Dining Tyranny

Are we choosing ourselves crazy?

Over on Travis Street, a man wearing a sandwich board stands on the sidewalk in front of Samba Room. He advertises dollar sushi and sake. This is how far we've come: a Cuban bar shilling sushi and rice brew for a buck. The city shudders, sobbing great streaming tears of rum.

The choices confronting Dallas diners--Brazilian, Russian, Indian, Viet-Tex--are mind-bending, even mentally debilitating. "Too many choices out there," says Matthew Mabel, president of Surrender Inc., a management and hospitality consulting firm. To bolster this piece of heresy, Mabel cites an article in the April 2004 issue of Scientific American titled "The Tyranny of Choice." The crux of this piece can be found in its accompanying pictures: a tube of toothpaste called "good enough flavor" and an advertisement for one-color socks that shouts "They all match!"

"Thus," says author Barry Schwartz, "it seems as society grows wealthier and people become freer to do whatever they want, they get less happy. In an era of ever greater personal autonomy, choice and control, what could account for this degree of misery?"

Jeroboam's alcohol sales have taken a body blow. "We aren't waiting for any apologies from the city," says owner Brandt Wood.
Stephen Karlisch
Jeroboam's alcohol sales have taken a body blow. "We aren't waiting for any apologies from the city," says owner Brandt Wood.

We torture ourselves over choices not made, answers Schwartz. We're clipping wires to our genitals and turning up the power with worries about what we're missing. We have so many options and so much control that our expectations go galactic, and we mope in a black funk when our choices fall short. "With no options, you just do the best you can," muses Schwartz. "But with many options, the chances increase that a really good one is out there, and you may well feel that you ought to have been able to find it."

It gets worse: "The consequences of unlimited choice may go far beyond mild disappointment, to suffering. As I indicated earlier, Americans are showing a decrease in happiness and an increase in clinical depression."

Not that many years ago an expectant mother--should she and her infant survive a childbirth without antibiotics, labor induction and modern hemorrhage control techniques--only had to worry about how to feed and clothe the whelp. Now there are the unbearable stresses of selecting potty training rituals that won't cause irreparable personality damage, the most appropriate infant diet to maximize post-graduate earning potential and the right toddler social circles to ensure entry into the Ivy League. We have much to learn from the Soviets, it seems, who sowed happiness by limiting choices to which meat line to stand in and what month to begin your 10-year wait for a new television.

Yet if choice is but a portal to the hellhole of clinical depression, why is the Dallas restaurant community whining instead of throwing kisses at City Hall for removing at least one tyrannical choice from their tortured lives: Where to put the smoking section?

Maybe Brandt Wood has the answer: "It's knocked bar sales down 20 percent, which is massive," he says of the Dallas restaurant smoking ban. His company, the Entertainment Collaborative, operates the Green Room in Deep Ellum and Jeroboam downtown. "We aren't waiting for any apologies from the city, either." Actually, the damage might even be worse. According to sales reports from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the Green Room's alcohol sales were off 51.5 percent while Jeroboam's were down 26.47 percent in the 12 months ending March 2004, compared with the previous 12 months. The smoking ban went into effect in March 2003.

Of course Deep Ellum and downtown have their own set of problems--crime, homelessness, parking, cruising--or the perception thereof. But a study commissioned by the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association (GDRA) and conducted by economists Terry Clower and Bernard Weinstein of the University of North Texas shows alcoholic beverage sales in Dallas eating and drinking establishments have slumped across the board since the ban was imposed.

"The rate of loss accelerated dramatically right after the smoking ban went into effect," Clower says. "There are many factors that go into it, but it is telling that the decline occurred in Dallas while most of the surrounding suburbs experienced substantial increases."

While Dallas sales slipped some 3.6 percent, or $11.8 million, in 2003 compared with 2002, sales edged upward in Addison (3.3 percent), Plano (7.9 percent), Richardson (3.2 percent), Grand Prairie (6.4 percent), Grapevine (9.7 percent) and Frisco (12.2 percent). The only Dallas-hugging city to slump was Irving, which dipped 0.8 percent. Clinical depression be damned, it seems Dallas diners are making their choices. More choices may follow.

"There's an overall feeling coming out of the hospitality industry that Dallas is becoming less and less business-friendly," says Tracey Evers, executive director of the GDRA. "And the suburbs are becoming more and more business-friendly."

Competitive pressures are likely to intensify over the next 12-18 months. On December 13, Brad Shanklin, president of the Plano Chamber of Commerce, submitted petitions containing some 47,000 signatures to the city secretary to put two local option measures before Plano voters this May: one permitting beer and wine sales at stores and the other allowing restaurant patrons to order a drink without joining a club. In addition to that, the GDRA is teaming with the Texas Restaurant Association to hammer out legalese in the upcoming legislative session to amend the Texas Constitution to allow all restaurants in Texas to be wet, a measure that would be put out for a statewide vote.

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