let them eat bread

I am not a chef and I have never owned or managed a restaurant. Bartending and serving throughout and post college are my only experiences of the inner workings of the business. That, combined with my experience as a “customer” coupled with my background in PR and marketing communications in general is the basis for this post. So take it with a grain of salt.

Well before I started this blog, I’ve been fascinated with the food scene in Cleveland. I pay attention when places open and close. I try to support the independents as much as possible versus the overflow of chains in the area. It’s not that I’m totally anti chains; it’s just that I believe I’m getting a better quality product from the independents. Plus I like to support Cleveland and keep my money here.

As I’m writing this, many places are preparing to open in the next few months or have just opened. I’m scared for these owners and chefs. According to Zack Bruell, “…there is a 90 percent failure rate in this city for a restaurant within the first six months.” Battuto is the latest casualty in a string of wonderful dining options to close its doors. From this blog and from getting to know the behind-the-scenes people a bit better, I’ve gained some insight into why some of these places fail to succeed. While only a few really know for sure, a few insights include: the kitchen doesn’t know what the front of the house is doing, staff isn’t trained properly, the chefs egos are too big and become unwilling to give customers what they want, people don’t market themselves, inconsistent service/food, etc. Not to keep going back to Zack, but I think he said it best when he commented that “…the cooking part is easy, knowing how to run a business is not.”

It’s frustrating to me as a fan of many of the places that shut their doors that they just don’t seem to get it. I just heard a story about Paladar where the server couldn’t answer a question from a patron about the rum menu because they themselves don’t like rum. And this is a restaurant that has been highlighting its rum bar and extensive offerings of rum? Wouldn’t you properly train your servers on rum if this is a specialty? And I love the story about Battuto where the chef refused to provide fresh bread for people to soak up the sauce because that’s not how they do it in Italy. The list goes on. But one thing about all of these stories and learnings is the same: the kitchen doesn’t monitor the staff, chefs have too big of egos for our beloved city, people don’t market themselves properly if at all, etc.

If I owned a restaurant, I would spend just as much time training my staff as I would on the food. After all, they become the face of the restaurant and next to the food, are responsible for the customer’s experience. Good experience equals happy customer and positive word of mouth. When that person has a negative experience, believe me they will tell even more people and it becomes that much harder to overcome those negative perceptions. Why not stride to make each and every person that comes through your door your personal evangelist? And why not listen to what your customers are telling you. Seek out feedback. Learn from it. And if someone wants bread, give them bread! Finally, I would study from those that have made it work and seek to find out why others did not. There is a big talent pool here and a lot of successful stories. Don’t let egos hold you back and allow one of them to become your mentor.

Like I said, I’m not an expert and certainly have never been faced with the challenge of running a business. Hats off to those that do – I give you a lot of credit, especially in this market. These are just one customer’s thoughts, so take it for what it’s worth.

15 Comments

  1. Michael Walsh
    Posted August 16, 2007 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Michelle, I think you have really brought some quality ideas to the table here. I agree with your main idea, that a restaurants success is determined by it’s ability to succeed in three main areas, food, customer service, and marketing.

    I’m watching this juggling go on literally as I comment here. The foundation of what makes the 3 areas of concern connected is a very simple, and broad idea…communication and organization. It is rare that you find one person in a restaurant with absolute power over the food, service, and marketing. In most cases when all three are taken under by a single person, the quality suffers somewhere. Just like Zach said, “the cooking part is easy,”

    A restaurant needs to be run by a team, even the small independant ones. A team who is given credit for what they do since we identified a restaurants sucess to be based on 3 different areas, food, service, marketing. A team that can communicated, and it’s afraid of organization.

