Saturday, January 05, 2019

Weekend Post

One of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles is the Apple Pan. I love it for lots of reasons but probably the main one is I’ve been going there all my life and the quality and menu has NEVER changed. There’s a dependability of excellence and they never disappoint. Waiters are fast (many have been there for 40 years), the portions are large, everything is delicious, and your order is up within five minutes no matter how busy they are.

Basically they do everything right that fellow burger peddler Mel’s Drive In does wrong.

I used to love Mel’s Drive In. Large menu, good food, decent portions, reasonable prices, open all hours, and a very cool '50s retro atmosphere. There are a number of Mel’s Drive In’s in the southland, but the one on the Sunset Strip is fabulous for people watching. Musicians and folks sporting piercings in places you didn’t know could be pierced all congregate along with families and actors who were once on a series in the ‘80s. The décor is ‘50s-themed with photos of AMERICAN GRAFFITI prominently displayed. Juke boxes at each table allowed you to hear your favorite golden oldies. It was a fun place. On the weekends there were great brunch specials, the menus were always filled with inserts featuring yummy additional items.

But over the last year they’ve made a conscious effort to scrimp, assuming I suppose, that the customers wouldn’t notice.

They were wrong.

Portions started shrinking, the menu was completely overhauled and is maybe half as big. There are fewer servers. Orders take longer to arrive. They run out of nightly specials by 6:00 pm. Even little things like napkin dispensers were removed. How much money does the company save on napkins? The meat is different, bakery products are different or gone, salads are woeful. Juke boxes are even gone. It’s as if they’re trying to distance themselves from their brand.

I complained to the manager and asked if I was the only one. “No,” she said, “There are a lot of complaints from customers on the menu and their favorite items now gone.”

The result of this penny-saving new approach is obvious. They’re losing customers. Long time customers. What’s really stupid about this is that LA offers lots of choices. If I stop going to Mel’s there are plenty of other places I can go. Hundreds. There’s even Café ‘50s that features the same retro vibe with a bigger menu.

I’m sure the corporation that owns the Mel's franchise would point to numbers and equations that show that they’re losing 39 cents a year by offering rotisserie chicken and napkins could easily bring down the entire enterprise if not doled out judiciously, but the loss of good faith and customers is a number they better take into consideration as well.

The restaurant business is fickle. They close every day. Who remembers Johnny Rocket’s? Developing loyal customers is a gift and a luxury not many establishments enjoy. And when they lose steady customers they are hard pressed to get them back. We move on. We find new places. It’s only diner food for God sakess.

I would bet 90% or more of the Apple Pan’s business is repeat customers. It’s always packed. But every burger, for example, has an inch of lettuce. I bet they’d save $250,000 a year if they cut it to half an inch. But they don’t. And never will.  When you leave they ask if you’d like more coffee or ice tea to go. A corporate number cruncher would say that’s another $100,000 a year in unnecessary costs. The Apple Pan would say, “It’s a nice touch.” Mel’s would say “Nothing extra to go and charge a quarter more for the coffee.”

And that’s why I will continue to go to the Apple Pan, and introduce friends to the Apple Pan, and wave at Mel's as I drive by on the way to Apple Pan. 

42 comments :

StoicJim said...

This is how Sears was murdered. The CEO spot was filled by the investors with a Wall Street investment guy and not someone who knew the retail business. He proceeded to implement policies meant to squeeze every last penny from the operations and to set one division against the other for more immediate profits. In the end, they killed a popular brand, the management got bonuses from the bankruptcy judge and he's now trying to buy back the diminished assets from the dead company.

This isn't capitalism, it's piracy.

Joey Chiarolanza said...

Sounds like Cal/Ual airlines after they got rid of Gordon and merged... Customer service /quality went out with him... Saving every penny became more important... Ah well progress

Anonymous said...

It’s exactly what Carl Icahn did to TWA and many other companies. Bust ‘me up. They are worth more in pieces that the whole.

Pam, St. Louis

cd1515 said...

Amazing, there are so many businesses that struggle to ever GET successful yet here’s one that is and apparently has decided “Ya know what, let’s STOP doing everything that got us here.”
Always happy to see those fail.

VP81955 said...

