Painted in Waterlogue

Certainly there are numerous permeations of restaurants from food trucks to quick service brick and mortar operations, family style to fine dining, thematic operations to various ethnic concepts, and business and industry cafeterias to catering operations, but in reality all of these businesses can easily fall into one of the following categories:

  1. Restaurants that are responsive to customer desires
  2. Restaurants that proactively deliver what they believe is the best representation of their beliefs in food
  3. Restaurants that try to fit somewhere in between

Those restaurateurs who are financially astute will say that the only way to build a restaurant is to determine what it is that people are ready to buy and then design your menu to accommodate. Just like in so many other retail industries, this makes perfect sense. Left out of this formula is what separates the great from the average. Left out is the passion of people who are in it for the gratification drawn from fine tuned skills, a need to be creative, the ability to dazzle, and a commitment to strive for excellence. Lacking is an understanding of cooks, bakers, pastry chefs, and those who live hospitality.

To this group of dedicated professionals, the need to align what they prepare and offer guests with their beliefs, developed skills, and ability to create unique food experiences is as important as breathing. This may be a bit altruistic, but the reality is that when these professionals are involved in a restaurant that does not provide the opportunity for culinary expression you can count the weeks or months before they decide to move on and you may find it difficult to attract the good will press who are intent on singing your praise.

This is not to criticize those restaurants focused on simply giving customers what they want; these operations do serve an important purpose and will always attract those who may be less interested in the creative nature of cooking as long as the product is consistent, of appropriate quality, and value oriented.

Restaurants, on the other hand, that are compelled to serve as a portal for the chef’s signature, his or her philosophy of cooking, and offer menus that are unique, exciting and always evolving, will attract a cadre of cooks who look to the kitchen for creative opportunities. These cooks want to establish a relationship with clientele who love the energy of a restaurant that surprises and as a result, the restaurant inspires, and will likely become a magnet for the press.

There is a much greater risk in building this type of creative, chef centric restaurant. If the chef’s philosophy does not resonate with enough “innovators” or “early adopters”, then the chance of business success is diminished. To those who are business savvy, this operational strategy does not sit well. To those who understand how the next great idea can change an industry, this strategy is essential. Where would the tech industry be without Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Mark Zuckerberg, or Jeff Bezos? Where would the restaurant business be without Danny Meyer, Joe Bastianich, Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Richard Melman, or Rick Bayless? It is this need to be different, the ability to challenge, the desire to know what the customer will want before they know it themselves that pushes an industry to improve. It is this need to be different that attracts a generation of extraordinary talent to kitchens beaming with pride and excitement.

“Cook with passion, purpose and intensity or don’t cook at all.”

Author – unknown

Restaurants that are driven by a need to be proactive with menus that are in tune with the chefs beliefs and talents measure success in different ways, but they still need to be profitable. Profit and breaking the mold are oftentimes in opposition. To this end, many would urge restaurateurs to not take this path.

The third type of restaurant is one that tries to play the middle ground. Appealing to the expressed desires of the public while providing opportunities for cooks and chefs to maintain a means of expression through menus with some flexible components. This flexibility provides a forum for testing new concepts and ideas and is certainly a way to strike balance. Many restaurants choose to use this approach and test their creative strengths through daily features. On the surface, this is a reasonable compromise.

The question as chefs and restaurateurs struggle with the approach they will take, should relate back to an early determination of philosophy or mission. There is ample room in the market for all three operational styles. The majority of the 975,000 freestanding restaurant operations in the United States take the safer route in an effort to find a level of financial comfort. Responding, at some level, to customer desires is clearly the less risky of the options stated, yet is it where you and your operation want to build your reputation? The restaurant business is very risky, yet it is that risk that excites many chefs and restaurateurs. It is the danger of putting it all out there that gets these creative individuals out of bed in the morning and helps to maintain their level of excitement. It keeps the adrenaline running.

Financial success without an opportunity to truly express what a chef believes in, without a chance to be creative and push the envelope is, to many in this profession, not worth the effort. Is risk taking good business or a sign of naïve pride? Should a restaurant be a vehicle for playing it safe, or is the risk worth the trials, tribulations and stress?

I have pointed out at times that chefs are rarely great business people. Creativity is sometimes in conflict with business savvy, yet when the two traits are present, fantastic things occur. There are rare examples where chefs are also great business people, but in many cases it is a partnership with another individual with those traits that build a dynamic, unstoppable team. They keep each other in check. Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali are great examples, as is Richard Melman and Rick Tramonto, Drew Nieporent and a cadre of New York chefs. When the fires of complementary skills are present, the food business changes – for the better.

The need for creativity is part of a chef’s being, the need to run a solid business around the concepts that a chef develops is essential for success. Choose your approach wisely.


Harvest America Ventures, LLC

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About Me

PAUL SORGULE is a seasoned chef, culinary educator, established author, and industry consultant. These are his stories of cooks, chefs, and the environment of the professional kitchen.


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