Just when you thought the auto industry was really making some big technological strides with cars that can park themselves, cars that can start themselves, and cars that can drive themselves (keeping Mr. Magoo from doing any further damage), it seems that manufacturers of gadgets that go into cars are the ones getting all the attention. Forget the GPS or DVD player, that’s yesterday’s news when it comes to fully equipping your vehicle with everything you’ll need to get from here to there in comfort, alert, and on a full stomach.
When they came out with an LED display for your vehicle to help you convey your deepest feelings about how the other guy is driving, I was truly impressed. For the longest time I and many other stellar automobile pilots like me longed for a much more satisfying way to let the Sunday drivers in every other car know that they should either walk or hire a chauffeur, and the bumper-mounted paintball gun never caught on with the automakers. The LED middle finger, as it can be, is just the thing to take road rage to a much more manageable and delightful level. This I thought, was the ultimate auto app. I was wrong.
With so many people spending so much more time in their vehicles it only makes sense that we should be able to enjoy more of the comforts of home, and specifically your kitchen, while in your vehicle. Apparently I’m not the only one that thinks so because viola, introducing the Handpresso, an espresso maker for your car, the in-car pizza oven known as the Porta Pizza oven, and the auto french fry holder. Scoff if you will but the revolutionary Handpresso prepares a premium quality cup of espresso right in your car. The handy dandy unit is about the size of an 8 oz thermos and fits nicely into the cup holder of most vehicles. Simply plug the unit into the cigarette lighter (do they still make cigarette lighters?), add some water and a coffee pod, and within mere minutes you will have a fresh brewed cup of espresso, including the creamy foam top that separates the good from the great when it comes to espresso.
The auto espresso maker, in-car pizza oven, and other gadgets like them are just a few of the many food related products now being made for automobiles, but the ideas aren’t necessarily coming from the auto industry. As with many other similar products, more often than not these are the kinds of ideas are going to come from outside of the industry. These products and others like them are truly born from from necessity, small inventors, or small companies that are willing to take a risk on a gadget that involves more out-of-the-box thinking than the automakers care to indulge in, unless it pertains specifically to the construction and reasonable comforts of the vehicle. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t warm quickly to the notion of a nice hot cup of coffee in the car, it’s just that they may not be the first ones to install a Mr. Coffee on the dash of their next line of soccer mom vans.
Industry analysts aren’t surprised by the addition of these sorts of items for the vehicle because people are spending more and more time in their cars, vans, and SUV’s than ever before and they aren’t necessarily driving all the time either. They say that some moms and dads can spend up to five hours driving kids from soccer games and other sporting and recreational events but somewhere along the way they are likely to spend more than an hour sitting in the car waiting to take Junior home or to the next stop in his recreational itinerary. The amount of time that we all spend in our vehicles doing something other than driving is on a steady increase and therefore a few more comforts such as office assistance and perhaps a hot slice and an espresso would seem to be just what the driver ordered.
The in-car pizza oven and the Handpresso are both gadgets that the manufacturer recommends only be used when the vehicle is parked and certainly not when the driver should be paying attention to the road. It only takes a slight bit of imagination to wonder what might happen if while driving, you are pouring out your nice hot cup of espresso when a tractor-trailer veers into your lane and suddenly, while you steer clear of what might be a life-ending event, you end up with steaming hot coffee in your lap. The same warning would also hold true for trying to heat up a slice of pizza while negotiating your way through traffic. Both of these gadgets are best used when you’re pulled over and you and your vehicle are safely out of harms way of the driver you just LED’ed your middle finger to about a mile back.
These all seem like bad ideas. If you want a hot cup of espresso while you’re driving pull into Starbucks or your favorite Italian restaurant. The same goes for a slice of pizza. And while the idea of digitally flipping the bird to any one of the thousands of motorists that probably deserve it is appealing on so many levels, chances are that you’ll get into an accident while trying to program the display or tick someone else off so much that you’ll have a full-blown battle on your hands. I can see making gadgets for the vehicle that provide some comforts but it can go too far sometimes and after all, your car is not a camper.
