Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Quality Control - or Lack Thereof

When Donna Crivello opened her eponymous coffee bar at Madison and Charles Streets in 1992, I was working at an auction house on North Howard Street. I loved that I could walk there on auction days to pick up a hot latte and a baked good to get me through the day. Back then, the coffee was good. Her business partner, Alan Hirsch, ran a TCBY outlet at the Rotunda Mall when I worked at the bookstore there. He was already plotting a coffee bar idea, and would often ask me to test drive new flavors of brew.

The good coffee lasted for a few years - my Dad and I became habituées and needed our daily dose of Donna's (usually their flavor du jour). It was strong and rich and a good way to start a morning. Then, suddenly, the coffee went downhill. I think I remember something about losing their original distributor/roaster, or something like that. Currently, Donna's coffee is weak swill, like a brown crayon dipped in hot water. I refuse to drink it at all these days. And why should I, when Starbucks is a block in the opposite direction? (Now there's a place that understands quality control and consistency are keys to a successful business.)

Donna's isn't just a coffee bar though - they have served food of some sort at just about every location. The Madison Street outpost is a full-service restaurant that became a semi-regular hangout for my friends and me in the early 90s. My favorite dish was the roasted vegetable salad, and their bread pudding was to die for. I haven't had the pudding recently, but I have had the salad. And that's where the title of this post really comes in.

The Donna's at the University of Maryland Medical System has been the only decent non-ethnic sit-down restaurant near work for a long time. Our group has the occasional celebratory lunch there, and sometimes I go with a vegetarian friend who is in the neighborhood for a doctor's appointment. Every once in a while I order the roasted vegetable salad, for old time's sake. A month or so ago, it was stellar. The sweet potatoes and beets we well-caramelized and sugar sweet. The potatoes were tender, and all of the veggies were still warm. The balsamic vinaigrette was the same as ever. It was a perfect example of how good this combination of vegetables and baby greens can be.

Then I had a salad recently. The white potatoes were still crunchy, the sweet potatoes were gritty, as if they hadn't been properly washed, and the beets were basically still raw. There was at least half a cup of under-roasted red onions that were from the outermost layer, making them tough. The eggplant was completely over-roasted and mushy (I don't think roasted eggplant in a salad is a particularly good idea to begin with. Maybe in a sandwich.) and the dressing was too tart. It was awful, and I couldn't finish the salad. A shame, because the portion of roasted vegetables was very generous.

It's been a while since I've eaten at another Donna's location. My husband and I had dinner at Cross Keys a few years ago, and while it was far from perfect, it was pretty good. Maybe the lack of care taken in roasting the vegetables is limited to the UMMS location? The staff does seem to have more attitude than customer service skills, with too many people behind the counter doing seemingly nothing, and the disaffected waitrons counting the minutes until their shift ends. I know the chain has a general manager-type who roams from branch to branch, but maybe she just skips this one? I don't know what the problem is, but there's really no excuse for such inconsistency.

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