How to be an incredible restaurant in a down economy

A smattering of ideas for you to chew on.  After my last post I felt a need to balance the scales a bit.

I’ve had three great restaurant experiences in the last ten days, and there were some consistent reasons.  Some of these may not be applicable to your establishment, but I think a bit of creative thinking goes a long way in an economy like this.

  • Off night focus. All the following ideas are for during the week, which as we all know is the time that can put the financial statement in the black instead of the red.  You need to get people to go out on Tuesday or Wednesday much more so than Friday or Saturday.  And I suggest these are not broadly advertised, but rather (if you can afford a bit of time to let them build) word of mouth.  “For the next month every weekday night we are …”
  • Little freebies. Which are of course not free (nothing is), but on the slower nights a little plate from the kitchen, a free taster of a new wine, free dessert, etc. goes a long way.  Again, however, it does not BUILD the business unless it is explained that we appreciate you coming in tonight and for the rest of the season on weekday nights we are ….
  • Fixed price menus that are affordable. This has been done with great success for many years by many restaurants.  If you’re not doing it, you are losing potential business.  A three course meal for $20 will draw people in, no doubt.
  • Wine specials. The half price bottle night still works.  How about half price glasses?  Again, the idea is that it gets people in the door.  Food sales will follow (for the most part …  you’ll always get that one customer that orders a glass of the cheapest wine and doesn’t leave a tip.  It’s part of life).
  • Guest chefs. The chef community is strong in the Twin Cities, and a simple way to take advantage of that is a chef swap for three weeknights in a row.  Pump it up, advertise the heck out of it, let your customers know via your email list (and if you don’t have one of those we need to have a sit down talk).  Nothing too fancy as far as food, and definitely nothing too outrageous as far as prices.  This is all about buzz.  Another alternative — contact any local, well known, out of work chefs and see if they want a week in your kitchen.  Pump it up.
  • A consistent message that is positive but lets the customers know the restaurant business is tough right now. This is marketing 101.  Don’t let the customers choose how they tell their friends about eating in your establishment.  Give them the words.  Shake hands.  Discuss the business end of it with them (the public gobbles this up).  Thank them for supporting local endeavors.  Make damn sure they hear that local restaurants exist because of people like them.
  • Spread the good karma. I’m a big believer in this.  When thanking a customer ask them where else they have dined recently.  Then suggest some places that you believe in and want to see succeed.  Good karma pays back faster than you may think, and word will get around that you’re a class act.  And trust me, when favors need to be asked for, this will be like having a million dollars in the bank.

How to be a bad restaurant in a down economy

Photo by Flickr user Naomi Ibuki

The glass is empty for a reason ...

It’s February 2009. We’re in an economic slump the likes of which is scaring many people. Last weekend was Valentine’s Day, and I’m happy to report that many restaurants were full and did several turns. In other words, they got a little (much needed) money in the bank.

Last night my wife and I went out with two good friends. Haven’t done this for awhile — we’ve been holding onto our cash like everybody else. We went to a rather well known local restaurant that has been established for several years. WE WENT WILLING TO SPEND MONEY. I grabbed the wine list and found it smaller and shorter than I remember it being (which is fine). I saw a wine I really wanted to share with my friends, and it also happened to be the most expensive bottle on the list (at $95). I told the server, she got a smile on her face, I felt good about ordering it, and off she went.

Four minutes later, she returned empty handed. “Sorry, we’re out of that one.” No ideas, no suggestions, no offers for another product at a discount. Nothing.

This gave me a chance to think logically: $95 is a lot of money today and I really shouldn’t be spending that much. Okay, then, I’ll take the $55 bottle right there. Four minutes later, the perky waitress came back empty handed and put her hand on my shoulder. “You’re going to hate me, but …”

Think about this: We’re six days off of clearly the busiest weekend in the restaurant business in over a month, and they are still out of stock on two of the most expensive wines on their list. And I KNOW they could have the wine because they are sold by World Class Wines and we have stock! Also consider the following:

  • No options were given. Nothing was presented to try to keep my business.
  • The manager never visited to explain or apologize.

So we left. Us and our $300+ that we were ready to spend but suddenly saw the reality that we didn’t have to. But it gets better…

We were still hungry and wanted one more glass of wine. So we walked across the street to a hip, happening, uber cool restaurant that is known for a good wine list and delicious appetizers. We sat down, were greeted promptly, and things were looking up. My wife ordered a glass of very decent Shriaz (confirming my theory that in tough times people who know wine will easily spend $14 on one glass of great wine rather than two glasses of Chateau Cashflow junk). Amazingly, they were out of it. No offers, no explanation, and barely an apology. We stayed for an hour, spent less than we planned on, and went home.

So a few observations:

  • Inventory control is everything today, and out of stocks are a natural and unfortunate side effect. But please tell your servers and have them convey it to me BEFORE I try to order a wine. Communication is everything.
  • Empower the servers to make offers or concessions to keep me happy. “We’ll happy give you a glass of our most expensive wine at the same price” goes a LONG way.
  • Think about this — Minnesotans are constantly worried about our ‘big city’ image. Are we in the big leagues? Just because we have four professional sports teams and internationally known chefs are opening restaurants here, are we worthy? Well, if instead of four friends that live in the Twin Cities what if we happened to be four business people from Chicago trying to impress a client? If this same experience happened to them, the Twin Cities would be the laughing stock of their jokes when returning home. “You’ll never believe it, they put all this good stuff on their wine lists and nobody even had it in stock!” What happens in your restaurant and on your wine lists are BIGGER THAN JUST YOUR OWN BUSINESS.
  • Finally, because of these incidents, do you think I’m going to be in a rush to return to these establishments? Not a chance. There are too many choices out there.

The New York Times article and the ‘magic formula’

Many of you have read Frank Bruni’s wonderful article in this week’s New York Times regarding the current state of restaurant business in NYC.  Besides wondering how they got the big three to pose for the photo, I was wondering what stones have been left unturned in the quest for customers at restaurants.  My thought is: somebody is doing it right, and maybe that somebody is you.  Maybe you have the magic formula that is keeping people coming back.  And what is that magic formula?

The magic formula is not price — plenty of non-cheap restaurants are drawing the crowds.  People still want to have the experience, but maybe just once a month instead of once a week.

The magic formula is not location — on a vacation to Portland last month I went to a restaurant where the view out the window included a homeless guy fertilizing a tree, among other colorful moments.  The place was packed and it was a Sunday night (the restaurant was Clyde Common, and it was wonderful).

The magic formula is not specials and happy hours, though those don’t hurt for certain time blocks or days.

The magic formula is not necessarily to be hip, new, hot, the new kid on the block.

The magic formula is this: consistently overdeliver for the price, and (this is the critical part) make damn sure to tell everybody you know that you’re pulling out all the stops to overdeliver for the price. If you make it excessively clear to every customer, vendor, and critic that you’re serious about overdelivering for the price, the message will spread.  If you lay it out clearly, people are more apt to pass it along.

This is NOT the time to cut quality and raise prices.  Quite the opposite.  Keep the prices and overdeliver on quality.

“14 is the new 10”

Gig Tickets, by Flickr user Limowreck666

Gig Tickets, by Flickr user Limowreck666

Do you ever catch yourself listening to a conversation (or, in this example, the radio) and something is said that grabs you and sticks in your brain and you can’t shake it out?

On Sunday August 3rd, on Sound Opinions (Sunday nights on The Current … quite possibly the best music show on the radio today), the hosts had special guests Sean Agnew, Mitchell Franks, and Jake Szufnarowski.  These three guys are smaller venue rock show promoters from around the country and have seen the ups and downs of decades of promotions and shows.

(Sidenote: As they talked, it became clear that in the music promotion business, not unlike the wine business, the bigger guys are getting bigger — and as we know bigger isn’t always better — and the smaller guys that keep their heads about them are getting creative, working with modern business models, and starting to have the time of their lives.  A classic David and Goliath story.  Quite interesting. Click here for footnotes on the entire show.)

Anyway, I regret that I don’t know which person said it, but when he did it stuck to me:

“14 is the new 10.”

And what he was referring to is the shift in small show ticket prices that has happened just in the last few months.  Last year, charging $6 to see a show was a bad idea … people wondered if it’s going to be worth it, wondered if there is a good band on the roster, and wondered if they should go somewhere else.  But if you charged $10 you got a significantly higher rate of attendance and return, in addition to a higher class of attendees.  It became a win win for the band, the promoter, and the venue.  (The last time this price shift happened, according to this experienced promoter, was circa 1988).

