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Task Force to Re-Open Florida Prioritizes ‘Consumer Sentiment’

I took some time earlier today to listen in on the Re-Open Florida Task Force Industry Working Group. The discussion today was about tourism and the restaurant industry, two industries I am quite familiar with as a food writer in Florida.

A number of CEOs and advocates for industry players spent time talking about their recommendations for Florida to re-open for business. One thing most of them left out was the vital importance of widespread testing and how Florida still is not at a stage where opening is safe for the public.

Most speakers on the call brought up the fact that Florida’s small businesses in the restaurant industry may not survive if they do not re-open in the next month or so.

There was plenty of commonalities between speakers with most of them stressing consumer sentiment and employee safety. The executives seemed divided on how exactly that could be achieved, but they all agreed if they cannot achieve those basic tenets that it will be dangerous for them to re-open.

Things mentioned included masks, temperature checks, phases of social distancing, bacterial cleanings of hotel rooms, PPE, paid sick leave, among other things. Stakeholders mentioned that without these things employees would not feel a desire to return to their jobs and that the public would be uneasy to come back.Subscribe

Notably, these materials are barely available at the moment for our healthcare workers who are currently in hospitals being forced to re-wear and limit masks and there is a nationwide PPE shortage. Different hospitals seem to have different supply access, although doctors and nurses continue to protest a lack of supplies as recently as today.

These materials also seem to be missing in our nursing homes which are experiencing spikes of coronavirus outbreaks across the state with over 300 ALF facilities currently dealing with positive coronavirus cases impacting patients and employees.

Jose Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International, discussed how his company had dealt with outbreaks of COVID-19 at other locations around the country and world with shutdowns and cleanings to try and raise consumer sentiment and that his company has spent a heavy amount of marketing capital to reassure customers that takeout and delivery are safe. One thing I noticed was that the steps he mentioned his company takes are recommended to franchisees, but not necessarily required or forced on them.

One of the main issues with choosing to re-open restaurants is that COVID-19 can be spread through droplets and even through breathing from those infected with the virus, a study from Iceland says an estimated 50% of carriers are asymptomatic, therefore it would be hard to know who actually has the virus without more intensive testing. Another study recently reports that 9 people became infected when sitting next to a COVID-19 carrier in a restaurant.

It would be very difficult to ensure that COVID-19 could not be spread in a dining room to employees and other guests. One of the solutions that was proposed was to slowly lift social distancing in phases as Florida monitors the virus.

The amount of oversight to enforce any of these things sounds like it would be quite a burden for the state to actually implement and would most likely leave the burden on businesses themselves.

The task force lacks any doctors to recommend how to proceed, which is remarkable considering that Florida continues to have hundreds of hospitalizations and dozens of deaths nearly every day so far. Without any doctors on the task force, it seems we are forced to trust business professionals whose first priority seems to be sagging profits and a dire need to restart.

During the phone call, bed tax and sales tax revenue were brought up over and over again as hotel owners and restaurant groups reminded listeners that the state funds rely on taxes from their industry to function.

Hotel CEOs called for beaches to be opened again as amenities so that “guests can have something to do” and announced advanced talks with local officials around the state to have beaches open as soon as May 15th or earlier, according to Cody Kahn, Holiday Inn Resort Owner. The frustration with the current social distancing efforts was noticeable in the tone that Kahn displayed on the phone call.

Kahn brazenly attacked “fake news” and “CNN” media for their role in the current crisis and commended President Trump for doing a great job, despite over 45,000 Americans deaths in the last two months and climbing. The comments did not seem constructive to the goals of the task force and were aired on live television and throughout Facebook and social media websites.

One of the most bizarre parts of the phone call was when Visit Florida President and CEO, Dana Young, called for a marketing plan that would pitch Floridians to take a vacation within the state and support local businesses since the state cannot currently rely on international travelers to fuel Florida’s tourism industry as COVID-19 continues to spread.

This plan seemed tone-deaf and completely disconnected from a world where hundreds of thousands of Floridians are waiting for their unemployment checks to be processed after weeks of issues online and can barely eat at the moment. Will those jobs that were lost magically come back when Florida re-opens as the rest of the nation battles COVID-19? That remains to be seen.

Perhaps a more prudent plan would be to defund Visit Florida and to hand the taxpayer money back to citizens who desperately need money to survive right now? That’s my thought anyway.

Walter Carpenter, NFIB Florida Leadership Council Chairman, brought up the federal Payment Protection Program (PPP) loans and said they will not be a panacea for small businesses and that ultimately re-opening is the only choice for small businesses.

PPP loans recently made headlines when they were discovered to be misused this past week and brought into the hands of 71 publicly traded corporations including Ruth’s Chris Steak House and Shake Shack, who returned the loan after fierce criticism that continues for Ruth. The so-called small business fund was quickly exhausted and although Congress has passed an additional package, they did not close the loophole that will allow corporations to swallow the funds. Most experts say the new funds will only last 72 hours when they are released to banks.

Ultimately, there is no perfect solution to the current crisis Florida faces and coronavirus continues to spread across the state as businesses feel continued pressure to pay rent and employees without aid.

Opening too soon could have dire consequences. If the deaths rise too fast and become a public health emergency as many epidemiologists are currently warning, Florida could be forced to close again and that may tarnish consumer sentiment in the long-term for these businesses that are already struggling to survive.

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A message from our fearless leader @foodchainz: “In order to maintain a comfortable level of safety for our staff and customers, Grindhouse will not open its dining rooms on Monday, April 27th. Despite the announcement from Gov. Kemp to encourage reopening, we feel it is far too soon to allow on-site dining. That said, we will continue to offer pickup and delivery via DoorDash. We’re grateful for the outpour of support received from our communities during this difficult time. It’s been our privilege to serve you in a meaningful and safe way. We look forward to continue providing that experience while keeping the health of our patrons and staff a top priority.” – Alex Brounstein, Owner | Grindhouse Killer Burgers ________________________ So, Grindhouse Family, while we’re anxious to fully reopen, we’ve decided against it for the safety of our customers and our staff. When we feel it’s once again safe and responsible to host you in our dining rooms, we’ll make an announcement providing a specific date and details. Til then, we’re still here for your takeout needs. In addition to the regular menu, our special Provisions Menu for cook-at-home options is also still available. _______________________ Stay safe and smart out there! _______________________ See how Grindhouse and other #ATLrestaurants are responding to #GovernorKemp. Article link in bio.

A post shared by Grindhouse Killer Burgers (@grindhouseburgers) on

Several restaurants in Georgia announced today that they will not re-open despite Governor Kemp declaring that all restaurants will begin to re-open on Monday, as he lifts the stay-at-home order in his state. Many restaurants voiced concern for their employees health and their customers, customers also rallied to punish businesses who put their employees health in danger.

This balance will be very important for Florida to consider as Governor DeSantis pushes for the state to re-open and President Trump calls for an end to stay-at-home orders. We could have a bigger crisis on our hands with a false start and most businesses seem to be leery of that potential that could be on the horizon soon.

Public safety needs to be the top priority. I believe the working group should seek more input from doctors and ground their approach in science or they may lose consumer sentiment and employees in the long-term as well as tarnish their brands and put Florida into a major crisis. The state should seek more relief for more businesses as soon as possible, they will need it.

People don’t need to “seem comfortable” they need to actually be safe.

Follow Carlos Hernandez on Twitter @CarlosEats or visit him at CarlosEats.com

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Boycott Ruth’s Chris trends as Shake Shack gives back PPP loan money

Update 4/25: Ruth’s Chris has agreed to give back the money after a federal announcement that those who misuse the funds will be invesitgated and after hundreds of thousands petitioned for the money to be given back.

Now that Shake Shack has agreed to give back the $10 million they took from small businesses, it’s time to talk about Ruth’s Chris Steak House. To be quite honest, I am not a regular at Ruth’s Chris and have only been there once for a wine dinner.

