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What's more, doner is just the basic recipe for Turkish lamb. Add some yogurt and a tomato and you've got iskender -- one of the Turks' great contributions to world cuisine. Like the Greeks, the Turks have olive trees, but they also grow cabbages, so they make cabbage dolmas. And while a large portion of the Greek canon concerns fresh seafood, in those fishermen's taverns on the Bosporus, the Turks have fifty-odd recipes just for hamsi, better known as the humble anchovy. In the west of Turkey, the food has more in common with Georgian and Armenian home cooking than it does with Greek. And in the south, where Turkey borders Syria, Iran and Iraq, the flavors shade over into the Middle Eastern.
Similar but not the same: That's the key to deciphering world cuisines. A people may stop at their own borders, but food does not. Which is why I still believe that all matters of international diplomacy should be solved by winner-take-all Iron Chef-style cooking competitions, and all meetings of world leaders should be well-catered and have an open bar. It's tough to hate the guy across the table when you're both facedown in a bowl of dumplings.
In the second letter, Scott offered a strategy for taking on Denver's chain restaurants. "I have an idea for the promotion of 'ma and pa' or local restaurants," he wrote. "An Anti-Chain Restaurant Fund. The idea is simple. It is a sort of reverse Starbucks concept. The fund will pick a selection of chain restaurants and place 'ma and pa' local restaurants, serving the same style of food, right next to it. The restaurant will be provided with funding, promotion, etc. Think of it! Next to every KFC there will be a locally owned, authentic Southern fried-chicken joint. I think this would be a more effective way to encourage people to eat 'locally' than to just tell them to."
In theory, Scott could have a good idea. Well, not even in theory, really, but maybe in a utopian environment where the playing field was level and bank drafts grew on trees, it might work as well as my idea for an all-cotton-candy restaurant that gives free samples to food writers.
There are two reasons successful chain restaurants do the kind of business they do. First, they're capitalized up the wazoo: A strong chain operation has investors just waiting to throw money at the concept. Second, they thrive on uniformity. The reason people go to Olive Garden and not, say, Luca d'Italia is because when most people want fettuccine alfredo, they want it to taste the same every single time. They don't want to take a chance on going somewhere the fettuccine alfredo might taste different -- even if it might taste better.
As for the "Anti-Chain Restaurant Fund," I just hope Scott knows some people with very deep pockets. I asked Tom Bird, owner of Pho Fusion, at 8800 East Hampden Avenue, about the idea, because Bird is sitting on a local concept as close to solid gold as it gets. Pho Fusion offers fast-casual, healthy, reasonably priced Vietnamese food for the masses. It's the Chipotle of noodle bowls, the kind of place you'd want next to every P.F. Chang's on earth. And Bird himself is a very smart businessman who knows exactly what he's doing when it comes to branding and execution.
He laughed when I explained the fund proposal to him. He laughed a lot. And then he started talking business. It cost him roughly a quarter of a million dollars to open his Pho Fusion -- and that's just buildout. That's "working skinny," in his words, and just what it cost to get the doors open in a less-than-desirable location in a building that he doesn't even own. "Look," Bird explained. "I'm in a C location, right? This building is older than you and I put together." If you're trying to compete with a serious chain restaurant in a good location, you can assume that it will cost more than half a mil right off the top just to set up shop next door. And, as Bird pointed out, "Mom-and-pops don't have the triple-A credit that Starbucks does."
Still, let's say that Daddy Warbucks comes through with ten million dollars that would allow the Anti-Chain Restaurant Fund to open (but not operate) five independent restaurants next door to five chain restaurants. Those independent restaurants still need to get people in their door rather than that of the KFCnext door, then sell them an authentic Southern-fried chicken for five or six dollars a plate, and stay in business long enough to pay off the original opening investment before a single dime starts coming back in profits. From the start, they'll be handicapped by the fact that KFC buys all its supplies and product in a volume that's inconceivable to independent business owners -- thereby receiving huge volume discounts from suppliers (which is how they're able to sell five-dollar chicken in the first place) -- and benefits from hundreds of thousands of dollars of marketing money that KFC's parent company, Yum! Brands, coughs up every week. People think chicken, they think of the Colonel. They're not thinking of Scott's Discount Chicken Shack. And it's going to take a lot to change their minds.