It was 1969 when the acclaimed “super group” – Blind Faith with Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker caused a stir with their self-titled album. Although the group was short lived, they did leave us with an applicable lyric:
DO WHAT YOU LIKE:
“Do right, use your head, everybody must be fed Get together, break your bread, yes, together, that’s what I said Do what you like”
Well, to a significant degree chefs have been working on blind faith for decades. The hope was that by doing more, working harder and longer, making more complicated menus, and pushing the envelope of creativity the restaurant industry would rise up to new levels of success. Menus became encyclopedic, the skills to execute these menus were over the top, the equipment that allowed for this level of creativity was space age and expensive, the intensity and stress in the kitchen was as heavy as lead, and the number of staff members required to execute this complexity was painful.
Chefs and those aspiring to become chefs gave up any semblance of balance in their lives to be part of this madness, dozens of vendors were required to meet the ingredient needs of complex menus, dining room table tops were plagued by extraordinarily expensive inventories of Riedl glassware, bone china and sterling silver flatware; and wine cellars became museums for wine selections from around the world that rang up hundreds of thousands of dollars in rare vintages to support the menus that chef’s felt compelled to design.
At the end of service when the lights were finally turned off over the $50K combi ranges, bank of sous vide set-ups, All-Clad pots and pans, Vitamix blenders, Paco-Jets, and anti-griddles – chefs were left exhausted, bruised, angry, desperate to keep the line cooks that they had just belittled for placing fresh herbs with stainless tweezers at 3 o’clock instead of 5 o’clock on the plate, and discovering that although the dining room was full of 4-hour dining patrons, and wine was served at every table – the restaurant was still not profitable.
Down the street – a cadre of small independent restaurants with smaller staff requirements and tasty rustic menus would have been profitable except rents on their space had gone through the roof ever since this high end, 8-course menu, mecca restaurant opened its doors. These small restaurant operators opened and closed their doors at an alarming rate simply because they couldn’t afford the space.
Any reasonable person would look at these situations, scratch his or her head and wonder what in the world was everyone thinking. This was the restaurant world, or at least part of it, prior to the pandemic. This is a restaurant world that is not sustainable. This is the restaurant world that must change – and it will.
Chefs and restaurateurs need the freedom to “do what they like” and find success in terms of restaurant profitability, life balance, happy guests, and fulfilled employees. This is what needs to happen and this is what will happen – chef’s and restaurateurs have permission to change.
In a recent article about Danny Meyer – NYC restaurateur extraordinaire, he talks about his epiphany over the past year – an opportunity he had to truly assess everything about his restaurants and the accepted approach towards operation.
“Never again in our careers will we be able to take the boat out of water and put it in dry dock for a year to inspect every inch of its underbelly and make it seaworthy again,”
“We want to make sure when we put the boat back in the water, it’s a sounder boat and does business in a better way.”
Danny Meyer is giving all of us permission to change the accepted approach towards the restaurant business and the way that we measure success.
Fairness, equality, respectable pay, balanced lives, manageable menus, fair third-party fee structures, and operations that stand a better chance of earning a profit must be key to a formula for success moving forward. This is an opportunity and an absolute requirement moving forward – we must embrace this and more.
Menus that reflect excellent ingredients and seasonality, menus that offer less choice, but the highest standards of quality, presentations that are naturally beautiful but that do not require an army to assemble, flavors that excite and satisfy, service that is real and filled with honest to goodness hospitality, dining rooms that are comfortable, cheerful and fun, and prices that allow for profitability while making sense to a larger swath of guests – this is what we have permission to focus on.
Let’s keep our standards high with fewer, well-paid employees who have the ability to engage in exciting careers and balance a life beyond the kitchen or dining room. We can do this and there has never been a better time to think about how we move in this direction.
It would be difficult to find a more sinister, demoralizing, harmful, or self-destructive word than mediocre. Mediocre sucks the lifeblood out of an individual or an organization – it is the dark side of the moon, the harbinger of discomfort and pain, and the salt in the wound that saps your energy and leaves you hardened and embarrassed. Am I over-dramatizing it – maybe, but then again – maybe not.
When we settle for mediocre we relegate ourselves to a life of not good enough, also ran, and didn’t care enough to make it. Is this where you want to be? Look around you – identify the companies, businesses, or individuals whom you admire – you know, the ones that seem to win a lot and fit into that category of “successful”. Even more important – these are the companies, businesses, or individuals that seem to enjoy what they are all about. These “successful” players are there due to one very important reason: they never accept mediocrity. In fact, just the opposite – they constantly seek excellence and always know that as good as they may be – they can always be better. Mediocrity has no place in their vocabulary.
These are the Ritz Carlton’s of the hotel business, the Tesla’s of electric autos, the Wegman’s of the grocery business, the Apple’s of computer hardware and electronics, the Harvard’s of business schools, and the French Laundry’s of the restaurant industry. We know them by name, we oftentimes buy their products and services, we read about their success, and we aspire to be like them in some small way. Look deeply into these businesses and the people who own and operate them and you will see an unrelenting effort towards achieving excellence in design, product quality, efficiency, value, and service. The culture of these businesses insists on the relentless pursuit of greatness. The Japanese would refer to them as companies focused on “Kaisen” (a pursuit of constant improvement).
Now here is the kicker – excellence has very little to do with the price you charge or the type of product or service you provide. The big misconception is: “You get what you pay for”. This is an excuse that allows a person or a company to accept being mediocre. “It’s only a hot dog” – so excellence is not an option: WRONG. “It’s only a plate of spaghetti” – so excellence is a pipe dream – WRONG. “It’s only beer” – so why even focus on excellence – people will drink what you pour – WRONG. “This isn’t the French Laundry” so why even invest the time in plate presentation and cooking it properly – WRONG.
Take a simple hamburger – the second most popular item on American menus (a close second to pizza). Ground beef, lettuce, tomato, onion, and a bun – simple right? Walk through the steps toward excellence:
What blend of meat and what fat content make the most flavorful and moist burger?
What method of cooking will yield the best opportunity for caramelization and deliciousness?
What piece of equipment will be most successful in reaching your goals of deliciousness?
Which type of lettuce will provide the freshness, the crunch, the mouth-feel, and the flavor balance with that perfect burger?
Which type of tomato will present the most pronounced flavor of fine ripened, deeply refreshing acid/sweet balance on the sandwich and how can we ensure this consistently throughout the year?
Which bun sits best in the hand, has the balance of crust and soft interior, toasts well and holds its shape while absorbing the juice from that perfectly cooked burger?
What type of onion provides the aroma, sweet bite, and intensity that cuts through the fat of the burger to offer the perfect package of flavor and texture?
Should the fries offered on the side be hand cut or frozen? If hand cut – which potatoes offer the right balance of starch and sugar to brown properly and hold their shape? What type of fat and what is the best temperature for producing the perfect fry?
Should pickles be sliced in coins, sliced lengthwise, cut in wedges, or left whole. Should we pickle our own or buy them? Should they be sour dills, half dills, bread and butter pickles, or intensely spicy? What works best in creating excellence?
If you walk through these questions and answer each with excellence in mind it is easy to see how the simple acceptance of mediocrity will never set the stage for success, but an all out assault on mediocre decisions with an over-riding intent to make “the absolute best burger in the history of mankind” can lead a restaurant of any type to be superior and to create loads of “WOW” experiences for guests.
Create a similar checklist for every product on your menu, regardless of the type of operation or the prices on you charge and you will find a path from mediocrity to excellence.
Now, here is the bonus: when mediocrity is replaced with excellence then every person who works in an operation feels the power of earned pride. Excellence will eventually become the norm with everything that they do – on the job and off. At some point their work stations will be better organized, their uniforms will look a bit more pristine, their knives will be sharper, their attitude toward others will be brighter, and their acceptance of mistakes or slips towards mediocrity (from themselves or others) will not be tolerated. As the movement towards excellence becomes the standard – everyone and everything will begin to rise up. At some point excellence will no longer be a destination – it will become a habit and an essential part of a business culture.
When excellence is the standard method of operation for the business then purveyors will work extra hard to make sure you receive the best ingredients, the best potential employees will be knocking on your door for an opportunity to join the team, the regional press will notice and be more inclined to tell your story, and occasional customers will become steady customers and eventually ambassadors to spread the word about a GREAT restaurant (or school, car dealership, shoe store, or insurance agency).
Now this doesn’t happen overnight – it is a process that takes time, but it starts with the small stuff. It is your job to SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF. It is your job to make sure the equipment in the kitchen is in good working order, the store rooms are organized, uniform appearance is monitored, the dining room tables are steady, employees are constantly being trained, the dish pit procedures produce spotless china, glassware, and flatware; the windows are clean, the parking lot swept, the signage is maintained, and the bottles on the back bar are dusted with labels facing forward. All of the details from the mix of beef in your hamburger to the polish on the flatware will lead the operation away from mediocrity and pointed in the direction of excellence. This can work for the hot dog stand that attracts customers from 20 miles away to the fine dining restaurant picking organic fresh vegetables from their roof top garden. The formula is the same – it’s all about your interest and commitment to make it happen.
An exercise that I have found to be really helpful is to occasionally state/re-state what you believe in as a chef. Every now and then this can serve as a “checks and balance” activity to keep you on the right path and assess where and why you might have strayed from those “stakes in the ground” that are important to your core. This is also a great comparative process to use when seeking a new career opportunity – a chance to note if taking a different position aligns with your beliefs or if it causes you to compromise. I would encourage you to think about this and take the time to write down your beliefs as a “manifesto” and then use it as a guide moving forward.
Here is my manifesto as a chef. Full disclosure – I have drifted from these beliefs at times and have generally regretted doing so.
All people are different – they bring their own set of baggage to work and to life. They may not agree with you or you may not agree with them but they deserve to be treated with respect as human beings. You can disagree, even disagree strongly, but they deserve the opportunity to look you in the eye and know that you do not feel superior because of that disagreement.
Respect for the place where you work, those who own and operate the business and the physical property for which you are responsible is paramount. Just as is the case with the first paragraph – even though you may not agree with the actions of the business or those in charge – you should always respect that you work for them. You can disagree, take a stand, make your point, continue to have a unique opinion, but in the end – it is their business. If this violates your manifesto of beliefs and cannot be altered then look for another place to work – do not slip from your commitment to respect.
 COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE:
Anything worth doing is worth doing well; in fact it is worth doing at a level that lives up to your potential. Whether the task is washing pots, cutting vegetables, or setting up the most intricate plate presentation – that commitment to excellence should prevail. Writing a memo? Do it with excellence in mind. Preparing a menu? Excellence is the standard that you must follow. If you are taking inventory on a Sunday night – approach it as if it is the most important task imaginable.
Excellence should never be a goal for which you strive – excellence is a habit that is impossible to break.
There will always be decisions that you will need to make as a chef; decisions that impact people (as most decisions will) – decisions that will not sit well with some. Such is life and as hard as those decisions might be – just make sure that those who are impacted are treated fairly and justly.
If you are in a position to reward performance – make sure you are fair in how you decide to reward. If you need to punish for actions taken, make sure that you are equitable in your approach so that it is not perceived that you play favorites. In general, people can accept your decisions, but they cannot accept them if they are done with bias.
Remember, everyone has baggage that they carry with him or her to work. The old adage: “When you come to work – leave your personal problems at home” is simply not feasible. As the chef you are charged with helping your employees give a good days work for a good days pay, but to do that effectively you must understand the environmental factors that impact this work. This does not mean that you should expect anything less that good work, but you should always try to understand what might be getting in the way.
