I spend the majority of time with this blog talking about the kitchen environment, the great people who work in restaurants, the unique characteristics of serious cooks, and the challenges that these individuals face, but quite possibly not enough time referring to what makes a restaurant successful. Success can be measured in many ways, but most would agree that a major factor must be profitability. Profitable restaurants stay in business, provide opportunities for those who work in them, and make an impact on the guests who patronize them. Unprofitable restaurants suffer from a short life span. So what does it take and what is the role of the chef in creating a profitable restaurant?
Plain and simple – here it is: the chef’s job is to create value. Making great tasting food, hiring the right people, treating everyone with respect, building terrific relationships with vendors and growers, controlling costs, and building a brand are all components of this responsibility for becoming a “value creator”. Ultimately everything comes down to one simple question posed to every guest: “Was the dining experience worth it?” If we (those who make a career out of restaurant work) do not face this simple question head on, then we will come to grips with the issue of survival.
Look at another substantial industry that failed to understand this value challenge and is now facing the consequences – retail. Amazon grew out of a void that initially was perceived by Jeff Bezos even before the customer realized it. In fact, Amazon failed to make a penny in profit for more than it’s first decade in operation. Bezos asked the simple question: “Is the current retail experience worth it and how can I build a business with a simple focus on value creation.” A decade ago, and for generations before, the retail experience meant traveling to a store, scheduling your buying time around the hours of operation that the retailer wanted, relying totally on the recommendations of the sales person to attest to the quality of a product, remaining anonymous to the business, and paying the list price for anything on the shelves. Bezos threw out all of those standards and built a business that was 24/7, easy to access, required no travel, portrayed the product quality through past customer recommendations, removed the cost of delivery by creating customer membership (Amazon Prime), discounted items whenever possible, and never limited what a customer could access. The retail industry failed to see it coming, avoided any change to their value statement, stuck to their age-old formula for doing business, and suddenly found itself obsolete.
Stores Closing at Epic Rate (CNN):
If restaurants and chefs in particular, fail to understand the “value creator” requirement – are they destined to repeat the mistakes of the retail industry? There are early entry innovators who seem to be somewhat insignificant now, but who may represent an early swing in reliance on the restaurant experience. Remember, there are only a few core reasons why people take the time and effort to patronize restaurants:
- A lack of understanding how to cook
- The Ability to Interact with others
- Access to something different
- A reward
- Fair price-to-experience connection
If restaurants fail to comprehend the basic premise of their existence then are they on the path to obsolescence? Think about the “Blue Apron” model and how many of the aforementioned reasons for dining out apply to this business reality:
- Convenience: Delivered fresh to your door
- A Lack of Understanding How to Cook: Comes with detailed instructions and support materials on-line
- Interaction with Others: Focus is on interaction with family using cooking as the source of entertainment
- Access to Something Different: The delivered package includes items that many customers may never experience otherwise and would be unlikely to purchase in their own grocery store
- A Reward: The packaging and the experience of learning to cook create a sense of engagement and pride – a reward
- Fair Price-to-Experience Connection: Far less expensive that driving to a restaurant and facing a series of unknowns
How many of your personal restaurant experiences have hit all of these marks? Does the Blue Ribbon model offer opportunities for restaurants to improve? Will restaurants heed the warning?
Value should not be solely focused on price (although price does tend to override many other factors) but rather on addressing those needs that customers have – the real reasons that they choose to dine out. Value should not be relegated to just a handful of restaurants that “do it right”, but more appropriately should be the primary focus of every restaurant with a desire to survive and even thrive. Here are some thoughts on what chefs and restaurants can and should do in the process of creating value.
 MENUS THAT MAKE SENSE
The best restaurant experience comes from the connection of courses (the sum of the parts is greater than the value of each individual part). To this end, menus should be designed so that they not only reflect the core philosophy and core concept of the restaurant, but that flow and connect. In other words, the appetizer list should have a connection to the entrees and the entrees to the dessert selection. Consider flavor balance, nutrition, textures, colors, and even tradition when building these menus. Another approach that is frequently seen on contemporary menus today is the “small plate” section. This allows for mixing and matching and experimentation outside of the “menu flow” norm.