    From what I’ve seen this is rare. Independants in Cleveland tend to look dead in the face of a management meeting and scoff it off as “corperate” and check off training as being expensive, and have a complete lack of inventive marketing (for example every restaurant in cleveland all of a sudden has a happy hour)

    I would love to work in a restuarant where these three ideas are concerned for equally. The closest i’ve come was at Blue Point. While I can do the best I can concerning the food, and communicating to my co-workers. I have no business poking my nose in other areas, and hope that someone has taken up an interest in service and marketing with equal devotion

  2. rockandroller
    Posted August 16, 2007 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    It should also be pointed out that (according to several owner/chefs I’ve talked to) obtaining and retaining good servers in this area is notoriously tough. The “rum bar” problem could be server-based instead of manager-based – they may have offered education and it was ignored, the person didn’t show up for it, doesn’t remember what was told and doesn’t care because they themselves don’t drink rum. I’ve heard of these kinds of problems repeatedly – vegetarian servers turning up their noses in disgust when patrons ask about meat dishes, for example.

    I don’t think one should have to be equally skilled in all those areas mentioned to own and operate/run a restaurant, but they should make sure that all those areas are served. I mean, do you think Jeffrey Chodorow can cook? Probably not. WRT Lola or Lolita, it’s the team of Michael and Liz Symon together that’s made it a powerhouse, with her knowledge of marketing and design, as well as their hiring of good solid managers, bartenders who stay for years and know their customers, that make dining at their restaurants great, along with great food.

    But let’s not forget there is a real shortage of good “career” type servers here because it’s hard to make a good, steady living wage at it in this market.

  3. michelle v
    Posted August 16, 2007 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    I really appreciate it and enjoy when you share your professional oppinion, thank you.

    I hope business is going well so far for you guys. I plan to check out Wonder Bar very soon!

  4. michelle v
    Posted August 16, 2007 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    rockandroller – you’ve made some good points, specifically about the servers, thanks. I’ve had servers/bartenders tell me they can make anywhere between $80,000 – $100,000+ in Chicago and NYC. I would venture to guess that isn’t the case here.

    In a totally different category, we have a lot of clients that work with the big box stores. It’s damn near impossible to try and educate workers at Depot, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart. One, there is a lot of turnover and two, people just don’t care. Which is amazing to me in this economy. It really is something else how many people out there don’t take employment seriously. Again, different business, but again it boils down to finding solid employees.

  5. rockandroller
    Posted August 16, 2007 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    I came very close to a career in food service/restaurants after waiting tables for many years, being moved up the ranks to trainer/supervisor and being farmed out to open other new locations from time to time, but I got passed over for promotions to management in favor of my male counterparts one too often for my liking. I also wanted to get off my feet and into a place with insurance and benefits which is mostly lacking at these jobs, so I went into office work (I work in marketing as well).

    Nobody really grows up wanting to be a server. Until the recent “celebrity chef” craze and before the advent of the food network, most people didn’t grow up wanting to be a chef or own a restaurant either. Now everyone thinks they can be a chef/owner, but still nobody wants to be a server. It is hard and often thankless work and you have to really like pleasing customers and dealing with the public, which I genuinely did, but for the money you make, it just wasn’t enough to live on. Pretty much the whole time I waitressed I had to hold down 2 jobs and I still was barely able to afford a cheap apartment and a used car, it’s just not a great way to live once you get to be 30, 35, 40.

  6. Michael Walsh
    Posted August 17, 2007 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    server talk…i’ve not worked much outside the cleveland market, a short stink at the O.U. Inn sums it up, but in hiring and working with some cooks who have been around they seem to think that the servers in this city run the restaurants where they work, strongly opposing both chef’s and Foh management.

    I worked with a guy from NYC, he ran the table of all the hot places, you know, 3 months here, 5 months there, eleven madison park, bollo, blah blah blah. He worked for me for a little over a year and told me there is not one server he had seen in Cleveland who would last a week in NYC. Likewise, he volleyed myself and one other co-worker who would have a ice cubes chance in hell at making it in the big city.

    Very much like was commented before, trainig can only go so far. When lucey lue, the breast enlagement, vegetarian, nazi is your server….your screwed. There is no way to reach out to certain people, people who find homes in food service, where common sense and reason are rare.

