Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Seductive Power of Bread

I've heard that the thing you remember most about a visit to a restaurant is the last thing you have--dessert, cup of coffee, after-dinner cocktail, whatever. But I would submit that the thing I often remember most about a restaurant visit is the bread that precedes dinner. Someday I'll write a more complete blog about this topic but, for now, let me say that I've often dreamed of being able to make restaurant-quality bread at home. You know, the kind with a chewy crust and a slightly sour tang to it. The kind that seduces you to forget about the entree, and just devour loaf after loaf of bread.

I recently discovered the book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking, and absolutely fell in love with the bread it produces. You can find the recipe on The Restaurant Show website here

Sunday, June 14, 2009

How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot

With as many restaurants as there are in Denver, getting people to visit your restaurant instead of your competitor's is critical. On any given lunchtime or evening, a potential diner's first contact with your restaurant is often by phone. So imagine a restaurateur who answers his ringing phone, then proceeds to insult the caller and, in every way possible, tell the caller that he really doesn't care if you pay a visit to his restaurant or not. You laugh and wonder who would be idiotic enough to do such a thing, but I'm here to tell you that, in my dealings with restaurants, which is often by phone, it happens to me three or four times a day.

The device these operators have chosen to commit business suicide is called the answering machine, one of the mixed blessings of our modern, technical world. And don't get me wrong. I love answering machines in the right context. Nothing's more handy than calling someone who's not at his desk, and asking him to call back. You can leave wonderfully detailed messages, phone numbers, a time when it's best to contact you, etc.

But right now it's 11:45 in the morning, and I'm looking for a place to take a business associate to lunch. So I call a favorite restaurant, and I get a recorded message that tells me they open for lunch at 11:00, and to leave my name for a call-back. Wait a minute. They open at 11:00, and it's now 11:45. Sure, I could take a chance that they really are open, and that my message will be retrieved, and that I will have a reservation waiting for me. Or I could call another restaurant.

I opt for the latter. So, I call a terrific little Mexican restaurant. The phone rings a few times, then a mechanical voice comes on and says, "I'm sorry, but the party you are trying to reach is unavailable. Please try again later." These folks haven't even bothered to personalize their mailbox! Do I presume I might have gotten a wrong number? No. I proceed to choice number three.

At the next place I get a message that says, "Sorry, but the mailbox belonging to this party is full." If I could leave a request for a reservation, odds are they wouldn't pick it up until sometime after lunch anyway.

The next call gets a recorded message that instructs me to enter my code. It's set up for the owner of the mailbox to retrieve calls remotely!

Every one of these restaurants has lost my business by essentially telling me my phone call isn't important.

Answering machines are OK if they're used during off-hours and times when you're not open, but for at least an hour before you open for lunch or dinner, turn the damned thing off! If there's someone in the restaurant who can speak English and take calls, turn it off!

I can already hear the objections. "We get really busy at lunchtime, and often there's no one to answer the phone, so it would just ring endlessly, and callers might think we were closed." Would you also ignore someone who's just walked through the door because there was no one around to greet him? Same thing isn't it? A customer is a customer whether they're calling in or standing there in your doorway. Somebody has to make time to welcome them. That's why they call it the hospitality industry.

One restaurateur I dealt with a few years ago had a policy. The phone never rang more than twice before being answered. And whichever server answered the phone and booked the reservation got to wait on that party when they arrived. And you know what? That phone never rang more than twice when I called.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Seven Years Bad Luck

Nobody denies that running a restaurant is a tough business. In addition to having to deal with moody and often unreliable help, capricious diners and demanding landlords, you have to worry about employee theft, rising food prices, maintenance, the health department inspector, etc., etc. But sometimes it seems that restaurateurs go out of their way to make their own lives even more difficult.

Every one in the restaurant business agrees that word of mouth is important. When it's positive, it can really help business. But, when it's negative, it can be devastating. Recall the recent debacle with the Domino's employees that, thanks to U-Tube, went around the world in a matter of minutes. So, you'd think a restaurateur would do anything he could to minimize negative press.

Case in point--according to an article in the Charlotte Sun, Marlene Shields received a $50 gift certificate to The Perfect Caper, a restaurant in Punta Gorda, Florida, for her birthday. Seven years ago. In 2004, Hurricane Charley came ashore, and smashed Shields' home, which then had to be completely torn down and rebuilt. Understandably, the gift certificate was mislaid and, only recently, surfaced.

