Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Old Ball And Chain-- Should You Eat At Mom & Pop Places, Regional Chains, Or National Chains? My Treatise On Eating Out.

Over the last 11 months my job has taken me into parts of Louisiana I’d never explored before. I’ve enjoyed the chance to see so much of this state for which I’ve fallen so hard in love. Louisiana loves food. We celebrate it constantly. There are festivals year round that highlight our bounty of seafood, fruits, nuts, porcine, grass turned into sucrose, baked goods, sausages, and wild game. I love food in Louisiana. I love our courage to use spice. I love how we use the whole pig nose to tail, everything but the oink. I love how there are so many great places to find good food here. It has been so much fun find restaurants that are new to me but that are legendary locally. Amongst a group of my friends there has been a discussion brewing about the issues of patronizing chain restaurants. More specifically, the point is being driven that chains, except the local chains, should be avoided. There is the belief among some that large chains can drive small one-of-a kind local eateries out of business. That chains can destroy the unique fabric of a community. What defines a local or regional chain? What if a large regional or national chain alters its menu to fit in with local flavors and customs? What if the local place doesn’t try to match the needs of the community? First let me tell you of some of the best food finds I’ve found through my job.

  • I love a good steak. It is no secret that in Baton Rouge, I think Doe’s Eat Place is tops. The casual atmosphere, the servers, the guys in back, the owners, the barkeep are all great. The steak is freaking delicious. The sides are all great, brunch is pretty good (please try the Eggs BeneNic), and dessert is delicious. Let it also be known that Doe’s Eat Place is a “Regional” franchise. There are locations in Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Missouri, and here in Louisiana. Yes, I’ve actually done some business here.

  • The Diamond Grill in Alexandria serves an interesting steak that might come close to Doe’s. My guess is that they age it in some way that imparts new flavors to the meat (think blue cheese), I enjoyed it. The atmosphere there is pretty swank to boot.

  • Tony’s Po-Boy in Chalmette makes what I think is the penultimate catfish or shrimp po-boy. I used to eat there so often for lunch that one day when I forgot to pay, they let me walk out the door knowing full well I’d be back later that week.

  • The Seafood Pot in Destrehan serves up some of the best boiled shrimp and crawfish I’ve ever eaten. My expense report was through the roof when I ended up taking eight people to lunch at once there, but everyone was happy. They are always happy to top off your Barq’s root beer and sell some of their own stuffed peppers or boiling seasoning.

  • East Gate Barbecue in Morgan City impressed me. The brisket, ribs, pulled pork were great. While they make several unique sauces, the meat stood on it’s own. I also found the staff to be incredibly nice.

  • Nobile’s Restaurant And Bar in Lutcher serves one hell of a plate lunch. Do not bother looking at the menu, order the special of the day and leave some room for pie. Great atmosphere in this old converted drug store and the staff and patrons are awfully friendly. I guarantee that you will leave fat and happy.

  • Cafe Des Amis in Breaux Bridge made quite an impression on a customer from Wisconsin. We happened to eat there on Wednesday night, a night they usually book for a local band. The food was fantastic and we really enjoyed ourselves. My friend left talking about how well seasoned food in Louisiana is and how he loves our musical traditions.

That being said, I have been to some real stinkers run by Moms & Pops as well. For instance yesterday’s lunch was at a place I’d heard for years had the best fried chicken in Port Barre. I was let down by the food and cleanliness of the booth I sat in. I ate at a barbecue joint in Chalmette that claimed to have won all kinds of awards. I found they served pre-sliced brisket that had been sitting under a warming lamp for ages (and I was early for lunch) drying out. I was at a seafood restaurant in Buras-Triumph that was supposed to be the best place south of Empire. My sweet tea tasted like bar soap and my food was, well almost forgettable, save that I know I didn’t enjoy it. Mind you, there may be three places to eat south of Empire Louisiana. I found poorly cooked frozen vegetables and undercooked chicken on my plate at a local/regional chain restaurant in LaPlace. I used to eat at a restaurant in Krotz Springs (now under a new owner) where I would call in my order, giving them my name so they would know to make sure that my food was hot. Otherwise it would take way too long and come out cold.

The problem is that while I love the exploration and adventure of trying out new restaurants, sometimes I want to eat at a place where I know the food and cleanliness should be at an established level of expectation. McDonald’s hamburgers are the same across the country and most of the way around the world. McDonald’s also has a reputation for clean bathrooms, but maybe not for clean playroom balls. Chili’s baby back ribs are going to be fine and the women from the office I used to work in expect to loosen up after a few El Presidente margaritas. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, there are many small towns across the US where the only place to get dressed up to eat is a chain like Chili’s next to the interstate.

