Everybody eats, but staying in business is the real challenge

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Running a successful restaurant is a cut-throat business. The schedule is intense, reliable workers are hard to keep and food preferences shift like some crazy, unpredictable tide.

What kind of restaurant will endure – or even exist – five years from now? Vegan? Steak house? Fast food? Slow food? Pho? Teriyaki?

How about what might be called side dishes like donuts? Bubble tea? Smoothies?

Or specialty places with a focus on pancakes or waffles? Or bagels? Or soups? Or desserts?

How about the emphasis on special diets like Paleo, Keto, Mediterranean, gluten-free, lactose-free or low-carb?

Locally owned eating establishments come and go – but even big chains – with thousands of storefronts and famous investors – can evaporate in front of our eyes.

Anyone remember Tony Roma’s (used to be on Tacoma Mall Blvd.)? Or TCBY?  (near the now-defunct Narrows Plaza 8 theater complex).

Sometimes the best and most interesting food can be found in places like this one, cleverly hidden within the Old Post Office in downtown Tacoma.  Nothing beats food served with a passion. Photo: Morf Morford

Sometimes the best and most interesting food can be found in places like this one, cleverly hidden within the Old Post Office in downtown Tacoma. Nothing beats food served with a passion. Photo: Morf Morford

I used to like Old Country Buffet (about once a year) when I was in the mood for endless comfort food. But the last couple of time I went there, I ended up feeling nauseous, if not disgusted.

Way back in the mid-2000s, Americans were piling  their plates at some 700 buffet restaurants called either Country Buffet, Old Country Buffet, HomeTown Buffet or Ryan’s.

The names may have been different, but it was all one company and one concept: all-you-could-eat of comfort-food favorites like fried chicken, meatloaf, mac and cheese, and coconut cream pie.

The business model, like some of their customers, encountered some serious indigestion and experienced a series of bankruptcies and closings. The website (http://www.oldcountrybuffet.com/locator/) shows around 85 of the buffets are currently operating.

It took the right mood, but sometimes I really liked Old Country Buffet – especially after a workout or a long bike ride.

No one expected quality from Old Country Buffet, it was always quantity over quality.

There’s five left in Washington – including one in Tacoma – which really means Lakewood – and one in Federal Way.

As I am writing this, toward the end of October, 2018, the Shari’s on North Pearl is being demolished.

There was a time not that long ago when the world seemed to be taken over by Shari’s and Applebee’s.

Where did they all go?

We go out to eat for different reasons – to celebrate, to socialize, to chill and yes, even sometimes just to eat.

When I am on my own, my criteria is simple and clear; I am looking for something cheap, fast and filling.

Factor in friends, schedules, budgets and food sensitivities and eating out can get as complicated as a multi-lateral, Middle-eastern peace treaty.

Yogurt, donuts and American food

Who ever would have thought a stable business plan could be based on something as specialized as yogurt or donuts (or waffles, or Jewish food, or….)

You know that we are living in strange times when Taco Bell is voted as America’s best Mexican restaurant (https://www.usmagazine.com/food/news/taco-bell-voted-the-best-mexican-restaurant-in-the-country/).

What’s next? Olive Garden as best Italian? McDonald’s as best American?

The ultimate irony is that as we drive down a typical street, it seems like we have near infinite choice, but when was the last time you felt like you paid a fair price for a truly memorable meal?

TCBY originally stood for “This Can’t Be Yogurt,” but the company later switched to “The Country’s Best Yogurt” after its original name drew a lawsuit from a competitor.

Now, the acronym might as well stand for “This Chain Brings Yawns.” TCBY has struggled to compete against newer, trendier frozen yogurt franchises.

The company reportedly had nearly 1,800 locations in the early 2000s. The website shows that there are only around 360 and fewer every day.

You can’t help loving Rainforest Cafe, with its plastic jungles, intermittent thunderstorms and animatronic tropical wildlife. Plus, whenever someone is served one of the erupting brownie desserts, the whole restaurant has the fun of screaming, “Volcano!”

Though it has been more than 20 years since the theme restaurant fad peaked, Rainforest Cafe continues to (barely) survive, though it’s not primeval and wild as it once was.

The Rainforest Cafe at South Center is long gone. The last time I ate at a Rainforest Cafe was literally inside the walls of Disneyland. It seemed somehow fitting.

The chain’s website (https://www.rainforestcafe.com/locations.asp) shows 17 Rainforest Cafes currently active in the U.S., down from a high of 32. Another five locations operate outside the U.S. (Niagara Falls, Canada, Tokyo, Japan, London, England, Paris, France and Dubai, U.A.E).

Going out to eat means much more than food. Alma Mater and McMenamins are negotiating that ever shifting balance between food, entertainment and socializing. Going out is an anticipation, an experience and a memory.  Photo: Morf Morford

Going out to eat means much more than food.
Alma Mater and McMenamins are negotiating that ever shifting balance between food, entertainment and socializing. Going out is an anticipation, an experience and a memory. Photo: Morf Morford

Remember Quiznos? The first Quiznos opened in Denver in 1981, and it wasn’t long before the chain’s tasty and toasty subs could be found throughout the U.S. and around the world.

For a few years Quiznos seemed to be everywhere and then suddenly they weren’t.

Quiznos shops have been vanishing about as quickly as they spread. In June 2018, just 800 remained — down from about 5,000 locations in 2007.

The chain floundered during the Great Recession and filed for bankruptcy in 2014. Fans of Quiznos are hoping to see some magic worked by the company’s new owner, an investment firm with experience turning troubled businesses around.

In a landscape packed with competitors like Jimmie John’s, Subway and Arby’s (founded in 1965) the future of Quiznos – and fast food in general – looks more than a bit hazy.

Even mainstays, like McDonalds. KFC and Taco Bell seem to disappear when I’m looking for one.

Remember Chevy’s Tex-Mex? There used to be one on 38th & Pine. The closest one now is in Ontario, California – about 950 miles from Tacoma.

It’s a cliche to say that everyone eats, but making a living out of providing food can be one of the most unpredictable business moves out there.

But if you are thinking about buying a franchise and stepping into the food business here is a good place to start – http://mentalfloss.com/article/69367/11-popular-franchises-you-can-own-and-what-it-costs-open-them.

If you want to reminisce about the fast food chains of a previous era – or want to visit one of the few remaining survivors of the fast food wars – check out this article -  https://moneywise.com/a/ch-b/remember-these-chain-restaurants.

Bon appetit!