For any chef or restaurant owner, the marker of success consists of two simple things: how to stand out and how to make – and keep – customers happy. Ideally, these two factors will be kept in a fine balance in a successful restaurant. The restaurant must fill a niche by offering diners something new, whilst still creating the kind of atmosphere their target demographic will want to dine in, and the kind of food they want to eat.
This might seem like a simple feat, but, with thousands of restaurants closing and opening each year, it is clear that achieving longevity is something of an art. In a sphere where trends are constantly evolving, how can new and existing venues maintain relevance whilst staying true to their core ethos? How can restaurants grow and remain dynamic without alienating loyal patrons? These are all questions posed when broaching the crux of the matter: what makes a good restaurant? Here, we take on this pressing question.
How have restaurants raised their game in recent years?
In the highly-saturated restaurant scene, competition is fierce. Whilst the veterans of the business I have spoken to during my ten years in the business have been able to accurately predict the waves the market experiences, some new venues do not have the benefit of such foresight. However, many experts and organisations are now coming to recognise the challenges the dining industry can present to new independent ventures.
Adam Reiner is the owner of renowned hospitality advice website, aptly named The Restaurant Manifesto, which aims to help people dine better by lifting the veil on the secret world of restaurants. He has been a hospitality professional for almost twenty years in some of New York City's finest restaurants and has travelled internationally training restaurant staff. This makes him perfectly positioned to comment on the workings of a successful foodservice establishment. He explains how the bar has been raised across the board:
“Restaurants have had to elevate their game. Guests are savvier about food, wine and spirits and aren't satisfied with basic good food and service anymore. We dine out expecting to be inspired. Chefs have had to push the envelope with exotic ingredients, sommeliers have had to span the globe in search of new and exciting wine regions and FOH management has been forced to implement more exacting standards for training staff and developing service culture.”
Luke Nicholls is the editor of Edie, a market-leading information resource that has been driving sustainability in business for nearly 20 years. He agrees that the characteristics of a great eating-out destination in 2017 are a far cry from those of the past – or even of just a few years ago. He comments:
“Restaurateurs are having to deliver excellence well beyond what goes on the plate to create memorable, sensorial experiences that really stand out from the crowd; a reason for discerning diners to want to attend the venue and, crucially, come back for more.”
Evidently, simply providing good service and great food no longer serves to satisfy the discerning diner, and much less to impress them. In order to stand out, restaurants today must be seen to do more.
The key to success
So what should restaurants be doing to prosper in the contemporary food scene? We spoke to several experts, from food writers to consultants to restaurant owners, to find out what they think should top the modern foodservice manifesto.
Provide an experience
The key words that stand out in many of the definitions of a great restaurant offered by experts – and those that repeatedly crop up when I speak to chefs, restaurant managers and food critics alike – are ‘experience’ and inspire’. We have become a firmly foodie society – eating out is no longer a simple obligatory gesture we perform for a loved one’s birthday, it is something consumers do for the experience itself.
So, restaurants have to provide just that – an experience. This encompasses everything from the décor of the restaurant to the menu, the food itself and even the presentation. To stand out from other venues, restaurants must offer something different. When I want to impress visiting friends, I book a table at a restaurant with that little perk – perhaps there is an element of self-cooking, or they serve themed desserts that resemble something they are not, a la Heston Blumenthal. These are the inventive cooking styles consumers are coming to expect of the modern restaurant. So, we had better step up our game!
Consistency is key
However, inspiration must not come at the cost of efficiency. Diners want to be inspired, they want their food to provoke their minds as well as their taste buds, but they do not want to their expectations to be built up by gastronomical theatrics only to find that their plant-pot tiramisu actually has more depth in concept than in flavour. Consistency is key – whilst creativity and flair are prized qualities in high-end venues in particular, it is a given that service and food standards will be upheld at all times. Whether it be a simple brunch or an immersive three-course themed experience, no customer will let substandard food or service slide. As Adam notes, “People are very fickle when it comes to bad restaurant experiences—one off night and you might lose a customer's trust. Building that trust and maintaining it is a key to longevity.”
Jim Laube from RestaurantOwner, a service that helps independent restaurant owners build successful businesses, agrees, commenting:
“Of course, there are many factors that contribute to a restaurant achieving “star” status. We find that our most successful members, those whose restaurants that have remained highly popular for years and even decades are focused, even obsessed with the quality and consistently of their guest experience. To do that they’ve developed a competent and committed staff and armed them with a host of effective restaurant systems, that includes training programs, checklists, quality standards, detailed procedures and more in every area of their operation. In a restaurant, good people plus good systems provide the opportunity to create what most restaurant customers want more than anything else and is one of the most powerful competitive advantages there is, the ability to create a predictable, dependable, high-quality guest experience every time.”
Whilst most foodies are open to epicurean adventure, we all have our creature comforts and preferences that are often taken into the restaurant. This is something any successful business must keep in mind. Adam explains:
“People are creatures of habit in restaurants and their food choices often illustrate that. One guest might order the same exact salad with dressing on the side every single time they dine in a particular restaurant. Once they find a place that knows how to make them happy, they can become monogamous. The staff is there to make them feel good and facilitate them getting everything exactly the way they want. Great restaurants do this effortlessly. Knowing that someone likes to sit at a certain table or their steak prepared a special way can be the difference between one visit a month and several.”
Being attentive to the special requirements of your loyal customer base provides a personalised experience that will only complement the more innovative elements of your brand.
Shortening the supply chain
As I recently reported, the ‘farm-to-fork’ phenomenon is now a leading trend in the foodie scene, and this organic-centric fashion is a force to be reckoned with for chefs and restauranteurs. A combination of concerns have led many chefs to begin sowing the seed of more sustainable supply chain. From the ever-present issue of environmentalism to the demand for organic ingredients that chefs can testify for, the clear choice for many is now to grow their produce themselves.
