10 Things Your Restaurant Won't Tell You
By Christine Bockelman
March 22, 2007

Business is good for the restaurant industry. Americans now spend roughly half their food budget dining out, and restaurants expect revenue of more than $537 billion in 2007. That's a 67% increase since 1997. But it's not just our collective avoidance of the kitchen that's pumping profits: Restaurants work every angle these days, using marketing psychology to get you to spend more.

At legendary Aureole Las Vegas, spandex-clad "wine angels" retrieve bottles from a 42-foot-tall spirits tower. The thinking behind the spectacle: "Anything that gets patrons' attention will get them to spend," says restaurant designer Mark Stech-Novak. Fast-food outlets use a high-stim environment to maximize the source of their profit: "It encourages faster turnover," says Stephani Robson, senior lecturer at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. "Specifically, the use of bright light, bright colors, upbeat music and seating that does not encourage lolling."

Even menus are rigged. "We list the item that makes the most profit first so it catches your eye," says restaurant consultant Linda Lipsky, "and bury the highest-cost item in the middle."

The 2006 E. coli outbreak that started at a New Jersey Taco Bell and sickened more than 60 people was traced to green onions. But food-borne illness isn't the only cause for concern: In a separate December incident, 373 people in Indianapolis got sick after eating at an Olive Garden where three employees tested positive for the highly contagious norovirus. (Olive Garden says that the source of the outbreak has yet to be determined.)

 

"You don't call out [sick] unless you're on your deathbed," says freelance chef Leah Grossman. Indeed, according to a recent study, 58% of salaried New York City restaurant workers reported going to work when sick; the number is even higher for those without benefits. "A lot of poor, transient people work in restaurants," says Peter Francis, coauthor of industry exposé How to Burn Down the House. "They're not giving up the $100 they'd make in a shift because they're sick."

How can you protect yourself? Check inspection results, which are often posted online by local departments of public health. Or just visit the restroom; it "tells you everything you need to know about a restaurant," Francis says.

It's no secret that restaurants enjoy huge markups on certain items: Coffee, tea and sodas, for example, typically cost restaurants 15 to 20 cents per serving, and pasta, which costs pennies, can be dressed up with more expensive fare and sold for $25 a dish or more. At a fine-dining restaurant, the average cost of food is 38 to 42% of the menu price, says Kevin Moll, CEO and president of National Food Service Advisors. In other words, most restaurants are making roughly 60% on anything they serve.

It's not all gravy though. Restaurants keep only four cents of every dollar spent by a customer, says Hudson Riehle, vice president of research and information services at the National Restaurant Association. The remainder of the money, he says, is divided between food and beverage purchases, payroll, occupancy and other overhead costs.

Given the slim profit margin, many restaurants rely on savvy pricing to create the illusion of value. Putting a chicken dish on the menu for $21 will make a $15 pasta dish, where the restaurant is making a big profit, seem like a bargain, says Gregg Rapp, owner of consulting firm MenuTechnologies.net.

No one likes having their every move scrutinized, but that may be just what's happening at your favorite restaurant. Cameras are popping up everywhere, from four-star eateries to the place where you grab your lunchtime sandwich. At historic Randy's Steakhouse in Frisco, Texas, where checks average $45 to $50, co-owner Don Burks has installed 12 cameras around the premises. Of those, two pick up activity in the dining rooms, and two are aimed at the bar. "We've had customers stand on chairs to try to take out a camera," Burks says. "But the cameras aren't even pointed at them; they're pointed at the wine rack." Their primary purpose: deterring employee theft.

At some restaurants, however, the cameras are indeed trained on the tables. At New York City's four-star Daniel, for example, four closed-circuit cameras monitor the dining rooms, offering a bird's-eye view of every plate. "It's about maintaining a quality of service," says Daniel spokesperson Georgette Farkas. "With the cameras the chef can tell when each course needs to be plated and served." So much for that romantic dinner for two.

Even when you pay top dollar for a seafood dish, you might not get what you're expecting. About 70% of the time, for example, those Maryland crab cakes on the menu weren't made using crabs from the Chesapeake Bay, says James Anderson, chairman of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the University of Rhode Island. Because of high demand, crabs are often from other eastern states or imported from Thailand and Vietnam. (Look closely at the menu: "Maryland-style" crab is the giveaway.)

There's also the problem of outright substitution — inexpensive fish, such as pollack, getting passed off as something pricier, like cod. How widespread is the problem? In 2006 the Daytona Beach News-Journal sent fish samples to a lab to prove that four out of 10 local restaurants were pawning a cheaper fish as grouper. The same lab also checked seafood from 24 U.S. cities and found that, overall, consumers have less than a 50/50 shot at being served the fish they ordered.

