This past May I promised to take up what I consider to be a fundemental problem in the restaurant industry in Norway: Can Norwegian restaurants charge their customers what the dining experience is really worth? This question also has a darker side: Do Norwegian restaurants charge their customers what the dining experience is worth?
I´ll start with two recent visits to restaurants, not in Norway but in Oklahoma. I am currently residing in the city of Norman, home of the University of Oklahoma. Oklahoma is not New York or San Francisco, but it´s a hell of a good place to eat good food.
Othello´s & Nic´s
I should have known. The restaurant was called Othello´s, the kind of name that should trigger the ”Uh oh” switch in the brain of anyone remotely connected to the food industry. But with the underlying ”family-owned”, ”casual”, ”some of the state´s best Italian food” and ”since 1973”, I figured it was worth a try.
What could I have been thinking? I should be hung by the toes. This was hands down one of the worst dining experiences ever. And I mean ever. The details: horrible food (I would go as far as to say fucking horrible food), service (better said, the lack thereof), and so on, is not really worth getting into. Words can not truly describe the horrors …
The root of the problems with Othello´s is actually quite simple: a total lack of interest in giving the guest a positive dining experience. Somebody at Othello´s may think they are doing a great job, and for all I know maybe they did back in 1973. But this in not remotely the case today.
The general idea for running a restaurant goes like this: prepare some good food, offer something good to drink as well; service which is friendly and suitably efficient, a comfortable atmosphere, and at a decent price directly related to the costs involved.
This is the original formula, even though there are lots of variations on the theme. Some will go nerdy with ingredients, which can also affect the price level, and others staff their restaurant with extremely qualified staff or use lots of resources to create a unique atmosphere. And on and on. But the principles are pretty much always the same.
The worst restaurants are not the ones who try and fail, it´s the ones who just don´t give a damn. Trying to make Michelin star food can be a noble enough affair, but even the ones who already have the stars don´t always deliver the goods. It´s an entirely different story when the kitchen is staffed by slackers who don´t know the difference between a potato and a salmon filet. And unfortunately it is still legal (both in the US and in Norway) to do a mindblowingly terrible job.
Thank God for Nic´s
A couple of days after the Othello-experience, it was time for a much-anticipated visit to Nic´s Grill in Oklahoma City. Nic´s is a tiny (13 seat) diner serving breakfast and lunch from Monday – Friday (Nic is one of the few restaurant owners who understands what a great idea ”weekends off” really is.
Nic´s menu is simple: a limited number of breakfast items, burgers, and a daily special such as fried chicken or meatloaf.
Nic has fully understood the formula for running a great restaurant. The decor is simple, the food to die for, the iced tea is great and the service (just Nic and one assistent) is as friendly as friendly can be.
I wish I could bottle and sell the kind of dining experience that a place like Nic´s offers. I´d be a rich man. Until then I´m perfectly satisfied with eating at the Nic´s in this world – preferably as often as possible.
Back home in Norway
What really irks me in Norway is not the Othello-experience. It may exist but I haven´t found it. What does exist is the idea of offering a dining experience based on the following principle: trendy interior, trendy service, trendy drinking and poor quality food – at jaw-dropping high prices. These places do unfortunately exist, and when I´m met with at best boring food, priced according to the guests´ threshold of pain, I want to kill.
My most recent experience with this type of restaurant was in Stavanger. I ordered an ”Asian” noodle and shrimp dish (by the way at a highly succesfull trend spot). There were 3 lonely shrimp and veggie remnants, in a bath of sauce which had 0 grams salt and flavor reminiscent of the water the overcooked noodles were cooked in.
I won´t even get into the egg ”thing” my wife ate (here again at a dizzying price). What was even more shocking was that we were nearly alone in the restaurant. But I can´t really blame the totally uninspired kitchen help for the experience. The problem is that the the owners have made a conscious decision about portions, ingredients, and of course pricing. It´s one thing to make a profit, and everybody doing a good job deserves a profit. But this is a whole other bag of nuts.
Shame on you!
The following weekend I decided to do a little test. I generally order a meat-base dish from my favorite Chinese take away restaurant Far East Takeaway. This time I ordered a main course with shrimp. The result was as expected: 8 large juicy shrimp, crispy fresh veggies, and an excellent sauce, all very well-prepared. And rice. The price? Nearly 20 kroner (that´s about five bucks) less than I had paid just days before … Sure, the interior of Far East is on the simple side, but it´s clean. The service: as always cheerful and spot on.
There is actually an even more disturbing problem in the Norwegian restaurant industry: dozens of great restaurants living a pipe dream existence, with great food and wine, talented people in the kitchen and in the restaurant, yep all the right elements – except one. These restaurants (except for a very few) do not – and even more importantly can not – charge their guests what the experience is really worth.
The economics of running a restaurant are complicated, but at the same time very simple: What comes in must harmonize with what´s going out. This is a subject that I, as an ex-restaurateur, could talk about for days, but in the end it´s the old in/out formula that rules.
I have a number of friends in ”the business” who have struggled (and in the end, often failed) because there just wasn´t enough coming in to keep the ship afloat. I have discussed restaurant pricing with people who do not work in restaurants, and it´s amazing to see their reactions. Often it is one negative experience or another which first comes up, and there is a strange unwillingness to discuss the fact that a multi-course meal with wine costing 1200 kroner, should in reality cost 1600 kroner or more. But the restaurateur knows that he or she must keep prices at a minimum to keep them coming through the door.
Norwegians are funny that way. Here we live in one of the riches countries in the world, but when it comes to eating many Norwegians get all weird. They don´t use much money on food. They don´t use much in the grocery store, and in the restaurant they are willing to accept paying 150 kroner for dishwater shrimp, but not willing to pay what it costs for truly great food.
Who are making the big bucks in the restaurant business? Is it the hardworking chef selling his or her dining experience at a low enough price to try and attract a few extra guests each day? No way. It´s the restaurant owners who fill their venues with hordes of people who accept (or could it be desire?) the mediocre.
In the real world people have to think about survival. Maybe we shouldn´t blame the beady-eyed restaurateurs with their pockets full. A solid economic foundation is a good and important thing. Maybe the struggling chefs should reconsider what they are doing, and who knows, maybe there is hope that the future´s restaurant customers will appreciate and be willing to pay the cost to keep the great restaurants alive.
Each of us has the right to choose where and what to eat. Each of us can choose a frozen pizza over a homemade pizza. We can raise our kids in an environment where food has no central roll. We can continue to elect politicians who couldn´t care less what our children eat at school. In the end it is we who create the world we live in, and I am damn sure how I want my world to look.
For the moment though, it´s all about screwing or getting screwed. Many great restauants struggle year after year, often until even struggling can´t help anymore, while others expect us to bend over and take it like a man. I´m tired of the Othello´s and I´m tired of bending over.
Three cheers to people like Nic and all the unsung heroes banging it out in the restaurant kitchens in Oslo, Trondheim and other Norwegian cities. The world would be a much sadder place without you.
Here is a little video from Nic´s Grill: