Monday, October 27, 2008

The industry's knee-deep--in fertilizer

For a preview of the renaissance that’ll up-end the restaurant industry in a few years, look to a shuttered dinnerhouse in Spartenburg, S.C.

After 29 years in business, the Steak & Ale there died with the rest of the brand this summer, locking its doors to the 50 or so employees before they mustered for a shift that could’ve been a replay of the prior day’s, and probably the day’s before that. Later this week the place will fire up its grill again, this time as Steak and Spirits, with many of the former employees back in their familiar roles. Yet they’ll hardly be aiming for business as usual now that they’re the ones deciding what’s best for guests and the operation. All those ideas that arise from talking with and serving patrons can actually be implemented, instead of dying in some corporate suggestion box.

“Now that we’re not corporately owned, we have the freedom to do some things,” past and future manager Carol Easler told a local news media for a story.

Easler and her reassembled team will indulge their pent-up entrepreneurship because the new backers apparently appreciate the staff’s intuition for what works, what doesn’t, and, most important, what guests really want. The same dynamic will likely come into play as the economic downturn erodes the corporatism that has homogenized casual dining into the foodservice equivalent of rice cakes—plain, unsalted rice cakes. A death knell for hidebound restaurant companies will undoubtedly put restaurant operations within the grasp of more free thinkers, if not downright radicals. With sites becoming affordable and new ideas trumping big-company resources with a public craving originality, we’re heading into a period of unparalleled creativity for the business.

It’s exactly what happened after the economic shin kick of 1991. If memory serves me correctly, the IPO class of ’92 included Outback, LongHorn and LoneStar, to name a few high-flyers of the next decade. At the time, each brazenly shot a finger at the status quo. Now they’re as subversive as a powder-blue leisure suit.

It’s a shame that the industry has to lapse into shambles for a new generation of innovators to arise. But does anyone doubt that it’s long, long overdue?


  1. Peter,
    This is a great story. I wish the team all the best. We have a Steak and Ale in our town and it too is closed after 25 + years. It would be a great location for a local ownership to create a concept that would give families a place to meet and a place to call work.
    Keep the success stories coming!

  2. Yes, great story. This is what's called "weeding out the idiots" - which means that those not deserving to be in the restaurant and HOSPITALITY business will eventually die off.

    Now, is there any correlation to a story I saw yesterday about Cheesecake Factory's stock price fall???