The untold truth of Outback Steakhouse

There was a time when anyone wanting a special night out would head to a place like Outback Steakhouse. Everyone in the family could find something on the menu they liked, whether it was chicken, a burger, or — of course — steak. But with the introduction of fast-casual dining and other new trends it seems like more and more people are heading elsewhere, unfortunately for Outback.

But if you're looking for a place where you know what to expect, where coworkers and friends can get together after work for a few drinks and some appetizers, Outback might be your place. There's no denying that's largely because of the Bloomin' Onion, their flagship dish that's more popular than their steak ever was — even though it's in their name. It's just the right amount of crunchy, and it's so bad for you that you'd better be sharing it. Let's talk about Bloomin' Onion secrets, and some other things you didn't know about this chain.

No, the founders had never been to Australia

Native Australian Besha Rodell reviewed Outback Steakhouse for LA Weekly in 2013, and confirmed it's pretty much nothing like what a native Australian might expect.

There's good reason for that. Outback Steakhouse was founded by four Americans in 1988, and they were Americans who had never even been to Australia. They were inspired by Crocodile Dundee… so let's put that into perspective. That's like a group of Australians founding an "authentic" American restaurant after watching American Pie… and no one wants that to ever happen.

When those founders were developing the idea, they specifically chose not to head off the the Land Down Under, because they wanted to cash in on the kitchy stereotypes Americans had about Australia. So instead, they scrounged things out of antique and junk stores that they thought sounded sort of Australian-ish — like sheep shears and bullhorns — and opened their first restaurant in a South Tampa strip mall. According to the Tampa Bay Times, the founders knew more about the business plans of restaurants like Benigan's and Chili's, and that explains a lot.

No, it's not authentic Australian cuisine

Since the founders of Outback Steakhouse didn't actually want to be influenced by the real thing and instead made their restaurant a sort of stereotype of Australia, it's not surprising there's nothing about the food that's authentic, either.

Do you know what's not Australian, according to native Besha Rodell (via LA Weekly)? Shrimp on the barbie, along with Toowoomba pasta, and Bloomin' anything. Burgers, onions…. Not Australian. The Californian's Joe Truskot headed to Outback with an Australian friend, who ordered the Mixed Grill. She got a piece of chicken, baby back ribs, and coconut shrimp, which wasn't at all what she expected. When your order a Mixed Grill in Australia, you get something very different: sausage, liver, and bacon.

When one Quora user asked for native Australian opinions on Outback, one native answered, "Pizza Hut is more authentically Italian than Outback is Australian." That puts it all into perspective.

They season steaks with a shocking 17 spices

How do you season your steak? Chances are good it's pretty minimal, in order to let the taste of the meat be the main star. Seasonings, rubs, and spices should be the supporting cast, after all. Even Jamie Oliver recommends keeping it simple with salt, pepper, and a dash of garlic and rosemary, but Outback seasons their steaks with a secret recipe of 17 herbs and spices.

That's an insane number of ingredients, and seriously, when is the last time you made anything that took 17 ingredients? Cooks on the internet have, of course, tried their hand at deconstructing the seasoning recipe, and most have managed to make copycat recipes with only a fraction of the ingredients. The Taste of Aussie has one that many seem to agree on, and it's a combination of salt, paprika, ground black pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, ground coriander, and turmeric. Outback advertises their rub as being pretty incredible stuff, but that raises the question of what, exactly, is in it? And more importantly, is it all necessary? Order a steak, and you'd like to get some steak flavor, too.

The Bloomin' Onion gadget was once top secret

Let's be honest: if you're still going to Outback Steakhouse, you're probably going for the Bloomin' Onion. It's just the right amount of salty and crunchy, and just how they made it used to be a major secret. There are 24 "petals" to each onion, and getting those even is the key to an even fry. That's intimidating and might make you think you shouldn't bother trying to make one at home, but you absolutely can.

You can even pick up the same gadget Outback uses, and while their is called the Nemco 55700 Easy Flowering Onion Cutter (via The Daily Meal), there are plenty of other versions out there that do the exact same thing.

And thanks to food hacker Todd Wilbur, you can get the taste right, too. In 2011, he infiltrated Outback's back offices (and kitchens) as a part of the CMT show Top Secret Recipe. Bloomin' Onion creators boasted about the 17 spices in the onion and 37 spices in the dipping sauce, and while Wilbur cracked the code, you'll have to buy access to his secrets.

They were accused of being Satanists

Social media is tricky sometimes, and restaurants need to deal with a ton of complaints, disgruntled customers, and keyboard warriors. Sometimes it's all in good fun, and in 2017 Outback found themselves in the middle of a weird conspiracy theory that was retweeted over and over again. Proving they have a sense of humor, they played along.

