Author: culinarycuesblog

President of Harvest America Ventures - Restaurant and Culinary School Consulting

Most Restaurant Meals are Disappointing

So…I just had an epiphany and as a result am writing this blog post that some people might not like. It might simply be because I am traveling on business right now and had a rough trip, then again, I have been feeling this for a while and just refrained from expressing it. The reality is that most restaurant meals are disappointing (I am refraining from saying they suck because some might think that that is too abrasive a term) and these meals pale in comparison to what any reasonably attentive person could prepare at home. Furthermore, the value of these restaurant meals is simply not there.

Now, when I say value, many would think that I am referring to price vs. product, but in fact, it is not always about price. Value has much to do with how you feel about your purchase. Value includes quality, perceptions, service, presentation, nutrition, freshness, ingredient source and yes, price. Personally, a great meal is never diminished in my mind because of price. I would rather save up for a high priced meal that is exceptionally prepared, appropriately portioned, beautifully presented, flavorful and exciting than simply buy something to fill me up that is inexpensive.

I get truly excited about visiting great restaurants and when I do it is after considerable research. In most cases, these well researched restaurants care for their food, appreciate the source of ingredients, have a solid understanding of good cooking technique, and treat their customers like family. That is the description of value.

Why do people get into the restaurant business if they fail to understand the basic principles of a great food establishment. Don’t misunderstand me..I am not talking strictly about fine dining. Any restaurant, focused on any demographic, with any price structure can follow these principles. Unfortunately, so many do not.

As I sit in yet another restaurant for a weary traveler I look around at fake environments, menus that are ill-conceived, food that is not cared for, a lack of real fresh ingredients, portions that are ridiculously large, dining rooms and kitchens that are not as clean as they should be, inattentive servers who obviously would rather be doing something else, managers who don’t have a clue, and customers who for some reason accept it all as being OK.

What is most frustrating is that it doesn’t have to be this way! A little bit of training, a large splash of caring, a pinch of interest in the quality of ingredients, a sprinkle of focus, a large portion of pride and the whole scene could change.

Going out to eat should always be viewed as something special, even if our lifestyles dictate that we spend a larger part of our food dollar in restaurants. Dining out has become mundane and this is criminal (from someone who has dedicated his life to the restaurant business).

We have thousands of culinary and restaurant management graduates coming out of schools every year and yet the larger portion of restaurant operations seem to get less and less exciting, more and more mediocre, and very light in “value” delivery.

There are over 900,000 free-standing restaurants in the U.S. and far too many don’t really deserve a steady flow of patrons. This is sad, but true. THIS CAN BE FIXED.

Cooking and service are HONORABLE PROFESSIONS. There are few things in life more gratifying that breaking bread with others and preparing for those who do.

When the REAL VALUE is not there then price is the most important factor in people’s minds.

I just want a meal that is an expression of caring, that reflects a commitment on the part of the chef, cook, server and manager. Is that too much to ask?

For those who are ready to make the leap towards value and invest the time to be great – contact me for help. This is what I do and I can coach you through the process.

Contact me through my website at: http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

Posturing, Politics, Trust and How Not to Become a Putz

I found the following article by an anonymous source that really seems to hit the nail on the head. Regardless of what business you are in, this type of leadership “misdirection” seems to take place. This is a call to those with integrity to stand up and do what is right.

“In business, a lack of leadership and vision leads to dysfunction, poor morale and the general failure to meet goals and objectives.

How does this happen? In organizations, similar to athletic teams who on paper have the most potential and never deliver, if there is a lack of unified vision and shared, consistent goals – negativity and power stances most often take center stage. Usually the void is filled with personal gain for those who profess to be providing leadership when all they do is add a whole new layer of chaos and negative politics.

When leadership is lacking it takes a strong, ethical person to rise above such chaos and take control. All too often ambition is not the strongest trait of an ethical team player’s personality and therefore this rarely happens. What typically occurs when this void exists is that chaos leads to a lack of confidence among employees and eventually trickles down to the customer. Ultimately, this environment can undermine the success of the business and lead to the potential for business failure. It is the ancient myth of “Hubris” being played out time and time again.

As Sun Tzu points out in his centuries old treatise on the “Art of War”:

When your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take the challenge of your extremity. Thus no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.

How does a company avoid such a scenario?

While I have simplified this concept, we have all experienced this, to some degree, and to delve into the intricacies of failure seems of little use. How to avoid such pitfalls is the real challenge.

It takes a diverse group of personalities to make a company successful, but one trait, above all is the most important….TRUST.

