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Meet Pizza Hut’s Most Outlandish Stuffed-Crust Creations

The pie giant’s 1995 crust innovation was adopted globally—but the flavor combinations haven’t exactly been traditional.
Meet Pizza Hut’s Most Outlandish Stuffed-Crust Creations

Forget the emerald coastline, crystal waters, and balmy Caribbean breezes—the Dominican Republic’s new claim to fame, set to excite a stampede of muffin-topped American tourists, may well be Pizza Hut’s Double Hut pizza.

Why settle for one stuffed crust when you can have two? That’s right: This thing is kind of like a pizza wheel. You’ve got your outer ring stuffed with mozzarella, then an inner ring stuffed the same way (another unappetizing analogy: pizza doughnut).

I know what you’re thinking: “But then you’ve got a hole in the middle.”

Uh-uh. Pizza Hut fills that with a cup of marinara dipping sauce.

Despite some of the breathless “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe they did that” gushing that’s greeted this junk-food monstrosity in the blogosphere, the Double Hut pizza isn’t entirely new—Mexico apparently had it first.

It’s not even the wildest of the mutant stuffed-crust Pizza Hut pizzas that’ve popped up around the globe.

Next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the Pizza Hut stuffed-crust pizza. It was on March 26, 1995, on the cusp of the NCAA’s Final Four weekend, that America’s No. 1 pizza chain unveiled what it called a “revolution” in the pizza industry. The $45 million ad campaign featured TV spots with Donald and Ivana Trump, as well as Ringo Starr and the Monkees, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.

The stuffed-crust pizza was a hit, increasing sales for Pizza Hut in the U.S. by $300 million (something like what the Doritos Locos Taco would do for Taco Bell years later). Americans were hooked on the pie, even though just one slice of the Meat Lover’s version packs 440 calories—220 of them from fat alone. But one could argue that Pizza Hut never really went full-on crazy with it in the States. At least, not when you compare it with what the chain’s been stuffing in its crusts overseas.

Sure, Pizza Hut tried to outsize its fast-food competitors, which were dishing up things like a “sandwich” made with fried chicken instead of bread (KFC) or a foot-long cheeseburger (Carl’s Jr.). A year or so ago, Americans could call up and order a Crazy Cheesy Crust Pizza, a kind of monkey bread pull-apart pie that seems to have been downsized a bit into the Cheesy Bites pizza.


No one but New Zealanders, to be sure, is likely to line up for CheeZee Marmite Stuffed Crust pizza, but you gotta imagine no less an American icon than Homer Simpson going into sort of a drooling, catatonic state at the sight of New Zealand’s Chili Dog Stuffed Crust pie. (Even those straitlaced Brits got a Hot Dog Stuffed Crust pizza—“with FREE Mustard Drizzle!”—in 2012.)

To really get wild with the stuffed crust, though, book your passage to Asia and the Middle East. In Japan, they’ve got crust stuffed with salmon cream; in Hong Kong, an ooze of salmon roe and cream cheese (ringing a “deluxe” seafood pie topped with crayfish, scallops, shrimp, and clams); in Indonesia, a crust filled with chicken fingers and honey mustard. In Taiwan, there’s this thing called the Pineapple Bun Stuffed Crust Pizza, which, as far as I can tell, is really kind of like ringing your pizza with doughnuts.

But that’s not even the most outrageous Pizza Hut pizza in the Far East. Last year Pizza Huts in Singapore unveiled the Double Sensation Pizza, which, according to The Daily Meal, “is so complex it takes a while to describe: The pizza is separated into two rings, an inner ring and an outer ring. The outer ring’s crust has melted mozzarella, cheddar, and Parmesan oozing out of it, and between that and ring number two is a pizza topped with cheese, salsa, bell peppers, mushrooms, and turkey ham. The inner ring is stuffed with chicken sausage, which itself is stuffed with cheese. Inside that ring is a pepper Alfredo sauce, smoked chicken, and slices of zucchini. Oh, and at the center of it all is a cherry."

The most outlandish, gag-inducing stuffed-crust pizzas, though, have to be those that have invaded the Middle East. Exhibit A: Take a gander at the bizarre Cone Crust Pizzas that debuted in the Middle East a couple years ago, whirling pinwheels of dough crammed with admixtures like chicken and cream cheese.

Then there’s the king of American fast-food mash-ups: the Cheeseburger Crust Pizza. (Yeah, it’s exactly what it sounds like: Each slice comes with its own mini cheeseburger nested in the crust.) That beast debuted in the Middle East, then inexplicably popped up in the U.K. last year.

In any case, I think it’s telling, what happened when I plugged the ad headline for the Dominican Republic’s new Double Hut pizza into my Mac translator. The ad says, “Este antojo viene doble!Antojo is supposed to translate to “craving,” but when I typed it in, what I got was, “This ill comes double.”

Is Taco Bell's New Protein-Packed Power Menu Any Good for You?

