retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

A restaurant review in yesterday's New York Times made me think about how fleeting success can be, and how a good reputation is only as enduring as one's most recent performance.

The review, by Pete Wells, was of the iconic Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn. (As a point of reference, it is about two miles from the new Wegmans there.) While it is not quite on the level of the blistering review that Wells wrote seven years ago of a new Guy Fieri restaurant in Times Square, this brutal takedown may be more notable because Peter Luger is a legendary outpost that opened in 1887.

Four excerpts:

• "I can count on Peter Luger Steak House in Brooklyn to produce certain sensations at every meal.

"There is the insistent smell of broiled dry-aged steak that hits me the minute I open the door and sometimes sooner, while I’m still outside on the South Williamsburg sidewalk, producing a raised pulse, a quickening of the senses and a restlessness familiar to anyone who has seen a tiger that has just heard the approach of the lunch bucket.

"There is the hiss of butter and melted tallow as they slide down the hot platter, past the sliced porterhouse or rib steak and their charred bones, to make a pool at one end. The server will spoon some of this sizzling fat over the meat he has just plated, generally with some line like 'Here are your vitamins.'

"There is the thunk of a bowl filled with schlag landing on a bare wood table when dessert is served, and soon after, the softer tap-tap-tap of waxy chocolate coins in gold foil dropped one at a time on top of the check.

"And after I’ve paid, there is the unshakable sense that I’ve been scammed."

• "Diners who walk in the door eager to hand over literal piles of money aren’t greeted; they’re processed. A host with a clipboard looks for the name, or writes it down and quotes a waiting time. There is almost always a wait, with or without a reservation, and there is almost always a long line of supplicants against the wall. A kind word or reassuring smile from somebody on staff would help the time pass. The smile never comes.

"The Department of Motor Vehicles is a block party compared with the line at Peter Luger."

• "The management seems to go out of its way to make things inconvenient. Customers at the bar have to order drinks from the bartender and food from an overworked server on the other side of the bar, and then pay two separate checks and leave two separate tips. And they can’t order lunch after 2:30 p.m., even though the bar and the kitchen remain open."

• "The restaurant will always have its loyalists. They will laugh away the prices, the $16.95 sliced tomatoes that taste like 1979, the $229.80 porterhouse for four. They will say that nobody goes to Luger for the sole, nobody goes to Luger for the wine, nobody goes to Luger for the salad, nobody goes to Luger for the service. The list goes on, and gets harder to swallow, until you start to wonder who really needs to go to Peter Luger, and start to think the answer is nobody."

Yikes. It seems like a pretty good rule that when a business compares unfavorably to the DMV, it is in trouble.

Now, to be fair, Peter Luger has pushed back on the Times review with the following statement:

"“The NY Times has reviewed Peter Luger numerous times over the years. At times we’ve gotten four stars, other times less. While the reviewers and their whims have changed, Lugers has always focused on doing one thing exceptionally well — serving the highest quality of steak — with a member of our family buying every piece of USDA Prime beef individually, just as we have done for decades.

"We know who we are and have always been. The best steak you can eat. Not the latest kale salad."

Which, to be honest, doesn't really address the problems that Wells points out in his piece.

Look. Reviews, by their very nature, are opinion pieces. I know this because I write them (though I've never achieved Wells' high style). One learns over time which reviewers tend to be in synch with one's own tastes, and which ones are less relevant. That's part of being a discerning consumer of news and information.

This doesn't diminish the larger lesson that Wells' review illustrates - that even iconic experiences have to be nurtured and tended and allowed to evolve and always, always improve.

I never forget what the great Norman Mayne, of Dorothy Lane Markets, once told me - that while his stores are lucky enough to have a wonderful reputation, a reputation is what you had yesterday … and that today you have to earn it all over again. (By the way, I'd argue that Dorothy Lane Markets' reputation has little to do with luck, and a lot to do with hard work, focused vision, crisp implementation, and a willingness to innovate and challenge customers' tastes.)

Read the Wells review, and then think about it in terms of your own business.

It can be an Eye-Opener.
KC's View: