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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Menu optimization through diversification

Diversifying your menu should be a big part of the optimization process if you want to build a loyal customer base and maximize your bottom line.

By Kevin Campbell
Content Editor

Since we talked in Tuesday’s blog about optimizing menus, I found it pretty timely the other day when Cook’s founder and CEO Howard Breeden passed along the spring issue of Hot Topics, Hatco Corporation’s quarterly newsletter for the foodservice industry.

Tucked neatly inside the newsletter on page two was a story about halal dining, with comments from Maria Omar, director of media relations for the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America. Halal is an Arabic word that means permitted; the story, “All About Al-Halal,” talks about how foodservice operators can adjust their procedures to meet the restrictions of Muslim diners by including halal options on the menu. According to Omar, the changes needed are often minimal and simple to make, and they can make a difference to the operation’s bottom line.

“There are more than nine million Muslim diners in America, and they are largely affluent, educated professionals – not an audience to be taken lightly,” Omar told Hot Topics. 

The changes needed for halal dining are not complicated, Omar said. In fact, many of the items you have in your kitchen right now may already meet those needs. Items like Kraft cheeses, Heinz ketchup and Tabasco® sauce are already certified by IFANCA, she told Hot Topics. Read the full story here.

Does diversification mean introducing completely new entrees to the menu that meet the needs of restricted diners? Not necessarily; how you diversify is up to you, the foodservice operator. Simply being able to substitute acceptable ingredients can be enough. But whatever you do, remember to promote it, both on the menu and by the wait staff. Making the changes to serve customers with special needs becomes a waste if those customers are unaware of their options.

Part of optimizing your menu should include diversifying it for customers with dietary restrictions. Whether it’s halal or kosher or a customer with medical-related dining restrictions, you should be prepared to reasonably meet any of your diners’ requirements. It’s a great way to maximize your bottom line and encourage repeat business, because customers remember when a restaurant or other foodservice venue goes out of its way to satisfy their special needs.

Join the discussion: Leave a comment below about how you're diversifying and optmizing your menu!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Make your menu pay off

A well-engineered menu offers great selections to your customers and directs them to your most profitable dishes.

By Kevin Campbell
Content Editor

As a foodservice operator or chef, you spend a lot of time preparing for service. Sourcing and preparing ingredients. Clearing and setting the front of the house. And reconciling the receipts at the end of the day. After all, just like any business, you have a bottom line to think about. That requires preparation too.

The menu is obviously a big part of your preparation. It serves as a guide for your shopping list. It serves as a guide for your kitchen and wait staff for prep and service; and it serves as the guide for your customers’ selections. But how well does your menu serve your bottom line?

Smart restaurateurs are using their menu design to their bottom line’s advantage as much as they are for their customers’ education. Just as your signature dishes need to be engineered to perfection, your menu should be engineered for optimization. A well-engineered menu not only informs your customers of what’s available, it actually points them to your most profitable dishes.

Optimizing your menu isn’t difficult. As Yahoo! Finance writer Marlys Harris wrote last week, “restaurant dishes generally divide up into four groups,” the stars, the plowhorses, the puzzlers and the dogs. All it takes is knowing where on the menu to place your “stars” and “plowhorses,” how to lend intrigue with your “puzzlers,” and in which corner to tuck your “dogs.” When put together in the right menu design, it can lead to better sales, repeat business and ultimately a better bottom line.

Harris offers more great tips for engineering your menu in the article, which you can find a link to on our Facebook page.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Getting nostalgic as chefs get Back-to-Scratch

Initiative bringing awareness of hard-working operations that feature scratch-baked goods

By Kevin Campbell
Content Editor

Ever long for the days of all fresh ingredients, when everything was made from scratch? Seems pretty nostalgic, what with the way fast-food and quick-serve have become staples in our automated, need-it-now society.

Yet, even with the instant gratification mentality that dominates our daily norms, some chefs are harkening back to those more nostalgic days that required long hours and hard work. They may be few and far between, but they’re working hard to be seen. And the folks at Hobart are helping them out.

Hobart launched the Back-to-Scratch initiative in March, to bring awareness of chefs and foodservice outlets that are bringing scratch-baked items to market to consumers and other industry professionals.

“Scratch bakers and chefs are some of the most passionate people on the planet,” said Christina Tosi, chef owner of Momofuku Milk Bar in New York. “This movement will give us all an opportunity to connect with each other, share our passion with the rest of the world, and teach others about the importance and benefits of baking and cooking from scratch.”

The movement is underway. More than 100 scratch bakers from across the country have joined, from Community Food Co-op Swan Café/Bakery in Bellingham, WA, and its signature lemon cloud cake to Miami’s Sweetness Bakeshop and its signature guayabera cupcake, and numerous venues in between.

Back-to Scratch is easy to find with its fully integrated online community. Besides the Website, the initiative features a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. And videos will soon be available on the Back-to-Scratch channel on YouTube. But it’s the scratch bakers that are driving the effort.

For all of those potential Back-to-Scratchers out there: Hobart is holding a contest for the best scratch-baked item. The winner receives a Hobart Legacy mixer later this year. Visit the Website for details.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Looks like the cupcake has gotten its piece of the pie

The cupcake’s five minutes of fame appears to be waning as an American classic makes a comeback

By Kevin Campbell
Content Editor

Look out, Mr. Cupcake: the Great American Dessert is making a comeback!

In a trend that could bring the cupcake – along with its merry band of storefront, truck and online purveyors – to its knees, pie is making a resurgence as America’s favorite dessert.

In this story, part of Nightline’s “Sign of the Times” series, ABC’s Jeremy Hubbard reports that pie is steadily overtaking the cupcake as the top dessert choice in America. More than 720 million slices of pie were served in 2010 – up 12 million from 2009 – Hubbard reports, and many restaurant pundits are calling pie the top restaurant trend in 2011. And much like the cupcake explosion that preceded it, the renewed interest in pie is leading to some very innovative and inventive spins on this classic dessert. Click here to view Hubbard’s report.

Then get ready for the resurgence. From rolling pins and dough cutters to pie plates and pans, you can find everything you need to crank out pie after pie at Cook’s Direct!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A GREAT way to keep those cool summer beverages secure

By Kevin Campbell
Content Editor

Has cabin fever set in yet? It’s mid-April, and we’ve all had at least a couple of days now where the sun’s been out and a nice breeze has been in the air. Trees are beginning to bud, tulips are in bloom and other chards of green are fast beginning to emerge from their winter slumbers.

All serve as reminders that summer is right around the corner. It won’t be long before the sun is beating down on us and we’ll need a nice, cool beverage to take the blast out of the summer furnace. For foodservice operators, that means its beverage server season.

Beverage servers come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, but for beating the summer heat outdoors, units like Cambro’s Camtainer® are great for keeping a large supply of cold drinks nearby. One of the most popular beverage server lines on the market, Camtainers are suitable for a wide range of service, from outdoor weddings and charity events to work crews in correctional facilities and just about anything in between.

Securing beverage servers can be a challenge for some operators, particularly for our friends in correctional facilities. On especially hot days, some people may be inclined to open the beverage dispenser to snatch some of the ice inside, or worse, contaminating the beverage. And the plastic snap latches on the dispensers are not exactly meant to serve as a deterrent.

That’s why Cook’s Direct recently launched the Cook's Brand beverage server lock, a heavy-duty, welded stainless-steel latch that’s equipped with a padlock. Designed specifically for use with the Camtainer, it keeps the beverage inside securely uncontaminated by keeping hands and whatever else could end up inside the dispenser out.

The Cook's Brand beverage server lock from
Cook's Direct secures Cambro Camtainer®
beverage servers from contamination.
 “The beverage server lock allows operators to keep the contents of their beverage servers safe and secure while out in common areas,” said Tim Saner, sales team lead for Cook’s Direct and the mind behind the beverage server lock’s conception. Saner conceived the lock following a conversation with a sales rep that had a customer ask about keeping the beverage servers secure. Previous offerings had proved unsubstantial and inefficient.

“I started to sketch up a few ideas on alternate – and better – lid locking devices,” Saner said. “I tried to design the lock utilizing features inherent to the beverage dispenser.”

The Camtainer’s molded-in handles were critical in making the device simple and easy to use, Saner said, and the result is a low-cost, long-term solution that truly is user friendly. The latch simply slides through the Camtainer’s handles and is secured in place with the lock.

“Alternately, (the lock) can be used to keep empty containers empty while not in use,” Saner added. “I have heard some wild stories of what ends up in these when no one is watching, at prisons of course.”

Have any crazy beverage dispenser stories? Share them in the comments below.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Chicago public school taking foodservice too far

By Kevin Campbell
Content Editor

We all know that obesity, especially in elementary and secondary school-aged children, has become a major issue in the United States, one that parents, doctors and the public schools have all taken close notice of in recent years. That First Lady Michelle Obama brought it to the forefront early on in her husband’s administration with the Let’s Move campaign validates its importance.

And progress has been made. The awareness that programs like Let’s Move have brought, along with the efforts that public school districts across the nation have put into revising and revamping their foodservice and vending options, have begun to change the landscape. Children are being offered, and more importantly are beginning to accept, healthier food choices.

