Watertown Daily Times Piece: The Local Dining Experience: Where's the Consistency?

There’s an interesting pattern that emerges when one eats out as frequently and as attentively as I do. Not that I mean to imply that other folks don't eat with attention or intention, but when you take notes on every texture, flavor, temperature and color of food, plus the ins and outs of service and ambiance, it's tough not to also note these things.

Yes, part of it is the same dishes showing up on nearly every menu in the north country (ahem, chicken parmesan), but more so is how inconsistent locally owned restaurants can be.

I hear it frequently from readers: “We dined at the restaurant you reviewed favorably last week, but the hot turkey sandwich was made differently than you described, and we waited 25 minutes for our food to come,” or, “That restaurant is our favorite! It’s not possible that your meal was that bad; you don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

Mom and pop eateries, run by people who have good and bad days, have very real staffing problems and financial challenges — without the benefit of a corporate office to help regulate inconsistences in product and customer traffic. Whereas a national chain receives most of its food from a centralized corporate kitchen and reheats it according to instructions that are consistent across the country, there are a hundred variables in a locally owned restaurant. 

For customers who are spending hard-earned money to eat out, inconsistencies in service, food preparation and quality, and ambiance are hard to swallow. Disposable income isn’t always in good supply in Upstate New York households, and nights out come with expectations. A diner will not take kindly to paying for a meal that arrives cold, is delivered by a surly waiter, or falls short in quality — and is unlikely to return to any restaurant after such a negative experience. 

I spoke to a couple of local, NNY chefs to better understand their side of the story: Why is it so hard to achieve the consistency that chain restaurants maintain over time? 

Kyle Hayes, co-owner and chef at Gram’s Diner in Adams, chalks the issue up to three factors: differing culinary backgrounds of cooks on different shifts informing the way they cook the same dishes; the ability of the head chef or restaurant owner to develop a training regimen and house recipes to bring those cooks in line; and the quality of food available from the distributor on any given day.

“A prime rib might come in small and tough one week, and perfect and marbled the next,” said Mr. Hayes. “As a cook, you do your best to prepare it the same way or customize your preparation to make up for the shortcomings of the ingredients, but sometimes, it’s just tough beef.”

This was an aspect of the equation I hadn’t given much thought to, but one I found illuminating. If you think about it, as a dining public, we expect our restaurants to have salads year-round, even though at this time of year, I rarely put tomatoes or cucumbers in salads at home, because they just aren’t as tasty when they’re out of season. So why would I expect tomatoes to be of good quality in a restaurant? 

I buy the same package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts every week from the store, and some weeks the meat is tender and juicy, while others it’s tough and stringy. I know this is a reality, and yet, in a restaurant setting, I find myself intolerant of a less than stellar dish — I had never considered that chefs struggle with irregularities in raw ingredients just as much as I do at home. 

A corporate kitchen, cooking in bulk for its franchises around the country, has a percentage of product loss built into its budget that’s likely generous enough to cover such variables. If such a cook receives a crappy side of beef, he is able to chuck it — but a local restaurant running on a shoestring can’t afford to throw anything out. These local cooks have to do the best they can with the product that's delivered, no matter what.

Getting cooks with disparate backgrounds on the same page from a culinary perspective is another challenge. I doubt most local restaurateurs have been to leadership training or management school, and even fewer chefs have. Plenty of restaurant owners and head chefs do have strong points of view and the leadership skills necessary to set up kitchen procedures in order to achieve a state in which they can take a day off without compromising the food, but how do they get to that state? How many years does it take to cultivate that kind of staff and rhythm? I can't even imagine, especially with a kitchen staff that's likely to be transient due to low wages.

Andy Wehrle, chef at DiPrinzio’s Italian Market and Wood Fired Pizza in Clayton, says the hiring pool in Northern New York is absolutely a factor.

“I don’t find many people doing this for the same reasons I do. A lack of passion on the part of local cooks is a reality,” said Mr. Wehrle. 

Salary figures into it as well, he said. “Part of that is that I make the same amount as a head chef in a locally owned restaurant that I would make as an entry level cook at a national chain."

He says the younger generation is more interested in learning what it takes to run and work in a great local restaurant, however. Whether that’s due to the influence of the Food Network and celebrity chefs, or just an evolution of the marketplace, the trend is encouraging. To be sure, local bistros and cafes face a steep climb with high food prices and new laws that govern what servers must make — margins are narrow if they want keep prices low enough to compete with national chains. 

So what are we, the diners, and our local restaurateurs, to do? Should we tolerate sweeping discrepancies in the food we pay to eat? That can’t be the answer. Should local restaurant owners bankrupt themselves to deliver flawless cuisine in a designer setting at the rock-bottom prices demanded by consumers, at the cost of their own livelihoods? Certainly not. 

As a frequent diner, I find it unacceptable to squander a night out on a subpar meal; even worse, I abhor sharing a good experience my readers, only for you to visit the same place and spend your money on a significantly weaker repast. The answer I keep coming back to, the only one that makes sense when I evaluate Mr. Hayes’ and Mr. Wehrle’s ideas and my own familiarity with local dining, comes down to money. 

What we, the dining public, needs to tolerate is not inconsistency, but higher prices. Ingredient costs have soared in recent years — my grocery bills reflect that, so why shouldn’t my dining out bills? It’s not 1996 anymore, folks, and if we want higher quality, good service and pleasant ambiance, we have to accept the realities of inflation. The days of the $9.99 steak dinner are past, especially if we'd like that dinner to taste like anything other than cardboard.

If our locally owned restaurants continue to operate with razor-thin margins, how can we expect well-trained cooks, superior ingredients, and competent service? We can’t. We must allow these owners and chefs to make enough and pay enough to employ and retain a staff that can deliver quality, or we face the collapse of local dining altogether. 

We also must accept a degree of seasonality to local menus. Week after week, I go out and see the same dishes on every menu in Jefferson, St. Lawrence, and Lewis counties: burgers, pizza, chicken parmesan, French onion soup, caesar salad, New York strip steak, fried shrimp, and grilled chicken sandwiches. I understand that not everyone wants global, gourmet cuisine, but I also recognize that when chefs are allowed to cook with seasonal ingredients, it may mean changing dishes periodically, but it also can translate to lower prices and better quality. 

If you eat at a local restaurant and have a bad experience, do share your thoughts with the owners. Believe me, with Twitter and other social media channels, the chains are getting constant feedback from their customers — our local food families can also benefit from such a dialogue. If the leadership at a local eatery is smart, they’ll take your comments and use them to improve their game. 

I’m not sure there’s any one solution to the problem of restaurant consistency in our region. What I have learned is that our food people recognize the issue and think about it just as much as we diners do. It’s time for an injection of new life to our local dining scene — whether that means more ethnic fare (I have high hopes for Watertown’s new Mexican joint), variety, and seasonality on menus that allow for flexibility or a willingness to spend more for good food made by real people — change is brewing and I’m excited to take a sip of what’s to come.

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