A change in tastes

April 2, 2014 · Posted in Business and industry, Delmarva items 

What inspired me to write this piece was the recent demise of the Salisbury Famous Dave’s location, which closed up shop after only about a half-decade in business. It’s the second significant restaurant in that area of town to close in the last year or so, with the locally owned Zia’s eatery folding its tents in January 2013. That site was rumored to be the location for a much-desired new Cracker Barrel and the Zia’s building was torn down, but now it’s just an empty lot. In the case of the former Famous Dave’s, reportedly the lease will be taken over by the Greene Turtle – of course, that may mean another empty storefront in that area of town as there’s already a Greene Turtle just down the road in a nearby strip shopping center.

Of course, that’s not to say that end of town is dying – new apartments and shops are being built and other formerly vacant storefronts are being occupied. But I thought this case study would be interesting on three levels.

First of all, the story on the closing of Famous Dave’s noted that about 45 employees would be affected. Was one factor in the decision to close up shop the prospect of thousands more in overhead costs thanks to a higher minimum wage and continuing enactment of Obamacare? Probably not, but the already thin profit margin for some restaurant owners is bound to become even skinnier with these changes. Areas with borderline economic indicators like Salisbury may see more turnover than most.

But I also pondered the thought of whether tastes themselves were changing, and if America’s love affair with barbecue was passing its peak. (Not here, though: if you follow me on Facebook, you know I like my ribs.) When I think of how the eatery business has its cycles, I often think of the rise and fall of Chi-Chi’s. Now maybe this was just a Midwest phenomenon and bypassed this part of the country, but for about a decade a quarter-century ago it seemed like every “casual dining” restaurant wanted to be like Chi-Chi’s. I happened to work next door to one and that place was always packed – lunch, dinner, you name it. But by the end of the 1990s the chain was already in decline and it was gone by 2004. Surely the death blow was a hepatitis outbreak traced to one of their restaurants, but Chi-Chi’s was already in trouble because diners’ tastes had changed. Chi-Chi’s was simply passe – they were flocking to other similar chains like Chili’s or Applebee’s, both of which have tried to change their menu and outward image over the last decade in an effort to stay relevant. The way I look at it, they learned from the mistakes Chi-Chi’s made.

Finally, I took a look at Salisbury itself. I really owe you all a post given the amount of ink used on me a week or two back, but in this case the thought occurred to me that, while Salisbury seems to be doing okay on that side of town despite the inordinate amount of business turnover – and don’t forget the Salisbury J.C. Penney store will be a casualty of that mainstay’s woes by next month – we seem to have a laser-like focus on restoring the downtown area. But as long as the local economy is stagnant or even slowly shrinking, any success downtown will likely be damaging to other commercial centers like the north end of town. Obviously downtown lost its luster when the original Salisbury Mall was built in the late 1960s, and commerce shifted to the east side of town near the old mall – only to move again to the northern edges when the Centre of Salisbury was completed in the late 1980s, (The former Salisbury Mall is no more, razed a few years back for a mixed-use development which never materialized.) We didn’t grow the local economy enough to allow all three to thrive, so they cannibalized each other in turn.

The key to making Salisbury a success is growth. If an area doesn’t grow, it dies – and if it gets complacent and stops competing, it doesn’t grow. I’m sure Famous Dave’s thought it had their niche pretty much sealed up, but either they stopped marketing it or they quit trying to please the customer. Multiply that by Zia’s, J.C. Penney, the owners of the Salisbury Mall – you get the picture?

It’s hard to think a couple decades ahead, but we have to do that. Consider the market for chicken – will people still have a taste for it in a generation? Maybe dark meat will become the new sensation, and all those who centered their marketing around the chicken breast will have to go back to the drawing board. I heard a lot of talk about Wallops Island in the recent NAACP forum, but what was it twenty years ago but a remote outpost – the real space action was in Florida. Perhaps in two decades it will be the terminal for space tourism, or it may all be a mirage of abandoned facilities because someone found it more advantageous to fire rockets someplace else.

In other words, I think a push in the proper direction is a must for any of these situations. And to me, resting on our laurels, or worse – turning up our nose at development for fear we’ll become another Columbia – is a surefire way to make our area look like a rural version of Detroit. We must do better than that.


2 Responses to “A change in tastes”

  1. swampcritter2 on April 3rd, 2014 6:23 am

    IMO anybody with just a modicum of grill skills can easily surpass any of the local BBQ restaurants. Famous Dave’s with 13 outlets wasn’t bad for commercial BBQ but most people on the Eastern Shore don’t know what decent BBQ is as they have no frame of reference by which to judge. This just ain’t BBQ country. Let’s face it.

    Now that Famous Daves is history, the Turtle will take over that space. They will be closing their more northerly location and moving south when renovations are completed.

    The reason for the demise of J.C. Penneys demise is a little different. Their problem was a national one. They never had sales or dramatic markdowns and it cost them. The folks here on the Shore with a diminished median income appreciate bargains and Penney’s haughty attitude kept people away.

    Can’t help but agree with you on Salisbury’s Downtown, I believe local promoters of it are beating a dead horse. It would take a far-thinking and nearly visionary group of individuals to make it work, and not the present cadre of Good Ol’ Boys who are only interested in lining their own pockets.

  2. Jerome Jackson on April 3rd, 2014 8:27 am

    Michael, why don’t you go get a bank loan and open a haberdashery in the old famous Dave’s?

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