Sometimes you surprise me, Fresno. More and more, you surprise me in a good way.
The latest example: Steak 'n Shake, after being open barely a year, has flipped its last burger within the city limits.
If 20 years of living here have taught me anything, it's that Fresnans care about food. Especially food cooked and served in a chain restaurant. In particular when said chain restaurant has locations in other states and other regions of California but not here.
Even rumors of a popular chain moving to town can spark a social media frenzy. (See Cracker, Barrel.) And when the doors finally swing open, as they did at Steak 'n Shake and so many other places, the pent-up excitement creates lines stretching out the door.
We love our chain restaurants. So much that they sometimes use us as guinea pigs for their latest experiments. Like when some culinary genius came up with the idea of making taco shells out of nacho cheese chips.
But maybe this is a sign the grease on that reputation is beginning to coagulate.
In her story about the closure, ace retail reporter Bethany Clough provided many morsels for our consumption. A few were delicious.
According to Eric LeVaughn, an executive in the company that owns both the restaurant and developed the land it's built on, sales at our Steak 'n Shake were extremely soft. How soft? Try 75 percent slower than the next-lowest-performing location in California.
Across the parking lot at Del Taco, also owned by San Dimas-based Sater Oil, business was equally bad. That restaurant closed as well.
"That Del Taco ended up being the slowest Del Taco … in the country," LeVaughn said.
The slowest Del Taco in the country. That's quite a distinction – and one we should all be proud of for the simple reason that no matter where you are in Fresno, you're never far from better Mexican food than Del Taco.
Many are quick to jump on the real estate adage "Location, location, location" as the reason Steak 'n Shake couldn't make it. Which implies the restaurant would've done better in a more affluent part of the city.
Maybe so. But that doesn't explain how there can be more than a dozen chain restaurants within a mile of Kings Canyon & Peach, according to Google Maps, and those seem to be doing just fine.
LeVaughn placed the blame on inadequate marketing, telling Clough the Steak 'n Shake brand isn't well known in California and corporate did a poor job of getting the name in front of customers.
He may have a point there. Gotta admit at least one burger-consumer forgot about its existence.
Another factor, according to a few commenters on The Bee's Facebook page, was that the food wasn't that good and also overpriced. That's a combo that will doom any restaurant, chain or not.
Since everyone seems to have a theory cooked up, here's mine: The demise of Steak 'n Shake heralds a shift in Fresno's collective eating habits.
Our tastes are changing, and by that I mean changing for the better.
This isn't to say all national chains are bad and that Fresnans are turning their stomachs against them. The good ones will always have loyal customers and long lines, as any drive past In-N-Out Burger will confirm.
Over the past few years, however, locally owned eateries have gotten more exposure and gained larger footholds. Social media and sites like Yelp play a role in this. And thanks to annual events such as the Taco Truck Throwdown and FresYes! Fest, plus weekly gatherings at places like Gazebo Gardens and Enzo's Table, the food truck scene has exploded. Many of the successful ones also have brick-and-mortar locations.
More and more Fresnans are becoming aware that the best food is prepared in kitchens where the cooks do the shopping and come up with their own recipes. So why settle for anything less?
Four of the 10 Steak 'n Shake locations in California have closed. It's possible those were also built in the wrong locations, in markets unfamiliar with the brand and served mediocre, overpriced food.
But I'd like to think a popular national chain failed in Fresno because we as a community found something more delicious to eat.
Something to think about when driving past those two vacant buildings on Kings Canyon en route to Taste Kitchen. Order the pork belly tacos and thank me later.