On occasion you may need to make adjustments so that an employee can work through their challenges (schedule adjustment, change assignments, send them home, offer advice, refer them to someone who might help, etc.). Employees that know that you care are always more determined to try their best and less willing to disappoint you or their co-workers.
Trust is something that goes both ways. If you expect your employees and co-workers to trust you and the decisions that you make then it is imperative that you trust them first. If employees are properly trained to perform a task then you need to trust them to do it. Some refer to this as delegation, but behind delegation of duties must lay a willingness to trust. Trust that is given leads to trust that is gained.
The irony of trust is that it is rarely given without experience and it is quickly lost when violated even once. Be consistent with your approach towards people and situations so that others can predict and depend on how you will act.
When you hide things from employees and/or co-workers then trust will quickly erode. Obviously, there are some things that are beyond the purview of others, but make it clear when that is the case. In fact, wherever possible try to share more than people would expect. You will be surprised at how much they appreciate it.
If you have a need to better control costs then begin by sharing figures and challenges with your staff. Let them know about sales, food cost, labor cost, changes in vendor prices, increases in utilities, mortgage or lease arrangements, and how profitable or unprofitable the restaurant is. What will often be surprising is that your staff members will have great ideas on how to save money and increase sales. Bring them into the fold and they will rise to the occasion and feel ownership for the challenges as much as you do.
Sometimes it is far more important to listen than to talk. As the saying goes – the best leaders listen more and talk less. Don’t pre-judge a situation until you have heard all sides. Don’t approach a challenge with a predetermined conclusion or action without inquiring into all of the factors involved.
Give your employees a forum for expressing their opinions, observations, and ideas. This can be regularly scheduled staff meetings, 10 minute post shift wrap-up sessions, or an open door policy where they feel comfortable approaching you one-on-one. Even if you don’t act or even agree – the fact that you were willing to listen is a big step in the right direction.
 STAY TRUE TO THE FOUNDATIONS:
You started out as a cook and did so because you focused on learning the right approach toward cooking. The right way to hold a knife and cut vegetables, the right way to fabricate meats and fish, the right way to organize the kitchen and a work station, the right way to apply basic cooking methods, the right way to prepare a stock or a soup, the right way to purchase and control the quality of ingredients, etc. Don’t ever lose sight of this in favor of short cuts that might interfere with quality or a consistent end result. “If you don’t have the time to do it right the first time, when will you find the time to do it over?”
 QUALITY and VALUE:
These two factors are inseparable. Quality is what built your reputation and quality is what will help to keep it. Quality quickly becomes the expectation of all involved and reputation is built on it. When quality is sacrificed then value is diminished and reputations with suffer.
Always remember that the reputation of the restaurant and the reputation of those who work there (including yourself) are based on everyone’s reliance on quality and value. Once lost, a good reputation is hard to recover.
 THINK FIRST – THEN ACT:
There is a major difference between action and reaction. The factor that gets in the way of good decisions is the emotion that you allow in. Reaction is poisoned by fear, anger, hate, revenge, and misunderstanding. Take a moment, breathe deep, and ask why did something happen that requires action, who was responsible, what is an appropriate action, and how should it be implemented and relayed to others. It is that brief moment of reflection that will make all the difference in how successful you action is.
 PLANNING TO ELIMINATE MISTAKES:
Mistakes, more often than not, are avoidable if you take the time to plan. Murphy’s Law is always applicable: “If something can go wrong, it probably will”. Your role as a chef is to think ahead, to run through scenarios that might occur, to take the time to organize thoughts and build a strategy, and then to implement all of that in an effort to eliminate the need to deal with challenges or minimize the impact of those challenges.
Ironically, there are rarely decisions made that do not impact others. Reaction without planning will uncover numerous other challenges that you failed to think through. Take the time to plan.
 OWN IT:
Everyone makes mistakes – this is inevitable. In fact, many people believe that the best overall decisions come from lessons learned from failure. Failure weighs heavy on those who realize their mistakes, but even heavier on those who fail to take responsibility. Co-workers, employees, and even customers will forgive your mistakes if you admit them and then work like hell to make sure the same mistakes are not made in the future. You screwed up – so what! Own it, ask for help, and learn how to recover.
 IF YOU ARE NOT SERVING THE GUEST DIRECTLY THEN SERVE THOSE WHO ARE:
As a chef your plate is always full. You can’t be everywhere thus you must rely on others to step up and “do their job”. Ultimately, it is the guest who must walk away satisfied, and hopefully impressed. You can’t order, organize, plan, cook the food, plate the dishes, and deliver everything to a waiting guest – so one of your primary tasks must be to properly train and provide the necessary tools for others in your organization to attend to the details and bring about customer satisfaction. “What do you need, what can I do, and where can I be to best support you” goes a long way toward achieving those goals.
 KEEP IT ORGANIZED:
Mise en place goes way beyond your personal work area. As a chef it is imperative that you set the tone by creating an organized kitchen – everything has a place and everything is in its place” is a theme that sets the stage for success.
 LOOK THE PART, ACT THE PART:
Finally, a chef must always stand out as the example for others. A clean pressed uniform, an organized office, a person who carries himself or herself as a consummate professional, a person who acts in a manner that is beyond reproach, a person who is consistent in how situations are handled, and a person who makes sure that everyone is treated fairly and respectfully is a model for others to emulate. Be that person.
Ah…now is the time for everyone to start speculating about what the restaurant business will look like when all of this craziness is over. Let’s start with what we are fairly comfortable saying: whatever “normal” is will likely not make an appearance until the end of 2021 – so…let’s begin our speculation with January of 2022 to be safe. I know what you are thinking – WHAT!!!! Restaurants cannot wait that long, no way, no how – this is the end of the world, as we know it. Sorry – just trying to be realistic. Once we have a target we might at least be able to plan effectively to either re-invent or throw in the towel. At least the real bad news is out of the way.
