Tag Archives: fast food

Five disturbing trends in the restaurant industry

There have been a numerous new trends in the restaurant industry over the past decade, and, unfortunately, all of them are bad. Restaurant owners have proven to be susceptible to all the recent technological fads and have  contributed to the generalized dumbing down of society.

  1. Menus with photos.

This trend seems to be most prevalent in Asia and probably began here.  Almost every Asian restaurant that I visit now has a picture menu. Even the most basic, simple, and elementary dish requires an accompanying photo. Take, for example, the classic Vietnamese dish, Pho. It is sold on every street corner of the city, in every Vietnamese restaurant and in every shopping mall. It is eaten in every Vietnamese home. Yet, restaurant owners apparently believe that customers need to see a picture of a soup bowl with noodles inside next to the word ‘Pho.’  A can of coke requires an accompanying photo. So does a bottled water.

These elaborate picture menus require considerably more expense and effort than a good old-fashioned written menu. The pages must be much thicker; indeed, many of these menus are printed on cardboard instead of paper. Or, they are laminated with hard plastic. Picture menus  are often extremely large and one needs to carefully use the entire half of the table to open it. And because fewer items can be printed on each page, thanks to all the photos, the menus must be considerably longer as well. The longest menu I have seen in Southeast Asia was 70 pages.

Picture menus are for children. They have no place in any respectable restaurant. No owner with any sense of pride in his establishment and respect for his customers would have a picture menu. The photos are unnecessary and are a waste of space, time, money, and effort. In the ‘old days,’ owners had to spend time writing creative descriptions of their dishes for their menus. Nowadays, they take the easy way out and slap a photo next to the item. ‘Idiocracy’? We’re living in it.

2. Big Screen Televisions

Televisions in restaurants used to be associated exclusively with sports bars. The idea was to draw in customers who were traveling and wanted to catch their favorite sports team or watch a special game. Sports bars had their place the scheme of things and I never saw much harm in them. One day, though, some restaurant owners who were looking for a new gimmick to increase sales said to themselves, “Hey, maybe we can get a piece of that action. Why should sports bars be the only ones to have televisions? Let’s put a big screen tv up behind the bar and see what happens. We’ll keep everything else the same, but now we can say that we provide a television for the local sports games.”

And so it went. Pretty soon, every other restaurant, reacting to the competition and the trend, installed giant flat screens in their bars and dining rooms as well. The old clearly demarcated line between sports bars and fine dining was obliterated, almost overnight.

Once the televisions have been turned on, managers don’t like to turn them off. As an experiment, I encourage my readers to go to their favorite local restaurant and ask the manager, politely, to turn off the television and see what kind of reaction you get. He will most likely look at you as if you are insane.

A couple of years ago I visited my family in Washington D.C. My brother took me out to a trendy neighborhood with dozens of upscale restaurants. I asked him to take me one without televisions. He thought about it for a moment and replied, “You know, I can’t think of one. I’m pretty sure every single one of these places has a screen.

The invasion of televisions into restaurants has reached a height of absurdity unimaginable even a few years ago. Some resto-bars have a dozen televisions playing, along with music. Combine that with loud customers and street noise and you have a chaotic scene. Even though not a single customer can be seen who is actually viewing one of the screens, managers refuse to turn them off. They are now seen as ‘ambience.’

I have attempted to talk with managers and owners about this, but my protestations fall on deaf ears, always. I point out that having televisions does not bring in customers. I mention that nobody views them anyway. I argue that they are energy hogs. I tell them that they destroy the ambience of the dining experience. No matter. The trend has been set and now there is no turning back.

In researching this article, I did a google search on televisions in fine-dining restaurants and was heartened to see numerous articles written about the subject. There is a debate about it, but it needs to be much broader and reach a much bigger audience.

3.  Free Wi-Fi

Although flat-screen televisions had already mostly destroyed the ambience of many restaurants, the installation of free Wi-Fi put the final nail in the coffin. Once again, we saw  restaurant owners tripping over each other to be trendy and caving in to fickle and superficial customers who just wanted their damn Wi-Fi! Dude! Owners took the short-term view versus the long-term view. The short-term view means giving customers what they demand, now. The longer-term view, I argue, involves preserving something called the ‘restaurant experience,’ which involves far more than eating  delicious food. It encompasses the entire experience of eating out, from the moment you enter the restaurant until the moment you leave. When a customer is able to eat exceptional food in an elegant, relaxed setting and engage in stimulating conversation during the meal, the experience can be almost transcendent.

