Wednesday, August 27, 2008

So You Want To Open A Restaurant?

Love Food? Think Twice Before Jumping In


WHEN Linda Lipsky taught a course called “So You Want to Open a Restaurant” at Temple University in Philadelphia, she deliberately made the business sound like a minefield. She warned her students that it is possible to lose their homes, their life savings, and even the rights to their own names. Her goal, she said, was “to get two-thirds of them to quit.”

In fact, two of every three new restaurants, delis and food shops close within three years of opening, according to federal government statistics, the same failure rate for small businesses in general. “It’s very easy to fail if you know what you’re doing, and even easier if you don’t,” said Ms. Lipsky, president of Linda Lipsky Restaurant Consultants, a firm based outside Philadelphia that has advised restaurant owners and chains for 20 years.

While restaurants have long been a dream for the hospitality-minded, the industry has never had such a high profile, thanks to the Food Network and celebrity chefs whose restaurants have become launching pads to marketing empires.

The allure is easy to understand, said Peter Rainsford, the vice president for academic affairs at the Culinary Institute of America and co-author of “The Restaurant Startup Guide.”

“So many people love to cook, they like food, and they think, boy, I’ll have a job where I’ll do what I love,” Mr. Rainsford said. “They don’t realize how hard a job it is, both financially and physically.”

Charlita Anderson learned, but it was a painful and expensive education. Ms. Anderson, 47, went to law school at Cleveland State University, and has worked in the legal field for 20 years, most recently as a judicial magistrate in suburban Cleveland, hearing cases involving juvenile crimes and traffic violations. But she always longed to run a restaurant that would feature her mother’s recipe for gumbo, a family favorite.

So in 2002, she opened Pepper Red’s Blues CafĂ© in Lorain, Ohio, a Cajun restaurant and nightclub. She did everything at the cafe, from making gumbo to scrubbing the floors and singing torch songs, while still putting in a full day as a magistrate.

Today her restaurant is no longer in business and she is back to her previous career, where she has paid off the debt she incurred during her 15-month foray into the hospitality business.

Ms. Lipsky has repeatedly seen restaurant novices make the same costly mistake: vastly underestimating the money it will take just to break even. She counsels them to have enough money to cover every aspect of a business for the first six months, including food, salaries, benefits, kitchen equipment, rent and utilities.

Indeed, Barry Sorkin and his four partners were well aware that the odds were tough for Smoque, a Texas-style barbecue joint they opened a year and a half ago on the northwest side of Chicago. But they were determined to beat those odds, with both research and financing.

The partners — Mr. Sorkin; two former co-workers at a technology firm; his uncle, who works in the building materials business; and a lawyer — were all barbecue fanatics who frequently met to grill in each others’ backyards. They spent more than a year analyzing the business.

Mr. Sorkin quit his job in 2005, and visited restaurants all over the country, including North Carolina and Memphis. (His wife supported the family while he traveled, before the restaurant opened and he started taking a modest salary.)

After tasting samples, the partners settled on Texas barbecue, known as “low and slow” because it is cooked at a lower temperature for a longer period than other styles. It was a variation they felt had been overlooked by Chicago’s numerous rib spots.

Mr. Sorkin, who has a degree in journalism, wrote a detailed business plan that ran for more than 40 pages, comparing his concept to the menus of his potential competitors. It featured a heartfelt essay, “Our View on ’Q,” that set out the group’s philosophy on barbecue; a version of it is posted at the restaurant’s Web site,

Along with a simple menu of ribs, brisket, chicken and side dishes like macaroni and cheese and twice-cooked fries, the plan also included an extensive analysis of the expenses the restaurant expected in its first three years.

Determining that the North Side of Chicago lacked sufficient rib outlets, the group zeroed in on a storefront on North Pulaski Road, about 15 minutes north of the Loop and 10 minutes from Mr. Sorkin’s house.

Two members of the group pledged their homes to secure a $440,000 Small Business Administration loan to get the restaurant off the ground.

