On Thanksgiving this year, I had a wonderful meal.
I had told some friends I would join their giant fest, but realized I better spend more time working on next week’s open-to-the-public talk on the founding of the movie industry (see http://hooversworld.com/archives/3277?day=Friday). So I decided to stay closer to home. Since I don’t cook (I only microwave), I eat out a lot and know most of the restaurants around where I live.
Before I tell you about this year’s feast, let me give you some background.
Two or three years ago, I was in a similar situation, and a friend and I had Thanksgiving dinner at a locally owned, independent eatery named the Hyde Park Bar & Grill. This two-restaurant operation is an Austin institution, and I always thought well of the food and the experience in their first location. Then they opened a new unit much closer to my house, and I was very pleased. I was even more pleased when I visited the place, which is a beautiful, well-designed restaurant.
But as I ate there – three times, most recently on Thanksgiving 2-3 years ago – I began to think, “This food is really not that good.” They made a big deal about being open on Thanksgiving (and continue to do so). Therefore I was quite surprised when the Turkey was on the cardboard side of the flavor curve. I had overestimated them. This outfit, despite being a locally owned “mom and pop,” just does not seem to care (see http://hooversworld.com/archives/3234) about their business. Or they don’t get out enough to find out what other options their customers have. They seemed to have spent their money on nice design but not bothered with food quality, a chef, or good recipes.
Today, when I realized I didn’t have the time to spend with friends, I decided to pick another restaurant which was convenient to me, which I knew was offering Thanksgiving dinner. This time I went with Golden Corral, a big billion-dollar-plus chain based in North Carolina. Over the last few years, after meeting some of their management team, I have rediscovered this operation and been going there more often. They have even risen above Cracker Barrel as my favorite “traditional American food” restaurant chain. I figured it was a good bet for turkey time.
This time, I really underestimated the company. I grew up in Indiana, where my uncle was a hog farmer. My aunt ran a school cafeteria. When we had our annual Thanksgiving dinner on their farm, we had ham, tomatoes, and corn that had travelled about 50 yards. I can still taste those delicious meals. (And visualize the doilies!)
This year’s Golden Corral feast was as close as I have come to that kind of cooking in many years. The corn on the cob was the best I have had in memory. The ham and turkey were perfectly tender and juicy. The pumpkin pie could have been mom’s.
All this goes to show that you don’t have to be local to be great. And you can be local and still not care about your customers, about the quality of what you do, about being the best.
I must add that the Hyde Park charges $16.95 with no refills on turkey or other entrees, whereas Golden Corral charged me $14.70 for all you can eat, including drinks in both cases.
Don’t get me wrong – the chains can mess up, too. The pretty-good operator Bob Evans Farms owns an upscale chain called Mimi’s Café which, at least in my book, has really poor food. I gave them the two tries I normally give a new place – they are incredibly convenient for me – and gave up. Again, all the money went into the building instead of into ingredients.
Only by allocating my spending dollars wisely, by giving them to the companies that really care about me, can I encourage the Golden Corrals of the world to open more locations and discourage the creation of additional Hyde Park Bar and Grills. No matter who owns them, who financed them, where they are, or how many of them there are. (See this post about where I buy books for more on the tradeoffs between locally owned and chain retailers: http://hooversworld.com/archives/3152.)
Do you really care about your customers? About the quality of what you do?