Now, let’s think about the purpose of restaurants so that current and potential restaurateurs and chefs can choose the direction they want to take.
THE PURPOSE OF RESTAURANTS (Where do you want to fit)
To nourish and provide sustenance
To offer convenience
To provide a forum for conversation
To create opportunities for gatherings
To reward customers
To provide an outlet for chef creativity
To complete a neighborhood or destination
To rock customers world
There may be more reasons, but these are the most common. So choose where you want to sit and lets jump on the speculation train.
 NOURISH AND PROVIDE SUSTENANCE:
Without a doubt – one of the primary purposes of a restaurant and one that supports the defined needs of a guest is to fill their stomachs. There are numerous multi-billion dollar chains along with countless mom and pop operations that do a great job on this front. Of, course the food must be tasty and appealing at some level and above all else – consistent. If this is your purpose then the field is wide open and will remain so as long as the price you charge matches the level of purpose.
 OFFER CONVENIENCE:
Quite often, the restaurant that is focused on nourishment is also great at providing convenience. In a world where everyone seems to live on tight schedules – convenience rules the day. How convenient you might ask: we barely need to slow down our cars and roll down the window when our food arrives – that’s convenience. During the pandemic – those operators who have been able to convert their operations to take out, curb side, or delivery using third party providers like GrubHub and Uber Eats have hit the nail on the head. Safety and convenience are first and foremost in consumer’s minds.
 PROVIDE A FORUM FOR CONVERSATION:
The heart and soul of many communities is a place where conversation flows freely – a place where opinions reign and where judgment of others is set aside in favor of a free flow of ideas. This was (is) the design of classic coffee houses, speakeasys, and corner cafes for generations. Whether a restaurant or tavern fills the role is dependent on many factors, but high on the list is the owner’s intent on creating a mecca for this to take place. If creating this type of environment is high on your list of priorities then there will come a time, an important time, when we are able to return to this type of interaction.
 TO CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR GATHERINGS:
Houses focused on catering informal and formal events whether it is that tavern where people gathered after a game to celebrate a win or commiserate a loss, the banquet hall booked for weddings, reunions, birthdays, and holidays; or simply that restaurant where you can always depend on familiar faces to clink glasses with – gathering spots are important. We have felt the pain of their loss over the past year, and will need to do without them a bit longer, but in all likelihood they will return in a very robust way once it makes sense.
 TO REWARD CUSTOMERS:
There are operators who enter the business for altruistic reasons: to bring happiness to people, to reward them when others may forget to do so, or even to allow guests to find their own reason to seek a pat on the back. Great food and drink and honest, sincere service can be the sunshine at the end of a not so terrific day. This is what hospitality is all about.
 TO PROVIDE AN OUTLET FOR CHEF CREATIVITY:
The definition of a chef sometimes includes: “frustrated artist”. Individuals who dedicate their lives to the preparation of food often view the plate as their canvas and what they do as something far more than just nourishment. This may be your priority, but know that those on the consuming end may not appreciate the chef’s art form. Restaurants are businesses as well and the customer is the other end of the restaurant tug of war. Art is wonderful, but in business it must sell to have any real value.
 TO COMPLETE A NEIGHBORHOOD OR DESTINATION:
Look at your own neighborhood and point to any common point of interest that helps to bring people together and turn a few blocks of houses into a community of homes. Chances are pretty good that the point of interest will be a restaurant. Gentrification or urban renewal almost always begins with the opening of a place of dining. Focusing on this makes both altruistic and good business sense.
 ROCK CUSTOMERS’ WORLD:
Ah, then there are restaurants, restaurant owners, chefs and cooks who see the operation as a vehicle for standing out, for making people jump up and applaud, for confusing the competition and helping people focus on food experiences that they never imagined. These are the risk takers, the individuals who push the envelope, and the ones who work like crazy because they have a goal of knocking people’s socks off. If this is your objective then know that it is hard, it involves the fickle nature of consumers, it requires superhuman effort to earn and then more to maintain a reputation for “the extraordinary”. To see this as a goal is to make a lifetime commitment to constant improvement because what rocks a customer today will become ordinary tomorrow. Many have tried, but few have succeeded.
So, what will rise to the top when the Covid Monster has gone into hibernation? Impossible to say, but there are some indications of change they just might have staying power. Here are a few to chew on:
GHOST KITCHENS are making people scratch their heads and wonder if this is the next “big” thing. Rent kitchen space, develop multiple concepts around a core of ingredients, develop a separate branding campaign including “order friendly” websites, contract with a third party delivery service and go to town. Minimal staff, no long-term lease, no property taxes, no dining room, no service protocol, and social media as your only marketing initiative. If one of those brands fails to move well then shut down the website and you are done. Much of the sizzle is set aside, customer interaction is non-existent, and the feeling of community may be lost – but it certainly is interesting and it eliminates many of the challenges that restaurants face.
FOOD TRUCKS are not a passing fad. Eliminating the need for brick and mortar and a set location give restaurateurs a chance to take the product where the customer is and move freely when customers have a need to do the same. Limited, focused menus; high impact flavors; spontaneity, and limited staff needs make this a very attractive model for chefs and owners. Add a rented commissary kitchen space (ghost kitchen) for prep and you can scale a hot concept to multiple trucks working an entire city.
POP UP RESTAURANTS give a chef the opportunity to experiment with concepts, menu items, styles of service and preparation, and even multiple locations. Running a concept for a few weeks can provide enough analytical data to support the need for a brick and mortar operation someday down the road. It makes sense to move in together before marriage.
GROCERY STORE PARTNERSHIPS provide chefs with another potential outlet for their product without the headache of dining rooms, service staff, and the pressure of the clock. Renting shelf or cooler space for your product places the merchandising, collection of cash and credit, and facilities maintenance in the hands of the store. Placing your product in a location where customers visit anyway opens the door for spontaneous sales providing your packaging and point of sale merchandising is top shelf.
