Think Speed and Simplicity to Profit in the Post-COVID Restaurant Industry
June 7, 2021
A few days ago, I posted an article that I had read on NRN.com to LinkedIn. It was regarding simplification of menus. There was a lot of reaction to that posting so I thought I would speak to it in more detail but from my point of view.
The big idea is: quick table turnover, short menus and easily-executed items are critical to profits in the post-COVID restaurant industry.
Moving People Along
Before I was even 21 and in my first days as the manager of a restaurant, I met an individual in Palm Desert by the name of Guy LaLiberte. Guy was an immigrant. He had started at the bottom and worked every job there was in a number of restaurants. It culminated in he and his wife, Vicky, creating Palm Desert's first true European-style restaurant. It was called The Nest. He was smart, innovative and exacting and it was virtually impossible to get a bad meal at The Nest.
I learned so much from the way he did things. When he opened The Nest as the dining area of a motel, it was very small. In order to do any business, he had to "move people along." That meant fast table turns and that isn't easy to do in an upscale restaurant.
I remember he used to tell his servers to literally lean into the table, in essence actually "pushing" the customer to order. He was the first I knew to train people to take everything off the table at the end of the meal except the water glass. If you were a "camper" at The Nest you were asked every 5 minutes, "Would you like something else"?
I remember Guy telling me of customers at his restaurant, "Never let them just sit there!"
Keeping the Menu Small
After expanding The Nest several times, Guy sold the restaurant and moved to Santa Fe New Mexico. But he returned several years later and opened a large free-standing restaurant called Vicky's of Santa Fe. And it was at Vicky's where I learned the most from Guy.
He opened the restaurant with a menu that had small sketches of five different entrees: a cow, a chicken, a lamb, a fish and a Shrimp. So, you could get a steak or rack of lamb or broiled shrimp and so on. That was it! There was a salad and a couple of sides including a 40 count (giant) baked potato.
The wine list was equally short though very high-quality. The beer he served was all canned but his well was super premium. The restaurant was a massive hit – probably the busiest restaurant in the valley. Did I mention it was dinner only?
The chicken was off the rotisserie and most of the rest of the menu came from the broiler.
A key to his success was that there was no crossover between cook stations so execution was a no-brainer and thus, flawless.
Guy may have been schooled in what were then called "continental" restaurants but he was a student of the industry and its business. He had seen the success of the small menu steak and seafood restaurants of the late 60s and 70s and he said to himself, "I can do this better." And he did.
Ease of Execution Ratings
Years later, when I opened Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Guy's approach was foremost in my mind. We couldn't offer only 6 items but we could keep it small and simple. We began with 39 items (soup to nuts as it is said). We offered 6 beers in the can! But we also had 3 on tap because we wanted to make more money on our beer. The wine list had 8 wines.
The menu items almost always came from one cook's station. Early on our cooks and chefs rated each item on an ease of execution scale of 1-5. A 5 didn't make it and there had to be a compelling reason to have a 4.
We didn't take reservations and we queued people up to be seated so that a chair sat empty as little as possible.
All of this was the only way that we could have 8 to 10 minute ticket times and 45 minute table turns. We had to be quick but not hurry.
Quick Table Turns as Important as Ever
The imperatives before COVD had to do with maximizing volume and minimizing time. In today's world the imperatives are similar but they also have to do with maintaining quality of product and the difficulty in finding and keeping employees. Until occupancy gets back to 100% and we are free of these Covid restrictions, time of table turns still really matters.
Essentially, if you keep your menus small and engineer them so the kitchen can easily execute the products, you will put out a better quality, faster and more consistent experience-guaranteed - all of which are key to profit in the post-COVID restaurant industry.
By the way, menu items came and went at Gump but when we sold it there were still only 39 total on the menu. And Vicky's? It's still there.