July 31, 2011
Three Major Nationwide Restaurant Chains that Have Completely Jumped the Shark
Let me make it clear up front, when I say major nationwide restaurant chains that have completely jumped the shark, I'm not talking about restaurant chains that I never thought were any good like Waffle House, Shoney's or Denny's. I'm talking about the experience of having a restaurant chain you love.......one you look forward to going to because it's a real treat..........then you get there and discover that some greedy fool in upper management decided to make "improvements" to it and now it's ruined.
1. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store
Cracker Barrel is my classic example of how to ruin a restaurant chain. When Cracker Barrel first opened where I lived in Mississippi it was almost 25 miles from the house. Believe me, we didn't have to drive 25 miles to get to a restaurant. There were plenty of other restaurants between the house and Cracker Barrel. But we would make the drive to Cracker Barrel ------ it was the only restaurant we would go that distance to eat at. And when we got there, the place was always packed. It would be difficult to find a parking place. The rockers and swings outside on the porch would be filled with people. There was a long wait for a table. But we would never mind because we'd spend the time looking around the store, a store so crowded it was difficult to move in, and we always ended up buying something. We'd spend more on store purchases than on our meal.
But getting a table at Cracker Barrel was worth the drive and worth the wait. The home-style cooking was a lot better than anything that was ever cooked at my home. They'd bring you a basket of biscuits and keep bringing them as long as we were eating them. I had never understood the fuss over Southern biscuits until I ate my first one at Cracker Barrel --- it was light as air and practically melted on my tongue. Obviously I'd gone my whole life in the South without ever eating a really good biscuit. This was what people were talking about. You could fill up on the biscuits, jelly and butter alone.
The plates came loaded with food. The protein was always large: thick pork chops, big fillets of fish and pieces of chicken. We always said when we ate at Cracker Barrel that we got three meals out of one serving. We never ate dessert at Cracker Barrel. We wanted to; the desserts that passed by us looked absolutely delicious and absolutely huge. But we were always too stuffed long before dessert to do more than wish we could order.
When we went to pay, there was a line there too. You'd have to stand in line 15 minutes just to pay the check, Cracker Barrel was that busy. And it was like that every time we went.
When I moved to Florida, the experience here was identical to Mississippi with the long lines, packed store and huge servings.
Then one time I went to Cracker Barrel --- I was surprised to arrive at a nearly empty parking lot and not one person sitting on the porch. That should have been my first inkling right there that Cracker Barrel had jumped the shark. But I didn't pick up on it; I couldn't imagine that any place so wildly successful would have deliberately messed with that success and destroyed it.
I went inside and had the novel experience of strolling around the store at my leisure instead of trying to thread my way through a dense crowd with a succession of "excuse me's." When I sat down at the table I finally recognized my first clue of what went wrong. No basket of biscuits was placed on the table. Instead when I ordered my entree, a single, lonely biscuit came with it. The entree also came with a lot of space. The portion sizes had dramatically shrunk. But the prices hadn't.
I so loved Cracker Barrel that I did try them a couple times after that. I kept hoping someone would have the brains to realize the mistake they'd made and correct it. But it was the same (literally) unfullfilling experience each time. "All right," I thought, "I always knew Cracker Barrel probably wasn't making making much per plate. But like the all-you-can-eat buffets, they made a lot of money in volume. Plus they sold tons of merchandise from the store. Now they were making more money per plate, but was that really enough to compensate for the much lower volume and the poor store sales?" I even wrote Cracker Barrel and asked, but I never got a reply. I also never ate at Cracker Barrel again, not by my own choice.
The only time since I've eaten at a Cracker Barrel wasn't my choice. It was three or four years ago, I was passing through Mississippi and was going to meet up with someone who lived there for lunch. The Cracker Barrel (the same one I went to when I lived in Mississippi) was that person's suggestion, and since he was paying, I couldn't say no even though I badly wanted to. So we walked into a near empty Cracker Barrel. As I was served my dried out chicken --- chicken that looked like it came from an emaciated, anorexic bird on a crash diet ------ I stared at all the empty space on my plate...........space that once would have been filled with an abundance of delicious food. Well, I cleaned the plate. And I was still hungry. We ended up ordering dessert, and I was barely satisfied. I thought back to the glory days of Cracker Barrel......back when I would have gone 25 miles out of my way just to eat there and when I would have walked out of there stuffed, carrying a box stuffed with leftovers in one hand and a bag stuffed with merchandise in the other. Instead I walked out empty handed: no leftovers, no store purchases. That was someone's brilliant decision on how to "improve" Cracker Barrel.