BRICK AND MORTAR OPERATIONS will have a much more difficult time rising from the destruction that the pandemic is leaving behind. Lease, mortgage, utilities, staffing, and the need to convince people to visit you is even more of a challenge than in the past. There is little doubt that location restaurants will return, will service the needs of customers, and in some cases will thrive, but they’re a far greater gamble than other options – at least in the short term.
Be cautious, but through planning and the willingness to make solid business decisions you can find a market for your product and service.
Every year, a significant number of new restaurants open and almost as many close their doors for good. It is, that spark of “I have a great idea for a restaurant” that drives many people towards the leap into entrepreneurship – a leap that too many are unprepared for. Nevertheless we have always been blessed with choice when it comes to finding a place to eat. On occasion, a restaurant opens, the owners have the right idea, everyone in the operation rallies around core principles that find a home in consumer minds and hearts, and the place enjoys success for a long period of time. These are the places where memories are built and where customers become friends, and friendships last from generation to generation.
This past year has been excruciatingly brutal on restaurants that simply haven’t been able to weather this relentless storm of pandemic related restrictions and consumer concerns. The typical 30% or more failure rate has crept up to 50% and even the most established generational restaurants have locked their doors for the final time.
It pains me to see any restaurant close. I know how much time, energy, money, and heart goes into that first day when a proud operator and/or chef looks up at the front door sign that proclaims they are open for business. I know how much personal experience is expressed in the menu that is oftentimes comprised of family recipes and a chefs “best effort”. I know how many sleepless nights went into the decision to lease a space, writing a check for the kitchen equipment, filing for an LLC, hiring those first employees, receiving that first order from vendors, and wondering if there will be enough money to pay the bills each week. I know how heartbreaking it is when the dining room is nearly empty, and how invigorating it is when it is full. The decision to close, to tell your loyal employees that it is over, to file for chapter eleven, to clean out the coolers and shut off the lights for the final time is something that cuts deep – this is maybe one of the worst feelings imaginable.
To some it is a sense of failure while to others it represents the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. Some walk away never to contemplate ownership again, while others immediately begin to formulate the next “great idea”. In all cases, it is not something that was contemplated on that first day of opening – it is always a last resort.
To this end, I think that it is proper to recognize all who take the leap, who give it their best, who pour their heart and soul into an idea – even if the end means a lock on the door. Here are just a few remarkable restaurants that have closed this past year – many simply because the pandemic was the last straw – something that they just could not overcome – we will miss them:
 BLACKBIRD: A superb Chicago restaurant known for its innovation and passion. Donnie Madia and Chef Paul Kanan did an extraordinary job of bringing a relatively small restaurant into the Chicago limelight. Ultimately it was this small size that made it impossible to survive with the limits to capacity that the pandemic brought.
 K-PAUL’S: There were times when people would wrap around the block and wait hours for a chance to sit and break bread at Paul Prudhomme’s landmark restaurant that defined the Cajun/Creole obsession that people had for this New Orleans mecca. Even after his death, the restaurant carried on – until it just couldn’t.
 AUREOLE: For a few decades there were a handful of incredible restaurants in New York City, just a handful out of the more than 25,000 in the Big Apple that truly defined the food revolution. Chef Charlie Palmer’s Aureole was one of those operations. Incredibly creative, extraordinarily delicious food accompanied by an out of this world wine list helped to put this operation on the map as one that stood out for decades. Now the space is for rent.
 BLUE SMOKE: Quite possibly one of the most noteworthy, successful restaurateurs in America – Danny Meyer and his Union Square Restaurant group seemed to own New York City for quite some time. Blue Smoke was his foray into the Barbeque genre, and it was a star. Even the brightest stars can fade, and so Blue Smoke is no more. Still, there is little question that Meyer’s restaurants will shine again once Covid is behind us.
 THE COPACABANA: A number of owners, a variety of locations, but always recognized as the premier “club” in the Big Apple. This was the place in the city for the hip and the fun loving, for those in the know, and those who wanted that to be so. No owner had more influence on this landmarks prominence from generation to generation than Peter Dorn. He overcame many obstacles as locations were changed for various reasons from “off the park” to Hell’s Kitchen – this was the place to party. Now it is a memory.
 GOTHAM BAR AND GRILL: I had a number of extraordinary meals at Gotham – a place known for innovation, the operation that coined “vertical cuisine”, a place of elegance and lightheartedness, a place for consistent excellence for more than 25 years under the guidance of Chef Alfred Portale (originally from Buffalo, New York), and a restaurant that for quite some time was one of the top grossing operations in the city. Portale left a few years ago, but it was his standards that put the operation on the map. I will really miss this restaurant.
 THE 21 CLUB: A speakeasy in 1922 during Prohibition – Jack Kriendler and Charlie Burns made this a place that was synonymous with the New York dining scene. Hemingway was a regular, and the mob was known to hang out and even plan a hit on individuals not in their favor. It was part of the New York landscape for almost 100 years.
 FARALLON: This was a restaurant whose décor was a combination of beauty and strangeness, but its food was undeniably superb. The octopus ceiling lights may have been what reporters wrote about, but it’s the food and service at this San Francisco restaurant that everyone will miss.
 PATINA: This was Chef/owner Joachin Splichal’s first entrance into the fine dining scene of Los Angeles. Often written about, frequently compared to, and always respected – this operation grew into a small empire of restaurants within the Patina Group that would eventually include restaurants on both coasts. Now it is a memory.
 CITY TAVERN: This important restaurant opened its doors in 1773. Many of the most influential people in American history spent time in this grand operation from Paul Revere to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams – the halls of City Tavern are filled with history. In 1777 the 1st 4th of July celebration in our country was held at City Tavern – the most American of celebrations. Chef Walter Staib was given approval to operate the business in the now National Park that is host to America’s past and he held this position with great pride until 2020 presented the business with a challenge that it could not overcome.
