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This week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Damnedest things heard online

There’s no surer way to induce a near-lethal case of whiplash than by following the snark consumers fling around the internet about restaurants. Even eavesdropping on what restaurants say about themselves is a veritable prescription for a neck brace, as some of this week’s online utterances attest.  Starbucks by itself had heads spinning like Linda Blair’s.

1. A $5,000, solid-gold Starbucks gift card? Really?

But of course. How else do you follow a $200 sterling-silver card that sells out in minutes, as Starbucks proudly informed members of its loyalty program in an email? A $200 gift card, which comes loaded with just $50 in Starbucks credit, is so Great Recession. The new 10-karat wallet card is a bauble worthy of an oil sultan, though even he can only buy it on Craigslist (and likely with considerable help from sketchy lawyers; each one is personalized.) Starbucks is having only enough gold milled to form 14 cards, and each will be given away as a sweepstakes prize, not sold.  A winner not only gets a chunk of precious metal to slip next to the Visa and Amex, but a free Starbucks food or beverage everyday for the next 30 years.

So why should other restaurateurs care? Because a trend is solidifying of restaurants using over-the-top awards of free food to generate buzz, a relatively easy task in the age of the internet. Olive Garden offered a seven-week pass. A number of other chains have joined Chick-fil-A in waiving some customers’ charges for a year. Clearly, to get attention with that noise escalating, you have to offer something really out there. For less than $70,000 ($5,000 X 14) in material costs, Starbucks is delivering.

2. How many items? Generating how much in sales?

A menu that once fit on a tidy small board behind the counter, listing a handful of drinks and maybe a baked treat or other edible, has grown into a 255-item bill of fare at Starbucks. Ironically, that head-turning bit of trivia came to light in a Wall Street Journal story on the benefits of simplifying menus, a current known to anyone on the chain side of the business today.

Starbucks apparently missed that addendum to the playbook. The Journal picked up the 255 tally from Howard Penny, a longtime restaurant analyst now with Hedgeye Research. Penny indicated that the menu of a typical Starbucks has expanded by 41 percent in five years.

The expansion reflects at least in part the mounting efforts of the coffee concept to become a full-fledged restaurant that’s merely noted for its coffee. Thursday it went the furthest yet, brazenly pledging to double food sales to $4 billion in five years. The drivers will be everything from small plates served at night to more snacks, sandwiches and baked goods.

3. Aw, that’s okay. Bloat happens.

Contrast Starbucks’ bullish menu attitude with the confessional stance taken by the Native Foods fast-casual chain this week in an email to loyalty club members. “We’ve got some apologizing to do,” read the subject line.

The communication proceeded to explain that the vegetarian chain had gotten carried away during its last menu update and had annoyed customers with the scope of change. It acknowledged that the complaints couldn’t be missed. So it’s coming back with a new menu that restores some old favorites while apparently paring back some of the recent additions.

4. You did say butcher, right?

Funding was secured this week for what sounds like a hip new addition to the Minneapolis restaurant scene. No big deal, right? But the place will feature only vegan food. And a butcher shop.

Not that any real meat will be butchered. In a dab of marketing ingenuity, a brother and sister have decided to open a place called The Herbivorous Butcher, where only meat analogs will be prepared, served and carved for at-home kitchen use. The ploy already snagged a mention on The Tonight Show and a story from Food and Wine. And it doesn’t open until April.

5. Finally, a wrong is righted.

The restaurant, one of the most famous in America, shares her surname. But Ella Brennan, the 89-year-old grand dame of the New Orleans dining scene, hadn’t set foot in Brennan’s for 40 years, since she managed the place. It had been in the family for almost 30 years before that, and along the way Brennan invented Bananas Foster, which would soon become a world-famous signature of the landmark.

But it was indeed a family business, and the various factions involved had a falling out in 1974. If there was ever a cautionary tale about the difficulties of running a family-owned restaurant, this was it. The strife was the stuff of novels, and played out very publicly, splitting two branches of the family tree for decades.

But now another bough of the family, one-time Brennan’s prep cook Ralph Brennan, has reopened the restaurant, generating media coverage and interest far beyond New Orleans. One tidbit to emerge was the attendance of the grand opening by his aunt, Ella.

Another head-spinning morsel: $20 million was invested in the restaurant, a testament to the near-bankable ROI of a reclaimed world-famous name.

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