SALT LAKE CITY — There are lots of obvious reasons why Salt Lake City’s Market Street Grills are still standing 33 years later in an industry where the average full-service restaurant lasts about as long as an NFL quarterback’s knees — 10 years if you’re lucky.
There’s the even-your-mother-would-call-it-clean cleanliness — go ahead, try to find a wad of gum under the table or a cigarette butt within shouting distance of the entrance.
There’s the beyond-the-norm quality of ingredients — French leek and real sour cream in the clam chowder; Bear Lake raspberries in the raspberry jam; tartar sauce with capers that are ground on the premises.
There are the hot soup plates, cold salad plates, seafood that was swimming off Malibu that morning, and servers who make Miss Congeniality look grumpy.
But to get to the real genius of Market Street’s uncommon longevity requires a trip in time back to two lessons Tom Guinney learned before he was old enough to drive.
Tom is chief of operations and co-owner, with John Williams, of Gastronomy Inc., the parent company that manages Market Street’s five locations. (Williams is the developer and builder of the Gastronomy brand; Guinney — pronounced "guin" as in win and "ney" as in knee — is the man who stands in the kitchen and shouts “Do this!”)
The first lesson was when his father, who ran a lunch counter in Minneapolis when Tom was a boy, told him that the secret to the restaurant business is to live where you work and work where you live. “Understand the culture, the natives, their customs,” Theodore Guinney advised. “Get to know it and embrace it.”
The second lesson was the one Tom absorbed when he was a high school sophomore and got a job washing dishes at the Anaheim Elks Club after the family moved to California.
Seeing firsthand the way the back-of-the-house employees were treated by management — underpaid, underappreciated and overworked — he vowed never to treat the help that way if he were ever in charge.
“I learned everything not to do,” he says.
Such was Guinney’s background when Williams and another partner, the late Tom Sieg, invited him to come to Salt Lake in the late 1970s and help manage the new restaurant company they were getting going.
Shortly thereafter, on Market Street in downtown Salt Lake City kitty-corner from the federal courthouse, they opened their first Market Street Grill.
From the start, Guinney followed his father’s advice. He not only moved from California to Utah, he dug into Utah’s heritage. He studied it, he absorbed himself in it.
He learned what made this place tick.
And then he did everything he could to make sure Market Street fit in.
Perhaps the best example of this is the way Tom chose to handle “the liquor thing.”
In a state where alcohol gets more scrutiny than the weather, he made the decision to A) make alcohol available to anyone who wanted it, and yet B) make it as unobtrusive as possible.
Instead of placing the bar in the middle of the restaurant, as is often the norm in full-service restaurants around the country, he placed it off to the side and out of the line of fire.
He made the majority and the minority happy.
As for the workers in his restaurants, from day one he made a concerted effort to give them excellent working conditions, treat them with respect, praise them, and, best yet, pay them well and on time.
Granted, all this is according to Guinney, but you have to admit he has a good case: restaurants that are as popular today as they were 33 years ago.
Over the years, Market Street has hardly changed. When Tom stands in front of the counter at the original Market Street Grill on Market Street, he looks out at essentially the exact same restaurant as the day it opened in 1980.
And yet, year-in, year-out, as regular as clockwork, Market Street keeps serving its 1 million-plus customers.
That just doesn’t happen in the ever-changing restaurant business.
“This has become a very interesting place,” says Guinney 33 years later.
This place might say the same about him.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org