Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Ten Commandments of Good Service

Recent surveys conducted by Zagat across the U.S found that the number one complaint from diners about their restaurant experience was bad service. I suspect the same survey carried out here would yield similar results. Most people will forgive problems with their food if the service is excellent, few will be as forgiving if the reverse applies.

It's a hugely important element in any restaurant or café's business yet so many do not give it the attention it deserves. Many leave their servers to their own devices in which case their business is only as good as their weakest employee. As I've mentioned before, it baffles me why something so critical to the success of a business is overlooked so frequently.

I've delivered a lot of structured training programmes for FOH staff over the years and written several training manuals. All were tailored to specific types of business but some core principles apply across the board. These are the fundamentals of service which I refer to as the ten commandments.

  1. The customer is king. Never forget it. Sounds obvious but very often staff need reminding, especially in busy restaurants where guests can often be taken for granted.
  2. Love what you do and always try to improve. You need to have an inner desire to please and make people feel welcome and valued in order to succeed in hospitality. 
  3. Engage with guests, smile and always make eye contact. They should have your undivided attention at all times. Nothing worse that an indifferent waiter looking around the room while taking your order. 
  4. Keep your head up at all times in the room. Very common problem in restaurants is staff walking around the room looking down, usually to avoid being asked for something.
  5. A warm welcome on arrival and genuine thanks when leaving are essential. They are basic good manners and book-end the guest's experience.
  6. Be switched on and focused for service. It's like being on stage so you have to be well prepared and ready to perform...even when the restaurant is quiet. Ever noticed how the service is better in busy restaurants?
  7. Understand the difference between "serving" and "looking after" people. Any one can bring a plate or glass to a table without heart. Looking after a guest means consciously thinking about their needs and making them feel special.
  8. Always be honest with guests. This covers everything from not spoofing about menu items to not trying to sell them what you know they don't need.
  9. Be professional at all times, even when engaging with very friendly guests. Never cross the line into over familiarity.
  10. Take pride in your appearance at all times. From a crisp shirt to spotless fingernails, anything less than pristine is unacceptable.
These are the basic values that I have always tried to instil in my staff and others I've trained. It can be difficult at times because so many service staff are not looking to build a career in the industry but merely passing through en route to somewhere else. 

Working as a service professional has never been viewed as a career in Ireland in the same way it is in other countries like France, for example. This saddens me as I have huge passion for the industry and think it can be hugely rewarding, in every sense, for dedicated people who want to succeed. Maybe some day it will change...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

So you want to open a restaurant....?

Firstly, ask yourself why? If your motive is purely to make money or you've no experience but just always fancied the idea then turn back now. If you're a great cook and friends always tell you at dinner parties that they'd "totally pay for your food" and that "you should open your own restaurant" then please ignore your friends and continue to be a great home cook. I'm generally a glass half full kind of guy so please don't think I'm being negative for the sake of it. The fact is that the restaurant business is extremely difficult, even for experienced operators. Rank amateurs stand little or no chance. Without strong industry experience and a single minded drive to succeed, you should reconsider and save yourself more physical, financial and emotional stress than you could possibly imagine.

If you're still with me, then I'm assuming you have experience in the restaurant business and can call on expertise to fill in the gaps in your skill set where required. Right then, where do we go from here? You've probably got an idea in your head and hopefully have put enough thought into it to have a good understanding of what type of restaurant you'd like to open and where you plan to set up shop. Let me say at this point, that you should now be prepared to live and breathe the project night and day for the foreseeable future. 

Location, location, location...
The location of your premises is crucial to the success of your business. You should have your research done and a find a place that will work for the type of business you plan to create. Be sure to check out the existing competition in the area and the type of people the area attracts. If you are depending on footfall, then stake out your target premises over a period of weeks at different times of the day and night to determine if there is sufficient volume of people passing your door. Once you are happy with the premises, meet with the agents/landlords and establish the following:

  • Whether the lease is new or existing
  • What the rent review & break clauses are
  • If the lease is designated for restaurant usage
  • What type of licences previously attached to the premises
  • That the premises has the relevant fire/environmental permits in place
These are the basics that will determine if your initial interest should go any further. Once you are happy with the outcome of the initial meeting and the rent is within your budget, you should engage a solicitor to work through the lease clause by clause and negotiate the best possible deal on your behalf. Clauses such as access for deliveries and waste disposal conditions are ones which you may not have thought of, but can be deal breakers. Be prepared that this process can be frustratingly slow but in the meantime, you've plenty to be getting on with!

Get with the plan...
The next step is to prepare a business plan. There are plenty of templates available on line. Some are too detailed, others not detailed enough. The plan should detail every element of your business and should fit broadly into the following sections:
  • Company & People
  • Products & Services
  • Market & Marketing
  • Financial Projections
The business plan may be required by third parties such as financial institutions in which case, you should also include a one page executive summary at the front ( bankers don't like to wade through lots of pages and are more likely to put your plan in the "maybe" pile if you give them a good overview at the start). Your financials are going to have to stack up and should be prepared on a "worst case scenario" basis. Optimistic projections are never a good idea as, in addition to making you look naive to third parties, they will cause problems down the line when the first inevitable curve ball arrives. There are plenty of items which you won't have factored into your projections so it's always a good idea to seek professional advice. Even if you have funding in place, I guarantee there are at least 10 areas you haven't considered in your financials.
The plan is not just for raising finance however. As you work though every area of the operation and get it down on paper, you will find that the idea begins to evolve and develop and by the end of the process should have crystallised into a clear business model. Chances are, you will find yourself going back to it time and again as you move forward with the project. 