Psst: Most Americans already get way more protein than they need.
Is Taco Bell's New Protein-Packed Power Menu Any Good for You?

Meat lovers across the country can heave a laudatory grunt: Taco Bell has announced that it's rolling out its protein-packed Cantina Power Menu nationwide July 17. The new menu features double portions of chicken or beef alongside ingredients that are lower in fat and carbs.

Reduced fat and carbs are undoubtably a good thing in a country where almost 35 percent of the population is obese. But do we need this much protein?

Whether or not we need it, Taco Bell execs are betting protein will sell. The chain announced that the Cantina Power Menu is just “the first iteration” in the taco giant’s “Power Platform.” Taco Bell says that it’s embarking on tests of a Power Breakfast Menu in Omaha, Neb., which will include a steak bowl, a steak burrito, and—right on trend—Greek yogurt.

Each item on the Cantina Power Menu serves up a minimum of 20 grams of protein. During the recent nationwide launch, Taco Bell President Brian Niccol said in a statement: “We’ve evolved the Cantina platform based on consumer feedback. We heard customers requesting a higher protein solution with the flavors Cantina delivers, so here is Cantina Power.”

“Solution” to what, exactly? Despite what any number of Axe-drenched, Red Bull–swilling 20-something guys harboring secret fantasies of their own set of Men’s Health–worthy six-pack abs may think, there’s pretty much nothing to be gained by wolfing down more meat.

Yes, protein is vital to just about every natural metabolic function in your body. But guess what? You likely already get way more than you need. According to the USDA, adult men in the U.S. consume, on average, almost 100 grams of protein a day, while adult women consume 70 grams.

That’s far more than the recommended daily allowance of about 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention breaks it down, here's what that looks like for guys: one cup of milk, a three-ounce piece of meat, one cup of dry beans, and eight ounces of yogurt. Skip the yogurt, and ladies will have their day's worth of protein.

What’s worse, high-protein diets have been linked to kidney problems, weight gain (and not just muscle), and certain cancers. A recent study published in the journal Cell Metabolism found people who eat lots of protein are four times more likely to die of cancer—a risk on par with smoking.

“I don’t care about all that,” you say. “I just wanna get ripped, and you gotta gobble the meat if you want bigger guns.”

Let me just point out that this guy is a vegan. And so is this guy.

Take it from an expert. Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition at New York University and all-around food-industry gadfly, recently told The Huffington Post: “[B]ecause Americans consume so much protein, and there is plenty in foods from both plant and animal sources, and there is no evidence of protein deficiency in the U.S. population, protein is a non-issue.... Protein used as a marketing tool is about marketing, not health. The advantage for marketing purposes of protein over fat or carbohydrates is that it's a positive message, not negative. Marketers don't have to do anything other than mention protein to make people think it's a health food.” 

Free Range is a biweekly column that covers the often weird and sometimes wonderful world of food industry news. From the latest hits at the drive-through to the front lines of the battle over restaurant wages, Free Range is your source for news and commentary on the latest in food. The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Participant Media.

Big Food Is Spending $90 Million to Convince You Frozen Is as Good as Fresh

It’s no surprise, however, that the issue is far more complex.
Big Food Is Spending $90 Million to Convince You Frozen Is as Good as Fresh

So have you seen that new commercial, the one with the expected cascade of fresh fruits and veggies that neatly transitions to a pair of hands lovingly laying the top crust on a potpie and then ends—huh?—in a grocery freezer aisle? “Frozen. How fresh stays fresh,” the announcer, all warm and honeyed and cheerful, assures us at the end.

If you have, you’ve been caught up in the sweep of a massive campaign by big food to turn the tide on America’s fast-fading love affair with frozen food. Processed food giants such as ConAgra, Heinz, and Kellogg have teamed up to launch a three-year, $90 million marketing blitz to get you back in the frozen food aisle, according to National Journal. Ninety million dollars. That’s a lot of fish sticks.

All in all, Americans still plunked down $8.9 billion on everything from frozen pizza to peas last year, so you’d think the big food companies wouldn’t be complaining. But that’s a 3 percent decline from 2009, National Journal reports, and forecasters predict an additional 2 percent drop this year, putting sales on a decidedly downward glide.

“Within this foodie culture the last few years, I think there has been a change in how some people define healthy foods,” Rob McCutcheon, president of ConAgra’s consumer frozen-food division, told The Wall Street Journal in June. “There is definitely a push toward products that are more real, higher quality, more homemade, and closer to the source.”

That’s exactly what we eat—when we’re not, you know, snacking our asses off. That’s what’s weird about America’s collective relationship with food: As I wrote last week, big food makers are also grappling with the fact that we’re snacking more than ever, often subbing snacks for meals. The factors that industry watchers believe are responsible for that trend—more single-person households, busier family schedules—sound like they’d also be a boon for meals where all you have to do is pop them in the microwave, then peel back the plastic wrap.

Not so, apparently. According to a 2012 report by AMG Strategic Advisors, declining sales of frozen dinners was a leading factor in driving down sales of frozen food overall. Falling demand for frozen pizza and ice cream was also a prime culprit. The firm asked consumers why they were buying less frozen food, across categories ranging from frozen snacks and veggies to meat and prepared dinners. In terms of frozen dinners, 16 percent said they cut back because they were cooking more at home, while 41 percent said they’d switched to more fresh (or canned) vegetables instead of frozen.

Which brings us to the big question: Is frozen really as good as fresh? The food industry would have you think so. “Frozen. How Fresh Stays Fresh” is just a variation of many taglines frozen-food makers are pushing, including trying to get you to think of freezing as “nature’s pause button.”

“Freezing is a natural way to lock in the freshness and nutrition of your favorite foods,” the campaign’s website assures us. The No. 1 “myth” it tackles is that “frozen fruits and veggies aren’t as nutritious as fresh.” The site’s answer? “The FDA found that there is no difference in nutrition between frozen produce and fresh produce.”

The acronym “FDA” is hyperlinked, but rather than being taken to authoritative science directly from the Food and Drug Administration, you end up at some site called FitDay and an article that only glancingly references a 1998 FDA study—with no link to said study.

One big problem here is that food makers are trying to get you to conflate minimally processed frozen fruits and vegetables with, say, frozen lasagna. One bite of your average frozen entrée, though—all limp and mushy and oversalted—is probably enough for anyone to answer the question of whether frozen is as good as fresh. Unless you read the label, you could be consuming shocking amounts of sodium, fat, and various unpronounceable ingredients.

When it comes to produce, however, the answer appears far more complicated than big food is making it out to be. Yes, a number of studies have found that when you compare the nutritional value of fresh to frozen, on balance there’s really no difference. The reason that’s given most often (and that makes a star turn in the frozen-food industry’s new media blitz) is that frozen produce is picked at the peak of ripeness, when nutrients are at their best, versus “fresh” produce that is often picked before it’s ripe and shipped hundreds, if not thousands, of miles.

There’s some truth to that, although many of the studies out there are (surprise!) sponsored by the frozen-food industry. A more nuanced look at the question came from the University of California, Davis, several years ago. Researchers pored over a bevy of studies, and they found that not only does the nutritional difference between fresh and frozen appear to depend on what fruit or veggie you’re talking about, it also seems to depend on what nutrient.

Take vitamin C. Broccoli loses anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent of its vitamin C content during freezing, while green beans lose 17 percent. “In general, losses due to the entire freezing process can range from 10 to 80%, with averages around 50%,” the report states.

But wait, there’s more. Produce pretty much starts to lose vitamin C the minute it’s harvested. Broccoli sitting for seven days at room temperature will lose more than 50 percent of its vitamin C.

The permutations are enough to make your head spin, but the bottom line is this: In the question of whether frozen is as good as fresh, the answer largely seems to depend on what we mean by “fresh.” If we’re talking about conventional produce—which has often been trucked in from far away—that you buy in your average grocery store, then yeah, sure, frozen probably holds its own (so long as you don’t keep it in deep-freeze for, like, a year).

But increasingly, when we talk about “fresh,” we’re talking about local—the bounty of our ever more popular farmers markets. Really, the less time it takes for you to get that broccoli from the farm to your plate, the fresher—and more nutritious—it will be.

Free Range is a biweekly column that covers the often weird and sometimes wonderful world of food industry news. From the latest hits at the drive-through to the front lines of the battle over restaurant wages, Free Range is your source for news and commentary on the latest in food. The opinions expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of Participant Media. 

Obamacare and Restaurant Workers May Finally Be Getting Along

At last, some good news regarding the restaurant industry and the Affordable Care Act.
Obamacare and Restaurant Workers May Finally Be Getting Along

When it comes to the relationship between the restaurant industry and the Affordable Care Act, the flavor profile (as the epicurean might say) has been decidedly bitter, so it’s nice to come across a bit of a sweet note.

As the industry's argument goes, with the very thin margins restaurants operate on, being required to cover employees' health care would wreck their businesses. But in Washington, D.C., Alisa Kleinmann—a 33-year-old mother of two, a former meeting planner and private chef, and the founder and CEO of the hospitality trade organization Industree—may have found a solution to this very personal problem. Her 35-year-old husband is a bartender at D.C. hot spot Graffiato—and he’s never had health insurance.

“I just kept thinking, something has to change,” Kleinmann told the Washington Post. “Something has to get better.”

Rather than wait around for a visit from the health insurance fairy, however, the entrepreneurial Kleinmann took matters into her own hands. While the state and federal governments run their own public health care exchanges to help people compare plans and enroll for health insurance in a competitive setting, private health care exchanges have been established by businesses to provide a similar marketplace for their employees. Working with M&T Insurance Agency and Liazon, which operates a number of these private health insurance exchanges, Kleinmann built what may well be the first insurance exchange designed specifically for the restaurant industry, becoming a licensed insurance broker herself so she could oversee the process.