    I commented not long ago on the tastingmenu.com blog that cleveland is void of passionate food service professonals, and i stand by this statemant. I find it very difficult to hire, fire, or trust anyone in this business environment.

    Not to get too long, i must say, when i was younger, and the firs time i was put in charge, i was fire and spit passionate about what i did. I love food, cooking, and restaurants, sighn me up… well i was put in charge of the Ginn Suites at Severance Hall, a two man operation. the second man was more interested in spray painting bridges, rebuildeing engines, and banging white trash hoes. but he shoes up on time, and pushes pans, and places food accordingly. I went crazy, “this guy is a freak, he doesn’t care about food, he doesn’t care how things taste, he is nothing” and my chef at the time said, “ok, yes, but he shows up on time, is a hard worker, and has a good atitude, that is all you can ask for” well i went arms flying, screaming…… how can we succed with such a non foodie on the staff, ho ho ho……follish me.

    these days, i’m glad if they show up on time, and not intoxicated.

    mike

  7. Anonymous
    Posted August 17, 2007 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    Having been in the industry for 30 years I must agree that at this point I’m just happy if the whole staff shows up.On time would be great,sober better.Good front of the house staff people can make money,good money,especially on weekend shifts.The biggest problem I see is lack of commtment and no work ethic.My father always told me that if you hire on as a dishwasher be the best damn dishwasher they’ve ever seen.If your the server ,bartender or chef it’s the same thing.The customer is ALWAYS right,unfortunatly some customers take advantage of this to an extreme making rational restuarant owners crazy.Watching a 10 year old dump ketchup all over there food and then have the parent insist you comp the meal is the kind of stupid stuff that makes you nuts,multiply that by 1000 stupid things and you begin to understand why some chefs say “no bread”

  8. Anonymous
    Posted August 17, 2007 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Pick up a copy of the September issue of Bon Appetit if just to read Alan Richman’s article “Free Man in Paris”, a story of the tribualtions and current acclaim of American-living-in-Paris Chef Daniel Rose and his 16 seat restaurant, Spring. He cooks what he wants, has one prix fixe meal served at one seating a day, and one (realtively untrained) in staff other than himself. He cooks completely from the heart, driven by a passion for fine, fresh food, and knowing that this is what he needs to do. He uses available. seasonal, local ingredients in simple ways that make them shine and make sense. It’s alot crazy, quite neurotic, a bit touching and very inspiriational. Oh, and get this one: his customers don’t complain. – HRobb

  9. rockandroller
    Posted August 17, 2007 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    I think the work ethic thing shows up in many areas here. As an artist, I’ve heard numerous directors and theater owners complain about this same problem with their actors – getting all of them to show up together is an accomplishment; sober or not majorly hungover, a rare plus. I worked in retail for years and it was the same problem there. I’ve certainly observed it myself in countless businesses, from diners to coffee shops to bookstores. Where did everyone’s work ethic go? Why do so many feel “entitled” not to do any work, who give so little? The places I’ve worked where they are “career” servers were fraught with bitter hierarchy, with those who were there the longest creating a really hostile work environment for every new person who came in, as though they could wait on every table in the place by themselves so that they could get all the money. Keeping new people ignorant of processes or shutting them out socially doesn’t do anything for the restaurant.

    I thought it was age/generational, but as I travel more and more for work, I find people at every age level willing and able to deliver great service, even in a seemingly small or unimportant role. I just returned from a trip out of town where I stayed at an unassuming Courtyard by Marriott. The parking garage was all valet due to the way it was set up. The valets I encountered were SO freaking nice it was unbelievable. They helped with directions, general traffic suggestions as I left, offered to take me somewhere in the hotel where I could change clothes when I arrived since my room wasn’t ready yet and there were no bathrooms in the lobby, remembered me when I came to get my car without asking for the ticket, etc. I wrote the manager a letter praising them. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the service industry here in Cleveland treating people this good. It seems the 2 places I regularly visit have, for me, the magic combination of consistently great service and food I really love – Lola and Carrie Cerino’s.

