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Archive | March, 2011

So You Want To Start A Restaurant: 3 Things That Will Decide Your Fate

Starting A RestaurantSo, you’ve thought about it and decided that starting a restaurant is your dream job. Good luck with that.

Nearly 50% of restaurants fail in their first three years.  That’s an astronomically high casualty rate.  There are many factors that add up to the success or failure of a restaurant.

Many times bad luck is the most effective Grim Reaper of restaurateurs’ dreams: just imagine if you had started your restaurant in the fall of 2007, just before the financial meltdown.  I’m sure there are many former restaurant owners out there who know exactly how bad that kind of luck turned out to be.

That said, many restaurants fail because they were doomed from the start.  There are thousands of things that must be done, and done well, before a restaurant opens its doors for the first time, but there are only three things that absolutely cannot be wrong.

These are the three things that will decide the fate of your new restaurant:

Starting A Restaurant

  1. Vision. What is your restaurant, in 140 characters or less?  If you can’t fit the description into a standard tweet on Twitter, then your vision isn’t focused enough.  I’m not saying that Twitter is the key to your success.  I am saying that if you don’t have a clear, focused, and concise vision of what your restaurant is then you are doomed to failure.
  2. Passion. The restaurant business is a cruel master.  Especially in the beginning you’ll be wasting your rent check every month because you’ll be living at your restaurant.  If you aren’t passionate about everything your restaurant stands for then it’s simply not worth it. Your passion is the thing that filters down through every aspect of the restaurant, from how the food is prepared to how each guest is treated.  If passion is lacking, then the entire experience of dining at your restaurant will lag, and that is a recipe for closure.
  3. Food. You can get the existential stuff like vision and passion just right and still fail if the core service you provide customers – good food – isn’t perfect.  Luckily this is usually the easiest hurdle to cross because if you have a clear vision and a burning passion then the food part will come naturally. Many restaurateurs run into trouble because they start with the menu and then work backwards to things like vision and passion.  That is another recipe for disaster.  Without vision and passion your menu is doomed to mediocrity, lack of focus, or some dangerous combination of both.

For those of you who read this post thinking you would get some concrete advice on how to start a restaurant, don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ve wasted your time.  The truth is that there are thousands of ways to run a successful restaurant and there are very few common elements between all of them.

The three factors listed above are definitely present in every successful restaurant, regardless of segment, concept, style, or location.  That’s why you must start here.

Good luck!

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How to Give Customers the Extra Information They Want

Tourists Love Helpful Info From Restaurant StaffBeyond recommendations about food & beverage, there are many other questions that locals and tourists ask. Use this list to build your ‘fact file’ for staff, and quiz them regularly to check they’re offering correct answers.

#1 issue for most managers is ‘staff motivation and attitude’. The interesting thing is, when staff are helpful to customers, they receive positive feedback and reinforcement. Food & beverage knowledge is one thing, but local information and recommendations can really make a difference to the customer experience. Build up staff local knowledge and their ability to assist, and everyone will smile more.

Make sure your staff can respond to questions like these:

  • When did the business start, and who were the first owners?
  • If there have been other owners since, what has changed?
  • This place is unusual – what’s it about?
  • Do you do takeout, catering, functions etc?
  • What’s the website, phone number, fax number and email address?
  • I want to come by local transport – what bus, train etc do I use?
  • Phone number and website for transport information.
  • Are taxis easy to find – what number do I call to make a booking?
  • Best place for parking – long and short stay (including insider tips that only the locals know).
  • How much does it cost – described in a way that makes it sound affordable.
  • If parking is difficult, best way to tactfully advise this without losing the booking.
  • If they are worried about security for their car, what would you advise?
  • Where is an ATM teller machine?
  • Where is a local bank and when is it open?
  • Where is the post office or where can I buy a stamp? How much does postage cost on a postcard or letter?

Local attractions and points of interest:

  • Places that would appeal to a family with young children.
  • Places that would appeal to people that like shopping.
  • Places that would appeal to a group of seniors who are out for the day.
  • Places that would appeal to a group of sport players who are staying locally for a competition.
  • Places that would appeal to people who like walks and outdoor activities.
  • A well-known tourist attraction – hours of opening and costs etc.
  • Local bookshops, fashion shops, music shops, gift shops and department stores for browsing.
  • Where’s a shop nearby where I can download the images from my computer onto a CD?
  • Is there an internet café nearby?
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Telling The Customer “No” In The Name Of Culinary Perfection

Culinary PerfectionFor most restaurateurs saying no to a customer is something you just don’t do.  Being accommodating is an integral part of what service businesses like restaurants do, and therefore the customer gets what the customer wants.

As the New York Times reported recently, a surprising number of restaurants in New York have no problem telling a customer no – as long as it serves a higher artistic purpose.

Some examples include:

  • A bagel shop that will not toast your bagel for love or money
  • A bistro famous for its fries does not serve ketchup
  • One restaurant serves their burgers one of two ways: with or without Roquefort cheese

The reason for putting limits on customer preferences is the same in each one of these establishments: special requests compromise the original vision for the taste and presentation of the dish.

In most cases, especially in a place as saturated as New York City is with restaurants, these picky chefs can get away with imposing some ground rules on their patrons.  That’s because there’s a large pool of people who have an enormous amount of choice in a small area when it comes to eating out.  If you don’t like go next door.  There’s enough people here who do.

That feeling of exclusivity actually appeals to a lot of guests, and probably works in the chef’s favor, at least in an environment like New York City.

For the rest of the country, however, where the pool of customers is smaller and the amount of choices fewer, restaurants must and do play the role of catch-all.  The hard reality is that turning people away because they don’t subscribe to your vision of culinary perfection is typically bad for business.

And when business is bad there’s no money to prepare perfect dishes.

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Why You Should Tell Your Guests To Order Themselves

Ordering KiosksIf you do it right, guest prefer to order themselves.  This has been proven by the advent of interactive electronic ordering kiosks, which have quickly become commonplace in European and Asian quick service restaurants.

Americans are finally catching up to their European counterparts when it comes to self-service kiosks.  Early adopters like Jack-in-the-Box have already seen the benefits these electronic order takers can provide, including a boost in sales, higher customer satisfaction, and increased order volume.

What’s so great about a kiosk?  And what exactly is a kiosk anyway?

Kiosks are electronic ordering systems that provide a touchscreen menu for guests.  The newest generation of kiosks integrate directly with the restaurant’s POS system, making order processing extremely easy.

Kiosks add a couple key benefits to a guest’s experience, at least in a quick service restaurant environment:

Improved order accuracy. Whether or not kiosks actually reduce the number of botched orders is up for debate.  Regardless, guests feel like orders are more accurate because they are directly involved in the order taking process, and that perception can go a long way towards improving a restaurant’s overall customer service.

Guests buy more. Having an interactive menu that automatically suggests upsells, lists the best menu items first, and advertises specials without forgetting is a potent weapon for restaurants.  Guests who use kiosks are more likely to spend more and order more than those who order from a human.

This means a restaurant using kiosks can shift staff from being order takers to order fillers and service providers.  In fact, the restaurants that have introduced kiosks did not have to cut any staff because order volume went up significantly.

Ordering kiosks certainly make sense for quick service restaurants, but what about independents?  Is there a place for an automated menu and order taking system in the more traditional dining experience?

That certainly remains to be seen.  However, here are a couple ideas for ways independents could bring kiosks to bear:

Make waiting interactive.
If you’re fortunate enough to be a restaurant that regularly makes guests wait for a table, then a kiosk could become your very best friend.  Instead of making customers sit on a bench staring blankly at the wall next to the host stand, invite them to place their order on a kiosk, then time their meal to drop 10 minutes after they are sat.

