OK, so I like, no I love to write. I am far from a perfect technical writer and any teacher of English would probably cringe at the number of grammatical and structural issues in any one of my posts, but to me, writing is all about expressing “feeling”. It is rare that I find a topic that I am so pumped about that I can’t wait to get to my computer to “weave a yarn”, so to speak. I am in Chicago, a food city that I truly love and one that was part of my yearly itinerary for over 20 years. It has been six years since my last visit and I was ready. The nice thing about Chicago in comparison to New York is that the restaurant scene is just as robust with a little less pretention (don’t get me wrong, I love New York as well).
It is Saturday night and although I am in town for a conference, I find myself pleasantly alone on the town. I don’t have a reservation for a restaurant (unusual for me); I am just fishing for a place to go. I can’t bring myself to just fill my stomach; now that I am here I need an experience. I was walking down Ohio street when I ran into the Chicago version of “Eataly”; the brainchild of Joe and Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali. I was in the New York version two years ago and although I was very impressed, it was so crowded that I couldn’t truly enjoy this combination restaurant mecca and incredible gourmet Italian Market. So, I walked into “ Eataly Chicago” with high expectations.
Now, dining anywhere by yourself is always difficult. Time by yourself at a table moves painfully slow, but here I could get lost in the crowd. It was very, very busy, although not as crazy as New York. What first struck me was the first impression of an operation that had it together. The product displays, layout, colors, smells, architectural features and food presence were spot on.
I just had talked at a conference about the creation of VALUE in an effort to define a customer experience and take the focus away from price, and this place was textbook. It was fresh, exciting, dynamic, interesting, consistently focused on quality and reminiscent of the first walk into a Disney property. My first reaction was to stop and think: “WOW”. I pulled out my iPhone and started taking pictures.
There was a concierge station (kind of unique in a food market) with support materials and a map of the operation. The first floor had displays of market foods, kitchenwares, books, and last impression food outlets (gelato, Italian desserts, espresso, etc.). All the traffic was headed for the escalator to the second floor where the multiple restaurant concepts were prominent. Restaurants featured crudo, salumi, cheeses, pizza, pasta, wine tastings, and a pesce (fish) restaurant that were supported by a craft brewery with flights of in-house beers, a superb bread bakery, wine shop, butchery and Italian cheese market. Every restaurant was cranking. I chose the fish restaurant after watching the plates served to guests at tables and food bars. The wait would have been 20 minutes (they took my cell phone number so that I could walk around) but I managed to get a food bar seat within five minutes with a bird’s eye view of food preparation. I ordered a glass of Barolo, grilled octopus, and featured sea bass with cauliflower puree. It was spectacular! The service was not formal, but warm and efficient, the server was knowledgeable, the line team of cooks was well orchestrated, the food was served with perfect timing, and the flavors were enticing. I talked with the cooks while they worked their magic and noted that EVERYONE was having fun!! It wasn’t cheap. But every aspect of the EXPERIENCE oozed value. I walked around and came upon a classic Italian coffee kiosk and ordered an Italian Caffe Macchiato. The woman who was the barista was an accomplished coffee artist who smiled constantly despite the volume of business. I told her the coffee was spectacular and she blushed with pride. Continuing to walk around, despite the fact that I was full, I had a need to experience more. I stood in a short line to have a classic tiramisu and another coffee at the Lavazza stand – both exceptional, when I notice that I had left my very expensive topcoat at the fish restaurant. As I wormed my way back to the restaurant, my server saw me and walked up to say that he had taken the coat to the customer service desk and to let me know if there were any problems. I didn’t have to ask, they were on the alert for me. My coat was there and it was passed on with a smile.
As I began to leave the operation I was struck with a sense of regret. I didn’t want to leave. I really wanted to find a shirt or something with the Eataly logo on it to say that I was a fan. I didn’t see anything but was committed to go back tomorrow to find something that would allow me to be reminded of a company that got it right.
Great food operations create experiences and Eataly understood that. The packaging was memorable, the layout was memorable, the food was memorable, the staff was excited to serve and every inch of the operation was focused on promoting the brand. I was in awe.
Chicago is a great restaurant town, but Eataly will help to redefine what it means to be in the hospitality business. The attention to detail was incredible and like others in this fantastic town like Richard Melman and his “Lettuce Entertain You Group” and Levy Restaurants, it was apparent that they truly understand the importance of brand. My only parting comment is WOW, WOW, WOW. Like Disney, Apple Computers, Harley Davidson, Mercedes, Ritz Carlton Hotels, Anthropologie, and Nike, they “get it”.
Beware all who are content to be acceptable, the game changers are in town and you had better step back and look and learn.
PREPARE BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Training and Consulting