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Apr 16, 2012 04:25 PM

Why Do Restaurants Decline Over Time?

I thought this article from Slate was very interesting.

Didn't agree with everything, but liked this part:

"I was particularly struck by this because he applies it as an explanation of the general phenomenon of restaurant decline, which I think is better explained by a very different model. Imagine some diners are, by temperament, venturesome while others are regulars. Over the long term, the best business strategy is to appeal to regulars since they offer a stable client base. But when a restaurant is new, it by definition lacks regulars and needs to appeal to venturesome diners both to get an initial wave of customers and also to attract "buzz" and get the temperamental regulars in the door. Over time, a successful restaurant will attempt to switch and become more a place for regulars, which means that venturesome diners will come to like it less. At the same time, alienating venturesome foodies is very low cost because being venturesome they would perceive their own growing familiarity with the food as declining quality one way or the other. One reason venturesome foodies like Cowen particularly enjoy very "authentic" "ethnic" restaurants is that what counts as comfort food for the Annandale Korean community (thus ensuring the existence of a sustainable business model) counts as venturesome dining for the mainstream American diner."

Here is the link:

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  1. I'm definitely not an idiot, but did have to read that three times through to get even the barest gist of what the author was talking about. Good grief. Maybe pretentious folks like THAT is why upscale restaurants are declining. Certainly wouldn't surprise me.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Bacardi1

      Ummm.............. this review says the book is a sendup of pretentiousness.

      Also........... see this topic:

    2. I get what the article is saying and the truth is that there is no one reason why restaurants decline. Of the several contributing factors, most lie with the owner or management. It may be hard for us CH'ers to believe, but most of the public go to restaurants for reasons other than a sheer taste experience. Some young people go to places to be seen and have a good time, some old folks go because it's just like "the good ole days," and so on. The problem is that those young people grow up and their priorities change. Those old folks pass on, and the ones that take their place have a different era that they refer to as "the good ole days." If the high level staff aren't on top of these things, their customer base disappears out from under them and they are left wondering why.

      How many restaurant owners have been on Kitchen Nightmares or Restaurant: Impossible saying "we used to be really popular, but now we're almost out of business. What happened?!?!?!?" If the goal is to have a contemporary restaurant, then you have to revamp the decor and menu every few years or your place will look like an outdated joke. Sure, a tchochke filled 50's diner might seem cute, but one circa 1991 doesn't have the same nostalgic effect. If you want to have an ultra-modern Italian style trattoria, then you should NOT be serving fettucine alfredo on colored plates or labeling every item as "Tuscan style _____ ." Usually, most owners are not hardcore foodies...they only operate the restaurant as a business. If they are indifferent to what they are selling then they will miss the boat when food or dining trends change. Also, owners get caught up in pleasing "regulars" and they don't notice that market, too, has changed. To someone 70 years old, going out "regularly" may mean once a month. To someone 25, that might mean 2, 3, 4 times a week. Now, that 70 year-old may have been coming to your place for 30 years...but they only spend $20 max each time they come in. But that group of college kids walk right by your window every Friday and Saturday night on their way to the place up the street...and you wonder why they don't come in to your restaurant. It's because you're still serving meatloaf with ketchup on the side and you have no idea what a "gastropub" is or can't fathom why anyone would want to eat goat cheese.

      2 Replies
      1. re: d8200

        Yeah I'm skeptical about the quote in the OP. Just one guy's theory.

        It's a tough business, burnout happens, and it's a constant struggle to stay in business, much less on the cutting edge. I don't think anyone can expect to be trendy forever, a trend is temporary by definition.

        1. re: d8200

          I agree, d8200. Also, think about what room in everyone's home gets the quickest re-vamp every time it sells or is about to be sold. The kitchen. Where we eat, the surroundings we're in are so fluid based on what's the latest in fashion. I don't think any other room in people's houses go through such a full-on change as the kitchen (we're not talking about baths in this instance.) It speaks volumes that folks won't feel comfortable in a restaurant that's stuck in the past unless it's in Williamsburg or similar historic venue.