The restaurant industry, like almost any other retail business group needs to keep things fresh and exciting or risk losing its audience. Of course people always have to eat, and when it comes to Americans, they’ll probably continue to eat out quite a bit considering how many people seem to be so lame in the kitchen that they can’t even muster up a simple, tasty, and nutritious meal for the family without a detailed recipe and video instruction from their favorite celebrity chef. The fashion and apparel industry come out with new clothing lines every season, the vodka, rum, and distillers of other clear booze brands come out with more new flavors every year than there would seem to be flavors to be savored, and when it comes to what’s new in the restaurant industry, which while perhaps more subtle than pink bubblegum whipped-cream vodka, also presents the American dinning public with a few new nutritional and new technology nuances every year or so.
Industry insiders at The National Restaurant Association do a survey every year of what to look for in the restaurant business and their list of “What’s Hot in 2012″ is only now becoming more apparent to restaurant goers throughout the U.S. Why the delay in discovering what the NRA (think Emeril Lagasse not Charlton Heston) has know about for months? Well, for one thing the restaurant business gets pretty slow between New Year’s and the spring. Other than Valentine’s Day, most restaurants will find that winter is their slow season and many will use this time to take a well-deserved rest from the holidays or to prepare for the busier months ahead. Another reason for the American dining public to get a slow start on the fastest movers from the restaurant world is that most people are still trying to see their way around what has been the worst recession in recent memory. No one needs to be reminded that along with a recession comes a definite tightening of the family budget, starting with dining out. However, recent economic news has been much better and the unemployment rate seems to be moving in the right direction so more and more people are finally getting out and finding out what their favorite restaurant has in store for them.
One of the first things that they will discover is that children’s nutrition and local sourcing of food products from nearby growers and producers are the hottest thing in the restaurant business. The NRA study points out that the American Culinary Federation has always proven to be conscious of working with families to put an emphasis on children’s nutrition and that this year that emphasis will be even greater. Local sourcing is also big and a big seller with American consumers, especially those that live in and around a vibrant local restaurant scene – think foodie dominate neighborhood. Local farms and food producers are a big source of ingredients for area chefs, all of whom are only too happy to boast as loudly as they can that their meat, fish, produce, and even some alcoholic beverages come from local producers.
Another item that is all abuzz in the restaurant industry is the use of smartphone apps. From iPads for menus and wine lists to a multitude of uses for social media, pay-at-the-table payment options, and better display monitors and apps for dietary and nutritional information about their meals, chefs and restaurateurs all over the U.S. plan on making good use of new technology this year.
The NRA survey is based on a questionnaire distributed late last year to 1800 member chefs in the American Culinary Federation asking them to rate 223 individual food items, beverages, cuisines, and food trends in order to identify the hottest things in the industry in 2012.
I guess I must be getting old because most of the things cited in the top 20 hottest items in the restaurant industry for 2012 don’t interest me in the least. I’m happy that everyone cares more about what they are feeding their kids but frankly, it’s not the chefs that need to be committed to giving the kids something good to eat, its their parents and I don’t see that happening anytime soon. I’m also happy to hear that more and more restaurants are using local sources for their food products but I’ve always expected that they would do so if the products are available. As for the new tech apps? Eh, just make sure that the food is good and that I don’t have to sell off part of my IRA to pay for it and I’m happy.
Unless you’re a vegetarian, borderline vegetarian, soon-to-be vegetarian, vegetarian-lite or any of the many other suitably named variations of veganismm, you’ve probably enjoyed the sublime pleasure of dining on a properly prepared cut of fine beef. Ask around and you’ll find that among carnivores everyone seems to have their favorite steak and preferred method of cooking and seasoning their slab before it hits the table. From rib eyes and filet mignon to porterhouse and t-bones, steak lovers are as particular about their particular favorite as scotch drinkers are about their favorite blend or single malt. However, these days there are any number of reasons why Americans are being encouraged to limit red meat in their diet; some having to do with pure common sense regarding one’s health but others stemming from particular problems with the way in which beef is raised, processed, and as icky as it sounds, oozed into our diet.