So Shields took the certificate to the restaurant where she was told that, because it was seven years old, they refused to honor it. I suppose one could argue that, even though Shields has gone through a lot of turmoil in the last five years, she was responsible for seeing that the certificate was redeemed in a reasonable amount of time. Then again, the restaurateur could look at the situation reasonably, and be a hero by honoring it. After all, a $50 certificate would cost him less than $20 in actual expenses. Think of all the positive press he could have gotten from it.

Instead, he comes across as the evil ogre who, unreasonably, refuses to honor the certificate. If I were a competitor, I'd step up immediately, and tell Shields that I'd be glad to accept that certificate at my restaurant, and I'd accept all the acolades that came along with such a gesture.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Achoo and Worse

If you suffer from an allergy, I'm sure you take great pains to avoid whatever it is that triggers a reaction. And, with most allergens, once they're identified, that's pretty easy to do. If you have a food allergy, however, and you like to dine out, it isn't always easy. Some things, like MSG, show up in any number of pre-prepared canned and bottled foods, often under different names. And, since the owners of restaurants that use a lot of these products don't really know what's in them, asking does no good.

Many of the well-known national chains use food that's pre-prepared in corporate-owned commissaries, then shipped in plastic bags to individual restaurant locations. They save money by preparing food in large portions, and they only need a line cook, not a chef, to reheat the items before they're served. And it offers consistency. Eat at a Jack's Spaghetti House in Denver, and the food will be exactly the same as if you ate at the same restaurant in Memphis. I'm sure somebody knows exactly what ingredients are in these dishes, and perhaps it's even written down somewhere in the local stores, but I'm not sure who takes the time to look at it.

So, depending on the severity of your allergy, eating out can be a bit like playing Russian roulette. Years ago I knew someone who was highly allergic to mushrooms. She was dining at a high-end restaurant in Denver, and asked her waiter whether a specific dish contained mushrooms. Based on his insistence that it didn't, she ordered the dish and, after one bite, knew she was in trouble. The waiter still insisted the dish didn't contain mushrooms, though he admitted there were chantrelles in it.

The good news is that, these days, operators are more sensitive to people's allergies, and try to include the more common allergens in menu descriptions. After all, no one wants to be responsible for sending a diner to the hospital or worse. While the ultimate responsibility is yours, there are some things you can do to hedge your bets. First, you're better off dining at an independent restaurant where they know what's in the food. Second, don't rely on your waiter for help. Ask to see the chef, and seek his advice.

Finally, get to know which foods typically contain what you're allergic to. As mentioned above, if you can't handle MSG, stay away from Asian restaurants. Even if they say "No MSG," there's a good chance it's in the ingredients they use. If peanuts are on your list of no-no's, avoid Thai food which often contains them. A Caesar salad many times is made with anchovies. Eggs can be found in the toppings on fancy coffee drinks. And always remember, when in doubt, ask someone who is likely to know.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Unwritten Contracts

Walk into a restaurant on any given evening, and you expect certain things to occur. If you have a reservation, you expect that a table will be waiting for you at the agreed-upon time. You expect the service to be polite, the room to be clean, the food to be well prepared and at the proper temperature, and on and on. In fact, let any one of your expectations not be realized, and the next day you'll be telling all your friends how badly you were treated during your visit and that you're never going back.

But, have you ever thought that it might work both ways? Are there certain things that you owe the restaurateur when you dine at his establishment? Let's begin with appearance. I know that trying to convince people that blue jeans are the wrong attire when you go out to dinner is a losing battle. But please, do they have to be worn, ragged and full of holes? Do the bottoms of the legs have to be shredded? I've seen casually dressed people in restaurants wearing t-shirts with obscene messages on them. And baseball caps---worn backwards, of course.

Appearance is just the beginning though. When you dine at a restaurant you're expected to behave yourself--speak in a normal tone of voice, not use obscenities, not make people around you feel uncomfortable. If you have small children along, you're expected to keep them under control, and please, don't get me started on this one.

Just as you expect your server to be polite, you must be polite to him or her. There is no excuse to berate a waitperson, yet I've seen it done, and often about something over which the server has no control. And, speaking of servers, let's discuss tipping. If you're dining out, you know you're expected to tip. And you know that the amount of the tip should be 15-20% for good service. I don't care if all your life you've tipped five dollars no matter how much the tab, or tipped a dollar for each dish served or any other explanation for not leaving what's expected. Times have changed, and part of the unwritten contract when you go into a restaurant is that you will tip according to current standards.

