Who’s Directing the Conversation?

    In today’s debates on health, wages, and other issues, parties outside the restaurant industry are trying to influence the national discussion.

    flickr / Annette Bernhardt

    Organizations like Fast Food Forward have captured media attention with organized demonstrations demanding an increase in the minimum wage.

    On July 1, 2013, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit consumer advocate organization that conducts research on health and nutrition, issued a statement declaring the “worst restaurant meal in America.” The meal in question, it said, included 33 grams of trans fat, 19 grams of saturated fat, nearly 3,700 milligrams of sodium, and 1,320 calories; CSPI took particular umbrage with the meal’s use of partially hydrogenated oil, an ingredient that creates trans fat, which is bad for cholesterol.

    The unlucky winner of the “worst restaurant meal in America” title? Turned out to be Long John Silver’s “Big Catch Meal,” a limited-time offer that was served with 7–8 ounces of fried haddock, hushpuppies, and onion rings. CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson called the meal “a heart attack on a hook” and “America’s deadliest catch,” clever wording that grabbed headlines across the country, from NPR and Los Angeles Times to USA Today and Fox News. In short order, Long John Silver’s faced a cacophony of public scrutiny.

    CSPI’s actions weren’t anything new; the organization has long been an industry watchdog calling into question the nutritional makeup of foodservice

    meals. What happened next, though, reflected the restaurant industry’s increasing pressure to evolve in accordance with demands from outside interest groups in today’s social media age. Though Long John Silver’s at first went on the defensive, issuing a statement noting that CSPI had neglected to mention that the brand used trans fat–free oils in markets where the ingredient was banned, it changed its tune about two months later. On August 28, 2013, the company issued a statement saying it would remove trans fats from its menu nationwide.

    Long John Silver’s CEO Mike Kern said in the release that “the move to trans fat–free cooking oil is part of the evolution of Long John Silver’s.” But the release also included these words from CSPI’s Jacobson: “We appreciate the speed and seriousness with which Long John’s Silver’s leadership addressed our concerns and made this important change for the better.”

    Perhaps more than ever before, outside interest groups like CSPI have an influence on the quick-service restaurant industry, using social media and other means to grab consumers’ attention in such a way as to force brands’ hand into change. It’s a shift that could encourage increased responsibility from the operator side—a system of checks and balances—but also threatens to wrest control of the industry’s direction from the industry itself.

    “One of the really interesting things is that most of the people who are trying to have an influence on the category—the restaurant industry as a whole, quick service as a segment, or individual brands—are typically not the customer of the businesses that they’re after, which is always very interesting,” says Warren Ellish, industry consultant and founder of Ellish Marketing Group. “They’re trying to regulate or change things that they don’t actively participate in.”

    The “they” that Ellish refers to covers a lot of different parties. There are nonprofit organizations that serve as industry watchdogs for different causes, groups like CSPI and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which bring attention to the state of health and nutrition; the Humane Society of the United States, which advocates for animal protection; Fast Food FACTS, which monitors nutrition for and marketing to children; and Restaurant Opportunities Center and Fast Food Forward, which have led the recent demonstrations across the country for better wages. There are also legislative bodies that influence the industry conversation, from the New York City Council (and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg) that attempted to ban large sugary drinks to the San Francisco City Council that banned toys with unhealthy kids’ meals. And finally, there are individuals with a platform and a voice, like authors Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle, who have helped educate consumers about a healthier food system, and bloggers who have championed various causes to great effect.

    Fred LeFranc, founding partner of industry consultancy Results Thru Strategy and board member with Healthy Dining, says individuals with powerful voices have especially spurred along the evolution toward healthier, nutritious foods. Michelle Obama, for example, made childhood nutrition her primary platform as first lady and helped encourage significant changes in the foodservice industry (she’s also had a team of representatives, like former White House chef Sam Kass, helping the cause).

    But he adds that in this day and age, you don’t need to be married to the president to earn that voice. He points to a situation earlier this year, when the blogger Vani Hari, known online as “Food Babe,” managed to rally support to get Subway to remove the ingredient azodicarbonamide from its bread. The blogger collected thousands of signatures on a petition, and in February, Subway announced that the ingredient would be slashed from the menu.

    “Here’s a young woman who is … a blogger who managed to get one of the largest restaurant chains in the world to remove an ingredient, and she’s going after salt next,” LeFranc says. “When I talk to restaurateurs, they roll their eyes. To them, it’s just sort of more legislative assault and consumer assault on things that they don’t even want to hear about.”

    That doesn’t mean, though, that these people can be ignored, LeFranc says. He says the “food activists” are generally creating awareness about issues that are good to discuss in the public sphere. The trick, he says, is to bring some moderation into the conversation so that the outside interests do not have an inordinate amount of power.

    The ongoing minimum-wage debate is the most recent example of a conversation in which outside interests have attempted to sway the industry conversation. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), along with Restaurant Opportunities Center and Fast Food Forward, are some of the organizations that have helped the movement gain consumer media attention and social media traction, calling for a $15 minimum wage and the right for fast-food workers to unionize. The groups have used the hashtag #StrikeFastFood to bring attention to a series of demonstrations, the most recent on September 4, when workers in several U.S. cities walked out on their jobs. More than 100 were arrested for civil disobedience.

    Patrice Rice, founder of hospitality recruiting firm Patrice & Associates, says what most everyone else in the limited-service world believes: A $15 minimum wage is impossible on a national level in the quick-service industry. But part of the problem with the minimum-wage debate, she says, is that the conversation has so far been one-sided in popular media and void of much sense of compromise.

    “I would acknowledge that there are areas to work on, including things like quality of life and management opportunities and bonuses,” Rice says of what operators’ response to these outside interests should be. “I would acknowledge that there are things to be done to improve. I don’t think I would completely ignore it, I don’t think I would agree with it. A lot of times the pendulum swings so far one way to try to get somebody to move some place to the middle.”

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    For his part, Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs at the National Restaurant Association (NRA), says restaurant operators should not pay as much attention to action from groups like SEIU—he calls the demonstrations a “made-for-TV, orchestrated deal”—as they do legal challenges from entities like the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB recently declared that McDonald’s can be considered a joint employer with its franchisees, which makes the company accountable for workplace conditions at franchise locations.

    DeFife says these kinds of actions must be taken seriously “because these kinds of things can change business models and bend operations through the force of law and regulation. Engagement in that manner is very important.”

    Engagement takes many forms when it comes to countering the interests of parties outside the restaurant industry. For one, operators can turn to groups like the NRA and similar associations to represent their interests on the legal front. They can also reach out to their local legislators to help communicate the business’s perspective on certain matters.

    A third option for operators is to educate themselves on trends, consumer demands, and the demands of the third-party interests to find some sort of compromise that might be the smart, responsible move to make.

    “I think it’s really important that operators are monitoring what the issues are and trying to stay ahead of what the emerging issues are, then looking within their own sort of corporate culture to determine if there are any changes that they need to make—new policies that they need to develop, new strategies that they need to employ,” says Joan McGlockton, vice president of industry affairs and food policy at the NRA. “And I think a part of that discussion is how proactive they want to be, and engaging, with outside third parties, and what that looks like. I think there are certainly circumstances where engagement really can be a positive force.”

    LeFranc adds that a proactive approach in which operators educate themselves on the matter at hand and then communicate their stance to the customers is one that could secure support from people who might otherwise listen to the outside interests.

    “I think restaurateurs, if they got involved in the conversation, once they got educated, could get people on their side who would ordinarily lean the other way because they’re going to say, ‘Wait a minute, we understand this,’” he says.

    Dennis Lombardi, executive vice president of foodservice strategies at restaurant consulting firm WD Partners, says restaurants should do a better job of organizing themselves against interests that might have sway over the industry. Through better organization, he says, the industry can educate the public on the issues before they become highly scrutinized public debates. That way, operators don’t have to come into the argument late and be on the defensive.

    Educating customers and taking part of the ongoing conversation is easier today than ever before, thanks to social media. But social media is also the conduit through which many of these outside interests are rallying support and earning the soapbox upon which they are spreading their message.

    “That’s what accelerates and maintains these controversies,” Lombardi says. “The biggest influencers are the masses who are active enough to use social media, because it’s not that hard to do. It’s one thing to get in a truck, drive 500 miles, and stage a protest. It’s a whole other thing to sit down for 35 seconds at your computer.”

    Lombardi says brands must double down on the messaging that goes out via social media. Corporate teams must always monitor their social media feeds and help guide the conversation people are having about their brand so that they can present a realistic, educated representation of the company.

    “If they don’t actively manage their brand and the social media, the marketplace will do it for them, and they may not like the results,” he says. “So the very first thing to do is you’ve got to manage your brand’s image and what your brand is about on social media, and that is a highly, highly important marketing function.”

    Restaurants that find themselves up against the interests of outside parties should avoid talking negatively about those other perspectives and should instead talk positively about their brand, Ellish says. That way, the brand can “stand up on its own merits” with the people who really matter: the loyal customers.

    “You have the opportunity to have a dialogue … with the people who are talking about your brand,” Ellish says. “It’s not like in the olden days when you go out and try to sell them on something. You go out and you have a conversation about whatever that topic is, you do it with factual information, and you allow people to hear the conversation, and then make their own educated decisions on what they want to do.”