We all tend to focus on the main characters in a movie, a book, or play – the central plot and those individuals who seem to be the lead in a story. This is, I suppose, how we have all been conditioned. Yet, many times it is the sub-plot, the supporting cast of characters, the little details that create intrigue that turn a good story into one that holds our attention and becomes a real “page turner”. The same is true with a restaurant meal. Attention is focused on the entrée, the main character in a meal – without sufficient time and effort given the supporting cast – the appetizer, dessert, and even that cup of coffee or tea.
What is most interesting, once you dig into the two most important components of a restaurants success, is that these components (the experience of dining, and the potential for operational profit) are less likely to come from that entrée. The experience of dining and the profit that may ensue is directly related to a restaurants ability to design a comprehensive menu of progressive courses and convince the guest to add them to their order. It is the first and last impressions that build a meal into something special and memorable.
This does not mean that the center of the meal is any less important, but rather that if we lose sight of those details and opportunities leading up to or trailing off from that main character then we have lost an important opportunity to build excitement and create memories. The chef, cooks, manager, owner, servers, and bartenders all need to understand this value statement. Here is some food for thought:
 FIRST IMPRESSIONS BEGIN WITH THE WEBSITE
Don’t lose sight of the importance of a dynamic, user-friendly, food and people photo centric website. Make sure that the site portrays the very best of your restaurant experience and allows the guest to seamlessly make a reservation, find out about the menu, identify where you are, and welcomes them to their first impression of the operation. This is the guest’s first chance to find out what makes you special.
 FIRST IMPRESSIONS BEGIN WITH THE RESERVATION
The reservation is a contract between you and the guest. Make the process easy and make sure that you verify the details through email, a phone call, or text.
 FIRST IMPRESSIONS ARE DEFINED IN THE PARKING LOT
How clean is your parking lot? Are there sufficient spaces for the number of seats in the restaurant? Is the lot well lit and clean and if there is landscaping is it meticulously managed? The website and reservation started the anticipation – now the parking lot demonstrates how dedicated you are to the details.
 FIRST IMPRESSIONS COME TO LIGHT AS YOU APPROACH
How often do you approach the restaurant as if you were a first time guest? Check the signage, cleanliness of windows, lighting, shrubbery, walkways, etc. Everything counts in the buildup to a great experience.
 THE FLAVOR OF THE ROAST IS DETERMINED BY THE HANDSHAKE OF THE HOST
How the guest is greeted by the host, the assigned server, and every other employee who comes in contact with him or her; a smile, a warm welcome or hello and a sincere desire to help the guest and complement the experience is paramount to success.
 FIRST IMPRESSIONS DEPEND ON THE TABLE TOP
Are you paying attention to the steadiness of each table, the spotless appearance of flatware, glasses, and plates, the freshness of flowers if used, the state of repair of chairs and other furniture, and the lighting for the table? The tabletop is the frame for the meal to come.
 FIRST IMPRESSIONS BUILD FROM THE MENU
Chef- is your menu designed with the cohesive experience in mind? Do the appetizers and desserts frame in a menu that makes sense in terms of building flavors, textures, colors, nutrition, tradition, and intrigue? The menu should flow like a concept record album. Does your menu flow like the Eagles Desperado or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon? Seems like an odd comparison, yet when this happens the stage is set for an experience rather than just a meal.
 FIRST IMPRESSIONS ARE IN THE HANDS OF THE SERVER
Ultimately the tabletop and the menu design are tools for the server to put the experience together for a guest. A server’s job must go well beyond taking orders and delivering food. The real task of the server is to guide the guest through the process of customizing and experience, making recommendations along the way, and coaching the process from a basis of understanding food, ingredients, cooking, and what items complement each other.
 FIRST IMPRESSIONS ARE SOLIDIFIED WITH THE APPETIZER
The selection of the first course is a process of placing trust in the server and the cook and anticipating the experience to come. If the app is designed and executed well it will serve as a temptation and a building block for a memorable meal. The app should not over-power or shock, but rather excite and introduce what will come next. Picking an appetizer which transitions successfully to the entrée is similar to picking the right wine to pair with a course.
 LAST IMPRESSIONS RELY ON THE COMFORT OF TIMING
If a meal is rushed, or if the opposite is true, then the dessert will seem to be simply an added cost or another delay in an excruciating long meal. If the menu is well designed and the server orchestrates a timely meal then the dessert is a natural addition. Keep in mind that almost every guest WANTS dessert – don’t give them a reason to turn it down. If the selections are not in line with the menu experience, if the portions are too large or too excessive in calories, if the selection is too common and uninspired, then it is far too easy for the guest to shy away.
 LAST IMPRESSIONS DEPEND ON DESSERT
The person responsible for building desserts has the unique ability to create outstanding memories. Sometimes these memories simply build on a guests lifetime experiences (a unique high end version of milk and cookies or smores as examples) that can tug at some great memories. A dessert menu can, in some cases, become the ultimate part of the meal, a course that creates more positive anticipation than the entrée. Restaurants should not underestimate the significance of doing this right.
 GREAT COFFEE AND TEA SEAL THE DEAL
Gone are the days (or at least they should be) when the selection of coffee and tea for a restaurant was based solely on price. A high percentage of restaurant guests know good coffee and tea and expect that the restaurant will as well. In all likelihood the last product that a guest will consume in your restaurant is a hot beverage – choose this wisely because it will remain a vivid memory of the entire experience.
 SERVICE SINCERITY GOES A MILLION MILES TOWARDS LOYALTY
The server is the ambassador of a restaurant, the guardian of true hospitality, the image of service that will determine whether or not a guest returns and how he or she will portray the experience of dining to others. Above all else your service staff must be taught how to be sincerely grateful that a guest spent time and money at the restaurant. The food will attract the guest initially, but it is the service that will bring him or her back time and again.
 THE IMPACT OF THE CHECK DEPENDS ON THE VALUE OF THE EXPERIENCE
When the check is presented, the meal has ended and the experience is immediately evaluated. “Was it worth it?” I am convinced that “worth” and value have less to do with price (as long as the experience is exceptional) and more to do with the perception of “value”. Was it unique, sincere, cohesive, comforting, exciting, or remarkable? If so then value exists. If the most memorable part of the meal is how pricy the check, then the restaurant failed to create a true experience. Remember the details – the guest will.
*PHOTOS: #1: with Kevin O’Donnell and Chef Gavin Kaysen at Cafe Boulud
#2: The Mirror Lake Inn Resort Team – Food and Wine Festival 2007.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
Restaurant consulting and training