A daring idea: The recipe for a perfect restaurant

I am a foodie.  And I love eating at great restaurants.  And I love small businesses and the passion that people put into running their own restaurants.

Put all three of these together and you have someone who wants to see people who create wonderful food in great restaurants to be successful in all aspects of their business.

You would think that a restaurant, an institution that has been around for thousands of years, would be pretty easy to get right, wouldn’t you? But no. 60% or more of restaurants close within their first three years. In cities where there is a culinary arts program at a local college or university? Higher failure rates.

Why the high rates of failure of what should be a pretty simple business?

Because getting a restaurant “right” is something that is actually pretty tricky. So I am setting our here to define what makes a perfect restaurant – one that has great food, is a place you want to hang out with, has wonderful people running it. and is successful in all ways.  Here it is:

The recipe for a perfect restaurant

1.  The perfect restaurant understands its customers really, really well. It knows that there are enough potential customers in the geographic area it serves.  The perfect restaurant knows what kind of customer they are – what kinds of food they prefer, at what prices they will pay, in what kind of setting they enjoy being in, and how they like to be served.

Common mistakes:

– Focusing on what you want to offer, not what the customer wants:  “I want to offer really lovely entrees like I learned in culinary arts school.” It is not about you. It is about the customer. Always.

– Wrong price range: “We will serve the highest quality experience, but it will be high priced as the “best” costs more to produce and deliver. ”  But are there enough customers willing to pay for the high prices for your meal experiences?

– Wrong process:  “We have a cafeteria style restaurant serving high end food with little signage. We will save money on servers. People will figure it out our process on their own.” No,  customers won’t figure out the process on their own and the discomfort they go through in trying to figure out your process will be the first emotional impression they have. And it will stick.  And if customers want table service? You will be out of business really soon.

2.  The perfect restaurant makes their customers feel really, really comfortable in the restaurant. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • nice warm lighting
  • appropriate decor
  • clean smelling and looking
  • fresh appearance (not dated)
  • enough privacy for each table – specifically psychological privacy and personal space
  • friendly and welcoming greetings upon arrival
  • a clear process for being seated
  • comfortable waiting arrangements if there is no table free
  • clearly understandable menu and ordering procedures
  • clear payment processes.

Common mistakes:

– Uncared for internal and external appearance:  An ugly, dirty, dated, smelly, and/or dark and gloomy setting.  Enough said.

– Unclear processes:  People get really uncomfortable when they walk in and are not greeted, don’t know if they should seat themselves or be seated, what the menu means, how to order, etc.  This first emotional impression of discomfort (not wanting to look stupid, being potentially embarrassed, etc.) really sticks. A bad first impression to make.

– Process oriented service:  A restaurant meal is not a drive-thru. People want to be promptly greeted immediately upon entry in a warm and friendly manner.  All aspects of service should include warmth, friendliness, caring about the meal experience, and appreciation of the customers patronizing the restaurant.

3.  The perfect restaurant makes food that meets customer expectations.

Really! You would think this would be a no-brainer!

Common mistakes:

– small portion sizes.  No-where in the world does small portion sizes  meet customer expectations, except in a few rare and really fancy places.  But those are the very rare exception. Small portion sizes = a focus on taking my money and giving me the least possible for it.  Generous portion sizes?  “You wish to provide abundance.  Thank you!”

– beliefs-driven food that limits the customer’s sense of value.  This includes small portion sizes, food that doesn’t satisfy (“But is is low fat and low salt!”), a partial meal that does not offer a complete food experience, freaky dishes that taste weird, and food that is overly expensive “because ingredients are locally sourced.”  No, don’t try to argue this.  If your values are to promote organic food, and if there are enough customers who will pay for organic food, hurray!  If there are not enough customers willing to pay your prices,  in your catchment area, don’t offer high priced organic food.  Don’t want to run a restaurant unless it is organic but you don’t have enough customers?  Don’t run a restaurant at all. Save yourself the bankruptcy costs now.  Offer your gift of organic food to your family and friends… only at home.  Do something else with your time and passion, but don’t run a restaurant driven by your values if there simply isn’t enough demand for what your values dictate you must offer.

– food that is yucky. Poor tasting, poor appearance, bad ingredients. Enough said.

4. The perfect restaurant is set up for financial success.  This includes:

  • Being in the right location.
  • Having a manageable overhead (rent)
  • Having enough tables.
  • Having enough working capital after the restaurant capital expenses.
  • Knowing how to advertise and create word-of-mouth awareness.
  • Having enough staff to run the restaurant properly, but not too many.
  • Knowing how to manage ingredient ordering to maximize freshness and availability, but limit waste.

Common mistakes:

– wrong location:  “But the rent was cheaper here!”. Yes, but if you have no customers, who cares if your rent was cheaper?

– too high rent for the type of restaurant:  It takes a zillion orders to generate enough margin to pay for high rent, if your meals are low-priced.

– cutting corners:  Raw materials ordering to maximize savings instead of freshness, small portion sizes, too low staffing, narrow opening hours, cutting out lighting & heating, not cleaning thoroughly, not renovating & updating often.

Does the perfect restaurant really exist?

Absolutely. I frequent many that get it right – they are perfect restaurants.

I just wish that the restaurants that aren’t perfect would frequent the ones that are perfect, and learn from them.