Regardless – the fact they took $20 million (double the maximum) from the small businesses PPP from taxpayers is also deplorable behavior. Perhaps Ruth’s Chris does not care that people are about to lose their livelihood, I don’t know.

Shake Shack CEO Danny Meyer wrote on LinkedIn that he didn’t intend to take money from small businesses and thought there would be enough, however that’s hard to believe considering that the money was always going to be limited in the first place.

Several chefs rightfully criticized the fact that Shake Shack was able to take the money at all.

The moral ground for Ruth’s Chris to keep the money has now been exposed as Shake Shack gave back what they took and no doubt this is leading for calls for a boycott of Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

Petitions are starting to circulate.

Judd Legum has taken a deep dive into Ruth’s Chris and I suggest you read it: https://popular.info/p/a-raw-deal

Obviously there is a bigger Congress issue at bay as well. The small business loan fund is clearly flawed and we need action to demand that the next round of funds which is about to pass actually gets to the small businesses who need them.

Hopefully that happens.

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Boycott: I will not eat at Shake Shack again in the future and neither should you

Update 4/20: Shake Shack says they are returning the $10 million PPP loan meant for small businesses. This is the right move and I am thankful that they have made this decision so our small businesses can have a chance at survival.

Shake Shack for a long time was a great place to enjoy a quality burger, but lately the chain with over 300 locations worldwide has run into a nasty PR crisis thanks to them taking $10 million out of the United States government’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Payroll Protection Program relief despite being worth well over $1 billion dollars and publicly traded.

The chain sold off $75 million in shares after the taxpayer acquisition and also laid off over 1,000 of its employees before the Coronavirus has even hit its peak. Shake Shack has shown itself to be an empty-suit corporation with no values that will discard others in the industry and then soak up taxpayer cash for its own advantage.

This deplorable move comes at a time when our mom-and-pop small businesses are fighting for survival and is unacceptable, millions of small businesses were left out of relief. I will never eat at Shake Shack again. Take your $16 burger combo and die off in peace.

Shake Shack should return the $10 million they stole. I am sure there are thousands of small restaurants about to die off who would appreciate it. It didn’t have to be this way.

I hope others will join me in boycotting Shake Shack and their behavior during a time when unity is desperately needed for survival as the restaurant industry faces the worst crisis in history. We cannot have a few players swallowing all the cash that others really need during this time.

As consumers we should send a message to Shake Shack and all big chains that we will not support this disgusting greed.

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List: Restaurants open for takeout and delivery in Tampa Bay during COVID-19

Looking to support local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is a list of restaurants that are open for takeout and/or delivery in Tampa Bay. The list is constantly changing as restaurants are opening and closing so please call to make sure or check their websites and social media that are linked.

Hillsborough County:

Pinellas County:

  • Dr. BBQ: 1101 1st Ave. S., St. Petersburg, FL 33705, (727) 443-7227
  • Pacific Counter: 660 Central Ave, St. Petersburg, FL 33701, (727) 440-7008

Pasco County:

Send me your list to carloseats[at]gmail[dot]com

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Preparing your restaurant for COVID-19 changes

The Coronavirus or COVID-19 is drastically changing the restaurant industry like never before. Numerous restaurant chains and corporations are changing their entire business models to try and survive in this quickly moving economic scenario. Many will not survive.

Dine-in traffic is imploding as more Americans wake up to the fact that COVID-19 is very contagious and that social norms of dining out just won’t work for the forseeable future. A vaccine could be at least 14-18 months away according to some experts.

How can you prepare your restaurant for this new reality? Here are a few tips:

Pivot to delivery and take-out

Delivery was already rapidly growing before COVID-19 entered the mix. The number of people ordering on Uber EATS, DoorDash, and the like has been growing rapidly over the last few years even though those business models have yet to become profitable.

You should explore each delivery platform to see which one works best and think about how you can make the numbers add-up to make your business succeed on the platform. If you can provide your own delivery, consider that as well.

Consumers will be spending more time at home and no doubt many will not want to cook 24-7, which is an opportunity for your business to sell to customers directly in their homes.

