"Mediocre food, it turns out, pays."
That's a line from Forbes magazine writer Caleb Melby's upcoming Forbes profile on uber-successful corporate restaurant owner Tillman Fertitta (his empire includes the Joe's Crab Shack, Rainforest Cafe and T-Rex Cafe chains, among others). The headline says it all: "The World's Richest Restaurateur Has a Secret: It's Not About the Food."
Not about the food? That isn't exactly a revelation to anyone who frequents chain restaurants. All restaurateurs want to make a profit, but corporate chains typically have to answer to shareholders. (Except Tillman Fertitta, that is, who owns 100 percent of Landry's Inc., which purchased the McCormick & Schmick's chain earlier this year in a hostile takeover.)
Kansas City was the birthplace, in the 1970s, of one of America's most successful corporate casual-dining chains: Gilbert/Robinson, a company that did care about the quality of its food and service before it was bought and sold several times by increasingly larger corporate entities. And was later sliced and diced into smaller companies.
Landry's, writes Melby, really examines the bottom line: "Where there were hardwood tables, tablecloths disappeared. In restaurants where the carpets were shampooed every two weeks, the schedule changed to every three weeks. Lemon wedges disappeared from plates that didn’t need them, and in restaurants where fries were apportioned liberally, meaning more than 8 ounces, the piles came down to 7. The line items added up to millions in savings."
The Forbes article rubbed at least one local restaurant professional — waiter, consultant and blogger David Hayden — the wrong way: "I was shocked that Tillman Fertitta went on the record to say some of the things people assume about corporate restaurants but don't really want to believe. He says that restaurants are commoditizing the restaurant experience so that it isn't about providing a great dining experience to customers but figuring out ways to cut all possible costs and still lure people into the doors. That's how you sell widgets, not dining."
Hayden once worked for McCormick & Schmick's (he left the Plaza location long before Landry's purchased the 90-location chain) and is concerned that two American corporations, Landry's and Darden, now own almost every national seafood concept restaurant in the country.
"I think the passion for the product and the restaurant experience is being replaced by the bottom line," Hayden says. "It's all about profits."
Maybe I'm too cynical. In this economy, every business is cutting corners to save a little dough. Maybe it's more obvious in the restaurant business. It's becoming increasingly rare to see tablecloths in dining rooms anymore (linen cleaning bills can be staggering), and worse, more and more restaurants are dropping linen napkins in favor of a paper product that's something between the thickness of a sheet of Bounty and a Handi-Wipe. Still, I'd rather have one of those than a one-ply cocktail napkin — yes, I'm serious — that are finding a new use in some dining rooms; I was given one as a "napkin" at a certain low-rent midtown restaurant and was begrudingly brought two more when the first one literally disintegrated in my fingers.
And I swear I've never heard the mantra, "Do you want to keep your fork?" (translation: Leep your dirty fork so we don't have to waste a clean one on you) as often as I have in the last couple of years.
Hayden worries that before too long, diners will be getting a Denny's dining experience at, say, McCormick & Schmick's prices. I say that this is a wake-up call for diners to patronize the independently owned restaurants in this community before the bottom line forces them completely out of business. Corporate restaurants may be cutting corners, but there are several independent operators in the metro that are barely hanging on. If there's a local restaurant that you've not been patronizing as often as you used to, go out and give them a little love, baby.
And if the place is still using cloth napkins and puts a lemon on your plate, give it a little extra love.