Some failing restaurants blame everyone but themselves

PrimoHoagies’ Italian Diablo tastes even better when it’s served quickly and with a smile.
March 12, 2013

I had a cute article all ready to go for this week’s column - that is, until I got a call from my friend Chris Stefani, co-owner of the PrimoHoagies franchise on Rehoboth Avenue. As Chris told me his story, it landed squarely on one of my hot buttons: Poorly run restaurants that go belly-up and then blame “the economy.” I see it all the time.

Stefani gave me permission to use his name. The other restaurants I refer to are real, but shall remain nameless. I do have to live here, y’know.

Anyway, shortly after PrimoHoagies opened, that Rehoboth Foodie guy slammed them in a review. It wasn’t about the food (their subs are actually quite good) - it was about the service. Chris is a busy guy, and, preoccupied by the new opening and his other restaurants, he had an inordinate number of teenagers and family working there. To make a long story short, it all added up to apathetic service. Makes sense: Many teens are perpetually distracted, and family members are immune to being canned. If there’s no incentive to keep your job, then why bother to do your job?

Stefani saw the review and was angry. But rather than blaming “the economy” or lashing out at the reviewer, he cleaned house. One of his managers quit. Even a family member exited in ignominy. And PrimoHoagies’ numbers increased substantially. Stefani even emailed Mr. Foodie and asked him to revisit the restaurant. Chris found out later that the reviewer sent 12 different people to the sub shop on different days and different times, each with specific instructions on what to look for. Every one of the undercover moles and operatives reported a good experience (and a tasty lunch or dinner). R. Foodie updated the review and ratings, praising the improvement in attitude and service. Stefani’s numbers went even higher. He just reopened for the season last week and is hitting the ground running for summer 2013.

Another place that actually closed for good has been trotting out “the economy” as the reason for its failure. I went twice, and both times they messed up my food. Worse yet, they offered no apology. On one visit I literally stood at the counter as the owner stared back at me in silence. Not even a lame excuse. What’s this guy doing in the hospitality business, anyway?

I just heard from a fellow restaurateur in Bethesda, Md. It used to amaze me how he was never on the premises - or how he could take a three-week vacation right after he opened. The service was abysmal. He blamed the staff, the customers and … yup, “the economy.” He was a victim all right, but not for the reason he wanted us to believe. His storefront is for rent. I read about another failing restaurant owner who suggested he receive government funds to bolster his business because of … you guessed it, “the economy.” His food was so bad that it bordered on dangerous. His closing was a public service.

Of course, economic difficulties are certainly real, and can wreak havoc in many industries, but what about the restaurants that do manage to be reasonably busy most of the time? Here at the beach, examples might include Henlopen City Oyster House, Port in Dewey Beach, Salt Air, Dos Locos, Modern Mixture and Pete’s Steak Shop. Touch of Italy, Kindle, Rose & Crown and Agave in Lewes come to mind, as well as Blue Moon, Summer House, Confucius and Panera Bread. This list is by no means exclusive, but these and other successful places have four critical qualities in common: (1) Ownership or trusted management is on the premises - tending bar, busing tables, greeting guests or cooking. (2) They adapt to economic changes with coupons, skilled menu management, advertising and the like. (3) They make heartfelt efforts to right the inevitable wrong, and (4) their staff admires and respects them.

They don’t have time to worry about “the economy.” In this Business of Eating, good, consistent food and service trump “the economy” every time. Thank you for letting me vent.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at

    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.

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