Thursday, March 31, 2011

Another Food Crisis? Let's be real...

That is the question on all of our minds and what it means to our industry. In a simplistic way, when faced with such rising costs, the method for maintaining the budget and quality of food offered is based on a strategic plan. In an effort to be transparent to our students, I would like to share what happens when we are faced with the situation we are currently in. We have faced it numerous times...

The first thing we do is negotiate with our distributors and manufactures to offset prices. Remember that the distributors "eat" much of the cost so that restaurants can keep prices as low as possible. Once we have done our due diligence here, we have to look at the portion sizes of entrees served. Many years ago, a common entree portion was 6 ounces. In 2008, we moved to a 5 ounce portion which was a direct response to that time dealing with high energy costs, Hurricane Ike, and the recession in the same year. (One of the most challenging years of my career) Yes, we have begun looking at 4.5 and 4 ounce portions for the upcoming year... Remember, it is all you care to eat. If we are still challenged with maintaining costs, the next thing is limiting offerings and changing the menu mixture to those items that are affordable while maintaing the quality you expect. Quality is the very last thing that would be compromised in our matrix. If we are faced with a catastrophe of the economic variety, we certainly would have to look at lower cost ingredients which typically translates to a lesser quality. I do not expect it to come to this anytime soon. There are many creative ways to offset costs without compromising quality and our chef's are masters at this!

A word about 2011... We are now facing the same energy increases we experienced in 2008 with a dim economic forecast moving forward. Primarily, the supply of food and ingredients is looking to shrink and therefore raise costs globally. A word about the radiation in Japan... This is a new development and experience in our careers and we don't fully know yet the impact it will have on the global market. We are starting to hear about contamination of the seafood in Japan and recently, in Oregon, dairy is being affected. Although I am optimistic, we must be diligent. The West Coast and California supplies 80% of the "in-season" produce for the entire nation... Imagine the impact if this market were compromised.

Lastly, I would like to talk about the Food: CPI. We have seen a cumulative increase since 2005 of ~26% In plain terms, food costs ~26% more today than it did 6 years ago. The forecast is showing an increase of ~3-4% this year. Have a look here:

I am wholly optimistic that we will stay true to form offering high quality food and creative menus, but remain cautious and diligent to fluxes in the market. We are doing what we can... What can you do to help us? Above all, limit your plate waste. Please take what you would like, but eat it... Take smaller portions and return for seconds if that helps. This economic problem is not going away soon and we are all part of the solution working together.


Friday, January 14, 2011

You know what I mean?

I am often asked by students why we make it difficult for them to provide food at bake sales and fundraisers. I find myself sounding like a broken record when I am quoting Houston city regulations in regards to the preparation and sale of food. I recently read this article in the Chron titled City puts a stop to homeless outreach - Couple must have proper permit to continue feeding dozens each day. 

My intention is not necessarily to call out the regulation, but pose an example to students why I am often denying requests for their events. Philosophically I am aligned with students and the need to feed the homeless, but being a food professional, I would also have to agree with the city pertaining its regulations for safety reasons. However, I wonder if it is more risky for the homeless to eat off the street and out of refuse rather than to receive handouts from responsible adults who have a desire to help the needy.

"We absolutely need more people like them who care about this vulnerable population," Boyd said. "Even though their intentions are good, they ran into ordinances that are designed to protect the public. There are good reasons why they're in place. (Connie Boyd, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County.)"


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Please Teach the Children

There is so much focus on the education of our children regarding academics, I fear that we are failing them in the education of life. (I am not saying the academic education should be diluted in anyway). The attached report shows that all kid's through the 12th grade are eating much more than the daily allowance of sugar and saturated fats. Even more concerting is that most of the food eaten represents "empty calories." This is the grain desserts, soda, and pizza our kids love.

I often hear that it is the schools responsibility to educate our kids academically, but when it comes to eating and social skills it is the parents responsibility. Well, I agree with this to a point except for the fact that our kids spend 6-8 hours a day at school. Who is responsible to feed them well during this time? The schools! I am still mind-boggled that we cannot serve healthy food in our primary schools. The excuse is that kids won't eat healthy. I don't agree... If you give them a choice, they will probably take the familiar unhealthy foods, but if the schools eliminate them, there will really be no alternative. They are hungry, they will eat.

