make it quick and make it hip

Here’s an interesting article from June 2004 Vogue magazine about the evolution in restaurant dining in America, written by a New Yorker who toured Orlando chain restaurants with an expert from the University of Central Florida. I hope to try Seasons 52 soon. The entire article follows in the comment thread…

2 thoughts on “make it quick and make it hip”

  1. Vogue, June 2004 p250

    chain game; Somewhere among Orlando’s 4,500 food courts, fast-food outlets, theme restaurants, and multi-unit concept chains, Jeffrey Steingarten discovers the tastes of the future. Jeffrey Steingarten.

    Byline: Jeffrey Steingarten

    Our plane touched down at Orlando International Airport. My fellow passengers stampeded out of the cabin, grateful to have reached Orlando and their winter vacations. Me, I was not yet ready to be grateful. This would be no vacation. Far from it.

    Sensing the approach of a flight attendant, who was surely wondering why I was the only passenger still sitting there (with the exception of an ancient woman waiting for a wheelchair), I crept unwillingly down the jetway. Soon the stale, recycled, body-temperature air of the cabin, rich in carbon dioxide and other organic wastes that we 200 passengers had for the past three hours excreted, gave way to the native atmosphere of Orlando. This was partly the herbaceous, semitropical scent of central Florida and partly something else that remained a mystery for only a few seconds. And then I suddenly exclaimed, “Cinnabon!”

    Now, I have never tasted a Cinnabon World Famous Cinnamon Roll or visited any of their 450 locations. But I know the smell from airports, and in any event it has been my experience that when cinnamon is used in baking, it is nearly

    always used in excess. After ten miles of trudging through Orlando International, I arrived at a brightly lit hublet. There I found a Burger King, a Cafe Azalea, a TCBY, a Starbucks, and yes, a Cinnabon kiosk. I petted my nose in a gesture of praise. I hoped it would continue to lead me straight and true through the chain jungle of Orlando.

    Here’s the shocker: Way more than half of America’s restaurant dollars go to chain restaurants! There are 4,400 chains, ranging from fast food to fine dining. Last year, the top 100 chains took in 51 percent of the money we spend on all our meals at restaurants. When I first read these statistics (compiled by Technomic, Inc.), my reactions were drastic and many. First I went into mourning for the gracious world that has passed, apparently overnight. “Mais o sont les neiges d’antan?” I moaned pretentiously. “Mais o est le preux Charlemaigne?” This gave way to deep insecurity and self-criticism. Here I was, pretending to be a food critic, yet I knew nothing about the restaurants my fellow Americans apparently prefer. I had never even eaten in a chain restaurant! We don’t have them in Manhattan. I had read that Orlando was Chain City, the place where more chain restaurants are either started or tested than anywhere else. I immediately made plans for a voyage of discovery and exploration to central Florida.

    After just a little research and reflection, I realized that things were not as bad as I had first thought. I remember a host of happy meals at various McDonaldses, consisting entirely of their fries-no meat patties-four to six of those little bags at a time, plus two Diet Cokes. I remember crispy chicken at KFC and Popeyes, some of the time nearly satisfactory, until I learned how factory-grown chickens are produced, and I remember Nathan’s Famous and Haagen-Dazs. And yes, we do have chain restaurants in Manhattan (all of the above)-just not as many as Orlando does. My assistant, Elizabeth, took on the Herculean task of going down the Top 100 list published in Nation’s Restaurant News, an indispensable publication; surfing all 100 web sites; and counting up how many top chains have a presence in either city. Orlando has three-

    quarters of the Top 100 chains and Manhattan about a third. So Orlando has representatives of twice as many chains, and that’s just from the Top 100. Where better to observe the

    multi-unit-restaurant-corporation phenomenon? Plus, I had never been to Orlando, and I already had an ace up my sleeve.

    Early on the morning after I arrived, even before I had a chance to do 100 laps in the rain in the hotel swimming pool, my ace pulled up to the front door. He is Associate Professor Christopher Muller, Ph.D., and during my week in Orlando Chris and I spent the better part of two days driving around while he very generously gave me a short course in multi-unit-restaurant management. His expertise is remarkable.