Johnny Rocket's formerly was owned by Dan Snyder, the widely despised owner of the Washington Redskins who did to that brand what he's done to his team for nearly the past two decades -- make it as customer-unfriendly as possible both on and off the field. (And he's only 54, which is great news for the Nationals, Capitals and even the Wizards.) Alas, owning an NFL franchise is a license to print money, no matter how evil or inept you are. (Why else would Donald Trump be so obsessed with joining the club?) Running a restaurant chin is infinitely more difficult.

On a more positive note, happy #NationalScreenwritersDay, dedicated to honoring all the purveyors of this craft. (Such as you.)

Dixon Steele said...

Loved Johnny Rocket's. I used to live near the one on Melrose and was a regular.

I know the Apple Pan is cherished, but the one time I went there I thought is was Meh at best.

John Fox said...

Apple Pan keywords: honest, generous, dependable, true. Apparently Mel's is now being managed by Jessica Huang.

kitano0 said...

Greed and ineptitude...a bad, evil even, combination. Companies are not happy making a reasonable profit anymore, they want to make a killing. Seems like most CEO's really want to make drug-pusher profits, especially Big Pharma. How many beach houses do they need?
On the fast-food front, I'm surprised so many of the big franchises are still in business. Carls Jr. and Hardees come to mind. Pretty good food, but I've never been to a Hardee's where the service wasn't super-slow beyond the breakfast hours...so I stopped going. Stopped going to Subway, too...some of the worst personalities I've ever encountered were behind the counter at Subway.

Peter said...

Johnny Rockets is still going.

If I had a dollar for every time VP81955 has vented about Dan Snyder owning Johnny Rockets, I'd have my own yacht by now.

And even though Snyder no longer owns it, you're still posting about him! According to Wikipedia, he owned it for 6 years. He sold it in 2013, so it's been 6 years since Johnny Rockets and Snyder went their separate ways. Time to let the subject go....

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Ken, I don't always agree with you but on this you're 100% correct. Quality counts a TON, something so many businesses just can't seem to understand-- or don't want to. Now that I'm a bit older and more mature, I'm wiling to pay more for quality as well.

Can't help but wonder if you've heard of this fairly new chain... they just a year ago opened a location in my home town of Lakewood, CA and I'd got a hunch there's at least one in your neck of the woods too. They're called Burgerim, spelled BurgerIM on the sign, and they actually started up in Israel*. From what I've read they serve "mini burgers" in sets of 2 or 3 (not full-size burgers, but not sliders either), and they give you numerous meat options including Wagyu, lamb and chorizo, plus a decent amount of topping choices. I think I'll try them soon.

*Yes, you can get bacon on your burger at Burgerim. They seem to understand that kosher-style burgers won't make it in the US.

Frank Beans said...

Ken,

I know you're not naive, but this happens everywhere, all the time. I can't comment on the specifics of L.A., but this is true all over the country:

Corporate cash swoops in when it sees a market. They buy out local, beloved places such as restaurants and cafes, then deliberately run them into the ground, getting as much profit from them as they can possibly squeeze. Then they make them mediocre, then terrible...then they close them down.

At this point you're probably asking "why would they do that to a beloved local institution? I mean, even corporatists want to sell a popular brand name, right?" Nope. What they want is markets, and they know that people can be led to other options if there is constant demand. Your favorite burger shop is closed down? Oh well, you'll just have to eat somewhere else. Hey, by coincidence, there's this new corporate chain that just opened up nearby. That's the calculus that they live by.

So, local businesses are bought out, exploited for all they are worth, then at a certain fiscal year replaced with corporate clones who are much more in control of the operations and profits.

American capitalism, folks.

YEKIMI said...

I manage a business that is basically open only in the summer [I've given up on ever getting back into radio.] The prior owner was such a tightwad that he figured out down to the 10,000% how much each individual napkin or straw in a box cost and if he could get it for a fraction of a penny cheaper, he would. So what if the straws would shatter if you tried to suck up liquid through them and so what if the napkins were so rough they tore your lips off if he tried to wipe your mouth. He saved a 16th of a cent per box! Pizzas were to contain exactly six pepperonis, so what if the pizza was sliced into eighths and two people didn't get pepperoni on their slice. Didn't matter. Fought him every step of the way about customer service. My cash register totals for the year dropped by $35,000 over last 10 years. New owner this past year and he said give them what they want, make the customer happy. I did and for the first time in years my year end total went up by $11,000. I'm all for saving money if you can do it without alienating the customers. What it sounds like Mel's is doing is trying to go out of business...maybe so they can get a tax write-off or lose money so they don't have to pay taxes. Or they're just doing their damnedest to survive by reducing costs. Who knows?

Joe Klein said...

I first ate at The Apple Ban back in 1969 and think its fantastic that it's still there and, for all intents and purposes, exactly as it has been since it first opened (in the 50's I think)! Haven't eaten there in over a decade, but would love to be sinking my teeth into a "Hickory Cheesy" right about now!

Todd Everett said...

Read it and weep

Kevin Johnston said...

These days, I make a living working as a short order cook and cashier in a very small cafe At the YMCA where I live. Most of our guests are people who live or work here, or live close by. We simplified our menu three months ago but kept the most ordered items. People really do appreciate that we offer good food at low prices. We can do that because we don't have to run at a profit (and believe me, most weeks we don't even come close).

I have seen a lot of other long time local restaurants go one of two ways. Owners retire and the new owner changes everything. I've seen places that did well for forty, fifty years or even longer close within six months of such changes being made.

Or, if the new owner has any clue at all, he/she pays for the rights to use the recipes everyone knows and keep doing things pretty much the way they've been done all along. Maybe they tweak something there, or freshen up the decor, but they keep the food the same and the prices the same or close. And they do well. I know a pizza place where they've been using the same recipe and same oven for seventy years, and I don't doubt for a minute it'll be going strong long after I've passed on.

VP81955 said...

Said "Wall Street investment guy" at Sears/Kmart also was a disciple of Ayn Rand. 'Nuff said.

VP81955 said...

Uh, I mentioned "formerly" in the post above. There's plenty else to vent about Snyder; all you need do is examine the Washington Post sports section.

Ed from SFV said...

Give the customers an honest product at an honest price. How hard is that to understand?

Add Chipotle to the list of shame. Incredibly short-sighted move to smaller portions and measuring out the expensive toppings with veritable eye droppers. They went even further by running off excellent store managers largely because they knew what was up. Food poisoning issues? Direct result of crappy management who were installed. See ya.

I'll give you three iconic retail corporations in contrast: COSTCO, In & Out, and Chick Fil A. The next time I get bad service at any of these places will be the first time. Common and crucial threads with them? They well overpay their people per market rates and they are consumed with promoting from within. Quality of products? Again, beyond market standard.

Friday question: Ellen is resurrecting Kevin Hart's career. I say good on her. I am genuinely frightened at the implications of only "approved" messaging in Art. How about you? Do you see the real dangers, or am I being silly? Have you witnessed "Tribal" muzzling?

Mike Bloodworth said...

How ironic that with all the recent blogs on analytics in baseball, apparently analytics has come to the food service industry. That's not new, however. When I was in college I worked at Baskin Robbins. The owner of the franchise told me that the corporation had everything worked out for maximum profit. They could even tell you how much money you'd lose if your scoops were too big by even a fraction of an ounce.
As for the Apple Pan, the burgers are O.K., but the wait is way too long for the type of food they sell. Maybe if I still smoked pot and had those insatiable munchies it might be worth it.
And, at least the Mel's on Highland sells booze.
M.B.

Jeff Boice said...

I had a friend who ran a restaurant-a Golden Bear- a now defunct Midwest chain that had nothing to do with Jack Nicklaus but rather a family restaurant with a convoluted Goldilocks and 3 Bears theme. He said running a restaurant is like putting on a show every night- people want to have a good time. But even the best shows gets old over time...

And as you said, its just diner food. We can make a good hamburger or Reuben sandwich at home no problem. Plus the diner model is eat and get out, make money on volume. So I suspect the owners (who apparently still include the Weiss family- I tried to look up the owner structure and my head still hurts) decided that the original business model is no longer viable in California, and they're marking time while they find the new concept that will dazzle the public & bring in more revenue. Or find someone who will buy it from them.

Cory Baker said...

Love the Fresh off the Boat reference. Made me chuckle!

Edward said...

The higher minimum wage has its effects. Most business just reduce portions (e.g., can of tuna) rather than raise prices. Also, CA does not provide for a lower minimum wage for tipped restaurant employees, so its $11 or $12 hour plus tips (depending if there are over/under 25 employees). Not that I am opposed to a higher wage, but there are price points that business know won't be paid by customers for the finished product.

Colin Stratton said...

Mel's Diner hasn't been the same since Alice got rid of Florence Jean Castlebury. Kiss my grits!

Jen from Jersey said...