What can you do? Ask where the fish comes from. "If they're not sure if the fish is from Alaska or Asia, I order the beef," Anderson says.

When Timothy Dillon, 34, showed up at new Chicago trattoria Terragusto for his friend's birthday, he wasn't expecting a wait. He'd made a reservation for four, then called the day of to confirm and add one more. The restaurant told him no problem, but when the party showed up, they were met with a long wait. "After almost an hour of standing by the bar being ignored, we ended up leaving for another restaurant," Dillon says. Terragusto says it was its first week open: "We were probably working out a lot of glitches," says a spokesperson.

 

As Dillon discovered, a reservation isn't a guarantee. "Overbooking is almost a necessary evil," says John Fischer, associate professor of table service at the Culinary Institute of America. Restaurants calculate their average no-show percentage for any given night, then overbook the restaurant by that much, hoping it will come out even. How to avoid Dillon's fate? It's considered poor taste to offer a tip before you're seated, Fischer says, so if it's your first time, inquire politely after 15 minutes. But go ahead and slip the manager or maître d' $10 or $20 on the way out; it should ensure you're seated promptly next time.

"I'm very careful about ordering my food," says Rick Manson, owner of Chef Rick's restaurant in Santa Maria, Calif. If he orders oysters, Manson says, he'll offer multiple dishes on the menu that use oysters, "to make sure I use every one of them." Nonetheless, countless variables can leave surplus ingredients at the end of the day — which often become tomorrow's special. "It could be the chef legitimately wants to try out something new," says Stephen Zagor, founder of consulting firm Hospitality & Culinary Resources. "But it could also be something nearing the end of its shelf life that needs to get out of the kitchen."

 

How can you tell a good special from a bad one? Watch out for "an expensive item used in a way that's minimizing its flavor," Zagor says, such as a lamb chop that's been cut, braised and put into a dish where it's a supporting player. Pastas, stews and soups containing expensive meats are also suspect. "There's an old saying in the restaurant industry," says David A. Holmes, VP and director of Out East Restaurant Consultants. "'Sauce and gravy cover up a lot of mistakes.'"

Think that salmon fillet you ordered for dinner is good for you? Think again. Restaurants load even their healthiest fare with butter and other calorie-heavy add-ons. Restaurant meals average 1,000 to 1,500 calories, says Milton Stokes, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. That's roughly two-thirds of the daily average calories recommended by the USDA. And according to a recent study, women who eat out five times a week consume an average of 290 additional calories per day.

 

While most Americans assume that fast food is the worst offender, similar fare at casual sit-down restaurants can be even more caloric. The classic burger at Ruby Tuesday, for example, has a whopping 1,013 calories and 71 grams of fat. The McDonald's Big Mac, with its 540 calories and 29 grams of fat, seems downright diet-worthy by comparison. "We butter our hamburger buns," says Julie Reid, vice president of culinary for Ruby Tuesday, "so we tell people if they're looking to cut calories, they shouldn't eat the bun." If that sounds less than appetizing, try splitting an entrée with someone, or order an appetizer instead of a main dish.

Just because you tip your waitress 10 bucks, it doesn't mean she's going home with that money. More than likely, she'll have to pass on some of it to the people who helped her serve you: The bartender might get $2, and the busboy $3 to $5. It's called a tip pool, and it's becoming standard practice in many restaurants. "It happens often that if someone leaves a voluntary tip [for their server], a significant portion of that money is going to other people," Zagor says.

 

According to federal law, only employees who customarily receive tips — waitstaff, hosts, bartenders and bussers — can participate in the tip pool. But sometimes management takes a cut. In 2006, waitstaff from the Hilltop Steak House in Saugus, Mass., won $2.5 million in damages after complaining that managers dipped into their tips.

Mandatory gratuities are also divvied up. At high-end restaurants such as New York City's Per Se and Napa Valley's French Laundry, both owned by chef Thomas Keller, the practice is called service compris. "The 20% service charge is clearly stated on the menu, and it's equally divided among the staff," says a spokesperson for both restaurants. While the tip pool is designed to foster a team environment among staff, for customers it means something else entirely — that your gratuity isn't specifically rewarding the waiter or sommelier who provided you with exemplary service.

If you think that Monday, when restaurants tend not to be crowded, is a great time to eat out, think again. "You're being served all of the weekend's leftovers," says Francis, coauthor of "How to Burn Down the House." Kitchens prepare food on a first-in, first-out basis, meaning whatever is oldest gets served first. It's a way to ensure that everything on the menu is as fresh as possible.