In the months just before and after Smoque opened, Mr. Sorkin and one of the partners spent 120 to 130 hours a week tying up loose ends. “I seriously thought we were going to die of exhaustion,” he said.

Since Smoque opened, Mr. Sorkin has scaled back to a relatively relaxed 90 hours a week. Now, he is at work by 7 a.m., for a day that starts with stocking wood in a smoker, accepting an order from a meat deliveryman, checking the previous night’s receipts and supervising as kitchen assistants chop peppers and prepare peach cobbler. He is on his feet all day, and rarely gets home to see his two toddlers before their bedtime. He can only occasionally catch a beer in a bar near his house.

But he is not complaining, because Smoque has served many more customers — thousands more — than the business plan forecast.

“My old job was challenging, even interesting at times, but I never got the same buzz from knowing that someone got their e-mail fixed,” Mr. Sorkin said. “I love barbecue. I love to feed people barbecue, and I love to watch them enjoy it.”

Ms. Anderson began in a far less ambitious way, relying on her family’s encouragement far more than on financial planning, a step that Ms. Lipsky said often proves fatal.

Her suburban Cleveland cafe was named after her late uncle, whose nickname was Pepper, and her father, dubbed Red. The cafe was the culmination of her lifelong dream to gain more exposure for her mother’s gumbo, a recipe handed down from generations of cooks in Louisiana and Mississippi.

“People who have tasted that gumbo say it’s the best this side of New Orleans,” she said. “It’s a big deal in our family.”

Still working as a magistrate, she began to shop for a location in downtown Lorain, a working-class town, in 2002. Ms. Anderson chose a former Woolworth’s store about 40 miles from Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie, on the hope that long-rumored casino hotels would soon be built.

Ms. Anderson also felt that local residents, who had few options to hear live music, would patronize a club in their collective backyard rather than drive into the city.

Even an economic slowdown that gripped the area after Sept. 11, 2001, did not deter her, because, she figured, “people have to eat, they want to be entertained.”

She had a truly secret recipe in her mother’s gumbo. Her mother, Claudia Anderson, who had never shared her methods with her daughter growing up, required that she learn the gumbo recipe by heart and make two batches from scratch, without help, before she would agree to let her offer it on the menu, which also featured Southern classics like red beans and rice, cornbread and crawfish.

Meanwhile, family members, including her husband, son and a flock of relatives, volunteered to work there, meaning she had to hire only one employee, a waitress.

But before the cafe opened, unexpected costs appeared. To pass inspection, the restaurant needed doors that pushed outward so customers could easily exit. The two doors each cost $1,000. Toilets for the restrooms arrived with no seats.

“The tiny little things you don’t even expect, they’re going to pop up at any time,” Ms. Anderson said. She was responsible for every detail. “I went from a highfalutin position to scrubbing the floors,” Ms. Anderson said.

The summer after the restaurant opened in May 2002 was promising. Acting as the hostess, Ms. Anderson rushed every evening from the courtroom to the cafe, where she tied a custom-designed apron over her business clothes to seat the guests.

Ms. Anderson, who is not a trained musician, learned to sing blues songs and regularly took a turn on the bandstand. “It was the most fun I ever had, notwithstanding the stress,” she said.

But the joy did not last long. The hotels did not open, and by fall, the crowds that she anticipated would fill the restaurant every night had thinned. The friends she expected would be her regulars were often missing. “People will encourage you,” she said, “but they won’t show up every night.”

Ms. Anderson, who had borrowed $17,000 in a small business loan, fell deeper into debt.

Despite a bump during the 2002 holiday season, her business dried up over the first winter and did not rebound to her first-year level the following summer. Ms. Anderson did not have enough money coming in to cover the rent, $1,000 a month, and she could no longer afford to keep on her employee. In September 2003 she decided to close, a move that left her depressed and embarrassed.

