Is it about high quality food? Restaurateur Eddie Black says no.
When you go to a restaurant that you’ve been to before, the last thing you should ever say to yourself is, “I hope it’s good tonight”. If this thought occurs to you, then you should follow-up with, “So why do I go back there?” You then take a moment and realize sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s so-so. But what you’re really saying is that it’s a crap shoot. One should never be nervous about going to a restaurant.
We talked to Eddie Black, a restaurateur and former chef, about what it takes to be successful in this business. Eddie gets a little exasperated when he talks about his competitors:
“It truly amazes me how people can find the money to open restaurants, but don’t truly understand the business. So many restaurant owners just don’t get it that the restaurant industry is all about the customer experience. Sure, we care about about the quality of the food…. or at least we think we do. But the quality of the food is just an opinion, what really sells, what really matters, is the customer experience, and the customer experience is all about consistency. The higher the level of consistency across the entire dining experience, the more likely the restaurant will succeed.”
“So consistency is the real key ingredient, not what you put in a recipe. The big chains get it — well, mostly they do. But the independent restaurateur usually doesn’t. Many seem to think that the more they spend on such things as decor and ingredients, the better the odds that they are getting it right.
Wrong. There are small ‘whole-in-the-wall’ restaurants that I go to regularly and it’s always a GREAT experience – the food is simple but always what I expect. And there are times that I’m forced to go to supposedly top-tier restaurants for which I begin the evening with a question mark in my head, I then overpay for the meal, and at the end walk out thinking I was fooled — it wasn’t like the last time I went there.”
Here’s an example to beat home the point. McDonald’s is not regarded as having set any standards on cuisine. At best, they’re the masters of mediocrity, and can we really call it cuisine? Now, that said, we’re not knocking McDonald’s. I don’t go there often, maybe not even once a year. But I have to admit that, and it’s killing me to do so, it’s pretty good!! Maybe their offerings appeal to simpler or unsophisticated tastes, but whatever the reason, I can’t remember throwing out an unfinished burger or not polishing off the fries. I like it, so sue me.
The truth about McDonald’s is that they perform at a consistent level every meal, every day. If and when you go, you have an excellent idea of what you’re in for, and you know that any McDonald’s will give you exactly the same experience. There’s no such thing as a favorite McDonald’s location, unless you know the manager and he gives you free stuff.
The point is restaurants, like any brand, have to stand for something specific, and deliver that benefit time after time. That’s how they come to find their niche and a following. No restaurant can appeal to all people all the time — sometimes you want fine dining, and sometimes you want something that appeals to your baser instincts. You don’t want either for every meal. But you do want to know that what you’re getting is exactly what you signed on for. That’s how restaurants stay in business — by reaching a specific clientele, they bite off their own piece of the dining pie, so to speak.
Consistency covers a lot of sins. It has to do with the food, of course, but it’s also about the staff, the look of the place, the speed of food ordering and delivery, and other aspects of the dining experience. It doesn’t always have to be perfect — it just has to be what you expect. As another example, my wife and I sometimes go dive hunting with another couple. We’ll actually do research to find the meanest place where you can sit down for the meal, and have our yuks about it as we go. There are a few of these dives that we’ve come to love — they’re not very attractive (which actually is the point of dive-hunting), the staff is not the warmest or most informative, and the food is just fair to middling, although good enough. But the prices are good and sometimes that’s what we’re in the mood for, and we know it will always be the same whenever we hit these joints.
That’s what keeps us coming back, and that’s makes them good restaurants.