You remember those early moments with food – the aha moments when a dish really surprised you. The flavor, aroma, texture, or presentation made you sit back in your chair, close your eyes, and wonder how anything could be this good. We have all had those moments – this is likely the reason that a career in food became inevitable. That first fresh, briny oyster; the experience of a perfectly braised, fork tender, full-flavored, silky lamb shank; the incredible crunch of a crusty, salty, rich buttermilk fried chicken; the deep sweetness of a July heirloom tomato, fresh pulled- still warm mozzarella, garden picked basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil and crunchy sea salt from a salad caprese; or a simply elegant grilled fresh fish with zesty lemon and cracked pepper – these were flavor moments that stayed with you and inspired you to pay them homage on your own menus. Remember how beautiful those well designed and executed plate presentations gave you pause, stopped your conversations, and insisted that you snap a picture for posterity. These became your benchmarks for how the plates that came from your kitchen were to be measured.
As chefs we have significant challenges including building an organizational structure and the right cohesive team of cooks, identifying vendors that can be trusted and relied on, navigating through the roadblocks of a pandemic, and trying to figure how to earn a profit for a restaurant, but it will be very hard to accomplish any of that if we fail to remember and zero in on excitement and surprise with the food that we prepare and present. Just as these two factors inspired you to become a chef, so too are they what inspire your guests to return time and again – driving that potential for profit and helping you to attract the very best cooks.
Yes, the times are different, and we have to adjust and sometimes compromise; we must prepare to problem solve every day; but holding on to excitement and surprise is also crucial for navigation through these times. The most important word ever uttered by a guest and ever embraced by a peer cook or chef is WOW! Chefs must remain in constant pursuit of WOW. Guests who view the plate in front of them with alert senses – taking in the visual presentation and the aroma and thinking, in anticipation, how incredible the experience of eating this will be, is a guest who is ready to take note and store every bit of this meal in his or her subconscious. The guest who savors every bite and offers a sample to the person sitting next to them, saying: “you have to try this”, is an ambassador who will boast about your food and the dining experience to friends, family, and social media strangers alike. You remember those meals that you experienced and the impact they had on your career – this is what you need to re-create in your restaurant.
These restaurant guest experiences will bring them back for more – seeking another chance to feel the WOW. Subsequent trips from these ambassadors become more challenging for chefs – you need to create another exciting surprise with flavor, texture, and presentation every time they return. To this end the menu that you build should always have some fluidity. Whether it is a constantly evolving menu or a robust “features” component, part of reaching and maintaining success is to offer a bit of excitement and surprise each time a guest makes a reservation. The same is true of those individuals who cook for you. They too need that element of excitement and surprise to look forward to, a new experience in cooking every time they tie on an apron.
The real experience of dining begins when a potential guest makes a decision to call for a reservation. Help build that level of wonder and positive anticipation: “what will the chef surprise us with this time.”
Of course, there is always a need for a level of stability and predictability. There are certain well-executed items on your menu that define your restaurant, items that your return guests can depend on, and items that help with kitchen organization and work patterns. But these items should always leave room for something that the guest didn’t expect (in a good way). Keep the menu fresh and alive – build in anticipation, it keeps everyone wondering what gifts the chef will offer today.
Routine can be comforting, and predictability is a foundation of control, but the energy in a successful restaurant comes from pushing the edges and keeping people guessing. Word of mouth marketing is driven by the wonders of anticipation – you need to play in that sandbox.
When times are unusually challenging like they are today, the tendency is to hunker down, keep things simple, and avoid coloring outside the lines, but this is not the territory where great restaurants thrive. Long term profit potential is driven by perceived value and value encompasses so much more than price for the guest and measurable profit for the operator. Value is all about how the guest feels about the experience of dining and how the restaurant views contribution. When value is based on experience and brand significance then guests will become fans and profit will be the inevitable outcome. For this to occur we can never forget the importance of excitement and surprise.
In a hotel or resort the elements of surprise and excitement will come from the amenities offered, rarely from the room that is rented. Even in the most luxurious hotels, it will be the spa service, the health and exercise facilities, and the restaurant where excitement pulls people in. Renting rooms becomes exponentially easier when the amenities excite and surprise. Do you strive to be a great hotel with a restaurant or a great restaurant with great rooms. This is more than semantics; it is a philosophy that determines the level of excitement and surprise that you provide.
In a free-standing restaurant it is the magic of the food and the intrigue that accompanies some level of predictable unpredictability that keeps those reservation phones ringing. Don’t lose sight of how important this is. Remember those early experiences in your career and use them as a benchmark for how you approach the job of being a chef. Put your signature on the menu and in the kitchen through your cooks – make that signature synonymous with great anticipation.
Whether it is a magnificent seven-course pre-fix menu that changes frequently, or an incredible rib and brisket operation with “fall off the bone” tenderness, incredible wood smoked aroma, and rich “melt-in-your-mouth” flavors – never forget the essential ingredients: excitement and surprise. It’s what great restaurants do.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC
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