Thursday, October 4, 2012

Feeder Fish in a big pond

Back in my earlier years as a restaurant owner (not restaurateur), desperate for business, I started running a prix fixe menu (price fix). At the time mostly high-end, fancy French restaurants  did this. My goal was to offer a lower priced three-course menu to entice people to come in and dine.  A few of my local colleagues thought the idea was insanely stupid and couldn’t understand why I would lower my price point so much …they, of course, had busy restaurants.  To a small degree the price fix worked. But it was never the answer to my problem -- until the financial crisis in 2007.  After stocks started plummeting, businesses started failing and owners were scrambling to find new ways to promote value. The price fix menu boom started. Everyone from fast food chains to Chili’s & Applebee’s to high-end restaurants started promoting a price fix menu. You would think this would be good for me since I had a leg up…I had been running my special menu for years…. Wrong! I wasn’t established enough for the masses to know what I was doing. So I quickly became a small fish in a big pond.

At the time of the USA economic crisis, my restaurant was doing much better, but still on shaky ground. I was scared that I was about to take 3 steps backwards after taking two steps forward and with very little resources I had no idea what to do. With adversity staring me in the face once again, I had an epiphany. I realized that for once I was no longer a small fish flapping alone in a puddle of water, I was part of a group of fish all swimming in the same pond. I realized that my restaurant had been running in crisis mode for years and everyone was trying to figure out what I  I already knew…. how to run a business in despair. At that moment I decided I wasn’t going to be a small fish in a big pond… I was going to be the feeder fish! I am going to be the one that all the other small fish follow and feed off of.

I was innovative, full of ideas and for the first time I was calm. How was I going to be the leader? I started looking at all the tactics and gimmicks. Inferior cuts of meat, frozen portioned fish, price fix menus that only offered salmon, pasta and chicken, special pricing from 5-6pm midweek…none of it made sense. I felt as though we would only be ripping the customer off and selling them short on the proper dining experience. With that one thought, the idea came to me -- like flipping a light switch. People are scared, desperate and holding on to their money. If they are going to be brave enough to spend it, I need to be brave enough to give them value. This one thought was the birth of our four course “Giro Del Menue” (tour of the menu).

I based the idea on how impoverished areas of Europe always managed to stay healthy and fed. I learned that they slowly ate multiple courses of micro regional food. A poorer family couldn’t afford enough of a luxurious protein for the entire family. So they would portion it out smaller pieces and fill up their bellies on wonderful local produce & handmade pastas with simple sauces. By the time they would eat their protein, they appreciated the few bites and they  were satisfied. 

This was going to be my new dining experience, slower,  and with smaller portions of multiple courses with no restrictions. No time constraints or limited menu choices. No schticks or cost cutting technique that would leave the customer feeling dissatisfied. Simply offer them value for being ballsy enough to come to my place and spend money in a down economy. And, when things turn around. …I hoped they would remember  us for it!  Maybe just maybe, I can finally call myself a restaurateur.