Monday, December 6, 2010

‘Travels with My Aunt’ Filled With Skilled Performances, Worldly Energy (, 12/4/2010)

This could not have been what British author Graham Greene envisioned when he penned Travels with My Aunt in 1969 — that a stage adaptation of his novel featuring four male actors portraying more than 25 characters would spiral toward the absurd at the risk of its charm.

And yet, that's precisely what the Glencoe-based Writers' Theatre's has delivered with its own presentation of Travels with My Aunt. At times, silly; at times, outlandish; but always, dynamic and spirited and charismatic enough to maintain interest and intrigue, this Writers' Theatre production succeeds as much in its daring execution of a complex play as its embrace of Greene's captivating narrative.

What actors LaShawn Banks, Sean Fortunato, John Hoogenakker, and Jeremy Sher pull off in Travels with My Aunt is nothing short of astounding. In the 140-minute comedic drama, the four actors shift character to character with veteran skill, alternating voices and mannerisms, posture and position to produce the engaging story of Henry Pulling.

The mild-mannered Henry, a retired banker content to snatch his only entertainment from the blossoming dahlias in the garden of his Southwood, England, bachelor home, attends his mother's wake only to be reunited with his Aunt Augusta, an eccentric character who often leaves Henry "too surprised by her vulgarity to speak."

His long-absent aunt's coaxing soon pulls Henry from the comforts of suburban life into shady international adventures that reveal plenty about the retired bachelor's character and even more about his own unsolved backstory. Though the play begins with death, it is Henry who finds life. His decision to live as a tourist in his 75-year-old aunt's world soon unpacks his life's mysteries.

The performances at this Glencoe theatre — a 50-seat, wood-beamed space tucked into the rear of the Books on Vernon retail store — are what make the Giles Havergal stage adaptation work.

In his Writers' Theatre directorial debut, Stuart Carden, the company's associate artistic director, asks much of his performance quartet. And each of them delivers, all of them playing the role of Henry at times and switching to other characters on call. In the hands of a less capable cast, the drama could dizzy into slapstick and caricatures. It never does.

Banks, a Writers' Theatre veteran, excites as the charged Wordsworth, AuntAugusta's Sierra Leone boy toy, before transforming into a cop at one stop and an elusive international revolutionary at another. Hoogenakker navigates the tricky theatrical terrain of playing a teenage girl traveling the Orient Express, a Philadelphia-bred government agent, and a Paraguayan teen. Sher, frequently tucked on the side, serves as the utility man, filling in where necessary, shifting languages at will, and crafting some of the production's sound effects, including a train's lumbering movement with an umbrella. And as the lone Aunt Augusta, Fortunato dazzles with sharp wit and thespian commitment, arguably the production's most striking performance.

Though certain dialogue falls into the trappings of British humor that makes Monty Python a comedic classic to some and dumbfounding to others, the four actors' performance generates enough goodwill and enthusiasm to bypass that modest shortcoming. Individually, the cast is focused and disciplined; collectively, they are a symphony of dramatic quality.

This Writers' Theatre production is one grounded in energy and wit, always quickbut never in a hurry. In time, despite the story's mystery and rapid pace, the characters find their own slice of peace and the puzzle's picture emerges, thereby generating the performance's final, fitting line: "God's in His heaven; all is right in the world."

Indeed, all is right, even if Greene, an adventurous traveler in his own right, could have never envisioned this journey from novel to stage.

Friday, November 19, 2010

From Ocean to Table: Sustainable seafood programs growing at QSRs (QSR, March 2010)

*2010 Eddie & Ozzie Award Winner*

When Robert Klein opened Fish Grill in 1986, sourcing of his seafood products stood as a top priority—even if the “sustainable seafood” term had yet to wiggle into the quick-serve industry’s lexicon.

“To me, it was all about quality,” says Klein, who now directs four Fish Grill locations in Los Angeles.

A decade ago, Klein heightened his attention to sourcing and began an aggressive investigation into ways he could further enhance his restaurant’s sustainability efforts, just as the movement gained traction.

Klein first sought education, traveling more than 300 miles north to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the California-based aquarium among the first advocacy groups trumpeting the sustainable seafood message. He later dug into research from credible organizations, such as the Marine Stewardship Council, and began asking more direct questions of his buyers and sourcers. As a result, he outlawed serving blue fin tuna and Chilean sea bass, two dishes littered with sustainability warnings. Today, 80 percent of Fish Grill’s menu meets sustainable criteria.
The move toward sustainable seafood, Klein says, made sense on a variety of levels.

“In the short term, I saw customers becoming more knowledgeable and seeking higher quality and health benefits on the table; I had to match those expectations,” he says. “Then, knowing that I’m in this for the long haul, I knew that if fish stocks were to decline, prices would only rise and put stress on the business.”

Klein’s fast-casual eateries are characteristic of a sweeping industry trend. Sustainable seafood is here to stay and, many experts and operators agree, it’s a positive endeavor for restaurant operators seeking to balance consumer expectations, environmental concerns, and sound business principles.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), sustainable seafood is “when the population of that species of fish is managed in a way that provides for today’s needs without damaging the ability of the species to reproduce and be available for future generations.”

No longer mired in obscurity, sustainable seafood emerged as a discussion point among scientists, government agencies, and restaurant industry insiders alike. Most telling of its validity is that the dialogue has morphed into action.

A widely cited 2006 study in the journal Science suggested that the loss of biodiversity was obstructing the ocean’s ability to produce healthy seafood, leading to projections that seafood could be absent from dinner tables by 2048. Though many charged the report with sparking unreasonable alarm, the study succeeded in highlighting the emerging environmental concern and, most importantly for quick service, its potential impact to business.