Spread the word...
By now, you should be crystal clear about what you want to achieve and how you are going to go about it. Now it's time to communicate that message to your future customers. It's an exciting part of the process as your idea starts to have an identity and you can finally visualise your restaurant. A good marketing plan is essential and should begin 3-6 months before you plan to open. It should be targeted specifically at the customers you want to attract. In order to get this right, you must know exactly who your target audience are and crucially, where they get their information from. This may be one more area where you will need to enlist the help of a professional. As a minimum before you open, you should have the following in place:
  • A good website that is mobile friendly and gets your message across strongly. Your opening times, menus and contact details should be easily accessible and and require little or no navigation. 
  • A strong social media presence on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram 
  • Good, clear branding that sells your concept and is consistent across all of your media
If you have engaged a PR company, you may also have some print media exposure prior to opening and if your budget allows, perhaps a glitzy launch bash too!

Attention to detail...
Depending on the condition of the premises and what you're trying to create, you may also have a large building project and fit out to contend with, while all of the other areas need attention too. This is why I mentioned earlier about living and breathing the project 24/7. You will also need all the help you can get - preferably from experienced industry people ( Friends and family are great but simply won't think of all the areas you need to cover).
While your marketing plan and building programme are in full swing there are some critical areas that need your attention. You need to recruit staff & suppliers, and finalise your menu & wine/drinks/coffee list. Hopefully you already have key staff either on board or in mind, otherwise they will prove difficult to recruit due to the labour shortage in the industry. Choose your staff carefully as they will be your most important asset. Once your staff are in place you need to push on with the final preparations which will include, but may not be limited to, the following:

  • Finalise your menu, test all dishes and adjust if necessary.
  • Prepare detailed costings for each menu/drink item. Your fixed overhead will determine what GP% you need to achieve to break even and therefore will determine your selling prices. This is an important stage and you may need professional assistance.
  • Depending on the type of restaurant, you may need recipe cards printed.
  • Make sure all relevant licences & permits are in place as this could delay your opening
  • Get POS system installed, programmed and tested.
  • Organise cutlery/crockery/glassware. Make sure they are suitable for your business and fit comfortably on your tables.
  • Test all new equipment thoroughly as you do not want to find out that the grill doesn't work on opening night!
  • Prepare your sequence of service. This is what happens from the time the customer walks in to the time they leave. It covers every step of FOH service but should also detail every aspect of the food service from where the food comes out to where the empty plates go back in.
  • Arrange staff training. You should have as many sessions as possible before opening. These should start with the basics and get more detailed each time. By the time you're open, every staff member should be completely comfortable with the menu, wine/drinks/coffee. They should also have bought into the ethos of the restaurant and fully understand what you're trying to achieve.
  • Finalise your systems. Everything from reservations to purchasing, accounts, payroll, stock control, HACCP, cleaning, cashing up, opening/closing must be planned & communicated to staff. If you have strong systems in place from day 1, you stand a far better chance of succeeding.
And finally...
The whole process outlined above could take a year or more to come to fruition and will almost certainly test the limits of your patience. However, it is worth taking the time to plan in as much detail as possible pre-opening because in my experience, areas that are not right from day one are seldom ever right. Your hard work and commitment will be rewarded with an enormous amount of satisfaction once you open the doors and finally see your dream come to life. From that point on, the hard work really starts!!
I'll finish off with a couple of useful hints. It is worth while learning a few plumbing/electrics basics as you will be amazed how much you'll spend calling out tradesmen. All notions of glamour go out the window the first time you have unblock the loo!
 People are well meaning and everyone will tell you what you should be doing. Nod politely and ignore 99% of the crazy notions you'll hear! Stick to your plan and of course listen to your customers but filter out the non relevant stuff.
Once you get up and running and are happy with the operation, factor in some time off for's important to avoid burn out and you'll be amazed how energized you'll feel afterwards. 
I wish you the very best of everything in life, you'll need a bit of that along the way too.

Monday, 7 July 2014

My Top 5 Favourite Menu Items

I had a little whinge in the last post about menu items which make my heart sink so I though it only right in the interest of balance to get the positives out there too.

Like most people who have been in the business, or indeed who eat out regularly in decent places,  I can tell at a glance if a menu has been written by a chef who is serious about his or her food. In no particular order, the following are a few dishes and ingredients which make my pulse quicken when I see them on a menu.

Let me more specific. I love shellfish when it arrives in alive and kicking. Not frozen crab, chemically soaked scallops in tubs or those awful rubber shrimps. There is no substitute for the real thing and although expensive, if treated correctly is worth every penny. 

Crab risotto at the Sportsman in Kent. One of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. Source : Sportsman Website

I don't eat steak very often and almost never order it in a restaurant but if I see bavette I will almost certainly go for it. It has a little more resistance than the more tender cuts but more than makes up for it with he flavour it delivers. Served rare with crispy chips and bernaise sauce, it's up there with my death row last meals!

Not quite bavette but this underblade in Etto Merrion Row was absolutely superb.

I'm instantly drawn to any type of offal and applaud chefs who are brave enough to list it on their menus as I know it can be a hard sell. Veal liver is a particular favourite of mine and any part of a pig. Especially the head meat. Anyone who takes the time to slow cook a pig's head and meticulously pick the meat out when still hot, burning their fingers in the process, deserves all the support they can get!

It's becoming increasingly difficult to get wild game in restaurants as health & safety authorities require more packaging and labelling. A lot of game is now farmed but for me, the flavour does not compare to it's wild cousin. When eaten in season with some serious red wine all is right with the world. 

I mentioned in the previous post that I reckon the vegetarian options in a restaurant should be appealing enough for meat eaters to order them. I love to see vegetables getting the same treatment as every other prime ingredient and will order it without hesitation if some thought and TLC has gone into it. 

Let me know what menu items turn you on. For now, I'm off for something to eat as I've broken the golden rule of writing about food on an empty stomach!