Is there anything relevant in this Steve Jobs interview from years ago to the type of restaurants we visit?  Even though Steve Jobs is the furthest figure from any culinary entry, his bold accusation that “The only problem with Microsoft is that they have no taste” is a very subjective opinion.  Steve Jobs’ issue with Microsoft is that all the while when Apple was slogging through the 1990s and early 2000s, Microsoft became the quintessential corporation where hefty revenues were to be had as they dominated and almost monopolized the world of PCs.

How does this tie in to food, restaurants, and experiences that I so passionately want each of us to explore?  The more I travel around Southern California, the more I read about other people’s experiences with their culinary adventures, and the more I travel outside of the US, one thing is certain:  The way Steve Jobs describes Microsoft is how I feel about the culinary landscape in America.  It’s a gigantic generalization that doesn’t work on every level, but here in SoCal, slowly but surely, we are being boxed in by big box franchise restaurants.  Almost everywhere I look, there is another BJ’s going up, another Macaroni Grill, another CPK rearing its nasty head out of the wood works.  These franchises are owned by large corporations and the tally of these chains are both staggering and sad:

  • BJs operates and owns 102 locations in the US.
  • CPK operates and owns 230 locations 32 states.
  • Macaroni Grill operates and owns 230 locations globally.

Think about that for a second.  That’s a lot of pizzas CPK is defining for our palettes in our culture.  And I’m not even tallying Dominoes, Pizza Hut, and Round Table.  Of course, it’s not all about the food.  It’s all about the bottom line.  The revenue and profit margin these chains generate, either for the owners or the share holders if they’re a public company.  It’s all about money.  And a lot of money.  CPK’s average annual revenue is $550M.  That’s a lot of Peking Duck Pizzas being sold and eaten by us.  And like Steve, I share the same view of: “The only problem I have with BJ’s/CPK/Macaroni Grill is that they have no taste.  And I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way.”

I’m not saying CPK and the like ought to be eliminated.  There is surely enough white space in the food industry for restaurants like CPK to thrive.  Hell, every once in a while, I also get a craving for Carne Asada Pizza, but I don’t want or need to see one in every city in Los Angeles.  What I am saying is, do these companies ever say “Wow, we’ve made $550M this year, I think that’s good enough.”  Of course not.  It’s the endless chase of “just a little more”.

Recently, I had the chance to watch an interview [click here] to hear Thomas Keller talk about his time in preparing an 8 course meal at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong.  In it, he talks about being a good example of what they do at the French Laundry and introducing it to a place like Hong Kong.  They have flown in some of their ingredients here from the States from Californian Caviar, to Vermont butter, and to Michigan dried cherries.   Taking 7.5 months to plan the menu where each diner will be charged $830US.  One of the questions the interviewer asks is whether Keller is going to open a restaurant in Hong Kong.  His answer?

TK: At the end of the day, how many restaurants does one need?

Interviewer: How many do you need?

TK: [laughs] I don’t need anymore.

Clearly, he has his limits.  6 restaurants.  Maybe one day he’ll open another one.  But his reach has limits because he has a brand and quality to maintain and he will not sacrifice all that for an extra million.  I’m not suggesting that we all now go and only eat at a Thomas Keller restaurant.  That’s not feasible both economically or realistically.  All I’m saying is that some of these American “iconic” restaurants perhaps also lack the “taste” that Steve Jobs is referring to.  They are clearly more interested in making money than the food they serve, even if the food they serve are not all bad.  As Thomas Keller says, “how many restaurants does one need?”  I’d rather have a restauranteur give us 6-8 good restaurants [does not have to be Thomas Keller-esque] than 230 CPK locations.  Even though this is reality, we don’t have to partake in equating pizza with CPK.  Or Italian food with Macaroni Grill.  There can be places in our stomachs and hearts for both CPKs and Pizzeria Ortica’s.  There can be places in our hearts for both Macaroni Grills and Roma D’Italia’s.  It’s not all or nothing.  We can say “when”, and we can do that today.