2. Red Lobster
Red Lobster used to be my favorite chain seafood restaurant. Now I never eat there.
In one way the story of Red Lobster was the same as Cracker Barrel ----- the biscuits. Used to be you'd get a bottomless basket of scrumptious cheddar garlic biscuits. It didn't matter that the biscuits were small, you could eat as many as you wanted. Now you get two of those small biscuits with your entree and that's it.
Besides the biscuits, the thing that amazed me about Red Lobster was the sheer variety of seafood you could get there. I loved the swordfish. Try ordering swordfish at Red Lobster today. They used to present you with this special menu insert with illustrations of all kinds of exotic fish I'd never heard of, and you could choose your fish. Instead now when you go to Red Lobster what they have is really basic seafood: salmon, catfish, trout, shrimp, lobster. Even the non-seafood restaurants in town serve most of that. (Also, when it comes to how Red Lobster jumped the shark, you've got to consider I live on the Gulf Coast, not the Great Plains. Seafood restaurants aren't just commonplace here, they're plentiful. Why would I ever go to what's now a bad seafood restaurant when there are so many good ones to choose from?)
Then to add insult to injury, Red Lobster decided to shrink its portion sizes. I have a friend who stuck with Red Lobster long past when I gave up on it. But the last time she ate there, which was a couple of months ago, she complained to me about the tiny portions of fish she and her sister were served. She summed up her feelings toward Red Lobster with "I'm not eating there again."
3. Olive Garden Italian Restaurant
Is Olive Garden the best Italian restaurant I've ever eaten at? No, of course not. That distinction would go to an Italian restaurant that's not a chain restaurant.
But I love the consistency of Olive Garden. I could go to an Olive Garden anywhere in the country and get a good (not great), filling Italian meal accompanied by a delicious salad. The only thing I didn't like at Olive Garden was their breadsticks; I prefer genuine garlic bread slathered with butter and garlic and served hot.
I last ate at Olive Garden a few months ago, not long before I was laid-out sick for an extended period (see "The Devotion of a Cat"). We were there for lunch, and it wasn't as crowded as usual that day as it was pouring rain. (I had driven a friend to a doctor's appointment through the deluge, and she was treating me to lunch as thanks.) But the previous time I'd eaten there, maybe a month prior, it was "you had to wait for a table" packed at lunch.
On that wet day, I had the "endless soup and salad." She had a plate of fettuccine so big it was going to take her three meals to finish it. The only move toward jumping the shark that I noticed at Olive Garden was the salad. Olive Garden has a delicious salad. Or, to be precise, it has a delicious salad dressing. The salad itself is a big bowl of iceberg lettuce with some stuff. I noticed there was more lettuce and less stuff. Then I bit into the salad, and it was dry. There was barely any dressing on it. What we had on the table was a big bowl of iceberg lettuce. A cow might find that appetizing, but we didn't. We had to request more dressing -------- something that never happened before. But, other than that, Olive Garden was its usual self, so I didn't think anything except someone in the kitchen had screwed up the salad.
Until my friend ate at Olive Garden again a few days ago along with a bunch of neighborhood ladies. Afterward she told me the dreaded news. Not only was the salad dry on dressing again, Olive Garden has now taken the ultimate jump the shark move of shrinking its portion sizes. Instead of a plateful of food, she got just enough for one meal. (And she's got fairly light appetite compared to most people.)
It was still crowded that day she went. Olive Garden has just made this change so word hasn't had a chance to really spread yet. But I don't think it's going to take long. And when word does spread, I expect Olive Garden is going to see its crowds shrink along with its portions.
But maybe I'm wrong there. Maybe Olive Garden is the one major restaurant chain that will realize its mistake and reverse course. But I doubt it. In my experience, once a restaurant jumps the shark, it never goes back.
For more about dinner, read "Guess Who's Not Coming to Dinner? The Socially Accepted Racism." To read about some truly disgusting food, check out "7 Scary Things You Didn't Know about Your Pet's Food." For something else that will make you lose your appetite there's "The Suburban Wilds -- Creepy, Crawly Cockroaches" and "The (Not So) Great Zombie Apocalypse." Please take a moment to look around the Archive.