Soon after my neighbor returned from a business trip to California, he invited my husband and me over to discuss the highlight of his travels: an evening at The French Laundry.
Over cocktails, he recounted the meal, the wines and the service at the Yountville destination, and proudly brandished a menu that a server had given him. We soaked it in, relishing the offerings and reliving through his story an experience that he undoubtedly will count among his finest for a long time to come.
As anyone in or out of the restaurant industry knows, a reservation at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry is difficult to come by, requiring equal parts luck and tenacity. But the experience of dining there — or at any of Keller’s nearly dozen establishments — is well worth the effort.
Keller is the only American-born chef to receive two three-star ratings from the Michelin guide — for The French Laundry and Per Se in New York — and has collected numerous other culinary honors during his vaunted career. This year, Nation’s Restaurant News named Keller its Fine Dining Legend, a title also shared by such notable culinarians as Lidia Bastianich and Wolfgang Puck.
In this issue’s special report, we profile the self-taught Keller and delve into the accomplishments that have Esquire magazine’s John Mariani declaring him “the most important American chef of the last 25 years.” We also introduce the 2011 slate of Fine Dining Hall of Fame inductees — a group of distinguished establishments spreading their influence across the restaurant landscape: Brennan’s of Houston, Coi of San Francisco, Rioja of Denver, Lucques of Los Angeles and wd~50 of New York.
While we’re on the topic of culinary delights, in the Food & Beverage section we examine the growing availability of bánh mì, the traditional Vietnamese baguette sandwich that now populates such diverse menus as that of David Chang’s Má Pêche in New York and the 43-unit Lee’s Sandwiches chain based in San Jose, Calif.
Meanwhile, several of the stories appearing in this issue have been torn from the headlines, as they say, including an analysis of California Tortilla’s successful “Occupy Cal Tort” promotion. The brand’s riff on the Occupy Wall Street movement boosted sales at the 35-unit fast-casual chain, without ruffling too many politically sensitive feathers. Find out how in the Marketing section.
In another story driven by current events — in this case, allegations of sexual harassment levied against presidential candidate Herman Cain during the time he led the National Restaurant Association — we take a look at the restaurant industry’s track record on such abuses. In the Operations section we investigate whether the industry deserves its reputation for being inordinately challenged by sexual harassment, as well as the trends in sexual harassment complaints filed against employers.
In the Business Intel section we look into the increasingly crowded field of restaurant promotions, analyzing why some fail and why a growing number of operators are rethinking their value equations to better resonate with customers. That story begins on page 1.
Value — specifically, shareholder value — also is front of mind for Sardar Biglari, as the activist investor makes his latest run at a publicly held restaurant company. This time, Biglari, who previously squared off against officials at Steak ‘n Shake, Western Sizzlin and Friendly Corp., is seeking a seat on the board of directors of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc. Officials at the 608-unit family-dining chain are fighting back, however. In Finance we examine both agendas, culled from letters to investors and filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, as the parties race to make their cases by the Dec. 8 shareholder meeting.
After wending my way through this issue, I realize that it truly offers something for everyone — including my restaurant-loving neighbor. When my hard copy arrives, I plan to invite him over for drinks so I can brandish the story about Thomas Keller and hear about his meal at The French Laundry again.