Green Gables: The Demise of a Great Sioux City Eatery, Why It Failed, and Why Large Chain Restaurants Can Fail as Well (A Customer’s Point of View)

Green Gables, Sioux City, Iowa

“There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”
– Sam Walton

Given that this blog is about branding, albeit my personal brand, I have been thinking a lot about businesses, both small and large, that fail, some of them longstanding pillars of their communities.
As a customer, I am aghast at how obvious their downfalls seemed to me, that, perhaps, they were listening to the wrong experts, instead of customers.
Downfalls start small. Companies begin shaving away slivers of their products and hope that customers won’t notice, but I can say with confidence that we do notice when a company tries to pull a fast one and then tries to spin it as something positive. For example, the Dial Corporation took a 5-ounce bar of soap and morphed it into 4 ounces by carving out a “convenient” curve, making it easier to hold – so Dial says.
I don’t know about you, but I found the 5 ounce bar without the hand-hold curve convenient enough, thank you. Moreover, the bar lasted a lot longer, saving me money and time in that I spent less money buying bars and less time opening new bars of soap. I’m not 100% certain if this practice is a definitive indicator of future failure, but, often, the need to cut corners and then try to pull a fast one on customers is an omen.
In particular, I’m thinking of Green Gables, a local and popular restaurant in Sioux City, Iowa, my home town.
Sadly, this well-known family-style and family-owned restaurant closed after 85 years; I predicted this outcome years ago, but I would have rather been wrong and still have this Sioux City icon around; for me and my husband, the Green Gables was one of our highly anticipated destinations.

More, more, and more.

