Corporate Food

August 30, 2011 at 8:30 PM Leave a comment

A few weeks ago, we went to Carrabba’s Italian Grill for the first time. Last week, we had a quick lunch at Champp’s. Because we do not typically patronize these places, it was an interesting reminder of why we stopped eating at corporate food outlets (our term for high-priced, fast food.)

First, there is a plastic friendliness grilled into the employees, almost as plastic as the surroundings. Deep down, you know the employee is not happy and under normal circumstances, would not greet you with an overzealous, “Hello! Welcome to [fill-in the blank]!” So why do it? It’s a corporate thing, just like the Manager who painfully travels from table to table; interrupting conversations to remark that the [fill-in the blank] you just ordered is his favorite. He then asks, “Is everything perfect?” or something equally scripted and moves along. You know his insincerity is real, because moments before he told table 36 that her [fill-in the blank] was his favorite. At normal restaurants, comments and queries from the staff and management seem real and a genuine caring is attached to the questions. They understand that your approval means a return visit, not an “atta-boy” from Corporate.

The main reason we don’t frequent corporate food outlets is the food. It is not bad. It is just not that good. The food has been created and sampled and tested to offend the fewest amount of people as possible. It has also been designed for preparation by a wide variety of cooking skill. To us, this was clearly brought to a head when two chains opened, Maggiano’s and Bahama Breeze outlets a few years ago. During their initial weeks in town, the food was actually very good. After a month or so, the quality begins to slip to a point where you must stop eating there. When we asked about this phenomenon, we were told that Corporate sends expert chefs to new locations to train the staff. In the first few weeks, work is done under the watchful eye of a talented individual, or someone they trained directly. As weeks go on and people quit, the skill level deteriorates. Finally, the kitchen is left to its own devices and slips into a well-established mediocrity.

Contrast this with better chains. We have eaten at McCormick & Schmick’s a few times and each visit was very good. They are priced a bit higher than the others corporate chains, but they appear to have secured the talent of a real chef in the kitchen and it shows on the plate. The same can be said for Mon Ami Gabi. (No venue is located in Cleveland.) Food is honestly good because they allow the locale to customize the place to the customer base. The Original Pancake House may be the best example in Cleveland. While a chain, there is little or no indicator in the quality (except their sub-par coffee.) The menu is the same, but this is not mass produced food for the lowest common denominator. Instead, this is “come back because we make great breakfast,” food.

We know a lot of people like these places. The horribly over-priced, blasé food at the Cheesecake Factory, the generally mediocre fare at Applebee’s, the deteriorating slop at Friday’s and the “we don’t even know how to explain” food at PF Chang’s hopefully is leading those eaters to try better, well prepared food at privately run local restaurants. If they do not graduate to something better, we wonder what they are eating at home. We know. Don’t ask.


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