June 4, 2010

Local Melting Pot leads way to new offerings for chain

Hard economic times can put a spur to creativity, especially in sectors vulnerable to customer retreat. A lunch or dinner out might end up on the take-it-or-leave-it side of the ledger, competing with sack lunches and slow-cooker roasts. In response, restaurant owners have looked at their offerings to see if there is an appeal they might promote.

For The Melting Pot, the new hook at the corporate level is a gluten-free menu. However, for the Fort Collins Melting Pot, owned locally by Christine and Ryan Houdek, the need for such items became clear more than a year ago.

“We trained our staff extensively on gluten intolerance,” Ryan Houdek said. “So they are up to speed on everything. They know all the protocols.”

For about 99 percent of the population in this country, gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye and barley (think bread, pasta, cookies, beer) – transits the digestive system without incident. For that 1 percent with celiac disease – roughly 3 million people – gluten triggers an autoimmune reaction: “Alert! This substance is toxic!” For the gluten-intolerant, having gluten-free alternatives that also taste good makes dining out so much nicer.

“When corporate rolled out the gluten-free menu campaign in May, we didn’t see a big response because our fans already knew we would provide those options,´ said Tim Downey, general manager. “We have a smart dining clientele here, and so we are running ahead of the curve.”

For example, instead of substituting veggies for bread, the Fort Collins Melting Pot orders bread from Deby’s Gluten Free Bakery and Cafe in Denver.

“The Melting Pot cheese is normally floured,” Downey said. “In a typical blend, we shred the cheeses and then add flour as a binding agent. By using cornstarch instead of flour, we can make any of our cheeses gluten-free. We even have a gluten-free beer – Red Bridge made with sorghum – for the recipes that call for beer.”

He added that all the deserts, with the exception of the cheesecake, have their gluten-free equivalents.

“There is one thing that I think it’s important to mention,” Downey said. “While we store all of our ingredients correctly and take care with our serving, we probably can’t declare ourselves absolutely gluten-free. Still, we have wonderful food for our customers who are gluten-intolerant. Because of our local connection, we have been moving this direction for some time. Now corporate is catching up.”

Eating healthy on food stamps

This summer, holders of the Colorado Quest Card (or EBT, Electronic Benefit Transfer, formerly known as food stamps) will be able to shop at several of Colorado’s farmers’ markets, including the Larimer County Farmer’s Market (Saturday mornings at 200 W. Oak St., Fort Collins) and Greeley’s Farmers Market at the Depot (Saturdays and Wednesday at 902 Seventh Ave.) Advocates of healthy eating will say, “Huzzah! Finally, cash-strapped families have an alternative to fatty fast food.”

Not so fast, foodies. As bloggers on Wise Bread – www.wisebread.com – point out, if you’re poor and hungry, you buy the cheapest calories you can find. So while it is good news that families with low or no incomes will be able to buy fresh produce with food stamps, turning raw ingredients into meals requires a kitchen and time to cook. Furthermore, consider this. Take a dollar to the grocery and see how many energy-producing calories that buck will buy: 1,000 calories of cookies and just 250 of carrots; 900 in a soda, 170 in orange juice.

But still: Huzzah for the farmers who swipe the card! It is a very good start.

Menu mania

Perhaps one of the ironies of the economic downturn is that instead of being grateful there were any restaurants left standing, diners got pickier. Any hard-earned dollar was going to buy them exactly what they wanted, or else.

It appears that picky eaters will receive some help in their quest for healthy dining from Section 2572 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka the health-care reform bill).

Section 2572 states that the nutritional value and calorie count for menu items in chain operations with 20 or more locations must be clearly available for diners to see. That piece of the act prompted local entrepreneur Betsy Craig to launch MenuTrinfo, a company that offers four services: calorie counts for each menu item, nutritional information (basic and in-depth), menu engineering and reverse ingredient lookup.

Section 2572 has also stirred up much online chatter about whether providing calorie counts, sodium counts, ingredient lists and the like amounts to too much information. It will just confuse diners. Really?

Of course, it is possible to overdo any service, but entrepreneurs like Craig are betting that heart patients on low-sodium diets, the gluten-intolerant and those with deadly allergic reactions to things like peanuts (among others) will greet the information with a great relief. Restaurant regulars can easily get acquainted with a menu and then eat with gusto, knowing that a trip to the ER is an unlikely dessert.

A downer of a year

The fourth quarter of 2009 seems so long ago, and as far as restaurant sales in Colorado went, good riddance. For the state, sales were down 1.2 percent from the same period last year. That dip was even worse than for the country in general.

The biggest loser was Weld County, down 8.1 percent from the previous year. Larimer Co. was down only 1.5 percent. Only El Paso and Pueblo counties showed a slight increase of 4.2 percent and 3.7 percent, respectively.

Indeed, the last quarter of 2009 may have represented a low point for restaurants in Northern Colorado. So far in 2010, restaurateurs are seeing some glimmers of recovery or at least of holding steady. Tim Downey at The Melting Pot confirmed that his first five months have been strong, and he is hearing the same report from other restaurants as well. Finding the bottom has its benefits.

Where have all the haggis gone?

On July 11, The Stonehouse Grille will be no more. On Aug. 1, the space at 125 S. College Ave. in Fort Collins will reopen as The Beach House.

Those who have developed a fondness for eating authentic haggis, scotch eggs, bridies and shepherd’s pie while watching cricket and soccer on big screen TVs are advised to not put off those pleasures. The restaurant’s final hours on the final day of the FIFA World Cup promise to be an excellent occasion to “tak a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

Operations at the related Stone Ridge Grill at Loveland’s Mariana Butte Golf Course will continue unchanged.

Jane Albritton’s monthly column features restaurant and hospitality industry news. She can be contacted at jane@tiger works.com.

Hard economic times can put a spur to creativity, especially in sectors vulnerable to customer retreat. A lunch or dinner out might end up on the take-it-or-leave-it side of the ledger, competing with sack lunches and slow-cooker roasts. In response, restaurant owners have looked at their offerings to see if there is an appeal they might promote.

For The Melting Pot, the new hook at the corporate level is a gluten-free menu. However, for the Fort Collins Melting Pot, owned locally by Christine and Ryan Houdek, the need for such items became clear more than a year…

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