Taking Over the Restaurant Business

It is unprecedented for me to take such offense at political assaults on the “free” market and economic affairs that I write more than one article on the same outrage, but the former lawyers in the White House are putting their fat fingers into corporate profits, parental choices, and school expenses, and stressing restaurants further for yet another intrusive “feel good” policy that will accomplish nothing useful.

Michelle Obama has decided that it takes a pack of lawyers, several bills from Congress, and lowering restaurant traffic and profits to feed a child in public or frequently “free” lunch at school. She is on a crusade against traditional menus which contain foods children like. Kids prefer familiar foods, primarily those that are easy to chew: hot dogs, spaghetti, chicken nuggets, macaronni and cheese, hamburgers, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Never mind that, and never mind the fun we’ll have attempting to placate kids who were looking forward to greasy nuggets and refills on their Cokes with skimmed milk and carrot and apple slices, and smaller portions, to boot; she knows best.

CNSNews.com reports that “In remarks to the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C., on Monday, first lady Michelle Obama said American restaurants should offer and market more healthy options to children on menus and make it easier for parents to select the best meal for their child.” You cannot force restaurants to sell things, one meaning of “market,” and nowhere in the Constitution does it say that corporations are obliged to spend advertising dollars on government propaganda. Will that become a forced choice, like health insurance? She insists that every restaurant must “offer healthy menu options and then provide them up front so that parents don’t have to hunt around and read the small print to find an appropriately sized portion that doesn’t contain levels – high levels of fat, salt and sugar.” With the literacy rates falling I can see that finding a section marked “Kiddie Choices” or “Little Wranglers” would be difficult. One shudders to think what her idea of an “appropriately sized portion” on a child’s meal is; will later legislation require menus divided by age or pounds, such as “suitable for ages three to four,” or “calculated to provide one-third of the nutrients necessary to sustain a 43-50 pound body daily?”

Former lawyer Michelle says condescendingly that “These choices have to be easy to make,” which is statist speak for restricting them. The little brats can have tofu, yogurt, TVP, salad without dressing, water cress, and watery milk substitutes and eat them or stay hungry — and this mother’s opinion is the kids will prefer hunger to celery and carrot sticks. Michelle insists that “restaurants should offer lower-fat fare and that high-calorie and fatty items such (sic) French fries might require a special order.” Amazing. A special order, at a marked up price, to get the kid some fry-fries? Parents would simply order fries on their own, insisting that they were for personal consumption and sneaking forbidden items under the table when the Food Police weren’t looking. Madame Obama “implied that restaurants are not contributing enough to the cause” of her drive to eliminate childhood obesity in this generation. She brought up the immensely unpopular ObamaCare bill which mandated — effective upon signing — that restaurants list calorie counts on menus and proclaimed that “if restaurants market healthy food properly, it (sic) would create demand for it.” Amazing what they teach in law school, isn’t it? “The Field of Greens: if we serve them, they will come.”

“Even if we give parents all the information they need and we improve school meals and build brand new supermarkets on every corner, none of that matters if when families step into a restaurant, they can’t make a healthy choice.” SHE has to give us the information we need? SHE has to change school menus to suit her choice — and increase waste? Parents won’t be able to make “healthy” choices unless SHE bullies restaurants into restricting their offerings? The government is going to challenge Kroger’s, HEB, and Wal*Mart building supermarkets? Michelle serves $400/pound beef to numerous guests several times a week, and has had seven vacations already this year. Michelle and Barack live it up royally, although who knows what Malia, Sasha, and Bo get fed. To most families, going out other than drive through is a rare treat and getting rarer. High ticket restaurants are still doing fine — in general — but the receipts at more expensive chains like Olive Garden, Outback, and Red Lobster are falling. Middle America is hurting, and every last one of those frivolous demands will be paid for by price increases and decreases in quality and/or quantity. Imagine the cost and effectiveness of POP (Point of Purchase) materials encased in glossy plastic.