    First we visited his office at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen School of Hospitality Management-now at its own newly built campus. (With 114,000 hotel rooms and 4,500 restaurants, Orlando could easy absorb the graduates of several Rosen Schools.) Downstairs was the cafeteria, which took the form of a semicircular food court made up of six fast-food outlets. There was a Bene Pizzeria with a Wood Stone gas-fired hearth oven, a Salad Garden, a Home Zone, a Grille Works, and a Montague’s Deli. These are places I had never heard of. That’s because none has a retail restaurant; they are different brands of the ARAMARK Corporation, which contracts with schools, convention centers, universities, shopping centers, prisons, and so forth to supply food services. Here they have created a food court, using their own brand names. (There was also a Java City, a national brand.) The idea, I suppose, is that all Americans love eating at chain restaurants arranged around food courts. A made-up food court is almost as good.

    We began our driving tour. I had expected Orlando to resemble Las Vegas without the sin, with one spectacular hotel after another densely organized in the center or along a strip. Wrong again. Orlando is a vast metropolitan amoeba about 50 miles in diameter occupying Orange County, plus parts of Seminole County. It is probably most famous for its theme parks: Disney World, Epcot, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and the less widely recognized Holy Land Experience. Even though the last of these is associated with an evangelical group that resembles Jews for Jesus, I would have paid the $29.99 admission fee just to share Jesus’s favorite dishes if the Holy Land Experience Web site had not revealed that their Oasis Palms Cafe serves Jaffa Hot Dogs with fries and a pickle spear, Goliath Burgers with fries and a pickle spear, Centurion Salad, and for dessert Caesar’s Delight, a type of strawberry shortcake with whipped topping.

    Chris set me straight about chains. Unknowingly, I dine at chain restaurants all the time. Jean-Georges’s far-flung empire is a chain. Nobu is a chain. Actually, Nobu is one or more chains. Even Danny Meyer is a chain. A chain consists of three or more units managed at a common corporate office. (Ownership of the units can be all the same, or there might be a confederacy-a bunch of overlapping partnerships. Or they can be owned as franchises.) In order to make the Top 400 list ranked and compiled by Restaurants & Institutions, a chain must take in about $33 million a year. If you add up all of Jean-Georges’s restaurants’ sales, he’d make the Top 400.

    OK, OK, I riposted. That’s just a cheap trick. Jean-Georges and Danny Meyer are groups. I’m talking about real chains, places like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, places whose units look the same and have the same menus. Those are fast-food chains, I was told. The industry’s term is QSRs, quick-service restaurants. Yes, most of the Top 100 chains are QSRs. McDonald’s is a behemoth, with annual sales in the U.S. alone of over $20 billion! That’s about the same as the next three-Burger King, Wendy’s, and Subway-put together.

    A lavish, well-kept, white-painted Caribbean shed loomed ahead on the right. At last I had stumbled on the indigenous architecture and victuals of subtropical Florida! Memories came racing back, all from the Caribbean: lounging at sunset on the wide verandas of old hotels, sitting under the tin roof of a bar on the beach, sipping a half-dozen pastel drinks of fruit and rum in quick succession. Then, as Chris pulled into the driveway, I saw that we were standing in the parking lot of a multi-unit unit called Bahama Breeze, owned by Darden Restaurants, Inc., the multibillion-dollar multi-unit parent of Olive Garden, Red Lobster, and Smokey Bones (a chain of serious barbecue-plus-sports bars still in its expansion phase, as is Bahama Breeze). We

    didn’t have time to eat there. The menu was mainly modified chain-generic rather than truly Caribbean, which may possibly be a godsend, at least to those of us who have dined widely down in the islands. But there were also Cuban sandwiches, conch chowder, several forms of Jamaican jerk, and tall, frosted glasses filled with Bahama Mamas and Bahamaritas. I love this place.