          Perhaps that's me. My husband shook his head when I walked over to a picture on the wall and straightened it out in this restaurant we ate long ago. No, it wasn't crooked on purpose, but you'd have thunk it that someone would've noticed it. Well, so be it. The diners next to the picture nodded yes.

          On the other hand, I've watched Kitchen Impossible many times, and the reno they do doesn't do much for me. Beach type chairs painted, stuff just stuck on the wall, lighting made out of salad bowls, silly tiles, bizarre color themes just to make it "different", etc. Nah.

          It's a hard business and I give props to the owners that try their hand at it and try hard to succeed.

        2. In a word, "habituation." As an aerospace quality manager, I'm paid to be constantly aware of how established processes (business and manufacturing) perform and to recognize when something starts to get "out of control." In the mainstream of life, however, we begin to accept less than stellar performance on a day to day example I like to use in my class is "jiggle the handle." We become accustomed to small workarounds that, when taken en masse, represent declines in overall performance. This concept is the driving force behind such TV shows as "Kitchen Nightmares." How does Gordon Ramsey determine the status of things? quantified feedback...comment of the basic building blocks of any quality system. So why do restaurants decline? They find a groove that feels comfortable, they begin to accept less than stellar performance, and an inability to actually determine when things start to decline. Blame it on the economy...blame it on the suppliers...blame it on the competition...things a restaurant owner can't do anything about. But recognize what one CAN control, measure it, set goals, and work to improve.

          1 Reply
          1. re: njmarshall55

            This really hits it on the head. Unfortunately, I think success can breed this mindset. Once a company hits profitability, the first thing it does is to examine how it can shave costs. It usually starts with "they'll never notice if I..." and ends with the restaurant owner wondering why nobody visits his establishment anymore.

          2. At the same time, alienating venturesome foodies is very low cost because being venturesome they would perceive their own growing familiarity with the food as declining quality one way or the other. One reason venturesome foodies like Cowen particularly enjoy very "authentic" "ethnic" restaurants is that what counts as comfort food for the Annandale Korean community (thus ensuring the existence of a sustainable business model) counts as venturesome dining for the mainstream American diner."


            This is written very poorly. And it is hard to understand.

            I think the idea is that restaurants are innovative at first until they solidify their customer base. Then they start to play it safe, so that their established customers will not feel threatened. But if innovation attracted certain regular customers, wouldn't these customers demand ongoing innovation?

            5 Replies
            1. re: sueatmo

              Agreed that venturesome diners will demand ongoing innovation. What's really confusing, IMHO, is that the writer is saying that Cowen is"venturesome" yet, by the writers own definition, is a "Mainstream American diner" since he "particularly enjoy(s) very "authentic" "ethnic" restaurants". Poorly written indeed!

              1. re: sueatmo

                Those customers DO demand ongoing innovation and if said restaurant finds its groove (or rut) those customers will start to go elsewhere. The problem is that owners often look at that situation as "a bird in hand vs. two in the bush." A restaurant will start to focus on pleasing its regulars and fail to recognize how to tap into a new and fluctuating market. If, for whatever reason, that base of regulars starts to diminish, the restaurant usually goes with it.

                This is the reason many celebrity chefs and owners of trendy places just pull the plug after a few years and start a new project. If you linger too long in between dining trends then try to catch up, you might look like a wannabe. For example: if you opened an Asian Fusion joint in 1998 and now want to do Spanish tapas, it's easier to start from scratch rather than redo your decor and then have to explain to the old regulars why you don't have spring rolls with wasabi aioli on your menu anymore. This is the same reason why a restaurant might change its name and menu, yet is run by the same owner and staff. They are trying to break ties to the past and start fresh. Some customers think "why did they do that? I loved the old place" but the owner is hoping that a lot more will go check it out now because there is the "new restaurant" buzz around it again.

                1. re: d8200

                  For the most part, I agree...then how does one explain such stalwart institutions like Rao's or Katz'? Are they the exception to the rule?

                  1. re: njmarshall55

                    I think there are exceptions to the rule for any place that does high-quality food and made its mark by remaining consistent and bucking the trends.