But there’s still a long way to go, and maybe that’s what has led to this.

According to the story, published Monday in the Chicago Tribune, Little Village Academy, a kindergarten through eighth grade public school on the city’s Southwest side, has banned students from bringing their own lunches from home. The children are expected to use the foodservice in the cafeteria, which costs $2.25. If they choose not to eat those meals, they go without lunch. Exceptions are made in cases where a child has a documented food allergy or other medical condition that requires a lunch brought from home.

“It's about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom),” Elsa Carmona, Little Village Academy principal, told the Tribune. “It's milk versus a Coke.

“But with allergies and any medical issue, of course, we would make an exception,” she added.

The question here is where to draw the line. Just how far should public schools go when it comes to monitoring and, in cases like this, dictating what students can and can’t eat? And how exactly do the kids learn to make smart choices when they’re offered only one option?

“This is such a fundamental infringement on parental responsibility,” said J. Justin Wilson, a senior researcher at the Washington-based Center for Consumer Freedom, in the Tribune story. The center is partially funded by the food industry.

What Wilson refers to is the disturbing component of this: the public school is not just offering students better choices. It’s taking a perfectly legitimate option out of the students’ and parents’ hands. And that’s a problem.

“Would the school balk if the parent wanted to prepare a healthier meal?” Wilson continued. “This is the perfect illustration of how the government's one-size-fits-all mandate on nutrition fails time and time again.”

What are your thoughts? Join the discussion in the comments below.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Omelet Guy Optimizes University of Montana Foodservice Ops with Green, Fun

By Kevin Campbell
Content Editor

You’d think that a guy who’s affectionately known as the “World Famous Omelet Guy” would probably maintain his focus on food and technique most of the time. But that isn’t the case with Mark LoParco, director, university dining services, at the University of Montana in Missoula, MT. When not spearheading a campaign, LoParco has played a major role in several efforts to improve food service operations at the school of about 14,000 students.

Cook’s Direct ran into LoParco at the National Association of College and University Food Services’ Continental Region annual conference, held March 27 to 30 at the Coeur d’Alene Golf and Spa Resort in Coeur d’Alene, ID.

LoParco is an ardent promoter of sustainable practices, in particular the use of local ingredients wherever and whenever possible. His most recent effort is the construction of a sustainable garden, to be built where a large concrete slab, previously used as a patio and for waste collection, sat adjacent to the Food Zoo, UM’s main cafeteria. Produce grown in the garden will supplement the fruit and vegetables already used (and many locally produced) in the kitchen. Ground was broken last week and construction began immediately.

The garden goes hand-in-hand with another project that LoParco has been a big part of: the Farm to College program, an effort to bring together local producers of livestock and produce and large-volume buyers, helping rejuvenate what had become a moribund agriculture industry.

Along with these programs, LoParco and his staff are also thinking green inside the kitchen. According to the Montana Kaimin, the university newspaper, two new waste reducer machines were rolled into the Food Zoo’s dishroom last summer. The machines reduce post-consumer waste, by up to 62 percent in the Food Zoo’s case, LoParco said in a presentation as part of the Sustainable Business Council Missoula Montana’s Sustainability Lecture Series.

With all of these pans in the fire, you might think LoParco is all business. But don’t take his hard-hitting approach to kitchen operations as his only focus. He hasn’t forgotten who his clientele is, and that’s where the gregarious personality of the World Famous Omelet Guy emerges. And, he and his crew of Food Zoo chefs are known around campus for their entertaining bits as a karaoke quintet, assuming their alter egos as The Baldinis and putting on a show for Food Zoo patrons.

Read more about LoParco’s efforts at Cook’s Direct.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Cook’s Direct is blogging!!

By Kevin Campbell
Content Editor

If you know Cook’s Direct, you probably know us for our expertise in foodservice equipment and operations. You know us for innovative product design and our diverse selection of products, both proprietary and from the best foodservice equipment vendors in the industry. And you know us for great customer service.

Now know us as an online destination for foodservice industry-related content.

We’ll be here blogging at least twice a week, and we hope you’ll join us for a read. We’ll talk about a wide variety of topics, ranging from the serious to the silly. We’ll talk about products. We’ll talk about tips and tricks for use in the kitchen. And on occasion, we’ll take a look at what someone is doing in their little corner of the industry that we think is pretty darn cool.

Be sure to check back on Thursday to read a story we have queued up about an East Coast guy who’s been doing some great things underneath the Big Skies of Montana. And if you haven’t already, take a look at last week’s item about the Eurodib 20-quart mixer, one of the most popular items at Cook’s

Please bookmark us and then jump in and join the discussion. Leave a comment or ask a question. And you can always e-mail me at

Thanks for reading!