To be successful you will need to make your list of products available to be as competitive as every chain on earth and local businesses trying to stick around all go online. You may need to simplify your menu to more profitable items and adjust with to online habits.

Make sure to calculate and ensure that there is an operational way to move forward during this time if you choose to do delivery – you will most likely need to scale labor to how much traffic you can pull. Several restaurants in Oregon recently realized that their business models were not built for delivery.

Most delivery services will claim anything from 10%-30% on delivery fees. Consider offering a discount for take-out service to convince customers to pick-up their own orders.

This won’t be easy in the least and your business will no doubt still suffer from the lack of dine-in traffic, but if you want to survive this may be the only path forward.

Prioritize safety and cleanliness

During a pandemic virus, people are going to be very nervous about cleanliness and whether their food is being handled with care, whether it is for delivery or pick-up. Safety and cleanliness for both customers and employees will be key.

The last thing you want is for an investigation to be done into your restaurant for making people work sick and for negative press to accumulate.

At the high stress levels people are experiencing right now, the chances of this happening may actually be quite high. Consider paid sick leave and absolutely do not allow sick workers to come to work and find a way to compensate them.

Institute plans for how you will verify that your workers are healthy and able to serve and be transparent with your customers about how you are protecting their safety.

It goes far beyond just an e-mail and will need to be done regularly as cases come up in the news about outbreaks in restaurants.

Consumer confidence is the key during this time. Any indication that customers should not eat at your business may lead them running to another one or instead to the grocery stores.

Marketing + Social Media could give an advantage

Social Media will be an important way to maintain your brand and still reach customers who will be either working from home, going to school at home, or just home – depending on how economic forces change in the next few months.

Don’t forget that many platforms like Facebook and Instagram offer targeted advertising so you can reach your ideal customers. While it’s true that your budget is certainly strained, if you use it wisely it will pay off.

Remember to think about what people want to click and not just what you want to say.

Consider other ways to reach customers like e-mails and text message outreach. Most customers will have be spending more time online and you need to reach them there.

Brainstorm daily deals or packages that customers can draw on like family deals, couple deals, or themed deals.

Even if your business does end up closing during this economic time, maintaining your online presence may keep your brand alive for the future when everyone eventually gets back on their feet and outside. Come up with a marketing plan that reflects this.

If you’re a known chef or restaurant consider making videos at home with cooking tips, advice for people on grocery shopping decisions, use Facebook LIVE and Instagram LIVE, there are tools out there that you can use to try and keep your brand going in this time of uncertainty. Stay in front of the face of your customers.

Reach out to influencers and media

Influencers have already-built channels as does the media that may be locally tied to your business. Many influencer events, cross-promotions, and advertisements have been canceled as the COVID-19 virus makes its mark.

If your restaurant is going to continue fighting to stay in business, consider reaching out to influencers and to the media. Consider how you can position your business in a way that is relevant to their audience during this difficult time.

Influencers have an interest in maintaining their outreach during this time and no doubt probably have some extra time on their hands. Consider how you can reach out to them in a way that is beneficial for your business…after all you want people to reach out to your business for takeout and delivery right?

As for the media, this may become more tricky as many media companies are experiencing an exodus of advertisers due to COVID-19 which is straining their staff. As with any other time period, the key is relevance for the media. Subscribe to all media sites and channels and watch what they are talking about. Follow journalists on Twitter.

When you see something relevant to your business, reach out. There is a public interest in helping both local businesses and restaurants during this time, but first you have to reach out to get your story out there. How are you coping? What are your plans for your staff? How can they help you? Messaging is the key.

Support other businesses and organizations

COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on a wide range of businesses including many local ones and organizations that are involved in helping our communities. Consider how your business can help those other groups out.

Your business will be stronger by working with others and supporting each other. Restaurants have always played a big role in the communities around them, but during COVID-19 you may need some out of the box ideas to help your fellow community partners out. They will be sure to return the favor if you do.

The “social distancing” required during COVID-19 will make people feel isolated, but if your business is proactive and tries to bring people together for a group or cause it could make a difference. Share posts from other partners in related community fields on your feed or important government updates. We are all in this together!

