Sunday, April 14, 2013

Restaurant Failure and Success

"Good food, like a good marriage, is in the mind of the participant.  Even the best critic’s opinion is subjective. The public is never wrong."
Valerie Hart

            The only pastime more enjoyable than eating is talking about it. When you have mistakenly invited people to your table who do not share common interests and the silence is deafening, it is time to open conversation about an experience you had at a restaurant or ask if anyone has tried the newest just reviewed and then sit back and enjoy the group come alive.
            During the years I was editor for the Zagat Restaurant Survey, all that was needed was one sentence in the newspaper: “Would you like to be a restaurant critic? Send a self-addressed stamped envelope to receive a questionnaire”. Ten thousand envelopes were delivered to my address the next week.
            The restaurant business is the best and worst enterprise one can enter into. Independently owned restaurants in Lake County have become akin to the game of Musical Chairs played at a child’s birthday party. New owners and chefs come and go like summer mosquitoes. The new owner generally changes the name, which is a good thing unless the restaurant is a landmark that has an image and following. Problems occur when new owner neglects to change the concept or menu and the cuisine that failed the old eatery doesn’t change. The kiss of death is a sign that reads, “Under new management”. Few people are fooled by this attempt to draw customers.
            Then there are the “landmarks” - restaurants that just keep rolling along, not by reputation alone, but with good food properly prepared and friendly service.
Former Hall of Fame NY Yankees baseball star, Yogi Berra, was known for his quips. One of the most notable was his response when asked about the popular restaurant, Ruggeri’s, in St. Louis: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded”.  
We automatically suppose that a crowded restaurant has good food and good service. The more crowded it is, the more popular it becomes. When the parking area of a breakfast place is consistently packed with trucks and pick-ups, we know the food is abundant as well as good. A hungry truck driver is not going to eat a frilly, flimsy breakfast. Bring on the grits and hash browns and sausage gravy! It’s included in the price.
 Everyone loves a “grand opening”. We like to “see and be seen” at the “new kid on the block”. Everything seems bound for success. One month later, you drive by the parking lot to see only a handful of cars. You go inside anyway and find that the lovely selection from your last visit is overcooked with a different sauce and flavor, and the house wine has changed from pleasant to unpalatable. You know immediately that the featured chef is gone and the beverage company has cut their credit. Oops! And, then, the Dominos begin to topple. The worse it gets, the worse it gets, until you see the windows darkened and the sign, “For Lease”. One of the worst mistakes of a novice restaurateur is falling into the hands of a savvy PR firm that convinces him to ‘blow the budget’ on first night ‘very important people’ and press. He gains nothing but a very expensive lesson.
 A good review of an older establishment also brings immediate response from the public, as does my TV show, Back of the House. We go with the flow of those in the know.
So, why do restaurants that seem so promising fail?
There are several reasons why independently owned (Mama-Papa) restaurants fail. Let’s begin with number one: Consistency. Recipes must be standardized. The housewife chef who gained applause for the cuisine she served her guests will generally fail when people receive a bill for an entrée listed under the same heading with a different preparation and proportion from the one served to the diner the previous visit.
Location, Location, Location! Restaurants seem to flourish best in clusters within walking distance to the main streets or in shopping centers. There are, of course, many destination places, but the restaurant has to be worthy of the drive.
  Tantamount to failure is the independent owner who cannot cook and must rely on his chef. When the chef, servers, and dishwashers fail to show, the owner must be able to do it all or close his doors. An astute restaurateur never features his chef, unless it happens to be Emeril or Bobby Flay because, when the chef leaves, the restaurant diminishes in stature.
Number three, in equal stature is the wait staff. A surly or non-attentive server ruins any dining experience, no matter how good the food. The only exception was the original Palm Restaurant, a pricey steak house in New York City where the waiters were ruder than the customers. Lofty New Yorkers embraced their nemesis with good humor, making it their favorite restaurant for the show that went along with their over-sized prime steaks.
The restaurant owner must be fully cognizant of food and beverage costs and profit margin to stay ahead of his creditors. The good restaurateur, like any other astute person with a business, understands the basics of stock market trading, “Bears and Bulls make money; Pigs do not”. A restaurant will make money with a food mark-up of around 35 percent.  This might seem initially high to the consumer until one remembers that food is only a part of the expense. Rent and taxes, preparation, servers, dishwashers, water and electric, sanitizing the kitchen and bathrooms, and a score of unforeseen expenses all must be covered with profit in mind. Wine is the one price point known to the consumer. When a recognizable chardonnay or merlot can be purchased for $9.00 a bottle at a retail store and the price in the restaurant is $45.00, there is an instant reaction of distrust for everything else on the menu. A good restaurateur may safely double or triple the cost, but must be aware that his customers are better informed than he might suppose.
Another fact I learned as editor for the Zagat Florida Surveys: For every good experience a diner has in a restaurant, the establishment gains three customers. However, for every bad experience, the restaurant loses ten customers. The experience is not only contingent upon the factors listed above but the mood of the customer himself. A young couple in love will rate any restaurant much higher than a married couple in the throes of a battle.
Brillat-Savarin, the 15th century French gourmet, wrote, “Success as a restaurateur comes to those who possess sincerity, order, and skill”. Perhaps Endurance and Endless Dedication should be added to a business that is only as good as its last meal.

Tune in Comcast channel 22 & BrightHouse 199 to watch host, Valerie Hart, interview chefs in their kitchens "The Back of the House", or watch it live on your computer at Follow her food page on Wednesdays in The Daily Commercial.

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