Archive for the 'restaurant business' Category


Canvassing in Boston

Just got back from collecting petitions out at Coolidge Corner in Boston. Specifically I was trying to get people to sign forms relating to McDonald’s marketing strategy which depends heavily on appealing to kids, who, as we know from walking outside for 10 minutes, are getting fat at a pretty young age.

I found this experience to be interesting on a variety of levels.

The first thing I discovered is that even foot traffic is a public resource that is competed for by individuals. I don’t want to reduce collecting signatures to an exercise in economic rationality, because it was not mainly about that, but here’s an interesting lesson: what one group can do in terms of getting people’s attention is heavily determined by what other people. So, if other non profit groups primarily ask for money, or ask for support in a rude, off-putting way, then this effects what I can do as a volunteer because people automatically assume that either a) I’m a socially defective radical or b) I want their money for something. Since neither a or b was true, I had to quickly, in the course of 15 seconds, get people to trust me and convince them that I did not want their money. By the end I even started trying “Kids are fat, I don’t want your money.” So, non-profits take heed, what you do effects what others can do using the same tactics.

There were some other interesting moments as well. Some people will just ignore you when you ask them about anything or say anything to them. Then you get some straight d-bags. I was working with someone else on this project and this kid dressed in a north face jacket and well-fit khakis with those ridiculous little man boots that you can get walks by me and complains, in a pretty whiny voice to his father that “all these people are trying to talk to me about mcdonalds.” God forbid people would speak to you.

Then there was the all time lowlight of the day. I saw this very obese man and asked him what he thought about McDonalds. He stumbled by me, but then stopped and turned around. Thinking he was interested, I told him that I wanted to try and convince McDonalds to advertise less to children, to which he responded angrily “O, I like McDonalds.” I felt bad for this guy.

Other people simply told me that “it was the parents’ responsibility” to keep kids from eating. This makes no sense to me. If I told them that I wanted to pass legislation or create some sort of government agency or task force, then maybe this retort would make sense: sometimes a problem is not so bad that it justifies such drastic societal investment. In fact, we leave many choices up to the parents that we could theoretically regulate, such as what video games the child will be able to play or what clothes the kids should wear. However, since the campaign I work with has such modest goals, such as having McDonalds take their vast sum of advertising dollars and throw them at a different demographic, this doesn’t make any sense. Pretend that I could sign a bunch of petitions that would convince kids’ TV stations exec not to program cartoons that display violence against women. Would these people be opposed to such a strategy on the grounds that parents should control what their kids watch? In other words, the goal of the campaign that I was working on did not deny that parents should be responsible for their children, but only that there are ways we can make their jobs easier by eliminating temptations.

Anyway, we got about 65 signatures in 2 hours. 40 of those were mine (25 for the other guy), so I got about 1 signature every 3 minutes. Considering it takes about 1 minute to rope someone in and watch as they wrote everything down, I think this was a pretty good pace. The real key though, which I did not execute well, was to rope in whole families or groups of people and then to get like 4 signatures in 2 minutes or something. This is hard because families are usually enjoying time together and so really don’t want to be hustled for signatures, even though it only takes 2 minutes.

I also wonder how many people don’t stop for the same reason a lot of people don’t vote: they honestly think that the short investment of time I’m asking for is still not justified given the EVEN SMALLER impact their signature will have in getting McDonald’s to stop marketing to kids.



Food Tourism

Eating is one of the most basic human pleasures, one of our most hardwired and undeniably sought after experiences.

So it’s no wonder that capitalism, as it has with everything else, has produced a very abundant set of food options for a lower price than anytime in history. That much is kind of obvious, and not interesting as it stands.

But what I’m concerned about is the way in which, again, as happens with most capitalistic sectors, food consumption has become a kind of hobby or dilettantish activity that is supposed to have significance on its own.

I think most people have a friend who is always running around checking out different restaurants, singing their praises, and then scurrying around for something new. It’s a bonus if the ingredients are exotic. Things like shark, alligator, or pumpkin pasta for example. Also more points if the venue is quirky. Maybe the place is run by an immigrant who shouts at everyone who comes in the store, maybe there’s a special way you have to order to get service (soup nazi) maybe you have to know the odd times the place is open. The point of all of this is to collect a list of restaurants that are the best, and to compare them with others; the goal is to create a U.S. News and World Report ranking of colleges (er, I mean restaurants), along with the best dishes that they serve.