The potential for slashing your table turnover times with that kind of system is tremendous.  That kind of system also gives your servers more time to provide top notch service as well, especially when things get hectic on a busy night.

Make kiosks part of your concept. Remember restaurants with telephones at each table for calling in orders?  Their success depended on the novelty of ordering via phone but eventually it proved much too hard to create a quality experience when the guests’ only interaction with staff was through a phone.

Kiosks could be different.  If they are used to replace menus at tables servers can still interact with guests while they order, have more time to attend every detail, and benefit from the kiosk’s tendency to make customers order more.  All of this could be accomplished without sacrificing face-to-face service, and in fact the iPad has already proven itself to be a great replacement for the traditional menu.  Kiosks at tables just takes that concept one step further.

Change the way you take reservations. Especially if your restaurant is in a high foot traffic area, plop a kiosk on the sidewalk in front of your establishment and invite guests to place their order and then come back to dine at a time of their choosing.

Guests that have already chosen their meal are going to be more likely to come back, reducing reservation no-shows.  That kiosk would also serve as some great advertising for your restaurant and take some pressure off your host stand and servers on busy nights.

Naturally kiosks are going to have to run their course in the quick service segment before independent restaurants start considering them.  But a future where all menus are electronic and interactive is not that far off, and restaurateurs stand to benefit immensely from this new technology.

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NRA Announces 2009 Kitchen Innovations Awards

The National Restaurant Association (NRA) has announced the 2009 winners of their annual Kitchen Innovations award, which recognizes cutting edge advancements in improving the efficiency of commercial kitchen appliances and tools.

Some highlights from this year’s list include:

The Silar Microwave Flatstone

Advanced Composite Materials’ Silar Microwave Flatstone. This composite ceramic insert is designed for commercial microwaves.  It creates even heat distribution throughout the unit, meaning foods that normally require long oven times can now be cooked quickly and efficiently without sacrificing quality.

As a result, a fresh dough pizza can be cooked in three minutes using this flatstone in a commercial microwave.

Eneron, Inc. Turbo Pot. This innovative stock pot drastically improves heat transfer through aluminum fins on the bottom of the pot that cut cooking times and energy usage in half.

The Turbo Pot has been tested by Fishnick, an organization dedicated to improving energy efficiency in the commercial kitchen.  Their findings show the Turbo Pot can significantly reduce energy usage while still maintaining the durable quality needed for commercial cookware.

Halton Model-based Automated Regulation of Exhaust Levels (MARVEL). This automated ventilation system controller automatically adjusts ventilation fan speeds depending on restaurant equipment usage and exhaust air temperatures.  The result is an automated system that conserves energy during slow times while safely removing smoke and heat automatically when the kitchen is busy.

Somat Company eCorect Waste Decomposer.  Reduce food waste by 90% with this compost machine.  Less waste means less expense for trash removal and boosts a commercial kitchen’s green credibility.  This machine is easy to maintain and doesn’t require any special additives or enzymes to work.

These product innovations are great examples of how technology is being leveraged in the food service industry to increase efficiency and therefore profit margins in the fiercely competitive world of food service.

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Efficient Water Heating in Restaurants

Save Hot Water!Restaurants and commercial kitchens use A LOT of hot water.  In fact, it’s probably one of your larger energy expenses in a given month.