It is unreasonable to expect that a “Diners Drive-In And Dives” like establishment is going to be open in every small town. It takes a certain person to run a restaurant like that. Many restaurateurs are focused on being small business owners providing a service to the community, not working on making corned beef and baking potato bread buns from scratch. They are worried about overhead, food distribution, limited labor, and making sure that they serve food that is going to sell. This helps to explain the proliferation of Hunt Brother’s Pizza and Krispy Krunchy Chicken (substitute whatever sign you see in all those gas station greasy spoons) signs seen in small towns. These franchises make it so much easier to operate a place of business that serves food. Believe me, I’d rather see a Nobile’s in Port Barre and Buras-Triumph where locals made unique and well prepared food that made people truly happy.

It takes a lot of effort, it takes knowledge, and dedication to run a restaurant. Of course, I say that having never run one. The entirety of my food service experience is as an underling at the Great Steak & Fry another one of those national chains, in another one of those horribly generic American food experiences, the mall food court. What I do know from that experience is that if an operator is trying to keep labor costs low, it is terribly difficult to keep a good quality staff on hand. Low wages means more skipped shifts and higher turn over. Somehow a regional chain that started here in Baton Rouge, Raising Cane’s, has been able to keep that down. I can’t speak to the wages they pay, but I do know that the staff at each and every one of their locations I’ve been to is smiling and helpful. The worst customer experience I’ve had at a Cane’s was the one time I waited in the drive through line for chicken, and someone came on the speaker telling me, “Hold on, we cook our chicken fresh, so it will be a while”. No bags shoved in my face, no holding back ketchup, no wordless window interaction with the subtext, “Here’s your food, go away”. 99% of the time I have a great customer service experience there.

So what then is the difference between local or regional chains and nationwide ones? Does it matter? I don't care. I’ll say this much, Raising Canes has a devout following here. Todd Graves is a local hero, his story is inspiring. The guy had a dream and worked his ass off for years doing dangerous dirty work to save up the money to start his business. People want to identify with that. In Cincinnati, Skyline Chili and Gold Star Chili are examples of regional chains that have devout followings as well. The story of Lambrinides brothers emmigrating from Greece, starting a lunch counter and working up from there is also inspiring. They are more mature institutions so the local boys who made good running them are long gone, but people still have their favorite locations and know the staff who serve them. My personal favorite Skyline location is the one on Clifton Avenue. They made certain to become involved with the University of Cincinnati community, giving away scores of coneys during Rush Week and feeding the drunken masses into the morning every weekend. Smart restaurants, whether they be Mom & Pop, local, regional chains, or national behemoths, know that customer service and building a narrative of involvement in the community is how to build a following and to become part of the community itself. That is the differentiator. Of all the national chains I can think of, Applebee’s is the one that comes to mind as a place that has best embraced that idea. They make a point of decorating each restaurant with pictures from local firehouses, little league teams, newspapers, and so on.

Here is what I think matters in the debate about eating at a small business versus a large chain: eat where the food, the service, and the experience are the best. If the small guy can’t provide a clean plate, good food on that plate, and decent service to get that plate to your table they do not deserve your business. If the national chain comes in and tries to force food that the community doesn’t like down their throats, don’t eat there. If some regional franchise sets up shop and consistently undercooks the chicken breast, stop going. You, the customer, deserve better. I may be in the mood for a good plate of pasta, but if the local place doesn’t make one I like, I should go where I can find one to my taste. I shouldn’t make myself eat bad food and suffer poor service just to patronize small businesses.

One additional comment. The most important thing we as customers can do when we come across poor service or bad food is to talk to restaurant management. It is something we hardly ever do because it takes effort and time. It is so much easier to walk out the door and spread the bad word than it is to give the establishment the chance to make things right. I am just as guilty as anyone else for walking out mad. We as good customers should give the places we patronize a chance or two. Another important thing to remember- when going out on a big date, or when taking that big wig out- go where you know the service and menu. Skip the new place (especially if it has only been open for a few months). Your date, your parents, your boss, that customer deserve to go where you know the food and service are good.

This is a hot button topic for some people. Understandably so. I invite your rational and well tempered comments below. I'd really like to hear what you think.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

yWell Josh, I do agree. If things aren't satisfactory, we should make the complaint known at least to the server, if not beyond that. If they don't know there's a problem, they can't work on it for next time. Additionally, life has gotten so busy for all of us that we don't take time to express what we want as a consumer. We seem to just take what is given, myself included. There is a better way. It'll just take a little time to get back to "the customer is king" mentality, which is what great service is all about.