But all this kind of makes me sick after a while. Indeed, it’s really just sex tourism with food. A frivolous enjoyment of a something with much greater significance and importance. Now, the converse is also possible. The person who, rather than seeking out new restaurants like a guided missile, is open to new areas and experiences. This “foodie” drops in to obscure locales with nothing but hunger in their bellies and openness in their mind. The meal is not just a vehicle for enhancing the optimal list of gastronomic experience, but rather is a door to understanding social or even political concerns (think vegetarianism, slow food, etc.).

This is not to disparage those people who shop aggressively for bizarre ingredients or grow their own food. These, like the habits I’ve been decrying, are a result of our increased FREEDOM. No longer are we trying to live from day to day (most of us in the west at least, don’t forget), and so we can experiment with strange ingredients, we can pursue our favorite dishes, and we can exercise profound control over our diets. We are able to, in a Hegelian way, “rationalize” our food consumption by freeing it from purely survival or biological constraints.

This is an opportunity for a new type of freedom that some people are able to sample by preparing their own food (a skill and an art form), or learning about the way that foods interact (knowledge), or supporting a certain way of raising food (ethics). All these are ways of ENGAGING with this transformation in our food world. Those who simply bounce from restaurant to restaurant searching for a more and more pleasurable experience, are simply disengaging and watching as an item of significance is ground into nothing but a playground for flavors and enjoyment; pure pleasure without any understanding of it or appreciation for its significance. It’s hedonism in a very corrosive form because as I said at the beginning, it engages one of our most undeniable drives but at the same deflects it from the circumstances and conditions that usually helped nature march in step with our cultures and minds.

People say that the U.S. is such an unhealthy country partially because we have no food tradition, which function as a list of default laws and conventions that help us structure our eating, just as the rules of English grammar structure the type of sentences that are available to us. In France portions are small, almost always with wine, and so there is less heart disease than you would think with a diet of basically butter and cheese. The farther back in time you go, the more tightly eating traditions are, and as I said, this is not necessarily good, malnutrition and monotony can be the downside. But as we realize our gustatory freedom, we should be careful not to spill out the structures that give the experience meaning into an ocean of tastes and sensations, as if we had been put in the food matrix, where everything is delicious despite its lack of connection with anything real (remember the traitor, forgot his name, who eats steak with the agents and knows the steak is fake, but enjoys it anyway?).


Childhood obesity and Advertising

Here I wrote about my small involvement with a campaign aimed at reducing fast food advertising to children.

And today I came across this NBER working paper which tries to measure the effect of total advertising ban to children. Now, I was pretty excited about this, simply because NBER papers are very carefully researched and, as far as I can tell, treated with great respect among policymakers, policy-planners, and thinkers of all types.

I won’t go into the methodology, because its kind of boring, but the one thing I will note is that, as these authors acknowledge, its very hard to design a good study for the effect of fast food advertising on obesity because the kids who watch the most advertisements are also the kids who watch the most TV, which as many studies have confirmed, contributes to obesity. So, is it the ads or just the excessive TV watching that’s making kids fat.

Anyway, the study comes away by concluding that reducing the fast food TV ad hours in a week by .5 hours results in 2% reduction of a childhood male’s BMI. Or, a total ban on fast food advertising would result in a 10% in obese children. Note this is not saying the obesity rate would be 10% less (like now 20% of kids are overweight and with a ban it would be 10%, no). No, its that if there are 100 obese kids, then a ban would result in there being 90 obese kids. Not a bad effect and nice to know that this campaign has some real tangible benefits.


a meta-post

This post is about my blog. My guess would be that there is some iron rule of blogging that strictly prohibits self-referential posts, but I have no proof of such a rule. Thus, this post.

In the past few days, I, for some reason, got a lot of people viewing my blog. So I wrote a lot of posts to try and keep up with what I thought I was increased demand for my ideas. Not so.

