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A look back at the Western Expo

Restaurant legislation, food trucks big topics at Calif. restaurant show

Food truck fever, sodium and surviving the ongoing recession were the hot topics at the California Restaurant Association’s annual trade show in Los Angeles, a three-day event that wrapped up on Monday.

The 2010 Western Foodservice & Hospitality Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center for the second consecutive year was co-located with the Expo Comida Latina, a trade event featuring Hispanic and Asian foods and ingredients. The combined show attracted thousands of restaurant operators, suppliers and foodservice professionals, who perused the roughly 550 exhibitors, listened to educational panels, watched culinary demonstrations and networked.

Carly Fiorina, the Republican challenger for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Barbara Boxer in the upcoming November elections, visited the show floor on Sunday, chatting with restaurant operators and meeting with CRA board members.

Jot Condie, CRA president and chief executive, said Fiorina asked for the board’s endorsement. While the CRA is backing Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, Condie said it doesn’t typically get involved in Senate races. However, he said the association’s political action committee trustees would consider it, likely making a decision this week.

This year the hot legislative topic for the California restaurant industry is a statewide proposal that would require all food handlers — not just owners or managers — to hold a certificate indicating a certain level of food safety training.

The “food handler's card” or certificate, as it is called, is similar to what the state already requires at least one employee to have at every food facility. Under the bill, proposed by state Sen. Alex Padilla, everyone involved in the preparation, storage or service of food would be required to hold a valid food-safety certificate.

Condie said the CRA supports the proposal, which has been approved on first read by the state Senate and is now being considered by the Assembly. The association, however, is pushing for modifications to the bill that would limit the cost of the certification to $15, allow it to last for three years, and for training to be done online.

The goal, Condie said, is to avoid the inevitable patchwork of local rules about food-safety certification. San Diego, San Bernardino and Riverside counties are among those jurisdictions in California that currently require food-safety certification of all food handlers, as do several other states and cities across the country, in various forms.

“It’s one of the first times we’ve worked this collaboratively with health regulators,” Condie said. “We feel it will increase consumer confidence in food safety. We’ve seen what a stupid event can do to a brand.”

Condie also said the CRA is expecting to hear soon from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on whether California restaurant operators will be expected to comply with the second stage of a state menu-labeling mandate that goes into effect in January.

A federal menu-labeling law will pre-empt the state mandate, but the FDA has yet to finalize the rules that will be applied nationwide. A draft of the federal rules is expected by March 2011, but it’s not clear whether operators will still be expected to adhere to the earlier deadline in California.

Given the approaching menu-labeling requirements, Anita Jones-Mueller, founder and president of San Diego-based Healthy Dining, was among the speakers at the Expo offering tips on improving the health profile of restaurant meals.

“Nutrition has never been in the forefront as much as it is now,” said Jones-Mueller, whose company works with restaurant operators to do nutrition analysis and menu reformulation, as well as promoting healthful dishes to consumers through the website

Nancy Cutler, who works in research and development at Costa Mesa, Calif.-based El Pollo Loco, shared how the grilled chicken chain has been quietly working to reduce the amount of sodium in dishes across the menu by 5 percent to 25 percent — in stages to allow consumer palates time to adjust.

In January, for example, the chain rolled out a new version of its popular tortilla soup with a broth that has 25 percent less salt, reducing the overall sodium level to 903 milligrams per individual serving, compared with 969 milligrams previously. Soon the company will begin testing another version that aims to bring the sodium level down again to about 838 milligrams, she said.

In other seminars, Jennifer Green and Misa Chien, operators of the Nom Nom food truck featuring Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, shared their stories of creating the business, along with Mobi Munch principals Aaron Noveshen and Ray Villaman, who operate the Chairman Bao truck in San Francisco and have partnered with the Ludo Fried Chicken truck in Los Angeles.

The Nom Nom truck will be featured on the Food Network show “The Great Food Truck Race,” which launched this week.

When asked what three things operators must “nail” for a successful truck concept, Chien said you must have an innovative product, a strong brand, and menu items for which there is a demand.

Noveshen added that speedy throughput is also key, so people move quickly through the line. And, because bloggers are so important to truck concepts, he suggested that mobile food vendors “serve beautiful food that photographs well.”

Speaking on hot trends in foodservice, Melissa Wilson of industry research firm Technomic Inc., said she sees the truck mania as a trend, not a fad. It’s growing, she said, it hits on fun culinary elements, and trucks are less expensive to launch, compared with brick-and-mortar restaurants.

When asked whether the worst of the economic downfall is over, Wilson offered a cautious affirmative.

In January 2009, Technomic’s forecast for the industry projected the lowest growth in the company’s 44 years, and that forecast was later downgraded twice, she said. In 2010, however, the forecast was down only slightly, and in May it was revised upward.

Surveys indicate that consumers miss restaurants, Wilson said. “They say, ‘I miss the variety. I miss having someone wait on me and not doing the dishes,’” she said.

However, Wilson said, not all brands will survive the downturn. Consumers, with their new mindset, will come back to the restaurants that maintained quality and value through the downturn.

“I think the worst is over, but the question is for whom. Some restaurants will never get their business back,” Wilson said. “It’s easy to blame the recession, but sometimes there are just things that have gone wrong with your business.”

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected].

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