 MORTONS CHICAGO and LAWRY’S PRIME RIB: Houses of beef would be the most appropriate title for these operations. Steaks, chops, and prime rib carved tableside. Although other locations remain – these were destinations.
 EVEREST: Richard Melman – owner of Lettuce Entertain You – the thematic restaurant group centered in Chicago, opened Everest as his entrance into the high-end fine dining market. Beautiful, masculine, impeccable old world service, and a menu that reflected the grand style of cuisine – now a moment in time.
 MESA GRILL – LAS VEGAS: Bobby Flay was the guy for quite some time. His blending of American cuisine and Southwestern won him acclaim at the New York City Mesa Grill and his sister operation Vegas took it to the next level. When Vegas succumbed to the pandemic, the volumes needed to sustain many of the incredible restaurants there were forced to re-evaluate. Mesa is a victim.
This is just a sample of the tens of thousands of restaurants that have closed over the past year. Many in your neighborhood have likely fallen through no real fault of their own. Where do these operators turn to for answers? The normal: “what could I have done differently” is no longer valid. Those in the business will try to ask these questions as recovery looms closer, but the answers will be few and far between. One thing is clear – restaurants will rise again but with battle scars that will take years to heal.
Support your local restaurants when you are able, thank those restaurant owners and chefs for what they provide, and relish the memories that cafes, bistros, taverns, and restaurants have provided in your past.
One thing is for sure – we will be back. We don’t know exactly when, or what it might look like, but we will be back. A year has gone by and most cooks have now forgotten what it was like to have a full dining room, to feel the anxiety of the wait for those first tickets, of feeling that you don’t know how things will turn out. It has been a long year of uncertainty that has pulled you away from what you do best; a year that maybe even made you question whether or not this “cooking thing” is what you want to do any more.
It was the exercising of your skills, relying on your competence and confidence, of getting ready for battle and conquering the beast that made you want to crawl out of bed in the morning and face another day of craziness. With all of it’s speed bumps, curve balls, and relentlessness – this job is something that you were good at, something that brought excitement along with a touch of fear, a job that made you feel alive and pushed you to your limits. It has been far too long since you felt all of these emotions.
One day it will all return. One day customers will fill those restaurant seats, look at your menu with anticipation, test your abilities and sometimes your patience, and give you reason to click those tongs with anxious anticipation. I don’t know if it will come this summer or fall, but I do know that the day will come and I hope that you will be ready.
Consider this to be the off-season for cooks, a time to relax a bit and shed some of the stress, but also a time to get into a new rhythm of conditioning. This is the time to build your physical strength, hone your technical skills, exercise your mental acuity, and dig into more of the “why” that you cook a certain way. This is not a time to forget and lose a step, this is a time to get ready for the real season to come, and it will come.
I am certain of this because people need us, our communities need us, the economy needs us, growers and producers need us, and we need to do what we do best – it is our calling to cook. People crave the opportunity to gather again, to laugh and cheer, to break bread and tell stories, to raise a glass and toast to today and tomorrow. This is human nature and it cannot be denied forever – restaurants will rise again as soon as they are able. The time is getting near; if we all work to contain this virus and stand ready to receive the vaccine – the time will come soon.
So here are a few reminders for cooks immersed in the off-season – we are about to enter spring training camp – a time when we put aside what we have lost and bring ourselves into competitive condition.
 PHYSICAL STRENGTH
You remember – don’t you? Pulling a 10-12 hour shift off is physically demanding. You will be on your feet for most of that time, always lots of movement – turning, lifting, bending, stretching to reach, using your shoulders and back, and gripping and flipping filled sauté pans allowing the food to dance with the syncopation of orders coming and going. You will need to be ready for this. You will perform best if you are in condition. This is the time to immerse in a physical exercise regiment. Walking, running, weight lifting, sit-ups, push ups, chin ups, hand exercises, stretching and good nutrition will be the keys. Keep that weight down and hone your diet to that of one most aligned with an athlete. GREAT LINE COOKS REALLY ARE ATHLETES!
 MENTAL ACUITY
Being able to think clearly is essential if you are to win the battles on the line. Remember – those orders will come at you with relentless rapidity. The expeditor will challenge your retention skills, the steps in cooking that differ from dish to dish will test your memory, your flavor memory will be your friend once again as you taste-season-taste, and your ability to problem-solve when things go sideways will be your saving grace more times than you can imagine right now. Take time every day to walk through those steps in cooking that made you superb at your job; run through all of those problem scenarios that came your way in the past and jot down how you solved (or failed to solve) the problem, and push yourself to multi-task in your current environment – fill your head with too much to do and try like crazy to work your way through the list.
 SKILL TUNING
It will be the foundations again that save the day, that will make you valuable to an employer, that will separate you from those who don’t quite have what it takes. Knife skills, mise en place, sanitation, and speed and dexterity are all part of your bag of tricks. Practice them at home or work even when business volume doesn’t demand it. Keep your knives sharp, organize yourself every day, and keep your lists of things to do (even if not related to cooking) – all of this will pay off when that day arrives.
Read professional cookbooks, study the cuisine that you are focused on, and make a list of those processes that you followed in the kitchen – “because that’s the way you were taught” – and commit to finding out “why” those processes are important. Commit to being more knowledgeable when business returns – the more you know the more confident you will become.
 TEAM BUILDING
I know it’s hard to work on team skills when the team is not together, but what you can do is to mentally walk through scenarios in the past that can help to drive your “team savvy” approach in the future. Think about those actions of yours or others that drove a wedge between team members and think through ways of avoiding that in the future. Write down those “team defeating” actions that drove you crazy in the past and commit to working through them in a more positive way in the future. Think about “why” things might have gone sideways in the past and how honest sharing with the team can help to work through those events in the future. Don’t let correctible problems raise up their ugly head in the future and put a damper on the effectiveness of a team.