The following year, the NOAA told the United States Congress that 25 percent of U.S. marine fish are overfished or depleted. Similar estimates have prompted scientific concern about ocean health, particularly in the face of rising dinner table demand and record-level U.S. seafood imports. After all, Americans enjoy their seafood, consuming about 15 pounds of seafood annually, according to the National Fisheries Institute.

As seafood demand increases, so does the importance of sustainable practices. For restaurant operators focused on long-term business objectives, the use of certified products remains the best way to ensure a stable and consistent seafood supply.

“Many restaurant operators are realizing how important a healthy seafood population is to their business model,” says Megan Westmeyer, the sustainable seafood coordinator at the South Carolina Aquarium.

In recent years, industry reports have consistently named sustainable seafood a top trend, a movement chiefly driven by influential chefs and fine-dining trendsetters. Likewise, industry trade shows, workshops, and forums have all addressed the topic in rising numbers.
“As a key talking point, sustainable seafood is beginning to sink in, especially on the heels of other food movements, such as organic, fair trade, and cage free,” says Sheila Bowman of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium developed its Seafood Watch program in 1997, among the nation’s first widespread efforts to broadcast the sustainable seafood message. From Chicago’s famed Shedd Aquarium to Good Catch, a London-based collaborative that promotes seafood sustainability in foodservice, several conservation groups and prominent aquariums in the U.S. and abroad have accelerated the discussion with their own education efforts and media coverage.
In recent years, the movement has accelerated both in and out of restaurant industry circles.

Over the last decade, McDonald’s solidified its sustainable reputation with its Filet-O-Fish sandwich, primarily made from Alaskan Pollock, a species certified by the Marine Stewardship Council’s sustainability standards. In December 2008, Yum! Brands and Long John Silver’s, the industry’s largest quick-serve seafood establishment, released its first corporate responsibility report, highlighting the brand’s longstanding commitment to sustainable seafood.

In 2005, Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, required all of its shrimp suppliers to adhere to “best aquaculture practices.” The message also rushed into the collegiate ranks. Since 2006, the dining program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has only served sustainable seafood, such as wild salmon, Pacific cod, scallops, and halibut, at its campus outlets.

Just how far has the sustainable seafood message come in the last decade? The 2006 animated movie Happy Feet discussed the issue of overfishing and protecting the world’s oceans. The movie’s DVD also included a copy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood watch guide.

“Sustainable seafood is on people’s radar,” Bowman says. “Companies want to have the right green initiatives to appease shareholders and customers. Restaurants might have already looked at waste, packaging, and energy; sustainable seafood arises as another business decision they can make to show environmental concern and improve their business model.”

The pervasive and diverse attention heaped upon the issue underscores the point that sustainability challenges freshness and quality as a vital priority. In the quick-serve arena, where fish sandwiches and platters account for a noteworthy chunk of sales, sustainable seafood cannot be ignored.

“Quick serves might have largely happened upon this movement by happenstance, but they’re increasingly looking at this commitment as something they cannot ignore,” Bowman says.

Around nine Gilligan’s Seafood Restaurant locations in South Carolina, a simple slogan reminds customers, ever so comically, of the precise origin of the restaurant’s celebrated dish: “Friends don’t let friends eat imported shrimp.”

The casual-dining establishment heightened its sustainability efforts in 2008 after partnering with the South Carolina Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Initiative.

“Using sustainable products ensures we’re getting the best product available, which helps guarantee fresh food and promote a positive guest experience,” Gilligan’s marketing director, Sarah Beckner, says. “That quality and consistency benefits our reputation.”

Two questions, crucial for operators to ask, drive the sustainable seafood issue:

1.) Where does the fish come from?

2.) What was the capture or harvest method?

Traceability is central to any sustainable seafood practice. Restaurants often assume fish comes from one standard location, only to be surprised that the origin of a specific species can vary throughout the year. On invoices from his suppliers, Fish Grill’s Klein reviews the origin of products and demands suppliers notify him of any changes.

“It takes some monitoring, but everything has to hit the mark,” he says, adding that Fish Grill’s status as a kosher restaurant adds another layer of scrutiny to his efforts.

Once restaurants confirm the seafood’s origin, operators can then ask about stock status, fishery management, or the ecosystem’s impact on harvest.

“Restaurants must be diligent about the fish they’re serving and maintain consistent guidelines,” Bowman says.

Westmeyer points to fish from Alaska, a state with a long history and credible record of sustainable fishing practices, as one particularly positive—and easy—option for operators.

“Everything that comes from Alaska is sustainable,” Westmeyer says, “so there’s one quick way to know if you’re getting sustainable seafood.”

Operators can then dig even further. Gilligan’s leadership team, headed by owner Randy Marvin, routinely visits the boats of its local suppliers to get a firsthand look at operations. The staff also conducts regular in-house testing of its seafood, weighing, cooking, and assessing the freshness of items.

“We’re not just taking suppliers at their word; we’re seeing and learning about this with our own eyes. We don’t want them buying product from elsewhere and selling it to us,” Beckner says, alluding to a familiar practice in the seafood industry.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium reports that 67 percent of seafood by dollar value is sold through restaurants, an estimate that suggests quick serves hold valuable leverage to demand that seafood is caught or farmed in an environmentally responsible way.

Many restaurant operators looking to understand sustainability and its applications to their business first turn to a trustworthy advocacy group. Many of the nation’s aquariums host a sustainable seafood program that provides a shortcut for operators seeking helpful resources and personal attention.