Wish they had that in NJ. We have Naf Naf which is also owned by Israelis. They serve falafel, shawarma, etc. Delicious and affordable.

Frank Beans said...

@ Stoic Jim

This isn't capitalism, it's piracy.

No, sorry, but this actually is capitalism. I hear your point, but behemoth corporations are in the business of putting others out of business. You don't like it, I don't like it either. But that's what it is.

MikeN said...

Why are people talking about Johnny Rockets in the past tense? I know I've seen one recently.

Tom Galloway said...

In possibly related news, Boston restaurant Durgin-Park will be closing next Sunday. Had a decent run; while it didn't adopt the name until later, the restaurant was founded in 1827. Yes, that's an 8. Its menus at least used to have "Established before your grandparents were born" on them.

I can't speak to the quality of late (meaning the past couple of decades); Faneuil Hall just isn't high on my list of places to hit when I go back to Boston. But I liked it and its menu of New England classics (where will one get scrod in Boston from here on out? : -)) when I was resident there.

Donald Benson said...

Another factor: Rising rents, especially in "destination" locations.

Big chains and ultra-pricy frou-frou push out the popular old businesses -- not just restaurants but big independent bookstores, capable craftsmen and even old-school department stores -- that drove traffic to a street or mall in the first place. There were places I used to go frequently, because I'd regularly check into the bookstores, go to a specific no-nonsense store for shirts, have a decent lunch, etc. Now I barely visit some of them at all, having followed the old places that survived out to their lonelier new locations. Meanwhile, the presumably hot street sees an accelerated turnover of esoteric cafes and shops selling "decor" ...

Excuse me. Those darn kids are on my lawn again.

Peter said...

I know Ken won't be watching the Golden Globes but I'm looking forward to it if only to see how Andy Samberg and Sandra Oh do co-hosting. I'm predicting a joke in their opening monologue that tonight is doubling as their audition to host the Oscars.

Or a joke about how hosting the Oscars is the only gig more unpopular than being Donald Trump's wife.

Peter said...

Ken, here's a new interview with Robert De Niro you'll enjoy reading. He's asked about Trump.

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jan/06/robert-de-niro-trump-is-a-real-racist-a-white-supremacist

This quote by De Niro in particular is fun:

"He’s a con artist. He’s a huckster. He’s a scam artist. And what bothers me is that people don’t see that."

5w30 said...

The comparison - good (The Apple Pan) to bad (all the others) reminds this New Yorker of Nathan's, the hot dog king. Ruined once by inter-family fighting after the original Nathan died, ruined again by current management. They do better licensing their name to companies that package and sell Nathan's hot dogs and frozen fries in supermarkets than at retail outlets, which all seem to be staffed by the slowest examples of the New York City public school system.

Isaac Lin said...

Analytics have been in the restaurant business at least as long as McDonalds has been in the franchising business. So if anything baseball took its cue from the restaurant industry :)

Peter said...

Jesus, I didn't think Patricia Arquette was ever going to stop talking in her acceptance speech.

In contrast, Michael Douglas gave a snappy, classy acceptance speech and Ken will be pleased that he included Nancy Travis in his thanks.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Penny Marshall died while you were on Christmas break. Did you know her? You've posted such beautiful obituaries of others.

Todd Everett said...

Everybody sing along!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpqyQ86HfJs

Coram_Loci said...

Steve Weiss. Donald Wagstaff, Colton Weiss, — these are names I am finding as owners.
Colton Weiss, son of founder Mel Weiss, now offers ahi tuna and avocado toast at his San Francisco location. Rent increased. Pressure to convert to tall and narrow, mixed use property. Restaurant redesign was intended to better reflect the changing neighborhood.

http://www.sfexaminer.com/unusual-twist-amid-development-boom-mels-drive-will-not-torn-housing/

https://www.sfgate.com/food/article/Mels-Drive-In-Kitchen-Van-Ness-cocktails-bar-burge-13239712.php

Anti-corporate bias before facts. Conclusion before the facts.

You don't have to be a corporation to make changes or to make mistakes.

Coram_Loci said...

“but behemoth corporations are in the business of putting others out of business. You don't like it, I don't like it either. But that's what it is”

To do otherwise is collusive and anticompetive. To do otherwise risks an antitrust action.

Competition is horrible for the loser.
Stagnating coexistence is bad for consumers.

