The Mahoning Valley truly has a rich pedigree of dining dynasties. I revel in the stories of the “good old days” when Youngstown and Warren were filled with tasty treasures. Stories of how you couldn’t even get into the old Alberini’s or Abruzzi’s Cafe 422 without having a suit jacket on. The days when you could go to Idora Park and get an ice cream cone and fresh-cut fries at a moment’s notice (…just imagine the rides going and the smell of the salt and vinegar!) There was a certain magic the Mahoning Valley had about it. With major plant closings over the past few years and a continuously rising crime rate, it seems these olden days could almost be forgotten. Luckily, there are few tried and true restaurants that have made it though despite these difficult times. Moving forward, I truly do believe there’s a new era of exciting dining on the rise in the Mahoning Valley. We can already see a visible change in parts of Youngstown and other surrounding areas. We see it in the revitalization of the Idora neighborhood, new student housing in downtown, and the beautifying and upkeep of Mill Creek Park. I think we can all agree that it’s time to translate that kind of beneficial, positive change into the culinary arena as well. This begins with local restaurant owners. From what I’ve seen, there is a small subculture of highly-enthusiastic owners starting to accumulate. Unfortunately, these passionate owners are juxtaposed by owners focused only on revenue and profit. Above all, before any type of profit happens, there has to be a strong desire and diligence for hospitality (a word that, in my opinion, has lost so much of its meaning in today’s society.) Without those two fundamentals, small businesses drown. People want to see and feel genuine passion when they walk through the doors of a business. That’s how you build a solid and dependable customer base.
Another area to conquer is in finding the right employees. It seems nearly impossible sometimes for owners, operators and managers to find those employees that really have the desire to give exceptional customer service. The perfect employee obviously looks different for each individual restaurant depending on the clientele that you serve and what type of vibe your business evokes. The service you expect to get at a taco joint is going to be much different than the service and presentation you’d expect at a gourmet eatery. Continuing, each team member must be so connected with the success of the restaurant that they make it their personal mission to enhance the experience for each and every patron.
Another huge way for restaurateurs to succeed and set themselves apart from others is to serve only quality food. This will encourage your employee to give only the best customer service because they are able to be proud of the food they are serving. We can no longer take the easy way out when it comes to raw ingredients. A higher food cost will generate revenue. The days of over-processed food packed full of growth hormones and antibiotics must come to an end. If not for our sake then for the sake of our children. The other interesting gain from focusing on food quality is the sense of community that it renders. When you are looking for the freshest produce and the highest quality meats you have to look locally. Additionally, when you decide to focus on quality in food production, you begin to outsource more and more products from local vendors. This type of culture is definitely starting to happen already which is exhilarating for all of us Youngstown foodies (don’t forget we have a two-acre urban farm on the Southside as well as a growing flea market in Youngstown and Warren.) Now here is the clincher, while the restaurateurs may be the catalyst to this, we as consumers are the ones that are called to cultivate this culture. This means stepping outside of the box from time to time. We can’t be afraid to venture out geographically. While suburbs may have become the epicenter of commerce in most respects, there is a multitude of great dining experiences waiting to happen outside of Boardman and Canfield. Not only that, but there is a certain aesthetic and ambiance you get when going out to eat in an urban setting. For a lot of you millennials, I’m sure you can remember the days of the old Lemon Grove and Cedars — you know, when Youngstown had a real music scene (maybe you can recall watching “Jones for Revival” or “Red Wanting Blue” play.) I think it’s time to take downtown back. While most of us might not be able to stay up past midnight anymore, we would still love to go downtown and eat a delicious meal while simultaneously enjoying some live, local music. I don’t know about you, but I’m over the DJ’s and Dubstep. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge hip-hop enthusiast, but when I cut into my steak I definitely don’t want to hear Fetty Wap playing in the background. Another way we can step out of our comfortable culinary box is in our restaurant choices. We have some fantastic, locally-owned and operated cafes and restaurants here. That’s part of why Spade and I started this blog. We’re tired of driving past full parking lots at Applebee’s and Chili’s while our own local gems go unnoticed. I promise you there are better places to dine than the corporate chains and that’s what we want to showcase to you. Let’s not forget about our longstanding staples such as the MVR or The Hot Dog Shoppe, but let’s try and also support some of our more up and coming restaurateurs.
I’d like to think that we are not the only people in the valley passionate about this. It’s going to be a process, but I cannot wait to see this food culture progress and for more local foodies to be brought to life. So as any good, loyal community should, let’s all rally together and show support for each other and most importantly let’s show some support for darn good food!