“How could someone with a law degree and as smart as you blow it this big?” Ms. Anderson said she asked herself. But she ultimately decided that it was better to be realistic. “You have to appreciate that this might not work,” she said. “If it doesn’t, get out.”

Ms. Anderson’s experience is far more typical than Mr. Sorkin’s, said Mr. Rainsford. He should know. For five years, when he was a professor at Cornell University’s hospitality school, Mr. Rainsford ran a restaurant called O’Malley’s on a lake just outside Ithaca, N.Y.

Mr. Rainsford and his wife soon discovered that the restaurant was not a sideline to his job, but a full-time undertaking for the entire family, especially during the summer. Eventually tiring of the disruption to their routine, and with their children losing interest, the Rainsfords sold O’Malley’s to a young couple for a small profit.

The experience has helped him give advice to students at the culinary institute, where about half are traditional undergraduates and the rest are older students, many of whom have changed careers or want to enhance skills they have picked up on the fly.

Many of those students have a romantic vision of life in the food business, he said, fed by the success stories of people like Ina Garten, known as the Barefoot Contessa, who was a White House budget analyst before buying the shop in the Hamptons that started her food career.

Back in Ohio, former customers still rave about Ms. Anderson’s gumbo. She often passes the cafe, now reopened under new ownership and with a new name, on her way home from court.

Each time she passes, she said, she is tempted to give the restaurant business another try. “But then I just keep driving, and I say to myself, don’t look, don’t look, don’t look.”

Friday, August 22, 2008

Wine Spectator Drinks a Hearty Glass of Blush

The magazine praises a Milan restaurant that doesn't exist. Wine critic and author Robin Goldstein cooked up the hoax.

By Jerry Hirsch
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

August 22, 2008

Milan's Osteria L'Intrepido restaurant won Wine Spectator magazine's award of excellence this year despite a wine list that features a 1993 Amarone Classico Gioe S. Sofia, which the magazine once likened to "paint thinner and nail varnish."

Even worse: Osteria L'Intrepido doesn't exist.

To the magazine's chagrin, the restaurant is a Web-based fiction devised by wine critic and author Robin Goldstein, who said he wanted to expose the lack of any foundation for many food and wine awards.

To pull off the hoax, Goldstein created a bogus website for the restaurant and submitted an application for the award that included a copy of the restaurant’s menu (which he describes as "a fun amalgamation of somewhat bumbling nouvelle-Italian recipes") and a high-priced "reserve wine list" well-stocked with dogs like the 1993 Amarone.

The application also included what Goldstein suggests was the key qualification: a $250 entry fee.

"I am interested in what's behind all the ratings and reviews we read. . . . The level of scrutiny is not sufficient," said Goldstein, who revealed the prank while presenting a paper at an American Assn. of Wine Economists meeting in Portland,Ore., last weekend.

In response, Wine Spectator Executive Editor Thomas Matthews listed in a posting on the New York-based magazine's website its "significant efforts to verify the facts":

"a. We called the restaurant multiple times; each time, we reached an answering machine and a message from a person purporting to be from the restaurant claiming that it was closed at the moment.

"b. Googling the restaurant turned up an actual address and located it on a map of Milan.

"c. The restaurant sent us a link to a website that listed its menu."

Wine Spectator even found discussion about the restaurant from purported diners on the foodie website Chowhound.

In a telephone interview, Matthews denounced Goldstein's actions as a "publicity-seeking scam."

He also denied that the award of excellence was designed to generate revenue for the magazine. "This is a program that recognizes the efforts restaurants put into their wine lists," he said.

Matthews said the magazine did not attempt to visit the phony Milan restaurant; it never visits about 200 of the establishments that get its award each year. But he said the awards had contributed to the growing popularity of wine since they were started by the magazine in 1981.

Getting the award, however, isn't exactly like winning an Olympic medal. This year, nearly 4,500 restaurants spent $250 each to apply or reapply for the Wine Spectator award, and all but 319 won the award of excellence or some greater kudos, Matthews said.

That translates to more than $1 million in revenue.