“A lot of restaurants simply don’t have the time to get so involved in this issue, so partnering with the right agency will be a big help,” Monterey Bay’s Bowman says. “I would tell any operator to use the available resources and don’t make this issue any harder than it has to be. Identify who’s telling the straight story and work within those guidelines.”

The South Carolina Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Initiative, for instance, has a distinct restaurateur focus, sparked by the recognition of just how much influence restaurants peddle over the nation’s $70 billion desire to enjoy seafood. Since 2002, the aquarium has worked directly with restaurants to help them improve their seafood sourcing. Operators determine their level of involvement and take small steps alongside the aquarium’s staff to produce a sustainability program that works.

“Restaurants are a control point in that they pick and choose what people will be eating,” Westmeyer says. “Our partnership program with restaurants helps arm operators with credible information, so that they can make the decisions best for their establishment and their customers.”

Gilligan’s Beckner says the experience the South Carolina Aquarium staff brought to the table was remarkable.

“They’re the pros at it, and they bring an amazing background to the relationship,” Beckner says of Westmeyer and her staff. “They helped us with the educational part, they reinforced why we should be doing this, and they helped us identify new options for our menu with sustainability in mind.”

Many operators with a sustainable mindset then pair the information of advocacy groups with information from other sources, including suppliers and government agencies. Noting the rise of sustainability as an important issue to restaurant operators, suppliers have increasingly made their sourcing information available and sought partnerships with advocacy groups.

“I don’t know of a supplier that’s gone as far as only serving sustainable seafood, but in most cases they’re making sales sheets and categorizing what they sell,” Bowman says. “Most realize that effective sustainable seafood practices are a win-win all around.”

Though discussion of sustainable seafood has multiplied, consumers have only sparingly heard the message. In the 1990s, McDonald’s developed a sustainable program for its Filet-O-Fish sandwich while Long John Silver’s pledged similar efforts. Although both industry giants initiated the programs—in part—to strengthen their supply chain, neither constructed a broad marketing campaign around the issue.

Experts suggest operators make customers aware, educate staff, and think outside of the tackle box.

“Restaurants are in the unique position to encourage new options and spread out consumption to different species and that’s something they can take advantage of,” Westmeyer says.

Restaurants can prepare different seafood in a delicious way and introduce fresh species to customers’ palettes. Common alternatives include tilapia, catfish, and striped bass, while more obscure options, such as sheepshead or amberjack, can draw consumer interest.

By preparing a new seafood dish with flair, Westmeyer says, restaurants can gain a following for their unusual menu options and build a special around the item. Additionally, operators can enjoy cost savings since underutilized species often have a lower wholesale cost given supply overruns.

“In the short term and long term, there’s much benefit to adopting a sustainable seafood program,” Westmeyer says.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Trading Up: Cash-strapped shop owners nab services--and new customers--through bartering (Fresh Cup, October 2010)

When Mark Baryla purchased J Bean Coffee and Café, a six-year-old neighborhood coffee house on the outskirts of Chicago, he inherited a business active in bartering. Yet for Baryla, a CPA by day, the concept of bartering was as foreign as it was funny.

“I’ll admit some real hesitancy toward wanting to continue the store’s bartering ways,” says Baryla, who purchased the café in 2007. “I had a difficult time with the concept and thought it was funny money.”

J Bean’s previous owner participated in two barter exchanges — the International Monetary System (IMS), a publicly traded, Wisconsin-based barter company spanning 50 U.S. markets, and Art of Barter, a Chicago area exchange serving approximately 1,400 small business clients in and around the Windy City. When Baryla assumed ownership of the café, he investigated barter fully before determining J Bean’s continued participation.

“I thought it could be frustrating to work within this barter marketplace and also wondered if some of the other businesses would even be open down the road,” he says.

As his barter exploration unraveled, however, Baryla liked what he saw and continued J Bean’s bartering relationships. To date, he’s used barter for restaurant supplies, storage, and employee incentive gifts as well as personal trips to resort towns in Illinois and Wisconsin.

“Barter was not only worth keeping but expanding,” Baryla says.

For many of the nation’s café owners like Baryla, barter has emerged a compelling piece of the business environment. Given the U.S. economy’s tumult and a related decrease in consumer spending, barter has gained notoriety and favor among small business owners seeking to keep cash on hand, generate business, move inventory, and secure new customers.

“If you have a business, you can barter and reap the benefits of trade,” IMS president Don Mardak says.

Independent Bartering
From the Romans to the Greeks to the American farmer and the modern-day coffee shop owner, bartering spans generations and geography. Historically, barter took the form of direct trade — two people having a mutual need at a common time for products and services of related value.

Though direct trade can be difficult to accomplish in today’s fast-paced world, many small businesses retain the practice, foregoing any membership in a third-party barter exchange to find their own trade partners.

Amy Comerchero runs Amy’s Bakery Arts Café in Brattleboro, Vermont and has bartered with a number of local businesses over her café’s 10-year existence, including an electrician, a nearby clothing boutique, and her acupuncturist, a lunchtime regular.

“I’ve found only good things through barter and enjoy doing exchange,” Comerchero says. “It’s about everyone sharing their gifts — I can do for you and you can do for me, which is so uplifting.”

The direct trade challenge of finding a matching partner, she says, has been minimized by Brattleboro’s neighborly ways, the community’s barter openness, and a pinch of good fortune.

“I’ve been lucky to have found services and goods that I want and that we have enough food here to meet [the trading partner’s] needs. For us, we’ve been blessed that it’s a workable system,” says Comerchero.

The same direct trade spirit resonates at ChocoLate Coffee, an eight-year-old shop in Atlanta.