This week Kleinmann debuted Industree Exchange, which is set up for Washington, D.C.–area restaurants with 100 or more employees. Owners of such establishments face a Jan. 1, 2015, deadline to offer full-time workers coverage under the health care law, while restaurants with 50 to 99 workers have until the start of 2016 to comply.

“Every single option has been designed, negotiated and built specifically for the demographics of the restaurant industry,” Kleinmann told the Post. “They keep you in compliance with Obamacare, and they’re completely affordable.”

As many as 20 full-coverage options provided by big-name insurers such as United Healthcare, Aetna, and Cigna are available, while there are a number of “skinny plans” to choose from as well; these provide minimum ACA coverage for $61 to $91 per month. The selection of bare-bones plans no doubt reflects the preponderance of “young invincibles” working in the industry—the 20-somethings that health care reform advocates have been trying desperately to convince to pay something, anything, for some form of coverage. A white paper out of Georgetown found that 43 percent of the U.S. restaurant workforce is under the age of 26.

Already, some D.C.-area restaurateurs are clamoring to sign up for the plans.

“When Obamacare was passed, we became very concerned about how we were going to pay for coverage for our employees,” Frank T. Shull, a partner and chief operating officer at RW Restaurant Group, told the Post. Shull’s company operates seven restaurants and has 250 full-time employees. At $400 per month per employee, the company was looking at a $100,000 monthly bill to extend coverage to full-timers under its current health plan. With Industree Exchange, it can offer basic insurance for a quarter of that.

“We want our employees to have health-care, but it had to be affordable,” Shull told the Post. “We have seven restaurants, but we’re not a big company like IBM.”

Like I said, it’s sure nice to hear that someone, somewhere, is working to provide better coverage under the new health care law to restaurant workers, because on the whole, the industry has been doing pretty much everything it can to shirk its responsibility. We’re talking about more than just that lame, politically motivated publicity stunt by Papa John’s CEO (and big Mitt Romney supporter) John Schnatter during the last presidential campaign: Schnatter claimed Obamacare would force the chain to raise the price of its pizzas. (Heaven forbid!)

Yes, as the industry argues, its workers may be younger, more transient, and work more variable hours than those of other sectors, but if, for example, 43 percent are under the age of 26, that leaves 57 percent who aren’t. The industry ranks among the worst for providing health insurance to its employees, with an estimated 80 to 90 percent of workers uninsured.

A recent report by Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, which advocates for better working conditions for restaurant employees, charts the campaign of ferocious opposition to health care reform launched by the National Restaurant Association (ROC-United has dubbed it “the other NRA”). After its all-out effort to defeat the law failed in 2010, the NRA pressed on, filing an amicus brief in 2012 with the Supreme Court calling on the justices to overturn the law (also failed). Now it's lobbying Congress to roll back certain key provisions. Its most notable current push is to change the law’s definition of “full-time equivalent” employee to 40 hours worked per week from the current 30—which, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would cause about a million employees to lose their employer-based health coverage.

That seems to be exactly the opposite direction we should be headed.

Free Range is a biweekly column that covers the often weird and sometimes wonderful world of food industry news. From the latest hits at the drive-through to the front lines of the battle over restaurant wages, Free Range is your source for news and commentary on the latest in food. The opinions expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Participant Media. 

Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner Have Given Way to the ‘Snackification’ of America

More Americans gobble up snacks all day long. Does this spell the end of three square meals?
Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner Have Given Way to the ‘Snackification’ of America

We’re becoming a nation of snackers. That, at least, seems to be the takeaway from a recent Wall Street Journal article that reports that the percentage of Americans who snack at least three times a day has nearly tripled over the last several decades, from 20 percent in the 1990s to 56 percent in 2010 (the latest data available). The number was just 10 percent in the late 1970s.

You might think that that goes a long way toward explaining our ever-expanding waistlines, but it’s not so clear as that. For many Americans, a snack isn’t a supplement to the traditional three square meals a day; snacks are those meals.

Among the bevy of rat-a-tat stats typical of your average WSJ trend article are these culled from a study by a consumer research firm last year: Nearly half of Americans (48 percent) say they skip meals at least three times a week, while 63 percent decide what to eat less than an hour before sitting down.

The Journal calls it a “snack revolution” and cites several factors: “The rise in single-person households, the increase in baby boomers with empty nests, and the increasingly hectic lives of two-career families,” in which shuttling kids to Little League practice, dance recitals, gymnastics, and the like after work trumps family dinnertime.

