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Do Not Stifle Innovation

September 9, 2016 8:00 AM
by Rick Cole

Do Not Stifle Innovation

People are sentimental.  We all are.  We cherish our fond memories of unforgettable birthdays, graduations, weddings.  Of special songs, concerts, movies.  Of first dates and last goodbyes.

Sometimes a favorite restaurant can have a special place in our heart.  We remember fondly the food, the good times, the waiter who knew us by name.

And sometimes a restaurant is even more than that.  It owns a small place in history.

Border Grill was that kind of restaurant.  Before they were celebrities, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger were brash pioneers who changed the way we think about Mexican food, about female chefs, about the arbitrary boundaries marking off ethnic food formulas.  And on Fourth Street in Santa Monica, they created one of a handful of landmark restaurants that helped launch the LA food revolution.

Now, 26 years after it opened its doors, the Border Grill is closing them.  There will be lots of sentimental send-offs before their last meal is served next month.  As it should be. 

But there is a different lesson in the Border Grill story.  It’s not the nostalgic one.  It’s useful to remember that before the Border Grill became a hit, a thing, a launching pad – it was a crazy idea hatched by two people with no idea how big it would be – or whether it would work at all.  It’s only in retrospect that we see the arc of brilliance, the bold idea whose time had come.

Steve Jobs is this generation’s iconic entrepreneur.  Who created so much and died young.  A complicated personality, to say the least.  So many others envy his Midas touch, glossing over his misfires and mistakes.  The hindsight that sees genius in our celebrated heroes overlooks the essence of what it means to create something truly new – the audacity to go against the advice of every sensible person you know.  Long before we celebrate success, we doubt the sanity of people who are so stubborn, so eccentric, so fanatic that they set sail against the wind. 

Of course not every crazy idea is a brilliant one.  Not every gritty entrepreneur strikes gold – in fact only a handful do.  Many bold concepts are unrealistic or half-baked or simply ahead of their time.  Still . . . if we cherish fond memories, let’s realize that they often involved taking a risk, taking a step into the unknown.  What we find familiar and comfortable today usually began as the unfamiliar -- and probably made a lot of people uncomfortable. 

So let’s celebrate all the happy memories served up with nine million hand-made tortillas and 325,000 bottles of tequila.  And let’s not forget it all started with making that first batch of masa and pouring that original cucumber jalapeno margarita.

Let’s toast innovative people and their innovative ideas.  Not after they are crowned with success, but when they need it most, which is before they become household names.  Let’s not stifle entrepreneurs by making it impossible to start something new today. 

Yes, Border Grill will be missed when it closes.  But think of what we would have missed if it had never opened.  We’d never have been introduced to Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger.

And we’d never have tasted chile relleno burgers topped with chile cheese relleno chipotle aioli.

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