Owner Vera Bettin met Nick Villaume, a local Web site developer, when Villaume coached her son’s soccer team. The two soon learned they had professional experiences and services to offer one another. In return for Villaume performing regular Web site updates, ChocoLate provides space for Villaume to conduct business meetings, while offering free Internet time and drinks, a barter arrangement managed by the store’s POS-controlled loyalty card.

Bettin has fashioned similar barter relationships with a range of businesses, including plumbing, signage, graphic design, and artists, whose personal work lines ChocoLate’s walls. When hiring a contractor, she’ll often ask if they’re open to barter.

“I enjoy bartering because I don’t have cash leaving my account, which is so important as a small business owner, and because it fosters a collegial relationship with fellow business owners and service providers,” Bettin says.

Bartering with a Third-Party Exchange
Yet for many small businesses, cafes included, direct trade fails to deliver on barter’s optimal benefits — never mind the concerns over drawing the ire of the IRS, navigating testy disputes when one side fails to deliver, and record keeping blunders that could allow product to walk out the door.

For many, a third-party barter exchange is the only way to go in the barter game.

Functioning on a model much like eBay, barter exchanges serve as a forum to sell goods and services, while also functioning as a clearinghouse for trades, processing transactions and maintaining records for each business. At year’s end, most exchanges distribute Form 1099-B, which lists a café’s total trades for the year and appeases the IRS’s desire for accountability.

The U.S. hosts approximately 200 trade exchanges, many confined to a local area. Services on the exchange can range from restaurants, often the most popular target of trade dollars, to printing and advertising, car washes and window washers, landscapers and tradesmen, HVAC and hotels.

“This secondary economy has almost all of the services the yellow pages has,” says Mardak, whose IMS claims 16,000 individual businesses across the nation.
Pete Berres of Berres Brothers Coffee, a Watertown, Wisconsin-based café shop and regional coffee roaster, joined IMS in the mid-1990s to introduce his product to new clientele. In subsequent years, he’s become a major barter proponent and user, utilizing his barter dollars for travel, promotional items, employee incentives, catering, and store supplies, including a cash register.

“Our product is an easy one to barter — it’s in high demand and easy to ship — so we’re able to build up a strong account,” Berres says.

For their part in providing barter partners and clearinghouse functions, exchanges amass some mix of a membership fee, monthly charge, and a percentage of the transaction’s value. The IMS, for instance, collects a one-time $695 membership fee, a monthly service fee that varies by market ($19.50 in the Chicago area, for example), and a 6 percent transaction fee. Berres estimates that he spends $200-1,000 each month on barter transactions.

“You have to realize there’s an expense here and that you’re giving away product that could be sold for cash,” he says. “The key is in finding the right balance for your business between trade and real dollars and not letting those barter dollars grow indefinitely.”

Before entering an exchange, Baryla urges his coffee shop colleagues to do their own investigation. Speak with participating businesses to assess their experience, make sure the exchange is legit with the Better Business Bureau, peruse its client list to ensure it has worthwhile trade partners, and request a trial period, an inquiry many exchanges will accommodate.

“If you don’t like it,” Baryla says, “you always have the opportunity to spend your trade dollars and bow out.”

Barter Benefits
At J Bean, Baryla collects about $12,000 in barter dollars annually, a fraction of his café’s $360,000 income, but a viable and important slice of business. Many share Baryla’s sentiment, as barter allows an operation to keep cash on hand, differentiate itself from the competition, move excess product, fill down times, and gain valuable buying power.

Third-party exchanges, in particular, become marketing vehicles to publicize businesses. Individuals seeking to cash their barter dollars will often peruse available barter partners before utilizing cash.

“If I’m going to purchase something myself, I’m checking barter first,” Baryla confirms, a common response from barter participants that drives business at barter-practicing establishments throughout the country.

Yet, J Bean benefits on the reverse end as well.

“We get sales — transactions we never would have had — solely because we are involved with barter and the customer chooses to come to us instead of a place where he’d have to use cash,” Baryla says.

Barter participants also keep cash in house, an especially important feature as the business checkbook tightens. Rather than spending money to have the furnace cleaned or sale fliers printed, barter dollars can do the trick.

“When cash flow gets tight, you can still use barter to act on something you need or want,” Berres says, noting that profitability rises with barter.

In addition, cafes can take existing assets — inventory or space — and turn them into usable revenue on the barter system.

“With barter, commodities don’t have to be wasted,” Mardak says.

Perhaps most interesting and beneficial stands the concept of barter leverage, which affords a business owner remarkable buying power. If a café owner uses his barter dollars for a $500 landscaping project, for instance, barter leverage holds that he has not spent $500 cash, but rather a fraction of that amount equal to $500 of the café’s product. As a result, operators are trading products at retail cost for their wholesale investment.

“If your markups are high enough, you can buy things at wholesale cost, which leads to cash savings and showcases the inherent advantage with barter,” Mardak says.

Wanjiru’s Final Blow Floors Kebede (Competitor, October 10, 2010)

And then there were two.

With the $500,000 World Marathon Majors prize on the line, in addition to the 2010 Bank of America Chicago Marathon title, a pair of 23-year-olds, Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru and Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede, engaged in one of the most dramatic duels in marathon history on the streets of Chicago on Sunday morning.

The tandem traded the lead throughout the final two miles, Kebede frequently trying to break the resilient Wanjiru with steady and consistent surges. With 600 meters to go, it was Wanjiru, whose own accelerations had repeatedly been matched by Kebede, who attempted one final push, reverting to his track-running roots with an arm-pumping, ground-eating assault that Kebede’s slight frame and tired body couldn’t match.

“I don’t know where the power came from [for that final surge],” Wanjiru said, grateful that his ultimate attempt to break Kebede succeeded.

Wanjiru’s finishing time of 2:06:24 bested Kebede by 19 seconds, a gap showcasing the definitive and powerful finishing kick Wanjiru displayed. Ethiopian youngster Feyisa Lilesa captured third in 2:08:10 with Kenyan Wesley Korir in fourth at 2:08:44.

Wanjiru’s victory earned him the $75,000 championship prize and virtually assured him of the $500,000 World Marathon Majors title for 2009-2010. Kebede could run the New York City Marathon on November 7, the final event in the World Marathon Major series, to chase the 10-point gap created by Wanjiru’s Chicago victory, though such a feat would be unlikely given the punishing Chicago race and the four-week turnaround.

“Today was a big day. If I lost here, I was finished for the year,” said Wanjiru, who has battled back and knee problems throughout 2010.

Billed as the top field in the race’s 33-year history, the men’s elite field featured the reigning Chicago, London, and Boston champions in Wanjiru, Kebede, and Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, respectively–the first time that trio of reigning champions had assembled at a marathon starting line.

“This was an excellent opportunity to put [a number of] champions together on the same course, all of them at the front end of their careers,” Chicago Marathon executive race director Carey Pinkowski said. “I felt that if we got these guys early, got them training and with their mindset on Chicago, then we’d have a shot at a magnificent race.”

And Pinkowski’s hopes were realized.

The $500,000 World Marathon Majors carrot most certainly impacted race tactics, as Wanjiru and Kebede maintained tabs on one another throughout the race, content to let the pace linger in the 4:50s from the halfway point to mile 19.

Though a pack of nine was in place as the group approached mile 20, Kebede surged with Wanjiru and Lilesa in tow as the pace dropped into the 4:40s and the trio established a 30-second lead on its pursuers by the 35K mark. While Lilesa would drop back over the next 5K, Wanjiru and Kebede’s duel would continue over the final 2K.

“I tried and tried to push several times and my feeling was to win,” Kebede said of his assertive tactics to break the defending Chicago champion. “[But Wanjiru] got recovery and he would come again.”

Former University of Oregon standout Jason Hartmann was the top American, grabbing an eighth-place finish with his 2:11:06 personal best. Though 16th at the halfway point, Hartmann’s steady and conservative race plan, which included an even pace and regular hydration as the heat pushed into the upper 70s, fostered his 63-second improvement.

“I stayed within myself, I never pressed, and I let the race unfold in front of me,” Hartmann said. “This was another opportunity and a good step forward.”

38,132 runners crossed the Chicago Marathon starting line, the largest field in the race’s 33-year history.

'Spelling Bee' D-E-L-I-V-E-R-S at Metropolis (, October 17, 2010)

Few of us wish to relive adolescence. And yet, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee places adolescent turmoil at the center of its world, forging a relationship with the audience that sparks empathy and enjoyment at a uniquely adolescent setting—a spelling bee.

Playing at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, Spelling Bee features six spellers—and four quickly eliminated audience members—competing for a spot in the national spelling bee finals. High on energy and substance, the musical comedy's spelling bee environment--set in a middle school gym complete with Putnam Panther banners and basketball hoop--serves as the ideal meeting ground for the endearing sextet, each of whom possesses eccentricities that challenge even the most flexible of social norms.

With the spelling bee allure heightened by ESPN and ABC broadcasts of the actual annual national competition as well as movies such as Akeelah and the Bee and Spellbound, Spelling Bee's basic premise—middle school students battling in this intellectual challenge—resonates with audiences increasingly seeking quirky, offbeat and hearty looks at the present-day world.
Yet, in a contrast to recent popular productions like Glee and High School Musical, flashy song-and-dance, teen-centric creations that suit today's audio-visual pulse, Spelling Bee's charm resides in its lovable characters.

There is the guarded and stern William Barfee (James Nedrud), an intense, bespectacled lad whose mother tells him he'll be good looking someday and who uses his magic foot to spell words, as well as the lisp-troubled Logainne Schwartzandgrubiennaire (Justine Klein), whose two dads stress winning at all costs and have inspired the youngster to run her elementary school's gay-straight alliance.

There is Marcy Park (Amy Malouf), whose intentional misspelling of camouflage showcases the fragility and sincerity of the bee's competitors, and Chip Tolentino (Ryan Hunt), the Boy Scout whose elimination coincides with the untimely arrival of a puberty-spurred condition.
Each speller comes to the bee with a back story and baggage as compelling and unique as the next, giving the show heart and depth beyond the methods each contestant employs to spell words.

To the show's credit, director Robin Hughes' ensemble cast resists any shallow, stereotypical characterization of these quirky spellers, all of whom might politely be termed outcasts. Rather, each individual cast member creates a well-rounded, robust character grounded in sincerity and optimism, displayed in individual opening numbers that provide necessary background insight.

Patrick Tierney could reduce Leaf Coneybear to an outlandish character plagued by hyperactivity and hypnotic trances, but there's a depth and lovingness to Tierney's portrayal that delivers spunk and makes Coneybear a favorite. Likewise, Kristine Burdi could sink into Olive Ostrovsky's role as a forgotten child, rejecting the optimism, hope and candor that turns the character from depressed to delightful. She does not, however, and Ostrovsky's character becomes heartfelt and honorable for Burdi's effort.

The childish antics of the six spellers are complemented by three well-rounded adult characters: Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Michael Herschberg), the bee's judge, whose improvisational skills bring added laughter; moderator Rona Lisa Peretti (Stephanie Souza), a spelling bee winner turned realtor, who brings a soft voice and calming presence to an environment that risks falling into simple-minded slapstick; and criminal-turned-consoler, Mitch Mahoney (Bear Bellinger), whose community service duties have him handing out juice boxes to eliminated contestants.

Yet, the spirited Spelling Bee experience travels beyond the characters. Celebrated songwriter William Finn's tunes, executed by energetic voices, provide added dimension to the two-hour show, offering balance to the fast-paced dialogue. Audience interaction and pop culture references ground the story in the present. And the Metropolis' cozy theater grants intimacy to a performance that relies on an involved, responsive audience.

The collection of lovable characters, devoted performances, song and dance elevates Spelling Bee to the must-see level with a comedic yet still heartfelt production that makes one's two-hour return to adolescence well worth the investment.

At 30 years, Theology on Tap still going strong (Catholic New World, July 4, 2010)

At a Champaign pizzeria in the spring of 1981, a youthful Tim Leeming pulled Father Jack Wall into a private conversation and offered an impromptu confession.

“Father, I’m doing well here at school academically and socially, but I don’t know why I’m doing the things I’m doing and it seems to me that my faith should be a resource,” the University of Illinois student told the priest.

That modest, innocent conversation set in motion a whirlwind of events that would spark a young adult ministry revolution — first in the Chicago area, then the nation and now the world.

When Wall and his colleagues from St. James returned to the Arlington Heights parish from their campus visit, the group sat down to establish a forum for the deeprooted questions young adults like Leeming held. Wall’s team proposed a summer program — five evenings on five spiritual themes — hoping the series would help young adults draw closer to God.

Someone casually tossed out the title “Theology on Tap,” a name that survives today as the program enters its 30th year in the Archdiocese of Chicago and introduces itself to the worldwide stage.

Immediate results
When Theology on Tap hosted its first event at St. James Parish in June 1981, 200 college-aged guests attended. Immediately, the organizers noted the series’ promise and, even more, the introspective, spiritual elements it inspired.

“We could see right away that this was touching a need. The room was filled with an amazing balance of social energy and theological input,” Wall said.

Early momentum established, Theology on Tap surged forward in the summer of 1981. On the program’s second night, more than 400 attended.

The question then became: Now what?

In the summer of 1982, Wall and his colleagues asked the series’ original five speakers to present at five new archdiocesan locations, thereby sending Theology on Tap’s first ripple in the young adult stream. St. James, meanwhile, hosted five new speakers in its second run. The following summer, Theology on Tap expanded to a dozen Chicago- area sites.

“The best ideas have a simplicity to them and Theology on Tap is like that. It was adaptable and readily replicable and people jumped on board,” Wall said.

Broad vision
Father John Cusick, one of Theology on Tap’s original five speakers, noted the program’s energetic response and impact with an oft-overlooked group. Heading the archdiocese’s young-adult ministry office, Cusick envisioned dioceses across the country holding similar programs and began planting seeds for that transformation. Cusick and his staff, including longtime associate Kate DeVries, began crafting a more formal program and inviting other dioceses to replicate the series.

In 1994, the Diocese of Joliet ran Theology on Tap. Later, the dioceses of Rockford, Gary (Ind.), Milwaukee and Madison (Wis.) adopted the program. Cusick’s office, meanwhile, assembled a manual detailing best practices and presented a program to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002. Regularly, the Chicago office was answering calls from other dioceses eager to establish Theology on Tap.

“When something is good, its momentum grows,” DeVries said. “The young adults responded, the parishes and dioceses responded, and Theology on Tap took off well beyond Chicago.”

By late 2003, Theology on Tap had outgrown its modest Chicago office and its even more ambitious vision. Cusick met with RENEW International, an established faithformation organization based in New Jersey, to discuss folding Theology on Tap into their expansive outreach efforts, a partnership realized on Jan. 1, 2007.

Despite the program’s expansion into 48 states and seven countries, however, Theology on Tap remains a staple of Chicago’s young-adult office. Heading into its 30th year, 215 area sites have hosted nearly 4,200 programs. “We love it and want it to go on forever,” DeVries said.

Answering a need
While Theology on Tap has adopted a post-collegiate focus, it has not veered from its focus on young-adult concerns, chiefly vocational and relational issues. Using faith as the tool, the annual four-week summertime program offers an experience that invites individual introspection in an atmosphere of others exploring the same personal issues of career, love and a meaningful life. It’s offered in a casual environment with promises of food, drinks and socializing.

“The program keeps growing precisely because there is a spiritual hunger in our young adults and an absence of places to feed that hunger in today’s world. Theology on Tap is the answer to this,” DeVries said.

Involved in ministry work during her high school and college years, Cynthia Kogol felt a faith void when she graduated from Loyola University. Struggling to find any spiritually rooted program that addressed her concerns as she entered a new phase in life, her parish priest directed her to Theology on Tap in 2009.

“It’s rewarding to be able to share my faith with others and gain a different perspective on issues, such as Mass and prayer,” the 27-year-old LaGrange resident said.

Now entering its 30th year, Theology on Tap celebrates three decades of fostering personal friendships as well as individual bonds with the church and one’s faith, something that astonishes Wall. “I’m touched that it continues to speak to peoples’ hunger for a spiritual life and reminds us all just how informative faith can be,” Wall said.

The Ultimate Food Fight (October 2010)

Matt Loney isn’t taking anything for granted or ignoring any competitor. He insists he knows better, a product of an early professional education on the restaurant industry’s ebbs and flows.

