Wednesday, March 27, 2019

An Open Letter to Would-be Restaurant Owners

Dear Future Restaurant Owners:

So you want to open a restaurant. Great! Good for you! I am all for new business ventures, especially in the food industry. But, please, please don’t open (not even a soft opening) until you’ve got all the nuts and bolts (or in this case, forks and knives) firmly in place.

Now I know that the industry term “soft opening” means a restaurant is open but still working out the kinks. I get that. What I don’t get is how you, as the owner of a new restaurant, open without really training your staff. Or, how you as that owner, are dressed like you’re working at a construction site (even if your restaurant is extremely casual). You are the “face” of your restaurant; your appearance sends a message.

Case in point: I went to a new restaurant in our area this week. They don’t have a web site yet (mistake #1), but the person who answered the phone was very friendly and helpful when I asked about hours, menu, etc. She told me they had a limited menu right now and would have a web site soon. OK, fair enough. I decided to give a try.

Upon arrival, the hostess showed us to a table and gave us menus (food and beer). When our server came over, I said “I know this is a tap house so you have lots of beers, but do you have any wine?” Hmmmm, this seemed to stump her. Off she went to ask. I could see her speak to someone who was apparently a manager and I could hear his answer, “of course we have wine, go get the wine list at the bar.” Mistake #2. This should have been covered in training 101. As an aside, the server blamed the hostess for not giving us a wine list.

The wine list is small, but I’m still OK because I know their focus is beer. I ordered a Dr Frank semi-dry Riesling (NY Finger Lakes), and my husband orders Tito’s on the rocks. Our drinks arrive; the wine glass has lip smudges around the rim...I send it back.

Next, we have a couple of questions about the menu, which she had absolutely no answers for and had to keep running back to ask the manager (she said it was her first day; see Mistake #2 above for not fully training her BEFORE she hits the floor). I order the crab cake, and my husband, skeptical about the offerings, goes with the New England clam chowder. Twenty-five minutes later, my crab cake is delivered, lukewarm. Ten minutes later, still no soup. Now, I’m pretty sure they are not making the chowder from scratch at 6:30pm, so all they have to do is warm it up & ladle it out. We flag down the server who goes to check on it, and a few minutes later, it is delivered. 

We both stare at the soup. It is greenish-brown in color. I have never seen New England clam chowder in that color palate. My husband gives it a taste & pushes it away. He asks me to taste it. It is horrendous. Tastes nothing like chowder of ANY kind. In fact, I’m not sure what it tastes like, other than awful. In hindsight it tasted like a roux (a mixture of fat and flour used in making sauces); a bad, metallic-tasting roux. In addition, it had soup-skin floating on top, which indicates the soup had been sitting out for quite awhile. We  tell our server about the soup. She is apologetic, takes it away, and speaks to a gentleman I think is an owner. 
What NE clam chowder SHOULD look like!
(Credit: Serious Eats)
A few minutes later, he comes to the table. He is dressed like a construction worker (which is ok, if you are actually a construction worker and going to work at a construction site). He says “you don’t like the soup?” Notice there was no greeting? I say “no, it’s inedible.” He says “I had it today, it was fine.” I said, “it had skin on it.” The owner says “you coulda just let it sit there.” What does that even mean?? Then he walks away. OMG. (Big) Mistake #3. I felt like channeling Gordon Ramsey on Kitchen Nightmares: “TAKE THIS SOUP BACK INTO THE KITCHEN & HAVE THE CHEF TASTE IT!”

We pay the bill (the soup was taken off), leave a good tip for the waitress (the lack of training and kitchen failures are not her fault), and exit stage right. 

So, let’s review: Mistake #1, no web site. It’s not 1991 (the year the WWW went live). There is no reason why any restaurant cannot have a web site up and running prior to opening. It gives the public a sense of what to expect (hours, menu, pricing, BYO or full bar, handicap accessible, owner/chef bios, etc). Even if you don’t have a full site at launch, put something out there. 

Mistake #2, staff training. I know, you’re crazy busy trying to get everything done for your new venture. But trust me, if you don’t get this right, your new baby is going to fail, and it won’t be pretty. Today everyone is a restaurant critic, and people have no second thoughts about posting a bad review on Yelp, Open Table, Google, etc. A few bad reviews can tank your restaurant. For me, the service is right up there with the food. They are equal parts of the equation. And good service starts with you, restaurant owner. You may think you know how to train servers, but if you’re a newby to the restaurant biz, or have only run a small “mom & pop” establishment, you better get some help in this department (there are companies that can handle this for you so you can focus on the million other details of opening a restaurant). FOH (front of house) training is not as simple as it sounds. I eat out alot, and it never fails to amaze me how poorly wait staff have been trained. Even if the food is stellar, poor service will definitely influence whether I return to a restaurant again.

Which brings me to Mistake #3, customer interactions. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that we won’t be returning to this restaurant, based mostly on how “Mr Owner/Construction Worker” handled my complaint. If he had said “I’m so sorry to hear the soup didn’t meet your expectations. What else can I get you?” Or, “we’ve just opened, I appreciate your feedback on the soup; let me get you something else,” I may have given it another try in a few weeks. But he obviously was not interested in customer satisfaction and ensuring that I return. 

This restaurant lost a customer, and that’s a shame, because with some careful planning, thorough training and attention to detail, he could have had repeat business; and not just from me, but from all the friends I would have told about his new restaurant.

Note: pictures in this post were not taken at said restaurant.

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