Questions or looking for more advice? Reach out at CarlosEats[at]gmail[dot]com or fill out my contact form.

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NEWS: 2 presumptive positive coronavirus cases in Hillsborough County and Manatee County

There are now 2 presumptive positive coronavirus cases in Florida now in Hillsborough County and Manatee County.

Here are some links to news articles about it:

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NEWS: National Pancake Day at IHOP February 25th

Who is ready for a free short stack of buttermilk pancakes at IHOP? Maybe 2020 isn’t all bad after all. Celebrate National Pancake Day on Tuesday, February 25th, 2020 at IHOP locations around the United States from 7AM to 7PM (10PM in select locations).

IHOP is adding a giveaway this year with barcodes at tables that guests can scan for a chance to win up to 250,0000 instant win prizes. Prizes include limited-edition pancake-themed merchandise such as bicycles, scooters, customizable jackets, handmade berets and more. In addition to the “Pancakes for Life” grand prize, ten lucky winners will also score $500 in IHOP gift cards.

Guests are asked to make a donation for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and Other Charities on their way out of the restaurant. Since 2006, IHOP has raised more than $30 million for its charity partners.

“The communities where IHOP and our franchisees operate is at the core of everything we do, and National Pancake Day serves as a great example of our commitment to helping the kids and families who are our guests, neighbors, friends and family,” said Stephanie Peterson, Executive Director of Communications.

Find more information at ihop.com.

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NEWS: 6th Annual Busch Gardens Food and Wine Festival kicks off February 29th

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is launching their 6th Annual Food and Wine Festival earlier this year on Saturday, February 29th, 2020. The festival will run every weekend from February 29th to April 26th and included with park admission to the theme park.

This year will feature 25 new food items in addition to fan-favorite dishes and 80 wines, beers, and cocktails, to choose from. Some new additions include:

  • Chef’s Corner Cabin: Features 3 signature dishes carefully crafted by the park’s head chefs such as arroz con pollo, a pork belly taco with kimchi slaw, and pork tenderloin with champagne watercress sauce
  • Coaster Cocktails: Iron Gwazi Gimlet, Falcon’s Fury Lemon Drop, and Tigris Tea
  • Pick-A-Barrel Tastings: create your own flight of liquors and wines from around the world
  • Some other new food items include Kung Pao Ribs, Maple Bacon Cinnamon Rolls, “Boujee” Bacon, Fried Clams, Pork Tamales, Grilled Shrimp Elotes, and Strawberry Shortcake Sundaes

Guests can purchase a 5, 8, or 12-item sampler lanyard to use at each festival cabin to explore sample-sized dishes and drink offerings and they start at $32. Pass Members can purchase an exclusive 15-item sampler for the same price as a 12-item sampler and save 20% off.

Pass Members can get a sneak peak on February 28th that will include an all new menu of sips and samples and Eaglemania: The World’s Greatest Eagles Tribute Band.

Busch Gardens plans to launch Iron Gwazi this spring, North America’s tallest hybrid coaster and the fastest and steepest hybrid coaster in the world.

The 6th Annual Food and Wine Festival concert schedule:

Feb 29:                 Collective Soul
March 1:              The Commodores

March 7:              Chase Bryant & Danielle Bradbery

March 8:              Rachel Platten

March 14:            Ezra Ray Hart
March 15:            THREE DOG NIGHT

March 21:            LOCASH 
March 22:            Fitz & The Tantrums

March 28:            Home Free
March 29:            Taking Back Sunday

April 4:                 Third Eye Blind
April 5:                 KC & The Sunshine Band

April 11:               38 Special 
April 12:               Micah Tyler & Austin French 

April 18:               Lee Brice
April 19:               Clint Black

April 25:               El Gran Combo
April 26:               Toad the Wet Sprocket & The Verve Pipe

Find more information on the 6th Annual Food & Wine Festival at http://buschgardens.com/tampa/events/food-and-wine-festival/

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NEWS: PDQ launches breakfast menu at Carrollwood location

PDQ, a popular and growing chicken chain from Florida, launched a breakfast menu on Tuesday at their Carrollwood location located at 12650 North Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. The menu is also available at their test kitchen located at 4343 Anchor Plaza Parkway in Tampa. Those are the only 2 locations serving breakfast for now.

Breakfast is available 7 days a week from 6:30AM to 10:30AM. It is available for dine-in, to-go, and for catering.

The breakfast menu includes: “sandwiches, wraps, a breakfast bowl and more. The sandwich options feature two biscuit sandwiches: a Honey Butter Chicken and a Pimento Brunch item. Guests can also order the new French Toaster sandwich, which contains sausage, fresh egg, cheddar cheese, and maple butter on PDQ’s own french toast bun.”

Signature menu offerings include “King’s Hawaiian chicken bites, a breakfast bowl with crispy honey butter chicken, fresh egg and cheddar jack cheese over tots, and 3 fresh whole wheat wraps: Maple Butter Bacon, Sriracha Sunrise and the Grilled Chicken Mornin’ wrap. Beverage choices include Joffrey’s Peruvian medium blend, and two different Cold Brew options”.

Breakfast has been a winning category for chains in the restaurant industry lately with McDonald’s pivoting to breakfast and Wendy’s dropping a breakfast menu.

Jonathan Maze, Executive Editor at Restaurant Business, shared some professional insight into this growth:

“It is very much a growing segment.

There are a number of fast-growth fast-casual breakfast-and-lunch places. Cracker Barrel’s purchase of Maple Street Biscuit Co. last year was a pretty serious indication of the growth in that particular sector. And there are a lot of such chains that have emerged in recent years. Chains like IHOP (Flip’d) are even starting their own versions. And then a number fast casuals like Modern Market offer breakfast.

It’s been a growth daypart for fast casual for some time. Breakfast is the fastest growing daypart so you’re always going to find development as a result. And much of the development in the restaurant business period remains in fast casual. Ergo, breakfast fast casual continues to grow.”

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NEWS: Cuban Sandwich Festival coming to Kissimmee Saturday March 7th

The 5th Annual Cuban Sandwich Festival is coming March 7th to Kissimeee on Saturday, March 7th, 2020 from 11AM to 6PM. The event is presented by FORD. The event is free and family-friendly.

The festival will occur at Xentury City Center located at 2925 International Drive in Kissimmee, Florida 34747 (East of I-4, off of 192 and International Drive).

Jolie Gonzalez-Padilla, Co-Founder of the International Cuban Sandwich Festival, shares:

“The Biggest Cuban Sandwich in the World will be made, 190 feet of deliciousness and the BEST Cuban Sandwiches in Central Florida will compete for the chance to make it to the FINALS where they will have a chance to win the GOLDEN TICKET to compete in the WORLD FOOD Championships”.

Event organizers will attempt to make the “Biggest Cuban Sandwich in the World” with a goal of 190 feet. The sandwich will be distributed to help feed the homeless.

Participants will include businesses from Metro Orlando, Kissimmee and Central Florida. Restaurants will compete for the title of “Best Cuban Sandwich” in Central Florida.

Live music will include Johnnie Rivera -Vaya DJ, Revelacion Salsera, and Orchestra FUEGO.

I will be a judge at the event, I have been judging the Cuban Sandwich Festival since it began years ago in Tampa’s historic Ybor City.

The Tampa fest will occur on March 29th, 2020. Tampa created the iconic Cuban Sandwich and no amount of bickering from Miami changes the fact that Miami was a swamp when it was created.

Other judges include Osceola County Commissioner Peggy Choudhry, City Commissioner Olga Gonzalez, Executive Director of Downtown Kissimmee Diana Marrerro-Pinto, Publisher of Osceola Star Guillermo “Bill” Hansen, Marytza Sanz, President/CEO/Founder of Latino Leadership, Carlos Guzman of the Puerto Rican Leadership Council.

Find more information online at thecubansandwichfestival.com.