Over the past three years, something interesting occurred that was not predicted. I’m not referring to the pandemic, although this occurrence is a direct result of that dark time. Americans started cooking again. The kitchens were there – complete with every gadget imaginable. Now they had the time to figure out how to use them. So, the restaurant industry is suddenly faced with a potential shift in need. From the late seventies forward, more and more families shifted from single-income earners to dual-career drivers. Restaurants, through all of this, shifted from a luxury to a necessity. The convenience and the reward were essential to support the American lifestyle. Now that people are once again able to cook – the need is less evident.
Let’s not be totally lulled into thinking that since our restaurants are once again busy, our dark days are over, and everything has returned to normal. There may very well be a surge in popularity because of pent-up demand. That sigh of relief, “Finally, I can go out among people and shed the shackles of my home or apartment.” That will wear off, especially with a much larger percentage of the population working remotely. So, it may be time to think in terms of experiences rather than just good food and efficient service. What can we do to create or re-create those experiences that add value to the restaurant reservation?
Walk through your operation like a guest; do the same with your competition and ask yourself repeatedly: “What’s so special?” Good food is a given – great food should be an expectation. That’s a perfect place to start. Taste everything on your menu. Is everything exceptional, or is it just good? Everything! Assess the bread (very important) and the butter or olive oil you use. Each appetizer, soup, salad, entrée, vegetable, dessert, and cup of coffee and tea. Are they exceptional? Is everything better than the guest would expect? This is what you are shooting for. Everything! Hot food, hot, cold food, cold. Wasn’t this the first lesson we were taught? Yet, how many times is the guest’s expectation met? But even great food may not be enough – remember, people know how to cook again.
The other day I enjoyed two different restaurant meals in New York City. I hadn’t been back to the Big Apple since pre-pandemic, so I was excited. The first was a busy Mexican restaurant for enchiladas with a house-made mole. Tasty and hot, but not over the top. However, when I ordered the guacamole for the table, a cart was wheeled tableside where a young back waited, split avocados tactfully removed their pits, scooped out the perfectly ripe fruit into a mortar, added fresh cilantro, pico de gallo, fresh lime, salt, and pepper and attacked it with a stone pestle until the dreamy, chunky concoction was presented to our table with warm tortilla chips. It was exceptional – worthy of writing about and significant enough to bring me back on my next visit. That evening, in a much more sophisticated restaurant, we ordered plancha grilled and stuffed whole branzino. I watched as many other guests had the same dish delivered to their tables. Served on a hot wooden plank with grilled preserved lemon and a burning bush of fresh herbs, the fish was as perfect as possible: crispy skin; and light, moist, and delicious flesh. It was memorable, different, and worthy of a return visit. In both cases, the experience was as important – maybe even more so, than the food itself.
Think about the lost pleasurable dining experiences that could find their way back to the restaurant table. Remember when Caesar Salad was prepared tableside? Garlic mashed between two forks and rubbed on the bowl with anchovy paste, the coddled egg, fresh lemon, rich olive oil, fresh ground salt and pepper, and parmesan cheese – blended in a tipped bowl waiting for romaine leaves and maybe a few croutons – that was it. But the showmanship drew the attention of every other diner in the restaurant – worthy of a round of applause. Maybe a whole fish boned tableside, duck flambe, bananas foster, or a flaming cocktail presented by an artisan who was well trained by the house. Of course, you might think that this “over the top” service is reserved for top-tier operations with hefty price tags, but the “experience” of dining can be introduced in any operation at any price point. Use exceptional rolls for that hamburger and toast them. Slice your tomatoes thick and make sure they are ripe. Teach your bartenders how to properly pour a draft or bottled beer to allow a perfect head crown on the top of the glass. Bring the bottle of wine to the table for wine by the glass. Go through much of the same introduction used for bottle purchases: show the label, offer a tasting portion first, pour with a twist of the wrist at the end, and be prepared to explain something about the wine, the vineyard, or the winemaker. Serve that piece of neighborhood diner pie, warm it, and buy quality coffee beans and tea whether your price point is $2 or $5 – people know their coffee and tea nowadays.
From the cleanliness of the restaurant, the uniform of the staff members, the appropriateness of China and glassware, to the time taken to present the food for the eye as well as the palate, experiences bring people in and draw them back time and again. This is not the time to simply relish good business volume. After nearly three years of struggle – this is the time to set a path for ongoing success through greatness. Be unique, work on those experiences, create your own “wow factor,” and become the benchmark for others to follow. Don’t admonish those who would take a picture of your food and post it to Instagram – celebrate them and take pride in what you have produced.
As an aside – all of this connects with pride. Your pride in the operation, the guest’s pride in making the decision to dine there, and by the way – the employee’s pride in working there. Your commitment to great guest experiences is a real attraction for the best employees. A winning restaurant draws the attention of great employees and loyal guests. Bring back the experience of dining.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Cues Blog