Sunday, February 10, 2019

What Makes Restaurants Go Downhill?

One of the founding features of Chowhound was "Downhill Alert", an ongoing list of good places that had deteriorated. Avid eaters understand that most places eventually go downhill. Along with the frequency of closure, it's part of the restaurant business' notorious churn. One thing that drives chowhounds is an imperative to catch treasure while it's still good.

But while the industry's closure frequency is well-discussed, you seldom hear anyone accounting for Downhill Syndrome. I think I can explain it, and while I was going to disclaim my lack of operational experience, it's probably actually an advantage. Few restaurateurs dine out as widely as I do. They have firsthand experience, but I have data points.

Most people would attribute Downhill Syndrome to these factors:
  • Corner cutting (tight margins force concessions on ingredient quality)
  • Pandering (ethnic authenticity and challenging approaches get diluted in pursuit of wider clientele)
  • Boredom (The thrill's gone, so kitchen intensity drifts)
But while these do occur, they're nowhere near prevalent or severe enough to account for widespread dramatic downhilling (see footnote). A mysterious gravitational force inexorably pulls down quality; it's the restaurant industry's dark matter. And I believe it stems from a widespread miscalculation among restaurateurs.

Restaurateurs work very hard. They invest and sacrifice a great deal, and make lots of big decisions. So they naturally take credit for the quality of their operation. Why wouldn't they? That's how organizations work: the top dog enjoys the kudos and weathers the failures. But this industry has a built-in aberration. We don't eat at Tony's Trattoria primarily because Tony is great. It's because Miguel, the Salvadoran chef, happens to have a certain touch.

I don't patronize places for the lighting fixtures and tablewear; the busboy uniforms or awnings or atmosphere or server training. I'm not there for the menu, or for the wine list (that last might tempt me, but 99% restauranteurs accept whatever their sales reps push at them - awful, highly-branded plonk - rather than ferret out bargain deliciousness). I'm not even there because Tony was high-minded enough to spend $2/lb more for superior veal. Better is better, but I'd much prefer a great chef with mediocre ingredients than vice versa. I'm there mostly for one reason: the chef's touch. I'm there for Miguel.

So there's a very sharp disjoint between what actually makes a restaurant good (i.e. Miguel) and what Tony thinks makes the restaurant good (i.e. Tony). I do understand Tony's viewpoint. After all, he hired Miguel. He pays Miguel and is the boss of Miguel. In his mind, Tony encompasses Miguel...and much much more.

Music business execs have a dismissive term for musicians. We're "the talent". It's a chillingly condescending way to refer to the thing that really matters: the people making the music. But musicians by themselves aren’t a business, so it's not that business people have no important role. There are two discrete frames from which to view things, and they are utterly irreconcilable, and the rub between them creates friction and miscalculation.

No restaurateur would ever recognize a given chef as indispensable. To do so would be to acknowledge that Tony's a mere figurehead at Tony's Trattoria. Like the music exec, he's built the damned platform. Chefs, like waiters and accountants, are modules in that platform - software, not hardware - to be switched in and out at will. Tony's Trattoria is great due to myriad factors and decisions, and quality ultimately flows from Tony, who can always slide in another chef module.

Or so believes Tony. And he'll continue believing this even when Miguel's good-not-great replacement has crashed revenue. Hey, it's still Tony's! His formula is proven, and business is notoriously cyclical, so he just needs to give it time and believe in himself. Thus whithers Tony's Trattoria. That's the lifecycle, right there.

Understand that I'm not simply saying restaurants go downhill because chefs tend to move around. It's true, they do, but that doesn't get to the root of the problem. Chefs wander for the same reason musicians do: they are conditioned - by the very foundation of the industry and by indifference from the suits above - to deem themselves expendable modules. And modules gonna module.

I have, on a few occasions, asked restaurateurs whether they've recently lost their chef. It's always the same response; barely-concealed outrage at my poking my nose into the stagecraft - the backstage magic. Focus right here, on the branding! The chef's an expendable shlep; a cog in a machine serving an overarching vision. You, customer/asshole, are concerning yourself with the wrong part!

No. Miguel is not a cog. Never was. And the vision and branding were never the salient factors. That’s a delusion; I know it, Miguel knows it, and even Tony, at some level, suspects it, to his immense agitation. So until owners fully recognize that deliciousness is the outcome not of sound management, diligent investment, and clear vision, but mostly of how lovingly the chef flips the next pancake, chefs (not snazzy, aloof “executive chefs”; I mean the guy who actually cooks food) will remain modular and restaurants will keep mysteriously going downhill (and chef/owners will continue to have a big long-term advantage).

