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The week’s 5 head-spinning moments: job redefinition edition

There must have been a time when the restaurant business was a simple one. Serve food, charge for it, pay employees and vendors, live off what’s left. With hard work and a minimum of aggravation, you could probably afford a comfortable cave, fashionable pelt wear, and even an occasional round with the clubs, albeit of the sort used to bat away wooly mammoths.

If you doubt those days ended with the Flintstones, consider the aggravations that were foisted on the industry just in the past week. Here are some of the new roles the world tried to press on operators.

Restaurateur as condiment-rights protector

To quote a Fox News headline, “Ketchup ban at Florida restaurant sparks national food debate.” Amazingly, with the world afire in political and military conflict, restaurateurs’ obligations to condiment lovers became a national rights issue.

The flashpoint was a story on the nearly 2-year-old garnish policy of Mad Fresh Bistro in Fort Myers, Fla.The restaurant flatly indicates on its menu that Chef Xavier Duclos is no fan of ketchup, and refuses to provide it to any customer over age 10. He regards it as a bludgeon to the flavors he tries to impart through his cooking.

You’d have thought Duclos had kicked a puppy. Some 1,700 readers weighed in on consumers’ right—not a desire, but a right—to have a condiment they, um, relish. And that led to dozens of additional media reports, which fostered even more debate on the topic.

Clearly there’s a broad swath of the public that feels the modern-day restaurateur has an obligation to stock ketchup and presumably other staples of their home kitchens.

Restaurateur as digital entertainer

One of the week’s head-turning news stories was the little-noticed report that McDonald’s will be ready to accept mobile payments—possibly via a new digital wallet network from Apple—in less than two weeks. Overlooked in the scant U.S. coverage were the other features that might be bundled with the payment system in a new McDonald’s app. One of those additional bells and whistles, according to European reports, is the capability to deliver “music experiences.”

In the Pollyanna language of McDonald’s, that phrase could signify song downloads or an e-radio format like Pandora.

But the chain is not the only restaurant operation that’s diversifying into the entertainment of guests outside of dining rooms. Buffalo Wild Wings turned heads with the announcement this week that it’s adopting a new gaming platform that enables customers to play against one another far the chain’s beer taps. Users can fire away at virtual enemies in-store on tablets; anywhere, on smart phones; and at home or work through desktop computers.

Players can vie for more than glory. Some victors will be rewarded with gift cards redeemable at BWW.

Restaurateur as social educator

Or maybe that’s “economics professor.” Whatever the designation, restaurateurs are using guest checks as a textbook to show customers why they’re paying more for a visit than they might have a year ago.

The most recent restaurateur-turned-educator is The Lucques Group, operator of the Los Angeles hot spots Lucques, A.O.C. and Tavern. The company, the brainchild of renowned chef Suzanne Goin and business manager Caroline Styne, started listing a 3 percent surcharge on guest checks, explaining that the funds were needed to pay for employees’ healthcare coverage.

“Successfully run restaurants generally make between 5-10% net profits so a health care benefit which eats away 3% of gross sales will take away anywhere from 30% to 50% of annual profits for a restaurant,” the company explained in a press release. It considered merely passing along the charge in the form of menu prices increases, but “we’d rather keep our menu costs as an accurate refection of our ingredient prices.”

The money generated through the surcharge will be channeled into an insurance pool fed by other Los Angeles independents. Local media have suggested that those places might levy the charge as well.

They’d join the handful of operators who’ve similarly started listing surcharges for labor expenses like an increase in the minimum wage.

Restaurateur as plain ol’ educator

Starbucks, an operation that has led rather than follow on HR issues like health insurance, is proving employees ascribe a high value to educational assistance. Heads within the industry should have been turned this week by Arizona State University’s disclosure that almost 4,000 Starbucks employees had applied for enrollment in a four-year college degree program funded in part by the chain.

Applicants who are accepted will need 21 college credits, or the equivalent of completing their freshman and sophomore years, before Starbucks starts paying 58 percent of their tuition for online courses. ASU would pick up the remaining 42 percent.

With a degree in hand, employees have no obligation to continue working for Starbucks. The arrangement is seen as a way of engaging employees before they move to positions requiring higher levels of education.

Restaurateur as doormat

It’s a hallowed right of Americans to assemble for the promotion of a cause, be it voting privileges, equal opportunity or economic objectives like higher pay. It’s quite another thing to mount a campaign while issuing threats, even mild ones like the promise of business disruptions and other acts of civil disobedience aimed at restaurants. Yet those warnings were uttered loud and clear earlier in the week by organizers of yesterday’s demonstrations for higher fast-food wages.

Sure enough, the employees of big chains drew the intervention of police by blocking access to restaurants and engaging in what local news reports termed “disorderly conduct.”

Restaurants weren’t accepting of the role that organized labor tried to thrust upon them. According to the latest accounts, almost 450 demonstrators were arrested for trying to turn restaurants into hapless victims, and there were no reports of restaurants having to close or interrupt service.

If there was a head turner of the year, it had to be the audacious boasts of labor organizers that they were going to screw with restaurants.

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