June 18, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story


Chain Gang 

Why independent restaurant owners have mad respect for chains.

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"This isn't Applebee's."

I've heard it as a server facing an exasperated chef who didn't want to serve my tables special orders. I've heard it as a hostess, when a frustrated owner turned away a party of eight expecting a table without a reservation. And I've heard it as a snide aside from my dining companion when I've recklessly asked for ketchup for my duck-fat sauteed potatoes.

The phrase is a slur against the bland mainstream predictability of chain restaurants. But here's the thing: Years later, the precious independents where I worked are long out of business, while Applebee's Neighborhood Grill and Bar is still making money. Why is that?

Food elitists, like myself, love to hate on chains. We think the food is boring, sometimes not even good. The ingredients are often lower quality. The décor can be downright tacky. Service sometimes feels robotic. But business owners, and restaurant owners who think like business owners, admire what chains do well: operations. Chains are business first, food second. And that mind-set keeps the cash registers ringing.

The Value of a Chain Education

"I've never worked in a chain," says Carena Ives. "I wish I had though. Not to learn about food but to learn about process." For Ives, working at chains looks like a paid education.

Ives owns Jamaica House and Carena's Jamaican Grille, two independent chef-driven restaurants with menus inspired by her Jamaican heritage. She envies those corporate dining conglomerates for perfecting their marketing, merchandising, menus, décor and service so that the customers know exactly what they're getting.

"I had to figure out a lot of stuff by the seat of my pants," Ives says. "And that's the type of thing that dooms a lot of small independent restaurants. Small restaurants simply don't have the money to weather any serious storm."

Here's what Ives is talking about: A lot of small restaurant owners start with a core dish — take hot chicken, for example. You make the best Nashville-style hot chicken in town, and your family and friends all encourage you to open a restaurant. It's a success because you knock that chicken out of the park. It becomes your focus, your passion, that key dish that you do so well. But the margins on hot chicken may not be all that great. Or maybe it goes out of style. Or a cheaper competitor opens down the street.

"You're stuck because it's all about that one dish that you know how to make," Ives says. "How do you grow a business around that?"

Ives admits that it took her years to understand the critical business concept of food costing, knowing the cost of each dish's ingredients and setting the menu prices to make an overall profit. Despite the learning curve, she navigated the pitfalls of small business ownership well — this year Jamaica House is celebrating its 25th year in business.

It's All About the Process

Chef Ian Merryman, who co-owns Tiny Victory, says he learned lifelong culinary and business skills while cooking at TGI Fridays and Bonefish Grill during college.

"People give these places a lot of grief for not having actual cooking going on, but it's not true," Merryman says. "It isn't refined one bit, but you do actually cook. I learned how to break down a whole fish. The sauces were made from scratch. I was shucking corn and cutting it off the cob."

Merryman also learned crucial business skills including time management, food costs, speed and consistency.

"Chains, no matter how good or bad they are, they're always busy. Just because the food might be a little different than a restaurant like Longoven or Alewife or us, you're doing volume, serious numbers. You have to be fast and efficient."

That ruthless focus on speed and efficiency carried over to Merryman's tiny kitchen today at Tiny Victory, where often a single cook is cranking out the evening's meals. Merryman makes the small space work with some tricks he learned from working at chains.

"The biggest carryover is to make more of a prep-heavy model with quick pickup," he says. "We prep really heavy during the week. It's a way to make better use of your time and space without cutting corners."

What he means is that Tiny Victory's dishes were created so that a lot of chopping, mixing and assembling can be done the morning before service, when the cooks aren't rushed. Then during hectic dinner service, cooking the final plate to order is fast and easy.

Merryman also breaks down his kitchen nightly, cleaning dishes and cook surfaces, but also refilling squeeze bottles of sauces and restocking other ingredients as much as possible. "I don't see that in a lot of independents," he says. "But you can prep from scratch and still be set up. That's our focus here."

Reaching Operational Excellence

Kevin Healy says that last year the Housepitality Family restaurant group fed more than 800,000 people at the various Boathouse and Casa del Barco locations. Sure, he's proud of the food. After all, he has employed several talented chefs over the past 31 years including Jimmy Sneed, Todd Manley and (full disclosure) my husband, Eric Lindquist, who ran various kitchens for Healy from 1991 to 2001.

But Healy sounds even more proud of the customer experience his team creates. He learned it all from working for Dick Ripp, a successful owner of several Arby's and Chi-Chi's restaurants.

"You have to listen to the customers," Healy says. "We did that early on with comment cards, and placing hostesses outside door to ask people for comments. Today in the chef-driven world there is a lot of emphasis on cooking food that the chef loves, and often that's not what the public wants."

What Healy's public wants, and gets, is operational excellence. The hosts will always smile as they show you to the table. The lights and music will always be set at the perfect level. The bartender will often remember what drink you like. And if the server makes a mistake, you'll get a prompt apology and likely an adjustment on the tab.

The Housepitality Family has a four-person training department dedicated to training kitchen and front-of-house workers — both new hires and longtime employees.

We put a lot of effort into training because the restaurant industry does have turnover," Healy says. "Training is a huge key to fighting that."

One training idea he took from his years at chains: checklists. Employees use them in daily operations from starting new servers to opening up the kitchen for morning prep work to unlocking the front door — and picking up parking lot trash.

"It's all about consistency," Healy says. "Just look at McDonald's. Are they the best hamburger? Absolutely not, but they are the same hamburger."

Consistency, operations, food costing and time management — too many restaurateurs focus on brilliant food at the expense of these boring but critical business skills. Do you make the best Nashville chicken in town? Before you open your own place, perhaps you should get a job at a chain and make sure your business knowledge is as hot as that bird.

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