Five Questions For... Bill Roehl of LazyLightning

Readers of LazyLightning can rely upon creator Bill Roehl for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: His sometimes blistering reviews of restaurants have earned him both ire and reader loyalty. He views his style of reviewing as tough love:

"If the owners and managers don't know that their restaurant is not meeting the expectations of their current and potential customers how are they to know when they need to make changes?" Roehl asks. "The truth hurts, but going under hurts a whole hell of a lot more."

Introducing himself, Roehl writes:

I'm a 29 year old who grew up just north of Scranton, PA which is most well known as the fictional location for the US version of The Office. I currently reside in Apple Valley with my beautiful wife Kim and our dumb but very lovable dog Buddy. I spend my days in downtown Minneapolis working as a research analyst for an institution of higher education.

You write a lot about food, but that's definitely not the sole mission of LazyLightning. How did the site get started, and how would you describe your mission and mandate?

BILL: LazyLightning has been around in some fashion or another since November of 1999 but it was not until May of 2005 that I switched the site to a blog format. In the beginning, like so many other blogs out there, I was cluttering the site with posts that were about our day-to-day activities. As time went on I noticed that people were visiting posts that pertained to going out to eat and soon my interest in food blogging grew into the near obsession it is now. I do my very best to highlight both new and long time favorite restaurants as well as news items which are of interest to those of us south of the river.

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Your beat is the south metro area — over the past, say, three years, what kind of changes have you noticed in terms of the dining situation? Any new favorite places spring into existence? Old favorites dying off?

BILL: Many new restaurants have opened in the last three years helping to fill the empty storefronts which litter the South Metro, but as everyone knows, very few even make it to the one year mark. Take for instance Bucky's Homestyle Diner. The owner took the time to listen to her customers and revamped the entire menu to become a great little eatery filling a niche that Apple Valley so desperately needed — a diner. Unfortunately the change came too late and shortly thereafter they closed their doors for good, without warning or fanfare.

There was also Danny Sarno's second South Metro venture, Two Guys from Italy, which offered mediocre food and a confusing counter ordering format. It gave me no reason to return after my first visit. It is rumored to be closed for good several months after a sign appeared on the door that it would return with a new Italian theme.

Even though many new restaurants have come and gone, the longtime favorites seem to be hanging in there. Establishments such as the fantastic hidden treat, Brianno's Deli-Itali in Eagan which offers takeout pizza, sandwiches and Italian treats that bring me right back to my days spent at Italian festivals and restaurants on the East Coast, continue to live on even in the face of fierce competition and the obvious economic downturn. Another example would be the House of Coates in Coates, MN which has been described by Twin Cities foodie MSPD as "the quintessential snowmobiler bar" offers a good menu stocked full of huge burgers that could possibly feed a small army.

While not my favorite place for a burger (that spot is currently held by Miesville's King's Place), it certainly has earned a spot as one of the most popular long-time favorites.

The single biggest trend that I have noticed are new local places attempting to compete with national chains by offering similar menus and/or themes without any attempt to bring something unique to the table. While I understand that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and that flattery will get you everywhere, I don't think it can be extrapolated to cover new restaurants in the South Metro.

More so than other bloggers, you're very willing to write confrontational and negative reviews — what is it about your outlook or style that lets you write more aggressively than most critics?

BILL: The restaurants I tend to frequent are locations that are lucky to receive a fluff piece in the suburb newspapers and/or no more than a five-word mention in the Star Tribune or Pioneer Press. I thought it would be nice to offer something more substantial to those who are looking to find a place to enjoy a meal and I felt that the best way to accomplish my goal would be to write about my experience honestly and truthfully without leaving any of the gory details out.

I have always said that I like to believe that I'm just your average Joe eating dinner and telling it like it is. I write my reviews as if I was sitting at home chatting with friends about a recent dining experience. Believe it or not I tend to use colorful language in general conversation and while some readers let me know that they feel my language and tone is completely unacceptable and that I look amateurish, I like to personally thank them for verifying that I'm still doing exactly what I set out to do.

I have had feedback from both ends of the spectrum with several restaurant owners asking me to come and review their establishment after reading my site and one who said he was 'intrigued' by what I had to say.

I have amassed a group of loyal readers who don't necessarily agree with my assessment of a particular restaurant but realize that I am offering a place for anyone to share their experiences. This setup offers those that stumble across the review a chance to make a decision based not only on what I have to say but the good word of several others. On the other side of the coin are the very angry readers who post comments or send e-mail that are hateful or threatening but seem to be mostly benign. I have also been contacted by several very angry owners who have gone so far as to threaten me with legal action if I did not retract the content of my review. I realize that owners take a lot of pride in their work but I
honestly believe that they should be looking for ways to improve on the experience they provide instead of wasting their time telling me that their lawyer will be in touch.

I have eaten in a lot of places and like many I have had experiences all across the board. I really find it hard to believe that everyone has a picture perfect dining experience when they go out to eat. I understand that in the traditional restaurant reviewing circle it's uncouth to blast a restaurant for all of the things that people expect when they go out to eat but to me it just doesn't make any sense to only highlight the places where everything is great. I can't count the number of times that a manager or owner has asked me what I thought of my meal and I replied with a comment that was less than flattering and found them staring back at me like a deer in headlights. I suggest that people should reconsider their absent minded head nods, false words of praise, or non-committal responses in favor of the hard truth. If the owners and managers don't know that their restaurant is not meeting the expectations of their current and potential customers how are they to know when they need to make changes? The truth hurts but going under hurts a whole hell of a lot more.

How important is value to you when you dine out, and how do you assess whether a place is a bargain, a fair deal, or a rip-off?

BILL: Value isn't my number one concern when I go out to eat but it is something that I take into consideration when I write my review as I know it may be important to others. When I decide whether or not a restaurant is meeting my expectations I try to think back to all the other restaurants I have visited with similar menus and then give others a benchmark to compare against. If the current restaurant's food is not up to par with a similar restaurant I let people know where I feel that they can find a better meal of that type for their money. I realize it must be hard for Burnsville's Chianti Grill which cavorts as an Italian restaurant and grill to be hammered with a recommendation for others to try the Olive Garden instead but I feel that if a restaurant is going to push out food that's of equal or lesser quality when compared to another, people should know what direction they may want to walk when they vote with their feet.

What's your number one, favorite, fail-safe, "go to" restaurant in the Twin Cities, and why?

BILL: You know, this is a really tough question for me to answer. The list of restaurants that we visit more than once is pretty small and limited to a small radius around our house because of the number of restaurants on my "to review" list. With that said, I am going to have to offer up Satay 2 Go in Apple Valley as the one place that we return to most frequently.

Satay 2 Go is a no frills, no nonsense Asian fusion restaurant. A very bright and simple shop run by the owner and her husband, this place has a great menu which is inspired by street food from Cambodia, China, Thailand, and Malaysia just to name a few. While I have to admit that I was not impressed with the interior when I first walked in, I have grown to feel comfortable there and my wife and I routinely eat while chatting with the owners about local food, new restaurants, and their own business. They value their customers and they prove it by treating them like family. If you're in Apple Valley and you're looking for some really great food for the money, I suggest trying their Mee Goreng, Malaysian Satay, and one of their Asian pastries such as their Cheesy or Milky buns. Make certain you tell Corrine that I sent you!

Visit LazyLightning at www.lazylightning.org


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