Monday, March 8, 2010



When we go out to eat, do we think why? In this day of blogging, (myself now included) there seem to be more blogs than readers. There are more people-with-opinions than laymen looking for one. I’m not going to join the throng of new foodies trying to push their own ideals of “What makes a restaurant perfect”. Instead, I want to get you the reader motivated. I want you to understand a little about the industry that is foodservice. Lately (due to my own personal situation) I am finally thinking about opening my own establishment. I’ve been cooking for a long time. And I’m good. Ego on paper is allowed... I’m damned good. To open up a restaurant, I’ll need a few things.

1. Location, location... location. Possibly the most important thing. You have to incorporate your menu with your prospective customer base and then and only then you need to search out a location that will allow your customers proper access to your location.

2. Menu. Possibly the most important thing. Your menu reflects who you are, who your customers will be and the focal point of what your restaurant “IS”.

3. Staff. Possibly the most important thing. The staff that you choose represents you, and how you would treat your customers.

4. Price. Possibly the most important thing. The prices that you assign to your menu items Depend on your menu (ingredient costs), location (rent, advertising costs), and amount of staff needed.

5. Customer “entourage” or “Mood of customers”. Possibly the most important thing. This un-thought-of ingredient is somewhat vital to how your restaurant is thought of. This allows and keeps customers coming back.

6. Decor. Possibly the least important thing. Strangely, I have been to many different restaurants worldwide (sure no truly dear, trendy places). And while first impressions are always visual, once seated, primary focus usually moves quickly to one of the other five “needed things”.

Did you notice? “Possibly the most important thing.” All of the ingredients to forming a vital restaurant are unique but equally important. You have to think of all of them at the same time and as having the same importance. Let’s detail them.

I think of using a sliding scale (1 to 10) to show the importance of an item. Example: “1” Crappy location; No view, customers have to walk through undesirables, no parking whatsoever, kilometres away from civilization. “10” Best location; Spectacular view, customers are delivered to your door, valet parking, in the center of town. The way that you can use this scale is to ensure that one of the other “six ingredients” makes up for the loss of location. Example would be that the menu and staff are both “7’s” on the scale might be enough to let your location slide down to be a “4”.

Location. Yeah we’ve all heard that phrase “Location, location... location” and understood the basic principal. But unusually, this may not be as vitally important as other businesses. For instance you can put a restaurant in a basement, or on the top of a building: it might not matter that much. But this might be the death of your place if the rent is so unreasonable that it kills your profits in the first years. Some locations have immediate customer appeal; a gorgeous view of the ocean, a patio on the main drag for excellent “people-watching”, or a roof-top rotunda that spins giving your customers a 360 view of the city. Or maybe yours is on the main commute and has a wicked “Dive-through” system or a corner spot in the food court. But as you can see these variables are contingent on your “Theme” or menu.

Menu. The food that you serve has got to focus on a few factors. Cultural, availability, and customer appeal. If you’re opening a “Madagascar Hissing Beetle / Guinea Pig BBQ”, you might run into some issues; availability of fresh, live cockroaches could prove costly, and customers (at least here in the North American market) may not be the return business you want. If you are opening in Chile (yeah donate to the Red Cross), where Guinea Pig is a regular staple however, you might just rock it out! (Going back to location). Considering your menu and tying it to your location is key. The two can’t really be separate. If the only location available is in the food-court, then opening a five-star Nouvelle Cuisine reservation only place is out. Your menu must involve your customers. Who and what they are will determine the items that will go on your menu. Another thing that will determine your menu might be “similarity or saturation”: opening a Quizno’s right beside a Mr. Sub may not be a wise financial move. Likewise opening a mainly Italian restaurant in a town with 40% of its restaurants being the same as yours... kinda dumb. If you are clever enough, you should find a niche that isn’t being filled and do that. If the entire population of your area all just came back from a holiday to Siberia, then you might do well putting Borscht and Latkes on the daily lunch fare. If the reason you want to open something is that “your mother’s recipe for chitlins is the best” but that’s the only thing you can make... you might reconsider. If you want your restaurant to succeed, your menu should reflect your customer’s wants, your location and more importantly, the ability to adapt to local trends.

