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A few towns away from me is a restaurant that I used to frequent. It certainly wasn’t the best one around but the food was decent and reliable. Then, for no particular reason, I didn’t go there for a few years. Recently I returned looking forward to recapitulating some of the old taste sensations. Sadly, I was egregiously disappointed. The quality of the food had clearly deteriorated. The fact that my wife and I were the only patrons in the place should have tipped me off. Duh.
Whoever coined the phrase “time heals all wounds” wasn’t in the restaurant business. Think about how many restaurants you’ve encountered that aren’t as good as they used to be. Now think of how many that have actually improved in time. And I’m not referring to cases that have improved due to a change in owners or head chefs. Nor do I mean fledgling restaurants that have yet to find their groove and then get on track. I’m talking about established eateries with no changes in who owns or steers the ship, actually getting better with age. I’ll bet you can think of more that took a turn for the worse than climbed to new heights.
Time is often not an auspicious dimension for restaurants. Maintaining quality, value and service over the long haul is a never ending battle. There are countless variables that can derail the process. It takes a tremendous amount of diligence, dedication, and hard work to maintain what I think is one of the greatest challenges to a restaurant: consistency.
There are two general indicators that a restaurant is beginning its proverbial journey down the tubes; diminishing quality and/or value. First and foremost is a decrease in the quality of the food over time. Many factors can erode food quality. These include but are not limited to the restaurant’s vendors, its working capital, management practices, the head chef, and the amount and skill of the staff. Slackening food quality is immediately recognizable in the taste, but also the appearance of the food.
Other restaurants began circling the drain with a decline in value. Many times this is a prelude to a forthcoming drop in food quality. Prices go up, portions go down, and freebies hit the road. Like the Mexican restaurant that used to automatically give free chips and salsa to every table, then only gives them if asked for, and finally just ends up charging for them.
However, at the risk of contradicting myself, eateries in dire straits will sometimes resort to frantic attempts to lure back business with unusually good values. Special lunch prices, buffets, coupons, early bird dinners, and “kids eat free” promotions are frequently last ditch efforts to save a sinking ship. I find the “kids eat free” promotion particularly desperate. Think about it. If your restaurant is making money and full more nights than not, why replace paying seats with free food to hordes of noisy brats who will trash the place?
There’s another restaurant near me that I’ve been watching wither on the vine. My first and only visit there was highlighted by gritty spinach, a horribly overcooked steak, and a waitress with an attitude. I knew it was just a matter of time and now time’s running out. Recently they resorted to a shotgun marketing approach: coupons, special mid-week prices, a lunch buffet and of course, “kids eat free.” Too bad all the energy invested in marketing wasn’t originally devoted to quality control. Obviously their recent “grasping at straws” maneuvers suggest that time is not healing any of their wounds.
Sometimes a restaurant is given extra time. Consider this final example. There’s this upscale American restaurant attached to a hotel that I have been patronizing on a regular basis for years. It used to be quite good with quality that evenly matched the somewhat higher prices. Then some time ago I noticed the food just simply didn’t taste as good. I continued to go there periodically but every time I went I was disappointed. The food continued to be lackluster but that was only the beginning. The plummeting quality spread to food preparation and service. I was served cold soup, stale bread, and had to actually ask my server for a napkin and utensils. After repeated second chances I began questioning why I even bothered to return. Apparently I wasn’t the only one to think this because I noticed a waning in patronage as well.
Then, just after my last visit, a well known restaurant reviewer from my state’s major newspaper reviewed the place and gave it three stars! I was thunderstruck! How could this be? Maybe the reviewer happened to catch them on a good day. Maybe the reviewer’s taste is questionable. Maybe they gave them a favorable review to gain or maintain their advertising. Maybe they don’t wish to alienate readers so they only give positive reviews. Who knows? The point is there will inevitably be a surge of business after such a review; a stay of execution if you will. It will be interesting to see if they can stand the test of time, a second time.
To summarize, maintaining quality at a restaurant over time is a daunting task. Many establishments will reach a point when their time is up. A certain talented and conscientious minority will remain timeless, and an even smaller few will get a lucky break and live on borrowed time. Poet Delmore Schwartz wrote: “Time is the fire in which we burn.” Who will burn out and who will not? Time will tell.