Tom Pirko, a beverage industry consultant who lives in Santa Barbara County's wine country, said the hoax would dent the magazine's credibility.

"This gets down to what the Wine Spectator is all about. It's not exactly Wine for Dummies; it's more Wine for the Gullible," Pirko said. "This gives the appearance of paying for advertising disguised as a contest."

Restaurants that win the award receive a plaque they can mount for diners to see and a listing as a wine-friendly establishment on the magazine's website. They typically use the award as a form of marketing and advertising, Pirko said.

Goldstein said he came up with the idea while doing research for an academic paper about the standards for wine awards. He is coauthor of "The Wine Trials," a book that looks at how 500 blind tasters from around the country evaluated 6,000 wines ranging in price from $1.50 to $150 a bottle.

He contends that people think wine tastes better when they know it is expensive, citing as evidence taste tests that show two-thirds of people preferred a $12 Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut, a Washington state sparkling wine, to a $150 Dom Perignon Champagne.

When he crafted the bogus wine list for Osteria L'Intrepido (Italian for "The Fearless Restaurant") Goldstein also included a 1985 Barbaresco Asij Ceretto, which Wine Spectator described as "earthy, swampy, gamy, harsh and tannic."

"While Osteria L'Intrepido may be the first to win an award of excellence for an imaginary restaurant," Goldstein said, "it's unlikely that it was the first submission that didn't accurately reflect the restaurant."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Julia Child and the CIA (No, Not THAT CIA!)

Documents: Julia Child part of WWII-era spy ring

By BRETT J. BLACKLEDGE and RANDY HERSCHAFT, Associated Press Writers

Famed chef Julia Child shared a secret with Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg and Chicago White Sox catcher Moe Berg at a time when the Nazis threatened the world. They served in an international spy ring managed by the Office of Strategic Services, an early version of the CIA created in World War II by President Franklin Roosevelt.

The secret comes out Thursday, all of the names and previously classified files identifying nearly 24,000 spies who formed the first centralized intelligence effort by the United States. The National Archives, which this week released a list of the names found in the records, will make available for the first time all 750,000 pages identifying the vast spy network of military and civilian operatives.

They were soldiers, actors, historians, lawyers, athletes, professors, reporters. But for several years during World War II, they were known simply as the OSS. They studied military plans, created propaganda, infiltrated enemy ranks and stirred resistance among foreign troops.

Among the more than 35,000 OSS personnel files are applications, commendations and handwritten notes identifying young recruits who, like Child, Goldberg and Berg, earned greater acclaim in other fields — Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a historian and special assistant to President Kennedy; Sterling Hayden, a film and television actor whose work included a role in "The Godfather"; and Thomas Braden, an author whose "Eight Is Enough" book inspired the 1970s television series.

Other notables identified in the files include John Hemingway, son of author Ernest Hemingway; Quentin and Kermit Roosevelt, sons of President Theodore Roosevelt, and Miles Copeland, father of Stewart Copeland, drummer for the band The Police.

The release of the OSS personnel files uncloaks one of the last secrets from the short-lived wartime intelligence agency, which for the most part later was folded into the CIA after President Truman disbanded it in 1945.

"I think it's terrific," said Elizabeth McIntosh, 93, a former OSS agent now living in Woodbridge, Va. "They've finally, after all these years, they've gotten the names out. All of these people had been told never to mention they were with the OSS."

The CIA had resisted releasing OSS records for decades. But former CIA Director William Casey, himself an OSS veteran, cleared the way for transfer of millions of OSS documents to the National Archives when he took over the agency in 1981. The personnel files are the latest to be made public.

Information about OSS involvement was so guarded that relatives often couldn't confirm a family member's work with the group.

Walter Mess, who handled covert OSS operations in Poland and North Africa, said he kept quiet for more than 50 years, only recently telling his wife of 62 years about his OSS activity.

"I was told to keep my mouth shut," said Mess, now 93 and living in Falls Church, Va.

