Originally created 10/02/00

Cover story: Conspicuous consumption



Harold and Winkie Johnston are exactly the kind of customers the restaurant industry loves. The two are enjoying their golden years by dining at nice places.

"We've always liked to eat out," Mr. Johnston says.

Now that they are retired, the couple admits, they're eating out more than ever - three to seven times a week. And many of the places they frequent are packed.

Customers such as the Johnstons are fueling a booming restaurant business. A red-hot economy, changing lifestyles and an affinity for food seems to be driving the business, industry watchers say.

In the past 35 years, Richmond County restaurant inspections director Henry Gilmer said, he's seen the number of eateries grow from 100 to more than 600. Many of the new restaurants are corporate or franchise owned and are concentrated along Washington Road and in Augusta Exchange shopping center off Wheeler Road.

According to the National Restaurant Association, the 831,000 establishments in the United States expect to sell $376 billion worth of breakfast, lunch and dinner this year alone.

That's more than $1 billion a day. It's also about an 800 percent increase from 30 years ago, when the restaurant industry posted sales of only $42 billion. The association projects the industry's sales will increase another 50 percent in 10 years, climbing to $577 billion.

At the same time, restaurant workers say, establishments have become more professional places to work. Companies are offering workers intense training, health plans and retirement programs.

Taking a trip

For fun, Mr. and Mrs. Johnston decide to give a new restaurant a try. They go to the Romano's Macaroni Grill, one of the newest restaurants at the Augusta Exchange. Its name appeals to them.

A hostess seats the Johnstons at table 401 - the restaurant's code for a particular booth in the center of the eatery. A tall, goateed server and his trainee pour them water and take their orders.

One of many chains operated by Dallas-based Brinker International Inc., the Italian-themed Macaroni Grill originated, as many restaurant concepts have, as a family establishment.

Brinker bought the concept and built other similar restaurants all over America. They now are opening them at a rate of about one every two weeks. A $2.16 billion company, Brinker also owns several other concepts, including Chili's Grill & Bar, one of which is also at Augusta Exchange.

Every Macaroni Grill has a similar look.

The first one was so successful, the parent company has kept many of the founding family's traditions - fresh-cut, white Gladiolus to please the founder's mama, who loved the flower; open kitchens to let the rich aromas waft through the restaurant; and uncovered, light bulbs strung from the ceiling to create the illusion of a starlit patio.

Brinker added a few other flourishes - white-hatted chefs who saute with flames that lick the pan, trays of decadent deserts, and the Italian menus and music.

It's all a part of the special mystique the company has tried to cultivate.

"It gives you the feeling," Mrs. Johnston says as if she were revealing an embarrassing secret, "you are in a foreign place."

Smiling service

More than an hour before Romano's Macaroni Grill opens, general manger Tod Mangus passes by his executive chef and says that a four-star general will be coming in for lunch.

The chef nods in acknowledgement.

"We'll roll out the red carpet for him," he replies, returning to work.

But later, Mr. Mangus learns that there was a misunderstanding. The VIP general is not coming in. A delegation of visitors meeting with the general at Fort Gordon is arriving instead.

Mr. Mangus still picks the best table - the round one in front of the fireplace - and the best server for them. There may be no four-star general, but he still wants the guests to have four-star service.

The Johnstons, who enter the restaurant about the same time as the VIPs, order Penne Rustica - pasta in a cream sauce - and Pollo Vegetali - lasagna with mixed vegetables.

Mrs. Johnston asks the trainee taking her order where the macaroni and cheese is on the menu. I don't think there is any, he deadpans. The name is macaroni grill isn't it? she asks.

And for the first time since she sat down, she cracks a smile, and then laughs along with her husband. The trainee joins in as he writes up the order. After some more small talk, he walks over to the touch-screen computer and punches it in. The order is sent electronically to the kitchen. The chefs start cooking. It comes back in about 10 minutes.

"That's working on a tip," the trainee says out of earshot of the dining couple. "Every smile is a tip," he says.

Making customers happy is one of the first lessons every new employee is given. No matter what is going on, they must leave their troubles at the door. Customers want to be around pleasant, high-energy people. They don't want to hear about other people's problems.

"It's no use coming in here and making other people upset at you," 20-year-old server Josh Davis says. "They really don't care what you have to say."

Customers celebrate birthdays, anniversaries and graduations at restaurants. And they make important discussions there, too. Many business deals and marriage proposals have been made over pasta.

Going corporate

In the past 10 years, big corporations have changed the restaurant business. The industry has become far more professional. The art of preparing food has turned into a science.

