The sign went up some weeks ago, a hasty metal bandage in a space too big for its provocative message. No logo or name. Just a description, a declaration that seemed to lambast other cafes for having the audacity to serve city residents anything other than real food.
What was the story here? Were they setting the bar too high or too low with their declaration? And were their hash browns sliced, diced, or shredded? This intrepid (and hungry) Unit member decided to find out.
That old adage, "location, location, location!" rings in my ears as I approach the cafe's recessed entrance and seems to echo in the empty dining room I enter. Hidden around the corner from the main flow of foot traffic running between Penn Square and the 300 Block, White's Cafe may not be serving real food for long. Flanked on one side by a small cellphone shop and on the other by the faceless cinderblock of a rundown Rite Aid, it seems doomed before it even got a fighting start.
It wouldn't be the first restaurant here with that taint. The ambience is adequate, though empty. Very empty. I'm guessing the decor and other renovations have been largely retained from the stillborn C. Failla's, though I'm the only one here to appreciate it. Old iMacs line two walls, giving truth to the paper sign in the window that boasts free wifi and computer access. So far White's is 1 for 1 on coming through with the cheap signage claims.
There's a voice coming from the back, behind a counter tucked tightly between a rack of potato chips and a soda cooler, so I head back that way. There's a girl back there who seems so startled to see me that she doesn't say hello at first, as if not to frighten me away. I am delighted to find that they serve breakfast and order some bacon, eggs (dippy) and hash browns. I probably should have thought twice about the dippiness of my egg (see "Check Minus" below).
Ok, I'm not the greatest photographer out there (though I can recommend several to you). But I can assure you that the food is indeed real. Tasty too. Toast comes with my eggs, though I hadn't ordered them, and the homefries come in on the side of "diced" in the Great Homefries Debate (though normally I like mine shredded). They look suspiciously like french fries that have been cut up, but they're expertly seasoned and cooked well, so I'm not complaining.
The owner comes in while I'm waiting for my food and, like the girl behind the counter, he's friendly but not pushy or over-attentive. He seems like a good guy and recognizes me from working in the neighborhood. He's proud of his business and the food he offers and he wants to share it with people. After meeting him I genuinely wish him well and hope his business lasts.
Unfortunately, most restaurants fail. As I sit there, dipping my toast in my eggs, I wonder why some restaurants succeed while others fail, why some stick around for years while others flame out quickly, and why it's evident to most bystanders which ones will last and which ones won't. Obviously, location is key. So is personnel — a good chef running the kitchen will bring people in, particularly if they've been on Bravo or the Food Network. But for a guy who starts out with some money and a friend or a relative who can cook? What's the tipping point then?
You need an idea — a vision to build a brand around and a reason for people to come in. Because people can get real food anywhere (despite a general dearth of signage making that claim) and there's no reason for them to try yours. People tend to think that branding is just cosmetic - a logo and snazzy graphics and glossy menus. It isn't, though. It's the dream that you have that drives your business, and good branding is able to communicate that dream to others in such a way that they want to be a part of it. And if you don't have a real brand, a cohesive message that ties together everything from the signage to the decor to the way your employees interact with your customers, then what you're communicating is a (design) nightmare.
I like White's. They're not the cheapest eats in town (you wouldn't guess from their menus), but they're not the worst and they don't commit the cardinal sin of burning their coffee. They're just the latest in a series of restaurants failing to take advantage of the services of a hip young international design unit. But they serve breakfast all day, so head on over there if you need a homefries fix.
I give them a Check.
Nida's Check / Check Minus / Check Plus Rating System of Real Food
Check Plus: The only thing that could make this better is if it were on a stick. Because everything on a stick tastes better.
Check: Meets most of our needs in an adequate fashion
Check Minus: I once ate undercooked crab cakes and got a nasty case of salmonella, which precipitated a fever, the chills, insomnia, explosive purging, loss of appetite, and acute pain when wearing anything with a waistband that actually touched my waist. I would rather eat those crab cakes again than eat this slop.