I didn’t anticipate the volume of suggestions I’d get to yesterday’s post about my restaurants. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’ve yet to meet a human being who isn’t a restaurant expert by virtue of his or her experience at eating.
I’m actually going to read all the comments, as will my restaurant managers. I can tell there’s a lot of good stuff nestled within the calls for nudity and midget wrestling. But I thought I’d take a moment to comment on some of the suggestions.
Many people pointed out that the quality of your food and service determine the size of your restaurant business. I used to think that too. To my surprise, those two factors are surprisingly far down the list, at least in my local area.
Obviously the food and service have to be good enough to support the price you charge. But most places achieve that goal. Around here, the restaurants with the best food, or even the best value, don’t have more business because of it. You think they do, but they don’t.
Locally, familiarity is the biggest predictor of success. Italian and Mexican themed restaurants are typically packed regardless of food or service. Everyone knows they can find something on the menu they will understand and enjoy. Indian and Thai restaurants are less familiar and they struggle no matter what they do right. My two favorite restaurants locally (Indian and Thai) are typically 75% empty.
The local restaurant that is generally considered to have the best food in the area is full most of the time. From your armchair, you might assume the food quality is the reason. You’d be wrong. The restaurant is full because it’s tiny. Both of my restaurants have more customers. There’s some sort of statistical smoothing effect that causes people to spread their eating around more evenly than you’d think. We can predict our level of business on any Tuesday night to a degree of precision that seems odd. There’s never a day when, for no reason in particular, a thousand people all decide to eat at the same place. Restaurants get nearly their baseline “share” just by existing, presumably because people like variety.
When we designed the Dublin restaurant, it was intentionally twice the size of the first, in anticipation of filling the banquet area with events. It’s the banquet and event portion that doesn’t fill itself just by doing things right. I pay rent on that space whether it’s full or not.
When asked about the most important factor for a restaurant’s success, experts often pick lighting. Your first inclination is to laugh that off as absurd, because you’ve probably never made a restaurant decision based on lighting. But if you look at the restaurants that are doing well without being Italian or Mexican or tax cheats or a chain, they generally have excellent lighting. Everything, including your date, looks better with the right lighting. And that can be enough to make you remember the food and service as being better than they were. I pay attention to restaurant lighting, and find it a far better predictor of success than food or service. (I’m working on my restaurant’s lighting too.)
Price is obviously a big factor in people’s restaurant decisions. But unless you are a chain, or a tax-cheating family restaurant, you can’t compete on price. Our niche is the “nice night out” crowd for dinner, and the “business lunch” during the day, where a few extra dollars for a more special experience makes sense. The Cheesecake Factory is a great business model, but if you take your wife there for your 25th wedding anniversary, you might not reach your 26th.
People ask me why I’d want to be involved in the restaurant business. This is why. It’s surprisingly fascinating.