Sometimes being the best isn’t good enough

by Bryan Salvage
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Surviving and thriving in today’s meat and poultry industry is tough – but staying alive is even tougher for the estimated 990,000 restaurant locations that go toe-to-toe for consumer minds, stomachs and dollars every day throughout the United States.

Challenges facing the foodservice industry are many, including contending with current volatile meat and poultry prices. Another major challenge — at least in my neck of the woods — is there are too many restaurants with few points of differences in food offerings and service. For an old guy like me, I prefer having dinner at a restaurant that serves extraordinary meat, poultry, vegetables and fruit, offers friendly and great customer service…and one that is quiet so you don’t have to shout to be heard during a tableside conversation.

Over the years, my wife and I have grown to like only a handful of excellent (we thought) restaurants…but few of them are still in business today. Our favorite Mexican food restaurant was located near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and was owned and operated for decades by friends of ours who retired several years back as this husband and wife team were both in their 70’s …it simply was time for them to retire. Around daybreak each morning, Domingo had to go to the market to shop for fresh meat, poultry, vegetables and also begin preparing a variety of home-made appetizers, side dishes, desserts and sauces for the daily lunch and dinner crowds…and they were open seven days a week until they sold the business. Each night Domingo headed home after cleaning up close to midnight. He was lucky if he got five hours of sleep a night. My favorite dish was his wife’s Maria’s Pollo Hustusqueña — a large bone-in, skin-on chicken thigh topped with a fiery hot red pepper sauce that literally brought tears to my eyes because it was so hot. I called it Pollo El Diablo. We both miss the proprietors and their wonderful little restaurant.

Then several years ago, we discovered (by accident) a small, quiet, out-of-the-way local restaurant specializing in Mexican food. My wife and I quickly fell in love with the place because the owner/cook was truly a gourmet chef (self-taught) and was so very proud of his menu and abilities. It was our regular Friday night destination because Miguel’s food was great and his Margaritas were mixed just right—not too strong and very cold—and it was very quiet and frequented primarily by couples. But it eventually became clear to us that for whatever reason…the small, intimate restaurant was never crowded. But look several blocks south towards Rte. 38 and there was a newer, tiny Mexican restaurant where people were always lined up outside the door and down the block waiting for a table. People we knew dined there and said their food was good…but not as good as our favorite spot’s several blocks north.

One night our server informed us as we paid the bill they would soon be closing to remodel as the owner sold the business to his nephew because he was leaving the restaurant business. The new restaurant appears to be doing very well…but serves different, more upscale and expensive offerings.

Over the years, I have had friends who owned bars, restaurants and nightclubs and they all agreed that sometimes being the best in your business just isn’t enough. The public is very fickle and like a flock of finches they will swarm to one place for several weeks or months and then move on to another. One thing, they all warned me, is that what’s trendy today may not be for very long. When I asked why, they shrugged and responded…..”We really don’t know.” Several people in the “in crowd” will frequent one place more than the others and that place soon becomes “trendy” or the place to be and be seen. But for some unexplainable reason, the in-crowd will eventually move on to create the next hot spot.

No doubt the meat and poultry industry has its share of challenges, but its products will always remain in demand. If you have a winning recipe, stick with it. Don’t change for the sake of change. But if an exciting new product idea comes along with potential, go for it. When it comes to choosing meat and poultry over other proteins, consumers will never be as fickle as they are in choosing restaurants. If they find something they really like that your company makes — you’ll likely have that customer in your pocket for life.

As for our favorite restaurants that are no longer in business, I always tell my wife, “Nothing lasts forever.” But no one can erase our fond memories of those places and the people who worked there – which will last a lifetime.

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