Chef Rethinks Restaurant Concept in Down Economy

The current economy presents challenging times for the restaurant business. Chef passions, visions, and livelihoods have or could be changed based on the actual dollars being spent dining out. I can say, first hand, I've had to reevaluate how I do business.

Restaurant Culinary Management

I have spent 15 years working in fine dining and it seems that these restaurants are becoming "special occasion" places. If my only business is "special occasions," I won't be in business long. So I asked myself, "What do customers want now?" The answer: the quality of fine dining food with the comforts of home, at a reasonable price. So, I had to reevaluate my own restaurant, which was due to open this winter. The harsh reality--chefs want to make money and be creatively satisfied.

Use the Magical Restaurant Pyramid

A mentor once told me there is a magical pyramid that restaurateurs often overlook because of egos and passions:

  • The bottom tier (largest) is fast food; something that everyone can afford
  • The 2nd largest tier is casual chain restaurants
  • The 3rd tier is casual to upscale casual dining
  • The top tier (the most narrow) is fine dining restaurants

As you rise through the tiers, the demographic shrinks. To be successful, the industry needs to be where the consumers are. As a chef or restaurateur, you always need to be able to adjust through the pyramid as the economy and eating patterns change.

Provide High Integrity & Quality at a Lower Cost

Culinary and restaurant success starts with the integrity of the product; don't reinvent the wheel. Be simple, but perfect! Who doesn't love perfectly cooked comfort food? As the chef, however, you can throw in your own twist. Take basic roasted chicken. How often have you heard people rave about that perfect chicken dish they had at a fine dining restaurant that was so moist and juicy, full of flavor, and raised locally? Why not deliver that same chicken with some hand-cut pommes frites and a great aioli for $18.

Fine dining prices are high because of overhead--the finish out, number of employees, management, sommelier, expensive linens, and wine inventory. The same roasted chicken now has a price tag of $28 dollars to pay the overhead. Deliver the quality without all of the frills. Go back to the basics. Keep your overhead down and wine prices affordable by seeking out boutique vineyards.

Your Restaurant Should Tell a Story

A chef I know put his entire front-of-house team in jeans and button down sweaters. He placed huge framed photos of his grandfather, father, and his son throughout the restaurant. He is telling you a subtle story and you feel comfortable. Before you know it, you are spending your money on tasty food and creative cocktails. He understands the emotions that people are feeling during this economic downturn. He sends his customers home with a story; they'll probably be back. I applaud his genius!

Remember what great cuisine really is. It's not about the flash--foie gras and truffles--but the integrity of the product and the preparation. It is about the great foods we all grew up with--taken to the next level. It is also about supporting your local farmers and ranchers; it all helps tie into a great story your customers can tell their friends. If you deliver a 4 star experience at a 3 star price, you can have a successful restaurant that will survive hard times.

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