Gravetye Manor is a Michelin-starred restaurant which follows this school of thought, where Chef George Blogg has been redefining British cuisine with his focus on local, seasonal ingredients. Celine Leslie from the restaurant explains:
“The food at Gravetye Manor is very much focused on flavour. Throughout the year the produce from our 1.5 acre walled kitchen garden, created by William Robinson at the turn of the last century, is the driving force behind the inspiration and seasonality of our menus. We are also fortunate to have our own orchards, glass houses, smokehouse, chickens to provide eggs and the beautiful surrounding 1000 acre Gravetye Estate to forage from. The excellent relationships we have built with suppliers and joint passion for their commitment to animal welfare and top quality produce are also crucial to the high standards that we strive for.”
Whether it be buying from local farms, capitalising on regional ingredients or going all-out with a kitchen garden, the emphasis on short-chain supply isn’t going anywhere and is set to be a defining feature in the estimation of restaurant quality. With Gravetye Manor being renowned as one of the finest restaurants on the UK dining scene, it is evident that this attention-to-source is worth investing in.
Sustainability is standard
Luke notes that this environmental consciousness is now a key focus of the hospitality industry at all levels. As former writer for BigHospitality, he has an extensive knowledge of the restaurant industry, and has been able to see how ethical concerns have affected both businesses and consumers as part of his work for Edie. He comments:
“Having reported on both the hospitality and sustainability industries over the past few years, I have seen that environmental considerations can be the difference between a ‘good’ restaurant and an ‘excellent’ restaurant. From zero-waste and energy-efficient processes through to hyper-local sourcing and healthful meal provision, sustainability is a whole lot more than just a buzzword. In some instances, corporate social responsibility is actually providing an additional selling point and helping to drive sales which, on top of the savings made through more sustainable business practices, can be crucial to the financial success of a food business.”
However, it is not just experts and industry executives that are championing the cause of ethical practice. Food bloggers, a key influencer group for the contemporary food service sphere, are also becoming increasingly engaged with environmental issues. Hatti from isthisfood is one such popular blogger, and notes sustainability as one of the key elements she, and her readers, value in a restaurant:
“Delicious and thoughtful grub is a given at any decent restaurant. Beyond this, it is increasingly important for chefs and restaurant owners to think carefully about the dishes they choose to serve and the ingredients used. The challenges our natural world faces are closely connected with food and agriculture and consumers continue to (quite rightly) demand information on the sourcing and sustainability of their meals.”
It’s all about the people
Of course, no matter what restaurant owners and chefs do in terms of invention and experience, what lies at the heart of any successful venue is the people. Whether you are a small gastro-pub or a high-end eatery, guests must be made to feel entirely welcome at all times. Adam explains:
“The best restaurants, and as a result the most long-lived ones, make guests feel like family. I've worked at many well-known places in New York City and, no matter how much hype surrounds them, the most successful ones are disciplined about cultivating a loyal clientele through recognition. At the standard bearers, everyone—from the average Joe to the Hollywood celebrity—is treated with the same care and given equal status.”
It is impossible to prosper within the foodservice industry without listening to the voices of your customers. Whether it’s having your chef speak to each group after their meal or remembering the customisations that regular guests likes with their favourite dish, personalised service is paramount.
When we asked Adam what he believes is the single most important element that makes a great food service establishment, his answer was simple. He said:
“This one is easy. It's the people. You can have the best food served in the most beautiful space but it's meaningless without having a great staff. Cooks who love their jobs cook more flavourful food. Waiters who are treated well by management are warmer and generous to their guests. The connection that keeps people coming back to successful restaurants begins and ends with those relationships. Without them, the restaurant has no soul. The soul of a restaurant is its people.”
Prospering in the future of food service
Whilst many of these apply to the foodservice industry as principles outside of the paradigms of fashion or era, there are certain demands that the fast-paced, technologically-orientated modern world places upon restaurants. “Technology is changing hospitality in an exponential way”, Adam comments. This need not be an intimidating prospect – rather, “Utilizing it effectively to enhance the guest experience can be a way to get ahead. Reservation and POS systems, for example, are transitioning onto mobile apps and smart devices.” These kinds of developments can make front-of-house admin much less time-consuming, freeing up waiting staff to truly engage with customers and provide first-class service.
Of course, as Adam notes, “There can be pitfalls, too, when technology is misused.” The most common way that this manifests, however, is often simply in non-use of the tools available. Savvy consumers and influencers have their fingers on the pulse of all the latest apps and websites, and use these actively in making food choices. As Adam notes:
“Social media is integral to public relations. It is impossible to ignore the scores of amateur food enthusiasts and the effect they can have on the success or failure of your business. Restaurateurs must be engaged with this new audience in a way that reinforces their brand.”
With so many restaurant guests addicted to ‘Instagramming’ photos of their food when eating out, tagging the restaurant they’ve visited, and even searching through particular influencer profiles or looking up hashtags (#JapanesefoodLondon, for example) when deciding where to eat, being active online is non-negotiable.
Undoubtedly there are myriad factors that make restaurants great, and what these are will vary from venue to venue. I love a bit of dinnertime drama on a special occasion, with interactive elements, liquid nitrogen and all – but I don’t want to end up making half of my own coffee on the way to the office. As with any business venture, it’s all about finding your niche, but once you’ve carved out a space for your restaurant, these points are undoubtedly the foundations of any foodservice manifesto.
Do you have any other suggestions for budding restaurant owners and chefs? Let us know what is on your #foodservicemanifesto by tweeting @DivineEatingOut!