The files will offer new information even for those most familiar with the agency. Charles Pinck, president of the OSS Society created by former OSS agents and their relatives, said the nearly 24,000 employees included in the archives far exceeds previous estimates of 13,000.

The newly released documents will clarify these and other issues, said William Cunliffe, an archivist who has worked extensively with the OSS records at the National Archives.

"We're saying the OSS was a lot bigger than they were saying," Cunliffe said.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Bad Cop - No Donut!

August 8 - CHICAGO - Over the years, cops have ripped off drug dealers, shaken down drivers and pocketed mob bribes. But Chicago Police Officer Barbara Nevers allegedly aimed lower.

Nevers, 55, was suspended for 15 months and ordered into counseling for allegedly using her gun and badge to demand free coffee and pastries from six Starbucks stores on the North Side between 2001 and 2004.

Employees told the Chicago Police Board that Starbucks had an unofficial policy of giving a free tall cup of drip coffee to cops and firefighters in uniform. But Nevers -- a desk officer for most of her 14-year career because of a neck injury she suffered in the police academy -- would usually come into Starbucks in plain clothes. She regularly flashed her gun, and sometimes her badge, to get free coffee at Starbucks near her home, including stores at 3358 N. Broadway, 2525 1/2 N. Clark, 617 W. Diversey, 1000 W. Diversey, 1700 W. Diversey and 1157 W. Wrightwood, employees said.

"She was vehement about getting the free pastries," testified Cara Carothers, who managed the store at 1700 W. Diversey. "This woman is aggressive." Nevers' attorney Tom Needham told the board "My client took advantage of a custom. She's not the only police officer that's been offered coffee." But a city attorney said it's against police policy for officers to accept such freebies.

Nevers claimed she always put a $2 tip in the jar whenever she got a free cup of joe and denied ever flashing her gun or asking for free pastries for herself. "I said, 'If you have any broken pastries or ones that you toss out, I will take them because I feed the birds,' " Nevers told the board.

In June, five members of the police board found her guilty of retail theft, using her position for official gain, unnecessary display of a weapon, mistreatment of a person and other offenses. They voted for Nevers' 15-month suspension and counseling. Two board members dissented, saying they would have imposed a stricter punishment, records show.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Quelle Horreur! Europeans Skipping Vacations!!!

Money Woes Force Europeans to Skip Vacations

PARIS, France (AP) -- It's the Paris version of the "staycation": Marc des Bouillons lounged in a beach chair with a book, surrounded by women in bikinis, ice cream stands, a DJ spinning summer tunes and kids running amok.

Sounds like vacation, but it was just an evening after work at a makeshift beach on the banks of the Seine. It's a pale substitute for a real beach holiday, but it's the best many Parisians can do in these troubled economic times.

The European summer vacation just isn't what it used to be. With economies stagnating and inflation in the euro zone about 4 percent, people are cutting the length of their trips, vacationing close by and in some cases just staying home.

Des Bouillons, a 43-year-old accountant, is forgoing one of France's sacrosanct rituals: The great August lull in which the country shuts down for the entire month, turning cities into ghost towns as the masses hit the beaches or country retreats.

Not only is des Bouillons staying in Paris, he intends to (quelle horreur!) work through August so he can go away off-season once prices drop. "I have to be careful about my budget," des Bouillons said.

Across the continent, Europeans are sharing des Bouillons' pain.

The deepening economic malaise has made many wary of splurging on expensive breaks. And would-be travelers have been hit by soaring costs in Europe for food, road trips and air travel -- in short, just about everything needed for a successful vacation. Gasoline, for example, is the equivalent of $8 a gallon in France, and the fuel surcharge on a round-trip, long-haul Air France flight is as much as $418.

In Italy, even gelato, the typical vacation treat, is taking a hit. Rome vendor Giuseppe De Angelis says many customers have asked for smaller servings or family discounts since soaring milk and fruit costs forced him to raise prices by a $1.50 a cone.