Universities have offered degrees in hospitality and restaurant management for more than a decade, and companies now entice employees with health plans and advancement opportunities.

But for many, the draw to the business is still the promise of quick cash and flexible hours. Many of the restaurant industry's 11 million workers are in their teens and early 20s.

The business seems to attract people with outgoing personalities who don't mind the fast pace and unpredictable nature of the job.

"I like the atmosphere," says Jill Ray, a 19-year-old administrative assistant for Macaroni Grill. "I'm not the type that likes to sit in the office all day."

Ms. Ray handles money and keeps inventory. She is also a single mom, who, after her 8-hour shift at the Macaroni Grill, works another shift at Logan's Roadhouse, a steakhouse located in the same shopping center.

Augusta's Macaroni Grill employs about 160, and many days work is nonstop.

"It's really, really exciting," says Mr. Mangus, the 34-year-old general manger. "You're always thinking on your feet. It's a rush."

To start workers off right, Macaroni Grill employees go through intense training. They learn about the company, the food and a little Italian. Servers study as many as 10 different kinds of cheeses, and they are evaluated with a written test.

"This is overkill," says 23-year-old Ashvin Kockery after two hours of watching slides of Macaroni Grill dishes.

But the company wants him to know what he's doing.

Corporations have studied the restaurant business to the point it has become more science than art. There are codes for tables and procedures for most everything.

Macaroni Grill also has worked out specific recipes. No little bit of this, little dab of that is permitted. Ingredients are to be measured exactly and instructions followed precisely.

"It has to be perfect," Macaroni Grill employee Spanky Martin says, as she soaks some ladyfingers in Kamori liqueur. "It it's not perfect, we don't serve it."

The restaurant even has a subtle way of identifying a server's experience level - a little experience equals a white towel; moderate, a red one; and a lot, a green one.

But corporations also are making it difficult for smaller, independently owned eateries to compete.

"It's really a struggle for family-owned restaurants," says Susan Morgan, owner of T's Seafood in Augusta. "You have more and more and more restaurants coming to Augusta."

T's has grown steadily in the 54 years it has been open. It's in its second generation of family ownership. Ms. Morgan and her brother Garrett Fulcher own and operate the restaurant.

But they also offer something that chains can not - home cooking and provenance. The salad bar, for example, is set in the boat Ms. Morgan's father used to fish from.

"We're very proud of our restaurant," Ms. Morgan says.

Take out

Americans also are eating out more because they are working longer hours and spending less time on household chores, such as cooking.

"Families want to spend time with their family," says Mike Mount, spokesman for the National Restaurant Association.

Restaurants realized take-out food was one of the biggest untapped markets and responded accordingly. Brinker, for example, spent millions retro-fitting its restaurants with take-out counters and windows.

On an average day in 1998, the most recent year of the study, 21 percent of households in the United States ordered some form of takeout, according to the Washington-based restaurant association.

Larry Sconyers, proprietor of Sconyers Bar-B-Que and former Augusta mayor, has seen take-out orders go up significantly in the past decade. It now accounts for about 40 percent of his business. He even has a drive-through for pickups.

"People are eating out more than ever," he says.

One of the reasons for the increased take-out sales is better packaging that keeps food hot longer, he says. Polystyrene and plastic containers have improved significantly.

Claude Sconyers opened his namesake eatery in 1956, and turned it over to his son, Larry. The former mayor says he plans to keep running it until he's gone. His hope is that his son, Larry Jr., will take over.

Will Americans ever get to the point that they eat out exclusively?

Industry watchers and customers themselves say no. Still, projections show restaurant sales will continue rising.

Americans probably always will want a healthy balance of home cooking and fine dining.

"If you eat at restaurants all the time, you get tired of restaurant food," Mrs. Johnston says, before she leaves the Macaroni Grill. "If you eat at home all the time, you get tired of your own food."

Eighteen hours a day

Although Macaroni Grill is officially open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, employees are at the restaurant nearly 18 hours a day. Here is a typical schedule:

6 a.m.: Employees begin working five hours before the restaurant opens. An executive sees that produce arrives and the employees come in.

9 a.m.: Employees fire up the grill and wood-burning brick oven, rinse cookware and wrap silverware, and begin preparing food.

10 a.m.: They crank up the Italian music.

11 a.m.: The restaurant opens for the lunch crowd. Immediately afterward, they begin preparing dinner.

10 p.m.: Employees begin closing the restaurant. When the last customer leaves, they clean up and prepare for the next day. They check inventory and count the day's money.

Midnight (approximately): The last employee to leave locks the doors.