All of the sudden, because of the shift in the cost of goods and transportation, $14 is the new $10.

So when figuring out the retail line up in your store, keep this story in mind.   Your customers may grumble, and of course there are still great bargains out there, but the baseline for quality has changed in value. And on wine lists, more so than anywhere else, don’t hesitate to put a $14 glass of wine out there.  It’s the new 10!

An introduction to Umami, and how it pertains to wine

Want to out geek the wine geeks in the room? Start tossing around your ability to sense the umami in a wine. Introduced to me first by Terry Theise, who describes it as “the taste of yourself tasting”, umami has a legitimate role in the world of wine tasting, and definitely in the food world.

As said in a Wall Street Journal piece in 2007: “Chefs including Jean-Georges Vongerichten are offering what they call “umami bombs,” dishes that pile on ingredients naturally rich in umami for an explosive taste.”

So what is it?  It’s a Japanese word basically meaning savory, and it’s quite common in the likes of roasted tomatoes, seaweed, mushrooms, great aged cheeses, and anchovies.  Once you’re attuned to taking notice of it, it’s amazing how often it comes up in a wine.

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say this: the ‘new European red taste profile’ that Annette Peters has been talking about so much is based in the savory finish of many of those wines.  The new wines from Peuch Ariol, as well as new Sicilian selection forthcoming all contain this base of lasting flavor.

For more information on this fascinating subject, read this Wikipedia entry, take a look at this CBS News story, or this Wall Street Journal article.

Lastly, here’s a great article by Randy Capsaro writing for The Wine Lover’s Page on ‘Deconstructing Umami’.

OpenTable looking to become more powerful

In an article in this morning’s New York Times, Open Table has announced plans to integrate suggestions and discussion into their site, emulating the popular and formats.

This plays directly into Jermey Iggers and Andrew Zimmern’s recents posts regarding the role of the critic in restaurant decisions. If you use Open Table, and your restaurant suddenly has three negative posts, what might that do you to your business? Conversely, do you see the reader reviews eventually being entirely corrupted by self-posting restaurants?

This is a fascinating development in how the public discovers you as a restaurant, learns more about you, and decides to give you business. The implications are immense, especially as more and more diners and restaurants seem to be using Open Table.

If you are a restaurateur that uses Open Table (or chooses to not use Open Table) please comment! We would love to hear your opinion (and you don’t even need to tell us who you are).

How to sell Tawny Port when it’s 90 degrees outside

(photo: City of Oporto by Flickr member Francisco-PortoNorte)

It’s late June and here in Minnesota the bugs are starting to come out and pretty soon by 3:00 in the afternoon that heat will start to be a bit too much for most people. Or maybe it’s the humidity … that magical invisible meteorological condition that separates us from Colorado (that and mountains, scenery, and outdoor baseball). Anyway, back to point.

When you’re in Minnesota and sell some of the best Ports made, June through mid September tends to be a pretty slow time. I hear it from every restaurant and retailer buyer I present them to: “Are you kidding? It’s way too hot outside for Port!”

So what do they do in Portugal? Think about it. Nobody consumes more Port than Portugal, yet they have heat waves the likes of which put us to shame. Heat and humidity are a way of life there. So what do they do? They chill it!

Try it yourself. Get some Graham’s 20 year tawny, or Smith Woodhouse 10 year tawny and put it in the fridge overnight. Then pour two glasses and microwave one of them until it’s just above room temperature. This is a great, quick education in taste sensations. The cooler temp brings out the acidity and liveliness in the port. It enhances the bright brown sugar aromas, the orange rind tang, the brighter dry fruit aromas. It’s downright REFRESHING. The one that is too warm is downright FLABBY, with the heat of the alcohol overwhelming the wine.

Last year, in Chicago, there were fourteen restaurants that were doing chilled Tawny Port offerings. The results were clear: it was a hit. Not gangbusters, of course, but enough to justify the ‘effort’ to do it (‘effort’ here being to put the bottle in the cooler and re-print the menu).

And retailers? Don’t forget that in many other states you would be banned from in-store tastings! Make use of our situation and chill down a bottle of Tawny Port to introduce you customers to a new favorite summertime sipper! Offer 20% off all Port between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Do anything to bring attention to that part of your shop!

That is simply money in the bank.