The availability of free Wi-Fi guarantees that customers will never be able to enjoy that kind of experience. A quick glance around the dining area of any restaurant today will show more than half of the customers with their heads bent down at unnatural angles, staring into the bright screens of their smart phones, their faces eerily illuminated. Conversation is entirely absent. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends ignore each other entirely for the duration of the meal.  A person can choose not to use a smart phone while in the restaurant, but there is no way to block out the surrounding customers who exist in their zombie cyber-world.

4. Servers using iPads and smartphones to take orders

I experienced this loathsome trend last week in the Bangkok airport. The nervous young girl who waited on me didn’t want to talk at all; she was nervously focused on her hand-held device, using her thumbs to carefully enter in my order, which was, apparently, sent at the speed of light to the kitchen a few feet away. What idiotic owner really believes that supplying his waitstaff with computers is going to improve service? The device creates a totally unnecessary barrier between the server and customer. The server’s eyes and attention are now entirely focused on the gadget and away from the customers, where it should be. The ability of the server to engage in conversation, banter, and even flirtation with the customers is severely hampered.

I recall a rather humorous experience I had a few years ago in Seattle when I first observed this trend. I was eating in an Indian restaurant for lunch. My table was just a few feet from the kitchen. Indeed, I could see the chefs through an opening in the wall behind the register. The owner decided to take my order and he entered it onto his hand-held device. It was clear to me that he was immensely proud of his high-tech way of taking orders. He assured me, with a broad smile, that my order would be received ultra-fast by the chefs in the kitchen and, hence, I could receive my food that much quicker. Alas, I was not impressed. I told him, flatly, that I thought his gadgetry was unnecessary, silly, and pretentious. Furthermore, I told him that I was not in a particular hurry and if I wanted ‘fast food’, I could go to McDonald’s. This portly owner seemed to regard efficiency as the highest goal in the restaurant business.

5. Servers unfolding the customer’s napkin and placing it in his lap

This may not be a new trend. Perhaps some fine dining restaurants have always done this. I’m not sure. But if it is a new trend, I hope it will disappear as quickly as possible. I remember clearly the first time a waiter grabbled my napkin and attempted to put in my lap. I was so shocked at the action that I didn’t know quite what to do or say. All I could manage at the moment was, “What in the hell are you doing? Do  I look like a baby?”

What kind of sheer nonsense is this? Customers now need assistance unfolding their napkins? Only babies and incapacitated geriatric patients should need assistance like this. The servers don’t ask customers, either. No. They simply come to the  table and with a big smile place the napkin in customer’s  laps.

I was in a nice Italian restaurant a couple of weeks ago when the server attempted this silly maneuver. I kept repeating, ‘What are you  doing? What are you doing? What.. are… you… doing…?’ She didn’t answer and continued to unfold the napkin and reach over to place it in my lap. I finally had to forcibly grab her arm and shove her away from me. Really, if owners and managers think this pretentious little dance is necessary, then why stop there? Why not have the server sit at the table and lift the fork and spoon for the customers? It’s the logical next step.

 

 

 

 

 

The catholic church, McDonald’s and Facebook: time for a divorce?

Psychologists, social theorists, and philosophers have all attempted to answer the question of why people remain in abusive relationships. It is well documented that people, especially women, will stay in relationships that have been abusive for years, sometimes decades. Instead of simply walking away or filing for divorce, humans will create all kinds of rationalizations for the behavior of the abuser and for their refusal to leave.

“He only does it because I deserve it…..Deep down, he really loves me….He’s going to change some day, I know it…….It’s only because he had a difficult childhood, I need to be compassionate…..If he didn’t have me, he would have nobody, what would he do”?…… I can’t just abandon him”…….And so on.

This unwillingness to extricate ourselves from abusive relationships carries over into our relationships with governments, institutions, and corporations as well. It is human nature to cling to the familiar and habitual even when those habits are destructive and inimical to our self-interest. Many of us develop ‘brand loyalty’ over the course of our lives. We tend to trade in our old Honda for a new Honda. We throw out our old Adidas shoes for some new Adidas shoes. We root for the same sports team that we grew up with even though we moved away from that city 30 or 40 years ago.

