Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cutting Corners on Ingredients

The recent trend toward food quality in restaurants may have to take a back seat to the financial survival of many of the restaurants this year. Restaurants are cutting back not just by serving smaller portions, but by substituting second-rate ingredients.

Of course, they don’t want to be obvious about it, so portion sizes are only perhaps 10 percent smaller, and most of the ingredients are the same. Still, the few ingredients that are changing can make a difference in the quality of a meal. I am seeing cutbacks in areas such as sauces, vegetables, and oil. At restaurants that last year were making a point of cooking in healthier oils, often canola oil, I have recently seen food cooked in a blend of oil that consisted mostly of the cheapest oil they could get. At restaurants that used to take pride in such things, I have recently been served sauces and salad dressing that were, to be kind, basically grease. And the bits of vegetables that used to dress up most of the entrees have all but disappeared from the menus of some popular restaurant chains.

It has always been the case that you stood a better chance of getting a meal you could live with if you bought the ingredients at a store and cooked them yourself, and that may be more true this year. And you save money and time by cooking at home. You might think you save time by having a restaurant cook for you, but restaurant meals can easily take two hours, yet if you make the same kind of food yourself, making it the way you want to make it, you can usually put it together in less than an hour. To make a profit for the restaurant, after all, an entree has to be something that takes less than five minutes of attention from the chef.

One of the ironies of this comparison, when you start looking at it, is that the same ingredients that restaurants are cutting back on are not so expensive when you buy them yourself. Where the restaurants have to cut corners, you can spend the extra 10 cents for real butter, or the extra 15 cents for premium salad dressing. For the price of a restaurant’s tuna salad sandwich, you may be able to buy a whole tuna, if that’s what you want.

No matter what they try, some restaurants will have to close. Ruby Tuesday’s is in the middle of closing 40 locations this winter, with 30 more to follow as leases expire, and if they have to cut back, other chains are likely to shut down completely. Recessions have always been tough for restaurants, and this one, so far, is no exception.