Friday, October 9, 2009

thinking out loud about small businesses (and food, and wheaton)

Parking And No Parking, University at Georgia

"No Americans come" to eat in Wheaton, say owners of Latino restaurants in the CBD. Staff with language barriers and a preference for traditional dining habits (according to the Gazette, loud music and futbol on TV) have kept other ethnicities at bay. Kosher restaurants are doing well with gringos in Wheaton, but that's mainly due to the area's substantial Orthodox Jewish population.

Local businesses are paramount to keeping our commercial districts vibrant and relevant in the face of competition from chain-dominated shopping malls. But to stay afloat, they have to attract customers outside their core base - and work harder to reach them. Not everyone's going to support a local business, but it shouldn't be because they feel discouraged to.

Take the record store, for instance. I like buying music, but I'm no audiophile; when I go to a record store like the now-defunct Orpheus Records in Clarendon or even our CD and Game Exchange at Georgia and Ripley, I feel intimidated by the clerks whenever I head to the register. They are knowledgable and hide no excitement or disdain (or little trivia you don't care about) regarding your purchases. And it's enough to keep me away, because I don't feel welcomed there as a perceived "newcomer."

Authenticity, or perceived authenticity, is important. I was raised to believe if a Chinese restaurant was filled with Chinese people, then the food must be good. That holds with Wheaton's Full Key or Oriental East in Silver Spring, where lines of Cantonese stretch out the door on weekends. (My Chinese friend jokes that you will not get seated there at these times if you are not Asian.) Traditional food is why Oriental East has so many Chinese patrons (and adventurous American patrons). It provides the best tangible connection to the culture you can get here, without placing a statue of a horse outside as P.F. Chang's does.

P.F. Chang's, Mall in Columbia

The P.F. Chang's at the Mall in Columbia.

For locals, atmosphere comes secondary, though it really shouldn't. There are many horses in the race for "Best Peruvian Chicken Restaurant," but one's reasoning for why one local chicken joint is the best never has anything to do with cleanliness, lighting or customer service. It's about amazing food. This goes for any local business, substituting "food" for "whatever service they provide" (a nationally-renowned selection of comic books, costumed staff who sing sea shanties, etc.)

But chain restaurants that supply some form of "ethnic" food, like Baja Fresh or P.F. Chang's China Bistro (perhaps the most inane moniker for an eatery, ever) have given even the least adventurous diners high expectations of what a Mexican or Chinese restaurant should look and feel like, whether in terms of atmopshere, cleanliness or customer service. I generally feel that chains - even with the jokes about "putting crazy crap on the walls" or forcing employees to wear "pieces of flair" - do a better job of creating a clean, attractive, and most importantly brand-centered environment.

A good local business is a gathering place for a community of people who patronize it, whether drawn together by proximity or culture or interests. But it's also an opportunity to expose those outside that community to new experiences (and lighten their wallets). They have to provide that authentic good or service to those within the core, while packaging it in a way that attracts and welcomes newcomers as well. By striking that balance, a local business can make the unfamiliar made familiar, or at the very least unintimidating.


Unknown said...

The joke about Full Key is no joke. We've tried to go during peak dinner hour on Sundays, only to be ignored in favor of Asian/Chinese who came in behind us, or else to be wedged into a far corner near the kitchen (and then were cheerfully told that the remaining ducks were reserved for expected Chinese customers that night).

Full Key's food is awesome, and it supports the guideline that a Chinese restaurant is probably good/authentic if it's filled with Chinese people. And much of the time, their service to everyone is just great! We've just learned to aim for their quieter nights.

Tom A. said...

Great post. And personally timely. We'd always wanted to go to Irene's Pupusa's III, but never had, until last Sunday evening. We WERE the only gringos in the place, and got plenty of looks when we walked in, but I did feel more at home with American football on the TVs- not the soccer variety of football. Most people were hanging out at the bar, but there were a few tables of diners. The poor waitress spoke almost NO English, and when asked if a pupusa is similar to a taco she just looked at us blankly. So we ordered from our gut, and I was sure I'd say I'd not go back because the food wasn't anything special. WRONG! It was absolutely amazing, and I'll be back soon- even if no one there can speak gringo.

dave in wheaton said...

Those Latino restaurant owners in Wheaton that say no Americans come to ethnic eateries should check out Nava Thai and Woomi Garden. Both Asian places stick to authentic cuisine - neither tones down the spice or the exotic ingredients for local tastes - and have staff that speak little english (in most cases). And both do great business in Wheaton catering to both "Americans" and Thai and Koreans respectively. (Interestingly the one ethnic group I almost never see represented at either is Latinos) Both also happen to serve great food. Neither looks anything like P.F. Changs.

Dan - was the quote that started this post made at a community meeting? I wonder what the context was?

Thomas Hardman said...

From the Gazette article Dan to which Dan links for the quote "No Americans come':

[ ... ]
"It made you uncomfortable if they had a hard time speaking English to you, your customer," Amendt said.

Learning English isn't always easy, but some figure there's got to be something that is.

"We don't know how to approach them, how to get close to them, how to make them come in," said Julio Cruz, the owner of Sergio's Place, a Peruvian and El Salvadorian fusion restaurant on Fern Street.

Cruz said he's considering passing out fliers personally among the rows of homes on Kemp Mill Road just behind his restaurant.

"I wish we could get people who live around Wheaton," Cruz said.
[ ... ]

I can't speak for anyone else, mostly because I'm something of a special case -- being a big-headed freak after all -- but perhaps other people have logic that parallels my own.

Out here in Aspen Hill, I don't even go to the drive-throughs at McDonalds or Taco Bell anymore, and I especially don't go to Wendy's because of all of the attitude I get. It seems to me that it can't possibly be personal since I haven't ever come in and sat down since I'm not a sit-down diner type of person, so I simply figure that it's just still more Anti-American Foreign Racists giving attitude.

Having gotten so much attitude -- and occasionally even rather subtle but nonetheless painful violence -- out here in a place that isn't quite so ethnically dominated by foreigners as is Wheaton -- I reasonably presume that if I am subject to such abusiveness and clear racial hatred as I get out here in Aspen Hill, it will be worse in Wheaton. Why, one might ask, would I even patronize restaurants here in Aspen Hill? Well, I do not.

If a restaurant wants customers, they need to cater to the customer. They need to figure out who they want to come in there, and do something to attract that customer base. If there aren't any Americans coming in regularly then it's clear that you are not doing anything to develop customer loyalty and no matter how good your food is, if the atmosphere, ambience -- and your established clientele -- are unattractive or even hostile, you won't get those repeat customers.

Add to this the fact that the consumer dollar is becoming more rare: with an official national unemployment rate of 10-percent and the "unofficial rate" of people who fell off of the lists but who still aren't working, less people have discretionary income and if you want people to choose to spend their dollar with your establishment, you have to fight for it, in an attractive and welcoming way.

Failure to adapt to the fact that Americans are well aware that in lean times their discretionary dollar has a disproportionate impact on management awareness of a need to provide exceptional customer care and above all to be welcoming, not exclusionary on the basis of ethnicity or other "grounds for discrimination".

Wendy's staff have made it clear that they don't need nor want my dollar, as have all of the local drive through and many of the sit-down restaurants. If they don't need nor want my dollar, they shall not have it.

If the end result is that they have a customer base that includes no Americans, or includes only those Americans who wander in once because they'll give anything one fair try (and who leave unwilling to return), well, they made their bed and they can lie in it.

chippy said...

I have been to Sergios had great service and great food. I would no way, not never, even in a million years compare it to Wendy's or any other fast food place. In fact the first time I ate there the owner introduced himself to me, struck up a great conversation sat at the table ate with me.

That being said, I am a white Anglo Saxon male and I eat at many of the ethnic restaurants in Wheaton and prefer them over the many other options offered these days.I have never felt unwelcome in any of them. I quess I just learned at a young age to feel comfortable in my own skin and let those around me feel comfortable in theirs.

For those bold enough to put their unsubstantiated fears aside there is great food to experience in Wheaton.

retgroclk said...

The problem I have run into at Latino restaurants is the indifferent attitude of the wait staff.

Once you place an order you wont see your waiter until the food is served.

If you want your water refilled or another drink- good luck.

At Asian restaurants the service is very good. The wait staff(even those who barely speak English) is atentive, friendly and try to answer your questions as best they can.

It all comes down to attitude.

Bob Fustero

dave in wheaton said...

I second Chippy's comment about Sergios. Great food. Very friendly staff. Pretty amusing karaoke some nights. Separate takeout entrance is very handy. On the takeout side they also sell pints of local SS made ice cream - goes great after pupusas and enchiladas.

Thomas Hardman said...

"chippy" wrote pseudonymously, in part:

> [ ... ]
> For those bold enough to put their
> unsubstantiated fears aside there is
> great food to experience in Wheaton.
[ ... ]

No doubt. I personally love Marchone's and have been eating there infrequently for about 20 years. They make a fantastic cold-cut sub.

However, it's not a sit-down restaurant, and while it definitely caters to the Italian-food lover, it doesn't pretend to be anything other than a specialty grocery that also has an excellent take-out deli.

And "chippy", posting under a pseudonym, you've got a lot of nerve using the word "unsubstantiated".

And let's see you go hang out in sketchy biker bars and talk about your comfort level. I don't have any problem with that although I'm as far from either sketchy or biker as you can get... to outward appearances. Other than being poor and not dressing pretentiously, that is.

But you talk like those women that hang out in men's gay bars and talk about how wonderful it is and how much everyone loves you, but hasn't got a thing to say when someone asks you how many times you've got lucky from there, and with whom, and when are you getting married.

You can't reasonably expect that to come from such a place or such people. It's just not in the cards, and don't mistake toleration for welcome.

Maybe you walked into some of the higher-class places after being told who had good service and better food and a welcoming atmosphere. And maybe I just walked in off of the street to various places that had no recommendation other than that they were visible as I passed by. My spanish isn't very good but it's not non-existent and in case you haven't seen a photo of me, "I'm all ears" and they aren't just big, they work fine. I spent years working restaurants in Texas and I know what's restaurant talk and what's political or just rude.

If I personally ever heard the Spanish for "thank goodness, it's a white customer who actually intended to come eat here", I'd sit right down and have a good time. Dos cervesas Tecates, por favor, se~or, gracias, mucho gusto.

But let me leave you with one clue: anyone calling you "gringo" is not speaking in a friendly way. That's your first clue that it's time to leave. By the time they are saying "gringo loco" or "la basta", you better pay and go before you have to learn to conjugate "matar".