Expansion at the Expense of Quality?
Let me start off by saying this: I love Bull McCabes. It has been a regular hangout for me for years. I am a devotee of their curry chicken, a recurring face at their trivia night, a friend to their bartenders, and an aficionado of their ever-changing and generous beer list.
But there’s a problem: since Bull McCabes expansion this spring, my favorite dishes are no longer on the menu and some of my favorite faces are no longer around (because three of their oldest staff members have departed to other businesses or locales).
during the expansion
Now I know what you’re thinking – waitstaff move around or leave all the time. Menus change. I would freely admit that either one of these things, taken by itself, wouldn’t necessarily be problematic (although when three of your oldest staff members AND your longtime trivia host leave in succession, it bears taking note). But taken together, these changes represent a potentially troubling trend that goes beyond Bull McCabes.
Before one longtime insider left, they shared with me a key insight – Bull McCabes had expanded their seating capacity by over 300%, but not expanded their kitchen at all. Dishes with a lot of prep time (like the legendary shepherd’s pie or bangers and mash) or the slight cases of left field (the curry chicken or the sweet potato fries) had been cut from the menu because there was no longer space or time to prep them. Other seemingly simple dishes had also been cut, like the club sandwich, the roast beef sandwich, and the homemade caesar salad.
The insider told me McCabes had decided to deliberately adopt more of a “burn and turn” philosophy to their cooking – keep the menu simple, with dishes that could be churned out quickly for the new swarm of hungry mouths they were anticipating. Where McCabes might once have been mentioned in the mix of great burgers to be found in Durham (alongside stiff competition like Bull City Burger, OnlyBurger, Dain’s, etc.) they now use preformed patties that they precook and just toss back on the grill for a reheat when ordered. A quick walk by the kitchen on the way to the bathroom is enough to catch a glimpse of the rack they keep the pre-cooked burgers on. Willie’s Patty Melt, another well-regarded dish, is a shadow of its former self. A sore disappointment, to this regular eater. Here’s a burger I ordered “medium” just this weekend – you can see it’s gray all the way to the center:
Bull McCabe’s Burger
On a recent visit, a different insider (one who’s chosen to stick around) let me in on another secret – the longtime chef is advocating further cuts to the menu beyond what has already happened. Reduced from two pages to one, I’m not sure what else they can cut and still call themselves a restaurant:
The Bull McCabe’s Menu
But enough picking on McCabes, because they still have a lot to offer the community as the best place to watch soccer anywhere in the Triangle, a deep draft beer list, super friendly staff, and a great courtyard and patio (plus Willie’s awesome ipod mixes). Let’s talk instead about what this expansion might represent – a greater trend in Durham towards having to serve more customers at the potential expense of quality of that service. Volume trumping content, uniqueness lost to the ubiquitous but nebulous American value: SPEED.
As apartment buildings spring up downtown as quick as poke weeds, it is troubling to think of where all these new downtown dwellers will eat, drink, and be merry. Gary Kueber of the wonderful website, Open Durham, summed up last week in a Facebook post, “The broad question that folks in the private development world are asking – on both the sale side and buyer side – is how many more ‘market-rate’ apartment units downtown can support right now.”
He went on to voice a worry many share: “I worry that we conflate this type of real estate development with local economic development.” If businesses can’t keep up in their current forms, will they downsize menus, “burn and turn,” and expand only seating to suit this need? Will Durham see more chain restaurants, already designed for this
It is a serious concern. As a town who has built our reputation on being a haven for foodies and cultural bon vivants of all stripes and ilks, I hope we won’t betray that legacy in an effort to serve an ever-expanding consumer base.