The benefits of protein in our diet are undeniable but as with anything else, too much of a good thing turns out to be a bad thing and such is the case with eating too much red meat. Once considered to be a once or twice a week treat for most middle income families, red meat in general is a much more common part of the American meal throughout the week, and it has been so since baby-boomers could afford to buy more of it. Those who caution against eating too much meat point to rising rates of heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure as just a few of the health problems that have followed hand in hand with Americans eating more red meat on a weekly basis. Red meat, while high in protein content, is also high in fat, and these days, other chemicals that are ingested by, and injected into livestock from the moment of their birth to that fateful day when they take their place in line in the stockyards. Health officials suggest that if you would like to avoid or at least reduce the chances of contracting a myriad of health problems that can follow from a heavy meat and beef diet perhaps it might be best to return to days when meat was served in much smaller quantities, meaning that it is not always the centerpiece of the meal, and much less often.
If you’ve watched the news at all in the past month or so you also get the feeling that beef is in need of a new public relations manager to rescue it’s image a couple of damaging blows stemming from how beef is raised and how it is processed before we eat it; or at least how some of us eat it. Less than one month ago a dairy cow in California was found to have contracted mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a disease which can be passed along to humans and one that like like leprosy or Ebola, can set off a public panic like few others. And while the incidents of mad cow disease in cows and humans is rare to say the least, BSE still has the potential to scare the bejesus out of huge populations in no time at all. It only takes one news account of a cow in nearby food chain contracting mad cow disease to make quite a few former steak lovers consider becoming one of those veganist variations mentioned earlier. There have been no confirmed cases of human mad cow disease in the U.S. to date (called Creutzfeltd-Jakob disease) but an outbreak in the U.K. in 1993 killed 150 people and over 180,000 cattle so despite the fact that one California cow coming down with the disease is no reason to panic, there are indications that beef consumption in California did indeed slump following this report.
Part of the issue surrounding mad cow disease that causes some people to consider not eating beef at all, other than concern with contracting the disease, are the methods used to raise beef in the first place. From feed and fillers that are not healthy whatsoever for cattle, to the antibiotics they are pumped with in order to keep them healthy enough to get to slaughter, the entire livestock industry has come under much greater scrutiny from the general public as well as federal health officials for practices and methods that some believe can cause unhealthy animals to be moved through and into the food supply.
The other bit of news tipping the scales for anyone still on the fence about going vegan is recent press surrounding a beef bi-product more in need of a new name than Dick Assman, “pink slime.” Apparently pink slim has been in the food supply for quite some time but only recently has the mainstream media picked up on this “food product” and the exact composition of what is a very big ingredient in many foodstuffs. Pink slime is processed scraps of beef trimmings and fat, treated with ammonia; hardly the kind of things to get your mouth watering for another slurp. It is estimated that pink slime accounts for more than 25% of most hamburger patties consumed in the U.S. and that nearly 70% of all beef sold in the U.S. contains pink slime. Even more disturbing than finding out that your favorite fast-food joint probably uses pink slime burgers was the fact that the extruded protein product is also a widely used in school cafeterias throughout America.
No one is saying that pink slime is unsafe or that the California mad cow will soon find its way onto your plate – medium rare with a white peppercorn cognac sauce. But both incidents are certainly leaning heavily on the beef industry at a time when Americans are tightening their belts and not eating out quite so much and certainly not buying as many filet mignons or rib roasts at the butcher. In fact, don’t be surprised if your favorite fast food establishment starts putting more and more chicken on the menu, that is of course until Americans find out a little more about how chickens are raised, slaughtered and eventually fried into tasty golden brown morsels for all of us to enjoy – well, perhaps not the veganists.
If more people knew how beef and other livestock was raised, processed, and brought to market the price of vegetables, legumes, and pasta would quadruple. Cows are raised on food and food products that are 100% guaranteed to make them sick; fatter but sick and therefore they need to be pumped with antibiotics in order to get them to slaughter before they are too sick to make it to market. The fact that mad cow disease is so rare is really something of a miracle, though perhaps other hidden diseases are much more common but much less publicized. No one should be surprised that pink slime is in our food, that it has been there for sometime now, and that the corporate food industry will do everything in its power to keep it in the food chain and to do its finest spin doctoring to transform the image of pink slime from protein goo to manna from heaven.