  10. Michael Walsh
    Posted August 17, 2007 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Rockandroller, you mention that certain actions of the service staff don’t have a posative effect on the restaurant. In truth you are gonna have a difficult time finding any restaurant employee who puts the ‘restaurant’ first with regard to their personal work ethic/output.

    Hourly employees, cooks, dishwashers are usually treated so bad by ownership/management that you almost feel sorry for them, and wonder why they carry on, but it is only them who know conditions most likely wont’ be any better at the next place. I’m talking about not getting paid properly, horrible working conditions, lack of schedualing, hostil/negative environment. So why should Joe Shmo the dishwasher give a crap about the ‘restaurant’ as long as he pushes just enough dishes to make it through the day?

    Servers are a whole nother story. Servers, and i live with one so i know a little about how they think, are their own little profit generating centers. Servers work for themselves, not for the restaurant. In most cases you can’t blame a restaurant for a bad server, other than they have not been fired yet.

    I’ve encountered a few cases where this is blaringly obvious….while pricing a seafood raw bar we decided to have two options, a regualar raw bar, basicly 4 of everything, and a larger raw bar, basicly just double in size….since it takes twice as much ice (cheap) and twice as much time to shuck, prep the larger raw bar we decided to up the price by $5, meaning the larger cost twice as much plus $5. We tought this was fair, and do to the size and spectacular visual presentation of the larger raw bar this price would go un-noticed.

    Well the service staff couldn’t comprehend the upcharge??? you would have thought we where taking money out of their pocket. While in reality we where making a small additional profit for the restaurant. As a whole the service staff refused to sell the larger portions, and boldly explained to tables that purchasing two smaller plates would save them money….the customer, a random person who they are likely to never see again…ironicly they are undermining their employer.

  11. rockandroller
    Posted August 17, 2007 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    I think that has to do with maturity level, not it being a server. If you went back to your NY friend and asked him about it, I think he’d feel the same way. If you cannot get it into your head that when the restaurant does well, when they profit, you profit; that if they continue to be successful and are well thought of by the patrons for all aspects of dining, their money is secure and likely to increase. I was certainly aware of it and when I worked under poor managers, worked hard to repair damage they did at the table level. I was aware of it as a trainer, when trying to explain that serving isn’t just bringing people what they order, but WHY upselling and increasing your sales is important, and if you can do it nicely and gently but get it done, it benefits everyone. I don’t know how more people don’t see that but the very, very good servers I worked with all saw it the same way.

  12. Michael Walsh
    Posted August 18, 2007 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    Well, Michelle had a answer to her questions, we seem to just be complaining. What can we do to increase our level of service. I, as a chef can educate the staff as much as possible about the food, and review general ideas about selling food, and steps of service.

    As a customer, what can you do? Well my suggestion is to stop paying for bad service. If Bobby Joe the Slacker gives you bad service don’t leave %20 out of pity. Customers let their voices be heard with where they play their money.

    I commented a while back on the cleveland.com food forum concerning a thread that questioned whether or not a server should be tipped on the regualar or discounted price during happy hour, or other promotions. I suggested that the owners, managers, chefs, salary employees who are putting their neck on the chopping block in these cases where food is discounted. The server has nothing to do with this discount, and this idea re-inforces my previous post, the %20 of the 5 dollars a table saved is nothing compared to another 4 top the promotion brought in. with no worry form the server. This is why I feel service should be paid for more from an hourly perspective of the customer opposed to the total of the bill.

    Oh well, so to make things better we have to work to have our voices heard. Customers with their money, chefs with their knowledge, and owners with their wilingness to spend time and money on training…..I’m willing to do my part as a chef and customer.

  13. michelle v
    Posted August 20, 2007 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Good pointsm especially about tipping and what each party can do to improve the overall experience.

  14. August
    Posted August 21, 2007 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Very insightful post. I too find it sad when a great restaurant closes it’s doors. I still miss Mise in Lakewood :(

  15. michelle v
    Posted August 21, 2007 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    I never had the chance to try Mise – my loss. I’ve heard nothing but great things about that place, too.

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