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The week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Fear and loathing edition

Fear viral threats—and bacterial ones that go viral.

An axe-toting guest in a hockey mask would be less of a fright to restaurant fans today than health authorities’ suspicions that a favorite haunt might be a dicey place to eat. Experienced restaurateurs regard either possibility as remote at worst, even during a full moon. But after events of the past week, they may want to reassess.

Among the establishments that recently prompted scrutiny, and outright shutdowns in two instances, were some of the best-known and most respected names in the business: Thomas Keller’s Per Se in New York, a Shake Shack in New Haven, Conn., and the current grand basilica of foodie-dom, Dominique Ansel Bakery, better known as the cradle of the CroNut craze.

Keller went to court to overturn a “C” sanitation rating for his high-end place, where you can easily drop three or four hundred a head for dinner—if you managed to score a reservation. This week, he won a reversal of 25 demerits for infractions like improperly storing cloths used for cleaning, and not posting the place’s previous “A” grade in a conspicuous place.

Seventeen sanitation-rule violations were upheld upon repeal, meaning Keller may not score as highly in food-safety tests as he does in reviews by the most august food critics and restaurant guides. Those no-no’s include allowing chefs to drink water at a spot in the kitchen where the ice water or coffee could spill onto a food prep area, and leaving out potatoes to soak up vinegar in the French prep method.

At least Per Se stayed open. New York’s all-in-black set felt the earth shudder beneath their Merrills when authorities shut Ansel Bakery after a video surfaced of a mouse roaming the kitchen, no doubt scrounging for CroNut crumbs. The closing was brief, much to the delight of fans, with an exterminator dispatched as soon as the health inspectors left; the re-opening made the day’s top headlines on the local CBS radio affiliate. The media has dubbed the situation Mouse Gate.

The intense coverage noted that four health inspectors descended on the bakery after the video went viral. At least they weren’t wearing hazmat suits, as was the cleanup crew that could be seen through protective plastic barriers quarantining the Shake Shack in New Haven. Its three-day shutdown was voluntary, according to the local health department, though officials noted that a post-scrub down inspection was required before patties hit the grill again.

Management said it decided to shut and sanitize the restaurant after a single employee showed flu-like symptoms. That excuse struck some fans in the Twittersphere as flimsy, if not ridiculous. They posted their doubts in 140-character installments that came at a rapid clip during the shutdown.

But the social media din didn’t hurt business, according to the local media and the restaurant itself. Post-opening, customers were once again lining up, as they were at Ansel Bakery, where patrons are limited to two CroNuts each. There were no reports of fewer platinum cards being flashed at Per Se, though Keller says he’s going to continue fighting City Hall.

Perhaps not coincidentally, New York’s City Council took up a proposal this week to phase in the use of video cameras by sanitation inspectors to document health code violations.

Losing moms’ love

Never mind unsafe cranial rotation. Hearts were likely shattered this week when the Pew Research Center revealed that far more mothers today are forgoing careers outside their homes to assume more traditional responsibilities as a parent, like cooking dinner. Moms’ love of restaurants, a romance fueled by the need to have someone else prepare the meals of a two-wage-earner family, could finally be cooling. 

The rise of the two-income household was the dynamic that transformed the restaurant business into what it is today. Once, and not that long ago, dining out was a treat reserved for special occasions. With Mom and Dad both working, and more money coming into the home, restaurants became a timesaving utility, serving up quick, reasonably priced meals that could be eaten wherever the parents’ wanted. 

Pew found that the social phenomenon is clearly reversing. In 1999, fewer than one in four moms, or 23 percent, stayed home instead of working. By 2012, the proportion of stay-at-homes had climbed to 29 percent. Because of the huge numbers involved, a six-point swing is enormous.

Fear not the roller dog

Restaurants may be feeling a headwind in family dining, but at least there’s an easing of pressures on the grab-and-go front. New research suggests the industry is blunting competition from a business that has been looking increasingly like a fast-food restaurant in recent years, albeit with the added draw of condoms: the convenience store.

Food service sales at c-stores downshifted last year to a growth rate of 2.4 percent, compared with the 9 percent increase clocked in 2012, according to NACS, the trade association for c-stores. The sector might have even lost ground to quick-service restaurants in hot beverage sales, with c-stores’ intake falling 4 percent.  

Loathe the lunacy

The bad news is that groups with a cause are once again eying themed restaurants as a way of selling their message in what they mistakenly view as a sly approach. Remember when the National Rifle Association announced plans to open a shooting-themed eater-tainment outlet in New York City’s Time Square? Or Colors, the restaurant that was opened elsewhere in Gotham by the union-like Restaurant Opportunities Center?

The worst news is the group that was looking this time to turn a restaurant into a propaganda tool: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, traditionally one of the business’ shrillest critics. It revealed intentions to buy the childhood home of cannibal and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and turn it into a vegan restaurant called Eat for Life: Home Cooking. The residence in Bath Township, Ohio, was the scene of the first of Dahmer’s 17 known murders.

Local authorities balked at the conversion, prompting PETA to backtrack and withdraw its plan. It walked away without a restaurant, but with a trove of media clips generated by the gambit.

Fear not a lack of tire-kickers

Consumers’ interest in Sbarro has waned enough to push the mall-concentrated pizza chain into bankruptcy, but prospective buyers are a different story. After the 800-unit operation was put on the auction block, 3 suitors reportedly came forward to start their due diligence.

Initial bids are due Monday.

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