America’s self-chosen menu planner said her “Let’s Move” campaign is working with local officials in states around the country to “reward” (emphasis mine) restaurants that provide healthier choices, including “agree(ing) to serve smaller portions and promote more nutritious options.” “Together, we (she, the National Restaurant Association, doubtless a new Food Czar, and Congress) can help make sure that every family that walks into a restaurant can make an easy, healthy choice.” Appetizing and filling are too much to ask, apparently. Together they can make sure that restaurants lose money and adults and children dread going out to dinner or resent not being able to due to increased prices and restricted choices. Menus matter. I stopped going to Outback when it stopped serving rack of lamb and outlawed smoking even in the bar. Imagine trying to order a something a sullen child will eat at Olive Garden other than the “free” cheese biscuits.

Michelle and Congress do not worry their heads about the cost of reprinting all those menus, of course, or revising routines, supplies, training (and materials), and choices because they don’t know enough about how businesses operate to do so, and if they did, well, “it’s for the children.” They don’t know that every suggestion goes through extensive testing for customer approval before being adopted, and clearly do not know that the sliced apples would have to be treated with Fruit Fresh or lemon juice (making them even less palatable) or sliced individually for each order, increasing personnel costs, for the simple reason that apples turn brown quickly when exposed to air. If all restaurants complied the impact on Sanderson Farms, IHOP, Mrs. Baird, and other current eateries and suppliers could be significant.

It would be easy to chide, “Now, Mrs. Traynham, what’s the harm of working towards ‘healthy’ choices on menus? Nobody said they couldn’t still offer current choices.” Yet. Even granting the “healthy” stipulation, it is not the proper business of government to dictate what will be offered in restaurants. (I can think of precisely one possible exception, the required “tourist menu” in Italy which mandates offering a modestly priced meal complete with salad, pasta, a glass of bad wine, and a very small portion of meat at a state-set price. Most restaurants are glad to oblige, and those which are not offer french-fried baby goldfish and kidneys!)

We’re talking major disruptions in several areas which will lower profits and increase waste from unordered food and uneaten food — which cannot even be sold to hog farmers any more. Some of us are concerned about “peak food” and the EPA mandate that will drive ethanol percentages up by half, thereby consuming 45% of our corn crop. Vegetarians might be pleased, but most parents, children, and restaurants will not be. The camel’s nose frequently looks cute, soft, and pettable as it thrusts into the tent, but almost overwhelmingly camels spit, bite, and kick. Once governments begin interferring, anything can happen. Why not outlaw Tony Roma’s and Rudy’s because they serve very fattening ribs, including pork, which is offensive to Muslims?

The devastating “Endangered Species Act” started with a sentimental gesture about Bald Eagles. This ploy may be aimed at more traditional restaurants, but it will spread to the drive-through trade, and their menus are not exempt from full caloric disclosure already. MacDonald’s just eliminated the one dollar menu, raising prices suddenly to $1.50. Imagine the forces it took to cause corporate America to make a decision like that…and I wonder if that is how they paid for redoing all of the menus and outside menu boards. Does Micky D’s need another kick while they’re staggering? This is no time to insist a Happy Meal contain foods David Copperfield wouldn’t want. Michelle lives in a world of $150.00 hamburgers and light snacks of caviar and champagne in campaign season ($400, signed hotel bill available) and is unlikely to know that an ordinary good hamburger is closing in on six bucks and the Angus burger is rising eight at Jack in the Box. A very meager “dinner and the movies” for a family of four burns through a Bernanke, and with fifteen million unemployed I keep expecting to see box office receipts sag. Oops! She hasn’t gotten around to haranguing movie theaters, yet.

In a world increasingly devoid of pleasures the “home ATM” generation took for granted, let’s not make life any more difficult for parents or business.

Linda Brady Traynham
Whiskey & Gunpowder

September 16, 2010