You Are A Member Of A
Great, But Tough Industry
Too often I’m asked "How do you like being in the foodservice business?" and I have to remind the asker that I’m in the media business. The confusion is understandable, and—I have to admit—there are plenty of times I wish I were in your business.
For one, my connection to grass-roots America is not nearly as strong as yours. Every day, you’re in the trenches, greeting and meeting the public. I’m sure you deal with plenty of jerks, but, for the most part, it must be a joy to interact with people in the most pleasant of situations. You could have, after all, become an IRS agent or a mortician. At the very least, people smile when they see you.
I, and a lot of America, on the other hand, spend too much time behind a desk. Day-to-day interaction often comes by way of the telephone. So I’m thrilled when I get out from behind my desk and meet my version of the public, which is you. As you’ll see from the cover story in this issue, I had the pleasure of spending time with Stephen Starr, one of your brothers, who is doing great things in Philadelphia. Starr’s restaurants are so cool, even a dork like me feels less dorky inside.
Similarly, another editor here—Pat Fernberg—spent some time rubbing elbows with George
McKerrow, a wild man who built an empire with his Longhorn Steakhouse brand. Instead of retreating to an island and spending long days drinking tall mojitos, George has chosen to start all over again and create another concept from scratch: Ted’s Montana Grill. And, as you might guess from the name of his concept, he’s doing it with an even bigger wild man, media mogul Ted Turner. When you hang out with a giant like George, you could easily feel small, but he’d never allow that to happen.
Back in the office, Pat and I compared notes, and it was clear we were both rejuvenated by our interludes. Your industry is inhabited by amazing people who, on a day-to-day basis, make the world a better place to live, and you do it with a lot of style. For that, we salute you and don’t mind at all being mistaken for one of you.
On a less cheerful note, your business may be sexy, but it can also be brutal. That’s particularly true now for small independent operators who are getting their heads handed to them by the large chains. No news here, but it’s not often that the chains openly acknowledge the disparity of power.
That happened recently when Applebee’s CFO Steve Lumpkin explained to a group of Wall Street analysts that chains are steadily growing bigger as independent restaurants quickly lose ground. It’s all about efficiency, he said. The big chains have the juice to buy things cheaper and get noticed, while the mom-and-pops don’t have the resources to compete.
It’s the law of the jungle, but that doesn’t make the situation any more palatable. Applebee’s is a beautifully run machine, but when its efficiency steamrolls operators who are doing wonderful things on a small level, it’s downright sad.
Maybe I’m an idealist, but I’d like to believe there is room in this world for the Stephen Starrs, the George McKerrows and the mom-and-pops.
What do you think?