Staff. OK. I’ve had many a jealous argument with my wife on this subject. I feel that the wait-staff should be primarily gorgeous (if possible). Nothing more than a happenin’ rack will keep those full-walleted 25-40 something males from emptying their VISAs on another plate of wings and a pitcher. It has been scientifically proven that “pretty” people make more tips. But does this actually mean better service? More return business? More profit? My analytical mind somehow doesn’t necessarily agree. Personally, I am a typical male: 5% charm, 55% libido 10% brains and 35% ego... (C’mon you math whizzes!) And when it comes to flirting with the waitresses, I rank myself as one of the best (remember ego?) Do I buy more if the waitress is cuter? No. Do I go back with four or more friends if the place is filled with babes? No. How about not going back if you’ve had a lovely blond screw up your order and given generally lousy service? YES, this is true! A careful balance between brains (including ability) and beauty should be the prerequisites to hiring staff. You also have to consider the wages that you can afford to pay them. Unless you have some magical formula that I can’t imagine, paying good staff enough to keep them interested in staying with you will be difficult. It is the nature of the business; profit margins don’t usually include large salary / benefit packages for servers. I would love to tell you that the perfect team of servers will stay working for you forever, with only meagre raises and hearty thank-yous and the occasional staff party... no luck. Not gonna happen. Choose staff that have an immediate (and I mean immediate) healthy appearance, and can perform a few brain-teasers. The best servers that I have noticed are able to solve problems on their feet, quickly and with humour. About 20% of your customers are idiots. Idiot customers are problems and unfortunately loud and “viral”. By this I mean that their attitude can infect the mood of the restaurant, which in turn can turn some of the other customers “off”. Having excellent staff able to quickly and cleverly diffuse “Idiot customers” can be worth their weight in gold. Hire staff that can “kick out the idiots having them think it was their fault, apologize, and never to return!” I’ve seen this. It truly is a thing of beauty.

Price. There are magical formulae when it comes to pricing, which I won’t detail here. When I was schooled, the magic number was 40% maximum. This means that if you cook, garnish and serve a “burger” and you charge $10 to the customer, then that “burger” better not cost more than $4 to make. $4 was considered high and excessive, but still somewhat profitable. Other factors will come into play that aren’t on most charts. The most important being: Competition. If you sell Burgers, for example, you will have to set your price carefully. Customers are very fickle. They will travel miles to save a nickel (fickle, NOT smart). You have to set your price to reflect the rest of the Burger-joint restaurants in the neighbourhood. If you overprice your product, you may find a drop in return custom... fine line! Don’t follow blindly into bankruptcy, however! If you get into a price-war with your competition, both of you will die. Ensure that your quality is superior! Tell your customer this! Don’t skimp (just make sure that you have a way to get paid for everything!) Calculate the cost of everything diligently, and keep up with changing costs. If you have to raise the price of a Tomato sandwich more than a customer will pay, then drop it from the menu. Bottom line is: To bring in and keep them coming back, customers expect competitive pricing. If you can’t deliver this, don’t even start.

Customer Mood. This one may seem obscure and difficult to categorize, but trust me. It IS important. Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve had a rotten day at work; your boss yelled at you, the coffee pot exploded all down the front of your favourite suit, your car had a flat tire and when you got home, the fridge was broken- no food. You decide to go out for dinner. You call all your friends (spouse/girlfriend/significant other) to no avail. You’re starving by this point. Where do you decide to get food? Do you go to that five star bistro with a dress-code, or do you simply put on your PJs and head to the drive- through? Extreme example? Yes. But hopefully you get the gist. Subtle moods of your customers will tell them which restaurant to go to. Hot date? Probably not going to that greasy spoon. More interested in the Hockey Semi finals? I see a pub with a TV and not a quiet steak-house in your future. You’ll need to decide what kind of customer you want before you design menu, pricing and staff you hire. This is becoming tougher as we go!

Decor. Finally, the “look” of your place. Remember that humans are very visual. If your place has pictures of Hitler in bikinis on the wall, cactus plants set up in a chicane between the tables and the toilet and red/orange/pink paint on the chairs, you might not have anyone happy to stay. I don’t think that there’s any truth in “money colours” or feng shui. Don’t be too gaudy, but not too plain either. The decor is there for a couple of reasons. One – to set the theme of the restaurant. When opening a Greek Souvlaki shop, don’t have Bhudas / Ninja swords / stuffed Llamas on the wall. If opening a “Culture Specific” restaurant, do a bit of research and get some of the culture in it. Two – To give your customers something to look at when the conversation dies. Some places I’ve been to overdo it – the proverbial “Restaurant-in-a-box” with shelves filled up with “Farmhouse antiquities” and other crap that has nothing to do with any “theme”. Plastic Decoys, Galvanized wash ware, and clay jugs are NOT decor. However. Strangely there are some places whose decor is more than questionable, yet this seems to have no effect of repulsion. Maybe this is unique to places with a solid history, or “fan-base”. I’m not willing to try the “Hitler-in-bikini” myself, but I’m sure that if all of the other pieces (location, menu, staff, price and customer) are churning at “10”, the restaurant will work.

OK, now that I’ve thought of everything. To put these things into practice. Oh, yeah... almost forgot. The most important thing: money! To open a restaurant you need money! I guess I’ll look into that next time.

1 comment:

  1. Location is most important I think - followed very closely by personality and value...and value doesn't necessarily mean cheap.

    See the Elbow Room in Vancouver - still going strong! And they specialize in abusing their customers.

    Decor doesn't matter too much but kitschy is good - there was a wonderful Indian/Tanzanian restaurant in Vancouver that moved into an old western restaurant and they kept all the decore - wagon wheels, etc. It was great. And the food was off the scale.