I recently had a disheartening experience at one of my top favorite restaurants in Birmingham, Avo & Dram. At first glance, Dram and its more sophisticated counterpart upstairs, Avo, are two completely different restaurants each with their own menu and décor. Dram is heavily beamed and filled with dark leather appointments and Avo is bright, white and modern, but with the same ownership and the presentation of menus from both restaurants in each, any distinction basically amounts to which dining room you feel like sitting in.
Back in the day about three years ago, Avo’s California, slow food fusion and Dram’s farm-fresh, sophisticated pub fare were lovely additions to the local restaurant scene. Innovative combinations were described on a seasonal menu that often named the nearby source of key ingredients. And the food lived up to its billing.
Lovingly prepared braises, game selections, duck fat twice-fried potatoes, and Cornish Pasty were just a few of the delights at Dram. While Avo’s nouvelle approach to classics like fish tacos, cioppino, and crab cakes was a revelation. More than once did I leave inspired to attempt to replicate a dish I had eaten there (emphasize “attempt”).
Then came the first sign of trouble—Internet specials offered randomly on Facebook. Hoping it was just a sign of the times, it crossed my mind that should those specials become a standard offering, the restaurant(s) might have a revolt if ever they tried to pull back on the discounts.
Next came a slight renovation of Avo, first, adding a few warm touches and, ultimately, a TV lounge at the end of the room. (Admittedly, the formerly unrelentingly stark, bright dining room did remind me a bit of a school cafeteria. So this change wasn’t a total disappointment.)
After that, however, the menu was given a bit of a renovation. The inside-out burger was dropped, as was the parsnip puree and some references to specific food sources.
Finally was the coup de grâce late last week. Where were the duck fat fries? Not on the menu, that was for sure!
No, the waitress assured us, the run-of-the-mill shoe string fries were even better. These imposter potatoes had a splash of truffle oil and grated parmesan, after all. *Grin; knowing lean.*
Big deal, I said. (I’d had those once before, so I knew about what I spoke.) Where were my tender middle and crisp hand cut edges? *Crickets*
I wanted to cry. But I ordered the chicken and dumplings instead.
Meanwhile, my husband was having disappointment of his own—an astonishing inability to order beef or bison steaks, or lamb even though still listed on the menu. The waitress offered him a remaining and still delicious (she assured us) leftover breakfast for dinner pork chop from the special the day before.
Appetizing as that sounded, he ordered a hamburger.
The news grew still worse, however. My entrée reminded me more of egg drop soup than a hearty stew. For a price in the teens, I certainly expected more than two meager bits of meat among vast quantities of flopping dumplings. I’ve eaten better at the Cracker Barrel! I was so distressed, I can’t even remember what he thought of his burger.
On the way home, we struggled to find an answer and arrived at this—some organizations shouldn’t be in the restaurant business—namely, any person or group who seeks a business with unlimited upside potential. That’s because it can’t happen. It just stands to reason at some point profitability in a restaurant will stabilize. Or WILL it? asks Harvard-Business-School-types with palates of shoe leather.
As a result, of the restaurants which start well, like the one’s discussed here, many will capitulate and start to cheap out on ingredients. It’s the restaurant equivalent of the “bait and switch.”
These establishments set high expectations of quality and consistency, give established “foodie havens” a run for their money while developing a favorable reputation. But at some point they max out the number of seatings they can reasonably serve, the number of seats filled at each of seating and, finally, the number of dishes each of those seats is capable of eating. That’s when the corporate types take off the aprons and strap on their calculators.
There are, they know, two ways to increase profits: increasing revenue over fixed costs or reducing costs while maintaining revenue. So if revenue has settled into a predictable pattern but one must demonstrate sustained growth to shareholders, silent partners, or other investors, or in order to unload the pile of bricks to an organization similarly burdened—ruthless cost-cutting (read: quality-cutting) is the only answer!
First, the corporate types lose the expensive chef with all the hang-ups about freshness and crap like that. They replace him or her with a chef who will work for less and who is more “bottom-line” oriented. Why use duck fat when most people don’t know it from peanut oil? Why use local, farm-raised pork when you can sell the same stuff they get at chain restaurants for a fraction of the cost?
If a few people fade away, we’ll just give the ones who stay happy hours and nickel beer nights. Drunk people will eat anything and plenty of it!
By the time the majority of the diners fade away, the brilliant young exec who implemented this scheme will be off ruining another perfectly wonderful restaurant, and the new ownership will be holding the bag. But hey, the balance sheet looks amazing!
Fans of Flip Burger may have noticed a similar trend there and for the same reasons. It started out with a fabulous take on the traditional burgers, fries, and shakes coming off of its founder’s “Next Top Chef” runner-up buzz. Next thing you know—organic, grass-fed beef is M.I.A., followed by A5 Wagyu Beef, followed by me.
And next door, Chuy’s Mexican Cantina, started out serving junk. I ate there precisely once. The only things served to me that day that had any flavor at all were the free salsa and the margarita. How odd it was to dine on “authentic Austin Tex-Mex” (which I’ve actually eaten in Austin) but find in Birmingham it tastes like absolutely nothing. Truly, the so-called food was all texture while miraculously avoiding any flavor at all. As the original garners such rave reviews, I can only assume something was lost in the translation from local joint to sprawling chain.
It’s always sad to say goodbye to a friend. But the next time I have a few bucks burning a hole in my pocket and a yen for something wonderful, you can bet I’ll be heading for the most consistently-fabulous, locally-owned place I can find rather than suffer through any of the above.
AVO & DRAM RATING:
FLIP BURGER RATING:
CHUY’S MEXICAN CANTINA RATING: