Meating of the Minds

Guest Columnist
Last time Howard Seftel and his tortured taste buds took off, guest columnist/chef RoxSand Scocos wrote about eating less meat. Now Seftel's done it again. What's an editor to do? We invited Paul M. Fleming to continue the dialogue. Owner of Fleming Restaurants, he operates six establishments in Phoenix -- two P.F. Chang's China Bistros, two Z'Tejas Grills, Nola's Mexican Restaurant and Brio -- plus 11 other restaurants around the country. Until recently, he owned Ruth's Chris Steak Houses in Phoenix and California; he's partner in a Ruth's Chris in Honolulu.

RoxSand Scocos is sharp as a tack, a great chef, great looking, a good mother. And she's always had her own opinions. I think a lot of her, and a lot of things she said in New Times ("Menu for a Small Planet," June 6) make sense. One thing she said--that people need to eat better--is obviously true.

Her aims to localize the produce industry are admirable. It seems to make all the sense in the world. You'd have fresher product, it would be healthier, taste better, and people would eat more of it.

But I don't think it will happen. The agriculture business in America is so concentrated, for good or bad. Localized farming is how it was years ago, and it's a tough business with many failures. I grew up in Louisiana in the sugar-cane farming business. I knew every small farmer in town. Now they've all sold their land to large companies because they can't make any money. No one's greedy. It's just too competitive and risky.

Likewise, huge food vendors now sell vegetables, and local produce growers can't compete with large firms anymore because they're not going to make money. If, as RoxSand urges, I started buying produce from individual providers, my costs would go up dramatically. Concentrating on using locally grown organic produce, in the end, seems unproductive. It is hugely unrealistic. And that's the same weakness that runs through some of the other dining changes that RoxSand and others have urged.

Let's come to the point: steak restaurants. Everyone knows that too much meat is bad for you. And people clearly don't eat healthfully enough in this country. But that's completely separate from the steak-house business.

I started out primarily owning Ruth's Chris Steak Restaurants--and now I'm going to be only a partner in one. Let me tell you why I recently sold my steak restaurants. I sold them because they were doing the most business they've ever done and making the most money they've ever made. They were doing $23 million in sales, and I got an offer I couldn't refuse. It was a business decision.

There was no social reason to sell the restaurants as far as cattle ranchers creating too much natural gas from cows was concerned, or cows eating too much grain and products or using too much land or causing the rain forest loss.

And it wasn't because I feared that eating meat was "over." I did very well with Ruth's Chris, and a major reason for that, surprisingly, was people's increased awareness of how much meat they eat. You would think that awareness would hurt our business. But this is gospel: Two recent factors have helped Ruth's Chris' business. One is that people eat less beef. When they do eat it, they want good beef. And they want it cooked somewhere else, better than they can cook it at home. And that is why Ruth's Chris does so well.

The other reason is that when the government lowered the deductible on business meals, people didn't want to risk experimenting on food if they couldn't deduct it. Ruth's Chris and Morton's and other steak places have predictably good food, so their sales went up.

Let's look more closely at how people in Phoenix eat--in restaurants anyway. Meat is important here. People like it. In Phoenix, steak restaurants like Morton's and Ruth's Chris are wildly successful. But do customers eat there every night? Of course not. Most of Ruth's Chris regulars eat there once or twice a month. If that's all the beef you're eating, it comes out to about an ounce a day or less--that's a great diet. Truly, people here, like everywhere else, don't want to be told what to eat. They're tired of the food police.

Interestingly, Phoenix diners are an adventurous lot. They are much more sophisticated than people realize. The economy is good here, so people have a lot of money--the point being, they travel a lot and understand the food business much better than most restaurant people here give them credit for. They're value conscious--they're not gourmets, but they've traveled, and they know what their dollar should buy. We've understood that people here want to try unusual things. For every unsophisticated diner who comes into Z'Tejas and complains about the sauces with jalapeno in them, there are ten who want the spicy sauces. I don't think the restaurant people in Phoenix take into account that people want changes--spicier food, better flavor profiles.

Z'Tejas and RoxSand's respond to that. They serve ingredients from all over the world. People can't get enough of it. So while Ruth's Chris has its market, many Phoenicians want to try more exotic food. It goes with the value--they want more bang for their buck. And people want to experiment.

Operating restaurants in other cities, I'm interested in how dining tastes differ from city to city. Compare Phoenix to Las Vegas. They're close. They look the same. Tastes should be similar--but are completely different. Even though Z'Tejas does great there, the menu is tweaked to be more conservative. We sell more steaks, more chops at Z'Tejas in Vegas than here. It's like Phoenix ten years ago--people want simpler things there.

On the other hand, people in Austin, Texas, will try anything. You couldn't be exotic enough for them. In contrast, restaurants in California have done poorly by mistakenly thinking everybody in California eats like the people in West Hollywood. There's a sophisticated, hip audience there that wants to try foo-foo food, but when you get to Irvine, San Diego and La Jolla, that's Middle America. San Franciscans will try exotic food, but California is more straight than people realize. People in Phoenix are far more adventurous diners than most people in L.A. Except in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, people here are better traveled and interested in trying new cuisines.

Phoenix is a fun town to eat out in--a lot of patios, good weather. It pushes people to go out more--and they dine out more often here than in the rest of the country. Also, people live here because they want to. They consciously choose to live here--they're not stuck here. That changes people's lives, and it changes the people we're serving. They delight in eating.