    I asked Chris why we don’t have chains like Bahama Breeze in Manhattan. Chris reeled off a list of general reasons that Manhattan is not a fertile ground for chains. The real estate is too expensive, which can make a chain’s recipe for profits very difficult to transplant; even McDonaldses are smaller in Manhattan, which can eliminate economies of scale. New York is a union town, and wages are higher. Manhattanites walk around their neighborhoods and get to know their local restaurants, so they tend not to look for brand names for their dinner. New York is still afflicted by the cult of the chef; most chain restaurants do not have chefs-all they need are kitchen managers and elaborately detailed specs developed at corporate headquarters. And finally, Manhattanites are snobs.

    Ha! I exclaimed. Snobs? New Yorkers prize spontaneity, originality, creativity, eccentricity. We value handiwork and craft-not repeatability and consistency. We are not a bunch of replicants. No man is a unit. If that’s your idea of snobbery, then yes, I plead guilty, we are snobs.

    Chris and I drove through or near many but not all of Orlando’s 4,500 restaurants. He’s been asked by the Hooters company to testify in the trial of their case against the WingHouse chain for imitating Hooters’ unique “trade dress,” and needed to visit a few units of both chains. Never having visited a Hooters unit, I figured that my fresh perspective might be useful and forced Chris to turn into a Hooters parking lot.

    “Hooters” is plural for a slang reference to the female breast. The first unit was opened in the eighties in Clearwater, Florida, and now there are 360. We entered the place before noon and so were the first lunch customers of the day. The servers were gathered around one of the booths, gossiping and discussing fine points of their training. They were all attractive young women and wore identical outfits, which focused on very tight and tiny orange nylon shorts (called Dolphin shorts) worn over panty hose; they also wore white socks and white sneakers and white tank tops with scoop necks. Bras are mandatory. One of these potential servers separated from her pack to show us to a table, and she not only was the most attractive and most perfectly and comprehensively tanned, but she also had the fullest and most upwardly mobile hooters, not always a virtue in women but a lovely asset in her case. Her hooters were in the style of a late-eighteenth-century barmaid crossed with the wholesome cheerleader next door. I can’t remember the food.

    Just kidding. I am not some fixated adolescent. The food was wings and hamburgers, plus a bowl of steamed clams. I hope to return to a Hooters near me (or its imitators Melons and Mugs ‘N Jugs) the next time I’m not hungry.

    We had a very pleasant lunch at ‘Za-Bistro!, owned by Chris and six others. (‘Za is short for pizza.) Much of the varied, suggestively European menu is cooked in a Wood Stone hearth oven. An extremely popular appliance in Orlando restaurants, a Wood Stone hearth oven can burn gas or wood or both at the requisite high temperatures and, even in the hands of an amateur like me, turn out quite a pizza. Chris says that even when a $10 pizza is lavishly topped, the cost of its ingredients never exceeds 25 percent of the price-compared with a more usual 30 percent for food costs-which is very good for profits. The oven can be seen from nearly every table; the kitchen is a narrow sliver way in the back. As a result, most of the restaurant is filled with tables and chairs, which is of course where the customers eat and then pay. Chris and his partners have plans for a second ‘Za-Bistro!, but they may wait until their annual sales reach $1 million at the first, which is not very far away.

    We drove past a Houston’s, a fish-and-steak place with warm, slightly clubby but modern design where everything is cooked from scratch. How would the food and service at Houston’s differ from its equivalent in the non-chain world? I wondered. To find out, I planned to visit one of the two branches in Manhattan when I returned home.

    Chris and I drove along Sand Lake Road past two separate, stand-alone McDonaldses, one a Bistro Gourmet at McDonald’s, the other the “World’s Largest Entertainment McDonald’s and PlayPlace.” Three-quarters of all Americans live

    within three miles of a McDonald’s. That’s called a saturated market. But in the chain business, you grow or die. McDonald’s can expand mainly through acquisitions, bright ideas like the Bistro Gourmet at McDonald’s, or covering the rest of the globe. We drove further down Sand Lake to a section known as “restaurant row” for its seventeen establishments. Nearly half of these are in the small Plaza Venezia shopping center; if there was a connection between the architecture and the name, I missed it. We drove several times around the parking lot. At one end was a place called Bonefish Grill, which started out in St. Petersburg and became a joint venture with Outback after it had expanded to three units. On the day of our drive-by, there were 43 Bonefishes; another 30 are coming this year. Bonefish makes nearly everything from scratch and insists on using only (or in some seasons, mainly) fresh fish. I later returned for dinner. The local grouper was grilled deliciously over wood, and the crab cakes were among the best I’ve eaten. (If I can get the recipe, I’ll let you know.) There was also a lavish Roy’s, another Outback partner, with tall, fiery torches planted out front, and at the far end, the first in what the huge Darden corporation hopes will be their next success, Seasons 52. Chris telephoned Blaine Sweat of Darden, the inventor of Olive Garden, Smokey Bones, Bahama Breeze, and now Seasons 52, and I made plans to dine there with him two days later.