Service staff should be comfortable explaining connections and upselling a ‘la carte components to create this connection that makes sense.
 CONSISTENTLY GREAT TASTING FOOD
A lack of consistency (predictability) is the demise of many restaurants. One of the reasons that chain restaurants have a greater tendency to survive and thrive is that their menus are driven by the requirement for consistency. Whether through standardized recipes and training, or consolidation of cooking at commissary operations, the intent is that every guest, no matter which operation they patronize, will experience the same product – flavor, texture, temperature, and presentation. This consistency must be the expectation of any restaurant. Guests want to know that the great dish they had last Tuesday will be just as great a month from now.
 ATTENTION TO DETAIL
Every detail in the restaurant experience must be addressed. It is the responsibility of the operation and the operators to ensure that this is so. Cleanliness, lighting, sound, comfort, interaction with service staff, portion sizes, flavor, presentation, drink quality, etc. must be viewed every day through the eyes of a guest. Chefs and restaurant managers must pay attention to everything – all of the time.
 INGREDIENT QUALITY THAT is DIFFICULT for the GUEST to FIND ELSEWHERE
If a customer can buy the same quality ingredients at their local supermarket or
farm stand, then the opportunity exists for them to prepare a similar dish at home.
Note that with the right cookbook, the right piece of equipment, and a commitment
to the effort required, with these ingredients a customer could replicate the dining
experience at home.
Chefs need to build special relationships with vendors, farmers, and other producers
to ensure that they have access to quality that is not easily accessed by the end-user.
Even Eric Ripert will admit that one of the reasons that Le Bernadin is viewed as the
best seafood restaurant in America is due to his access to extraordinary ingredients.
 FOCUSED, KNOWLEDGEABLE, AND CARING STAFF
Front and back-of-the house, restaurants are all about well trained, caring,
exceptional staff members who understand the product, the way that it should be
prepared and served, and making sure that every guest is treated as if they are the
most important person in the restaurant at any given moment.
 REAL SERVICE WITHOUT LIMITATIONS
To put it simply – the answer to the guest should always begin with “yes”. Real
service goes way beyond the delivery of product; it must include a sense of
obligation to exceed customer needs and expectations.
 FOCUS ON USER-FRIENDLY
How can you make the dining experience as easy to navigate as possible?
Technology can play a role providing more detailed information about ingredients,
sources, preparations, allergy alerts, and complementary items including
wine pairings and other alcoholic beverages. Websites access to on-line
reservations are a must along with rewards that encourage repeat use and loyalty.
Menus are designed to meet the flavor designs of the chef – I get that, but in the end,
if a guest wants to vary, to some degree, and you have the ingredients on hand, then
the answer should be yes (with a caveat).
 LOOK TO THE OUTLIERS FOR THE NEXT TREND
Food Trucks: Bringing the concept to the guest rather than the opposite seems to have great appeal today. Reflecting on convenience, this is at business model that should cause all restaurants to re-think parts of their concept.
Food Emporiums: Enormously popular destinations like Eataly and Todd English’s Food Court in the Plaza Hotel are able to offer the food destination environment, multiple concepts that allow guests to graze, food education, and loads of visual stimulation. The days of traditional dining are changing and every chef and restaurateur needs to pay attention.
Grocery Super Stores: Wegman’s, Whole Foods, Publix, and a variety of other non-traditional grocery stores have entered the restaurant segment offering similar dining options to that of Eataly with the opportunity to learn, shop for ingredients, and book your next restaurant gathering at the same time. Some are even heavily involved in catering off premise.
Pop up Restaurants: Not locking a restaurant into a single focused concept, bringing in guest chefs to test the waters, creating a bit of intrigue and surprise have increased interest in restaurants as a location for the different and unusual. How can your operation build in a sense of surprise?
Value is certainly something that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but as has
been proven in other industries – it is this perception of value that builds loyalty and
ambassadorship among patrons. It may very well be time for chefs and
restaurateurs to look outside of their own traditional ways of conducting business
and learn from others mistakes, trials, and unforeseen wins. The key question will
always remain: “Is your restaurant experience worth the price?”
“Value, worth implying intrinsic excellence or desirability. Value is that quality of anything which renders it desirable or useful.”
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant Consulting and Training