Thursday, January 14, 2010

My day on the restaurant savannah

I’m on safari this week for that most elusive of beasts, the free-spending consumer. Word reached camp of a gaggle converging at the midday feeding spots of my suburban hometown. So off I zoomed in my four-wheel-drive upholstered bushwhacker, eager to observe the habits of this prized and seemingly endangered prey.

The question was where. I picked up the trail in a section of the suburban wilds known to local tribesmen as a strip mall. The peculiar formation of neon and hardtop is a favored spot of the species’ juveniles, but this was the time of day when most hang out in schools rather than in small foraging packs. Indeed, the specimens milling outside what naturalists call a chain restaurant were decidedly long in the tooth. Perhaps they were the stragglers of a free-spending herd inside.

No such luck. There were all of six grey-heads at the trough, seemingly enjoying the shelter more than the food. Indeed, they weren’t even spending. Yet this was prime feeding time. Why such a sparse turnout?

The mystery deepened as I scouted the savannah for other traces of the dollar-wielding consumer. A local pizzeria was packed. Ditto for a hole-in-the-wall with the unlikely dual specialties of pizza and soup.

A bagel shop, a one-of-a-kind known throughout the region, didn’t even necessitate a stop-by. I knew it would be packed.

And I could’ve been trampled in a local upscale market. Perhaps it was the aroma of the food as the chefs spooned it from pan to platter behind a chest-high glass wall, handing out samples as they worked. Here, craning their necks as they bayed for a taste, were my wallet-emptying foragers. They huddled near the imported cheeses, and two females appeared ready to butt heads over a choice piece of foccacia on display. Some looked ready to purr over their ready-to-eat purchases.

A scientist would smile and say, What do you expect? It’s quality that draws the trophy customers, not value or marketing dollars.

Yet that only begins to tell the story. I had pulled a Dian Fosse and eaten with the subjects of my observations at the chain restaurant. It proved a harrowing experience. I had ordered two things. Before I could even finish saying Item I, the counter-person had cut me off, demanding—and I mean demanding—to know if I wanted cheese on it. Interrogators use a warmer tone.

Then, even though I had only ordered two things, and I was the only customer, he botched my request and input only one selection in the POS. He wasn’t happy when I pointed out that I wanted a soda with my burger. His day was clearly ruined, so tragically that he finally had to pick up a pencil and manually figure out my tab, sighing the whole time. At $3.24, I’d bet my home it was off considerably.

Then I had the Wild Kingdom experience of listening to the mathematician and his colleagues as they discussed my request in Spanish, at one point with a hearty guffaw. It had a vaguely menacing feel, like hearing strange sounds in a thick wood.

The food, in contrast, was good. Not on par with the gourmet shop, to be sure, but a notch or two above my expectations for a feeding spot of that price range. And definitely in the same range qualitywise as local pizza-by-the-slice.

No, the problema for restaurant chains go beyond a yearning to get better quality for the dollars we can crowbar out of our wallets during these bruising days. It seems as if too many members of that pack have forgotten they’re a service breed first and foremost, and what they really deliver is an experience, not stuff.

Sometimes a leopard has to change its spots if it doesn’t want to get skinned.

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