I've mentioned this quote before, but it bears repeating. It comes from the great New York City restaurateur Joe Baum. "The restaurant industry is a soft pillow on which to rest one's head."
Baum made that statement more than 20 years ago in response to the growing popularity and presence of the restaurant industry. It was his way of saying that this is a great industry, but restaurants simply provide comfort to the masses—nothing more, nothing less.
I remember this quote every time someone or some organization starts pointing the finger at the industry. Far too many believe that restaurants should adopt a parental role when dealing with customers. It's your responsibility, they believe, to monitor your customers as if they were children.
The object of my concern is a new report that urges you to shrink portion sizes and renew efforts to offer the nutritional content of menu items. The report comes from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and it wants your help to fight obesity. It's a well-meaning report because America's waistline is growing, with 64 percent of us overweight, including the 30 percent who are obese.
The restaurant industry does not operate in a vacuum. It has become a sales juggernaut because it does one thing very well; gives customers what they want. When the call for better, more nutritious menu items grew louder a few years back, restaurants definitively answered that call. What the customer wants, the customer gets.
It's that philosophy that has made the Cheesecake Factory one of America's greatest chain restaurants. It built an empire on the demand for generous portions. But the company recently unveiled a new menu in Los Angeles that responds to the demand for smaller portions of a dozen popular menu items. Nevertheless, customers can choose to order those items in full-size portions. It's their choice.
Like the Cheesecake Factory, most restaurants are constantly adapting to the market. For many, menus change daily, weekly, monthly, which makes it difficult and costly to offer a nutritional analysis of every menu item. Ruby Tuesday attempted to do just that, but was forced to stop, citing excessive costs to reprint an entire menu every time an ingredient or portion size changed.
Even the FDA report concedes that the laboratory work needed to calculate the nutritional content of a single menu item can cost $100 and up to $46,000 for an entire menu.
You can't blame the government for trying to get its hands around a difficult problem. But you also can't blame the restaurant industry for a problem it did not create. As Baum said, this industry's role is to provide comfort to the masses. Comfort for some may mean a wildly indulgent meal, while for others it may mean an organic salad. When you give customers a choice, you've done well.
For more details about the 136-page report prepared by The Keystone Center and funded by the FDA, turn to page 28. Senior editor Bob Krummert offers his analysis of the document and leads you to the website where you can read the full report.