Restaurant rules to survive (and thrive) by

I recently wrote about etiquette tips that diners can use to make the restaurant dining experience more enjoyable. Similarly, there are rules that restaurants can follow to make the diner’s experience more enjoyable and thus have the salutary effect of creating a successful and thriving restaurant.

The rules at Gilhooley’s oyster bar are short and sweet.

These rules may seem obvious. But a sampling of several new restaurants opening in Houston reveals surprising oversights in even the most basic tenets of running a restaurant. Reasons are numerous and well-documented — a wealthy owner with more money than experience; a celebrated chef striking out on his/her own who, when faced with the day-to-day business of running a restaurant, can’t keep up in the kitchen.

All reasonable explanations for why a restaurant might be destined to fail. But by following just a few simple rules, a restaurant can survive the worst of times and thrive in the best of times. I’ve had the good fortune of working in a restaurant run by consummate professionals, and several of these rules were learned in that milieu. Others are more common sense, or learned from being a regular patron in many thriving and not-so-thriving establishments. I’d suggest that a restaurant could survive if it ignores a few of these rules, but I doubt one could thrive without following all of them.

1. Serve food people want to eat. To be successful in business, you have to supply a product that the market demands. But many new restaurants have a visionary or artistic concept/menu that is foreign to potential diners. Should a restaurant serve “avant-garde” food or “comfort” food? This is a point of some debate in the Houston food community. Many recently opened restaurants are serving comfort food — fried chicken, burgers, pizza — i.e. food with which people are familiar and comfortable. The knock on this trend is that the food choices in Houston are becoming homogeneous (the phrase you often here is that Houston as a whole “doesn’t have an adventurous palate”). But many restaurateurs respond by saying, “We’re not here to reinvent the wheel; we just want to serve good food and make a living at it.” Fair enough. But for the ambitious chef, this may not be good enough. And it’s obviously not good for those Houstonians who do enjoy trying new and different cuisines. So in the case of an ambitious chef, rule #2 may apply.

2. Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want. In the classic food movie Big Night, scheming restaurateur Pascal, whose highly successful restaurant serves schlock Italian food, gives this advice to failing restaurateur Secondo, who insists on serving only the most uncompromisingly authentic Italian food: Give people what they want, then later you can give them what you want. Cynical advice from a not-very-sympathetic character to be sure, but the words ring true. An ambitious chef with a singular vision should, by all means, open a restaurant that does not compromise on its beliefs. But if a chef, perhaps relatively unknown, wants to realize a vision while hedging his chances of success, he can create a menu that includes conventional dishes as well as “haute cuisine”. Then, as his clientele grows, he can expand his offerings of inventive and visionary dishes, thereby fulfilling his ambitions while at the same time expanding the palates of his diners.

3. Spend good money on a capable sous chef. Too many restaurants develop a reputation for inconsistency because on the days when the executive or “name” chef is off, the food is opined to be inferior. A capable second-in-command for the kitchen who can faithfully and consistently reproduce the quality of the restaurant’s dishes is invaluable. Really, there’s no better investment for a restaurateur than a loyal, capable and reliable sous chef.

4. Don’t skimp of front-of-house talent. It’s a common refrain from restaurateurs and chefs in Houston — it’s hard to find good help. And although there are some restaurants who can put together a professional FOH staff from top-to-bottom, most restaurants have to get by with a relatively inexperienced team of servers. And that’s fine. In general, Houston diners out for a casual meal aren’t going to demand formal service. Unfortunately, I’ve been in highly regarded restaurants where the service falls apart when the restaurant gets busy. At the very least, every restaurant should have a couple of FOH veterans who can act as floor managers and keep things running smoothly when the restaurant gets busy, and always with an eye for details, which brings us to rule #5.

5. Do sweat the small stuff. My first restaurant job was as a busboy in an upscale French restaurant. After setting a table, the owner would review your handiwork, and if the utensils were not placed at an exactly prescribed distance from the plate, you’d receive a firm-but-polite dressing-down before the other staff. Some staff interpreted this as the owner’s Napoleon complex, but really he was just setting a standard. If the service personnel are conscientious about the small details of service, the overall experience of both the diners and staff will be improved. This attention to detail can be manifested in many ways that make the diner’s experience more enjoyable, and therefore more memorable — a sincere smile from a hostess as he greets you, a server re-folding the napkin of a guest who has excused herself from the table, a busboy in a fancy French restaurant anticipating the drop of a utensil to the floor, and sprinting to replace it, even before the guest has the chance to reach down half-ashamedly to pick it up.

This blog entry was originally posted 3 January 2011 on the website.

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