By Steve Rak II

So Brickman and Valley Crest are now one big happy family with sales projected to approach (if not exceed) $2 billion annually.

What does that mean for the rest of us? Should we be worried? What if they set up shop right next door to you or me? Brickman is already in my market, but not next door … not yet.

In pondering the implications of the merger, I, strangely, found myself thinking about a guy here in Cleveland, my hometown. His name is Michael Symon. He is a world-famous chef, owns several restaurants in Cleveland, went on the Iron Chef TV show and won, co-hosts ABC’s The Chew and, overall, the guy just rocks.

Even before all the fame he had a rabid following in Cleveland. If you wanted to get a reservation at one of his restaurants you had to make it weeks in advance – and you still do. I know because I have been going to them since he opened Lolas, his first restaurant here. The Lola fries are to die for, just sayin’.

So what does a chef from Cleveland have to do with Brickman and Valley Crest merging?

Well, consider this: Do you think it would phase Michael Symon if a national chain plopped one of its restaurants right next door to one of his joints? I doubt it and here’s why:

  • First: His food is ridiculous (I don’t even think the word amazing does it justice so I decided on ridiculous). It is unique and you get these amazing flavors that you never thought would taste good together, like maple bacon ice cream! You just simply cannot get the same food experience at a national chain. Never. Ever.
  • Second: You get the Michael Symon experience. His restaurants are really cool and not at all pretentious, which fits right in with the whole Cleveland vibe.
  • Third: You get great service and all of the servers seem to really like working there. I have talked to servers, men and women, who have been working there for many years. I always ask them questions about working for Michael Symon and what its like to work at his restaurants. It drives my wife crazy, but I can’t help myself. This one time we actually sat at a table adjacent to where they cook the food and I was talking to the chefs the whole time; my wife was equally happy about that.
  • Fourth: He uses local ingredients and supports the local farmers and markets.

Now you might say, “Well, Steve, he is a famous guy who has his own TV show. Of course he is going to have successful restaurants.”

And I would say, “No, you are wrong. He is famous and has his own TV show because of his successful restaurants, not the other way around.”

He has achieved his level of success and recognition because he had the best food and restaurants in Cleveland. It would not matter one bit if his restaurants were surrounded by the national chains. It just would not make a difference, because they might have all kinds of food and good prices and drink specials, but they don’t have the Michael Symon experience. That is something that cannot be manufactured, engineered or put into a procedure manual.

In our industry we now have one big national chain company to deal with and some others that are working hard to be the next.

They may already have, or at some point they may decide to, set up shop in your neighborhood – will you be ready?

What are you doing to be unique and ridiculous and offer great service?

What kind of experience are your customers having, and is it one that will keep them loyal to you regardless of price or big chain competition?

If you need some inspiration for this head to Cleveland for a long weekend and have dinner at one of Michael’s restaurants. Oh, and don’t forget to order the Lola fries.