For those of us working in the fine dining segment of the service industry, corporate theme restaurants are a scourge on par with the Visigoth invasions of Rome. We look down our noses Chili’s, Applebee’s, Mimi’s Café, Red Robin et al. All the rules, the same food made in shitty kitchens run by petty tyrants on par with the Caesar Chavez of the world. How can you make any money, or at least money without the taint of the suburban soccer mom, in a joint whose commercials you have to endure three times during your averageHouse re-run on USA?
This last bastion of pseudo hispterism is prevalent in every place I’ve worked. One captain I worked with years ago used to mumble “fucking Outback Steakhouse freaks” every time he had to order multiple French Onion soups for a table of five. So when respected Italian chef/restaurateur JP told me over the bar at Del Posto he just had dinner at the local Olive Garden at 23rd and 6th, I was shocked.JP defended several of their dishes as not quite authentic but nonetheless edible. “Alex, places like Olive Garden are popular because people like them and, as a businessman, I want to know what the public likes,” he said.
And there is truth in what JP says. People like the burgers from Red Robin because those are the kinds burgers they like. Are they on par with the burgers found at JG Mellon’s on 3rd Ave and 74th Street? No but Mellon’s burgers are popular with those burger lovers on the Upper East Side of New York. Both of these businesses are successful because they give their customers what they want because it’s good for the bottom line.
With JP’s Dick Clark-esque saying mind, I decided to drop in to my local Chili’s Bar and Grill at 20th Street and Camelback Road. I had seen all the commercials on TV, followed the coupon offers and other online hype. Although yes, Chili’s is still considered the enemy by my peers, I wanted to find out why this Tex-Mex joint was so popular it had 1,400 units worldwide.
If the idea behind Chili’s is to create an atmosphere so bland you can hardly notice the difference between a friend’s basement and the bar at a restaurant, then marketing geniuses at Brinker International (Chili’s parent company) deserve a Yawnie award. I’ve been to funeral homes with more energy. However, the cute blonde hostess was friendly and the bartender dropped off my menu within the corporate standard time of 2 minutes, took my drink order and disappeared allowing me to peruse grease stained plastic tri-folds.
When the barmaid reappeared, I inquired about the soup of the day. I asked if there was any seafood in the broth. “I’m allergic to shellfish,” I told her. To my surprise, there was no empathy in her answer, no attempt to find out what kind of shellfish I was allergic to or if I had an EpiPen with me. Instead, she launched into a monologue demanding to know why I’d ask that because the soup as it was vegetarian all with a why are you bothering me you freak tone intending to impress the two guys a couple of chairs down. One of which snorted “shellfish” while she was talking.
My chin was on my chest, my eyes wide with disbelief. I had just told a fellow food industry professional I had a food allergy; a condition that could kill me if I was given anything with shellfish but could easily be avoided by keeping me away from shellfish. The night before when presented with the same issue – a food allergy to peanuts – I double checked with the chef to make sure all the items ordered had no peanuts, peanut oil etc in the prep or finish. After alerting the kitchen to the impending ticket, I placed the order naming the check Peanut Allergy and clearly marked each item with a special message reminding the line cooks of the allergy once more in order to avoid cross contamination, which is deadly. Not second hand smoke deadly, mind you, but swell up, no breathing die right there in front of me just like we gave them a dish with peanuts in it deadly.
At first I thought she didn’t like Anthony Bourdain and thus my bringing in his latest book Medium Raw to read while eating was a bad idea. However by the time she finished her rant, I asked how much I owed her for the coffee I never touched. This barmaid had made it patently obvious she didn’t care if I lived or died at her bar and I had no trust in anything she served me, including the freshly brewed coffee. To her credit, this bartender did accomplish something few have ever done: she left me speechless, I was so angry with her failure to realize my being poisoned by her utter incompetence would lead to a quick trip to the cemetery.
While I shook and demanded a check, she demurred and refused to charge me but never apologized. The blonde hostess looked on in amusement as I barely pulled the word embarrassed out of my red face. Although she did tell me to have a nice day when I stormed out of the joint.
JP is not wrong - places like Chili’s Bar and Grill do exist because they give people what they want. What they do not give the consumer is the craft and art of the Service Industry. Chili’s and their cousins Chevy’s and Applebee’s etc are corporate and thus care only about the bottom line and that’s fine. I am a firm supporter of the Free Market economy. Thus, I believe Brinker International should change their marketing line to read: Chili’s Bar and Grill: We Don’t Care If You Live Or Die – Especially While Eating In Our Restaurant. Go ahead, Chili’s give us the truth. The consumers of the world can handle it.