In Spain, another country that traditionally shuts down in August, travel agency Marsans has been luring customers by giving away flat-screen TVs with travel packages costing more than $2,320.

Some European leaders have shown restraint so as not to shock their countrymen with scenes of living it up during the economic downturn. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown opted for a quiet trip to the countryside. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, nicknamed the "bling-bling president" for his penchant for borrowing private jets and yachts, took an ordinary airline flight to wife Carla's Mediterranean villa.

France's main hospitality and catering union said in a report last week that hotel occupancy was holding steady. But it said there was a 20 percent to 30 percent drop in customers at cafes and restaurants.

Another survey indicated that more French people were skipping vacations altogether.

A poll by the IFOP agency for L'Humanite newspaper said 42 percent of French people planned to stay home this summer, 3 points higher than last year and 10 points more than in 2005, suggesting that the decline this year may be part of a longer-term trend.

Britons are also altering their habits. A survey for the Times of London reported that 58 percent of Britons were changing their vacation plans because of the economic downturn. Just less than 19 percent said they were canceling their plans completely, and 34 percent of the respondents said they canceled plans to travel abroad in favor of a cheaper trip within Britain.

"We have found that more customers than ever before want to jump in a car with the family and avoid the hassle and increased costs of an overseas break," said Richard Carrick, chief executive of Hoseasons, a British travel company.

Germany seems to be an exception. Its tourism industry remains stable, although experts are keeping an eye on the international economy. German plane travel, tour operations and hotel reservations continued in an upward trend in the early summer months, according to industry reports.

Meanwhile, some European travelers have taken advantage of the weak dollar and headed to the United States.

In the Netherlands as of early July, trips within Europe and to Asia were slightly down, but bookings to the United States were up 49 percent from a year ago, said AVNR, a travel agencies industry group. The theory is that even if plane tickets are more expensive, people can stock up on cheap consumer goods once they arrive in the United States.

Although the economic downturn has put a crimp in Europeans' style, continental vacations are even tougher on visitors from North America.

Kayla Bowman, a 23-year-old from Vancouver, Canada, in Germany on the last leg of her round-the-world trip, says her journey has become increasingly tough as her currency weakens.

"It's pretty much doubling the cost of everything," said Bowman, who was saving money by couch-surfing, buying food at grocery stores and looking for work at bars or restaurants. Her dad bailed her out financially a few times, too.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Fish = Brain Food?

Fatty fish may help prevent memory loss: study

Mon Aug 4, 2008 5:16pm EDT

LONDON (Reuters) - Eating tuna and other fatty fish may help prevent memory loss in addition to reducing the risk of stroke, Finnish researchers said on Monday.

People who ate baked or broiled -- but not fried -- fish high in omega-3 fatty acids have been found to be less likely to have "silent" brain lesions that can cause memory loss and dementia and are linked to a higher risk of stroke, said Jyrki Virtanen of the University of Kuopio in Finland.

"Previous findings have shown that fish and fish oil can help prevent stroke, but this is one of the only studies that looks at fish's effect on silent brain (lesions) in healthy, older people,", Virtanen, who led the study, said in a statement.

Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and in other foods such as walnuts. They have been shown to provide an anti-inflammatory effect and have been linked to a lower risk of heart disease.

The Finnish team studied 3,660 people aged 65 and older who underwent brains scans five years apart to detect the silent brain lesions, or infarcts, found in about 20 percent of otherwise healthy elderly people

The researchers found that men and women who ate omega-3-rich fish three times or more per week had a nearly 26 percent lower risk of having silent brain lesions.

Eating just one serving per week led to a 13 percent reduced risk, compared to people whose diets did not include this type of fish, the researchers reported in the journal Neurology.

Fried fish for some reason did not appear to have the same benefits, the researchers added.

"While eating tuna and other types of fish seems to help protect against memory loss and stroke, these results were not found in people who regularly ate fried fish," Virtanen said.

(Reporting by Michael Kahn, Editing by Toby Reynolds)