As we were launching Friday’s nationally, in the late 60′ and early 70’s, we were creating casual dining and most importantly casual dining food. Restaurant food had primarily been fast food, coffee shops, diners or up scale white table cloth. Casual dining brought innovation, cross overs and FUN. My job was much like Triple D (DINERS – DRIVE-INS & DIVES) on the food network. I searched out the best of the best. I went anywhere there was a line in front of the door. As my friend Mariano (of restaurant fame in Dallas) reminded me recently, Friday’s was the first to blur the lines, serving  ethnic, bar-b-que or ‘whatever’. Our rule was to improve the products we ‘discovered’ with EXCELLENCE and innovation, never directly copying someone.

Our most famous innovation was the potato skin. While entertaining a girl friend’s brother in Dallas who was from Coral Gables, Florida, he mentioned an interesting potato product he had seen at the Mariner Hotel in Coral Gables. Fascinated and always searching for new innovative products I flew to Florida. The product was an embryo of what we eventually made famous but it got us started. Everyone except Joe Snouffer, who was in charge of product development, thought I was crazy. After six months of many variations Joe nailed it. It took another six months for the product to capture the public’s attention but then WOW! Many fun problems ensued, like what do you do with the potato insides we scooped everyday. A cleaver kitchen employe solved that by inventing a peace symbol looking knife that scooped three wedge fries, creating a new product. Ooops, wedge fries became so popular we had excess skins but that’s another story. (We paid the cook $5,000 for his invention). The funniest business problem with potato skins was the pricing.  There didn’t seem to be any limit to the  elasticity of demand, charge what we may,  demand remained unchanged! Nice problem to have.

We introduced many products to many parts of the country for the first time. In Boston we got funny comments about the ‘hot okra’ on the nachos and in the mid-west had to work hard to keep patrons from trying to eat artichoke leaves and choke. I guess we were little responsible for today’s over sized portions. One of our first entries was an ice cream sundae served in the large dimpled goblet in which we served our outrageous martinis on “Friday’s nights”! We prided ourselves on being the leaders of both innovation and quality, making everything from scratch. Our core values were based on EXCELLENCE so our 100% menu philosophy meant every menu item must be best of kind. So even normal items like a grilled cheese or onion soup must be the best of kind. (Our onion soup recipe exceeded the specs at the Ritz-Carlton and the bowl was the classic French crockery.)

Sadly, today the majority of  casual dining has abandoned fresh food and innovation in favor of supply line efficiencies for ease of  preparation. Look for their labels in the frozen food counters at your local grocery store! Happily, this has spawned a delightful new industry, Food Trucks! Fresh food and innovation abound. We go every chance we get!

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