Musings on the Restaurant Industry

Fantastic NYT Op-Ed piece debunking the myth that junk food is somehow cheaper than eating at home. The message here is clear: Americans need to stop making excuses and get in the kitchen. Cooking is cheaper, healthier, and with a little forethought can be just as convenient as driving through McDonald’s. I think this quote from the second page of the article sums things up perfectly:

“Real cultural changes are needed to turn this around. Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating— roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again, and valued not just by hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley. The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.” (emphasis added)

Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?

By: Mark Bittman

Published: September 24, 2011

THE “fact” that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes. I frequently read confident statements like, “when a bag of chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli …” or “it’s more affordable to feed a family of four at McDonald’s than to cook a healthy meal for them at home.”

Daniel Borris for The New York Times

This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)

In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)

Another argument runs that junk food is cheaper when measured by the calorie, and that this makes fast food essential for the poor because they need cheap calories. But given that half of the people in this country (and a higher percentage of poor people) consume too many calories rather than too few, measuring food’s value by the calorie makes as much sense as measuring a drink’s value by its alcohol content. (Why not drink 95 percent neutral grain spirit, the cheapest way to get drunk?)

Besides, that argument, even if we all needed to gain weight, is not always true. A meal of real food cooked at home can easily contain more calories, most of them of the “healthy” variety. (Olive oil accounts for many of the calories in the roast chicken meal, for example.)In comparing prices of real food and junk food, I used supermarket ingredients, not the pricier organic or local food that many people would consider ideal. But food choices are not black and white; the alternative to fast food is not necessarily organic food, any more than the alternative to soda is Bordeaux.

The alternative to soda is water, and the alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food: rice, grains, pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, bread, peanut butter, a thousand other things cooked at home — in almost every case a far superior alternative.

“Anything that you do that’s not fast food is terrific; cooking once a week is far better than not cooking at all,” says Marion Nestle, professor of food studies at New York University and author of “What to Eat.” “It’s the same argument as exercise: more is better than less and some is a lot better than none.”

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Business Week article on Five Guys’ franchising difficulties.

If you’re going to franchise, this is the way to do it: a simple, easy-to-replicate model and a VERY watchful eye on quality control. I love that they bought back the stores that weren’t getting on board with the Five Guys Way: that sort of non-negotiable insistence on consistency over unsustainable profitability is key to long-term success when it comes to a simple model like this one. Clearly this philosophy has proven successful for Five Guys. It will be interesting to see if Danny Meyer is as successful at maintaining this level of consistency and control as he expands his Shake Shack brand across the country. Given his dedication to his empire and his attention to detail, I would expect nothing less!

Behind Five Guys’ Beloved Burgers

Carnivores keep coming back for the authentic vibe as much as the beef, but maintaining it throughout the franchise is no simple task

Five Guys says last year it used enough peanut oil to fill the stream of the Jungle Cruise ride at DisneylandFive Guys says last year it used enough peanut oil to fill the stream of the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland Brian Finke for Bloomberg Businessweek


Jerry Murrell bursts through the swinging glass doors of a hamburger restaurant at a shopping center in suburban Virginia. Van Morrison is rocking through the speakers, and line cooks are shouting orders across the open kitchen. Murrell, 67, who is tall with sporty sunglasses perched atop his bald head, enters as if he owns the place, which he does. The founder and chief executive officer of the Five Guys burger chain approaches the counter, takes his place in line, and makes a show of slipping a crisp $100 bill into the tip jar.

Murrell passes up Five Guys’ regular cheeseburger, which comes with two patties and 840 gluttonous calories, and orders the “Little Burger”—a single patty with lettuce and tomatoes. No cheese or jalapeños, no mushrooms or any of the other 11 free toppings. Not even ketchup. Though he’s proud of the offerings, chosen by his sons who help run the business—“Every little one was a decision,” Murrell says. Today he keeps it simple.