Almost every single person who visited my blog for some reason looked at my posts about restaurants. They mainly ignored all of my recent posts. I have no idea why, but these visitors didn’t even look at all my restaurants posts. Instead, they mainly looked at this one. I have no explanation, none.


servers and managers

Servers are caught in the middle. On one hand, they deal with customers who are, at the worst, complete babies who use the restaurant as an institution to gratify their most petty desires for control over other people. At best, you deal with reasonable people who just want a meal. This is rare though.

On the other hand, the server has to deal with managers, who are, surprise surprise, complete babies who use the restaurant as an institution to gratify their most petty desires for control over other people.

But this is just ranting on my part. The point I want to make is that there is really no reason for a manager to actually manage anyone. Sure, a manager is useful because they might act as the host, enforce side work discipline, divide tables between servers, and control access to sensitive areas of the restaurant (register at the end of the night, liquor supply area), but there isn’t a whole lot of justification for their role as a watchdogs over the servers.

Here’s why. First, servers are getting paid for performance (at least under a reasonable idealization), and so their incentives are already properly aligned. They want to give good service to tables and the manager second guessing their attempt to optimize service for some number of tables is unlikely to improve performance. This is a reason that managers probably wont’ improve things.

What’s more though is that, in at least one way, managers are likely to make things worse. First, they often fixate on irrelevant tasks. For example, I had a manager that always wanted cheese on the table before the pasta arrived. Usually, I just brought it out with the food or asked when I put the food down whether someone wanted cheese. If I brought it out with the food, I saved myself a trip to the kitchen, and if I asked, I would sometimes get a no, meaning that on net, I saved myself trips to the kitchen and made cleaning up the table easier later (less ramekins on the table). But when my manager was watching, I would try to remember this instruction. Thus, I would deviate from the optimal mix of tasking. This is an insight from economics. If the benefits of performing one task among many are raised, people will perform more of that task to the detriment of other tasks (in this case, beneficial tasks that aren’t observed by the manager). However, since we assume that servers, due to the way tipping works, are already performing the optimal mix of tasks, then managerial intervention of this type makes servers less effective.


why do restaurants have specials?

My restaurant has specials. At lunch I’m supposed to recite them to customers who usually try not stare at me while I list them out. When I’m done, they look at me with an impassive visage. Why do we even have specials? It’s not like anyone ever orders them. In fact, I don’t think that most people even listen.

However, at dinner, we write our specials on the menu. And what do you know? A lot of people order them.

What does this show? For one thing, I think that the more you write things down on your menu, the more those things will get ordered. This is just friendly advice to all restaurant owners who read this blog.

But if we have specials for lunch, knowing that not many people will order, what is the purpose? I think there are two.

1. Having specials that must be memorized and recited is one way of showing the customers that the wait staff is competent. I can’t tell you how many times I will finish the specials, meet the glazed look on my customers eyes, only to find that the glazed look then transforms into an odd kind of spectatorship, like people watching seals at sea world. If I don’t stutter, then I have finished the performance and the table thinks they are dealing with a professional. I realize that this effect is most likely small, probably unmeasurable, and certainly absurd. I agree. Nonetheless, I think it’s worth mentioning. The second reason is much more important.

2. Specials communicates freshness and cooking skill. A restaurant that rotates its dishes regularly, as ours does, can subtly suggest to customers that our restaurant changes food with the seasons and secures deals for certain ingredients when they are at their best (in season). Also, it shows that our cooks aren’t just mass producing the same dishes over and over. They can actually cook, and they can prove it by using the food that they have on hand to create new things each day (or week).


reservations at restaurants

I asked my manager why any restaurants take reservations. After all, why keep a table idle when someone wants to occupy it?

I think there are several answers including aversion to risk (better to lock down the table for some portion of the night than gamble that people will come in off the street) and a desire to appeal to a customer group that feels important when they have a reservation.

However, my manager pointed out another reason, which is that reservations allow predictability in supply. In fact, as he reminded me, some restaurants ONLY take reservations, and that way they know exactly how many mouths they will have to fee. Some go further and have a prix fixe menu, which further increases predictability and lowers waste.

Makes a lot of sense.