While reviewing my email last Sunday in a Sausalito Starbucks, two ladies, one extremely large, were discussing an article in the morning paper. Apparently the larger woman had taken offense that someone would brand fast food as unhealthy. She claimed in a voice as big as her girth that she eats at McDonald´s regularly because she cannot afford to eat out anywhere else. Her weight problem was caused from lack of exercise, not burgers from the arches, according to her friend.
On Monday, I had a conversation with a delightful woman who has a vision for a quick-quality drive thru restaurant targeted to those parents on the go with small children. Instead of filling them up with flash frozen burger composites a natural place with a menu of fresh ingredients at a reasonable price is what the visionary dreams of.
Those are the two ends of the culinary industry. In between these two individuals millions of people eat at over the 900,000 restaurants in America daily. And, a good portion of those eateries are chains. And, if we really look at the conglomerates that own and operate the chains- not the fast food palaces — the big chains, we will see that they offer some quality items that every restaurant owner can benefit from.
I know a few chain owners personally. And, surprisingly, they didn´t all begin with the big picture in mind. Dean Vlahos of Champps Americana fame began his empire with a small sports bar in St. Paul, Minnesota. If we would have gone there for a burger and a beer and I would have told anyone it was going to grow into a chain, go public, and grow to multi-unit success, you would have cut me off, immediately.
Through diligent work, firm management, and great quality control, Vlahos grew his company to five units before he took it public and eventually sold it.
When Phil Roberts opened his first Buca di Beppo in the basement of an apartment house in Minneapolis in 1993 nobody, with the exception of Roberts, thought it would grow to one of the most popular Italian Restaurants in the country,
And the growth of a chain operation is as much of a problem for the owners, managers, and employees as it is for the small restaurateur. However, in a chain operation cost controls and procedures are implemented almost as soon as the door opens. Single unit operates often wait till the end to see where the money went.
As chains grow, food has a tendency to reach a quality plateau. Consistency becomes the norm. Dishes frequently lack luster as they once did when the chain was in its infancy. But this is part of the trade off one must sacrifice in order to grow. When it occurs quality in service becomes the noticeable asset whether in Boise or Boston.
Last Sunday morning, before I went to Starbucks I decided to stop into a cute, single unit coffee café on the water in Sausalito. I had never been there and thought it would be enjoyable to try it. The patio overlooking Richardson Bay was as serene as any waterfront restaurant I had ever been in. The line from the cash register to the door, although made up of only three people was not moving. The breakfast sandwiches, scrambled eggs and bacon on an English muffin were in the chilled case next to the brownies. They would soon be nuked to the customer´s satisfaction.
The women working the register told everyone that she was having a bad day before they ordered which quickly cancelled the serene atmosphere on the patio. She was having problems with the register and the heat from the bottom of the cooler was blowing out into the seating area while the temperature soared to the low 80´s inside.
When I ordered my large ice tea she charged me for a small, put it in a paper coffee cup, and couldn´t give me a lid that would accommodate a straw.
When I told her that she had under charged me, she told me she was having a bad day and that she didn´t know how to go back into the register and change it. I was informed I shouldn´t worry about it.
Upon leaving I tossed the ice tea and rapidly drove to Starbucks.
The one thing that we can all learn from chain restaurants with either six or 600 units- you have to have systems and procedures in place. You have to train your staff to all march in the same direction. Don’t be afraid to model your sysems after a successful chain. The front of the house operation in most chain restaurants is something we can all learn from.
Long ago I asked a very dear friend why he owned numerous franchise restaurants. His response; "So I don´t have to eat in them."
Chain dining, should be a ritual for a restaurateur. A learning experience. I don’t go to chains to enjoy the food, I learn from watching the staff, the managers, the quality control chefs and the line at the hostess stand.
It’s often enlightening.