Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Where O Where Have Our Restaurants Gone?

Photo courtesy of The Sixth Ward Blog

Recently over at The Sixth Ward Blog there was a discussion about the closing of Army & Lou's,( that discussion Izola's and Quench Fresh Foods have closed their doors and it appears that Josephine's/Hard Times is barely holding on. We termed the cuisine served in the restaurants here as Pan African cuisine. Unfortunately, the  restaurants are having problems delivering.

Recently, the Alderman Elect stated he would miss Izola's and was courting several restaurant operators to open up in Chatham as well as was planning to attend next month's National Restaurant Association annual show to court additional restaurants operators to consider our community. Also, Alderman Lyle reiterated her commitment to Army & Lou's current owners to assist them in finding investors/financing. Unfortunately, I believe they may have missed their best chance when they turned down a popular TV show overtures to appear on their restaurant makeover show.

So the questions remains why are our restaurants failing. I asked a couple of experienced and accomplished Chef's/restaurant operators what did they think . First, Dave Blackmon, former food writer, executive chef for Blu 47 and current Director of Culinary Education for Chicago Public Schools gave the following reasons
"I shoot from the gut when it comes to this business. The restaurant industry is not as easy as people think. If it was, then everybody would open one. It also has a very narrow profit margin and if and if not watched carefully business credit can be ruined and vendors will not do business with the restaurant. Checks will bounce, employees will get bitter. Blah, blah blah.
But that's just the end part. There are so many other factors to take in.
1. so many other cheap eateries open by outsiders from other countries (who have no interest in reinvesting in our community) yet we buy their unhealthy subpar fast food product.
2. Large fast food chains sell it cheap and FAST!!! (Fried Chicken!!!!)
3. Izola's & Army & Lou's have very slow service. plus the food was cold. UNACCEPTABLE!!!
4. The "Old Black Political Power Unit" that would often dine at these spots have died down.
5. Plus people are getting old and can't eat traditional soul food or are looking for a fresher dining option.
6. Dining areas needed a real update.

Bottom line. People just didn't dine there enough to keep the businesses a float. Places like Josephine's (aka Captain Hard Times) might not be that far behind if they don't change soon.
I understand the need to support our Black businesses, but bad service is bad service. BTW, I don't eat at those other eateries I mentioned either. They too have bad service."

The other comments came from Chef Eric Paul, owner of Alter Ego a healthy food alternative restaurant, personal trainer and nutrition educator. Mr. Paul comments were "I totally agree with Chef David. I would also add that these restaurants need to advertise more and continue to build their brands. The old word of mouth advertising doesn't work as well as it used. Second, mom and pop restaurants need to establish additional revenue sources such as catering, packaged versions of their famous recipes (i.e. peach cobbler for supermarkets) and possibly expand operations to include private events and meetings. David also stated that there is much more competition than in the days of old. Some of these restaurants should begin appealing to destination diners (i.e. diverse demographics and geography). In order to do the latter, the mom and pops need to revamp their business models by introducing attractions (i.e. chef nights, live music, art showings, spoken word, etc). Lastly, traditional soul food may be good for the soul, but not the heart. If these restaurant created lighter versions of some of their popular dishes, they may attract a different type of customer. The mom and pop restaurants should study the business models of established giants because they have tons of money and resources to conduct market research and stay ahead of trends. Doing business the same ole' way for 20 years is not going to cut it in this market. These restaurants need to hire some new age consultants who also understand their demographic and make changes quickly or perish."

What do you think? What type of restaurants would you like to see?

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