There is no question that the restaurant business is challenging, very hard work, and plagued with low profitability. Those of us who have made this our life understand all of this quite well. What really makes me scratch my head is why so many who enter the business make it even more difficult for themselves.
Every time that I travel, I find ample examples of restaurants that are uncut gems that seem to accept mediocrity, at some level, while still expecting to be successful. The tides are changing folks. Customers are more and more savvy when it comes to food and they have developed a much lower tolerance for what appears to be an “I don’t care” attitude on the part of the owner/operator or even chef. With this in mind, I guess out of frustration, I offer a primer for those operators who don’t get it.
A PRIMER FOR RESTAURANT SUCCESS:
- CLEAN THE PLACE UP: Before we can even talk about the food, the first job of the restaurant owner/operator is to make sure that everything is spotless. This means: parking lots, windows, walkways, lights, carpet or other flooring, baseboards, walls, ceiling, tables, glassware, flatware, signage, counters, kitchens (especially those on display), and yes – bathrooms. No excuse, this is paramount!
- LOOK SHARP: Your service staff should be dressed in some type of consistent uniform and your cooks and chef should be in professional cooks whites. These uniforms must be spotless and ironed. Hair in the front of the house must be tied back and cooks need to wear a head cover that confines all hair. Beards may be a personal expression, but they really don’t belong in restaurants. If staff members handling food do have beards then they should be under a beard guard. Nails must be trimmed and hands very clean – cooks when touching food, especially food that is not going to be further cooked, must wear protective gloves. Shoes in the front of the house must be clean, and depending on the type that you require – polished. Shoes in the kitchen must follow the same protocol.
- GET RID OF CLUTTER: I see far too many restaurant dining rooms cluttered with junk or mise en place that is best hidden. If it is not attractive and not necessary, then move it out of sight.
- REMOVE CHIPPED OR CRACKED PLATES: Only the best should ever make it into your dining room.
- CHECK THE ACOUSTICS: The trend today is a restaurant that is fun and active. Don’t confuse this with noisy and distracting. Sound carries in funny ways; make sure that you solicit the help of a professional to solve noise problems with fabric, rugs, wall treatments, baffles, etc. Also, if you intend to have music in the background – invest in a respectable sound system including speakers that work with your acoustics.
- NOTICE HOW WE HAVEN’T EVEN TALKED ABOUT FOOD YET?
- SMILE: Restaurants are part of the HOSPITALITY business. This means that we are GLAD that guests are spending money and we want to express our HAPPINESS that they chose our operation. Happiness is universally expressed with a SMILE. Ellsworth Statler, one of the original icons of the American hotel industry once wrote in a letter to his managers: “Hire only pleasant people and get rid of anyone who isn’t.” Strong words, but think about it. How do you feel as a guest when confronted with a frown or impatient look from a service staff member?
- KEEP YOUR PERSONAL BUSINESS OUT OF THE GUESTS PRESENCE: Talk about your personal challenges, beliefs, relationships, abnormalities, or opinions about anything in private locations away from the guest. This has no place in the public eye.
- OK, NOW LET’S TALK ABOUT THE FOOD
- HOT FOOD HOT, COLD FOOD COLD: Still two of the most basic principles of running a successful restaurant. This includes the plates and cups, and sometimes certain pieces of flatware.
- Make or buy GREAT BREAD: This is becoming the price of admission for restaurants of all types. Great bread is crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside. Great bread has flavor and character. YOU CAN’T TAKE GREAT BREAD AND BALL IT UP IN YOUR HANDS. I love great bread, as do most serious cooks that I know and an ever-growing percentage of the general population. Invest in bread.
- GREAT WATER IS IMPORTANT: If your community tap water is good, then nurture it. Provide good ice, offer lemon wedges on the side, and keep your guests glass full. If the local tap is not so great, then have a variety of really good bottled water (the kind in bottles that can be recycled).
- BUY INGREDIENTS WHEN THEY ARE FRESH AND AT PEAK REGIONALLY: Yes, you can buy just about anything today, year-round. That doesn’t mean you should. Salad Caprese is only good when the tomatoes are truly fresh, vine-ripened, and bursting with juice and umami. Offering Caprese Salad in the Northeast on your menu between October and late May is not wise. The product will NOT WOW your guest. Apply this same rule of thumb to numerous other products (strawberries, melons, asparagus, apples, peaches, pears, etc. etc.)
- KNOW AND PRACTICE THE FOUNDATIONS OF COOKING: It is always great to push the envelope and try new things, but only after you have a firm grasp on the basics and consistently demonstrate your commitment to them. Roast, grill, sauté, poach, braise, pan fry, etc. are time tested methods of cooking that involve specific steps if they are to be executed well. Your guest will always appreciate something that is prepared properly. Some critical examples: caramelization is the key to grilling a steak, preparing a roast, starting a braise, or pan frying a dish on your menu – MAKE SURE YOUR PAN IS HOT ENOUGH, YOUR GRILL FIRED UP PROPERLY, AND YOUR OVEN CALIBRATED FOR THE BEST RESULTS. Another one that I experienced in a restaurant just last night: If risotto is properly prepared it does not need the addition of cream to give it the right texture. The only thing worse is overcooking the rice and then adding cream. Oh, and by the way, risotto is made with Arborio rice.
- BIGGER ISN’T ALWAYS BETTER: Portion sizes often times seem to be a cover-up for poorly prepared food. Last night I ordered a Caesar Salad as an INTRODUCTION to the meal. The romaine was crisp and fresh, the dressing was well made, and it was served with beautiful Italian white anchovies. The only problem was that the salad would have easily served three people. I left more than half on the plate. A 16-20 ounce steak – really? Impressive, but the average person cannot consume more than a pound of food –total, and rarely needs more than 2,000 total calories for the entire day, not one meal.
- PAY ATTENTION TO THE VEGETABLES: Cut back on the portion size for protein (4-6 ounces is really plenty) and show your skill at balancing the plate with fresh, well-prepared, not over or undercooked, and appropriately seasoned vegetables.
- DOES IT NEED A SAUCE: If the purpose of the sauce is to cover up for poor preparation, then you have a real issue that needs to be addressed. Grilled items work well with a little maitre’d butter, chimichurri, or salsa of some type. Braised items need a sauce; roasted items can either stand alone or work with natural juices or a small amount of broth. Let the item and your understanding of cooking, speak for itself.
- IF YOU WANT TO SELL DESSERTS, SAVE ROOM AND REMOVE THE GUILT: Of course a few indulgences are OK when going out to dinner, but offer some choice. Really nice fresh fruit, maybe with a splash of Grand Mariner or Cointreau, grilled fruit, small portions of baked custard, and certainly tasting portions of regional cheese with appropriate accompaniments will give even the most frugal person a chance to indulge without owing the world an apology for that 12 ounce piece of cheesecake with caramel and whipped cream.
- DON’T FORGET THE COFFEE: People know good coffee today – don’t skimp on this. Buy great beans, grind them yourself, maintain the right equipment and train your staff how to become a seasoned barista.
- DON’T CUT CORNERS WITH TEA: Brand X tea is no longer acceptable in restaurants of any type. Tea drinkers are just as sophisticated as coffee drinkers.
- SMILE AGAIN: Let everyone know that you are glad they came and can’t wait until they return – hopefully with friends.
Now these pointers will not guarantee success. The process of successfully running a restaurant involves far too many details to list in this article, but I would bet that ignoring these basic items will contribute to failure.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC