National chains learn subtle nuances and food innovations from independent owners; mom and pop entrepreneurs and chef owners learn operational efficiencies from the big guys.

Three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and I’m in a mall-based California Pizza Kitchen.

At this hour, servers and staff far outnumber diners in the restaurant. I order a flatbread snack and my husband orders a club sandwich—add cheese, scratch the avocado.

Simple requests, but a disappointing series of events ensue: The flatbread arrives as anticipated; the sandwich lags behind. When it is served, the cheese is forgotten and there is an abundance of avocado. The server apologizes, explains there is new staff in the kitchen, and takes the sandwich back.

The corrected club sandwich finally arrives more than an hour after the order was placed. Meanwhile, we’ve watched the half dozen employees in the open kitchen leisurely chatting and snacking—easy to do since no additional diners have come into the restaurant.

An assistant manager responds to our displeasure, offering to comp the meal, sharing a coupon for a free appetizer in the future, and telling us what a great company CPK is. From a corporate perspective, I’d have to agree: CPK sales were up 4.2 percent in 2013 and AUV topped $3.2 million.

But from a consumer perspective, I don’t really care about the big corporate picture. I just want a pleasant eating experience.

Theoretically, we all understand that diner perspective because we’re all consumers. However, chain restaurants—the biggest and the best—often lose sight of that mentality. When Golden Gate Capital acquired CPK in 2011, the brand’s DNA changed. Even though Golden Gate has assembled a portfolio of successful consumer-facing enterprises, including national retailers and, as of this summer, Red Lobster, retail and restaurants deliver very different consumer experiences.

Consumers walk into a retail store to make a purchase—it’s a business transaction augmented by customer service. People walk into a full-service restaurant wanting to be served food—it’s a more intimate, personal transaction followed by an exchange of money.

Independent operators, chef/owners, and franchisees embrace that concept—their restaurants have to turn a profit just like those owned by private equity investors, but their business model is more often girded in passion and entrepreneurial aspirations.

While independent operators learn operational efficiencies from the large national companies, the big chains learn the finer nuances of restaurant service from the small guys—mom and pop diners to James Beard winners. Of course, there are always exceptions. The Melting Pot and Ruth’s Chris Steak House are featured in this issue because they are national companies that are consistently performing at the corporate level as well as delivering superb dining experiences for their guests.

Bar Management, Expert Takes, Feature