But what do we do, or what should we do, when faced with evidence of corporate or institutional malfeasance and corruption? When is it time to punish corporations for reckless and immoral behavior by withdrawing our financial support for them? It appears that we humans have almost as difficult a time divorcing these companies as we do our abusive partner.

The catholic church, McDonald’s and Facebook

About ten years ago, when yet another huge scandal erupted within the catholic church, the daily headlines were filled with scandalous stories of hundreds, perhaps thousands of priests who had been accused of molesting young children, mostly young boys. As horrifying as these stories of molestation were, what was equally or perhaps even more horrifying was the additionally uncovered fact of  a church cover-up. The bishops at the very highest levels of the catholic  hierarchy in America and other countries knew very well that this child abuse was occurring, much of it inside the churches, and yet did nothing to stop it. In fact, they colluded to hide the crimes from the eyes of police. One could say, without exaggeration, that much of the catholic church was nothing more than a sophisticated pedophile ring.

 

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There is no greater crime in this world than stripping a child of his innocence prematurely and traumatizing him for life. And this was happening on a vast scale with the trail of guilt leading right back to Rome and the doors of the Vatican itself. During the height of the news coverage of the latest scandal, I recall reading a story with the provocative headline: “Why in the world is anybody still catholic?” The writer of the article detailed the scope and nature of the crimes committed within the church and the refusal of the Vatican to take responsibility for its priests and even on many occasions to enable them to continue in their predatory actions. The writer asked the simple and straightforward question: If that is not enough for you to divorce the catholic church, then what is? It was, and is, a fair question. If catholics really believe that the church is capable of reforming itself, then they are as delusional as the battered wife of 20 years who thinks her husband can change. Sadly , a large number of catholics worldwide cling to the notion that if they leave the church, they are leaving god. They still have not grasped Jesus’ main teaching that the kingdom of god lies within you. 

http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/specials/clergy

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/a-secret-shame-inside-the-latest-scandal-to-rock-the-catholic-church-1739889.html

Last month a food scandal in China rattled the stock value of McDonald’s, along with Yum! Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut) and Starbucks. A local news organization had smuggled a hidden camera into a meat processing plant which sold its products to McDonald’s and others. They filmed some workers scraping meat off the floor to package and sell and others mixing  old, outdated meat with fresh meat. The story quickly went viral and the fast food companies scrambled to go into recovery mode as sales in China and Japan tanked. In the immediate weeks following the release of the story, many McDonald’s restaurants in both of those countries were empty. However, the impact of the crisis appears to be limited to those two regions and there is no reason to believe that sales will not bounce back in a few short months as the scandal blows over. Here in Southeast Asia, the McDonald’s restaurants are as busy as ever as consumers seem blithely unconcerned with what is happening in our giant neighbor to the north.

NOT FIT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION:

kfc-mcdonalds,bk,starbucks

What was lacking from most of the coverage of this latest story was any perspective. This is hardly the first time that McDonald’s and other fast food conglomerates have been accused of using substandard products, especially meat products. Investigative reporters and writers have been covering this for decades. John Robbins’ pioneering work in books such as ‘Diet for A New America’ and ‘The Food Revolution’ covered these topics in detail, as did ‘Mad Cowboy’ and Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation.’  Movies and documentaries such as ‘Food Inc.’ and the movie version of ‘Fast Food Nation have also reached a mass audience.

Executives at McDonald’s will make some superficial changes, perhaps change suppliers and engage in their usual spin. But the core of their business model demands large quantities of  cheap, low quality beef. That is not going to change. Ever. What was uncovered in China is happening right now  in many other locations around the world. Perhaps another intrepid reporter will take a hidden camera into more giant meat factories. When will we say ‘enough is enough’ and quit giving this seller of toxic ‘food’ our hard- earned money?

