Monday, October 18, 2010

The Norms of Restaurant Success

Who might have thought a television channel exclusively dedicated to "food" could have become such a hit. Yet, for the past ten years, the Food Network (FN) has done just that. It features a number of shows highlighting three themes. The first theme is what one would naturally expect from such a network, cooking shows. A second and also popular group of shows could be classified as competition-oriented programming, pitting (up and coming and/or established) chefs against one another for a designated prize - money (Chopped), a position at a prominent restaurant (Hell's Kitchen), or some other coveted prize - prestige (Iron Chef America), or a combination of all three and/or other rewards (Top Chef).

Then comes a third category (which is the subject of this blog posting) - programs aimed at advising restaurant owners and their staffs in how to become successful and sustainable businesses. Three key exemplars of this repertoire, Chef Gordon Ramsay's long-running Kitchen Nightmares, Restaurant Makeover, and the more recent FN show, The Opener with Chef David Adjey. The temporal context of Kitchen Nightmares and Restaurant Makeover is one where an existing restaurant is failing to produce profits for a whole host of reasons. The Opener, as the title suggests, takes place as the restaurant is about to open and a number of critical problems are identified and addressed.

Notwithstanding the different restaurants, styles of the particular hosts or the general tone of the shows, there are some common, if not fundamental lessons they seem eager to teach owners of new restaurants or failing ones. The lessons might be framed essentially as rules for success and the proper management of restaurants. Here are some of them in no particular order of importance.

#1 - Maximize seating capacity. In almost every episode of The Opener, Chef Adjey calculates how much income each seat might generate, ranging from one day to a full year. When owners are confronted with the potential revenue they could be earning by adding another table that seats for example four individuals - owners suddenly become more motivated to make better use of their space. This is particularly so, when the restaurants in question need to generate income and break out of the red - restaurants that are about to open spend a lot of money before and around the time of opening while hoping to generate business and income to balance or preferably to exceed their expenses.

# 2 - Less is more - institute a focused and concise menu. A consistent theme amongst the shows mentioned above is the need to focus the menu to fewer items which can be mastered and be delivered consistently by the chefs and kitchen staff. Bigger menus with a greater diversity of options require restaurants to keep many ingredients stocked and available when necessary. As a consequence, many purchase frozen and canned items rather than using freshly purchased produce. This leads us to two other interrelated rules (see # 3).

# 3 - Buy and cook with fresh ingredients. The reason for this is obvious - it results ostensibly in better tasting and better quality food. Furthermore, owners are suggested to buy local and establish a rapport with local growers and sellers. The idea that one is selling preparations made with ingredients from local producers tends to sell well amongst patrons who are only too happy to support the local economy beyond just the restaurant.

# 4 - Establish a chain of command in the kitchen and accountability. In some restaurants, there is sometimes a desire to have two chefs running the kitchen simultaneously. The message of these shows is that without a clear chain of command, orders prepared and sent from the kitchen can be sketchy with limited quality control exercised by a single, head chef. Furthermore, without necessary controls and authority, chaos and consequently delays ensue along with customer dissatisfaction. By the end of each episode, owners are strongly veered toward identifying one individual as the head chef and the other having to step in line.

There are of course a whole host of other rules, both explicit and implied that form part of the rules of success that I need not go into here. The point of course is that, like with anything else, rules form an integral part of many endeavors and the instructive chefs on these shows (like Ramsay and Adjey) play a significant role in projecting these out into the stream of consciousness and set a normative standard.

No comments: