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Can We Survive The Syndrome?

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If somehow I've conveyed to readers that I disrespect restaurants, I've expressed myself badly. When we go to a new restaurant, we do so with optimism. True, we do not eat out often, as we are ourselves cooks, but when we discover a place we like, we tell everyone - because we know all about the fatal disorder I call "Humboldt Restaurant Syndrome." The county is littered with the bones of interesting restaurants that failed not because they were bad, but because nobody came. Usually, they were atypical, excellent and deemed "too expensive."

The Myrtletown steakhouse with addictive thin crispy wisps of onion rings, the eccentric Eureka bakery that changed everything daily, the Southeast Asian pan-ethnic restaurant, the tiny Indian restaurant jammed into a cheap motel, the Spanish tapatia in Sunnybrae with breathtaking inventions, the Rio Dell diner so remarkable I wrote about it for a national periodical - victims all to a lack of community support. Meanwhile, the rapacious chains thrive. Humboldt Restaurant Syndrome.

Our own short-lived venture, The Byrd House, featured American regional cooking (this was a decade before Bradley Ogden's Lark Creek Inn became a hit in the Bay Area, so clearly it was poor timing for Humboldt County). One of our lunch specialties was baked macaroni and cheese. A secret formula, with three cheeses, chunks of ham, and house-made rigatoni, priced at $4.75 - it was cosmic, if I do say so myself. It did not sell. One customer was even offended seeing it on the menu. "Five dollars for macaroni and cheese?" she sneered. "I can get Kraft Dinner for a dollar at Safeway!"

At the root of Humboldt Restaurant Syndrome is the idea that the customer should only be paying just a bit more than the cost of the ingredients, a basic mistake in economics. (According to the industry magazine Restaurant Report, "A profitable restaurant typically generates a 28 percent to 35 percent food cost.") Most people have no clue as to the difference between quality ingredients and the kind that come from the wholesale food place in a No. 10 can. Or the difference between a true Hollandaise sauce and one that comes in a pouch (just add boiling water). To many locals, price is the sole determinant.

Within the past two years, there have been two different examples of the Syndrome in a small area of north Arcata. In the first instance, a well-capitalized Asian buffet restaurant opened in a prime location. Its large area was well-designed, with comfortable booths, long tables for large groups and a separate room for parties. Decor was spare but not stark. A coterie of young women - most of whom spoke little English - looked after the tables, supervised by a pair of highly competent women who clearly had family restaurant backgrounds. The food was a vast mix of commercial (deep-fried and mass-produced items) with house-cooked (a wide variety of chicken used in traditional dishes like sweet-and-sour, with a few pork and beef entrees included), plus a counter with a sushi chef and a to-order stir-fry cook (a jar encouraged tipping).

The quality was uneven, but on the whole, by choosing house-made items rather than frozen, a very decent Chinese meal could be selected -- and at a very reasonable price. The place was usually packed; in a sit-down restaurant that might mean waits and hasty service, but the cafeteria situation actually helped, because steaming trays of new food had to be brought out regularly from the kitchen. It was a model for mass-producing food at low prices.

After about a year, however, things changed. The women managers gave way to grim-looking young men in tailored silk suits, presumably indicating a shift in management. At that point the variety plummeted. The quality of the food went from OK to barely adequate: Beef was tough, pork dry, shrimp tasteless. The sauces became dull, and as the flavors fell, the sugar and oil content rose. The food deteriorated to the lowest common denominator of all-you-can-eat for $11. And the result? If anything, the place is even more popular. All-you-can-eat is big in Humboldt County. Many people seem not to care what they eat if there's lots of it, cheap.

In the second example, a small market called McIntosh Farm Country Store was started in the winter of '05 by a Willow Creek family. It aimed to provide an outlet for year-round produce from the family farm and from some of the same farmers who sell at the Farmers' Market during the summer. A shoestring operation (which still involved a multi-thousand dollar investment), undercapitalized, not well advertised and in an unpromising location, they nevertheless persevered. A display case was added for home-baked goods (frosted banana bread slices, $1.50), and shelves of homemade pickles and preserves. A pint jar of dilled green beans went for $8, but was organic, the beans bursting with flavor. Sometimes there were farm-fresh eggs, sometimes not, and when they did have them they were expensive. Folk art was featured in an adjoining area. It was a little scattered and very personal.

After a year, a breakfast/sandwich kitchen and coffee bar were completed. The extended family were brought in, kids learning to work the register and do prep. The menu is tiny, but they now feature locally smoked beef and pork, in splendid sandwiches that can include organic vegetables, grilled onions and other custom options. The tri-tip sandwich ($7) seems expensive compared with lunch stands, but made on house-baked bread or Brio, and large enough to feed the two of us, it's actually a bargain lunch. (On Fridays you'll find Rob Dunn of Wild Oaks Grill out front grilling his Santa Maria-style barbecued tri-tip, pork roast and ribs.)

Tables have been added for in-house diners, but more often it's take-out for people at the nearby industrial park or those in the know. Asking when they were getting more tables, I was told, "When we can afford to."

Theirs is a large undertaking for a working farm family. If Grandma is sick, the bakery case is empty; if Mom has a school conference, she has to stay up late to do the books. And six days a week, there's a commute from and to Willow Creek.

The restaurant business is full of success stories built around the advantage of having the whole family working. But what happens when the daughter leaves for UC Davis, and the son joins the Coast Guard? Add a payroll, and they'd be out of business in short order.

Can a small restaurant be run strictly as a business and actually serve good food? Yes, but only with hands-on management. Food service jobs pay poorly, and there's no margin for health insurance, so turnover is high. This is why so many places have to resort to commercial soups, chili, salsa and salad dressings, frozen French fries, chicken-fried steak and chicken patties. There simply isn't prep time to make the large menu customers demand.

Will McIntoshsurvive? Ultimately it all comes back to customer support. Until we are willing to pay for quality, until we are willing to make that short drive to Valley West for a quality sandwich and until we stop rewarding bad restaurants simply because they are cheap, we are the reason for Humboldt Restaurant Syndrome.

McIntosh Farm Country Store is at1264Giuntoli Lane in Valley West, Arcata, right across from TP Tire. They serve breakfast and lunch, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. 822-0487.

In a previous column on artisan cheesemakers ("Talk of the Table" Jan. 25) I wrote about the remarkable blue cheese varieties of Rogue Creamery in Oregon. Prior to the column's going to press, I'd been assured that Murphy's Market in Sunnybrae would carry several of them. Alas, by no fault of Murphy's, the distributors could not deliver. I received gentle reminders from readers for several weeks, and at one point was despairing that the cheese might never come. Finally, having resorted to UPS Overnight shipping, Murphy's has five varieties on the shelves this week. I am grateful for their continued efforts, and I apologize to all who were disappointed.

ROGUE CREAMERY CHEESES (Joseph's recommendations)
Oregon Blue Vein - classic Roquefort-style, versatile
Oregonzola - a higher-fat, creamy Italian-style blue
Crater Lake Blue - intense, tart, and complex
X-Sharp Cheddar - classic, aged for three years (from pasteurized milk)

*Joseph Byrd is researching an article on Humboldt burger joints and lunch spots.
If you have a favorite, write him at eat.your.spinach@gmail.com.*

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