Outback Steakhouse was an odd choice for my dad’s birthday dinner last Friday.
It’s one of those restaurants we, the millennial set, pass all the time but never think about unless we grew up eating there. It’s not a trendy restaurant of the month but a pretty typical casual dining steakhouse that promises great taste at a low price.
The menu is expansive, brightly advertising the Aussie 4-Course, a popular recurring special, and the Wednesday Walkabout deal, an entree served with fries and a small domestic draft beer or soda for $9.99. Australia functions like a quirky theme at Outback rather than a legitimate culinary inspiration.
It didn’t take long for the cracks to show. First, our server brought out four of our five steaks, promising the fifth would be out soon. One rib-eye, supposedly medium rare, came out medium, and another was so tough that the steak knife might as well have been plastic. When we finally sawed through to the center of the marbled cut, there wasn’t even a hint of pink.
About 15 minutes later, we’d gone through two apologetic managers, and my dad still didn’t have his steak. When everyone finally had a meal cooked the way it was ordered, it had been almost an hour. We carried on.
My mom coughed up a hair that had been in her asparagus. Then a passing waiter dropped a tray of dirty plates, splattering ranch all over our table. By the end, the meal had been comped, and we were so ready to go that we turned down free dessert.
We don’t blame the server, who seemed overworked and inexperienced, or the managers who did their best to salvage the evening. They had as little fun as the rest of us. The lingering impression we had leaving Outback was that there wasn’t a person to blame. The original passion behind Outback Steakhouse is so distant from its Frisco outpost, you’d need a telescope to see it. And the public can tell.
In the last few years, casual dining chains such as Ruby Tuesday, TGI Fridays and Applebee's have been struggling. While Outback's parent company, Bloomin' Brands, claims sales are on the upswing again, the franchise lost $4.3 million in the fourth quarter of 2016, MarketWatch reports. Sales (and stock prices) increased in the fourth quarter of 2017, but many large franchises are in Hail Mary mode, attempting to find new relevance among millennial diners who are increasingly drawn to local and fast-casual establishments, Business Insider reported last year.
Dallas in particular is seeing a boom in new restaurants. At the same time, many Dallas institutions have started opening secondary locations in Collin County. Ten years ago, the only restaurants in Collin County were sleepy local spots or chains. Residents of Collin County have more dining options than ever before. Many are saying there are almost too many options, and soon, something’s got to give.
John Tesar, the chef behind popular Dallas steakhouse Knife, has been called the “king of steak” in Texas. He's opening a new Knife in Plano this fall and has been keeping an eye on the Collin County restaurant scene.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as too many restaurants; however, I do believe we are saturated with mediocrity in the restaurant industry,” Tesar says. “Far be it for me to tell anyone what they are doing wrong. However, my viewpoint about restaurants that serve what I call ‘economically driven food’ is that they’re antiquated.
"These places may be affordable, but there’s no consistency or real integrity to the sourcing, and you don’t know what grade of meat you’re being served," Tesar says. "It’s 2018, and everyone is concerned with farm to table, sustainability and health, so places like Outback just seem like an antiquated concept to me. It’s a tax on the less affluent — steaks for people who can’t afford to go to a real steakhouse. And that’s the difference.”
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As a franchise restaurant expands, quality control becomes more difficult and the potential for mediocrity grows. As “locally sourced” and “chef-driven” have become buzzy, Outback, Applebee’s and the like have felt the sting of falling profits. For a while, headlines announced that “Millennials are killing Applebee’s,” and big chains launched rebrands in response. Profits have leveled up, but the ground is tenuous. Applebee’s gave up on rebranding for millennials and instead started offering $1 margaritas and bringing back dinner deals.
A chain can’t stop being a chain. Outback Steakhouse is designed to be cloned across state lines and to favor quantity over quality. Outback made a name by offering good deals on average food with an Australian accent. In a county where diners can also get good deals on awesome, locally sourced, chef-driven food, chains won’t survive.
Case in point: The Chili’s that was by my house for years is now a Meso Maya, sister to the Dallas concept. The only major franchises that will remain are the ones that can prove they aren’t all the same.
As the restaurant scene north of Interstate 635 changes, the residents of Collin County will be able to choose which restaurants stay. We’ll have to hold on to our local restaurants, the home-grown ones that offer something unique to the area at a good price and are run by our neighbors. These are the places worth our time.