    Some chain restaurants in Orlando inhabit imitation town centers, built from nothing, a grid of three or four streets in each direction lined with two- and three-story wooden buildings, shops, and restaurants

    on the ground floor and parking around the outside. It is one of the newer ways of selling things to people. Today, restaurants are not merely subsidiary businesses next to a department store that “anchors” a shopping center. Restaurants have themselves become the main act. In one new town center, we drove past Brio, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro (the first successful Chinese-food chain-look for lots of expansion in the fast-casual Asian area, says Chris), the Cheesecake Factory, Blackfin (on its way to becoming a chain), Ruth’s Chris, Crispers, Johnny Rockets (love that look!), an Olive Garden, a sushi restaurant about to become a multiple, and a Marble Slab Creamery (ice cream).

    The sun was now low in the sky, and I was desperate for a nap back at my hotel. I was too exhausted even to notice the Planet Smoothie, PJ’s Coffee, Moe’s, or the Mama Fu’s we passed. Chris and I made plans for further exploration, and I staggered to my room. He had given me a pretty brilliant paper written by David Palmer at UBS Investment Research, and although it concentrates on QSRs (quick-service restaurants, remember?) some of it is applicable across the industry. As I drifted into a troubled sleep, I could think only of Palmer’s list of the inexorable economic advantages of chains over independent restaurants. A new unit or franchise

    within a chain will pay less for financing, 15 percent less for ingredients (thus nearly doubling its profit margin), be supported by national advertising, and be able to buy the best real estate. In the fast-food world, proximity to a huge retailer such as Wal-Mart or Home Depot (known collectively as “Power Centers”) is a guarantee of customer traffic. There are 900 satellite McDonaldses within Wal-Mart stores; two-thirds of the rest are within a mile of a Wal-Mart.

    We don’t have Wal-Marts on the island of Manhattan. Maybe we can keep Ikea out of Brooklyn. And we can burn all our bridges. Still, I fear that we are doomed.

    The next day, as I drove through the rest of Metro Orlando’s 2,800 square miles, I tried to classify the hundreds of restaurants I passed. As Chris had explained to me, the years between 1920 and 1960 saw the creation and dominance of “family restaurant chains” such as Howard Johnson and Denny’s, with table and counter service, no alcohol, something on the menu for everybody in the family, average check between $4 and $7, and no credit cards.

    The sixties and seventies were the decades of QSRs-McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and Pizza Hut-and their fast food. The appeal was mass-market, the menus were narrow, there was little service, and the average check was under $5, with a stress on time and convenience. Folks who eat fast food come back two or three times a week, but they show the lowest brand loyalty compared to nearly everything else they buy. The drive-thru is such a draw to them that 60 percent of fast-food sales are now made without the diner’s leaving her or his car. I can hardly believe that, but David Palmer knows what he’s talking about.

    The next stage in American chain dining-the casual-to-upscale theme restaurant-exploded in the years between 1980 and 2000. But their seeds were planted in the sixties by Benihana (1964) and Red Lobster (1968). These were full-table-service places with lots of alcohol and safe ethnic themes. The average dinner check was $16, and the atmosphere was casual. Their progeny were Olive Garden, Outback, and Applebee’s.

    I’ll pass over the epidemic of fern bars such as Houlihan’s and Bennigan’s, the several attempts to create nationwide Asian chains, and the super-theme-entertainment restaurants such as Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood and quickly vault into the painful future ahead of us, where the future often tends to lie. Chris Muller calls the chain of the new millennium “fast-casual-elegant.” Its harbingers are Houston’s, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52, and Bonefish. The average check exceeds $16 by a generous margin; all types of alcohol flow like water, with wine lists you might actually call serious; and there might even be a dress code, not just for the Hooters girls but for the customers as well.

