Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Slippery Slope

“A taste for the miniature was one aspect of an orderly spirit." – Atonement, by Ian McEwan

“Tell me again why you hate the word ‘slider’?” I asked my friend the other day as we narrowed down our dining choices to a Happy Hour that also had Trivia and a decent whiskey pour.

He made a face. “Because it’s a phonetically gross word and sounds like something you’d order at TGI Fridays that has oysters and mayonnaise in it.”

“What if they were called mini-burgers?” I returned, “Or burger-bytes?”

After a moment of consideration he conceded the first but named the latter “too nerdy, something someone in khaki pants would order in a robot voice…” That’s fun to imagine: a forty-something c0dem0nkey ordering 'burger-bytes' and then returning to his or her table in rusty robot mode, moves perfected in 1987 but hardly ever busted out anymore, except during weddings.

But I digress...

The actual etymology of the word “slider” being used to connote a beef-and-bun-combo is a bit murky, but various sources online suggest that it comes from the Navy – a greasy burger slides into the bun (a greasy burger will also slide right off the griddle if the ship is in high seas) – and then there is the White Castle “slyder”, a small burger that certain movie characters will go to great lengths to attain.

Oh, but what’s in a name? I like sliders because they’re like the dishes in doll houses, and the tiny labeled cans of food for the doll house pantry – their tininess fills me with a kind of glee. Sliders also share the appeal of Wimpie’s burgers – there are heaps of them! – and the delight that comes from popping something into your mouth –jalapeño poppers, for example, or popcorn shrimp. The smallness of a slider creates the dizzying feeling of being gargantuan, like the giant at the top of Jack’s beanstalk. “Rahr!” one says, stomping around, thirty feet tall, “Rahhr!” Pop, pop, pop, in go the tiny burgers.

Broiler cooks make similar noises when their grills are covered with orderly rows of tiny little patties. “What do you think of sliders?” I asked one during my in-depth research for this clog-blog. “Aaargh! Graaarl!” he said, the vein in his forehead pulsing in time with the printer’s regurgitative noises. He summarized his remarks with, “Get out of the way! I need more fries!” So there you go.

Happy Hours have swept through restaurants across the country, cutting down the growth of American cuisine and leaving behind a cadre of bitter chefs overlooking a bristly field of chicken wings, iceberg wedges, nachos, and of course, sliders. The theory behind a good Happy Hour menu is that it gets “butts into seats” and that “everyone else is doing it.” But, it also spins the restaurant employees into some of the least happy hours of their lives, as cooks scurry around plating food that may be delicious and tiny but does very little to promote the chef’s vision or the “real” cuisine of the house, and servers slosh $5 Cosmos and Appletinis all over their aprons while trying to smile through the haze of Jägermeister fumes.

In a recent issue of Washington Restaurant Magazine, a trade rag that has some interesting articles, Rick Braa talks a bit about the pros and cons of a good Happy Hour – a menu period during which restaurants typically lose money, a trend grown more alarming in these difficult economic times:

“…during pre-recession times, happy hour business accounted for only 12% of evening sales at a large, upscale casual restaurant. During this post-recession period, however, that number has risen to 20%, indicating that more diners are ordering the bargain options instead of those profit-driving items from the dinner menu.”

One of the problems he lists is the predominance of smaller plates on happy hour menus that, by dint of the fussiness in plating, hit kitchens in labor and food costs. About sliders he says,

“Hamburger sliders take nearly as long as a hamburger to plate and there are typically three of them!”

In our restaurant, we serve two on a plate, but the point remains that the slider is double the trouble of a burger when we sell 75 of them in two hours. They are tasty, though.

But does a delicious slider compel a customer to return during dinner hours to try some of the “actual” food on the menu? Probably not. Spending trends suggest that diners who have flocked to the Happy Hour mode tend to stay there, leaving the dining room open for customers who prefer cloth napkins to paper, metal flatware to plastic sporks and finger-food. And when there is cross-over between the menus, when a customer can try the mac-n-cheese and a beet salad for 50% off what it costs for dinner, there isn’t really a compelling reason to pony up the extra cash for the same food a little later in the day.

So what does that leave us with? The Grim Hour? The Grin-and-Bear-It Hour?

A walk along First Avenue, past restaurants that opened on the strength of their dinner menu and the Chef's name, and failed in a matter of months, seems to support the notion that “butts in seats” is the number one factor in restaurant success, and that, over all, a good Happy Hour will bring people in. Whether they return is not the immediate concern – they are here now and we will slide food onto their plates as long as they keep ordering it. Keep the money wheel turning.

I think for me, Happy Hour is a chance to try a restaurant’s atmosphere. A good Happy Hour menu will get us through the door, and we can ooh and aahh over the candles or sconces, comment on the décor, look at the dinner menu, and decide whether we want to come back for more time in the actual restaurant space.

There are other factors, of course: the dice-friendliness of the countertops or tables, the servers’ Seattleyness (a killer), the quality of the fries, the quantity of the nachos...but if someone starts calling sliders “burger-bytes” and sells them with miniature robot accoutrements, they’ll have a customer for life.