As you’d expect, the food industry is acting quickly to capitalize on the food-as-nothing-more-than-fuel craze. Whereas once upon a time, a bowl of cold cereal and milk may have seemed a sad substitute for a good old-fashioned, hot-and-hearty breakfast, it seems today Americans don’t even think they have time to stop to listen to the snap, crackle, and pop. Cereal maker Kellogg reports a 3.1 percent drop in overall sales last quarter as it tries to bring more “on the go” breakfast products to market.

Likewise, the Journal reports that the snack division of General Mills saw sales rise 6 percent over the last year, while sales in its “meals” division (which includes stalwart brands such as Hamburger Helper and Old El Paso) shrank by 4 percent. Over the past five years, sales of potato chips, snack bars, and nuts have all spiked. General Mills has even launched an online delivery service for snacks, Nibblr, through which “subscribers” get regular delivery of snack boxes via the U.S. Postal Service that include a dizzying array of quirkily named crunch mixes studded with dried fruit: My Ipanema Love, Oh My Thai, Yogurt-Na Love It.

While the Journal article focuses on big food’s reaction to our nation’s collective snack attack, fast-food chains have also been keen to satisfy our 24-7 cravings. “Every daypart is a snack daypart,” exhorted research and consulting firm Technomic last fall, using the industry jargon “daypart” for what most of us would simply call the time of day, while another firm, Baum + Whiteman, identified the “snackification of America” as one of its top restaurant trends last year.

This has not only given us a flurry of menu options that clearly identify themselves as snack-worthy (e.g., SnackWraps at McDonald’s) but also a proliferation of “bites” (from chicken bites to pancake bites) and “dollar” and “value” menus, which industry commentators have pointed out essentially read as “snack” menus to customers, particularly millennials.

The Journal reports that, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there’s no real scientific consensus on whether it’s healthier to eat three meals a day or to snack throughout. That would seem to make sense. If you spend your day grazing on things like nuts and fruit and low-fat yogurt, you’re liable to be healthier than if you stuff your face with Egg McMuffins, pizza, and pretty much whatever’s on the menu at the Cheesecake Factory for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

But gathering to eat a solid meal has always been about more than just the food. According to the Family Dinner Project, which bills itself as “a start-up grassroots movement of food, fun, and conversation about things that matter,” regularly sitting down to dinner as a family has been linked through scientific studies to lower rates of everything from substance abuse and depression to obesity and eating disorders in children and adolescents. Some of the findings are surprising. “Studies also indicate that dinner conversation is a more potent vocabulary-booster than reading,” the Family Dinner Project website reports.

More than that, it seems our collective move toward a “grab-and-go” snack culture pushes us even further away from developing a healthy connection with what we eat. When we equate food with fuel and expect meals to take no more time (or less time) than it takes to fill up our cars, we buy into the notion of food as commodity—the cheaper and more convenient the better—which has saddled us with everything from the environmental destruction associated with industrial agriculture and factory farming to the profusion of processed food that, when you come down to it, is at the heart of our national health crisis. 

Newest No-Tipping Restaurant Sends Customer Tips to Charity

Here’s proof that the anti-tipping revolution will be televised—at least locally.
Newest No-Tipping Restaurant Sends Customer Tips to Charity

Despite a lot of recent criticism of the deeply entrenched American practice of tipping in restaurants, the anti-tipping revolution still hasn’t come to pass in any significant manner. Instead of living-wage revolutionaries lining up outside establishments where employees have to depend on gratuities, the TV news crews show up when a restaurant decides to abolish tips—any restaurant, anywhere.

Opened a scant two weeks ago in San Antonio, Oaks Crossing has already been featured on the local TV news but not for its fairly standard menu of sandwiches, burgers, and “true Texas BBQ.” It was (gasp) because of the restaurant’s policy forbidding its servers to accept tips. Any tips left are gathered up and donated to charity.

“Great service is typically awarded with a tip,” the anchor for KENS-5 says as if he’s setting up one of those “gotcha” segments, like when they go after, say, a roofing contractor who has absconded with a lonely widow’s deposit. “But KENS-5 has learned that a local restaurant isn’t letting its staff pocket its tips. And customers have no idea about any of this. So where is all the money going?” (Italics, but not the dramatic delivery, mine.)

A couple of patrons accosted by the reporter in the parking lot express a kind of soft-spoken bemusement that fails to rise to the level of indignation the reporter was no doubt hoping for, at least judging by her narration.

“Well, I think they at least need to put signs out or notify you somehow,” one of the customers says.

Indeed, unlike the last no-tip restaurant to land in the news—Packhouse Meats in Newport, Ky., which plastered its “No Tipping!” signs everywhere and even removed the tip line from the credit card receipts—Oaks Crossing wasn’t as forthcoming. Kimberly Harle, a spokeswoman for H-E-B, the Texas-based grocery chain that owns and operates the restaurant, told me that signs informing customers of the policy would be in Oaks Crossing any day now.

Harle says the company was surprised at the flurry of media attention. H-E-B runs a restaurant in Austin that’s no-tip, though it’s not as full-service as Oaks Crossing. As for what would motivate a grocery chain dipping its toe into the restaurant biz to buck the industry standard and adopt a fairly radical and, to most American diners, baffling no-tipping policy, Harle has a pretty polished reply: “We invest heavily in our partners [i.e., employees], so we wanted to make sure they were fully compensated at the H-E-B standard and not the restaurant standard.”

When you think about it, that really says something about the state of the American restaurant worker. I mean, it’s not like working in a grocery store is going to put anyone on Easy Street anytime soon—but here we have a company that employs an army of baggers and deli clerks that thinks pay for restaurant workers is too low.

Of course, when H-E-B says it’s paying the servers at Oaks Crossing a “competitive wage,” that begs the question: What is the wage? Many commentators have expressed skepticism about what that might be—and I struck out in trying to get Harle to tell me.

“We can’t put a dollar amount out there because it varies; it depends on a server’s experience and other factors,” she says. She maintains that H-E-B undertook extensive research to determine what servers at similar restaurants make, including tips, then added a bonus (again, undisclosed) on top of that to come up with its undisclosed wage scale.

As for the charitable aspect, the first $1,000 in tips at Oaks Crossing is set to be donated to a local branch of the San Antonio Public Library, while future recipients will be chosen by the Oaks Crossing staff.

“We want them to pick nonprofits that they’re passionate about,” Harle says. “Because it’s their hard work that the tips are rewarding.”

Can We Even Call Starbucks a Coffee Shop Anymore?

The chain is betting its future success on growing its menu—and smoothies are the latest addition.
Can We Even Call Starbucks a Coffee Shop Anymore?

Starbucks is test-marketing yet another product—hey, is that even news? As Eater reports, the coffee giant is bringing Greek yogurt and cold-pressed juices to its menu in one double-trend-packing form: A lineup of three smoothies. The Strawberry, Mango-Carrot, and veggie-centric Sweet Greens smoothies, made with Dannon Greek yogurt and cold-pressed juices from Evolution Fresh, will be available at select Starbucks in San Jose, Calif., and St. Louis, Mo., but an optimistic company press release says the smoothies “are expected to launch in all Starbucks markets next year.”

Remember the days when Starbucks was all about cappuccinos and not a whole lot more? We’ve come a long way—and some say perhaps too far.

Admittedly, it’s unlikely that Starbucks is going to be brought down by three smoothies, but there is grumbling afoot that the chain that became wildly successful by bringing $5 coffee to just about every street corner and airport terminal in America might be venturing into troubled waters.

Not that Starbucks execs seem worried. At the company’s annual meeting in March, CEO Howard Schultz wowed Wall Street with an audacious vision to double Starbucks’ market cap to $100 billion, and because the chain has consistently pulled off solid growth year over year and sent its stock price soaring, who’s to doubt him?

There’s just one problem: product overload. Starbucks nailed coffee, but can it nail smoothies...and grilled sandwiches…and tea…and craft sodas…and beer and wine…and “tapas-like” evening fare?

Yep, despite a dizzying assortment of lattes, cappuccinos, iced mochas, macchiatos, and a bevy of seasonal specialty drinks, Starbucks seems to be coming off its caffeine buzz to realize there’s only so much you can do with coffee. The biggest growth potential, as the company’s top brass has essentially admitted, lies in increasing food options (like those grilled cheese sandwiches) and wooing customers during what have traditionally been off hours for the chain (e.g., serving things like beer and bacon-wrapped dates at night).

But Starbucks doesn’t have to look much further than the troubled rollout of its La Boulange line of pastries to see that everything it touches doesn’t automatically turn into investor dividends. Sure, the big story may have been the customer revolt that pushed Starbucks to bring back some popular items from its old menu, like those loaf cakes. But as Business Insider reported in December, just requiring that the new pastries be served hot seemed to throw a wrench into the works behind the counter, prompting baristas to complain that the new system increased the chances of getting orders wrong while discouraging interaction with customers.

“The relationships with customers have sort of disappeared,” one former barista lamented. “It has become more important that we do things the ‘right way’ while also being really fast.”

Starbucks may pride itself on being the anti-McDonald’s—a behemoth brand whose double-tailed mermaid logo seems just about as ubiquitous as Ronald McDonald while maintaining a corporate ethos that still cares about, say, environmental sustainability and employees’ education. Yet in its insatiable drive for market domination, Starbucks may still have a thing or two to learn from the Golden Arches.

“No company can be all things to all people,” writes Ted Cooper over at The Motley Fool. He’s talking about Starbucks, but he could very well have been discussing McDonald’s, a company that appears to be risking open warfare with its customers and franchisees after piling on ever more menu items, from an expanded line of Quarter Pounders to a bunch of SnackWraps. McDonald’s menu swelled by 70 percent from 2007 to 2013, topping out at 145 items. Although the fast-food giant has made an effort to pull back, it’s still not culled enough, according to some irate McDonald’s franchise owners.

“Our menu is a disaster for both employees and the customer,” one franchisee complained in a recent survey, Business Insider reported. “It has killed our speed of service.”

“The McDonald’s operation was built on simplicity and efficiency, and that no longer applies to a McDonald’s kitchen,” said another former franchisee turned franchise consultant. “The expanding menu is one of the reasons McDonald’s sales have flattened out domestically.”

Something to think about the next time all you want is a soy latte, but the guy ahead of you is ordering a grilled Turkey Pesto Panini and a warm Wheat Spinach Savory Square with a Sweet Greens smoothie on the side.

NYC Creates a Stealth Army of Eco-Advocates: Composting Kids

Just try to say no when your fourth grader asks you to separate your food scraps.
NYC Creates a Stealth Army of Eco-Advocates: Composting Kids

Could New York City have hit on the perfect way to get more people to compost? Nagging kids.

It turns out a major push is afoot in New York to get kids composting at school—or, at least, to toss their uneaten fruits and veggies into designated composting bins. As The New York Times reports, the city’s school composting program was launched a mere two years ago, and it’s now in 230 schools across three of New York’s five boroughs. The goal is for it to spread to all of the city’s more than 1,300 public school buildings.

“The hope is that by building up composting in school, the city will help the environment, instill a sense of conservation in schoolchildren and, critically, save some money,” writes Al Baker in the Times. “The city paid $93 per ton in 2013 to dump in landfills, up from $68 in 2004.” In all, New York spends upward of $85 million a year just schlepping food waste to landfills.

But by diverting whatever food tens of thousands of finicky little munchkins are refusing to eat away from landfills and onto industrial-scale compost heaps, the city saves between $10 and $50 per ton. Instead of all those lunch scraps rotting away in landfills, they get turned into black gold—nutrient-rich dirt—which can be sold to folks such as farmers and landscape architects. Oh, and food scraps can also be turned into biogas, which can be used to generate electricity.

It’s a cute story, right down to the “green team” of students who (apparently without complaint) pick through the compost bins wearing latex gloves to remove anything their peers toss in that can’t be composted.

(Here’s what I want to know, though: Was there any sort of back-channel communication between the city’s school administration and its sanitation department? The Times story is mum on that, but it would be genius if there was.)

“New York City’s final recycling frontier” is how former Mayor Michael Bloomberg characterized composting in his last State of the City address in 2013, when he announced that New York would embark on a concerted effort to begin collecting food scraps citywide, first on a volunteer basis but with an eye to eventual mandatory participation.

Indeed, the city has been marching toward that goal, according to another Times story from last month. New York has expanded its initial composting pilot program to encompass some 70,000 additional homes in Brooklyn and Queens, distributing little brown bins for residents to pitch their food scraps in and haul to the curb alongside their trash and recycling.

Not everyone has been enthused.

“It stayed outside my house for two weeks,” one 57-year-old resident said to the Times about the new bin. “I know it’s a good thing, I really do. I have four kids—I want the environment to be better for them. But I hesitated to start it.”

“I thought it was like somebody leaving an abandoned cat at your door—like, what am I supposed to do with this?” another Brooklyn home owner, 63, told the Times.

While some in the program are diligent about separating their table scraps from everything else, the sudden appearance of yet another waste receptacle was greeted with a mix of bafflement and indignation by others, like this woman: “I didn’t even understand it. It’s just in my backyard, sitting there. We have more garbage cans than we know what to do with.”

That’s the genius part about kids composting at school: While jaded, lazy adults may be immune to persuasion by a bevy of stats (for example, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste accounts for more than 21 percent of our unrecycled trash—more than any other category), they may be susceptible to guilt induced by their newly composting-conscious kids.

Let’s face it. There may be nothing quite so effective as a force for change than the moral superiority of a 10-year-old tenaciously championing a newfound cause.

Coca-Cola Attempts to Go Healthy With Stevia-Sweetened Coke Life

There's plenty of sugar in the new soft drink too.
Coca-Cola Attempts to Go Healthy With Stevia-Sweetened Coke Life

It’s hard to know where to begin in dissecting Coke Life, which is Coca-Cola’s latest attempt to stem the rising tide of bad publicity and research that relentlessly links its sugary beverages to obesity and other health problems—all of which has sent soda sales south.

I guess, though, we should start with what Coke Life supposedly is. Released in Argentina and Chile last year and soon to debut in the U.K., Coke Life is a “low-cal” alternative to regular Coke, made with the (kinda, sorta natural) sweetener stevia—but also, it’s worth pointing out, plenty of sugar.

True, as Bloomberg Businessweek reports, Coke Life has 89 calories per can, about 50 less than a can of regular Coke. But it contains the equivalent of four teaspoons of sugar.

That may not sound like a lot, but the American Heart Association's recommendations allow for about six teaspoons a day for women and nine teaspoons for men. For its part, the World Health Organization recently lowered its recommendations even further—to six teaspoons a day for adults with a normal body mass index, regardless of gender.

That’s because the more we learn about what sugar does to our health (and the staggering amounts of it we tend to consume unwittingly—e.g., a tablespoon of ketchup has a teaspoon of the stuff), the more it seems we need to be drastically cutting back on it, like, now.

Which hasn’t been good for Coke, whose business is still, by and large, about pumping us full of liquefied sugar. Sales of soda in the U.S. have declined for nine years now, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, and the drop seems to be accelerating—tanking 3 percent last year, which was more than double the drop the year before.

With the exception of the occasional industry-sponsored “scientific” study, diet soda hasn’t been faring much better. Reputable research has repeatedly linked consumption of artificially sweetened beverages to weight gain and obesity, a paradox that scientists have yet to fully explain. (The current theory is that artificial sweeteners may cause you to crave more real sugar.)

Given the mounting evidence that too much sugar is essentially toxic, it’s thus downright Orwellian that Coke is marketing its latest delivery system for superfluous amounts of sugar as Coke Life. In a green can, no less. As we learned from research conducted at Cornell last year, when consumers see green, they all too often think “healthy.”

“A slightly-better-for-you junk food is still junk food,” NYU nutritionist and food studies professor (and food industry gadfly) Marion Nestle has said. Where did I see that quote recently? Oh, yeah, in a New York Times op-ed by Mark Bittman.

Bittman has been railing against big food for years, but with Times columnist Maureen Dowd apparently on vacation, he’s been using her slot to ramp up his attack in op-eds that have been cruising to the top of the most-emailed list. Tuesday’s jeremiad was titled “Parasites, Killing Their Host.” (You’ve got the big food companies, and you’ve got the rest of us; guess who’s the parasite here and who’s the host.)

In the course of his takedown, Bittman cites the work of Ivy Ken, an associate professor of sociology at George Washington University, who’s written a paper on how big food is trying to market itself as a socially responsible player in the battle against obesity by “working together”—all the while plying the public with unhealthy food. In terms of the corporate strategy behind the new Coke Life, Ken’s words, quoted by Bittman, are particularly incisive: “Their part of working together is re-engineering their products; our part of working together is to buy more and more of this food that’s not real.”

Meet Dom, the New Voice in Domino’s Quest for Pizza Domination

He’s like Siri for when you want pizza delivered in a hurry.
Meet Dom, the New Voice in Domino’s Quest for Pizza Domination

OK, guys, this story may involve pizza delivery and a guy named Dom, but don’t get your hopes up—the only X rating here may be for xtra cheesy.

No, this isn’t some skin-flick setup. Dom is just the latest in Domino’s technocentric drive for worldwide pizza-delivery domination. He’s just like Siri but for pizza.

Mobile and online ordering already accounts for 40 percent of the pizza chain’s sales in the U.S., according to The Associated Press, which also notes that customers who order online tend to spend more and to order more often because of the convenience.

“It’s clearly an area where we’ll be able to leverage our scale,” Domino’s CEO Patrick Doyle tells the AP.

That’s business-speak, more or less, for We want to crush all those pesky mom-and-pop pizzerias that don’t have the cash to develop fancy ordering apps.

Indeed, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to order from your favorite neighborhood pizza joint via your Ford Sync system anytime soon, as Domino’s announced earlier this year, or through your Xbox, a coup for Pizza Hut. As for unmanned drones delivering your pie? Well, that may or may not have been just a Domino’s publicity stunt.

Dom could be a genuine push to disrupt (as they have the tendency to say in tech) pizza delivery, but the real disruption may be all the tittering his name is likely to provoke among a certain subset of the American demographic. Although it’s no doubt a quirk of timing that Domino’s decided to release its upgraded mobile app the week before a nationwide barrage of gay pride parades, but c’mon—naming the robovoice Dom? It’s enough to conjure up an image of just about any one of the Village People.

Alas, the affable, unflappable Dom hardly sounds like a cigar-chomping, leather-clad bear as he leads you step-by-step through the pizza-ordering process. He’s more a synthetic blend of congeniality and confidence, like your helpful next-door neighbor—the one with the firm handshake who fills out his V-neck T’s just right and refinished his own deck but whose friendliness always feels a tad overeager.

“What’ll ya have?” Dom asks when you activate him on the new Domino’s app—the what’ll and ya seeming as self-conscious as a Harvard MBA attempting chitchat in the cafeteria of your average public middle school.

Trying to mess with Dom’s older and much more accomplished cousin Siri has become something of a national pastime, even as yanking her chain only really seems fun for about a minute or two. Dom’s responses appear even more humorless.

Me: “Dom, are you gay?”

Dom: “I’m sorry I didn’t hear that. Could you repeat it?”

Me: “Are you gay, Dom?”

Dom: “I still didn’t catch that. Please try again.”

Sure, Dom, whatever you say…