What they delight in is a matter of broad choice. One badly misinterpreted point made by RoxSand concerns Morton's showing raw meat to their customers. She missed the point. I'm not defending them--they used to be our competitor. But they don't bring the food to show you its size or color. It's much simpler. Unlike other restaurants, they don't have as many waiters as they do servers. They forgo the menu, and their waiter spends ten minutes with you. Which restaurants do that anymore? They try to convey to you: "We know our product, we're in no hurry. We're not going to rush you. You own this table. It's a sophisticated place. We expect you to spend a lot of money. We're not even going to talk prices with you." When you hear this spiel for ten, 15 minutes, it's just the waiter promising to provide any service you want. It's the greatest service idea in the business.

Some people think the meat part is gross. And I wonder if that isn't purely and simply a gender issue. Ask anyone in the restaurant-securities industry, anyone in the restaurant business--Morton's and Ruth's Chris are known as men's restaurants. It's no big secret. They cater to businessmen traveling. Men like steak more. These restaurants want more women to come, more wives to come. But any steak-restaurant owner in the country would be lying if they didn't tell you that, internally, they call them men's restaurants. That's what they're built for.

What I think is wrong is that there is clearly a fringe group of environmentalists and animal-rights groups that will do whatever it takes, with unrealistic and untrue facts and figures, to try to convince people that eating meat is bad--in pursuit of whatever agenda they have. I'm not saying we shouldn't stop people from killing whales and that we shouldn't protect the rain forest. But this fringe loony group is out there now in the food business--and RoxSand is not a member. The fringe element tries to influence social policy as far as the meat business goes, and many of the facts they are circulating are plain wrong.

I don't think cattle are that much of a threat to the food chain and our natural resources. I'm interested in this whole other chain of how things work in America. The farmers provide grain for cattle ranchers to feed their cattle. The ranchers provide jobs. They sell meat. The restaurants buy the meat. They provide jobs. People eat the meat because they like it. It's a simple system to me.

There are probably studies that show we're using too much land for cattle farming, and maybe there are better uses for it. But the intake of beef is so dramatically low now compared to 20 years ago that I just don't buy that it's this big social problem they're cracking it up to be. I believe that the people who don't want cattle slaughtered--period--come up with all these other facts and figures to distort the picture.

People who are truly interested in the environment and in people's health hurt their cause by not presenting good information. Depletion of the ozone layer--obviously that's a problem we should watch, but it's a hard sell for me that cattle passing gas have the greatest effect on it.

Don't you think there are more strategic things to address for ozone than eliminating cattle gas? Take atmospheric pollution from cars. We know it causes ozone problems. That, we can control--we can create mass transit. We can work within the system through politics and whom we elect. I'm all for mass transit if we can fund it. I would sure like it because I have kids, and I would like for them to breathe better air. We've had propositions to do it; they've been voted down. It's not a priority among politicians in the state because they have seen that the polls don't support it. My point is: Why work against meat-eating when other, more harmful environmental problems go looking for solutions?

I have a bigger picture on how you can help people and do things on a national scale. I think we have structural problems in the country that cause all the ills we see around us. The thing I admire about RoxSand is that at least she's trying to take care of her part of things. But we have national problems--the government's poorly run, we spend too much money, welfare is breeding on itself. We get taxed so much, and that affects the things I'm talking about.

I'm a perfect example of it. I'm just one guy who saved a little bit of money and spent every penny of it on the first restaurant I opened. If it hadn't done well, I'd have been out of business. Until I sold my restaurants, I had 22 of them and $65 million in sales. I don't want to brag about that, but if my tax rate wasn't so high, I would have had 44 restaurants and $125 million in sales. The idea is it's not important that I would make more money, but that there would be more jobs, more people working in restaurants, more architects busy designing restaurants, more contractors busy building restaurants. If we had better jobs and made more money, we'd have less crime, better schools. We'd be more sophisticated. We'd know that we should eat better. Things can be better, but we need an economy supporting all of these things. Stopping the eating of meat isn't the solution.

Meanwhile, the fringe loony groups are not going to influence how I serve food, or what I serve. I feel no social responsibility to them. I'm not serving meat just because it's the "right" thing to do. It's what people like to eat and that's the business I'm in.

But more than that, I ask, who are these fringe groups to say what we should and should not eat? It's so far beyond the realm of America and how people think here. I don't care who it is, it's like Big Brother. No one's going to tell Americans how to eat. It may even have a counterproductive effect in that Americans, historically, don't like to be told what to do. But also, they just don't agree. We've been eating like this for generations. There are great flavor profiles in what we eat. It's comfort food. I know these are simple answers, but these are what influence how people eat.

People are, indeed, pretty interested in their own health. For example, they are more conscious of drinking too much. Mothers Against Drunk Driving has done a fabulous job of saving lives. Drinking in restaurants definitely has dropped. Look what happened to T.G.I. Friday's and all those casual-theme places that concentrated on serving alcohol--their business has fallen off drastically. And people's interest in eating healthfully is one reason P.F. Chang's has been so successful--there are very few items on its menu that aren't healthy for you.

But P.F. Chang's was not a social decision. We went that way as a business decision. We wanted to serve lighter food with more interesting tastes and better flavor profiles. We didn't make that decision because we thought we should control what people eat. We're serving people better food because many of them want to eat it--so it was a good business decision, simple capitalism.

The public will tell you what they want. If you can serve food that's good for the environment, that's great, but that's not a big consideration with us. We are trying to create jobs and capital and protect our wealth. You can't dictate what people will eat. You have to be accessible and bend to what people want. You need to listen to what your customers want.


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