Halcyon Days

Columns and reflections by Terry Britt

Archive for July 2008

Casual Decline

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Anyone with a hand on the pulse of working class economics should have seen this coming.

Lo and behold, $4 per gallon gasoline has actually brought some benefits to this country, among them the realization that $10-$20 for mediocre food and crappy service at a “casual dining” chain is no longer trendy, fun or anything approaching palatable. So it was with little shock and surprise on my part to learn Tuesday that Plano, Texas-based Bennigan’s had gathered up all its corporate-owned locations and somberly walked away from the hostess station. The parent company also shuttered its Steak and Ale and The Tavern locations nationwide.

Take a look at the public comments posted here and you will get the impression that the decline of Bennigan’s is representative of a food business sector that desperately needs to reinvent itself many years after its collective heyday in the 1980s. Back then, the idea of presenting an Americanized version of the European “local pub” concept caught on rapidly, giving birth not only to Bennigan’s but TGI Friday’s, Chili’s, Applebee’s and a host of other national or regional chains.

Eventually, other cuisine-specific restaurant chains – Olive Garden, On the Border, Black-Eyed Pea, to name a few – sprang up with essentially the same framework. They were all places that could appeal to middle class families looking to have a “nice meal out,” white-collar office workers seeking a good place to gather for lunch, and young singles scoping out a potential hot date in a casual bar setting.

Everything seemed to be cruising along profitably until the last few years, and suddenly a lot of these chains were found to be hurting worse than a waitress who sprained her wrist picking up an oversized burger platter.

What has transpired in the American economy in the past four years was bound to take a bite out of the casual dining chains’ happy existence, but they have no one to blame but themselves in a couple of other areas. In many cases (and certainly with Bennigan’s as the aforementioned comment posts indicate), changes were made to menus so often that one never knew if the entrée so loved would still be around six months later. There seems to have been a corresponding slide in overall food quality and service as well, and this became a liability as the casual dining chain scene grew ever more crowded during the 1990s.

The thing that may not be quite as obvious is how little the actual restaurants have changed, or a better way to put it might be “evolved,” with the passing years. Frankly, the Bennigan’s restaurants, what few times I had visited one in recent years, looked basically the same as they did 20 years ago. The same statement holds true for most of its casual chain brethren.

One step in the right direction might lie within the realm of entertainment technology, and, no, I’m not talking about the big game displayed on a 50-inch flatscreen. The Cozymel’s Mexican restaurant in Grapevine, Texas, earlier this year installed devices that let you pay electronically at the table, as well as providing new movie trailers and local showtime listings, games for the kids and updated sports scores.

And just why, for a business sector that has long depended on the patronage of the nearby office worker, free WiFi is not commonplace in their locations is nothing short of bewildering.

Maybe the managers would rather not see tables tied up for long periods with people on laptops. The way things are going for casual dining chains, they may not have to worry about it much longer.

TGI Friday’s, Chili’s and all the rest had better take heed, though. If you’re going to continue to sell $7 hamburgers, you better have something more to offer than a trip back to the ’80s.

Terry Britt greatly prefers to go out to a real pub – chips, Guinness and Trivia Night. You can reach him at terrybritt@hotmail.com.

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Written by terrybritt

July 29, 2008 at 10:44 pm

The Senseless Silence

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Friday nights will never be – or sound – the same for me.

Yesterday (July 16), I and most of the countless fans of Memphis volunteer radio station WEVL were shocked with the news that blues program host Dee Henderson, aka “Cap’n Pete”, was found dead in the backyard of his Memphis home from a bullet.  It has now been reported that Memphis police have charged a 30-year-old grandson of Henderson with the killing.

For the last 26 years, Henderson’s show, “Cap’n Pete’s Blues Cruise” could be heard in the Memphis area on WEVL.  i didn’t really pick up on the broadcasting gem that is WEVL until my second residential stint in Memphis in the early 1990s, but it was listening to the Blues Cruise and Cap’n Pete – a native Mississippian with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of blues musicians and their recordings – that converted me into a fan of the genre.

In that regard, Cap’n Pete was a true rarity among radio program hosts in the current age: One who could still influence, teach and warm the hearts of his listening audience. Had it not been for him and the Blues Cruise program, I might still be living without the enjoyment of Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and a host of other blues legends great and small.

Do not scoff at anyone saying it feels like the loss of a dear friend or family member, for in this case, it is a true reflection of how Dee Henderson’s personality, charm and spirit wrapped itself warmly around your ears, mind and heart with every broadcast.  What I must add, though, is that his death is especially disturbing for reasons other than the audio void that now exists on Friday nights.

I tried to make my life as a Memphian work on three separate occasions in the past 25 years, and I gave up for the last time last fall.  First and foremost, I couldn’t find a stable and suitable job in the print media field in that area, and never could get a foot through the door in any non-journalism position, either.

Alongside that predicament, I just got tired of reading or hearing about one to three shootings, stabbings and violent deaths almost every day.  And even though I lived in what felt like one of the few remaining “relatively safe” neighborhoods, I was old enough and wise enough to know it could happen anywhere to anyone.  Memphis is now the violent crime capital of the South, second only to Detroit nationally, and one look at comments posted on any of the online news sites there will show you the growing outrage and frustration at a city government that doesn’t seem to have a clue about how to change any of it for the better.

You’ll also find a lot of comments posted from people who just got fed up with it and relocated.  I know how those folks feel, even after giving it multiple chances.  Right now, Memphis has about two things going for it, a nationally ranked college basketball team and a certain radio station which, thankfully for me and all the other Memphis expatriates, streams its broadcasts over the Internet.

I knew one day I was going to wake up and learn that i wouldn’t be hearing Cap’n Pete’s voice anymore.  I just never imagined it would be this soon, and this way.

Written by terrybritt

July 17, 2008 at 10:55 pm