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Restaurant Openings: Overrated


DonRocks
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I don't see anything nefarious My sense is that Chinese restaurants catering to the American general public have always sought to offer what their clientele wanted to eat When I was a kid, Chinese menus were very short and contained very few truly Chinese dishes-they were carrying on the tradition of offering the chop suey and chow miein and egg foo yung they had offered since the turn of the 20th century. And my guess is that, when the staff had their meals or welcomed family, they prepared their favorite regional dishes from home, exotic things, things they couldn't fathom western palates would tolerate. When the first Szechuan and Hunan and traditional Cantonese restaurants were opened by more adventurous chefs or owners and paved the way, that more culturally appropriate fare gradually crept onto mass market menus. The restaurateurs were anxious to serve the mass market but rarely adventurous enough to challenge their customers or get ahead of the market. They would happily serve anyone who wanted more traditional or challenging dishes, but their perceived, perhaps misguidedly, that only Chinese patrons wanted the chicken feet, the congealed duck blood and the sautéed intestines, etc. So they put those dishes and other more exotic fare on Chinese language menus or posted in mandarin on wall posters, etc. In part they may be trying to protect the sensibilities of western customers--as when Kenny rushed to say "you wouldn't like tripe." So my sense is just that the Chalins of the world are trying to serve their market (or actually their two markets) with what they think they'd enjoy eating. I know from my conversation with this manager that he would be proud to serve any customer a meal of adventurous, truly regional dishes, and maybe a DR group should give them a chance to "rock it" as Rocks so aptly put it. I'm sure game!

On a marginally related subject, I sometimes wonder how much any of this buzzy, internet-frenzy stuff is really worth - apparently, quite a bit to some venture capitalists because they're sure throwing some big dollars into some pretty vacuous websites, giving the reader lots of information about who signed what letter of intent, but zero guidance about where to actually eat. Honestly, it seems like the same 500 pairs of eyeballs are glued to the internet, racing around the web, trying to get that very first glimpse of what hip new restaurant will be opening (restaurant openings, from my point of view, are about the single most overrated thing in the industry). While everyone is tweeting and retweeting, establishing their ties with media sources and PR reps, and trying to find out who got what scoop about some vague letter of intent, do you know who's probably laughing all the way to the bank? Places like Circa. Who's smiling silently? Places like Meatballs. Personally, I'm much more concerned about what new dish Frank Ruta comes up with so I can advise people what to order there, but even that pales in industry importance compared with getting the word out about Seasons 52 to a few thousand more mindless buffoons with more bucks than brains. So much media-driven hype vying for disposable income; so little genuine substance available to people who actually care about the truly beautiful art of cuisine - I'll stop now.

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As a non-tweeter who consumes much more than contributes online (dr maybe being the only slight exception), I generally agree with Don's view but think about it just a tad differently. 11 words: It always has been, and always will be, about the content. In restaurants, content is what's on the plate.

Nearly all B2C (businesses that sell to consumers) businesses, very much including restaurants, are in a frenzy about all things social media. Rich media, professionally built, google-measured websites, facebook supplanting websites for many new startups (restaurant and otherwise), more mobile and web based coupon companies than you can shake a stick at, square for pos payment processing if you sell your wraps from a bicycle, twitter, etc, etc, etc. Case-in-point right now: Society Fair. They're trying to get website, facebook, twitter, blogging and all things PR up and running while also figuring out and communicating their relatively complex operations, hours, multi-faceted offerings, etc. Now a couple of weeks since opening and still very much a work in progress-still pretty confusing at times,

I can't tell you how many businesses I talk to who have "shiny object syndrome" about this. Should we be blogging? Groupon or do it ourselves? Google adwords? ScoutMob? Of course, PR and marketing types swarm on business owners to help then sort through it all and then "manage" it for them post opening. That's why it's now 'normal' for restaurant to be issuing press releases. That's why often the shills on big food sites are actually on the restaurant's dole. This is all great for the PR/marketing types. And there's some merit to the argument that some of it is ante for higher-priced spots. But, not always so great for the business owners as tech and marketing account for ever-growing line items on the expense side of the ledger for restaurants already operating on pretty thin, single-digit margins.

At the end of the day, the tech stuff are all great tools but they're just tools. It's about the content--what you say and what you sell. If you sell food noone wants, doesn't matter how many PR firms you hire, how many bloomspot deals you sponsor or how many edgy blog posts you make.

For food writers like Rocks, it's like he says: substance and the "art of cuisine." Amen.

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That's why often the shills on big food sites are actually on the restaurant's dole.

A lot of shills on small food sites are on the dole, too.

At the end of the day, the tech stuff are all great tools but they're just tools. It's about the content--what you say and what you sell. If you sell food noone wants, doesn't matter how many PR firms you hire, how many bloomspot deals you sponsor or how many edgy blog posts you make.

For food writers like Rocks, it's like he says: substance and the "art of cuisine." Amen.

Well, kind of. How many "crappy yet trendy on social media" restaurants in DC are doing just fine? Or worse places - there is a social media gathering in Bethesda on Friday morning sponsored by Dunkin Fucking Donuts, and being hyped by many of the DC social media "leaders" - AKA young marketing types with Twitter accounts. This is the market right now.

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Well, kind of. How many "crappy yet trendy on social media" restaurants in DC are doing just fine? Or worse places - there is a social media gathering in Bethesda on Friday morning sponsored by Dunkin Fucking Donuts, and being hyped by many of the DC social media "leaders" - AKA young marketing types with Twitter accounts. This is the market right now.

The market is highly segmented now as it has always been. There has always been and, sadly, may always be, a market for low priced, unhealthy whatever for lots of reasons that have been discussed extensively here on DR and elsewhere. True that twitter and social media devotees trend younger but also true that quality is craved by young and old alike. The market is much more complex and fragmented than that. Look at the average age of those lined up at Little Serow each night. Also, "trendy on social media" doesn't at all mean a given place is "doing just fine." The only way to know that is to know a spot's financials. That or watch the rate at which trendy spots rise and fail. Trendy doesn't endure. Quality usually does or at least perceived quality (the McDonalds vs Rays' divide--serving different markets but, in both cases, attracting lots of young people over many years).

Dunkin Donuts is a totally different business now from what it was in the 50s when it was founded. More than half its revenues come from coffee rather than donuts. It was owned by a few private equity firms including Bain Capital and Carlyle before going public last year. It's now a several hundred million dollar, publicly traded, corporation. All big corporations, especially those with big B2C focus, invest millions in social media. The focus I was replying to was more about the local restaurants and "new openings" in the topic's title. Nearly all of those are very small businesses that often have too much focus on social media and not enough focus on getting their product right. Can't really compare Dunkin' to Meatballs that way IMO.

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Social media aside, how do some of these restaurants make it? How many restaurants do you eat at 1x/wk, 1x/month? I'd really love to know how they can pay their rent, & maintain fresh inventory-I don't eat out as often as I'd like to, & just trying to keep fresh food around here, to cook for my family, is difficult-I hate to waste stuff, but something that someone craves one week will go untouched the next. If I won the power ball lottery, I'd want to open a restaurant, but I'd go into it knowing it would probably be a money-losing venture...second thought, it would have a great bar, then maybe I could break even...

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