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How Schizophrenic is
Your Restaurant?
gourmet articlesarchive how schizophrenic is your restaurant?

You know what your customers think about your restaurant, right? You know that your staff influences how your guests think about the place, and that your customers are shown the high points you want them to see, right? Chances are, the answers are yes - but more of your image is out of control than you may think.

Restaurant staffs and their guests don’t see a restaurant in the same way. Guests sacrifice their time and money expecting a certain experience and level of satisfaction in return. The staff members who have to deliver on those expectations, however, have other motivations and varying degrees of personal involvement.

A staff member’s connection to the restaurant ranges from deeply personal to nonexistent. He or she may only be motivated by income, or there might be deep satisfaction in the social and artistic challenges of a food - service career. Some employees see their job as an end in itself; to others it’s a means to an end. The staff frequently can’t even agree among itself about the image its restaurant is trying to project. How in the world can you expect it to agree on the best ways to achieve that image?

Yet every restaurant has an image. Some of it comes from its décor, which may or may not be dictated by a “theme.” Some of it comes from formal communications: menus, signage, and other promotion. Much of it derives from how its employees carry out their jobs, creating product, performing functions, or interacting with guests.

These attributes form the restaurant’s personality-the most significant way it stands out from all the other places. Customers must reject the others in order to choose your place to eat. And for one reason or another, people who eat at other restaurants have rejected yours. What do they think about your place; what messages have they been sent?

The chef speaks through his menu and presentations. The hostess communicates her messages her way, while the servers do their bit and the bussers do theirs. Usually, all of these people have divergent views of what the restaurant is trying to be or how it can achieve its goals. (God only knows what the valets are doing!)

When your customers come in contact with these people, who have such differing styles and objectives, they’re all perceived as extensions of the restaurant. Do those customers hear a well - rehearsed harmonious chorus, or a collection of unmatched voices singing in different keys? You’re lucky if they’re even hearing the same tune! It’s often a collection of unrelated melodies in the form of menus, advertising, signage, and other marketing materials that aren’t well coordinated. This musical hodgepodge is frequently accompanied by mismatched instruments - a mix of décor, table settings, lighting levels, background music, ambient sounds, rest rooms, and more - that has been accumulated over time by different individuals with vague goals and variable taste.

The result is cacophony: Guests won’t leave humming the same melody because they won’t have a clear perception of it is - of what the place is all about. They need to understand your restaurant clearly enough to know what makes it stand out from its competition, and it should be obvious; they shouldn’t have to be experts in the fine points of the restaurant business to see it.

Ideally, a restaurant is based on a single vision, built and operated in a way that everybody - customers and staff alike - perceives the same way. That never happens, of course: People are individuals, with unique experiences that shape their perceptions. Still, every restaurant must try to have its customers’ dining experience be so uniform that guests will be able to communicate its essence in a consistent, easily understood way to someone who is unfamiliar with the restaurant.

That kind of directness and simplicity is rarely achieved without help from experts who understand how to clearly communicate style through words and imagery. It takes specialized skills to establish a realistic set of goals and present them in a way that leaves the personnel, the product, and the space all in sync with what customers expect. How well that’s accomplished has everything to do with the restaurant’s success, because customers can’t be satisfied unless their expectations are met or exceeded.

Restaurant operating teams lack the skills and time to pause and articulate their marketing missions. The staff is fully occupied with living up to its performance requirements and keeping guests generally satisfied. That's where a company like Lieber Cooper Associates comes in. We work with new restaurants and existing places, helping them understand why what they're doing isn’t necessarily what they ought to be doing. (Sometimes it isn’t even what they think they’re doing!)

We help them refine and develop their goals and polish their identity so they can realistically be expected to carry the ball with as few fumbles as possible.

Most restaurants need that kind of outside help. Consider the upscale restaurant that needed a new sign. The parent company - whose national sales volume is over $200 million - spent thousands for a crane
- installed neon behemoth to proudly advertise that the place is a genuine “Mexican Ristorante.” What they really wanted to say was “Restaurante Mexicana”; that tag line would have made sense with their name, which is in Spanish. Instead they chose one word in English and one that’s Italian, of all things. Those errors might seem like minor flubs to most people. But in this particular Midwestern city, more than a million people speak Spanish as their principal language. “Mexican Ristorante” is about as convincing to them as the sign I saw in London on a place calling itself an “American Diner.” It said, “We Shake Milk”.

Then there’s the place that really wanted to be unique among its Italian-American competitors, so it made great efforts to get really unusual pasta shapes on the menu. Unfortunately, the restaurant - now out of business - tried so hard to look authentic it overlooked a fundamental fact: None of its Yuppie customers was likely to have any idea of what “Dente d’elefante,” in the “Paste Secchie” section of the menu was. They didn’t translate those terms to English. Then there’s the American - owned restaurant that tries to pass as itself off as authentic Chinese, but whose menu features some dishes and ingredients that clearly aren’t. Its décor includes Thai figurines and Japanese architectural details. The kitchen can turn out terrific food. If it would bill itself as fusion or as anything other than classic Chinese, it might make sense and command respect; instead it looks as if it doesn’t know much about what it claims to be.

You yourself have probably been to restaurants that classify themselves as contemporary American, but whose menus list Hors d’oeuvres and Entrées instead of Appetizers and Main Courses. These are very minor flubs, but their effect is cumulative. Every little thing that’s out of sync not only fails to reinforce the restaurant’s primary message: It often sends another signal that conflicts with what you’re trying to get across. Even if the customer doesn’t consciously conclude that Arlo Guthrie songs don’t make sense in a noodle house, at some level people are likely to feel that something’s amiss.

As a restaurant operator, you don’t even have to make a mistake to start off with two strikes against you. Some customers approach restaurants with a certain level of discomfort to begin with. They may be uneasy about being in an unfamiliar place, or wary of tasting something they’ve never had before, or afraid of looking foolish by not understanding a menu term. They might be apprehensive about paying for an experience that might end up less satisfying than they hoped, or they could just feel uncomfortable about dining with others. Your restaurant has to provide such an intense and satisfying experience that the customers’ doubts and fears are put completely out of mind.

It’s up to you and your restaurant to make them feel sheltered, comfortable, and confident. Are you really able to do that as well as they’d like?

Running a restaurant - or even part of a restaurant-is extraordinarily challenging: It requires teamwork and timing that don’t always function as smoothly as they should. You are dependent on coworkers that are depending on others, and you have to cope with unpredictable customer demands and stay abreast of constantly changing market conditions. It’s hard enough to get the right food to the right people at the right time for the right price, let alone to anticipate their needs. Is it reasonable to also be expected to have the time, communications skills, and psychological perspectives to see how your restaurant is perceived through your customers’ eyes?

At Lieber Cooper Associates, we don’t think it is. That’s why we’re here: To help your customers know what to expect, and to enable your restaurant to satisfy those expectations.
Written By: Allen Kelson

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