Finally, I believe that if something goes wrong in a restaurant, you have an obligation to let someone know. Some people in the restaurant industry don't have a clue, and all the complaining in the world isn't going to enlighten them. But, most restaurateurs are very conscientious about the food and service they deliver. When someone tells me they had a problem at a restaurant, and either didn't tell anyone, or told a waitress who blew them off instead of a person in charge, it drives me nuts. People who run restaurants have a lot on the line, and they deserve a chance to make things right. If you serve enough meals, sooner or later, no matter how good you are, you're going to make a mistake, and there's no way they are going to know something went wrong unless you tell them. Granted, a good server should be able to tell from the fact that you only ate one bite of your entree that you're not thrilled. But that irritation will have to wait for another time.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Getting the word out

Once upon a time, all you had to do to succeed in the restaurant business was to promise good food, open the door, and get out of the way. But, in a town like Denver, with thousands of restaurants, it's easy to simply go unnoticed. If you're one of the handful of big-name restaurateurs in town, your opening will probably be picked up by the media. The rest of you, sooner or later, will have to consider marketing and advertising to get the word out. And, if you're like most new marketers, you're likely to get a rude lesson in just how much money you can burn through in the process. There are newspapers, magazines, billboards, phone books, radio, TV, internet, direct mail, and probably a few new ones that were just created in the short time since I started writing this blog.

We'll talk about this more in the future but, for now, the important thing to understand is what advertising IS. The answer is deceptively simple--advertising is a message you put before your potential customers that is going to convince them to come to your restaurant. In the short term that can be a coupon or a gimmick that lures them in with the expectation of getting something for nothing. Keep in mind, though, that customers who will come to you because you're offering a special deal, will leave you as quickly when your competitor offers their special deal. You may fool yourself into thinking that these people will fall so in love with your food that they'll become regulars but, unless you're serving something that can't be found somewhere else, I suggest that dealing with coupon nomads is not going to produce good long term results.

Winning in the long run has to do with consistently telling your prospective customers, in a convincing way, that you're the person they should be dealing with. There's a reason why Denverites know who their "friend" is in the diamond business. And there's a reason for the success of a certain furniture "warehouse." If the identity of these two advertisers immediately popped into your head, then you already understand the value of long-term, consistent advertising.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What are we doing here?

I've been on the radio talking about the restaurant business in Denver for over thirty years, from the viewpoint of both the restaurateur and the diner. The one thing I've taken away from all this is that I would never want to own a restaurant. It is the nastiest, most unforgiving business ever devised.

Restaurateurs work long hours. They work holidays when the rest of us are home with family and friends. I've seen owners lose their wives, their families, their health, their homes and even their lives. I've seen them surrender to the siren lure of drugs and alcohol. For every one that succeeds there are dozens who fail. And yet, ask any one of them if there's something they'd rather be doing with their lives, and they'll answer no. For, when everything is going right in the restaurant business, it is one of the most gratifying professions there is.

On the flip side of this are the people who go out to eat. People who, this year, will spend half of their entire food budget on meals eaten at restaurants. Some are diners who seek out new culinary adventures. Some consider spaghetti and meatballs exotic. Some will blow $200 on dinner, while some can't understand how a restaurant meal can cost $20. Put the wrong type person in the wrong type restaurant, and they're sure to be displeased.

And there are the uncontrollable situations. Take a man and woman on a first date at a restaurant, and they won't even notice that the waiter ignored them for forty five minutes. A couple who's just had a blazing fight in the car on the way over can be in such a bad mood that nothing the restaurateur can do will be acceptable.

So the restaurant business is a dance. A lunge and parry. An interface among personalities that, when it goes well, is a win-win situation and, when it doesn't, can be a total disaster.

For nearly thirty one years, I've listened to both sides. I've talked to restaurateurs who haven't got a clue what customer service is, and I've talked to diners who have no idea what goes on in a restaurant kitchen when the place is packed and two waitresses and a line cook failed to show up.

In future entries in this blog, I hope to share some of this with you. Also, in this tough economic time, I hope to help restaurateur understand that they are not powerless. There are restaurants that are doing quite well in spite of the economy. And they will emerge stronger than ever when the good times return, and I hope to share thoughts on how to make this happen.

Please feel free to contribute to what I'm doing here. As with the past three decades on the air, I intend this site to be a place where you can air your frustrations as well as your satisfactions.