Your PopCulteer doesn’t write too much about food here in PopCult. Food is a huge part of popular culture, but since I don’t worship at the altar of beer or bacon, and don’t obsess over every gourmet detail, I don’t offer up much in the way of opinion. Other people can write authoritatively about such things. I just know what I like.
However, I do eat out a lot…too much, some would say. I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend for the last several years, and I feel it’s responsible for the recent lousy economic performance of many national restaurant chains.
Last week The Wall Street Journal published a piece by Julie Jargon and Lillian Rizzo that covered the recent woes of chains like Così.Don Pablo, Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes, Bob Evans and Ruby Tuesday, which have entered bankruptcy or closed restaurants over the past few years. The article posits that we are entering an industry shakeout that will see a huge drop in the number of restaurant locations over the next five or ten years.
Some people blame the economy, but the problem goes further than that, and the WSJ article addresses many reasons for this, like supply outstripping demand, the low price of groceries making eating at home more affordable than eating out and the rise of “To Go” restaurants crowding out sit-down establishments.
All of these reasons help to explain the recent downturn, but there’s another major factor that affects chain restaurants that the article doesn’t mention. For the last ten years or so, consultants to the foodservice industry have pushed a stock agenda that has been adopted by almost every major restaurant chain. These consultants have advised restaurants to eliminate items from their menus as a cost-cutting measure. Almost every major chain restaurant now offers 30-to-50 percent fewer menu items than they did a few years ago. On top of that, some of them have cheapened up some of the recipes that they have retained.
We are now seeing what happens when restaurants eliminate menu items or change things. Customers who liked those items go elsewhere. Loyal customers are lost forever. Once they are freed from the habit of going to the same place over and over, they start eating at other chains, or more often, locally-owned restaurants that offer bigger menus with fresher, better-tasting food. These are not customers that can be won back with a short-term promotion or a splashy ad campaign.
The reasoning behind cutting the menu is sound, if you totally disregard the idea of retaining customers. It is harder to manage inventory and train cooks if you have eighty items on your menu, and it will take customers longer to make up their minds about what to order. Forty menu items will drastically cut the amount of money you’re spending.
If you’re simply looking at short-term bottom-line profits, cutting the menu size makes sense. In practice, it’s a very efficient way to drive off loyal customers. Olive Garden learned this the hard way when a hedge-fund company took over control of their parent firm by promising to cut costs because of things like their menu offering too many items and giving away too many free breadsticks. After sales plummeted, they recently started reversing some of these changes.
Let me give you a more personal example. For the longest time while I was acting as the caregiver for my mother, I did not get the chance to eat at sit-down restaurants. After she passed away in 2006 Mel and I were able to go out on real dates and we discovered that we enjoyed eating at Applebee’s (don’t judge). After going there every week or three for a year, Applebee’s revamped their menu. They kept revamping it, and eventually they eliminated every item that Mel liked to eat. So we stopped going there. Now it’s not even an option. Of late, I hear that they don’t really have much in the way of vegetarian options, outside of a grilled cheese sandwich.
The same thing seems to have happened with O’Charley’s. We started going there after souring on Applebee’s, and it was great, until about three years ago, when all the really good stuff started vanishing from the menu. Now it’s a bit of a last resort. TGI Friday’s is an occasional stop, but they offer about half as many dishes as they used to, and they use so many pre-prepared mixes that I can’t order much due to food allergies.
Even Bob Evans has tinkered with their menu, making their best soup, Tomato, a seasonal item. When they offer it, this is the rare national chain that offers grilled cheese and tomato soup (Applebee’s does now, too, but we hardly ever eat there anymore). Since I barely eat any red meat and don’t care for their turkey, this leaves me with the options of chicken or fish. They have a decent potato-crusted flounder and their grilled chicken is good, but not good enough that I want it every week. They also got rid of some really good side dishes, like rice.
The thing is, if you like a chain restaurant, but they only have one dish that you enjoy, when they get rid of that dish you no longer have any reason to go there. If there are three or four dishes that you can rotate to keep from getting bored, you might eat there once a week, if you eat out way too much, that is. I don’t like to order the same thing every time I go to a restaurant, and if they whittle down their offerings until I only have one choice, they will be visited less often.
I don’t know why it’s so hard for these huge corporations that run national chain restaurants to realize that the recent downturn in their business has coincided with them dropping menu items. Ruby Tuesday has a great salad bar, but I can’t actually remember any of the entrees they offer because they keep dropping them as soon as I try them. We might eat there once a year now. Neither of us can remember what we liked when we were enthusiastic about the place.
This restaurant ennui has had a good side effect. We tend to eat at more locally-owned places now. The Charleston area is blessed with a terrific assortment of great, independent, restaurants like Bluegrass Kitchen, Leonoro’s, Ichiban, The Olive Tree, Sahara’s, Tricky Fish, and too many others to mention. It’s been sort of great to turn to our local eating establishments now that the national chains have abandoned so many of our favorite meals. The prices can be higher, but you get what you pay for. It’s usually well worth it.
But it’s a shame that big business has once again proven that it doesn’t know what it’s doing. Dropping a menu item because only one percent of the customers order it may seem like a good way to cut costs, but if you do that, and that is the only thing that one percent of your customers want to eat at your place…and they are part of a couple, or a family, you are potentially losing two-to-five percent of your business. If you cut 30% of your menu, you could easily drive off half of your customers.
Keep in mind that I’m not a typical restaurant customer. I don’t drink, so the beer selection is irrelevant to me. I had a meeting once at Black Sheep Burritos and Brews and discovered that the only thing on the menu that I could or would eat was the chips and salsa, and I wasn’t in the mood for that. So I awkwardly ordered a glass of water while my stomach growled through the meeting.
For health reasons, I avoid fried foods. I like to have access to decent salads THAT DO NOT AUTOMATICALLY COME WITH BACON OR EGGS. Sorry for the yelling, but that’s a trend that annoys the hell out of me. I have food allergies and have to be careful what I eat, and I would like to have some lower-calorie options. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, but not being in the key demographic and not being a beer-swilling, red-meat-eating, fried-anything-loving customer makes me less desirable in the eyes of the restaurant consultants. It’s funny, because I have more disposable income than the so-called “money demographic” seems to have.
The decision of choosing a chain over a local eating establishment is usually made because A) it’s cheaper and faster, B) it’s closer to where you are or C) you really like the food there. When chain restaurants drastically cut their menus, they make the third reason much less of a factor.
If Mel and I are out shopping at Southridge or Dudley Farms, it should be easy to pop into a restaurant to grab a quick meal. Except it’s become a bit less easy. We have lots of choices, but not as many as we used to have. Quaker Steak and Lube has systematically eliminated every single item on their menu that I like to eat. Bob Evans is gone. Fazoli’s is gone. Applebee’s is dead to Mel. The steakhouses are okay, but I don’t eat steak and most of their sides are potato-centric. TGI Friday’s isn’t very good out there. O’Charly’s has gone down our list of good places to eat. Mel’s not fond of Asian or Mexican food. Olive Garden has improved and tends to be our first choce lately. Bojangles is becoming a guilty pleasure, but I’ve cut way back on fried food so we don’t make a habit of going there (Plus it’s really a fast-food place. They just have really, really good food). Panera has never really been high on my list of great places to eat. IHOP is IHOP. You just don’t eat there before midnight. Red Lobster I enjoy occasionally, but Mel doesn’t.
Barbarosa’s makes great pizza…and they aren’t a chain. That makes them an obvious choice…if we’re in the mood for pizza. I’m sure I’m leaving out several restaurants, but you get the idea. Deciding where to eat out there can be a frustrating task. It would be so much easier if the chain restaurants didn’t keep getting rid of the dishes that one of us enjoys the most.
Chain restaurants are reaping what they sowed years ago when they started downsizing their menus. A major factor in retaining business is keeping the customer happy and encouraging loyalty and repeat visits. You do not do this by getting rid of a customer’s favorite dish, or refusing to make substitutions, or limiting their options. The type of corporate mentality that recommends cutting menus as a way of boosting profits is one that sees the wills of their customers as an inconvenience. The foodservice industry is a SERVICE industry. Giving people what they want is providing good service.
It’s a lesson that successful independent restaurants have learned. You have to have happy customers in order to have repeat customers. You have to have repeat customers to have a healthy patronage. They know this because the owners are in the restaurants every day, watching the interaction between their business and their customers. They know that one wrong move can drive a customer away.
And that is the problem, in a nutshell.
That’s this week’s PopCulteer. Check back regularly for more PopCult entries all weekend long.