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This week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Going au naturel

The industry may have just pulled the biggest Rip Van Winkle since, well, Rip Van Winkle.  The last time we checked, restaurant chains were looking at menu concoctions like Cap’n Crunch balls, shake-on French fry flavorings and Fritos chips so large you can fill them with chili meat. Now comes the head-spinning news that Wendy’s is trying organics and Panera Bread Co. is waging a pogrom on additives.

Either we took a multi-year nap or these wicked winters left us cryogenically frozen for a spell.  We dozed off to Frankenfoods and awoke to a farmer’s basket glistening with dew.

Restaurant chains clearly spent the time warp listening to customers and detractors. The most arresting developments of the past week show the business is responding not just by rewriting its menus and recipes, but also in revising how it handles crises that surely would have been magnets for criticism pre-Big Sleep. 

Consider these examples.

1. Panera Bread goes clean

This month the chain will switch to a new generation of “clean” salad dressings. “That means no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives or sweeteners,” CEO Ron Shaich revealed to financial analysts on Thursday. Every dressing currently offered by the café chain will get the cleanup, he indicated.

In the fall, the fast-casual chain will showcase clean proteins, including a new additives-free slow-roasted turkey, carved in stores for sandwiches. “It will be simply turkey with a bit of salt and pepper and olive oil,” Shaich said. He noted that the chain already uses additives-free ham, bacon and sausage.

Panera also intends to reformulate its flat breads so that each contains 15 ounces of whole grains.

2. Wendy’s tries organics

The chain said Thursday that it’s dipping a toe into organics through the addition of green tea, a proprietary blend developed by the Honest Tea retail brand. The tea is made from organic tealeaves that meet the requirements of Fair Trade certification, which means the drink’s prime ingredient is sustainably grown and marketed. The tea is sweetened with organic cane sugar, which many consumers regard as more wholesome than refined white sugar. The new beverage is available in three sizes for about $1.69, $2.29 and $2.69, respectively.

3. Jeni’s model safety response

“We received the call that no ice cream maker, chef or entrepreneur wants,” Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream founder Jeni Britton Bauer says on the 20-unit chain’s website. One pint of ice cream, selected at random in the company’s shipments to its dipping stores and retail customers, showed traces of Listeria.

It could have been a familiar industry story. The operator assures the public its wares are safe, then scrambles to find the cause and rectify whatever lapses made the outbreak possible.

Jeni’s, a cult favorite in the Midwest, took a higher road. It decided to halt all sales and recall every product that was still on the market. Every pint and quart of ice cream, every ice cream sandwich, every container of frozen yogurt, every batch of sorbet. Its dipping shops had no frozen products to sell, all because one pint in one batch of ice cream had been contaminated. And every action was broadcast to customers via the chain’s website, often n personal messages from the CEO.

The chain explained that it would not resume business as normal until it had eliminated every possibility that a guest could get sick.

Meanwhile, it said, employees who lost hours from the closing of the company’s dipping stores would be paid a portion of what they would have made had hours not been cut. It wasn’t ideal, since hourlies would collect only 25 percent of their normal wages, but it at least demonstrated a heart.

The cleanup was still underway at press time.

4. Chipotle gives GMOs the heave-ho

The chain announced this week that it has become the first mass-market feeder in the United States to eliminate all genetically modified organisms from the pantry. That means no GMO spices, flavorings, or other ingredients, period.

Regardless of where you stand on GMOs (full disclosure: I think it’s much ado about nothing), and even if you think a truly principled operation wouldn’t crow about that distinction, you have to admit that the chain is responding to the social awareness and priorities of its clientele. Skepticism aside, it was a laudable response to the public’s demands.

5. Starbucks’ impromptu giveaway party

An operator’s nightmare turned into a pleasant memory for customers because of quick thinking by Starbucks’ line-level employees. When the chain’s POS system crashed last Friday, preventing stores from completing transactions, baristas kept the drinks flowing and customers smiling.  They had no way to ring up a sale and put money in the till, so they just skipped those functions and gave away the drinks—with the full blessing and encouragement of headquarters. What could have been a public relations embarrassment and disaster became the sort of urban tale that’s recounted again and again with delight. And in the age of social media, that means happy customers and priceless marketing.

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