 

The system works great most days, but it can run into a little glitch over the weekend. Distributors typically take Sunday off and make their last deliveries Saturday morning — which means that by Monday any food not used over the weekend is at least three to four days old. And it will be served before the same ingredients arriving in Monday's delivery.

What to do if you wish to dine out on a Monday? Ignore your instincts and go to a place that's perpetually crowded. "If you are open 24/7 and busy all the time," says New York-based chef Lucia Calvete, "all your ingredients are fresh all the time."

Source of article: http://www.smartmoney.com/10things/index.cfm?story=april2007

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After K & P came back from their honeymoon, K called me up and claimed she had brought back some "goodies" from Singapore for me to try~ Black Pepper Crab Cookies. I was pretty sure at that point that she was mistaken, and was somehow mixing up her passion for Black Pepper Crab with her love for cookies. She was adamant that she was right, and stubbornly so was I.

Luckily this was easily resolved, as our offices are only four floors apart, so I immediately popped downstairs to collect the souvenir from her.

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M was very excited about the reunion that he orchestrated for his university mates in Beijing, and decided to hold the gathering at The Tree, in Sanlitun - the LKF of Beijing. One couldn't help but wonder how true could his claim that this is the best place ever for pizza in Asia... these people from the States always seem to indulge in the superlatives in their vocabulary~ come on, fantabulous pizza in Beijing? (ETA: just got an email from him saying the best pizza is at the Hyatt in Mumbai... that totally proves my theory!)



This being my first visit to the capital, I obviously, didn't have any say... we walked past many trendy bars in the Sanlitun area before reaching the hidden alleyway where The Tree was located. One cannot miss the big wood fired pizza oven right at the entrance, where the pizza chef was busy rolling out pizza dough base after pizza dough base...

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Source: The Berkeley

Was fascinated to hear from cxb the other night of the Fahsionista's Afternoon Tea served at The Berkeley in UK. Instead of the normal scones and finger sandwiches, it offers an interesting selection of cakes with names like Yves Sant Laurent pink bow vanilla fancy handbag, Marc Jacobs cassis and blackberry frilly macaroon, and Burberry Prorsum Red ginger boot biscuit. Go here for the full menu. A perfect afternoon tea spot after the shopping rounds at Harvey Nics et at in Knightsbridge.

Definitely one of my must visit destination next time I visit... btw this is also where Petrus is located - Marcus Wareing the head chef is one of Gordon Ramsay's protege, known for his sensational sauce. Gordon Ramsay also has a upscale cafe here, which I haven't had the chance to visit yet.

At The Caramel Room, The Berkeley, Knightsbridge London
London

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Yesterday, I went to J's hospital to remove my upper left wisdom tooth (#28) not because it was causing me pain, but because it was coming out at a weird angle that could result in food trappings difficult to remove after each meal. J thought it would only take ten minutes to remove it.

In the end, it took thirty minutes and involved much hammering with a mallet. 

As it turned out, my tooth was enormous - it had four crowns versus the usual two or three. Or at least, that's the excuse that J gave me for taking so much longer.

I was given the tooth in a little transparent container as a souvenir - it was extremely gross, with bits of meat still attached to the tooth. I brought it back to the office to show everyone, but obviously apart from myself, not many were interested.

Wait that's not the part of the story I want to share.

When I came back to work today, the tooth was GONE.

Who would have stolen a bloody tooth like that? I feel as if a part of my body (which it was at one part) stolen.

To compound the unhappiness, my left cheek is swollen like an egg.

*ETA*: I found the tooth, at someone else's cubicle... must have been the cleaners that moved it around (or so I hope).

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Wandering around Causeway Bay without a dinner destination, we found ourselves on Sunning Road on a Saturday evening , and I thought of agnes b le pain grille – the notoriously difficult to book little bistro nestling on the corner of Leighton and Sunning Road. We decided to try our luck anyway and were pleasantly surprised that a table was available. In celebration we ordered a carafe of house red. 




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More from the Beijing series~ 

K found out R was a vegetarian at our dinner gathering on Sunday, and said we must try Pure Lotus during our stay in Beijing. K's boyfriend is a strict vegetarian and this is his fave restaurant in Beijing... to be honest I was highly sceptical at how great a chinese veggie place could be, I mean, I do like going to Kung Tak Lam every once in a while, but still... especially since by going to Pure Lotus, this had dashed my hopes of visiting Dadong Kaoya for its legendary peking duck...