I’m going to try to explain why I, a customer, believe that this restaurant was doomed and that its closure was inevitable. And then I’ll explain why I think some major national brand restaurants could be fated to follow in the not-too-distant future.
When I was a child back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the Green Gables was the place to go. As for price, the dinner menu was a little high, but it was a special treat to go there, and diners did get a good bang for their buck. For lunch, their lunch menu was modestly priced and delicious, and I imagine that business people ate there every day.
The Green Gables was known far and wide for its generous portions (at least for the day) and some of its special sides, mainly its Matzo Ball soup, a gustatory experience to behold –
Move over, Roxy Deli in the Big Apple (unfortunately now closed as well).
Another thing that set aside the Green Gables from other local restaurants: the dinner you were served was complete: soup, salad, homemade rolls/breads and assorted crackers, entree, two sides (your choice), and a dessert (pie, pudding, or ice cream with hot fudge or creme de menthe).
This menu did not change until about the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, when the owners decided to shrink the complete-course menu. It started with offering “soup or salad.”
Well, okay, I get it. Complete courses, from soup and salad to dessert, are a rarity in the U.S. – it barely registered.
However, over the years, other courses disappeared: the second side and then the dessert. Finally, the homemade rolls were offered only on weekends and then eliminated altogether. The sides shrunk and were replaced with items of lesser quality, but prices did not shrink.
In addition, the Gables’ elderly core customer base, the faithful, was dying out, and a younger, not-so-loyal customer base replaced them – for a time.
However, the new customers had little impetus for remaining loyal.
In summer 2013, I knew the end was near when my family and I went to Green Gables for a family gathering. First of all, they were out of the grilled Walleye, which, next to the Matzo Ball soup, was one of the staple menu items and something we looked forward to every year. So we ordered something else – what, I don’t even remember. We thought maybe they would order in some more Walleye, but when my aunt called, they always said “not yet.”
In summer 2014, my aunt said that they changed the menu – without the Walleye – and cut the hours, eliminating dinner hours altogether, so we didn’t bother going this year.
And the August 25, 2014, news came that Green Gables had closed its doors forever.
A famous Sioux City icon: gone. A sad day for Sioux City.
As Aunt Colleen says, “Nothing stays the same,” but I wonder if the Gables could have been saved or even resurrected, at least in some form.
From a customer’s point of view, I can see clearly why the Green Gables could no longer succeed with the business model the owners chose to follow.
I think the demise started when the owners decided, most likely for financial reasons, to tweak with the full-course dinner menu. Although this change was not very noticeable at first, the owners had actually started the process that slowly chipped away at one of the aspects that made them famous nationwide and special: the full-course menu. Once that was gone, what made the Gables different was also gone.
While the cutback was not very noticeable at first, by the 1980’s the customer base was changing; the 1929 customers were now elderly or dead and even their children were in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, their grandchildren in their 30’s and 40’s.
Also, the Sioux City demographic was changing; many in my generation had moved away from Sioux City, and other ethnic groups were moving in: mainly Vietnamese and Latino communities.
As tastes changed, the Green Gables pretty much stayed the same, which was both good and bad. For example, keeping the Matzo Ball soup was a good decision, but keeping some tired dishes and not adding others that might have appealed to the changing demographic was not so good.
Certainly, “cutting back” the full-course menu seems intuitive: if you eliminate some courses, you can save money and not raise prices, except that prices always rise, anyway (It didn’t take long for that Dial soap I mentioned earlier to increase in price, despite the “new and improved” smaller bar).
So not only have you taken something away from your customers, you have been forced to raise prices anyway.
Ouch. Double whammy.
As I look back, I see the main strengths of the Green Gables: its full-course offerings, signature soup, awesome ice cream sundaes, and strong entrees, mainly the Walleye. These are the aspects the owners should have worked hard at retaining, despite temporary financial setbacks.
The owners might have looked toward the future and the changing demographics. Being located in a neighborhood that has largely evolved into a Latino community, they might have opted for a fusion ethnic menu, starting with some tasty ethnic side dish offerings (sides never their strong suit anyway).
Also, for the evening crowd, they could have set up a small salad and soup bar, featuring their famous Matzo Ball, among other choices, while servers still served warm breads and rolls, the entree and sides, and desserts – a bit of the new with the old.
In addition, they might have applied for an Iowa liquor license, thus offsetting any food price rises with alcohol sales, a guaranteed money-maker. These days, young adult professionals like enjoying a nice drink with their meals.
Finally, they might have looked into creating a side catering service, backed by their stellar reputation; who wouldn’t want world-famous Matzo Ball soup or Walleye at their weddings and reunions?
I firmly believe that with a bit of customer awareness and ingenuity, Mom and Pop restaurants like the Green Gables can be saved and even thrive.
In fact, I would love to see the Green Gables rise from the ashes, with the current or new owners at the helm.
Perhaps it will happen someday, perhaps not.
Small restaurants are not the only ones who fail to evolve with the times.
The other day, my son, granddaughter, husband, and I were dining at Ruby Tuesday. At some point, this chain has stopped serving bread as a regular offering. Sometimes they serve it, sometimes not. It’s kind of like a bread lottery – not a good business practice.
No one likes “begging” for bread.
After ordering our meals, an apologetic server let us know that they were out of two of the sides we had ordered, but then she cheerfully let us know that we could “upgrade” our dishes with “premium” sides – for an additional cost.
Really? Ruby Tuesday runs out of sides and we have to pay to upgrade?
Very, very bad business practice. She should have offered the premium options without charging extra. It’s called excellent “customer service” and convinces the customer that the business is really, really sorry for failing to order enough food for the day’s orders.
I made a pointed statement that since Ruby Tuesday was at fault, we shouldn’t have to pay extra for anything.
But my son and husband didn’t want to make fuss, so they just doubled up on their available sides.
To give our server her due, she did bring us some delicious biscuits. I also recognize that she doesn’t make corporate decisions, so it wouldn’t have been fair to stiff her of her rightful tip.
Still, when a restaurant chain starts nickel and diming customers, you know it’s in serious trouble.
Ruby Tuesday does have an overall branding problem: I have yet to discover what makes it special; from my standpoint, they sell mediocre food at ridiculous prices; if you add the salad bar to a $10 burger, it’s suddenly a $13.00 burger with lettuce and coleslaw. I can do better at McDonald’s or Wendy’s for much cheaper.
I predict that our local Ruby Tuesday will be out of business within a year and the chain gone within a few years.
Then I have read where Olive Garden is thinking of eliminating its all-you-can-eat breadsticks and endless salad bowl (or soup).
My advice: Don’t do it.
People go to Olive Garden because of the generous breadsticks and copious amounts of salad, not because of the great pasta, which is, quite frankly, just ordinary. If you want great pasta, go to a good local Italian restaurant, not a chain, which is governed by corporate bean counters who count every noodle, spoonful of sauce, and slice of chicken.
I hope that someone with a cool head and an ounce of sense will think better of that hare-brained idea.
I do think businesses, big or small, have a finite life, simply because over time their owners and CEOs begin to think small instead of different. Perhaps the day-to-day grind of running a business dries up their brains and muddles their thinking, making them forget what had made them great in the first place. This very narrow thinking is what probably killed the great bricks and mortar arm of Montgomery Ward, a large department store chain that fell fast and hard and is now just an online shell of its former self.
Sometimes companies just become too large, unwieldy, and corrupt (like the banks who were too big to fail and had to be bailed out by the government – otherwise, they would have died as well).
In 50 or 100 years, what modern companies will still be around? Facebook? Google? Microsoft? Wal-Mart?
I wonder.
Have a nice day!


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