The youthful president of Stevi B’s, an Atlanta-based pizza-buffet franchise that has earned acclaim for its specialty pizzas, Loney has witnessed grocery stores gain a larger slice of the restaurant pizzeria world’s business.

“Our data shows that people eat pizza six times a month and, on average, they’re getting that pizza from a grocery store well over two of those times, a full point rise from just three years ago,” Loney says. “The grocery store is now almost accounting for half of all pizza consumption.”

Such a reality compelled Loney and his Stevi B’s team to fashion a response that includes highlighting the brand’s specialty pizzas and rethinking the restaurant’s to-go business. At pizzeria offices throughout the nation, similar conversations are occurring as operators seek to regain fleeing business.

“In the last two years, we’ve seen an entire night of pizza consumption shift to the grocery store category,” Loney says. “That alone is reason to be aware and cognizant of the retail sector.”
Yet, this is not pizza’s battle alone.

In grocery stores across America, prepared and ready-to-eat meals are gobbling up share—not at a breakneck pace, but at enough of a clip to spark trepidation. From chicken to Chinese egg rolls, macaroni and cheese to meat loaf, pasta to pot roast, America’s grocery stores are expanding their culinary horizons, directly pursuing the foodservice dollar while touting the convenience of retail for other personal purchases.

A recent report from market research firm Packaged Facts titled “Prepared Foods and Ready-to-Eat Foods at Retail: The New Competition to Foodservice” noted grocery’s gain amid the restaurant industry’s recessionary struggles. As consumers shifted from spending at restaurants to saving dollars and dining at home, supermarkets pounced with more diverse ready-to-eat offerings, competitive prices, and one-stop-shop positioning.

Half of the report’s nearly 1,900 U.S. respondents said they were more likely to eat dinner at home today than three months ago—with nearly one-third doing so “a lot more.” Meanwhile, 64 percent said they purchased a prepared meal from a grocery store within the last month.

“Prepared foods are a retail offering that’s come into its own,” says David Morris, the report’s chief analyst. “It’s definitely entered the mainstream from the foodservice perspective and achieved great strides in terms of quality, breadth of offerings, and major players to make it more competitive.”

The study’s findings highlight the grocery channel’s direct assault on quick service, an onslaught that’s gaining momentum. Projections are that prepared meal sales will reach $14 billion in 2011, a 7 percent jump over 2010.

“I don’t think there’s reason to panic, because to some extent we’ve always competed with grocery for a share of the stomach,” Loney says. “At the same time, we can’t deny that the grocery stores are competition and the quick-service segment has to be willing to evolve. If quick-service leaders aren’t aware of grocery stores’ efforts, they certainly should be.”

The intensifying competition has inspired confidence in grocery channels, many of whom tout the segment’s vast potential and continue to experiment in the relatively young field. Although not a new battle, it’s surely an escalating one.

“Retail should definitely be on the radar of any restaurant operator,” Morris says. “It’s a competitor that can, will, and is stealing share, as consumers use prepared food as a substitute for the restaurant meal.”

Competition Heats Up
Although grocery stores began flirting with prepared meals as early as the 1970s, the last decade witnessed the most intense and rapid growth. Well before the recent economic shift, grocers activated more robust and attractive prepared meal programs to lure in consumers craving convenience, value, variety, and healthier choices. In many cases, grocers altered their deli service models and renovated stores to reflect their new focus on consumers claiming neither the time nor interest to cook.

“The grocers saw restaurants taking more market share and people turning away from their retail stores, so they made an aggressive play to get back in the game by championing convenience, which is what these prepared meals are all about,” says Suzanne Long, a retail practice leader with New York–based SSA & Company.

Publix, a grocery chain based in the South, is one such player. Focusing on two-career families and time-starved customers, the supermarket upped its investment in ready-to-eat meals a decade ago, creating a variety of prepared food offerings, such as steaks, seafood, chicken, and sandwiches.

“Over time, we grew the category based on trends and diversified our offerings to meet consumer desires,” Publix spokeswoman Dwaine Stevens says.

With positive consumer response, the movement accelerated at grocery stores—big and small, private and public—across the country. Even amid recessionary pressures, the play has been a positive one for the grocery segment. From February 2009 to February 2010, grocery stores, long mired in decline, welcomed 4 percent sales growth.

“Today, the grocery channel embraces the prepared meals idea precisely because it has driven sales in a positive direction,” says Steve Johnson, the head of Foodservice Solutions in Tacoma, Washington. “Even more, they’ve realized that they can build consumer loyalty by serving fresh food.”

Johnson, who blogs about the so-called “grocerant” segment and serves as an industry consultant, says grocery stores have done a strong job of positioning their ready-to-eat products as healthier alternatives to restaurant fare.

“Many options are fresh, sustainable, and local, all of which creates a perception of healthy,” he says.

Indeed, prepared grocery store offerings have evolved from their primitive roots with rotisserie chicken and potato salad. Today’s leading grocery stores, and even a few local players, have created a litany of ready-to-eat options well beyond the norm.

Market District offers a line of smoothies. Buehler’s Fresh Food features crab cakes and beef burgundy on its rotating “Dinner for 2” menu. Dean & DeLuca provides a salmon chowder, while Metropolitan Market sells homemade comfort foods like turkey pot pie. Safeway’s Lifestyle stores host sandwich and sushi stations. Publix offers ready-to-eat kids meals and, in one newer Florida location, a 4,500-square-foot culinary-prepared food experience with more than 80 entrées, including kung pao scallops and cedar-plank salmon.

“There are more choices than ever and that’s real empowerment,” Johnson says. “Overall, the restaurants overlooked the reality of this momentum and how it allowed households to bundle. The grocery channel can offer something compelling and powerful to consumers.”

