"In the old days, if you put out good food, you could keep the same menu for 25 years. Now, if you don't change with the times, you're gonna die." - Fredrick A. Rufe.
Fred Rufe goes several steps further. He foresees a world, or at least a city, with only a handful of French or continental restaurants run in the classic style. In his view they are anachronisms that cannot generate the volume needed to offset ever-increasing operating costs. As a restaurant's prices are forced up, fewer people can afford them and those few go less often. "People they call chefs now were only fry cooks years ago," he contends. "When a real chef leaves, a restaurant falls apart or goes bankrupt. If he stays, he becomes a tyrant."
Rufe's world of chefless restaurants exists already and he manages some of the most notably successful of them, the Marriott Corporation's dinner houses. In their purest form, they have three personalities: Joshua Tree, Phineas and Franklin Stove. Garibaldi, the Marriott restaurant at Tysons Corner, is considered by Rufe "an Italian and Port of Georgetown, were taken over from the corporation's hotel division.
"We sell inexpensive elegance," Rufe explained. "Value for money. At Phineas you can get prime rib, Caesar salad, wine and bread and butter for $5.95. A couple couldn't make that dinner at home for $12." A gregarious man with a wealth of experience in chain restaurants, Rufe claims his "now" restaurants work because the money is spent where people today want it spent: on providing quality food, attractive but not plush surroundings, and consistency. High-priced help is absent - in the dining room as well as in the kitchen.
"We want to make a profit," Rufe said. "We have budgets to meet. But within that framework we work with the best possible products. We don't charge extra for our salads, but the oil we use is Spanish olive oil because it came out best in test panels. It's simple. The best way to meet the budget is by doing volume. The best way to do volume is to serve good food. Decor doesn't mean a thing without good food."
Nonetheless Rufe, who usually exhibits the jovial disposition of a Rotarian, doesn't put his faith in food alone. The service, while amateur, has to be upbeat. While the chummy, "Hi, my name is . . . and I'll be waiting on you tonight," drives some diners up the wall, Rufe feels it establishes a rapport and disarms potential complainers.
"The exterior must be great," he said. "If the foyer is immaculate, the greeter well-dreesed and polite, then the food already tastes great." At another point, he declared, "We have great for one reason: If something has gone wrong during the service, great coffee and great dessert will erase the memory." Even the rest rooms count. "Marriott rest rooms are superior," he said.
If indeed it really is that way (and Rufe points to $1 million-plus yearly grosses in each restaurant as proof that his pudding continues t rise,) the reason, any restaurant veteran will tell you, is strict control over inventory as well as personnel. And Rufe will tell you Marriott is a great company for controls.
His 14th restaurant, a Franklin stove in Fairfax, will open next week. The restaurants have spread into three states (Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania) and the District, but still are within easy reach from corporate headquarters.
"Managers receive bonuses for outstanding performance and for generating profit," Rufe explained. "Four people visit and rate each restaurant at least once a month: A food standards inspector, a service standards inspector, the district manager and myself. We aren't anonymous, but we may walk in at any time, so the staff has to be on its toes."
Another control is the customer comment card, available to diners at the restaurant. It's "the Bible of the dinner houses," from 5,000 to 7,000 a month," he said, "and I read every one myself. Friends eeven send me personal notes on them."
Every detail counts. The restaurants open only for dinner during the week (except Hogate's and Garibaldi) because that suits the life styles of the working couples and suburban families who are steady customers, as well as the student employes. The formulas are as precise as the recipe cards that are intended to make amateur cooks look like pros. "Do you know how many places build, then decide on a menu?" Rufe asked with a strong touch of dispproval. "Maybe 99 per cent. We work our concept and menu, then build."
At Hotaget's, which was already in operation, Rufe made what he calls "small" adjustments. He installed convection ovens and more efficient french friers in the kitchen. He insisted on more coordination between preparing orders and serving them and that more attention be paid to presentation of food on the plates. He decreased the number of tables each server must deal with. He set flags fluttering outside and put fresh flowers on the tables inside. Details. But combined with a campaign to attract locals as well as tourists with a no-cover, no-minimum lounge show they have worked to the extent that Hogate's yearly gross was estimated by one trade publication at $6 million. Only a handful of restaurants in the country do that well or better.
Rufe is remembered as a master of detail by those he worked with at Restaurant Associaties, the New York firm that built this country's most glamorous chain of restaurants during the 1950s and '60s.A 1948 graduate of Cornell University's hotel school. He came to R.A. in 1955 from hotel food and beverage work in Florida. He helped manage the Hawaiian Room, Leone's, The Four Seasons, Tavern on the Green, La Fonda del Sol and other R.A. enterprises before transferring to Marriott in 1972.
Despite the firm limits on culinary ambition and budget restrictions undreamed of at R.A., Rufe says he is happy. "I never think I'm going to work," he exclaimed during a rare meal away from one of his fledglings. "I'm not married, so I can mix my social and business life. I have an apartment near the airport, which makes travel effortless, but I'm only home to sleep, shower, change clothers and go again. I'm in the office in the morning and I visit restaurants in the afternoon and evening. I check on standards in the daytime and service at ight."
Rufe is a natty dresser. His suits are expensive. Ties and breast pocket handkerchiefs match. He allows himself the luxury of a Cadillac and enjoys trips to New York where he visits with James Beard and other friends from Restaurant Associates days. But he doesn't relax on the job - ever.
"We've modified the menu at the Joshua Tree (only five years old)," he said. ". . . If you don't change with the times, you're gonna die." An example: The steak or roast beef and lobster formula has been given an ethnic twist at Garibaldi. At the Tysons Corner restaurant the salad bar has become a huge antipasto counter. It is the visual centerpiece of the restaurant. Fettuccine has replaced baked potato; wine is featured. The desserts are few, but original, with an Italian twist.
Still, Rufe worries: The restaurant can't be seen from Rte. 123, thus violating a cardinal Marriott principle; luncheon business was not sufficiently lively before Bloomingdale's arrived at the shopping center; restaurant critics don't truly reflect their readers and therefore may not serve them well. They are preoccupied in a search for quality at any price, he feels, while the public searches for pleasure at prices it can afford.
He pauses, looks around the highly praised and highly priced French restaurant and brightens up.
"It's great," he said, "but I wouldn't want it. In our places every manager and assistant manager knows how to make every item. If someone doesn't come to work or quits, no problem."
"Someone wrote," he contented, that "Rufe is to chefs what the automobile was to the horse and buggy."
Lunch had ended. The latter-day Henry Ford took to his Cadillac and rode into the present. A vigilante group of Frenchmen wearing aprons and tall white hats set out after him.