Tips to Cut Costs

  • Set water temperature to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Your dishwashing unit should have a built in booster heater that heats water to the required 180 degrees for dish sanitization. If it doesn’t, it’s more efficient to purchase a booster heater for the dishwasher than heat all your water to 180 degrees.  There’s no benefit to spending the extra energy to heat your water past 140 degrees, and reducing the heat can save you some significant money.
  • Insulate hot water pipes. Pipe insulation is cheap to buy and easy to install, and the energy you can save from such a simple technique is considerable.
  • Fix leaks right away. Whether it’s faucets or dishwashers or pre-rinse assemblies, fix whatever is leaking hot water right away.  A leak is just money going down the drain, something you can ill afford.
  • Use aerators and low-flow pre-rinses. Faucet aerators and low-flow pre-rinses reduce the amount of water you use and the amount of wastewater you produce, both of which will save you money.
  • Use the automatic flue damper. Most commercial water heaters have a flue damper that seals in heat when your water heater is idle.  Make sure this damper is working.
  • Set the timer on the recirculation pump. If your hot water heater has a recirculation pump, set or install a timer so that it turns off during non-business hours.  This prevents heat loss through the hot water pipes and could result in hundreds of dollars worth of savings.
  • Buy Energy Star rated water heaters. If you are replacing or installing a new heater, only buy Energy Star rated units and shop around to find the most efficient one available.
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Not All Slicers Are Created Equal: How To Tell The Difference & What You Should Buy

A Globe Commercial SlicerA commercial slicer can quickly turn many of the products in your walk in into uniform, perfectly sliced pieces ready to serve, making your staff’s job very easy and improving the efficiency of your operation.  Slicers are usually used to cut meats, cheese, and eggs, among other things.  A commercial slicer consists of an electric motor, a metal base, and a feeder tray that moves product past a metal blade to produce a thin slice.

What Do You Want To Slice?

While the slicer itself is a pretty simple device, not all slicers are created equal, and you need to be careful when purchasing a slicer to avoid getting the wrong one.  It all comes down to what exactly you intend to slice.  That’s because different slicers have different capabilities, and if you try to slice something that’s too heavy for your slicer, you’ll end up with a burned out motor.

The problem is that you’ll almost always be tempted to get a standard or light duty slicer because they are significantly less expensive than larger, heavier duty slicers.  That’s perfectly fine if you just need to slice up some deli meat.  But if you need to slice any kind of cheese or frozen product, your poor slicer is going to bog down and burn out very quickly.  Here’s how to decide which kind of slicer is right for you based on the type of product you want to slice:

Heavier duty slicers also tend to have a larger blade, which allows you to slice larger product.  Make sure you size the blade diameter to the size of the product you want to slice.  All slicers allow you to adjust the thickness of the slice and should be NSF certified and have safety features like a knife guard.

Manual vs. Automatic Slicers

A manual slicer requires one of your staff to operate the feeder tray back and forth to run food product past the slicing blade.  Some manual slicers also feature a gravity fed feeder tray, which ensures the product is in the proper position to slice on each pass.An Automatic Slicer

Automatic slicers feature an electrically powered pusher for independent operation.  If you’re slicing large amounts of product all at once, an automatic slicer is more convenient because it can slice continuously without constant staff assistance.

Slicer Cleaning & Maintenance

Slicers should be sanitized on a regular daily schedule using a properly mixed commercial sanitizing concentrate and water.  Many slicers have a built in sharpening stone that will keep the blade consistently sharp.  Of course, whenever your staff is working around an ultra-sharp blade whirring at a high speed, they should have cut resistant gloves on.

There are several moving parts in the feeder tray and carriage assemblies on a slicer that should be lubricated regularly to ensure smooth operation and improve the lifespan of the slicer.  Always use a food-grade lubricant for these tasks.  Over time and lots of use, parts of your slicer are going to wear out, most commonly the slicing blade and the drive belt (if applicable).  Fortunately the parts that most commonly wear out are also relatively easy to replace.  Search for slicer parts by manufacturer here.

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3 Tips To Give Your Host Stand Some Personality

The host stand is the first thing your customers see when they enter your restaurant.  That first impression can be an opportunity or a potential stumbling block, and no matter which way you impress your customers, the host sets the tone.  It’s like any new relationship: every word and action takes on an importance unique to the situation.  Just like a first date, your customer is wondering why they should trust you.