*Trust in knowing that everyone is committed to the same vision
*Trust in knowing that leadership has it’s employees best interest at heart
*Trust in knowing you have that same interest for those who report to you
*Trust in knowing success is a shared value and one that can only be achieved through failure without retribution
*Trust in knowing all your peers have high ethical standards and understand the meaning of “what is right” regardless of personal gain

A company cannot invest enough in developing an infrastructure based on trust. To skimp in this endeavor only leads to chaos. Again, as Sun Tzu expounds upon in his “Art of War”:

We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbors.

If you cannot trust someone, how can you work side by side with this person knowing that his/her motives are different than your own? It is no wonder that Asian cultures strive to get to know the person before they ever do business with them.

Define your own values and that of the company you work for – be transparent. Don’t engage in backroom politics, trust and be trusted, work toward a shared goal without thought of ambition and most of all….don’t be a putz about it. Long-term business gain comes from an environment of trust.”

Thanks to the author of this article for defining a key issue that leads to success or failure in business, on the athletic field, in government, or even in the home.

Taking the Time to Appreciate What We Do

To some it may be a job, a means to an end. Yes, there are those who work in kitchens simply to pay the bills. This is not true of the people who I strove to work with and hired for the kitchens that I was privileged to work in.

When you stop to think about it, there is something truly magical about working in a professional kitchen. I have often said that most serious cooks are frustrated artists – individuals who have this innate artistic ability that is simply looking for a vehicle of expression. Some are writers, painters, sculptors, bloggers, musicians or even poets. Few are outgoing enough to have an interest in the live performing arts, so their goal is to find a place where they can be expressive behind closed doors. Ah…the kitchen, what a perfect place.

Once they find their way into that cross between the cleanliness of a surgical room and intensity and heat of Dante’s Inferno, they are hooked. Just think of the advantages for the artist: an environment where every day you get to paint on your canvas (the plate), use a plethora of exciting raw materials, appeal to every human sense simultaneously, earn a paycheck, work with other driven artists, learn from a teacher (the chef), and receive instant feedback for your work (although many cooks could care less as long as they feel that the work is an expression of who they are).

What I have enjoyed the most, is working with such a unique cadre of characters over the years. Every employee has a story, every kitchen employee has some type of issue, every kitchen employee will put their coworkers up against anyone they know and support them no matter what, every kitchen employee understands that as talented as they might be personally, it is the team that allows the whole thing to work.

Of course I know there are exceptions, but we usually weed them out.

I love the diversity of the kitchen. I have been honored to work with every ethnic background, every religious belief, small, tall, young, old, novice, seasoned professional, humble cook and egotistical pain in the butt, white, yellow and black, straight and gay, republican and democrat,male and female and it all works. Sure we banter back and forth about those issues that are in the American mindset, but we all come to agreement on food and how important the team is.

The days are long, the heat can be unbearable at times, the pressure of timing the food can create a frenzy, the disappointment of a returned steak can ruin a night, the temporary friction between front and back of the house can certainly be trying, and in the end the pay never seems to meet our expectations, but I would not trade it for anything.

I love the people of restaurants, I am most at home in a kitchen, I relish working with local farmers and producers, I get excited when that shipment of extraordinary fish comes through the door. The smell of onions, garlic, veal stock, roasts in the oven and fresh baked bread will truly make my day. The 12 cups of half-consumed coffee strewn about the kitchen is comical, but necessary.

As a chef, it is inspiring when that new menu comes together after soliciting the ideas from enthusiastic cooks. Sitting down for 10 minutes before service to a staff meal is a place and a time like no other – even if it takes place standing at the pass on the line. When those first tickets start coming in, the feeling is always exciting, a bit tense, and a call to arms but once the rhythm begins, it is like an orchestra hitting that perfect balance of notes in a score.

In the end, we exist to express ourselves, learn and work together as a team, produce some amazing art that people in the dining room will eat, smell and enjoy. We can make their day if the formula is right and cause them to want to return as soon as possible. What could any artist want more.

I, for one, appreciate what I do in the kitchen. I look forward to every day of learning, thinking about food, teaching, training and occasionally cooking for others. I am humbled by what we do.

I think it was Charlie Trotter who said: “A career in food is not something you choose, it chooses you.” For all who want “in”, this is what chargers our batteries and keeps life in the kitchen exciting.

Post your kitchen thoughts and memories on this blog if you so choose. Check out my company, a labor of love at:
http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

IF YOUR GOAL IS RESTAURANT SUCCESS…..