The original Tweet from from @eatmyaesthetics, a Twitter user who posted photographic "proof" that Outback locations in a few cities could be connected on a map to form a pentagram. The association was clear, and several keyboard warriors jumped to the conclusion that they must be supporting either witchcraft or Satanism. The Huffington Post says it was retweeted hundreds of thousands of times, and Outback responded with a cryptic image that showed their Bloomin' Onion hovering over a map Florida, and the comment, "If the Bloomin' Onion is evil then we don't want to be nice." Well played, Outback.

It was a struggle to open, but success came fast

When Outback Steakhouse celebrated their 25-year anniversary in 2013, they had around 900 locations worldwide. The location the four founders chose to meet at was the original one, though, located at 3404 Henderson Boulevard in South Tampa.

They told the Tampa Bay Times that at the time they openedthere was nothing like it in the city. Casual dining wasn't as widespread as it would become, and to find a Chili's or similar restaurant, you'd have to go to the other side of the city.

When they opened there was a bit of time when they weren't sure it was going to work. Nights were so slow they had to have employees park in front of the restaurant to make it look like there were people there, and the founders poured a ton of elbow grease into getting it ready. That first location was in an old bar founder Trudy Cooper described as "…in very bad shape, and it smelled like alcohol." Yuck. Word spread fast, though, and other steakhouses were calling them to say they were taking business away.

They seem to lean to the republican side

Outback Steakhouse might be struggling, but they've still donated an almost shocking amount of money to political campaigns — and that includes much, much more to one side in particular.

Eater reported that although companies can't directly donate to political parties, they can through company-sponsored political action committees, or PACs. These organizations allow shareholders and companies to pool resources and pass them on to political causes, and in the case of Outback, that's largely to the Republicans.

Between 2011 and 2014, Outback's parent company Bloomin' Brands donated $1,091,030 to political causes, and 93 percent of that went to the Republican side. They also say that most donations go to programs, not candidates. In 2016, Outback made roughly $350,200 in donations, with 88 percent of that going to the Republican party through their PAC. Oddly, Bloomin' Brands CEO Elizabeth Smith was the only industry CEO to donate directly to a presidential campaign: she gave Hillary Clinton $5,400.

They made some epic considerations for employees

In 2005, the Harvard Business Review ran a piece from Chris Sullivan, one of Outback's original founders. He said that since they had all started out at the very bottom of the restaurant business, they knew what it was like to work each area and they wanted to make their restaurant different then most. Among their core tenets was this: "Tough on results but kind with people."

They ran several studies of their own restaurants and found the more satisfied their employees were, the more successful the location was. Customers liked coming back to the same staff, so they built locations to be comfortable for those employees.

Half of the footprint of each Outback is devoted to kitchens, a ratio that's almost unheard of. They spent extra money on extra ventilation for all that space, and Outback servers are only supposed to work three tables at a time — compared to most restaurants and their five or six tables. There's also not the layers and layers of management, middle management, and upper management most chains have. Outback had (at the time) six operations execs at their headquarters, 60 Joint Venture Partners that acted as regional managers, and store staff.

Why they've hesitated at serving lunch

It wasn't until 2015 that Nation's Restaurant News announced Outback would to be serving lunch. It seems like a no-brainer, but Chris Sullivan told the Harvard Business Review that lunch was never a part of the plan.

He said it was all because of their employees. Restaurant managers forced to work through lunch and dinner are often wrangled into 80-hour work weeks, and when you're working that much it's tough to have any other kind of life. They didn't want that for their employees, and they didn't want staff that was working two split shifts, either. By the time servers worked through a second meal shift in a single day they would be tired and more than ready to go home, and Outback's dinner-only plan was to help keep employees happy and, in turn, keep customers happy with the better service they were able to provide.

It also impacted the kitchen — prep cooks who needed to prep for a lunch would often prep for dinner at the same time, and by the time dinner rolled around, the food was less than fresh. Dinner only was the way to go. After a year-long testing period, however, they decided the sales were worth it, and they could make it work.

Here's why they're disappearing

Fast forward to 2017, and Outback's parent company is announcing dozens and dozens of closures. The faux-Australian chain has been hard hit by a number of things, including an industry-wide shift from casual dining to fast-casual, and this — along with other factors — has led to losses in the millions. According to Business Insider, Bloomin' Brands is feeling the pinch across all their brands, which includes not just Outback but their sister companies Carrabba's, Fleming's Steakhouse, and Bonefish Grill.

Outback is in a complicated position. Steakhouses on the whole are on their way out (and we take an in-depth look at their struggles here), so that's two strikes against Outback. Factor in their unhealthy flagship dish, their price tag, and the fact that they're now a massive chain competing with much trendier independent restaurants, and they're heading down a rocky road. Then, add in the lawsuits, the accusations of racial insensitivity, and the bad press, and Outback's fate is up in the air. Want to know more about what's' going on? Keep reading.