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
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