Struggling to serve up success

by Bryan Salvage
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – My family occasionally gets carryout food and dines out (rarely) because my wife and I don’t have the time or energy to prepare dinner at home seven nights a week. Every now and then, we like to go to a nicer restaurant just for the pure enjoyment of it.

We prefer frequenting smaller, family owned restaurants in the area because we feel good about supporting local businesses and the food and service at such places are often better than what’s being offered by some national chains. But as many in the meat and poultry industry know, surviving and thriving is tough for smaller, independent restaurants these days. Many of our favorite places we have frequented have gone out of business or have radically changed (for the worst) in recent years. Most recently, the owner of our favorite local Mexican restaurant, who is also the head chef at the establishment, decided to bail out after being in business for more than 20 years. His restaurant’s last day was Dec. 31.

Both of us felt badly for the owner and selfishly bad for ourselves. The meat and poultry dishes, in particular, he prepared were far above average — with some bordering on gourmet.
In surfing the Internet to get an update on why restaurants fail, reasons supplied by those who have investigated this trend include (not surprisingly) poor location, poor management and service, not managing the bottom line and not watching cash flow, among other things.

As a customer, I’d like to add several more reasons based on personal experience:

1. Burn out – Running an independent restaurant is hard work. Acquaintances and friends of mine who have owned small restaurants in the past have had to get up before dawn and travel daily to the marketplace in downtown Chicago to acquire daily supplies of fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry and more—at least five days a week regardless of the weather. They also either served as chefs or were servers or cash-register operators throughout the day while managing the business until closing time. This usually meant arriving at the restaurant by mid-morning and not leaving until after midnight.

2. Losing a great chef – Good chefs are the signature of most smaller restaurants and they are very hard to replace whenever a restaurant loses one. During the past decade, several Chinese restaurants I frequented both lost their chefs, and the pork and beef dishes, in particular, suffered the most. They became overcooked and tasteless — so I stopped going to both places. I have noticed when passing by the smaller business that fewer patrons than ever are dining there.

3. Compromising on quality – Some smaller fast-food establishments apparently decided to reduce the quality of their protein and other foods, but still charge the same for their menu items. I’d rather pay more money for something good than the same amount of money for a mediocre menu item. One fast-food restaurant in town, which built its reputation on terrific burgers, suddenly downsized its burgers, cut back on trimmings and started overcooking them—yet they still charge the same money as before for these burgers. When I pass this place during lunch hour, it is nowhere close to being as crowded as before. Another fast-food chain lost its zeal for offering freshly, prepared foods. The last two times we visited this establishment, the barbecue beef was tough and cold plus the buns were bordering on stale.

4. Market saturation – How many restaurants offering similar menu items can a small town support? It has amazed me how many pizza places have come and gone in the seven years I’ve lived in my small town. At present, we have at least four places offering pizza—and one smaller chain recently bailed out before the New Year.

5. Bad management– Nothing is worse than going to a restaurant and it’s obvious the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Bad managers can kill a business faster than anything else because they impact the entire business — from quality of service to the quality of food. One relatively new burger chain recently opened in our area. At first, it was great…but within several months it became apparent the manager didn’t like what he was doing. The food quality slipped and orders were increasingly wrong….while his turnover of workers was a constant stream.

6. Missing menu items– Nothing is more frustrating to a customer than when a restaurant does not have an item that a customer wants to order. The restaurant first mentioned in this column routinely was out of one item my wife liked best.

7. Unkempt restaurants- Many smaller restaurants do a poor job of keeping tables, chairs and rest rooms clean and garbage cans empty.

Of course, when restaurants fail, that’s lost business for meat and poultry suppliers. Looking ahead to 2013 I am hopeful owners of smaller restaurants that are floundering take a hard, critical look at why their businesses aren’t growing or why business is decreasing. It’s never too late to turn things around.

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