The technology is called “consumer engagement technology” and it is spreading from the dynamic video boards that light up every square inch of New York’s famed 42nd street to digital retail kiosks in malls all over America. Proponents of this new digital application say that digital signage screens and interactive in-store kiosks are leading the way for entirely new technology concepts that are designed to capture consumer attention and more importantly, inspire them to take action. While this technology isn’t news to anyone that has strolled down the main drags of any of the world’s largest and most glitzy cities, all of which are covered street to street with digital advertising screens and interactive digital displays all vying for the attention of the throngs that pass by, it is somewhat new to other industries such as the restaurant business, whose owners and managers are only now finding out the multiple benefits of employing consumer engagement technology.
One of the first places that you are likely to see a restaurant making use of consumer engagement technology is in digital menu boards posted in strategic locations around the restaurant. The technology is best suited for larger chains that are able to manage their restaurant menus from one central location and then post them within seconds on attractive LCD screens installed at each of their restaurants. In restaurants now using digital menu boards the results have been extremely positive with more than 50% of the owners of these food chains saying that the pricing flexibility and lower costs for adjusting menus and making quick changes are reason enough for them to support using the boards in their restaurants. These same owners also point out that many of them are being pressured to post the nutritional value, calories, and sugar and sodium content of the items on their menus and with the use of digital signage all controlled from one location, they are much better equipped to comply with the requirements in a way that does not detract from the appeal of the menu or the look and feel of the restaurant.
One industry analyst reporting on the benefits and incorporation of digital signage in the restaurant business said that there are multiple benefits to the restaurant owner from consumer engagement technology, and at this early stage of restaurants making use of the technology it would appear that larger restaurant chains with many locations are best served by it. Among the benefits cites are: centralized control of the content on the restaurant’s menu, much greater pricing flexibility, lower costs to make menu changes, their customers like it, better ability to use the technology to advertise specials and other promotions, better operational efficiency, much easier ability to comply with menu labeling laws, higher average checks, better sales of higher margin items, improved order accuracy, more foot traffic, and higher margins per transaction.
The technology is still new as evidenced by the fact that even in fast-food drive-thru window, where one would think that this technology is perfectly suited, only 27% of restaurants using digital menu boards have installed them at their drive thru windows. The costs associated with digital menu boards can be deciding factor for many restaurant owners so obviously the benefits have to outweigh the costs and they need to have a good idea as to when they will recoup their investment in the new technology. On average it will take between 7 and 24 months for the majority of restaurants to recover their investment in digital menu boards with most falling into the 7 to 18 month area.
So, don’t be surprised the next time you walk into your favorite restaurant chain and when you ask for a menu, your server points to the a big, multi-colored LCD screen hanging on the wall.
This certainly sounds like something best suited for large restaurant chains and not your neighborhood restaurant. For one thing, a chain is probably the only kind of restaurant that can afford it. And, to say nothing of the fact that these big screens displaying the menu probably blend in well with the overall “flair” and decor of many fast-food restaurants and not so much for your favorite local hangout. From the sounds of it, this is yet another technological wave that can’t be stopped and soon every big restaurant chain in the U.S. will be lit up like Broadway and 42nd St.
The summer is fast approaching and with it comes the marauding bands of tourists that flood into cities, mountain retreats, and coastal resorts throughout the U.S. every season. Labeling all tourists as “marauding” isn’t really fair and probably not quite correct, unless of course you’re speaking about the the Brits and Germans who turn Spain and Portugal into Euro-Daytona beach every holiday season. No, to paint tourists with anything other than the brightest shade of green, green as in “cash” green, would be to underestimate the degree to which American industry, and in particular the American restaurant and hospitality industry rely on tourism for their very survival. By all accounts Summer 2012 is shaping-up to be a banner year for the tourist industry and the nation’s restaurants couldn’t be any happier about it.
