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    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.”