IF YOUR GOAL IS RESTAURANT SUCCESS.....
WIN A FREE IPOD SHUFFLE!

I am so convinced that any serious restaurateur, manager or chef MUST attend a Deep Dive Seminar on the opportunities, challenges and pitfalls of restaurant operation in this difficult economy that I am providing additional incentives: At each location (providing we meet our minimum number of attendees) I will be giving away a Apple iPod Shuffle and books that should appear on any professional chef or restaurant managers shelf.

SIGN UP TODAY for one of the following locations:

April 15: Woburn, MA – Dole and Bailey plant
April 17: Albany, NY – Taste Restaurant
May 24: Lake Placid, NY – Howard Johnsons Restaurant and Conference Center

TO REGISTER: visit our website: http://www.harvestamericaventures.com and click on the “Seminar and Event” page. Fill out the simple form and “submit”.

ONLY $99/person for a full day including lunch

You Can’t Afford to Miss This!

You Can't Afford to Miss This!

Harvest America Ventures presents Deep Dive Seminars for Restaurateurs, Managers and Chefs. This all day event will focus on the opportunities, challenges and pitfalls associated with operating a restaurant in the current economic climate.

Paul Sorgule, president of Harvest America Ventures and a veteran chef, manager and educator will present this seminar in two different segments: In the morning the focus will be: “The Top Line Drives the Bottom Line” while the afternoon session will continue with a look at “Controlling Costs”.

Sessions are currently available at the following locations:

April 15: Woburn, MA – Dole and Bailey Provisioners
April 17: Albany, New York – Taste Restaurant
May 24: Lake Placid, New York – Howard Johnson’s Restaurant and Conference Center

This Highlight Program is offered for $99/person including lunch.

Sessions start with Registration at 8:30 a.m. followed by the seminar beginning at 9:00 and ending at approximately 2:30.

Space is limited so make your reservations TODAY!

To REGISTER: visit our website: http://www.harvestamericaventures.com
CLICK ON: Seminars and Events and fill out the brief information section.

Preferred payment on location is check or cash, however, we can accept MasterCard and Visa on site.

WE HOPE TO SEE YOU THERE.

How Important is Food Cost

Lets be realistic – the primary job of a chef is to make money for the restaurant. Now the ways to get there are through creating a product that drives sales, exceeding customer expectations so they return, training the staff to be consistently great, and controlling costs. To this end, YES, food cost is important, however it is critical that chefs and managers understand that it is really contribution margin that holds the key to making money once the guest arrives.

Contribution margin refers to what the individual menu item contributes to the overall profitability of the restaurant. This can be tangible (the amount of money remaining after the expenses associated with making and serving that item are subtracted), and/or intangible (the item encourages the complementary sale of other items that are more profitable or helps to bring in future sales). Although I am not a great fan of “loss leaders” (items sold at or below cost to help generate volume), I do understand and support using certain menu items as a marketing tool.

Let’s first look at the tangible nature of contribution margin. Here comes the basic math…..
A menu item using chicken breast on your menu sells for $12 and costs the operation $4 to prepare. $4.00/$12.00 = 33% cost of goods. This falls within the normal range for food cost in full-service restaurants. Everyone is happy and the menu item contributes $8.00 to cover all other expenses in the restaurant (CONTRIBUTION MARGIN). A Veal Chop entree sells for $32.00 and costs $17 to produce. $17.00/$32.00 = 53% cost of goods. This is far beyond normal “acceptable” food cost for full-service restaurants. Management is not happy. Now here is the kicker: $32-$17=$15 CONTRIBUTION – much greater than the $8 from chicken, yet the other costs of operating the restaurant remain the same whether you sell chicken or veal. The veal is a greater contributor to the financial success of the restaurant even though the food cost % appears to be unacceptable.

The intangible is even more interesting: it is not always fair to make generalizations, yet if you were so inclined to build a statistical study you would probably discover that the person buying chicken is less likely to buy expensive wines, appetizers and desserts than the veal guest. So, one could assume that there is a greater likelihood of selling high profit “extras” with veal orders and contribute greatly to the overall profitability of the restaurant even though the food cost % seems out of whack.

One last measurement: as stated in a previous article: “The Top Line Drives the Bottom Line” – it is very important to convince your servers to up sell and increase sales volume. The 53% food cost veal chop is a natural tool to help sell all of the extras and raise the top line. For the server, the base for gratuity also increases: End of story – everyone wins!

Back to the original question: How Important is Food Cost? There is a case to be made for effective menu planning leading to better contribution. In either case, control to any budgeted percentage is essential for long-term success.

Do you need help with sales and cost of goods? Contact Harvest America Ventures for assistance. Look for Harvest Deep Dive Seminars for restaurateurs coming to a city near you. Coming to: Boston, Albany, Lake Placid, Burlington, and Rochester.

Visit our site for more specifics:

http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

“Go Big or Go Home” The Evolution of Tannins and Hops on Our Palates.

“Go Big or Go Home” The Evolution of Tannins and Hops on Our Palates.

“Go Big or Go Home” is a phrase that is usually associated with sports, however it has crept into the food and beverage world as well, albeit unintentionally. About two decades ago California wine makers began making high alcohol and muscular wines. The intention behind the combination of high alcohol and tannins was to give the wine enough muscle to mature in a cellar, mellow over time and hopefully be compared with the great wines of Europe. Tannins are the astringent substance found in seeds and stems of grapes and one of the essential elements in the aging process of wines.
One of the consequences in this shift in philosophy from wine makers was that the wine was very limited and very expensive. Restaurateurs quickly recognized the downside of this philosophy, having a tremendous amount of cash tied up in inventory. So, rather than the wine simply sit and mature in the wine cellar, out of necessity for cash flow restaurateurs put them on their wine list while they sat unnoticed in the cellar. Consumers on the other hand having read about the pedigree of the wine and the talent of the wine maker began to purchase them. Who would have thought? Surely not the traditional “Francophile”!
Fast forward to 2013, we now have artisan craft beers with high alcohol and super hopped! Hops, are a dried flower that imparts a bitter flavor to the beer and ale. (Bitter and astringency are both perceived the same on our palates) Having tried many varieties of these over hopped beers, I just kept saying to myself…..gosh I just don’t like this overly bitter taste and feel in my mouth. The experience of drinking these types of brews was just so unpleasant I had to understand why. (At least from an intellectual standpoint) And let me be clear here I’m not suggesting these are not quality beers, what I’m saying is my palate prefers less bitterness.
After doing the research it turns out that hops are just like tannins to wine, and come across as bitter in your mouth. We all know the four taste buds, sweet, salt, sour and bitterness, and when food and beverages are consumed our brain identifies and associates either pleasure or disdain based on what these taste buds tell us. Now enter the “Umami” effect, Japanese researchers have discovered that there essentially is a fifth taste bud, which effectively tells the brain that all the traditional taste buds are in harmony with each other, and we experience pleasure. Certain foods naturally demonstrate this umami effect when eaten: an example would be bacon.
The realization of hops and tannins reacting as they do was a small revelation for me, and it is no wonder why I have this aversion to overly hopped beer, I never liked the high alcohol tannic wines as well, simply because it felt like I was chewing on nails and the tannins overpowered my palate and my brain just screamed pain not pleasure! Again, let me be clear, this is not any criticism to the quality of the products it’s simply my palate telling my brain that something is not “umami” in my mouth! And knowing this has allowed me intellectually enjoy many of the new emerging beverages of this generation, but my brain keeps it real.
The moral of this blog however, is to listen to your mouth, be your own critic and drink what feels good! Life is too short.
Cheers

NOTE: Kevin O’Donnell is the author of this blog. He is a seasoned hotelier, wine and beer afficiando, and educator. Kevin is currently the Vice President of Restaurant Operations for the New England Culinary Institute and lives in Montpelier, Vermont.

More of: The Top Line Drives the Bottom Line

The hardest task for any restaurateur is convincing a potential customer to walk through the front door for the first time. This takes considerable effort in the form of image building, identifying target markets, use of social media, advertising, building an effective website, selecting the right physical location, etc. Convincing a customer to make that leap means that they are willing to take a risk, sit down and spend some money. After all of that effort how much time do you spend on convincing customers to buy and set the stage for a return visit?

Keep in mind that your service staff are your ambassadors and sales force. Have you taken the time to train them how to sell and have you provided them with the tools that they need to be effective in that role? Your job is not to simply make a sale, it is to build a relationship that will result in steadily increasing sales, check averages and return guests. Your service staff holds your future in their hands.

That initial customer visit will likely result in “safe” purchases until your operation is able to demonstrate trustworthiness. The server is the portal for information, the front-line expert on your menu, the friend who can make great suggestions, the connection to others in the restaurant and the gatekeeper to your profitability.