Really, should only the little guy get to compete against the big guy? The big guy is to do what exactly, compliantly let the little guy toss rocks at the building just because the little guy is little and the big guy is big?

By contrast to some, I like capitalism's competition because I don't presuppose that I know who winner ought to be.



Unknown said...

This is only tangentially related to all of this, but I for one find it interesting: There are two Mel’s chains. The original Mel’s, the one that actually was a 1950s coffee shop chain, went belly-up in the 1970s. Mel’s son later revived it—going to far as to build a new replica Mel’s where one had been torn down near where I used to live in San Francisco. Then Mel and son bickered and carved up territories. The ones in San Francisco and LA are the son’s, and are called Mel’s Drive In; Original Mel’s Diner, Mel’s own reboot, is in other parts of Northern California and in Nevada.

In any event, I’m sorry Mel’s in on the skids (I’ve rarely been in recent years—my wife didn’t like it in the first place) and have made a mental note to visit the Apple Pan on my next LA visit.

David Arnott said...

What I wrote once for some out-of-town friends of mine who were coming here:

Allow me to wax rhapsodic about one of my favorite places in Los Angeles.

I'll get to the food in a second, because when I said favorite places, I meant places. The Apple Pan opened in 1947, and I suspect other than their prices, not a thing has changed there since that day. It's still the same shack of a place it always was. It has these weird double-double swinging doors (though the inside set is often propped open), and as soon as you step in, you're back in time. There are no tables here, only a U-shaped counter with swivel stools, and people standing around the side walls waiting for to-go orders, or for a seat to open up if the place is full. The cash registers - no plastic, they only take cash - are the originals with the weird old buttons, and you can kinda see that the metal on them is coming apart and, in fact, sometimes they have to break out this odd-shaped key to even make them work properly.

If you eat nothing, it's still worth seeing. But don't eat nothing...

The Apple Pan menu hasn't changed in over 50 years: Two hamburger choices, four different sandwiches, fries, drinks, and pie. I've been going there for at least 30 years now, and I assume the sandwiches are good, because everything I've ever had there is good... but I wouldn't know, since I always get the burger. The Hickoryburger with cheese, to be specific. It comes with their own special "hickory" sauce, which I never get, for two reasons: 1) They put too much on for my taste, but more importantly, 2) Pro Insider Tip: The actual burger patty has the hickory flavor in it already - you don't need the sauce. But get it on the side if you wanna try it anyway.

The fries are perfectly crispy-amazing, and if there are two of you, one order will likely be good enough.

Ah, and the pie... the pie. So yeah, as you might expect for a place called The Apple Pan, the Apple pie is really good. It's my number three choice. My number two choice is the Banana Cream pie. In fact, theirs was the banana cream pie that made me appreciate banana cream pie. Both of those pies are available 6 days a week (The Pan is closed on Mondays). But the pie I ADORE there is only available on Saturdays: Cherry Cream pie. OMG, sooooo good.

If you go on a Saturday to try this pie, don't get there too late. The place is open until 1AM on Fridays and Saturdays (midnight the other days), but they only make 4 Cherry Cream pies that morning, so they're often sold out after "dinner." (In contrast, they make 53 Apple pies a day) All pies are made fresh each day - they throw out the leftovers each night. Available every day: Apple, Banana Cream, Chocolate Cream, and Pecan. Tues, Thur, and Sat: Boysenberry Cream. Wed and Fri: Coconut Cream. Saturday Only: Cherry Cream!!!!

Oh, and if you order coffee, know these two things: 1) it's still made in the original 1947 "urn" and dang, it's good. And 2) if you say "yes" to cream and sugar, you're gonna get a little plastic cup of REAL 100% cream. I'm not talking about half-and-half, folks, I mean thick, might-not-pour-smoothly, gonna-make-clouds-in-your-coffee CREAM.

Man, just writing all of this, I might have to get into my car and head there right now.

David Arnott said...

Oh, by the way, Ken, I know you know this: that Mel's on Sunset (whose photo you posted) was Ben Frank's for many many years... and was soooooo much better than Mel's ever was, even back when Mel's was good.

Ken Levine said...

I know Ben Franks well. And miss it. I used to work in the Playboy Club building across the street and eat there four times a week. Way better than Mel's EVER was.

MikeN said...

Peter, I don't think it's a coincidence that this stuff about DeNiro and Polanski came out after he attacked Trump. He seems to be slowly revealing all the gossip he knows on people in Hollywood.