“Mad Men” is the Reason You Can Eat Well in Smalltown, Nowheresville

It’s hard to imagine the legions of plaid-wearing, beard-sporting, vinyl-listening restauranteurs with knife tattoos having anything in common with a show that re-popularized tailored suits and mid-century modern everything, but the truth is that they do.

The “democratization of food” that’s occurred over the past ten years through the chef-driven restaurant and demise of the white table cloth is unprecedented. Spawned out of the 2008 economic downturn and changing demands of the millennial market, the food industry has transformed into something that the Patrick Bateman Dorsia crowd of yesteryear could never have imagined. These changes have not been exclusive to the coasts either as towns everywhere are experiencing major developments commonly referred to as “food scenes.”

Yet as different as share plates in rustic atmospheres with Edison lights and exposed brick walls may be, there is one constant in the industry that always stays the same. The risk and cost of doing business.

Mad Men and the existentialist adventures of Donald Draper debuted in the summer of 2007 quickly giving rise to a new found interest in mid-century art, clothing and interior design. But for the sake of the food industry, Draper’s exploits often revolved around his penchant for liquor, and cocktails in particular. While Don, Roger, and the other characters were off boozing in the office, having three-martini lunches and sipping Old Fashioneds’ in countless wood-paneled enclaves, real bartenders and creative types were quick to take note. Eventually craft cocktail bars like The Summit in NYC, The Aviary in Chicago and The Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco began to pop up in all of the major cities. For a time, the term “Mixologist” replaced “bartender” as the general nomenclature, but then quickly reverted back after falling into comically pretentious territory. Super niche and often catering to an upper middle class, liberal arts hipster crowd, the popularity of the “cocktail bar” would soon make way for what food-oriented establishments now refer to as “The Cocktail Program.”

With the rise of this phenomena, new restaurants were able to adopt an extra course, and thereby an extra layer of margin, over something that the customers would come to view as a mandatory part of their overall dining experience.

Prior to the recession, restaurants could be categorized into two groups, fine dining and casual dining. Of course there have always been countless differences between takeout, fast food, ethnic cuisine and so on, but for the most part, all of these would still fall under one of the two groups. Also in 2004, you would be very hard-pressed to find a casual restaurant serving Squid Ink Ravioli in a Lemongrass Broth with Goat Cheese Profiteroles, and Roasted Partridge Breast in a Raspberry Coulis with a sorrel Timbale. Today, you can eat food like that in an off part of a small town, with no table cloth or pretension anywhere to be found. It will also be served to you by a guy covered in tattoos and facial piercings. Arguably, fine food has been liberated from its conservative, and often too-stuffy roots.

Jack and Coke, Gin and Tonic and Cranberry Vodkas set the customer back a mere $6.00, but were ordered far less than diners now who inevitably order a round of $14.00 cocktails before their meal, not instead of, but in addition to bottles of wine. While there is little argument to be made about the quality of a Jameson-Soda versus a properly made small-batch Rye Manhattan, the actual cost difference for the restaurant is marginal, yet the price modern drinks can command are virtually double their boring predecessors.

The restaurant business is a difficult proposition thanks to high labor, food costs, spoilage, overhead and fierce competition. From my limited understanding of what some successful people in the industry have told me, the goal is to keep food cost below 35% and payroll under 25%. Given overhead and all of the other expenses, that doesn’t leave much room for error. With the cocktail program, the restaurant may be using slightly more expensive liquor than what tenders in Canada call “bar rail, domestic,” and they may be forking over a bit more cost in the time it takes to make the drink, but they still see in excess of six or seven times the return on a $14 cocktail with a $1.50 to $2.00 backend cost.

Thanks to the extra $10 to $12 of per head profit for each diner who chooses to order a cocktail, and a demographic that increasingly considers it a mandatory part of the dining experience, there is a lot more money to be made; affording more restaurants the opportunity to open up serving weird and interesting food, in remote, random locations. This is partially why smaller towns like Frankenmuth Michigan, Driftwood Texas and Traverse City have what people like to call great “food scenes.”

So the next time you find yourself eating pork belly tacos with a side of miso-soy cauliflower and Shishito peppers, be sure to order a cocktail and don’t forget to toast Don Draper and the show that inspired it all in the first place.


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