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.


13 comments:

  1. Thanks for great information you write it very clean. I am very lucky to get this tips from you


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  2. Hey Chef,

    I'm wondering if you could write a post about how you handle restaurant life while handling family life at the same time? My wife and I are in the process of opening a brewpub near Paris (France, not Texas) and while my background on food and beer is solid, my family is more important to me than anything else and so the biggest question for us is not, "what's on our menu," but, "how do I do this and raise my kids properly at the same time." Many restaurant owners either have older kids or have no kids at all, and yours is the only blog I've found that even mentions young kids. So yeah, any advice you can offer would be GREATLY appreciated!

    Thanks,
    -pl

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  3. Chef,
    Thank you for your blog. I recently gave up a good 20 yr career and followed my dream to have my own restaurant with the loving support from my wife and young kids. I'm 6 mths in and I gotta tell ya...what the hell was i thinking? Each day is a big struggle financially and emotionally. I have never ever felt this type of pressure and the mental and emotional roller coaster is unreal. My business acumen is good and I planned and researched a great deal prior to diving in. But as you know, we don't know sh#t until you are in it waist deep. The only reason i came across your blog was because i was just looking for some source to help deal with the stress and the dark side of what i am going through which you experienced first hand. I do find some comfort knowing that it is not just me and this is the nature of the business. But the hardest part is not knowing how the business will be from one day to the next and being in an empty restaurant doing only a few covers a day despite customers telling us that they love our food. My wife and kids have been great and i just don't want to let them down given all they are sacrificing for me to chase my dream. I have 2 small children aged 7 and 10. Prior to the restaurant, I was very active in their life making dinner every night, coaching their sports team, driving them to different activities, etc. I'm lucky if i get to do anyone of these things once a mth. I get them off to school and i don't get to see them as they are in bed by the time i get home. But when i do get to spend time with them, it's the greatest feeling in the world. It is at this moment I realized how much i took them and family for granted in the past (for me at least). I know i'm unloading a bit here but i wanted to put a bit of context around how much your stories helped and gives me a bit more strength to fight and keep going. I hope this comment finds you well and thanks for sharing.

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  4. Nice going, chef! I love your ingenuity and the fact that you spent time to research on a completely different marketing strategy is nothing short of amazing. Even though when the going got tough, you still stuck to your guns. I believe you have handled the situation well due to the fact that even during the financial calamity, you were able to pull it off. Keep up the good work, chef! I’ll visit your restaurant soon.

    Allan Morais

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  5. Being in charge of a restaurant is always tough. You have to manage your cooks, make decisions on updating and buying new restaurant furniture and worry that the next month their might be less customers coming in.

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  6. It's a difficult role running a restaurant and I can totally relate to the pressures you have faced.

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  7. Such an amazing and inspirational post! How are things going now? This is such encouragement to thinking differently and outside the box!

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  8. I was there Friday night 7/19/2013 and ordered the strip steak. It was one of the toughest cuts of meat I've ever had. It was the preparation but a poor cut of meat. I was very disappointed.

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