 RE-COMMIT TO YOUR COMMITMENT
Most importantly, this is a time to ask yourself a very important question: “Now that I have been forced to step back or step away from the life of a cook – do I want to jump back in when the opportunity arises? Am I willing and able to re-commit what it takes to be GREAT at what I do?” If the answer is “no or I’m not sure” – then this is a perfect time to start thinking about your next career choice. If the answer is “yes” then roll up your sleeves and get to work on your conditioning. The time WILL come when restaurants are back in full swing.
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.
In the mid-sixties, a relatively unknown band (outside of San Francisco) released an album that would become one of the enduring recordings of the last 60 years. The Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow was both strange (surreal) and comforting (pillow) in its beautiful melodies (Today and Coming Back to Me) and cutting edge norm shakers (Somebody to Love and White Rabbit). This is a record that I still listen to often, but failed, over the years, to understand the meaning of the album title – until today.
After weeks of trying I was able to arrange a date to receive my first of two Covid vaccinations. Needless to say, I was excited (interesting that I was excited to get a shot). It was to be administered in Plattsburgh – a 1-hour drive from home. First, it was one of the longest trips that my wife and I had taken since March 2020. It was a beautiful winter drive through snow covered trees and the black and white panorama of winter. The roads were dry and a light snow flurry was in the air. We had planned on stopping at Panera for a curbside delivered sandwich (our first venture to a restaurant since March of last year) and had ordered our food an hour in advance with an email confirmation resting in wait on my phone.
The Plattsburgh Panera had moved from their old location (things happen while you are tucked away in your house for 9-months) and the new building was built for drive-thru and curbside service. I parked the car and hit “we’re here” on my email message. Two minutes later, our neatly packaged sandwiches were delivered to our car. Off to a similar experience at Dunkin Donuts for a cup of coffee and we found a nice parking spot for our “restaurant meal”. It seemed a bit odd that this would be my first “restaurant like” experience, after all, the business of food is my life, quick service has never been my venue of choice, and eating in my car while bundled up in winter jacket and fur hat was hardly “normal” for me. Yet, here we were, and it was good.
I plugged in the coordinates on Google maps for our next stop – vaccination central. I never knew that this part of Plattsburgh existed. It was desolate, poorly lit (dark already at 4:45 in the Adirondacks) and actually a bit creepy. This was part of the remnants of the old Plattsburgh Air force Base and our destination was a warehouse at the intersection of Connecticut and Arizona Ave. Digital signs directed us to the first stop where a State Trooper checked my ID to make sure I was eligible by age and that it matched my reservation receipt. National Guardsmen directed us to a drive thru tent where they again checked this information and provided additional paperwork to be filled out (damn – did I bring a pen?). We moved on to the next line waiting to enter an unknown warehouse space (the door would open to allow one car in at a time). We frantically looked for a pen and finally found one under my seat and I worked quickly to complete the five pages of information while holding the papers in my lap. The excitement was building while I worked to beat the clock and occasionally look up in anticipation of the door opening.
I had shed my jacket and sat with mask on and short sleeve shirt in anticipation of an event that had been wished for almost exactly one year. The garage door opened and the National Guard waved me into the large, 30 foot ceiling space – creeping along till I reached the table where two nurses were waiting. I shut off the engine and rolled down the window to a warm, friendly greeting: “you made it!” They were pleased that I had completed the paperwork and after entering some data into the computer, the nurse apologized while gently stabbing my left arm. It was a tiny bit un-nerving when she stated: “this vaccine is not approved by the FDA, it is available through “emergency designation” and that it still carries the experimental tag.” My response was quick: “bring it on”. A Band-Aid followed as she told me to pull my car into an outside lot for the required 15-minute wait and that I would receive an email message indicating the time I should arrive for my second dose in 21 days. She smiled as I pulled away. I felt a bit emotional about the whole experience – this meant that there was light at the end of the tunnel. The dangers are not over, our lives will forever be different, there are nearly 300 million more Americans that need to experience this yet, but it was the beginning of the end.
Driving home in the dark winter night, struggling to see very far down the road on this mountain trek, I suddenly understood the meaning behind Surrealistic Pillow. The album that I faithfully listen to will never be experienced in the same way. This day was both strange and comforting. The fact that what was experienced is accepted and expected meant that normal was headed in a new direction. This new normal is with us now and the world is adjusting. I felt truly blessed to have the experience and pray that others will line up soon to discover the same. Get your shot as soon as you can and don’t forget to bring a pen.
We will get through this – of this I am sure. Today, for me, was an affirmation that there are brighter days ahead. The restaurant industry will survive – Panera was an example of adaptation and an encouraging sign that great minds are carving out a new way that will only continue to evolve and improve. The chaos surrounding the pandemic, the tragedy that continues, and the questions around expediting the vaccine will be answered (I felt real comfort in how well organized the process of delivery was), we will eventually be able to shake hands and hug each other again, and life will be great at some point in the near future. As this happens we should never forget what has and continues to occur and how unprepared we were at the onset. We must not lose sight of how important it is to be ready and think through many scenarios that can and will accompany the next crisis. Let’s learn from this experience. In the meantime – wear a mask, keep your distance, avoid crowds, and wash your hands. The time will come when the good life will return if we work together.
In the restaurant business there are really only two ways to view profit: a very small amount of profit balanced by very significant volume, or a significant amount of profit on far less volume. How you approach the design of your restaurant in this regard will determine nearly everything else. How you approach profit will determine what your physical plant will look like, the scope of sophistication in your kitchen, who your vendors will be, how many employees you will hire and the depth of their experience, where you advertise and how much you invest in that, your table top appointments, and even your hours of operation. So, if you are in the process of ideation with regard to a restaurant – then start with one simple question: “How do I want to measure profit?”