Please get rid of the unhealthy food in our primary schools and educate them wholly. Not just academically, but socially and responsibly.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I know, food cost again...

Yup! Food prices are going up, up, and away... But this time it does not have to do with a shrinking economy or the weak value of the dollar a la 2008. Nor does it have to do with soaring energy prices a la 2007. This time it has to do with hoarding inventory of such items like corn and cereal grain. Recently, we heard about Moscow placing a limit on exports of their grains; recognizing the recession well in advance of the actual moment. Credit to their economists their... They were widely scolded by many countries and the U.N. for this behavior as well.

Looks like they had the right idea... The U.S. and Africa have begun exporting less grains in anticipation of a world-wide shortage. What does this mean to us? Higher costs of course! I know it seems like doom and gloom from 2008 and 2009, but I am going to take a more optimistic approach. Americans have a unique quality to tighten up when the going gets rough. Think about the energy prices in early 2007 when oil was well over $100 per barrel. We tightened up our consumption and drove the prices down to the $50s. I believe this will be yet another example of the conservation that seems to be inherent in the American psyche. Therefore, prices will certainly spike for a short while, but once the inventory becomes too great and expensive to keep hoarded, that inventory will be unleashed and prices will drop again precipitously.

As responsible administrators, it is our duty to turn away as much as possible from "short-supply"items whilst waiting for the prices to drop. We have proven as an industry that we can do this over and over again. Now we have to do it again!


Thursday, September 30, 2010

Politics of Food

I was just reading a report by the AP that say's Michelle Obama's nutrition bill has stalled in congress because they would like to pay for it with food stamps. I don't really want to get into the politics of this, but rather ask the question, why do we need a bill to make food more nutritious in schools?

The bill would provide for leaner cuts of meat, removing unhealthy snacks from vending machines and so forth. Do we really need this? Just take the crap out! No mess, no fuss... Does it cost more to serve a 90/10 burger rather than an 80/20? Nope! Does it cost money to get rid of vending machines? Nope (unless you consider the commission from vending machines that the school get's)

I remember the day that my high school way back in 1988 put a soda vending machine on campus and how delighted we were to get it... Why did they introduce a soda machine on campus? I don't think they were thinking about our health, but rather making money off the backs of our poor nutrition. Since I am at it... when did all of this become a right rather than a privilege?

So, I am asking fellow dining director's of schools large and small, primary and secondary to just get rid of it! Renegotiate your contracts for better food! Your suppliers will acquiesce since they don't want to lose these lucrative contracts. Trust me, I have done this for Rice University and guess what? No mess, no fuss.

Come on people... get with it... our children are depending on us!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ready for an Emergency?

We had a little scare last night in one of our kitchens that turned out to be quite minor. However, when was the last time you held emergency procedure training and fire extinguisher use training? If your answer is not lately, I would suggest this be done regularly. In our case, employees had been trained in the middle of August about what to do in the case of fire or an emergency and the threat became minor because of this training. Without training, it could have been worse.

Great job to the crew at the kitchen last night for containing and mitigating a potentially critical situation.
I applaude you all,

Monday, September 20, 2010

Have You Read?

I had an interesting and educational week in Boston this last week which was supposed to be mostly relaxing, but when you live and breath food, there is really no such thing. After filling myself for three day's with the famous cuisine of Boston such as steamers, oysters, and clam chowder, I found myself at Harvard and their bookstore of all places. When in Rome...

Visiting the huge COOP that is the bookstore, I realized that the tables out front designed to catch your attention were filled to the brim with books about food! I don't mean diet and health books necessarily, but the evolution of food and the effect on our society and culture. I like to think of myself as keeping up with the times regarding university dining, but I realized that it is time to look at the history of food to better understand the future.

Like to join me on this adventure? Here are some that I recommend...

The Botany of Desire & In Defense of Food - Michael Pollan
The end of overeating - David Kessler, MD
Catching Fire, How cooking made us human - Richard Wrangham
Student's Vegetarian Cookbook - Carole Raymond
Raising The Salad Bar - Catherine Walthers
Molecular Gastronomy - Herve This
What To Eat - Marion Nestle
The Cook's Herb Garden - Jeff Cox & Marie-Pierre Moine
Eating Animals - Jonathan Safran Foer

Have you read any of these? Share your thoughts...