Zenith City Weekly
I have been working in the restaurant business for over 30 years and in the Arrowhead region for 15 of those. I have watched the restaurant scene in Duluth grow and change, mainly for the better.
I have watched with dismay, as chain stores, such as Noodles & Company, Panera Bread, Five Guys Burger and Fries, and, most recently, Chipotle Mexican Grill, settle on our culinary shores, greeted with enthusiasm by throngs of locals. Chains attract a loyal following, expand into new buildings and concepts, yet don’t offer much in the way of menu originality or service.
While there are bright spots on the edible arts scene, these are mostly small operations that still seem to struggle with their own identity. They do not consistently push the edges of the culinary craft as readily as in larger cities, like Minneapolis, Denver, or even Des Moines.
How many burger, pizza, and pasta places can this market endure? Duluth is a vibrant community with an eclectic art and music scene, home to museums and even a funky, offbeat movie house. The Duluth/Superior area has more than a few edifices of higher learning and a regional behemoth of a healthcare system.
Duluth even has a progressive mayor, who has encouraged growth in an industry that is a boon to restaurateurs, namely tourism. So, why can’t we rise to the challenge of providing a more diverse eats scene?
Part of the reason may be that those chains are content to do business as usual and provide fare that is “good enough.” They pay poor wages to their managers, hiring those with little experience outside their restaurant. Combine this with inexperienced labor to keep costs in line and you have a bad trend.
The managers don’t know how to properly work with the staff, and the staff isn’t invested in the success of the company. Grandma’s started this trend years ago, and for a long time, Duluthians and visitors alike had no real choice in dining options.
I’m sure the new group of chain-making entrepreneurs thinks their concepts are fabulous and their food and service divine. This is simply not the case.
There is little to nothing that distinguishes them from national chains—one pasta dish to another, one burger or burrito to the next. While there is some comfort in knowing what to expect, hiding behind that as an excuse not to seek your own sweet niche in your own town is not right.
And, oh, the service! While there are a considerable number of talented and professional servers and managers in the Twin Ports, many more bring a disinterested attitude, centered on what’s in it for them.
On one visit to a local purveyor of beer and bread, I seated myself at the bar and proceeded to wait for acknowledgement of my presence—a “Hello, be right with you,” or a menu, or a glass of water, anything.
After several long minutes, a young bartender stopped by to ask if I needed anything. I ordered a beer from their fine selection and asked to look at a menu. After another long wait, she returned with my beer and menu.
Their lunch selection was sparse and bereft of appetizers. I decided I wouldn’t have anything to eat, which I told the bartender when she made her way back to me.
She spent the rest of my visit chatting with some folks who may have been regulars or friends. I changed my mind and elected to order a little something to go with the beer, but, because she didn’t engage with me, her employers lost out on the larger sale.
I’m a pleasant chap who is inclined to return with friends if I am given a modicum of service. She could have gotten a nice tip, too, as I am loathe to leave less than 20 percent no matter how horrid my visit.
These places consistently attract the summer tourist crowd, then go somewhat dormant through the slower seasons. Restaurateurs bemoan this fact as the reason they can’t afford to hire better staff and pay them what they are worth. This is also false.
Offer good food at decent prices and you’ll bring them back, with a smile and their friends, time and again. Stop preying on your staff and your customers, and watch your business grow.
Ask for more, people of Duluth! Expect more from the mediocre chain-style joints, and try out those places that put it out there on a regular basis. If you give them a chance to grow, you will be rewarded greatly.
As for me, I’ll keep trying to find the places that delight and inspire through food and drink. With your help, we may be able to improve the landscape considerably.
Tom Walchuk has worked in the restaurant industry for most of his long life. He is currently a restaurant and event consultant for Tippy Toe Tunes, a collaborative endeavor he co-founded with like-minded long-time restaurant manager/consultants. He believes every restaurant is a journey and it sometimes takes your own creative decision-making for a good experience to materialize wheresoever ye may wander.