Yes, the top line drives the bottom line and the server’s primary job is to sell, however, to accomplish this they must be able to provide exceptional value for the guest. Does you service staff known the menu, the ingredients, the source of those ingredients, the methods of preparation and the flavor profile of every item on the menu? Does your service staff have a working knowledge of wine and can they make great pairing suggestions for the novice wine consumer? Is your service staff comfortable communicating with the chef about special requests and can they offer those to a guest with confidence that the property can deliver? Is your service staff willing and able to sell the bookends: appetizers and desserts? If not, the fault lies with management and ownership.

The average restaurant in America spends less than 1% of its budget on training, yet it is training that will result in greater sales, higher check averages and return guests. The top line does not happen simply because your marketing efforts have led customers to walk through the door.

Are the tools in place to allow servers to up-sell with confidence? Is the dining room comfortable, is the menu attractive and user friendly, is the wine list understandable, do you offer on-going training to keep staff informed about the menu, do you require daily pre-meal information sessions, do you have a sommelier or a manager with a strong understanding of wine and the ability to build a list that works well with food, do you have the right glassware and china to complement the wine and food, do you take advantage of customer profile systems such as Open Table so that your server can track the preferences of return guests? The answer to each of these should be YES.

The top line drives the bottom line, but the process of setting the stage is the only thing that will allow this to become a reality.

Watch for information on “Deep Dive” Seminars by Harvest America Ventures coming to a city near you. Learn about the opportunities and pitfalls associated with restaurant operation.

Visit our website at: http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

Coming This Spring

Coming This Spring

For restaurateurs, restaurant managers, chefs and professional cooks, and for those contemplating a restaurant start-up – this seminar will help to set you on the right path and provide you with some important operational tools.

Look for seminars this spring in Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, Plattsburgh, Saratoga and Albany New York; as well as Burlington, Vermont and Boston, MA.

A full day with Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures. Includes a working lunch and interactive exercises that bring the information to life.

Look for details in the near future. In the meantime, visit our website and blog:

http://www.harvestamericaventures.com
http://www.culinarycuesblog.wordpress.com

The Top Line Drives the Bottom Line

The Top Line Drives the Bottom Line

This is a first post in a series demonstrating what Harvest America Ventures does to help restaurants reach their goals.

The restaurant business is quite simple on paper, the challenge is transitioning some simple rules into effective processes and great results. The first rule of thumb is that “sales rule”! All the cost controls in the world cannot compensate for a lack of business and customers who are not given the opportunity to spend more than they had anticipated.

How to reach and eventually exceed your sales goals is a complex mix of contemporary marketing, understanding and tracking customer expectations, producing consistently exceptional products, providing breakthrough service, and setting the stage for return guests. Simple isn’t it?

Let’s look first at the production of a consistently great product. There are a handful of restaurateurs and chefs today who have ruined it for everyone else. They are creating that WOW factor with their product every time a guest arrives. They are obsessed with a constant state of improvement. They are, without a doubt, their own worst critics and act not too dissimilar to obsessive artists.

I remember reading that in his later years Picasso was not allowed to walk, unaccompanied, through a museum that carried his work. His obsession with constantly critiquing his own work would lead him to try and correct his paintings on display. I know chefs and restaurateurs with a similar outlook. The customer is head over heals in love with the food and the experience, but the chef and owner are already trying to figure out how to fix it.

Steve Jobs was an obsessive character that drove his staff crazy with getting everything beyond right. He wanted perfection and realized that he would likely never get there. Even so, the best always strive for that goal.

There is little question that the pursuit of excellence in restaurant product development, production and service will always be a door for those few operations to be successful.

Good restaurants are able to develop menu items and produce them at a level of consistency that makes people comfortable. Great restaurants are constantly looking at pushing customer expectations higher each time they choose to spend money.

How good is your product? Do you obsess over it? Are you familiar with what the spoilers are doing to make your life more difficult and challenging every day? Do you follow David Chang, Daniel Boulud, Gavin Kaysen, Rick Bayless, Marcus Samuelsson, Danny Meyer, Drew Nieporent, and Grant Achatz to see what they are doing next? If not, you had better start.

Is your staff fully versed on what your food is, how it’s prepared, how it tastes and which wines form the perfect complement? Do they know how to up sell and build that check average?

Filling restaurant seats is critical, but developing a product that is fresh and always new and designed to draw people back in time and again is the key.

The top line drives the bottom line.

Stay tuned for more quick tips. Harvest America Ventures is a consulting and training company focused on the restaurant business. We are here to help you reach your goals.

COMING SOON: Deep Dive Seminars in an area near you!

http://www.harvestamericaventures.com

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