Bieber.


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