http://www.prweek.com/article/1304517/china-food-scandal-rocks-mcdonalds-kfc

Last month, a story broke on the news wires about Facebook implementing a large study on its users, without their knowledge or consent. FB wanted to see if it could alter its users emotions by manipulating their news feeds. The vast majority of the stories which resulted from this embarrassing leak were variations of “How dare they do that?” Indeed, I don’t recall reading a single editorial or blog where someone tried to defend FB. And yet, what real fallout actually occurred at FB?  Specifically, how many of its billion or so users ‘filed for divorce’ and deleted their accounts? If my students, colleagues, friends, and family are any indication, not many. In the two or three weeks following the initial story, I noticed all of my students logging on and going about business as usual. They are willing to ‘forgive and forget.’ FB’s well documented casual disregard for its users rights and privacy is nothing new. This latest outrage will only fuel the ever present rumors about the company’s close relationship with spy agencies such as the CIA and NSA. But the abused partner, er customer, will rationalize this behavior away, and be content, for now anyway, to keep this relationship going.

 

Facebook-Emotional-Manipulation

 

 

 

 

Ten reasons to hate starbucks.

There is no shortage of ‘I hate Starbucks’ postings on the internet and blogosphere. Indeed, there is even a website devoted to SB haters: http://www.ihatestarbucks.com. So I wondered if it would be pointless to add one more voice to the chorus. Perhaps this little blog will not separate itself  from  the ocean of voices, but I feel that as this vile company continues to spread all over the world,  we need to continue relentlessly exposing it.

I thought that by moving 7,000 miles away from the USA to a developing  country, I might be able  to avoid SB and its ilk. Then again, I  should never underestimate men like Howard Schultz, men whose ambition and greed  know no bounds.  Last year, I watched as Viet Nam’s first SB opened across the street from my apartment. In the intervening year, more stores have sprouted like weeds around Ho Chi Minh City. At times, I feel as if SB is following me, as they have just bought the large corner building in my new neighborhood and are quickly throwing up another store, accelerating the rapid gentrification of the area.

 

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At last count, SB has 20,891 stores in 64 countries. 2013 revenue was 14.9 billion dollars. That’s a whole lot of coffee drinks. The company’s website and wikipedia page have to be updated daily, as Schultz and team are opening, on average, two new stores a day!

Here then, for the record, are my top  10   reasons for despising Starbucks:

1)  SB runs small, independent coffee shops out of business. You remember- the funky coffeehouses with real coffee, cushy sofas, chess boards, and eclectic music which used to dot all the medium sized and large cities in the Western world.

 

not-starbucks

2) Their drinks are overpriced. Actually, everything in the stores is overpriced.

3) Their drinks are unhealthy and are contributing in no small way to the obesity epidemic around the world. A venti iced caramel macchiato may taste delicious to a 13-year-old, but the price to be paid comes not just at the cash register, but years later as these calorie bombs fill our arteries with sugar and fat.

4) The drinks have stupid names, befitting a status-conscious, trend obsessed , dumbed down population, who can utter phrases like ‘Grande Iced sugar -free vanilla latte with soy’ with a straight face.

 

no-starbucks

5) The names of the drink sizes are ridiculous to the extreme, pretentious to the core, and could only have sprung from the brains of  marketers with master’s degrees in ‘mocking the public.’ Small, medium and large have morphed in planet starbucks into tall, grande, and venti. Are you f—ing kidding me? The last time I entered a SB years ago, I refused to play the game and ordered a small coffee. The barista didn’t bat an eyelash. She obviously had seen my ‘type’ before-unrepentant old school types-  and she casually gave the order to her co-worker: ‘tall drip.’ Management must have prepped her that some holdouts might not even know what a ‘venti’ is. My, how untutored we are!

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6) SB is wasteful and a blight on the environment. Years ago, a friend I was meeting insisted on a rendez-vous at the SB in Lima. I made sure to order my coffee “For here.” I glanced at the neat stack of attractive ceramic mugs behind the barista. She instantly grabbed the paper cup and started to make my drink. I inquired. “Did you not understand me? I said ‘for here.’ ” She stared at me blankly.

Finally, she said, “So, you want a mug?” She had a curious expression on her face. I could see why. As I looked around the store, of the three dozen or so customers sitting and drinking, not one had a ceramic mug. Many of them had been there for hours. This is the standard scene at every SB. Management says, ‘unless the customer specifically asks for a mug, give everyone a paper cup.’ With the conspicuous logo, of course. All destined for the landfill.

