Food Fights

A menu makeover causes heartburn for customers and restaurant owners

Mar 31, 2004 at 4:00 am
Crazy Bowls & Wraps had a winning, healthy menu format that for ten years bucked the over-frying, super-sizing trends in fast food. But late last year the local chain decided to give fat a chance, a move that went over about as well as Prohibition.

"People got aggressive and cursed," remembers one branch manager who asked not to be identified. "More than 50 percent [of our customers] complained. People would get very angry; they would order a lot of things and then ask for a smoothie -- and we got rid of our smoothies -- so they would be like, 'Forget it!'"

"A lot of people panicked," says Sara Gliedt, manager at the restaurant's University City location on Forsyth Boulevard. "The hot and spicy chicken bowl, for example, tasted different, so people didn't like it. Change scares people."

Owners Gail and Keith Kitsis were scared themselves.

"People know us in the community, and it was so bad I didn't want to go to the grocery store or my daughter's school," recalls Gail, who founded the Creve Coeur-based chain, then called Bonzai Express, with her husband in 1994. "We were getting 50 to 60 e-mails a day. It was very ugly. We were at a wedding in Chesterfield, and this guy stiff-arms my husband as he was walking to the bathroom. He said, 'Why did you change the menu? What's wrong with you?'"

Crazy Bowls' drastic makeover debuted in mid-December, when the restaurant dared to add items such as lobster Rangoon, quesadillas and American-style pizzas, one of which featured jalapeño-flavored bacon. Old favorites, such as the Caesar wrap, were changed, while others, including the Superbowl, were removed entirely. Smoothies were replaced with shakes. Sales plummeted by 25 to 30 percent. Particularly galling to some was the addition of an "Atkins Bowl."

"Dear Owner CBW: Hhhhhhhhhh. I think you would jump off of a bridge if 1/2 of the country jumped off of a bridge to one extent or another," wrote patron Angela Downing in an open letter to the company on her web log.

"Also, I recently heard that you lost many of your customers because of your Atkins-driven menu revamp, which forced you to bring back many of the items you had originally deleted from the menu in your attempt to appease the Low-Carb Gods. By the way, if I really want a shake, I'll go to Silky's. They are located in the same strip mall as you, and they are an ice cream shop. Meaning, shakes are one thing, and sundaes are another! And grasshopper concretes? Holy cow, Keith K., grasshopper concretes are something entirely different! So are Butterfinger sundaes! You are nothing but a silly Atkins whore, Mr. Snippy."

Gail Kitsis blames the shakeup on local restaurant consultant Greg Perez, whom Crazy Bowls hired to overhaul the menu.

"He screwed up our restaurant so bad. We let him, in all honesty, but he didn't understand that we'd had a ten-year-old successful business and that we catered to a certain clientele. He thought our food was bland; it wasn't appealing to the masses. But does it matter? We have a sophisticated clientele. What can I tell you? Our clientele eat here for lunch and go to Clayton at night."

Perez, a veteran restaurateur who has done consulting work for twenty other local restaurants, begs to differ.

"It's a shame that she feels that way. The idea was, they had a good business going. They had a good grasp on the health-conscious diners, which are 20 percent of the diners out there, so they wanted to approach that other 80 percent. As I explained, anytime there's drastic change there's going to be as much as a 20 percent drop in business -- a fallout of the old clientele -- before the other 80 percent realize what's going on and come in and bring that back up.

"They have a cult clientele," confirms Perez, who has also done consulting work for the Saint Louis Bread Co. "And cult clienteles are averse to change. But they didn't give the new menu time to build or do any advertising to build the new format. They got a little scared, business dropped. They thought they were going to lose the whole ball of wax, and they went running for the hills."

Whatever the case, a return to normalcy at Crazy Bowls is now evident. Some previously retracted items have already returned under the menu heading of "old favorites," and all original items will be back by early April, vows Gail.

The previously disenchanted Angela Downing is marginally pleased.

"It seems like [Keith] made this decision without really getting input from anyone," she speculates, "and now he's kind of back-stepping and seeing that people went to his restaurants because they wanted low-fat items and not because they were jumping on the bandwagon."

Still, she's not thrilled that the Crazy Bowl owners plan to keep the Atkins Bowl. In fact, no one seems to understand the marriage of brown-rice-and-tortilla fare to the anti-carb cuisine inspired by the late Robert Atkins. Gail insists the bowl is popular with her customers, but Perez speculates it's because "everybody and their brother is on the Atkins [diet] right now." In other words, despite reneging on its attempt to appease the masses, Crazy Bowls is still holding out the Atkins Bowl as a sort of olive branch to disciples of the diet guru.

Gail, however, is quick to squash rumors that the Kitsises are on the diet themselves.

"Have you ever seen either of us? We're kind of like healthy types of people. We're not like two hundred and fifty million pounds overweight or anything. I'm not saying I'm skinny, but we just follow a sensible diet. My husband's a health nut; he eats brown rice and vegetables all day and does yoga. He's not a big believer in the Atkins diet."