Pure Lotus is situated in a hidden corner of Chaoyang district, and our taxi driver had a lot of difficulty finding the place. My suggestion would be to call up the restaurant when you get onto a taxi and ask them to give the driver the instructions direct - this almost always worked. After a number of frustrating turns, we finally arrived, dishevelled, at the serene and calm Buddhist veggie Pure Lotus.


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Happy 2007!

A new year and a new blog site...

Please bear with me while I go through this painstaking moving process.

And thank you to all those that have on occasion, nudged me with a kind reminder that the blog needs updating.

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According to the SCMP, the first Krispy Kreme in HK will open its doors on August 8 at Lee Garden Road in Causeway Bay.

They will be making 2,000 glazed donuts a day. Everyday.

Sickly sweet and greasy, there's 200 calories packed in every one of these little devils.

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I *heart* hairy crab - my fave type of crustacean. But after the memorable yellow-oil crab extravaganza we enjoyed last year, I now look forward to the short window of time (now!) when yellow-oil crab is in season. We recently headed back to Fu Sing (富聲) to savour this year's catch...

 

Unfortunately I forgot my camera (absolute horror), so the above pic is re-pasted from the original entry last year. 

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Given there's only a handful of readers that drop by this blog occassionally, every single comment counts tremendously. After the recent burst of productivity, I am receiving "complaints" over the large vacuum that exists between the half-finished Hokkaido trip to the latest Beijing adventures...

Let me tell you I take this very seriously. Hence, Libra in nature, thought it's best to balance your views... which of the following are your preferred topics?

Destination write-ups on:
        - Beijing

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After a morning of sight seeing, M suggested heading to Hou Hai to have a chill out lunch at this fab Vietnamese place he knows. Us four ducklings, without a clue as to where we were, were obedient followers and Hou Hai we went.

After a 20 min cab ride we arrived at this place that looks errily similar to Boat Quay in Singapore, albeit with more Chinese-y buildings. There weren't many tourists this pleasant Monday lunch time, and off we went in search of M's destination. Most of the buildings along the lake have kept their traditional facade but completely revamped on the inside - with the majority being restaurants and tourist galleries.

We began doubting M's sense of direction after he brought us all the way to the end of the footpath and back, especially since he already called up K asking for directions. Bossy me decided to take charge and began flipping our tour book to find the address - at that point I made this startling discovery - we were in Hou Hai (back of the lake) while the restaurant was in Qian Hai (front of the lake) - totally at the opposite end! We agreed to just stay in this nice area and decided to try South Silk Road.

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After our eye-opening stroll at the night market, we made our way to the Grand Hyatt, where we have reservations for dinner at Made In China, its Chinese cuisine which has been getting rave reviews from everyone I know. Expectations were high...



We walked into a modern and sophisticatedly decked out dining room, with some Chinese touches here and there. My first thought was that this place looks very similar to Mezza at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore - not sure if it's the same designer. Anyway, we were starving by now (it's 9pm) so everyone was eagerly waiting for the food to arrive.

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After settling down at our hotel, we immediately headed out for the Wang Fu Jian area for dinner. Since we had an hour to spare before our reservation, we decided to walk round the Dong Hua Men night market. Not a good idea when we were all on empty stomaches.

The night market consisted of a long busy stretch of outdoor food stalls right round the Wang Fu Jian main street, offering a wide variety of food.

Most of the stalls we encountered were selling meat and veggie skewers. The chargrill aroma was pretty intense and the hawkers were very eager to get any type of business. There was a wide selection, from lamb, beef, chicken, to intestine, tripe, and even weird looking bits. R, who is a vegetarian, steered clear of the stalls and looked rather ill at ease.

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My motivation to post dropped again to zilch after my last post, but was revived with the discovery of one lone reader of this blog (thanks CXB). So I now feel obliged to post a quickie here... 

I took a week off in late May to visit Beijing, courtesy of M, who was ever so kind to let me join his "ECRST Summer 06" tour group. This was my first time as a tourist there, so everything was an eye-opener. Must admit that before the trip, I was concerned with the hygiene level with the many horror stories one hear. But must admit was more than pleasantly surprised by how developed and advanced the place has become since my last visit (which was a biz trip and consisted of two destinations - airport & hotel). Of course, much of the credit goes to M, who did a great job in organising and attending to our every single whim and request. (am trying to make amend for all my complaints whilst on the trip... )

Anyway, while waiting for the other three members of our little tour group to arrive at Beijing airport, we nipped off to the basement of arrivals lounge for some lunch - since we had more than two hours to spare. After checking out the proper restaurants, we settled on the foodcourt, which seemed the most popular of them all.

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