Cafe Reviews

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.

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Paul M. Fleming