The Murrells realized that while many franchisees clicked with the brand, others never quite got on board. They’ve since bought back around 75 stores and run them themselves. Much of the company’s financing—which includes a $30 million investment from the private equity firm Miller Investment Management and a $100 million line of credit from GE Capital (GE) —is funding the development of corporate stores. “It’s a whole lot easier just to run ’em yourself than to try to convince other people how to do it,” Murrell says.

Back at the Virginia Five Guys, Murrell finishes his food and announces that it’s time to go back to the office for the weekly management meeting with his sons, where the family is debating even more growth. As we hop into his pickup truck he explains, “We’re getting pulled real heavy toward Western Europe.” They’ve already started looking for suppliers and potential business partners. Making the final turn into headquarters, Murrell says that, like other decisions, they’ll only move once everyone’s ready. “All my family has is Five Guys,” he says. “We don’t want to screw it up.”

Weise is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek.

Complete article available at:

CNN Money article on a burgeoning new trend in the ice cream world: liquid nitrogen ice cream. I think there’s huge potential here: the newly-discovered novelty of instant ice cream could be combined w/ the tried-and-true popularity of customizing one’s eating experience to create a fantastic new trend. Especially if this article is correct about this stuff tasting better than ice cream made the old-fashioned way!

But they have to find something better to call it than “liquid nitrogen ice cream.” That just sounds like some kind of crazy science experiment (case in point: the photo below) – NOT something delicious that I can’t wait to get my paws on. Just sayin’.

Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream Beats the Heat and Turns a Profit for Small Business Owners

Faith Holmes, owner of Faithfully Sweet Presents Sweet Freeze, shows how to make liquid nitrogen ice cream.
Summer may be ending but a good scoop of liquid nitrogen ice cream can be enjoyed year-round.

Liquid what?

Liquid nitrogen ice cream. Ice cream makers nationwide are using food chemistry to transform this favorite dessert into a funkier, high-tech, customizable indulgence.

Using KitchenAid mixers tricked out with liquid nitrogen tanks, creameries turn simple ingredients like milk, sugar and fruit into made-to-order ice cream in under a minute. The blend rapidly chills as liquid nitrogen — with a boiling point of -320 degrees — instantly vaporizes in a billowing, Phantom of the Opera-esque fog. When the cloud evaporates, the ice cream is ready.

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When Pret a Manger opened up its first DC outlet across the street from my office a couple of years ago, I was immediately intrigued by the concept.  I’m constantly in search of outlets that sell minimally processed, fresh food; and I’m constantly saddened by how difficult said outlets are to find. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not one of these salad-toting veggie aficionados that seem to fill the yoga studios that have popped up on every corner these days. But I still have a solid appreciation for what I refer to as “real” food – not processed, made recently, subject to an expiration date, with origins reasonably traceable to the ground. The simple fact is, it just tastes better. (And it’s better for you, of course.)  And that applies to bread and cheese as much as it does to things green and leafy.

As such, I really am a big fan of Pret’s food philosophy:  “Pret creates handmade, natural food, avoiding the obscure chemicals, additives and preservatives common to so much of the ‘prepared’ and ‘fast’ food on the market today.”  Their execution isn’t always what I would hope (i.e. their coffee has always been too bitter for my taste, and their sandwiches can be a bit dry and VERY overpriced.) And I think they should re-examine the “hotbox'” that they keep their baked goods in. While I think the idea is genius with regard to their croissants and muffins, their cookies get dried out pretty quickly in there.  All that said, their croissants are among the best I’ve had in America, without question.

The NYT article  below does a great job of discussing another unique aspect of Pret’s operations: their employee culture. The company is taking great strides to train its employees in their new brand of hospitality – one that I’m a big fan of.  With unique approaches to employee training and rewards, and a strong emphasis on teamwork and customer service, Pret seems to have succeeded in creating a refreshing environment for employee and customer alike.

As this British chain continues to make its mark in the US market, I can only hope that other “fast food” establishments will start to take a few pages out of its book. I for one would love to see its fresh (pun fully intended) approaches to food and service mimicked throughout the American foodservice industry, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Would You Like a Smile With That?

