You’d think serving good food would be a no-brainer as any restaurant’s top priority. Sadly, this is not the case with a growing number of establishments. More and more places are investing heavily in lavish décor, heavy silverware and artfully-designed plates and glasses, but cut costs where it truly matters—taste.
A restaurant that looks good will absolutely bring in customers. A restaurant that tastes good, however, will bring those customers back. Good-looking restaurants drive up prices by latching onto food trends and buzzwords, inspiring people to dine so that they can share the obligatory story with their friends. Good-tasting restaurants can identify with some of these trends, but inspire their patrons to enjoy the experience for themselves rather than for the sake of telling others.
I ventured into an LA restaurant recently that fit every aspect of ‘good-looking, bad-tasting’ to a T. The place certainly did its homework—rustic-industrial layout, chic booths, dim lighting and modern beats at the right volume, and beautifully plated dishes from a fascinating menu with more locally-sourced, artisan, organic and all-natural options than you could count. The place was an Instagrammer’s dream, and a must-visit for anyone willing to overlook the $100/person price tag to brag about their trip to the neighborhood’s newest spot. The food, however, was more suited for what you’d eat in your lap while driving in the car. Even then, In-N-Out would serve as a much better option.
This kind of good-looking restaurant puts lipstick on a pig, and will inevitably be replaced by a series of similar successors until a good-tasting restaurant comes along to make things right.
Pay heed to a few basic points to ensure that your restaurant isn’t just photo-worthy, but loyalty-worthy.
Find ingredients that back up their buzz
Trending terms like ‘artisan-made’ and ‘small-batch’ can cast your product in a premium light, allowing you to drive up menu prices, but tread carefully. At their core, these buzzwords aim to reflect quality, but the market has since been flooded by suppliers that live by these labels. Some of these terms are regulated [i.e. organic] but some are not and/or very hard to verify [i.e. locally-sourced]. When considering a supplier, ensure that they can truly prove the claims that drive their brand.
"Just because it’s organic doesn’t necessarily mean that it tastes good."
It’s also necessary to sample these products for yourself. Just because it’s organic doesn’t necessarily mean that it tastes good. Every shipment of raw products should pass a taste test to ensure consistency, so that you can isolate any weak links in your recipe before all ingredients come together.
Additionally, it’s important to note that buzzword terms can serve as a good supplement to lift your restaurant, but should never provide the base on which your restaurant stands. Of course stay away from the opposite extreme of excessive flavor additives, but taste will always trump catch phrases in the long run.
Let your chef drive
There’s a big difference between chef-owned and chef-driven restaurants. Chef-owned restaurants rarely have problems with good food, but at risk for focusing on good food so much that they overlook issues with front-of-house management and marketing. Chef-driven restaurants, on the other hand, combine the best of both worlds. In either case, the restaurant’s management team should come together frequently so that all parties can present the tools they need for an optimal product.
Chefs, GMs and owners should work together on the restaurant’s budget on an ongoing basis—at least once per quarter. Assuming that a minimum ambiance threshold has been met where the quality of the food matches the quality of the backdrop, and that the restaurant is seeing healthy occupancy levels, the chef should have a stronger voice when it comes to spending decisions.
Hear your chef if he calls out a faulty product, and participate in that investigation. Ensure that his entire team tastes everything they cook, and sample your menu frequently to ensure execution remains consistent over time. Give your chef the freedom to create standards for recipes, procedures and other best practices.
Push the cycle
All else equal, good food will drive demand, demand will drive up prices, and this extra revenue will allow you to reinvest in additional assets—elevated décor, marketing spend, an expansion, or even better ingredients—for the cycle to continue. Make good food the driving force behind your restaurant’s growth, then apply techniques in marketing and design to drive the business home.
Benjamin Brown is a seasoned restaurant writer and hospitality consultant, serving up SoCal's hottest food news and reviews.