It just couldn’t happen—or so intense observers of the restaurant business might have thought. Yet developments this week underscore the foolishness of regarding the improbable as downright impossible, from In-N-Out loosening up its development strategy to Wendy’s using truffles. Mix in a little-noticed success in unionizing fast-food restaurants, top it off with another public relations gaffe by Chipotle, and you have a truism worthy of tattoo treatment: Never doesn't always mean forever.
Here’s the proof.
1. Is In-N-Out going big city?
That’s what some media reported after the usually tight-lipped chain issued a teasing statement this week about future development.
Forgive them and the legions of Double-Double maniacs for thinking the fogies running In-N-Out were opening the throttle a bit. Clinically, the condition is known as “wishful thinking.” Snails seem like speed demons in comparison with the retro burger chain’s plodding expansion. A hint at opening in major cosmopolitan cities, starting with London, was the equivalent to hardcore fans of discovering 10 lost Beatles albums—sans Yoko Ono.
But here’s the far less exciting reality. The chain opened a pop-up restaurant in a less-than-prime area of London for a single day. Although the outlet wasn’t scheduled to open until 11 a.m., a queue started forming at 8 a.m. By 11, people were given wristbands and told to come back later for their burgers and fries.
The turnout prompted speculation that In-N-Out would have to open in the capital of coolness. The chain said no, but in a manner that had hopes leaping.
“We do not have any immediate plans to open permanent restaurants there,” VP of Marketing Carl Van Fleet said in a statement, “but these special events will help us make future decisions.”
2. “Don’t say ‘animal style’!”
Meanwhile, back in the United States, a group that feels excluded from the In-N-Out cult is taking action this week to claim its rights. A group called the Good Food Institute is asking visitors to Change.org, a popular political activism website, to sign a petition demanding the addition of a veggie burger to In-N-Out’s menu.
“In-N-Out has been letting its fans down by failing to serve anything that would satisfy a burger-loving customer who wants a healthy, humane, and sustainable option,” notes the GFI.
The chain may be more likely to open in Timbuktu first. Expansion has been a carnival thrill ride compared to the pace of In-N-Out’s menu changes. The menu stands at four items, excluding beverages. Twenty years ago, it stood at four items, excluding beverages (though then, a diet soda wasn’t on the bill of fare.)
3. Chipotle’s mixed message on food safety
An article in The New York Times must have brought tears of joy to the eyes of Chipotle executives. Coming as the chain mounted a major communications effort to reassure the public about the safety of Chipotle’s food, the story validated management’s assertions that powerful new safeguards have been put in place.
It opened, for instance, with an account of how unit-level employees are now required to wash their hands every 30 minutes, one of the operational changes made by the chain’s new executive director of food safety, James Marsden. The article underscored that Marsden is to food safety what LeBron James is to pro basketball. Indeed, he is regarded as the scourge of foodborne germs.
Unfortunately, the photo illustrating the story showed how readily sanitation basics can be slighted. The picture shows Marsden standing in the kitchen of a restaurant, food prep clearly underway, without a hat or hair net on his head. His ungloved hands are resting on a stainless steel table where a cilantro and onion mix has apparently just been prepared. Fortunately, the employee who’s scraping the mix into a container has his hands covered to avoid direct contact, as many sanitation experts advise.
In Marsden’s defense: He’s not actually handling any food.
4. In a fast-food kitchen?
Not so long ago, putting bacon or cheese on french fries was a daring move for mainstream restaurant chains. Now, according to reports that came to light this week, the big-market brands are trying ingredients that could have come right from Thomas Keller’s kitchen.
Wendy’s, for instance, is reportedly experimenting with truffles and truffle oil. A truffle bacon cheeseburger and truffle fries are in test within at least two markets.
Meanwhile, CNBC confirmed that McDonald’s is trying pesto as a flavoring. The minced basil is being used on a Mozzarella Melt burger that also sports kale and baby spinach. It sells for $4.99.
5. Oh, yes—it can happen here
One of the week’s more sobering developments was the news from Canada that a KFC-Taco Bell combo unit had been unionized. Sure, the rules for organizing employees are different up north, but the Workers United Canada Council said it prevailed because the store used a card-check voting system, a setup that’s been repeatedly proposed for the United States. If that approach is ramrodded through, it’s reasonable that U.S. restaurants might face the same fate.
With the card check system, all an employee has to do to bring in union representation is sign a membership card. In the Canadian province of Manitoba, if two-thirds of the staff signs the card, the business has to recognize the union as the party that will bargain on employees’ behalf for wages and benefits.
Who does or doesn’t sign the card is not kept secret, as a ballot is. Opponents have voiced fears that employees won’t be protected from bullying by pro-union co-workers, since everyone’s vote, so to speak, is public.
The threshold is also far lower. In the case of the Canadian restaurant, only 19 employees had to agree to sign.
The voting mechanism wasn’t the only aspect of the situation that should be familiar to U.S. restaurateurs. The labor group that will represent the store’s 28 employees is the Canadian arm of the Workers United, which claims to represent 140,000 workers elsewhere in North America.