Hazel Thompson for The New York Times

To cut down on waiting time for customers, many cash registers line the main counter of a Pret a Manger store in London.


August 6, 2011

SOMETHING weird is happening inside a Pret a Manger sandwich shop on Broadway in Midtown Manhattan.

It’s not all those quirky British sandwiches, thin and understated with ingredients like free-range egg mayonnaise and avocado-and-pine-nut filling.

No, it’s the employees. The cashier is asking New Yorkers how they are doing — and genuinely seems to want an answer. The guy who is throwing out the garbage offers customers a cup of water. The manager swings by to commiserate about the sweltering weather.

This is fast food? In Manhattan?

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The NYT recently did a fantastic spread on my favorite restaurateur, Danny Meyer. I’m going to keep my comments short b/c the article really does a much better job of capturing him than I can (and it’s rather lengthy). But I will say that I find his energy, ambition, innovativeness, and especially his unique and determined approach to hospitality all incredibly inspiring. (And yes, working for his empire at the strategic level would definitely be a dream job.) I’ve been a fan of his for years now, ever since I was gifted his book “Setting the Table” by one of the people who know me best in this world.  She could not have chosen a better book for me, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the restaurant/hospitality business.

A Movable Feast: Danny Meyer on a Roll

Published: August 4, 2011

Danny Meyer scaled the subway stairs two at a time, emerged on Lexington and 77th, lengthened his stride and called over his shoulder: “Have I told you about the Meyer Street-Crossing Method? Meyscrom.” He scanned traffic. “Cut off every possible angle without being killed.”

Pieces of Danny Meyer’s empire.

A car whipped by. Another stopped. He sliced off the last 10 feet of 75th Street (“That was a baby jay”) and reached the Whitney museum, home of his newest restaurant, in two minutes.

Meyer — 53, trim, salt-and-pepper hair — greeted me an hour earlier in his Union Square office. It was March, and the branches outside his windows were just beginning to blur green. He stood up from behind a desk, backed by a wall of books (sample title: “The Power of Nice”), took my hand and applied the ideal amount of pressure for the ideal amount of time: a better handshake than any I could recall.

It was 9 a.m., and he was reviewing final edits for “Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook,” a collection of recipes from his four-star restaurant. In the hall, his assistant, Haley Carroll, examined lunch reservations on a computer.

“I’m looking for notable people,” she said. Meyer would spend from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. visiting their tables. A prominent book publisher would be eating at Union Square Cafe. “He’s made 878 reservations and always sits at Table 38.” Onscreen a note said to give him 38 unless someone named Peggy wanted it.

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An interesting article from NPR re: the influence that America is having on French food culture.  I have to say, when I was in France I was really shocked by the prevalence and popularity of American and American-influenced eateries. Don’t get me wrong, the infamous  French pride in their culinary traditions definitely still dominated. But there were a LOT more fast-food burger-type joints than I ever would have expected; even more surprising was how popular they clearly were! And I’m not talking about tourists here. The majority of the clientele that I saw were French. That said, the crowd was pretty much all kids and young adults, so I really think that the shift is happening mainly among the younger generation. The older folks are still firmly set in their epicurean ways, as the French are often wont to be in so many ways, for better or worse. It will be interesting to see if this shift progresses, or if the culinary old-school is able to put a stop to it. I would think that if anyone could resist the charms of McDonald’s, it would be the French.

The French Are Getting Fatter, Too

Restaurants line a street of the Quartier Latin in central Paris.

Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty ImagesRestaurants line a street of the Quartier Latin in central Paris.
 August 6, 2011

Part of an ongoing series on obesity in America.

As the United States struggles to cope with obesity rates, France is often looked to as a counterexample. Yet obesity is on the rise there as well now, and though French culinary traditions are often credited with keeping people trim, some worry those eating habits are under assault.

French obesity rates are still far below those of the United States and other European countries. One might think they would be a lot worse. The shops and outdoor markets are full of pastries, meats and cheeses, and people are always talking about food. It turns out that it’s not only what the French eat but how they eat that seems to make a difference.

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