Originally created 12/01/99

Washington lobbyist up in arms for restaurant rights



WASHINGTON -- Rick Berman has a theory: When a group goes out for lunch and the first person to order asks for a glass of wine, somebody else will too. If the first person orders iced tea, forget it. The table turns into teetotalers.

"People are afraid of being judged about drinking," says Mr. Berman, sipping a Campari and soda at Morton's restaurant recently while waiting for his chopped steak.

And that's just one example of how the "nannies" -- that growing collection of food cops, environmentalists, animal-rights activists and meddling bureaucrats -- are subconsciously intimidating us, according to Mr. Berman. A Washington lawyer and lobbyist who has represented the hospitality industry for more than 25 years, Mr. Berman also is executive director of the Guest Choice Network, a Washington-based coalition of 30,000 restaurateurs, tavern operators and restaurant suppliers who want to preserve guilt-free enjoyment.

Frustrated that no one was taking a stance against the "lunatic claims" of the nanny culture, Mr. Berman started the network about two years ago, at the urging of his clients, who include about 50 of the nation's major mid-priced chain restaurants.

Suppliers who sell products under attack, such as alcohol, cigarettes, meat, coffee and soft drinks containing caffeine, also have contributed money to the network. As part of its irreverent education campaign, Guest Choice publishes a newsletter and operates a Web site, and Mr. Berman gives speeches and helps place newspaper op-ed pieces that espouse our rights to make personal decisions about what we eat and drink, whether it be medium-rare hamburgers, high-fat foods, espresso or a glass or two of wine.

And although Guest Choice is not yet a well-known force in the debate, its very existence symbolizes how far we have come -- either in bettering the public's health or eroding the public's choices, depending on your point of view.

And it also shows how threatened restaurants and taverns have felt by more-sophisticated and well-organized political interests. While they've been busy serving nachos, states have introduced legislation to lower the legal threshold for drunken driving, jurisdictions have banned smoking in bars and certain foods have become taboo. Restaurants, one of society's last meeting places, says Mr. Berman, have turned into the "unintended battlefield" for many social issues.

"There's a strange phenomenon going on in America that people want to tell you what to do," says Tim Gannon, one of the founders of Outback Steakhouse and a member of the advisory committee of Guest Choice. "They want to climb into the window and say, `Don't eat this, don't eat that."'

Obviously, Guest Choice's purpose is as much economic as it is philosophical. But Mr. Berman, who also manages two other associations (one that represents restaurants and taverns that serve alcoholic beverages and another that represents businesses that oppose raising the minimum wage) maintains that he's not pushing smoking, drinking or eating red meat. He's resisting the nannies' efforts to protect us from ourselves; these groups lead people to make decisions out of proportion to the risks, he says. For example, in the war against drunken driving, the message "Don't Drive Drunk!" has been stretched by the "neo-Prohibitionists" to now restrict driving after any responsible drinking, according to a recent Guest Choice newsletter.

And although he admits it sounds far-fetched right now, he foresees the day when somebody sues Haagen-Dazs for giving him arteriosclerosis. After all, he says, who would have ever thought that anybody would sue a tobacco company for giving him cancer?

Provocative and boldly politically incorrect, Mr. Berman, 56, is an industry front man who's not afraid to liven things up. "We'll do things and say things designed to break through the clutter of plain vanilla press releases," he says, referring to the bland, predictable faxes industry groups often issue.

So in its newsletter and on its Web site, Guest Choice uses the same sarcasm and attention-getting verbiage that some of its opponents employ. The Center for Science in the Public Interest describes fettuccine Alfredo as "a heart attack on a plate"; Guest Choice counters by describing the center as "the Godzilla of the anti-choice movement."

The center, the consumer group that analyzed the high-fat, high-calorie content of restaurant foods -- Italian, Chinese, Mexican, seafood -- is a frequent target in Guest Choice's materials. "Succulent junk science smothered in spicy sound bites" is how one newsletter describes the center's scientific approach to its restaurant surveys.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the center, had this to say: "We developed the protocol for our studies with researchers at the Department of Agriculture. Their integrity and accuracy have not been questioned by anybody outside the restaurant industry."

