The #1 Thing Food Entrepreneurs Should Be Good At

One of Kitchen United’s stated goals – part of our corporate and personal ethos really – is a dedication to our clients’ success. As a restauranteur myself, I end up in conversations with folks who are keen to improve their marketing efforts, attract more customers, and be on the road to wild success. They want to know my secrets in marketing my own busy restaurant. The first part of my answer can be a surprise. It shouldn’t be, but it is:

Good food.

Start with this assumption and you’ll be on the right road: “Every single guest who comes in the door enters with the expectation that the food is going to be great.” Think about it. Why else would they come? Certainly their expectations will vary somewhat based on the price and style of the restaurant, but why should yours? Whether you’re selling a $55 prime filet or a $2 taco, why not want that dish to be great every time?

I don’t think I’m alone in pointing out that for a lot of restaurants, there is ample room for improvement. Almost everyone I talk to in the food business thinks their food is already great. So where is the disconnect? Honestly, I think it’s hard to listen to feedback about our food. It isn’t just food, after all, it’s an expression of our creativity!

There are basically five keys to making sure your food is actually as good as you think it is.

5 Keys

  1. Establish a non-threatening feedback loop. I once had a chef who would get red-faced every time someone said something critical about a dish. His opinion was that if they didn’t like his food they were idiots. Well, let’s be honest, some people actually are idiots. Whoever said the customer is always right, first, was an idiot! But not everyone who gives critical feedback is wrong and yelling at a server because they tell you the shrimp is overcooked kills a critical tool in your good-to-great arsenal.
  2. Scan online reviews. What you’re looking for is themes. If one person says a dish is bad that’s a blip on my radar. If two people say it’s bad that’s a signal that I need to taste a dish again. Three and that’s a call to the chef for the two of us to figure out if we have a problem. (Usually we discover something that can be better!)
  3. Refine, refine, refine. I don’t believe in advancement by revolution. I believe in advancement by evolution. I have no compunction at all about taking a critical look at a popular dish and working on ways to make it better. A great dish is a compilation of great ingredients. A great dish is a compilation of preparation steps. A great dish is a combination of flavor balance, mouth feel, accessibility and creativity. Every month I like to take a dish apart and start over to see if we can improve and you know what? We almost always can.
  4. Listen with your eyes. Here’s a challenge. Your guests lie. They do! Really. Most of the time, you ask a guest what they thought of a dish and they’ll tell you it was great. Usually that’s because they’re afraid the chef will have a meltdown if they say anything else. I’ve learned to listen with my eyes. Every weekend when we’re running specials I spend the first part of Friday night watching plates coming back to the kitchen. Are they empty? That’s a sign that people like what you served. Are they full? That’s a sign they don’t. If you see a lot of full plates coming back it’s time to go out and ask for direct feedback. Remember, it’s not a confrontation, but you want to know what caused the customer to stop eating. Listen, consider, fix. Repeat.
  5. Sometimes it’s not the food. The hardest part of serving guests is understanding that they can decide a good dish is bad simply because it’s not what they’re expecting. So what happened there? Typically it’s a poor menu description. Make sure your descriptions are clear to the average diner in your restaurant. If a dish is spicy, say so. If it contains polarizing ingredients like horseradish, garlic, raw onion, etc., make sure your guests know. Do you routinely cook Salmon to medium rare? Make sure you call that out. Typically, if a guest gets what they are expecting and if the dish is balanced and creative they’ll love it.

The challenge is that since a guest’s perspective is that the food should be great, then if the dish IS great then all you’ve done is meet expectations. To make the guest’s experience noteworthy (and this is your goal) you need to find ways to exceed expectations. That’s where the hard work of great service starts and that’s the subject of next week’s post.

Jim | @onwardjim

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