Nearly 40% of all restaurant revenue is produced as a result of travel and tourism. Recent reports by industry analysts indicate that restaurants across the country are readying for a strong summer season by hiring an estimated 450,000 new workers to assist in all areas of the restaurant business. From adding new kitchen and dining room staff to managers and business office personal, the restaurant industry is hoping that projections for a strong summer tourist season will pan out and in the process provide a big boost to an industry that was one of the most critical casualties of the recent recession. So why all the optimism anyway? Well, as in any other industry there are certain signals or leading indicators that can provide clues as to what’s around the corner and in the case of the restaurant business those indicators are looking pretty good. One closely watched signal for restaurateurs is the number of bookings that have already been made for the upcoming season at the hotels, resorts, spas, and other such destinations in their area. According to many analysts, bookings are up so that means a lot of hungry diners to feed.
Another indicator that everyone in the tourist business is looking at is the price of gasoline. Perhaps no other commodity in the world is so closely scrutinized by so many for so many different reasons as is gasoline. While the price of gas is no bargain by historical measures, it has retreated from its highs earlier this year above $4.00/gallon and the direction of prices can often be as is big a factor as the actual cost of gasoline when it comes to how tourists plan their summer holidays. A recent survey by the U.S Travel Association seems to confirm that the price of getting from here to there won’t be a deterrent to tourists this vacation season. Their survey cites a 65% increase in the number of respondents who said that they will be taking at least one vacation between May and October this year versus 2011. Information on tourism from AAA is also closely watched by the restaurant and hospitality industry and their report on Memorial Day vacation plans also paints a somewhat rosy picture of the overall tourism season. Their Memorial Day study, which analysts say is an accurate bellwether indicator for the entire travel season, indicates that 34.8 million Americans plan on taking trips of at least 50 miles or more over the holiday weekend, which is up by more than 500,000 over last year’s report.
Restaurants large and small are gearing up for what they expect to be a banner summer, and hiring new staff is only part of the game planning taking place in the industry to make ready for hungry hordes. Advertising is a big expense for any restaurant or restaurant group so how, where, and when they spend their advertising dollars is critical to keeping their dining rooms cool and their kitchens hot. There’s been a surge in local marketing efforts to increase restaurants profiles on the web via search engine optimization and pay per click marketing. Many in the industry are using information pointing to a strong tourist season to adjust their advertising campaigns to the spring and summer months while creating ads and promotions specifically tailored to the summer tourist. Those restaurants located on American highways, interstates, and large local thoroughfares are particularly sensitive about their advertising dollars because they are competing in a very crowded marketplace so every dollar spent has to return a carload of hungry travelers to their establishments otherwise it was money ill-spent. Given lower gas prices and the prospects that significantly more tourists will be taking to the roads is music to their collective ears and hopefully will be a tune that they and everyone in the industry can sing all the way to the bank.
It’s great to hear that more people are planning to take vacations this summer season. While its good news for everyone that relies on tourism to make a living its also good news on another level. People only plan vacations and leisure travel when they feel good, have a few more dollars to spend, and are more hopeful about the future. To me, reports that indicate that more people will be enjoying leisurely activities says that perhaps the worst from the darkest days of the recent economic collapse are behind us and that while there’s still a long way to go, at least many people seem to feel comfortable and upbeat enough to want to come out from hiding and enjoy themselves a bit. Good vibes are contagious and this is just the sort of contagion that is worth catching.
The outlook for the U.S labor market is perhaps the most critical piece of a what is indeed a puzzling economic recovery. This is true whether your perspective resides on Main St., Wall St., or another relatively famous street, Pennsylvania Ave. – 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to be more precise. The U.S. economy is struggling to gather momentum following the 2007/2008 financial market meltdown that precipitated a domino-like meltdown throughout every sector of U.S. business, industry, and markets. After being pulled from the ditch, which at the time appeared to be too deep and too treacherous to ever successfully navigate out of, the economy seems to be moving back onto the road to recovery. However, the recovery has been somewhat unevenly spread out through the various sectors and markets that make up the larger American economy and in this case success is clearly in the eye of the beholder.
In the aftermath of the recession, Wall Street, meaning the bankers, brokers, and financial barons that reside there, has reaped the benefits of unlimited access to cheap capital, historically low interest rates, soaring equity markets and a helping hand from an extremely generous uncle named Sam in Washington, D.C. To say that the financial industry has put the recent recession in the rear view mirror is like saying that Apple seems to be recovering from its woes a few years back. The various market indicators that track of the vital signs of the world’s markets also seem to be on the mend with most of them showing signs that the patient can now be taken off life support and moved from the ICU to a room with a view, all except one patient that is, the one that still has to work for a living. American workers have been left behind while other the other sectors of the economy are starting to move forward. There are numerous, debatable reasons underlying what is described by many as a jobless recovery but the implications for middle class families on Main St. trying to make ends meet are indisputable and perhaps even more so for the two candidates vying for that well-known residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. While the unemployment rate is moving slowly in the right direction, though as with all statistics it depends on how you crunch the numbers, the prospects for more Americans finding jobs in the future isn’t quite clear and therein lies the critical element that will add momentum to a slowly moving recovery and perhaps hold the key to the White House.
If the labor market is a patient in need of a specialist perhaps the restaurant industry will be the physician that everyone has been looking for to get Americans back to work. While teachers and unhappy parents will chide youngsters about their future in burger flipping if they don’t study and go to college, the reality is that the restaurant industry is a major component in the U.S. labor market and a source for more moderately paying jobs than almost any sector of the economy. Restaurants large and small, private and franchised, haughty and humble have the ability to put large numbers of workers onto the payroll at various skill and pay levels and as such they can make a big impact on the overall health of the labor market. And from all indications, they appear ready to do so.
A recent report on the American restaurant industry claims that the nation’s restaurants are expected to hire an additional 450,000 workers this summer. This will be an increase of some 4.6% from present employment levels and represents the largest increase in summer employment in the restaurant industry since 1993. And just to emphasize the importance of hiring in this sector of the economy, this will be the 13th year in a row that the pace of hiring in the restaurant industry outpaces that of the overall economy. The report goes on to note that the nearly one million restaurants from coast to American coast employ more than 10% of the people in the U.S. It is the second largest private sector employer with over 13 million Americans working in the restaurant industry. Market analysts project that this number will grow by more than 1.4 million workers over the course of the next 10 years.
Historically the construction industry is the largest summertime employer in the U.S. but with the housing market still mired in the throes of the collapse of that industry, this year could be different, making the restaurant industry that much more critically important to American working class families, and to President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, both of whom are vying for the affection of this somewhat disaffected group.
It’s easy to use a restaurant job as the punchline to a joke or as ammunition to deride someone you feel superior to based on social or economic status. The image of person employed in a restaurant is generally that of a chatty, though otherwise snotty waitress, a greasy apron covered grill man, or a frenzied fast-food manager being driven to hysteria simultaneously by his employees, customers, and the health department. The reality is that while those images can be amusing and perhaps as credible as any they are in any other industry, the restaurant industry offers unique opportunities for workers of various skills, needs, and expectations. As an entry level job, a restaurant can often be the first place where teenagers learn responsibility and basic work skills outside of the home, to say nothing of the personal satisfaction and life-lessons derived from earning your own spending money. This is also an industry where those workers seeking part time employment, seasonal employment, or flexible work schedules can usually find a niche. At the top level, the opportunity to learn management skills and then to move ahead into more responsible positions within this industry for those so inclined are also among the best in any segment of the U.S. job market.
The economy may very well be moving healthily ahead and for some, it has already paid handsome dividends. But going forward, the jobs market holds the key to a new period of sustained economic growth and prosperity for the majority of Americans while for our two prospective presidential candidates, jobs, jobs, jobs, is the key to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The reasons that this has indeed been a somewhat jobless recovery are more numerous than V.P. Joe Biden gaffs and are the result of tidal shifts going back as far as the 1970s. Putting people back to work in jobs that actually pay a living wage in a moderately short period of time is a difficult task in a western economy that has moved quite far away from the basics of supporting a vibrant labor market. In order to provide a new foundation for a growing and sustainable workforce, very tough decisions have to be made and a consensus of opinion has to be reached with parties seemingly hellbent on dissent. Our elected officials, educators, and business community all need to be part of a solution that gets America working again. Employment in the restaurant industry is a great thing and not enough can be said for the value of these jobs to a wide section of American workers. However, as long as most of these jobs are paying a living wage – a wage that a family can live on – that is a good thing. If they aren’t, then these jobs are simply a Band-Aide on a critical injury.