Perhaps no chain, however, has better characterized the grocerant growth than Whole Foods, the world’s largest retailer of natural and organic foods. Whole Foods positions meal stations throughout its stores, many of which capitalize on the company’s fresh image by offering regional fare.

“You might walk into a Whole Foods at dinner time and the aisles might be empty, but there will be a crowd at those meal stations,” Johnson says.

This is not a passing trend, Johnson says, but rather a swelling competitive reality. He points to a number of supermarket brands creating private-label items to jolt their prepared-meal offerings, as well as convenience stores, which are joining the prepared meals game as well. Later this year, Walgreens will trial individual prepared meals, such as wraps and soups, at many of its outlets.

For Publix and many of its supermarket brethren, the year-over-year growth has spurred continued investment and experimentation.

“There’s customer demand and popularity here,” Stevens says. “Consumers are flocking to these venues to take care of their household’s needs, and we want to fulfill their expectations.”

All of this attention to foodservice comes at a fortuitous time for grocery stores.

“Grocery stores provide supplementary food products and that can keep the customer in-house even as the recession wanes,” Morris says. “That’s an important consideration here as we move forward.”

Defense to Offense
In late July, the NPD Group, which has been tracking in-home eating habits and foodservice trends over the last 30 years, projected that the need for prepared meals would continue to grow over the next decade. Driven largely by convenience, the report surmised, restaurants and supermarkets both have opportunity to claim the consumer’s dollar.

Generating restaurant business, however, will not happen by accident.

Morris says restaurants must enhance their value proposition with price and quality messaging, customer-service initiatives, and convenience to maintain their relevance with consumers. Fundamentally, quick serves must ensure that their menus can compete on value and quality, the two most prevalent factors in consumer eating decisions. For $10 at a grocery store, a customer can purchase a rotisserie chicken, two side dishes, bread, and a drink. Quick serves will need to match that value proposition to ward off this challenge.

“As an operator, you have to recognize that people can and will go elsewhere,” Morris says.

To defend their quick-service brands, operators will have to migrate with a customer that is dynamic, not static. Stevi B’s Loney and his team have investigated building a separate to-go window, simplifying online ordering, and launching aggressive marketing initiatives, such as bounce-back offers to spur to-go sales, all efforts to counter grocery’s competitive momentum.
Additional quick-service solutions include selling at various distribution points, creating smaller units, and licensing. Take-and-bake options, which allow consumers to enjoy a restaurant-quality meal in minutes at home, also offer opportunity.

“In today’s crazy world, dinner doesn’t happen when everyone expects it to,” Long says. “The question becomes: What can restaurants do to appease consumer lifestyles?”

An additional key, Morris says, resides in restaurants offering items that consumers are drawn to and which cannot be easily replicated. That’s why Loney feels confident that Stevi B’s can withstand the supermarket assault in the short and long term.

“We have pizzas you can’t get anywhere else, so that’s a real advantage,” he says, pointing to his specialty offerings like the Macaroni and Cheese Pizza and Loaded Baked Potato Pizza as prime examples. “By better informing our customers, we can make a dent in the business we’re losing to grocery stores.”

One unusual solution Long sees is the opportunity for collaboration, specifically to make restaurant-branded products available in supermarkets. Publix recently opened a Carrabba’s Italian Market in its Sarasota, Florida, outlet—a relationship filled with optimism for both the grocer and the casual-dining chain.

“This is an underutilized spot with plenty of opportunity,” Long says. “Why can’t there be the Taco Bell taco bar, KFC-branded chicken and cole slaw, or branded barbecue ribs in the service delis? There’s an opportunity here to leverage the restaurant brand in the grocery store to draw more customers in.”

Such partnerships are something Stevi B’s pursued, but ultimately rejected. Loney cited the supermarkets’ cash-for-product-placement initiatives and fears about cannibalizing the product and sparking tension with franchisees as pressing concerns he could not overcome.

“You weigh all of this out and you see that it’s just not a viable option, and our energy is better placed elsewhere to grow the top line,” Loney says.

Amid the intensifying competition, quick-service restaurants can take solace in one reality: This is no slam dunk for the grocery stores. The customer coming in solely for a prepared meal is far from the norm, as supermarket visits are still driven by the need to shop for a variety of items.
More importantly, supermarkets have struggled with supply chain issues, portion size, and shelf life, trailing well behind restaurants in operational efficiency and the ability to collectively leverage convenience, location, quality, and value. Many supermarkets are looking at brand advantage and are often unwilling to pursue the operational advantages that could propel them to new heights, Long says.

“And ultimately, this could be their downfall and lead to many struggles,” she says.
But for Loney, and many other quick-service operators, the battle rages on. Solutions are sought, new avenues pursued, and counterattacks launched. Nothing can be taken for granted.

Sidebar: Now even Walgreens is competition?
In August, Walgreens unveiled its new expanded food selection in 10 Chicago communities identified as food deserts, or areas that lack access to basic foods necessary to maintain a healthy diet. The company redesigned the stores, located on Chicago’s South and West Sides, to include more than 750 new food items, including fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen meats and fish, pasta, rice, beans, eggs, whole grain cereals, and other meal components.

“We immediately made a commitment to seek solutions for offering these communities more fresh and healthy food options,” says Mark Wagner, Walgreens executive vice president of operations and community management.

Walgreens is also reviewing opportunities to bring its expanded food selection to other food deserts across the country.

“We know this issue is not exclusive to Chicago,” Wagner says. “We have more locations in America’s underserved communities than any other retailer. That makes us well positioned to play a role in addressing this important need beyond Chicago.”