Sunday, August 14, 2011

Honeydew And The Tyranny of Bad Fruit Salad

How many times have you walked into a restaurant or cafe, looked at the fruit salads on display, and thought to yourself "Mmmmm, you fruit salads sure look good"? And those fruit salads seem to say back "Yes! We are! Look at how colorful and fresh we look!" I do this damn-near once per week. And every time the fruit salads talk to me, I respond with "LIAR! You are not tasty! You are unripe and poorly prepared! You are here to trick me and steal my money!"

Talking fruit aside, I'm sure that you know my situation. Fruit is something that needs to be cared for, monitored, and prepared with love. For example, you can buy apples year-round in most grocery stores. And for eight out of those twelve months, the apples taste like starchy butt. Why do people keep buying them? Because they look good! Why do stores keep selling them? Because people keep buying them! The entire fruit industry is predicated on these duplicitous little whores known as out-of-season fruits.

I'm not a locavore fanatic. I'm also not a fanatic about only eating seasonal food. The wonders of refrigerated trains and trucks have allowed us to get fresh foods all year round, and I think that is peachy keen. The cat's pajamas. The bee's knees, even. My complaint lies with those that sell it. They rely on the prettiness of fruit to continue selling, but they never seem to test the product for flavor before putting it on the shelf.

Could you imagine wine producers simply throwing wine up on a shelf without trying it? Of course not! But we do it with fruit every day. Where with packaged products, we're guaranteed quality compliments of rigorous controls on the part of the manufacturer, fruit pushes that responsibility to the grocer. We have many smaller grocers out there who have built a business on promising quality produce. The ones of which I'm aware generally started out exclusively as fruit and produce stands and simply evolved into more complete grocery stores. But the original philosophy of trying the products before freaking selling them remained.

Restaurants and cafes are the worst of the lot. At a grocer, one could reasonably make the argument that the grocer simply puts what's available on display and it's the customer's responsibility to do the variety of sniffs, squeezes, pokes, and taps required to determine if a fruit is good. I think that a good grocer should still do their gourmet best, but the argument at least has merit.

Restaurants and cafes have NO such leeway. They simply chop up fruit, put it in a container, and call it a day. They don't do taste tests. They don't store fruit and wait for it to ripen. It's off the truck and into your mouth and it tastes like it. This is unacceptable.

When we go to a restaurant, we're generally paying for basic ingredients. Unless you go to a comically high-end restaurant that has more Michelin Stars than customers, your ingredients are precisely what you'd get from your local grocery. You pay for the preparation, the attention to detail, and the artistry of inventive combinations.

Even at the lowliest of restaurant, this is what we are paying for. Making most of the things at an average eatery are pretty easy. The value comes from having someone else guarantee the quality of the ingredients, storing them, preparing them, and keeping sufficient supplies on hand. The extreme cost of eating out is a tenuous balance and all of those variables must be met for it to be worthwhile.

I suspect that this is the reason why casual/fast food like Panera Bread, Chipotle, Five Guys, and their ilk have been positively exploding onto the market. Their business models are all very similar: finely focused menu; assembly-line production of items; and extreme quality control. This keeps prices low, quality high, and service quick. The value equation is so heavily weighted in their favor that people have to think of reasons to not go.

In these cases, the quality control is institutionalized. It's not part of a philosophical drive of one or two leaders. But this doesn't matter. The market was tired of getting crap for low prices, or good stuff for a huge difference in price. The average meal at McDonald's, which all but defines the low end, is about five dollars. The average meal price at TGI Fridays, which is decent, is around thirteen. Nearly three times as much. There was nothing in between.

Obviously, this market vacuum wasn't going to last forever. Actually, it's amazing that it lasted for this long. I think that it's because the segment into which Chipotle et al have entered was once dominated by local restaurants. The very same local places that I am now disparaging for lack of quality control and a lack of gourmet sense. It is no surprise, then, that small, local restaurants are hurting badly in the face of this cheap competition, as they damn well should.

The title of this article specifically references fruit salad and honeydew. Honeydew is the bane of all who like fruit salad. It's an utterly delicious melon once ripe, but you'd never know that. It's NEVER ripe. Compare this to the fruit available at Starbucks, which usually has fruit salads of some sort available. Or the fruit salad at Panera bread. The fruit is always ripe. Are they doing this for gourmet, philosophical reasons? Regardless of whatever tripe Howard Schultz tries to feed us, they aren't. They're doing it because good quality is good business! If you are a local restaurant and you do not have this level of quality control, you will fail, and importantly, you deserve to fail.

You might have succeeded for a time compliments of little competition, but mark my words, the market wants quality, and if Panera, Chipotle, and others have shown anything, it's that no matter what you are selling, there is a major corporation out there just waiting to turn your product into an assembly line and sell better food for less. It's not hard to prevent this! Start with the honeydew, lather, rinse, repeat.

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