UNDER THE GUN
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - July 16, 2008 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Archive
The meteoric rise in energy costs over the last year has subsequently escalated the price of virtually everything else. All goods need to be transported somewhere, to some degree, between the producer and your front door. Food is by no means an exception to this scenario as it undergoes multiple voyages between the farm and your plate. In addition to surging oil rates, escalating demand for food, and in some cases limited supply, have further increased food prices. Consequently, people have been eating out less. Restaurants, at every stratum of sophistication are suffering. Recently, I have personally witnessed an unusual number of eateries in my area close or at least change hands. Many others are languishing, sustaining only a paltry contingent of customers.
The sharp decline in patronage and the threat of financial ruin has left restaurants scrambling for tactics to either increase revenue or curtail costs. Raising their prices, (or cutting them depending on the strategy), advertising, decreasing portion size, altering hours of operation, coupons, early bird dinners, etc., are last ditch efforts in the face of a cocking hammer. Moreover, in addition to the aforementioned stratagems, you would think that restaurants would also be vigilant about quality. Inevitably some are, and wisely so. But sadly, in too many cases, the diligence is focused on marketing the product at the expense of making the product. Consider the following example.
There's an Irish pub in a nearby town that I've been itching to try. They’ve been advertising regularly in the local papers and feature a special priced item on each day of the week. I love Irish pubs. There's nothing like the good beer, the hearty pub fare, and the convivial atmosphere that defines them. So my wife and I ventured to this new establishment where I proceeded to order the pork chops. I specifically told the waitress that I did not want them well done. I was emphatic: "Medium rare to medium. I like them a little pink." So how did the pork chops arrive? Of course, completely well done and tough as shoe leather. And, we were the only patrons in the pub, so no using the "maybe they were busy" excuse. The pork chops were beyond edible for me, and while I detest provoking acrimony, I was forced to return them to the server.
I consider myself a fair man so a couple weeks later we gave the place another try. This time the meal began with my beloved Russian vodka being served on the rocks, as opposed to up, (martini style) as I had ordered it. No problem. As long as the vodka’s cold I can let that slide, even though it still belies their attention to detail. The real problem was with our lobsters; both so overcooked that the body meat was visibly arid and the tails were as chewy as my erstwhile pork chops. Having returned my previous meal, we didn’t want to appear as unduly difficult customers and balk again. So we ate our tough lobsters, told the waitress everything was fine, gave her a generous tip, and decided not to give the place a third chance.
In these trying economic times, a restaurant cannot afford such lapses in quality. Repeat business is the lifeblood of any restaurant and discouraging it is financial suicide. I’ve written before about how the majority of the dining public is somewhat indifferent to mediocre restaurant food; that many individuals accept the tradeoff of lackluster food for the convenience of not having to cook. But I think it’s fair to say that as prices rise people become more concerned about getting their money’s worth. If one is going to spend the gas money to reach an eatery, and pay higher prices, (or get smaller portions), a modicum of quality is essential. Economics will inspire even previously apathetic diners to be more observant of the parity, or lack thereof, between price and quality. And they will go elsewhere to restore that equality.
So now the barrel of the gun is resting against the restaurant’s temple. It’s easy to change prices. Merely reprint the menu. It’s a piece of cake to lower portion size. Just put less food in the skillet. Advertising’s a snap. Just call the newspaper, limn your ad and send them a check. But establishing, and even more importantly maintaining culinary distinction, is where the real challenge lies.
With so much competition out there, not to mention the option of eating at home, quality is the crucial factor that will distinguish your establishment from others. Price will not. Lower cost eateries are a dime a dozen. But make quality food that satisfies peoples’ appetites as well as their sense of value, they’ll not only pay your price, they’ll return. Repeat business is the only viable means of dodging the bullet of economic downfall.
As a final example, my wife and I went to a local diner’s early bird special. Soup/salad, entrĂ©e, drink, and dessert for nine bucks. Not bad huh? Well, the food was absolutely deplorable. We concurred that it wasn’t worth the money we saved; that it would have been better to have spent a little more and enjoyed a decent meal. We weren’t even going to give this place a second chance. Interestingly, even though it was the peak of dinnertime, there were only two other customers in the joint. And the hammer falls……………
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