As for Mr. Berman's general derisiveness of the public interest group, Mr. Jacobson says "he's elevating CSPI into the role of giant bogeyman in order to let his clients know they need him in Washington." Mr. Berman's publications are "silly, sophomoric propaganda," he adds.

"If that's his worst criticism, I'm happy," Mr. Berman says. "But I think we should put a mirror up to some of Michael's press releases."

Other critics say Guest Choice takes things out of context and misrepresents the facts, complaints Guest Choice frequently lodges against them.

In one newsletter, Guest Choice attacks Fenton Communications, a public interest public relations firm, for its work on Alar, a pesticide once used on apples that has since been removed from the market. The newsletter says that with the help of David Fenton, president of the agency, an environmental group helped terrify parents across America in 1989 by claiming Alar-treated apples would give their children cancer.

"According to the Environmental Protection Agency, one would have to eat 50,000 pounds of apples a day over a lifetime to contract cancer from Alar," says the newsletter.

Mr. Fenton calls the statement "very erroneous." And EPA spokeswoman Denise Kearns says "to my knowledge, EPA never issued that kind of statement."

On further checking, Mr. Berman says the source of the information came from four newspaper articles, and that it was a statement made by Uniroyal, the manufacturer of Alar, based on an extrapolation of a mice-feeding study submitted to the EPA.

"There is some extremism there," says Andy Devine, a professor of hotel, restaurant and tourism management at the University of Denver and a member of the advisory committee of Guest Choice. "But (Guest Choice) is confronting the very extreme positions that generally get more favorable coverage from the news media than the other side."

Like other professors of hospitality management and culinary education across the country, Mr. Devine receives the newsletter and hands it out to his students. It "definitely sparks discussion," he says.

Similarly, the newsletter is sent to 30,000 restaurants, many of whom send copies through their management ranks. It's "a cold splash in the face," says Joe Micatrotto, chairman and chief executive officer of Buca di Beppo, a Minneapolis-based restaurant chain. But Mr. Micatrotto doesn't take it all on face value. "If you find something in there that's provocative, then you'll do homework on it."

Much of the discussion is taking place on the Web, where a particularly unflattering Guest Choice article will spur a barrage of hate e-mails from environmental organizations and the like.

The Web site -- www.guestchoice.com -- features the organization's views on everything from snacks and soft drinks to taxes, bans, laws and lawsuits, as well as op-ed pieces written by Guest Choice advisory committee members that have appeared in newspapers (including one by former committee member and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, who also used to own an inn in Connecticut).

Then there are links to "good guys" and "bad guys" (Web sites Guest Choice agrees with or disdains), a forum for "speaking out" and a special feature called the "Nanny of the Year Award," which was bestowed in 1998 to Kelly Brownell, a Yale University professor who called for a "Twinkie tax" on high-calorie foods.

Mr. Brownell says he learned of this "honor" from his research assistant, who tracks the Web for hits about the tax. He says he thinks it is funny but hasn't gotten any comments about it. "It makes me think this is not a very visible Web site," he says.

What might bring more visitors to the site is the "Attack of the Nanny" game, a takeoff on the children's arcade game, Whac-A-Mole. Using your mouse, which operates a nanny in an apron and blue hair, you try to click (or whack) the nine people popping out of holes in front of a restaurant -- eating fried chicken, drinking coffee, munching on a burger and other behaviors unacceptable to nannies. After a person is hammered twice, a sign goes up above the hole that says "No caffeine," "No smoking," etc. The point, Mr. Berman says, is that as the nanny eliminates the choices, the restaurant is precluded from offering them. Then, when the game is over, the restaurant goes out of business.

More info

Guest Choice is a coalition of 30,000 restaurateurs, tavern operators and restaurant suppliers that says people's rights regarding food and drink choices are being reduced by environmentalists, animal-rights activists and others. To learn more about the organization, visit its Web site (www.guestchoice.com).