Your host staff should excel at putting the customer at ease.  I doubt I need to tell you to train your hosts to be friendly, warm, and inviting.  If they don’t have that down pat then your restaurant has bigger problems.  Beyond the basics like knowing how to seat a section without double-seating and always striving to go above and beyond the customer’s expectations for service, here’s some tips to help your host turn your customer into a life-long friend:

  1. Encourage individualism.  Training your host staff to look and act alike might seem like the best way to create a good first impression every time, but in fact you take away their personalities when you try to control them.  Instead, let your host’s personality highlight how personable and accessible your restaurant is.  Obviously, people with warm, positive personalities are better suited to hosting, and your hiring choices should reflect that job reality. Allowing your host staff to express their individual personalities also has a positive effect on your regular customers because they get to engage with a different type of interesting and happy person every time they patronize your establishment.  That makes customers look forward to the next time they go out to eat.
  2. Allow different interpretations of style.  This goes hand-in-hand with the first tip concerning individualism.  The reality is that a uniformed host staff is a boring host staff.  Your servers are uniformed because they are operating as a team to bring you the best service possible.  Your host, on the other hand, is the face of your restaurant and their primary objective is to engage and welcome the customer.  Nobody wants a drone who looks like everyone else in your restaurant to welcome them, because it makes them feel less important. Allowing hosts to express their personalities through their own (tasteful) styles presents an intriguing face to the customer and makes them want to engage.
  3. Create a culture of exceptional service.  Now that you’ve got these interesting and unique personalities running around seating and taking care of guests in your restaurant, you need a common thread to tie them together.  That thread is the idea of providing exceptional service to every customer every time.  If each host on your team buys into that concept, then they will find unique and creative ways to accomplish that goal with each customer.

In many ways the host stand is the personality of the restaurant, because that’s the first place the customer looks for cues on how their relationship with you is going to work out.  The hardest part for a manager is letting the personality of the host represent the restaurant.  However, allowing a little creative freedom at the front door of the house is by far the best way to make your restaurant seem like a relationship the customer wants to keep.

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How Hybrid Water Heating Can Make Your Restaurant As Cool As A Prius

Instant Hot Water Dispenser

Every restaurant needs hot water, and most of that water usually ends up being used to clean dirty cookware and cooking equipment.  More than likely you get your hot water from a conventional gas-fired water heater with a 100 gallon or larger tank.  For years the standard strategy for hot water has been to heat a large tank of water so that a large amount of hot water is on demand whenever you need it.

As natural gas prices rise, however, and restaurants look for ways to improve their sustainability credentials, conventional large-tank water heaters have become more and more unattractive.  For starters, conventional water heaters usually suck up 20% – 25% of a restaurant’s energy bill, which means a very large chunk of change is going into keeping 100 gallons of water in your basement hot at all times.

Even if you follow efficient water heating best practices, you’re spending a lot of dough.  Traditional heaters are also not very good at conserving water, since it usually takes a couple gallons to flush out cooled water in the lines before hot water reaches the tap.

For these reasons, some restaurants have started moving towards tankless, on-demand electric water heaters.  It’s amazing how much energy you can save when you don’t have to constantly heat a large tank of water.  The downside is that a tankless heater that’s capable of handling the large-volume requirements of a restaurant are pretty expensive to purchase and install.  Even so, a restaurant would see a return on investment through energy savings within two or three years.

That means new restaurants or ones with remodeling plans are in the perfect position to go tankless.  The extra investment up front translates into more black on the bottom line a few years down the road, especially since energy prices are only going to go up, not down.

I know, I know, most restaurateurs out there are probably thinking: “I’m not going to drop some serious dough on water heaters when I’ve got so many other things to worry about.”  I completely understand.  But I also have a “hybrid” solution for those of you who want to reduce your energy bills but don’t have the cash to invest in full-on tankless water heaters.

The answer lies in point-of-use commercial water heaters and faucets that operate a lot like a tankless water heater.  The only difference is they don’t have the same high volume capacity.  Point-of-use heaters maximize your efficiency because they are relatively inexpensive to install and take a significant load off your conventional heater, which means that 100-gallon tank can focus on the big stuff like your dish machine in the kitchen.

For server stations, handwashing sinks, and back bars, a commercial point-of-use instant hot water dispenser or mini-tank (2-4 gallon) electric hot water heater will greatly improve your efficiency and reduce energy bills.  This is primarily because you won’t be wasting all that hot water that sits in the pipes leading to these outlying hot water points.

When the time comes to replace your conventional heater, you’ll be able to downsize, leading to further energy savings.  The up-front cost of point-of-use commercial water heaters is much less, which means your return on investment will happen much faster.  From an economic standpoint, it makes sense.  From a sustainability standpoint, it makes for a great marketing opportunity.  If you’re willing to invest a little, the benefits are there for the taking.

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Wire Shelving: What You Should Use Where In Your Restaurant

Restaurants always have a large amount of inventory to deal with.  Figuring out where to store this inventory while it awaits its turn on the cooking line can be a major headache.  One of your primary weapons in the storage battle is wire shelving.  Shelving units can be built to fit just about any space in your restaurant, and more than likely you’ve got some pretty odd-shaped areas you use for dry or cool storage.

The most important decision you need to make when buying wire shelving is which type to use in different locations and situations in your restaurant.  That’s because different types of shelving will perform better in different situations.  For example:

Chrome Plated Wire Shelving

Plated wire shelving is chrome plated.  It’s rust resistant and can handle up to 150 pounds per shelf.  Plated shelving is perfect for dry storage situations.  It’s affordable, durable, and can be fit with a caster set for easy mobility.  The one place plated wire shelving should NOT be used is in a walk in cooler.  This is because plated shelving is rust resistant, but it’s not rust proof.  As you already know, walk ins are a very moist environment.  It won’t be long before your walk in shelving is coated with rust.  Health inspectors tend to frown on that situation because rust particulates inevitably end up in food product.

Now I can’t tell you how many restaurant walk ins I have seen filled with plated wire shelving.  The basic fact is that plated shelving is less expensive than the alternative, at least initially.  But over time you’ll end up buying two or even three plated shelving sets for your walk in as opposed to one set of epoxy coated shelves, and you’ll be covering an important food safety issue at the same time.Epoxy Coated Wire Shelving

Epoxy coated wire shelving is pretty self-explanatory: it’s wire shelving with an epoxy coat on it.  This shelving is rust proof, making it the essential shelving for use in walk ins.  It is more expensive than plated shelving, but as I’ve already said, that will probably work itself out over time.  The epoxy coating has been known to wear off over time, especially on shelves that have a lot of metal (cold pans, etc.) sliding around, but these individual shelves can be replaced pretty easily.

Both plated and epoxy shelving can handle about 150 pounds of stuff before they start to warp and bend.  If you need to store heavier items (like sacks of rice or potatoes), you need to go to a heavier hitter.  An Aluminum Dunnage RackDunnage racks are perfect for this application.  These are 12” – 16” tall heavy duty shelves that are kind of built like a long foot stool.  They can handle a LOT of weight: up to 2,000 pounds in most cases.  They can also plug into your existing wire shelving system pretty easily: just leave out the bottom shelf and slide the dunnage rack in underneath.  The two most common materials used are plastic and aluminum, both good anti-rust materials, although I imagine plastic is a little better.

Caster sets are also a key component to any wire shelving unit.  That’s because sooner or later, you’re going to want to move shelves for cleaning.  The other nice thing about casters is they give your bottom shelf some extra clearance off the floor, which health inspectors like.  In general, you should always have 6” of clearance for cleaning under shelves, whether you’re in a walk in or in dry storage. An Expanding Stem Caster

You’ll want expanding stem casters.  These casters fit into the round or square posts on your shelving units and then expand out to make a tight fit.  Also make sure two of the four casters have a brake so you can keep shelving from rolling around.

You need shelving to keep organized.  Just make sure you use the right shelving for the right situations, and that will save you a lot of headache further down the line.

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