    It is this fast-casual-elegant movement that has me really spooked. For at the same moment that restaurant chains are pressing up against the fine-dining stratum, fine dining is undergoing an identity crisis. Several of the great restaurateurs in New York City have told me that fine dining is threatened on all sides. These days, people rarely want to spend four hours eating dinner. Fewer customers will sit still for long tasting-menus. Many of them find formality oppressive. No, they don’t want hamburgers or pizza. Serve them foie gras, charge anything you want, but make it quick and make it hip.

    Before leaving Orlando, I had dinner with Sweat, Darden’s president for new business, at Seasons 52. Sweat is an impressively tall man in his mid-50s and widely considered an icon in the industry. He arrived with his colleague Deborah Robison, who is a registered dietitian; they’ve been eating here at least twice a week because now, after ten years of research, testing, and tinkering, Darden is ready to open two more Seasons 52s, one in Orlando and one in Fort Lauderdale. Darden doesn’t start a project unless its experts reckon that it has the potential for a half-billion dollars in annual sales, which, Sweat says,

    really means a billion. And that means over 200 clones.

    Seasons 52 is extremely attractive, built of wood and brick, and loosely reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright in its interpenetrating planes and natural materials. The tables are made of polished mahogany, and when you walk out onto the back terrace you see the moon’s reflection on the surface of a large and lovely lake.

    The theme here is food that’s good for you, fresh, and seasonal. It is made with hardly any added fat, and nothing on the menu contains more than 475 calories. The desserts have even fewer, but this is accomplished by making them small and cute and serving them in little glasses. (No truly low-calorie, full-size desserts tested well.) But Seasons 52 is not a health-food restaurant. There is a vast and friendly bar and an open kitchen with a wood grill and a Wood Stone pizza oven; the wine list is long and, for its moderate prices, quite good. Enormous effort and research have gone into cutting calories without cutting flavor. Such an effort does not ordinarily appeal to my personal taste, but we ordered lots of food and most of it was quite enjoyable except for the lamb, which was tough and tasteless, two qualities I try to avoid in lamb. The service was impeccable, but then again I was eating with the boss, who, incidentally, is extremely smart, apparently open and low-key (but how can the top banana in the chain jungle truly be open and low-key?), and clearly inspires loyalty.

    Nearly all the food comes in fresh. I had assumed that all chains used frozen or dehydrated food; I was impressed when Sweat told me that Red Lobster has the largest “fresh-fish program” in the U.S. They buy half of the lobster harvest of the nation of Belize. The manager at Bonefish Grill told me that everything there was fresh except the scallops. Houston’s grinds its own hamburgers.

    Then how are these chains different from independent fine-dining restaurants? The answer is that an actual chef will rarely be on duty, and every detail of your meal will be minutely specified in a series of notebooks written by the management. Customers want to be in and out of a fast-casual-fine-dining restaurant in between 70 and 85 minutes, or so Sweat’s research shows. For this to be accomplished, no more than eighteen minutes should elapse between the moment the server takes an order (which is immediately time-stamped) and the moment the main course is delivered to the table. When I asked Sweat what kinds of reports he expects to receive every morning, the first one he mentioned was a count of the number of tables from the night before that had to wait more than eighteen minutes. Blaine Sweat seems like a remarkable man. I would certainly not want to see these manuals written by a mediocrity.

    And so we reach the moral of our story, the insight that only Orlando could inspire: The upper stratum of chain dining is converging with-and possibly replacing-the great and long fine-dining tradition in America. BFD, you say? Yes, it surely is.

    Article A131161261

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  2. Bob, I LOVE Jeffrey Steingarten — can’t wait to dig into the article (I printed it out for my lunchtime reading).

    By the way, is there any way that you’d consider changing the name of your blog to the grammatically correct “it’s alright”? (I can live with “alright” –it’s a colloquialism that’s been around for 75 years but “its” — uh-uh).

    Deri (AKA pain-in-the-ass-editor)

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