The New York Times reported that mammoth restaurant group Metromedia was going to close down Bennigan’s and Steak and Ale, citing the downtown in the economy and rising food costs as the primary issue.
The Times reports that these restaurants are the latest casualties in the so-called casual dining sector, considered a cut above fast food. Soaring food costs and a surfeit of locations have hurt the companies’ bottom lines just as Americans are choosing to make more meals at home. People will lose jobs, landlords will be left with big open restaurant spaces in a weak economy.
But I also wondered if there isn’t more to it than just the economy. Bennigan’s, Chili’s and Applebee’s — their food and style have become so ubiquitous, yet seems a little out of step with the direction of food in general. How many restaurants like that can one country sustain? To save money, indidivual lcoations will purposely under staff, leading to poorer service. What the story doesn’t get at is that when customers have enough money for one night out, it isn’t necessarily going to be for fried chicken wings served by a flustered server pretending to be friendly while showing off their flair. There’s a whole shift in dining now that also could be to blame, including pan-Asian, local/seasonal, etc.
By random chance, I went to a Bennigan’s in Florida with my family in the past year. I hadn’t been to one in a long time. I might be a French-trained cook, but I like a good burger as well as the next person. The entire concept felt dated, the food was the assemble-and-heat variety, and arrived in huge portions. The servers were under trained, overworked and still had to pretend to be having “fun!” The place was big, but seated at about a third of its capacity when we dined there. Yet, I felt bad for our server; even without a full restaurant, she clearly had too many tables to handle. The food came out of the kitchen erratically, in fits and bursts. From complaints we overheard, it appeared that the kitchen staff kept sending out incorrect orders; in our case, our mains were tepid on arrival. Three people had birthdays and in the middle of this chaos, our server had to try to round up the other overworked staffers and belt out a spirited “Happy happy birthday!” number with a cheer. The service burden at these places is tough, yet the lower prices mean that the tips aren’t extraordinary. We left our server a hefty tip after seeing her abused by at least two other tables.
So it might be the economy, it also might be that as a company, Metromedia should bear some responsibility. Their sales had been off for some time. In a weak economy, the low-hanging fruit tend to go first. Metromedia can blame the economy, but it also should take responsibility for not having reconsidered Bennigan’s and Steak & Ale’s themes and strategies in a changing restaurant landscape, and tightened up its management.
Still, I hope at least one of these people got a chance to flip off the management, a la Joanna in her famous scene from Office Space.