Food Nation

The 10 Biggest Food Stories of 2015 in Houston and Beyond

This past year seemed to be a more controversial  than usual, both on a national and local level. Some of the news was bad. Some was good. Two topics in particular will continue to be the subjects of heated debate and discussion well into next year.

An overarching theme: 2015 has been a bad, bad year for national fast food chains. Chipotle and Subway are still mega-giants in the food world—but they’re struggling and the future doesn’t look nearly as bright as it did last year. Even McDonald’s is having difficulties and recently added a limited all-day breakfast menu to fight flagging sales.

From these very public struggles of chains with Houston locations, to stories specifically germane to our city’s food culture, read on for the biggest stories in food in 2015.

10. Three Traumas For Subway

Subway has had more than its share of problems this year. Longtime Subway spokesperson Jared Fogel is now serving a sentence of 15 years and eight months for his convictions on possession and distribution of child pornography and sex with a minor. Co-founder and CEO Fred DeLuca died after a battle with leukemia in September.

To add to the the sandwich chain’s woes, sales had started to decline even before Fogel’s criminal activities were exposed. Former Coca-Cola executive Joseph Tripodi has been brought in as a fix-it man to try and restore the brand to its former glory.

9. Chipotle Struggles to Regain Control After Food Safety Concerns

Chipotle is still trying to reassure the public that its food is safe after hundreds of people spread over 15 states became ill allegedly because of E. coli and norovirus contaminations. The stock price and sales of the once well-respected chain have plummeted.

There is hope, though. Chipotle isn’t the first fast-food chain to deal with food poisoning troubles. One of its competitors, Taco Bell, eventually regained consumer trust after a massive E. coli outbreak linked to green onions in 2006.

8. Whataburger Shortens Breakfast Hours

Whataburger, a company that started in Corpus Christi and is especially beloved by Texans, was one of the fast food restaurants that had to alter its menu due to a national egg shortage in May 2015. It shortened breakfast hours from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. during the weekdays and 5 a.m. to 11 a.m. on the weekends. That meant disappointing a whole lot of 2 a.m. Taquito fans.

7. The High Price Of The Egg Shortage

Worse, though, was the cause of the egg shortage and the damage control that had to be performed. The spread of the H5 avian influenza virus meant factory farms had to kill more than 45 million domestic birds to contain it. That included chickens, ducks and turkeys. (If that doesn’t cause you to think deeply about the dangers of factory farming in which lots of animals are kept in close quarters, it should.)

A few weeks later, in June 2015, Whataburger reinstated normal breakfast hours. However, egg prices have soared to the highest they’ve been in 30 years and still haven’t quite returned to normal. Turkey prices went up as well — but thankfully, the back stock of frozen turkeys meant consumers paid an average of only $1.39 more for a 16-pound bird. (Fresh turkeys cost 24 cents more per pound this year.)

6. “Jonathan’s The Rub: Great Food, Glowing Reviews And A Bitter Family Feud”

Closer to the local Houston food scene, our report on the bitter family lawsuit surrounding ownership of Jonathan’s The Rub restaurant struck a chord with many who have also tried to do business with family members. We actually got a lot of positive feedback on the story from chefs and restaurateurs who recognized and identified with the struggles based on their own experiences. Sometimes, doing business with family works out great. In other situations, disputes can turn into nightmares.

5. Austin Barbecue Revivalist Aaron Franklin Wins James Beard Award

Close to home, the significant food news wasn’t all bad. 2015 will be marked as the year that Texas barbecue got some significant recognition on a national level. Austin’s Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue was honored with the Best Chef Southwest James Beard award. As we explained after his well-deserved win, Houston’s own burgeoning barbecue scene owes a great deal to Franklin for its revitalization.

4. "Disruption and Destruction: Should Restaurants Ban Kids?"

Our report on the difficulty restaurateurs have in dealing with unruly children and inattentive parents started a national media frenzy. ABC News, Fox News, CNN and many other outlets quickly re-reported on the “rule card” handed out by Cuchara after a plaster wall repair cost the restaurant $1,500. To this day, Ana Beaven and Charlie McDaniel's restaurant and its rule card are still being discussed on national talk shows. 

3. The Blue Bell Recall 

Blue Bell is going to spend years to come trying to win back the trust of many former customers after a damning FDA report on the company’s flawed safety practices. The “little creamery in Brenham” is long past its days of quaint production in a small facility. As reported in Dianna Wray’s in-depth article about the whole sordid mess:

“The FDA’s report on all three factories was a litany of the flaws in Blue Bell’s environmental testing plan: it didn’t require tests of the surfaces that touched the ice cream; it didn’t outline ways the company would respond to possible contamination; it didn’t mandate a test of frozen treats to make sure the listeria wasn’t in the ice cream, or examine why the company’s standard cleaning and sanitizing treatments had repeatedly failed to kill listeria and other contaminants.”

The company issued its first recall in 108 years in business. Regardless of the listeria issues, Blue Bell loyalists celebrated when the ice cream returned to the shelves nine months later.

A good alternative: support a small business and try one of the many small-batch production ice creams in Houston, like Fat Cat Creamery, Cloud 10 Creamery or Trentino Gelato. 

2. Should Restaurants Eliminate Tipping? 

When New York restaurateur Danny Meyer announced that his restaurants, including The Modern and Gramercy Tavern, would eliminate tipping, it started an intense conversation among restaurateurs and bar owners that is guaranteed to be a hot topic through 2016.

The crux of the issue is that many want to equalize pay between the front-of-house staff and kitchen workers. While servers take home cash every night, kitchen workers are not allowed to participate in tip pools and often make less than $10 an hour.

That’s a worthy goal, but it’s going to require a sea change in both customer perception and acceptance of higher menu prices (for “hospitality included” pay structures) and among servers, who would have to accept a flat, hourly pay rate. One of our articles asked if service will suffer due to the lack of tipping incentive, while another advocated banishing “a system that can empower creeps and punish restaurant workers for no good reason.”

1. Houston Restaurants Struggle With Open Carry Law

Starting January 1, 2016, the new Open Carry law goes into effect, but does anyone really want to enjoy his or her meal seated next to a gun-toting stranger? On the far right are gun rights advocates who see that ability as an expression of their constitutional rights, and on the far left are those who feel that even concealed handguns are a bad idea. Either way, if restaurants do not want visible guns in their establishments, they need to get the 30.07 sign posted and if they don’t want any guns at all, they have to post the 30.06 sign. Come next month, we’ll see how Houston diners respond to the new law and the restaurants’ approaches.   

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook