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I am optimistic and realistic at the same time.  I am optimistic in the ability of the restaurant business to recover and shine, to bring people together once again, to return to a position of central to the life of neighborhoods, and optimistic that this business of food will provide wonderful careers for cooks, chefs, service staff, bartenders, managers and owners – THIS WILL HAPPEN.  At the same time – I am realistic and know that this will not occur without the pain of defeat for some, the anxiety of not knowing when this will occur, understanding that the financial burdens will seem unmanageable for some time, and realistic in understanding that the business of restaurants will look different a few months from now and that change is inevitable.  This is the Yin and Yang of the environment where restaurants live today.

The lifeblood of success will be, as it always has been – the love that owners, chefs, cooks, servers, and managers have for what they do, the food that they have the privilege to work with, and the guests who place trust in their hands.  Restaurant work is not for everyone, yet those who find their way, or in many cases – those who are drawn into restaurant work will readily say: “There is nothing else that I would rather do.”  It is because of these people that I am very bullish on the future of the restaurant business.

I look at the multitude of restaurant people that I know and see interesting similarities among those who somehow manage to hang on, weather the storm, and keep an optimistic eye on the future.  These individuals are inspiring and worthy of our praise – they are solid advocates for the right reasons to get involved in the restaurant business, and always encouraged by what they see as that glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.  I offer their insights as a spark that will hopefully give others a chance to breathe deep and wrestle with the realities before them.

“I feel like I’m not doing my job and staying true to myself if I put anything on my menu, or use an ingredient that doesn’t have a story behind it.”  Know your source.

-Chef Tim Hardiman – The Tailor and the Cook

Great restaurants, great menus, and great chefs bring memorable stories to their tables.  It is these endearing stories that help to establish the longevity and resiliency of a restaurant.

“I have always looked at it this way: if you strive like crazy for perfection – an all-out assault on total perfection – at the very least you will hit a high level of excellence, and then you might be able to sleep at night.  To accomplish something significant – excellence has to become a life plan.”

-ChefCharlie Trotter – Charlie Trotters

Those restaurants and chefs  – regardless of menu focus or price tags on the menu, that stem from an unrelenting push towards excellence will always find an audience.  These are the benchmarks that others strive to emulate and guests can’t stop talking about.

“When you get close to the raw materials and taste them the moment they let go of the soil, you learn to respect them.”

-Chef Rene Redzepi – NOMA

True Farm to Table goes beyond buying local – it means that the chef and cook understands the farmer, respects his or her work, and know what it’s like to become truly connected to the ingredients – real cooking demands this.

“Food feeds our souls.  It is the single great unifier across all cultures.  The table offers a sanctuary and a place to come together for unity and understanding.”

-Chef Lidia Bastianich

What we do as cooks is important.  Our craft bridges gaps in understanding and speaks to anyone willing to listen.  We are communicators, ambassadors, and speakers of the universal language of food.  Differences can be put aside when we revel in the beauty of a well-prepared plate of food.

“It wasn’t about mechanics; it was about a feeling, wanting to give someone something, which in turn was really gratifying.  That really resonated with me.”

– Chef Thomas Keller – The French Laundry and Bouchon

Service is a noble profession.  Those who understand this know that the restaurant business – front and back of the house, is the service business.  When service exists business success will follow.  Service requires understanding, empathy, the ability to listen, caring, and joy.  Guests may come initially for the opportunity to enjoy your food, but they return time and again because of your commitment to real service.

“A great restaurant is one that just makes you feel like you’re not sure whether you went out or you came home and confuses you.  If it can do both of those things at the same time – you’re hooked.”

– Danny Meyer – Union Square Hospitality

We (those in the restaurant business) are part of a family and every restaurant guest is welcome to join.  Hospitality – a sense of place – is the heart and soul of a great restaurant.  Operations that believe in this will always be in demand.

“We need to get into the community and understand who they are and what their needs might be instead of just giving them something without understanding what they want.”

– Chef Dominique Crenn – Atilier Crenn Restaurant

All hail the neighborhood restaurant (not just geographical) that responds to guest needs and sets aside the ego of the restaurateur and chef.  When this happens – the restaurant can become the centerpiece of a community, the place of choice, and a business that sees their success through the eyes of the guest.

“It’s hard to be 100% better than your competition, but you can be 1% better in 100 ways.”

– Richard Melman – Lettuce Entertain You

It’s all about the details.  Sweat those details, no matter how small, and know that the “experience” is an accumulation of hundreds of pieces of the puzzle.  Become an expert at the little things from the lighting in your parking lot to the greeting at the door; from the comfort of your chairs to the temperature of the butter on the tabletop.  Great restaurants sweat the small stuff.

“I realized very early that the power of food to evoke memory, to bring people together, to transport people to other places, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

-Chef Jose Andres – Jose Andres Restaurants and World Central Kitchen

The experience of a restaurant allows the guest to build a relationship with other cultures, traditions, flavors, and history.  The restaurateur is the tour guide.  A person may be able to cook in the style of Italy, Scandinavia, Mexico, Asia, New Orleans or France at home, but only the restaurant can provide the Italian, Mexican, Scandinavian, Asian, Cajun, or French experience.

“It’s around the table and in the preparation of food that we learn about ourselves and about the world.”

– Chef Alice Waters – Chez Panisse

The preparation and sharing of food brings all of our senses into alignment and points us to the question: “what am I capable of creating and how can I communicate what I am feeling with others through food?”  Differences melt away when we engage in this most personal act of caring – the preparation of a plate of food for a friend, family member, passing guest, or individual who otherwise may differ from you in so many ways.  Food is the great equalizer.

“If I have a really bad cook, manager, or sous chef – I previously would have fired them or lost my temper.  But now I realize that if I’m so right, then I should be able to communicate it so clearly that they get it.”

– Chef David Chang – Momofuku Restaurant Group

The restaurants that are able to thrive again are the ones that are able to build a team – a cohesive group of well-trained professional artisans with a shared vision; individuals who take their job seriously and are given the tools to do so.  Long gone are the days when the chef or restaurateur ruled with an uncaring, iron fist.  To be successful in the food business you must learn to listen, to train, to support, to collaborate, and to lead.

“I take so much pleasure in seeing customers who are happy – happy with what they eat, but happy with their friends and in sharing a moment together.  I think that this is more important in life than the endless pursuit of perfection.”

– Chef Daniel Boulud – The Dinex Group

Why do we cook or operate restaurants if not to bring happiness?  Happiness is what we strive for among those who cook and serve and happiness to those who enjoy the chance to break bread at our table.  To watch guests savor each bite, to see them smile or laugh, to watch them raise a glass to friendship or success, or to simply view them relax and shed the stress of the day – this is what we work for – this is our mission.

“Anyone can write a menu, but the ability to consistency execute (that menu) profitably is the true test of an operator.”

-Chef Keith Taylor – Chefsoul Culinary Enterprises

Yes, everything stated in this article is true, but the super-human effort of the chef or restaurateur without the discipline and understanding of how to generate sales and control costs will quickly lose energy.  Restaurants are operated from the standpoint of many altruistic building blocks, but they are businesses at the same time.  Those that will survive our current challenges and thrive once again in the near future are ones that understand this.

“We have a philosophy – it’s very simple – it’s called ROG, Return of Guest.  Everyone, in every aspect of the operation has got to be doing something that translates into the guest wanting to return.”

-Roger Berkowitz – Legal Seafood

It’s very challenging and costly to convince individuals to walk through your door and become a guest.  To not focus your energy on their comfort, happiness, and willingness to return makes no sense at all.  Why would they want to return if we treat them as if they are just passing through?  Set the stage for their return – turn them into raging fans and they will be at your door when the time is right.

Yes, I am optimistic and realistic, but I know that this sampling of individuals who are or were enormously successful in the restaurant business had “that something” that set them apart.  It was and is a passion, a commitment to excellence, an understanding of real service, a desire to please, and a strong business foundation that created a path for natural success.  We can all learn from them.


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