7) The store interiors are sterile, faux hip wastelands, filled with overpriced coffee merchandise, corporate music, and a corporate vibe that is impossible to ignore. To escape the bad music, many patrons put in earplugs to listen to music on their laptops, but they must also contend with baristas shouting things like: ” Iced skinny caramel frappuccino to go!” Every ten seconds.

8) SB doesn’t want just any location in a city. They want the location. They want the beating heart, the cultural center of whatever city they land in. In Seattle, you find SB at Pike Place Market. In Portland, they are right there in Courthouse Square. In Lima, they are front and center in Kennedy Park. SB will pay any price to get the location they want. Their marketing team identifies wherever the young, trendy and rich hang out, draw an X in the middle, and go to that landlord with an open checkbook.

9) SB employees are forced to wear ugly green aprons.

10) SB’s logo is ugly, creepy, and probably satanic.

Bonus:

11) Their coffee is bad, but most of their customers probably don’t even notice. How could they? With all the sugar, milk, cream, whipped cream, chocolate, caramel and ice in SB’s drinks, how can one taste any coffee?  While people say they like SB coffee, what they really mean is they like the caffeine buzz. Put a cup of black coffee in any of these people’s hands, and they would spit it out instantly. “Ugh, what is that?”

 

The Fast Food Invasion of Viet Nam

The food landscape of Viet Nam, especially in the large cities, is changing rapidly. In fact, it is being altered almost overnight, thanks to the rapid and loosely regulated introduction of American-based fast food chains.

Three weeks ago, McDonald’s opened its first franchise here, on a busy street in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. People queued up for blocks and waited hours to get in, anxious to finally try some of that American fast food which the rest of the world appears to be so crazy about.

Last year, Starbucks opened its first outlet in Viet Nam, sensing big opportunities here with a deeply ingrained coffee culture, a young, Western-oriented population, and a well-established coffee shop scene. Within a few months of the first outlet opening, three more had sprouted up in nearby neighborhoods and more are on the way.

 

Vietnamese_KFC

KFC and Pizza Hut  (Yum! brands) have been here since 1997. Burger King arrived in  2011. Dairy Queen just opened its first franchise in Ho Chi Minh City. Baskin Robbins jumped in during 2012.  Dominos Pizza opened its first franchise in 2010.

Even before these companies arrived, Viet Nam had seen an alarming rise in obesity, especially in children living in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam’s largest cities. A number of factors, including rising incomes, increasingly sedentary lifestyles caused by the rise in popularity of computer games, the increasing availability of sugar laden soft drinks and a rapid increase in meat consumption have contributed. With the onslaught of the Western fast food chains, this trend will vastly accelerate.  It’s quite common now to see obese young children in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, especially in the wealthier districts, such as District 1 and District 7. According to a study published last September, ,Viet Nam already has 300,000 children classified as obese under the age of 5.

And it’s not just obesity. The number of cases of diagnosed type 2 diabetes is also skyrocketing, as is heart disease and hypertension. Nationally, the percentage of people with diabetes has climbed from 1% to 6% and in Ho Chi Minh City, 10% of adults have the disease. Given the large problems Viet Nam already has with one of the highest rates of smoking in the world (4 billion packs consumed  in 2013) and an increasing thirst for beer, the public health situation is set to deteriorate rapidly.

While the government has made some pronouncements recently regarding increasing taxes on cigarettes and putting stronger warning labels on packs, its blithely indifferent attitude toward Western fast food is curious, to say the least. Locals sigh cynically and point out that McDonald’s entered Viet Nam thru a partnership with Good Day Hospitality, which is owned by Henry Nguyen, son-in-law of the prime minister.

A Reuters article dated February 3, 2014 (and not picked up by any of the Vietnamese press)  states: Governments could slow or even reverse the growing obesity epidemic if they introduced more regulation into the global market for fast foods such as burgers, chips, and fizzy drinks, researchers said yesterday.

The article continues, “Unless governments take steps to regulate their economies, the invisible hand of the market will continue to promote obesity worldwide with disastrous consequences  for future public health and economic productivity,” said Roberto De Vogli of the Uinversity of California, Davis, in the U.S., who led the study.