The Restaurant Bust of 2007: Stay Hungry

What's on the menu board tonight? A heaping platter of regret—and recriminations

What wine should one serve at a funeral? Last week, Dara Moskowitz wrote about the sad end of one of her favorite restaurants, Auriga, which came on the tail of a handful of other prominent eatery closings.

Apparently, Dara won't be dining alone at the wake. Plenty of readers mailed in their own lamentations about the bad business climate for good local food—though a few of you have only limited sympathy. A sampling of your correspondence appears below.

 

I image Applebee's?

Though I've been inspired or disappointed or humiliated by many of your articles, I've never felt compelled to take action and put my feelings to paper, until now. I felt that your article this past week ("Then There Were None," 02/01/07) about the independent restaurant scene in Minneapolis coming to an end was certainly relevant, but missing some key points of view. Having gone to culinary school here, and worked in independent kitchens here since 2001, I feel I have more insight into the actual execution of menus and the financials of the local restaurants than someone with an $80K salary and huge expense account.

While I agree that supporting those chefs whose food is groundbreaking, exciting, and noble—who stick to local, unsubsidized ingredients—is important, so is being profitable. No article, no matter how much praise is pressed upon the restaurant, could keep it from closing if that is where the financials are headed.

The local chefs you cite (Woodman, Miller, Flicker, Brown) are definitely talented cooks, but this talent has not translated into business savvy, as they all have proved. Recycling these chefs, hiring them in new leadership positions after they have closed one restaurant after another, does not sit well with me, or with my friends (almost all of whom cook professionally, or are enthusiastic foodies). I'm tired of hearing references to Stuart Woodman's "impressive cooking résumé" after he gets fired again and again.

Will we continue to recycle chefs in Minneapolis until they or their apprentices eventually figure out a model that works and makes a profit? Hopefully the next generation of chefs will be more successful, having seen the restaurants they work in close, and watched the management style that made it happen.

For me, specifically, working under Kim Bartmann at Barbette for two years, and watching the humble, appreciative Jeff Ansorge (Capitol Grille) coming in to dine, giving me pointers, and letting me shadow him, helped me make the decision that I needed to learn the business side of restaurants in a corporate setting. These creative independent chefs who gather so much praise from you seem to have no idea how to monitor and control their product and labor costs. "Real, unsubsidized costs for food" may be higher than those from contracted food service providers, but this doesn't mean anything if the menu is [priced] correctly and the portion sizes are controlled.

Still, I truly appreciate what these local chefs do. They put themselves on the line and create fun, playful, inspiring food at the highest levels. And for this, they are indeed noble, and even, perhaps, martyrs for our dining enjoyment. Their visions are extraordinary, but impractical.

People in this area are trying to save money. Chain restaurants (or corporate-backed ones) are tapping this opportunity, and smartly so. They know that people naturally want to go out, have their meals prepared for them, and not spend too much. It's easier to budget and justify going out to eat if you know in advance exactly what the meal will look and taste like, and more important, what it will cost. Fewer people want to experiment or take a risk with their money to buy a plate of food they've never seen before and may not enjoy. Why take the risk? It doesn't seem very Midwestern to walk this plank into uncertainty.

So kudos to the chains and their business plans, budgets, and corporate bean counters. They prove that somebody can make a go of it successfully in this city. If only we had more chefs with start-up money, a business plan, and the knowledge and self-discipline to make and stick to budgets and projections. People around here sure aren't about to trust and open their wallets for our local independent stars any more than they have already.

We'll have to keep recycling local talent while we wait for the next cutting-edge independent restaurant and star chef for you to hype.

Sincerely,

Asher Miller
executive sous chef, 20.21 Restaurant, Wolfgang Puck Catering

Minneapolis

 

How About Adding Some Rice-a-Roni to the Menu?

Read with great sadness and interest your article. Rest assured, our P&L's [profit and losses] read the same in California, if not more on the "L" side with recent Bay Area health-insurance laws. Plus there is no tip credit for waiters so we can't pay cooks what they're really worth.

And we have to compete directly with the French Laundry. At least out there people aren't going to Laundry before they get to another worthy spot.

Cheesecake Factorys are full everywhere. Mediocrity triumphs all around us. Everyone wants us to have low prices...until their daughter comes to work for us. Then they understand that the money we charge actually goes toward expenses.

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