De-factoring the factors mentioned above:

Corner cutting (tight margins force concessions on ingredient quality)
This is way less common than you'd think. Every line of work has its baseline element. If you drive trains, you carefully watch your speed and brakes - i.e. the only controls you've got. The ingredient budget is intrinsically baked into a restaurant's entire business plan from day one. Restaurateurs may have delusions about the source of their quality, but the one factor 100% under their direct control is this one, and they very well realize it. The portions might shrink, the whisky might be watered down and the beef stew might be frozen and reheated in batches, but by the time you're eyeing the ingredient budget as a revenue source, things are likely terminal. And, per above, chef skill/touch trumps ingredient quality anyway. The Arepa Lady squirted cheap supermarket margarine on her sublime wares.

Pandering (ethnic authenticity and challenging approaches get diluted in pursuit of wider clientele)
Course corrections occur, but they're big, expensive turns - think cruise ships - too difficult and expensive to execute while desperate. As such, they rarely degrade quality, which is a separate parameter. No owner ever brightly exclaims "I know; we'll make the food shittier!"

Boredom (The thrill's gone, so kitchen intensity drifts)
There are many subtle differences between professionals and amateurs, but the most obvious is that pros can do many iterations without slumping. An amateur actor will buckle if called to do 115 takes, but a professional makes it work. And even lousy professional chefs, if they have any real experience in the industry, are professionals through and through. As a musician, I once backed up Tony Bennett on his 41,274rd performance of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco". The dude was a legend, who easily could have coasted. But he dug in. Hard. He made it fresh; he made it music. Not because he's a genius (though he might well be), but because he's a pro.


Anonymous coward said...

Interesting, I've worked in a restaurant before and I am a little confused at the idea of one chef as in singular. At the restaurant I worked in there was three chefs, the line chef, fry cook, and prep.

The owner wanted the prep person, this is the person who cuts the meat and mixes the sauces to be put in the refrigerator for later, to do exactly what the owner told him to do and not to change the ingredients/formula in anyway. When the prep person protested saying that he/she just got out of school and wanted to try some things this was considered attitude and the person was fired shortly afterwards for said attitude.

Also, do to the business being open more than 40 hours a week, and the owner refusing to pay any overtime, the manager took over the line chef after a certain time. I guess what I am saying is there can be more than one chef at a restaurant, especially one open a lot of hours.

Final note, you may value quality the most, but customers seemed to get the angriest when a person forgot a side which is the waiter/delivery person's job. Would be lots of yelling and cursing and usually a chef would get fired. The chef(s) position was like a revolving door. For example an order of wings was supposed to be half with sauce and the other half dry. The order went out all special sauce, the customer went into a wild frenzy which made the extremely drunk owner ditto the customer, a whole bunch of yelling and cursing, and the fry cook got fired.

The owner implemented a zero tolerance policy for missed up orders after that. If the order was not exactly as the customer ordered at least one person was getting fired, usually the chef. Your post is interesting, since the chef was considered the most expendable.

jeff davidson said...

I worked in a number of restaurants through college and a masters degree. The most successful of the bunch created a codified, reusable platform consisting of processes, processes, and tools. The platform allowed them to weather changes in every part of the staff though in practice, the place was so well run, there was little turnover.

What do I mean by a platform? During my 6-week probationary period as a waiter I had to memorize the contents and price of over 50 drinks. I had to shadow a different person in their three-role waiter teams for six weeks. I tasted and learned to describe every wine on their wine list and every dish on the menu. I received health benefits that included a gym club membership. And while I didn't work in the kitchen, we went out with kitchen staff after our shift and learned every recipe was recorded and their was a similar process for line cooks and chefs.

sounds like a factory but we had two-hour waits thurs-sat (no reservations), the food was great and given how we were treated (and the opportunity for very high tips), we all strived to create the best experience for our customers.

contrast that approach to a small, artisanal seafood restaurant. No training, no oversight, no feedback and when they closed 6 months after losing their chef of many years.


Jim Leff said...

A really really really carefully developed and maintained platform can mitigate the turbulence of worker churn, and almost (not really but almost) compensate for a mediocre top chef. Granted.

But if the platform were the thing, Burger King would be awesome. The fact that no chain has ever cracked the deliciousness problem proves my point: that it’s all about touch, the person caring, right now, in the moment, about your food. And that crucial crux is deprecated at the owner’s peril.

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