                    It's like when my friends say things to me like "oh, you won't like ____ restaurant. It's not fancy enough for you..." It doesn't have to be fancy for me to like it. If a red-sauce Italian joint makes EVERYTHING from scratch and executes the menu with care, I'll enjoy it. If they are slopping canned sauces around like it's a school cafeteria, I won't. Same as if it's a small town diner. If "Big Earl" is back there baking fresh biscuits abd whipping up hollandaise from scratch, then it's a good place. Good food is good food, regardless. Most areas have a market for a variety of restaurants, the problem of a restaurant's decline lies with when it starts to miss the mark of its original goals.

                    1. re: njmarshall55

                      I don't think you can extrapolate anything from Rao's, since it operates like a private club, not a regular restaurant.

                2. I'm not buying it — it's a case of over analyzing a simple phenomenon, in my opinion. I see it like this:

                  Good restaurants are a product of the vision and skills of one person (or a very small number of people). People grow old, they tire, they die. Simple.

                  7 Replies
                  1. re: GH1618

                    They also decide at some point, whether it be by necessity or hiring a know it all manager, or whatever that they can start cutting corners. A little here a little there, the next thing you know, it's going downhill.

                    1. re: TroyTempest

                      I think this is what dooms restaurants. There are two places that in my experience exempify this. The Maltby Cafe and the Duvall Cafe. Every weekend there is an hour plus wait to get into the Maltby Cafe. Their food is basic, well prepared with quality ingredients. As long as they continue doing that there will always be a line. The Duvall Cafe is closed. I'm sure there are a variety of reasons, but I can only speak to why I stopped going. First time I went the bacon was thick, the cheese on the omelette was Tillamook sharp and the home fries were cooked just right. Last time I went the bacon was skinny, I cut a bite of my omelette and lifted it to my mouth and a string of cheese was still connected to my plate. Cheap ingredients poorly made. Good bye. Like I said there may have been many reason, personal, financial for these decisions, but they doomed the cafe.

                      Every time you see a failed restaurant on Kitchen Nightmares it's all about the crummy food and a clueless owner.


                      1. re: JuniorBalloon

                        Often that is associated with an ownership change, however. More than once I have seen a good restaurant hit the skids immediately after a change in ownership.

                        1. re: JuniorBalloon

                          I've seen the phenomenon at many places, but two in particular -- a pizza place in Centreville VA and a sandwich shop in Boca Raton FL. Not high-end by any means, but both had outstanding food. Then out of nowhere dishes were made with clearly inferior ingredients. In both cases, inquiries got the same answer: Nothing has changed (an obvious lie to anyone with a brain).

                          Both places soon closed. There were ownership changes in both cases. These people think the dining public is dumb. The dining public is smart.

                          1. re: Bob W

                            Too often restaurant owners are more business oriented than food and service oriented. If there is no passion for good food or quality ingredients (regardless of restaurant concept) then it makes total sense to people like that to spend $1/lb on precut, prewashed lettuce of unknown origin instead of $1.50/lb from a fresh, organic variety. That, or decide "why hire a professional chef and buy expensive equipment when I can find someone for minimum wage and have them microwave everything?"

                            1. re: d8200

                              Passion or no passion, or just lack of talent.... but I have seen declines in one restaurant that was rapid and dramatic. I use to go to one french restaurant and it was actually very good, then the following week I went and the food pretty well sucked. Funny thing is I noticed the front person that I usually created disappeared at the same time - but sent his greetings (from the kitchen I suspect). I am not sure if he was the owner or manager..... but he had migrated to the kitchen and that was THE PROBLEM. The chef had moved on (not sure about the people under him) which caused the owner/manager to have to be the chef..... and the difference was dramatic and devastating. Owner/chefs that run a single restaurant are likely to be more consistent (until passed on to the next generation) but owners that rely on other talent are at their mercy.

                              1. re: cacruden

                                True, and that makes it all the more reason for an owner to become food savvy and intimately knowledgeable of what they are selling and what direction they are (or want to be) going in. Effectively managing employees is another huge factor. I've worked alongside 20+ year vets of the restaurant business who, as a head chef or kitchen manager, couldn't cook a steak to temp. The same goes for people with a culinary degree and a solid work background who were made to wash dishes and sweep floors because they were "the new guy."