By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
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By Dana De Greff
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"Your restaurant! Your war!" wrote Troy Brackett, publisher of Restaurantnews.com, in an impassioned restaurateur call to arms following the September 11 attacks. "During these uncertain times, it is imperative that we understand where we are, what we are up against and what we must do.... Commit yourselves NOW to noble things: Your families depend on you. Your team depends on you. Your customers depend on you. The economic stability of your community and your nation depends on you! Yes, we ARE being tested! With every customer we lose ... they win! With every employee we have to lay off ... they win! With every restaurant we close ... they win!"
Quite. The only problem is, Brackett's fondness for capital letters and exclamation points aside, do our restaurateurs really know what they're up against?
The folks at the Shore Club think they do. They've filed Chapter 11 and simultaneously launched a Sunday brunch at Sirena in hopes of boosting local business.
1901 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139
Category: Hotels and Resorts
Region: South Beach
Billboardlive/Breez's proprietors think they do. The partners there laid off corporate chef Ephraim Kadish -- loyalty to the strength of his vision and the eighteen-hour days he worked to open the zillion-dollar establishment be damned. Apparently cutting his salary alone allows them to save some face, at least for the time being.
The Touch people think they do. For the rest of October, they're running a "friends and family discount," taking 25 percent off the entire check for diners who make a reservation in advance (except for Friday and Saturday nights, natch). China Grill Management also has been doing a little thinking. That company's Suva is promoting a "Fia Fia Feast" -- salad, four entrées, and two side dishes -- for $29 per person.
But these are just economics talking. Gimmicks. Last-ditch efforts to maintain individual businesses.
Losing customers, figuratively speaking, is not what our restaurateurs should be concerned about. Losing them -- literally -- is.
Yes, I'm talking about bioterrorism, perpetrated in our culinary houses of worship. Yes, I'm alerting you to the fact, if you haven't already come to the conclusion yourself, that chemicals and germs can be deliberately spread, contaminating our salad bars and buffets. No, I'm not only referring to anthrax but to those bacteria that thrive on food: salmonella, E.coli, shigella, and so on.
A precedent has already been set. In 1984 nearly 1000 people in The Dalles, Oregon, complained of symptoms of salmonella, filling every bed and hallway at the nearby hospital. The Center for Disease Control could not locate the source of the outbreak. It was only after cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who maintained a complex in the town, admitted that some of his followers had actually sprayed the salad bars around town with salmonella. Fortunately no one died. But having contracted salmonella myself, through (I think) more honest negligence, I'd reckon about 1000 people were wishing at the time that they would.
There have also been several scares. In early October Chuck's Italian-American eatery in Des Moines was evacuated after five people were suddenly sickened by mysterious fumes. At Frisch's in a Cincinnati, Ohio, suburb, both employees and customers were quarantined after a small glass vial containing a clear liquid was found on the premises. Despite concerns, neither incident proved to be terrorism.
Suspicious times make suspicious minds, however. How easy would it be for someone in Miami to concoct and carry out a food-borne-illness scheme? About as simple as dropping GHB into someone's drink at Goddess or Level.
After wandering around the Whole Foods market in Aventura and perusing the salad and olive bars, where security is limited to a sign that advises patrons to take samples with a toothpick, I agree more than ever with Brackett's assessment: "Fear should not dictate our lives and operations, but there is legitimate reason for concern. Expect the unexpected.... You need to look at your operation, your customer flow, from a totally different perspective. Do you ever just stand and watch what people are actually doing in your restaurant? Are you asking yourself questions [like], What is that can, box, or bag that someone just walked through your front door with? Why does that person's eyes keep darting around the restaurant? Is there something odd about how long someone has been in the restroom?"
Judging from the number of diners I've witnessed doing drugs or heard having sex in the facilities, I can only assume that no, most restaurateurs have not been wondering about how long someone has been in the restroom. Unless now, of course, that someone is of Arab descent or features and carries a textbook on toxicology.
So you want to increase your business or at least cut your losses? Know what you're really up against: our fears, both real and imagined. Don't try to tempt us back with two-for-one specials and five-course meals. Do it with security guards standing over the 230 dishes at the Chinese buffets or cops keeping company with clients during prime business hours. Do it with an emergency plan in case something does happen and all the lettuce on your salad bar is suddenly dripping toxic bacteria.
Or soon you may not be doing it at all.