Thursday, April 19, 2012

2009 A New Chapter Begins

Disclaimer: This blog is a chronological story that outlines some of my past struggles and triumphs over the years with building a successful restaurant. If this is your first visit to my blog I suggest starting with the oldest post for a better understanding and more enjoyable read . 

After 7 years of ownership, the ship (Avalon Restaurant) had finally stopped sinking, but the water line was still around my neck. I needed to continue to improve the overall dining experience and get more people in the seats, especially midweek. My menu, for the most part, was French influenced, Mediterranean, 1980s American continental, with an occasional Asian twist. In other words …confusion cuisine. I recently ran across an advertisement the restaurant ran around 2005 that read “casual fine dining featuring regional and southwestern dishes as well as Asian, European and Cajun selections” The ad made my wife and I laugh so hard we almost peed our pants. Why was my restaurant so dead back then?  I now know that taking a better look at ads like this would have gone a long way to answering questions like that.

Sometimes a firm grasp of the obvious can be as startling as a swift kick in the boys. I was never a firm believer in “the customer is always right.” I was, however, a firm believer in “the customer is always right as long as they loved my restaurant.” Everyone who complained was dumb, annoying and didn’t know a damn thing about food. But, I was desperate for more repeat business so I decided I would ask my few customers what they wanted and what would bring them back more often. Once I got past my egomaniacal anger and confrontational attitude, I learned the customer isn’t so stupid. Asking them and then listening to their answer and then giving them the dining experience they would enjoy most…could prove to be quite fruitful.  The overwhelming response I got from customers was that they loved the Mediterranean style food we created (seafood pescatore at the time was a big hit), they said Atkins (low carb diet) was passé and they wanted pasta again. Customers also said they would like attentive service, but in a more casual environment.

The Philadelphia dining scene was changing thanks to restaurateurs like Stephen Starr. It wasn’t just about the food anymore; it was a combination of food, décor and concept. The ambiance and food, in combination, needed to create a feeling of euphoria.  Restaurants were becoming hyper focused, featuring local ingredients and very specific regional cuisines. The décor of restaurants was becoming more elaborate and was designed to match the chef’s style and his food. The customers, who now had a large internet audience, were becoming amateur food critics. As your customer was leaving you wanted them already thinking about whom they would bring next. You needed them to leave the restaurants ready to be ambassadors – like a walking vocal billboard promoting your restaurant.  This was easier said than done-- but done right it was super effective and potentially viral.

I didn’t have the budget to start a major restaurant make-over. But I was savvy and I had the advantage of being an hour outside the city.  This made for fewer restaurant comparisons and a much better opportunity to generate that “wow” factor. I decided to take off the tablecloths, pledge up the tops and set the tables naked. I added a giant cheese display to the middle of the dining room  and threw away the old leather bound menus in exchange for simple menus printed daily, on recycled paper. I flooded the place with candles, changed to more edgy music and dressed the servers in blue jeans with bistro aprons and a t-shirt with nicely printed logos.

The biggest change was going to be the menu. This was my first attempt at writing my own menu and I wanted it to reflect authentic Italian cuisine. I wanted to include lots of homemade pasta dishes so that the restaurant would be known for making unique fresh pastas. 

As we were about to start our new more modern Avalon concept, I stressed to the staff that rustic casual was not an excuse for sloppy. We still needed to maintain beautiful presentation and top notch service. I let everyone know that we would be under scrutiny, as no one else was doing anything like this so far from the city. I told them we had come so very far in 7 years and this was our chance to really stand out. Everyone seemed excited!