In those restaurants where profit is measured in terms of smaller numbers with significant volume then concerns such as food cost percentage are of paramount importance. When profit is measured in more significant profit from fewer sales then I will make a statement that may cause many chefs scratch their heads in disbelief: “Food cost percentage is far less relevant – it’s all about contribution margin.” In both cases it is sales (the top line) that sets the stage for success.
So what is contribution margin? Simply stated it is what a menu item contributes to the financial success of a restaurant. This can be direct (the menu item itself contributes working funds) or indirect (because the item is present on the menu – other items are more likely to sell). So let’s look at this through an example or two:
Chicken Saltimbocca vs. Beef Tenderloin with Wild Mushroom Demi Glace.
The Chicken breast (6 ounce flattened) may cost in the neighborhood of $3, the additional slice of Prosciutto, Provolone Cheese, and sauce reduction another $1.50, and complementary vegetable/starch combination another $.75 for a total plate cost (not actual costs, but fair estimates) equals around $5.25. The baseline formula for determining selling price using an acceptable food cost percent of 30% would be:
The available funds left (contribution) = $17.50 – $5.25 or $12.25
________________________________________________________________________________________ The Beef Tenderloin might look something like this:
Beef Tenderloin (trimmed) (8 oz.) at around $18/pound = $9.00, the wild mushroom demi from stock to finished reduction around $1.25, mélange of wild mushrooms (chanterelles and morels) at approximately $2.00, and a standard vegetable/starch combination at $.75 for a total plate cost of around $13.00. If we use the same baseline formula for determining selling price:
SP = $13.00 / .30
SP = $43.33
The available funds left (contribution) = $43.33 – 13.00 or $30.33
Now the first question is: Can you sell this steak at $43 or does this exceed what the market will bear?
If we chose to use 50% as the desired FC% then the result would be:
SP = $13.00 / .50
SP = $26.00 (A price that guests would be more willing to swallow)
The available funds left (contribution) would be $13 or $.75 greater than chicken at 30%. But now the contribution potential goes even further if we consider general psychology and human behavior.
1. It would not be a stretch to consider that a steak person is different than a chicken person (behavior considerations are generalized). The steak person may very well be less “price sensitive” and more willing to listen to recommendations by the server for adding appetizers, desserts, and even a nice bottle of wine. The chicken person might be of the same mindset, but could be considered more cost conscious and a tougher sell. So, in this example – even though the steak (at a 50% cost) falls outside of the norm for food cost percentage, it stands to contribute more in terms of available gross profit as well as the ability to encourage ancillary sales of other items.
If, in fact, you understand that the success of a restaurant leans on the ability to generate sales, then it becomes obvious that getting all wrapped up in food cost percentage pales in comparison to driving the “top line”.
2. The “soft issues” that go beyond measurement of dollars and cents point to a more robust overall “dining experience” when a guest is able to enjoy a broader spectrum of dishes and complementary beverages. When the “experience” is driven by turning tables to reach a desired volume then something will likely be missing. It should always be the restaurateur’s goal to encourage return business and ambassadorship when happy guests recommend what you have to offer to others.
Now, what about those operations that rely on a smaller amount of profit enhanced by some serious volume – can they create an experience that is worthy of a return? Absolutely! But, in this case you need to rely on the uniqueness of an atmosphere that also encourages shorter dine in times, signature items that create excitement and buzz (think Chick fill-A chicken sandwich), systems throughout the operation that are geared for speed (think about the order/delivery system at Panera), and the ability to maintain a high level of volume.
In the higher profit/lower volume model there will be a requirement for higher levels of skill from both front and the back of the house, a greater understanding of ingredients and their source, cost appropriate table top items (more expensive china, flatware, and glassware), and a level of finesse that rises to the level of the menu pricing.
At a time when pandemic restrictions dramatically impact typical top line initiatives for both methods of measuring profit, it is easy to see just how challenged restaurants are to find a profit scenario that works.
BRING VALUE INTO THE FORMULA
The magic of a great restaurant and one that yields profit potential for the operation lies in those factors that go beyond costs and selling price determination. These are the elements of a food experience that create “value”. Every restaurant should embrace, as part of its goal structure, a feeling among its customers of: “That was well worth what I spent.” Whether it is a $5.00 quick service meal or a $100 fine dining evening – there is always room to create experiences and in turn – great value. The most common components of the value approach are:
UNIQUE, MEMORABLE FLAVORS
It may very well be that one item or a few signature menu choices that just knock people’s socks off. Excitement around flavor is one of the most compelling reasons to support a restaurant. People come from all over the country to New Orleans with a clear commitment to stand in line at Café du Monde for their beignets.
A SPECIAL LOCATION
Those restaurants that are fortunate enough to physically sit in proximity to a breathtaking view, a center of exciting activity, or in a community of other restaurants will always enjoy a steady flow of value seeking customers. The Union Oyster House in the middle of Quincy Market – Boston; The Slanted Door on the edge of San Francisco Bay; or Spiaggia overlooking Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and a view of Lake Michigan are all prime examples of locations that create an experience for diners.
BEAUTIFUL FOOD PRESENTATIONS
A chef knows that he or she has succeeded in engaging a guest and creating visual value when the presentation of a plate of food causes the table to stop, focus on the beauty before them, and pull out their cell phones to take a few pictures to remember.
TRUST IN CONSISTENCY
Those restaurants that consistently create food flavors that are expected, presentations that are anticipated, and service that lives up to previous experiences will always be viewed as a place that offers special value.
There certainly is value in proper technical service, but it will always be those restaurants that offer that warm sincerity, the welcoming attitudes, and those friendly connections with guests that build the most important reasons to return.
Finally, when a restaurant is engaged with a community, supportive of neighborhood efforts and causes, and there to make a difference – true value becomes incredibly obvious. Why would guests patronize any other operations when yours is part of the neighborhood family? This is value.
In the end, creating compelling reasons for guests to patronize your restaurant is complex, but it can be narrowed down to building value. Building value will always lead to healthy top lines (sales) for restaurants.