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Ethnic Foods - Real or Not Real? That is the Question

By Thomas J. Haas

When one evaluates the restaurant industry, the big trend word has been "ethnic." Webster defines ethnic as "Of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic or cultural origins or background - of or relating to characteristics of ethnics - neighborhood/foods."

You have high-end ethnic, middle and casual ethnic. You also have faster food ethnic. Bagel, which was a foreign word until recently, now rivals sourdough, rye, Wonder Bread, and surpassed Parker House rolls for sure.

The question is - what is real when it comes to ethnic, and how can the industry take so many simply wonderful foods and debase them into oblivion?

Bagels are round, have a whole in the middle, and have a very chewy texture, if you are talking about real New York water bagels. Has anyone tried some of the new facsimile bagels that melt in your mouth before you have a chance to chew? What a shame so many people will never know the real thing.

Italian foods are in an even worse situation, as the whole country is working diligently on driving good Italian into the outer reaches of Mars. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit a number of different types of Italian restaurants in one week, with only 50 percent doing justice to the Mecca of Mediterranean flavors.

The first abuse of Italian was a casual restaurant in the Phoenix area. The restaurant had cans of plum tomatoes, olive oil and pasta lined up to sell its "authenticity." The young, part-time student-type bounced over to present the menu. What type of wine do you have? Answer: Let me check it out. From this point on, it went downhill to a bowl of the worst linguine, floating in a tasteless sauce with chunks of non-descript chicken and vegetables. When I say floating, I should really say DROWNING.

From there I went to Carino's, which was a fairly good casual concept with very palatable food. Che Bella replaced a previous steakhouse and was an authentic, family-run restaurant that served REAL ethnic, and was a reasonably priced, casual/semi-upper scale concept.

At Tony Vallone's exquisite Anthony's, a DiRoNa Award recipient, and the Grotto in Houston, I had the experience of being in a beautiful Italian restaurant and a marvelously authentic trattoria. The true departure from the real to the unreal was at the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport, where a so-called Italian concept with those familiar cans of "authentic" plum tomatoes and tins of olive oil beckoning you to "Mongia, " and a sign in the window: "We Serve Hebrew National Hot Dogs." This restaurant should have been named "West Side Harry's" instead of "East Side Mario's." This last experience illustrates what is happening in the marketplace. What a range of quality levels, and what an abuse of great foods such as pasta, bagels, etc.

Fake furs have a limited life; cheap sparkling wines on longer qualify as champagne; Wonder Bread has been replaced by whole grains and sourdough; and artificial flavors in ice cream have been replaced with real fruit. Bad food of any type hurts the business, but unaccomplished operators who have limited food knowledge cannot fool the public. Unfortunately, it makes it hard to entice customers with the real thing when their previous ethnic experiences have been exploited.

The success of DiRoNa Award recipients can be credited to the integrity of their food and service. In this competitive environment, ethnic to some means low food cost, while to others, it means a palate-pleasing experience that brings customers back. Quality flavors and tastes are still an integral part of the food business, although some operators seem to have forgotten this most basic axiom for success.

Remember - Hot food hot. Cold food cold. Kosher dogs don't work with plum tomatoes.

Thomas J. Haas is President of Thomas J. Haas & Associates, Inc. Mr. Haas is a food service industry consultant specializing in strategic marketing, and is a leading analyst in the industry. Mr. Haas can be contacted regarding consulting and public speaking engagements by e-mail at

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