Living & breathing Eating Out sector in real-time
Last year I finally walked out on my On-Trade analyst role from one of the biggest blue-chip drinks companies in the world. As a passionate advocate of epicurean experiences as well as being a left brain thinker with an investigative mind, I began to realise that no real insight is ever gained from staring at complex spreadsheets in corporate boardrooms. Ironically, I felt bored and isolated in the most sociable and dynamic industries of all – the UK eating and drinking out sector.
Corporate execs believe that Big Data can solve anything. Yet when scrutinised, it often sits in complete silos with little connection to the real world. After many years of sharing data charts, I wanted to pry the insight wide open. Real-time response was my call to action. And where better to get the insight than the eating out epicentre itself? The industry people not only have their finger on the pulse, but they also bring it to life. Data can never measure up to the rich conversations with chefs, mixologists, bar and floor staff, restaurants’ managers, owners, and most importantly their guests.
I knew from research that food & drink excellence is the number one priority for any respectable restaurant, followed by 1. Authentic 2. Premium 3. Healthy and 4. Ethical food. Yet the insight I gained from the industry leaders goes much deeper.
There is a growing concern that a great food and drink offer might not be enough to ensure consumers’ repeat visits any more, and that value for money has nothing to do with price. In fact, for many guests of premium restaurants, eating out has very little to do with food and the act of consumption. Meaningful experiences and refined entertainment are what consumers expect from the world of foodservice now. There is a subtle shift from food business to show business.
Foodservice is not just about the food business, it's a show business!
Adding entertainment to culinary delight is the best way to ensure that experiences are truly memorable. Yet it’s not the singing, dancing or performing kind of entertainment I’m referring to, but the introduction of magic and theatre to dining rituals. The ability to tell relevant stories which resonate with the restaurant's audience; direct interaction with chefs and the bar staff, customised mood-matching culinary experiences, and social media strategy that involves local communities - these form the new way of doing food business.
Staff must become highly skilled story tellers
Customers’ appetite to be “in the know” grows, often in order to justify the premium prices. It’s not about taking half of their evening reciting the bouquet of each wine on the menu. It’s about sharing bite-size stories (at the right moment) about how passionate the chef is about his or her latest creations, the elaborate process that goes into making the pastry the consumer just complimented, the origins of the season’s dishes and the inspiration behind each signature cocktail.
The chef should be a bit of a diva
Designing new dishes, experimenting with food texture and flavours - working their culinary magic takes and makes food lovers. Chefs are the artists behind the restaurants’ greats asset – the reputation for great food. They should never be kept behind closed kitchen doors. Customers want to see the chefs’ talents in the making as well as the kitchen staff's multitasking skills. Chefs wandering and interacting with customers, delighting guests with small tasting dishes that will feature on the next season’s menu or gathering valuable feedback would make any foodie’s night out totally unforgettable. It shows passion and pride in the art of cooking and that should never be underestimated.
Mixologists must focus on personalised experiences
Best bars engage in intimate conversations with their audience to emphasise the flavour preferences, mood and occasion in one perfect cocktail. This personal approach creates memorable experiences and powerful emotional connections between the drink, the drink connoisseur and the venue where such customised experiences are made to order. Considering guests’ desires for new tastes and experiences, love of eating out, busy lifestyles and highly individualistic, even narcissistic tendencies, the art of customisation will undoubtedly prevail.
The charismatic, imaginative and incredibly gifted modern bar staff must lead the way and capture the public’s fascination with the blending craft.
Introduction of edible magic and theatre
There is this new way of cooking that blends science and artistry together and often involves changing the physical properties of the ingredients. Molecular Gastronomy takes cooking and food presentation to stratospheric levels. Chefs often seem to use scientific equipment that you are more likely to see in a laboratory rather than a kitchen to manipulate shape and form, but the resulting theatre of the dishes is simply mesmerising. Many restaurants where you can experience this kind of cooking offer a tasting menu with many small courses, each one designed to provoke a reaction. Modern cookery thrives on unexpected flavour combinations, but chefs using molecular gastronomy challenge the eater with additional twists and playfulness. Molecular gastronomy is a clumsy label for this new modernist cooking, a better description would be edible magic!
Few jobs are more demanding and character-building than restaurant work
Perhaps the greatest insight I gained post my office job is how demanding and character-building work in this industry really is. How strange that this is never perceived as important by any organisation that aspires to win in this sector. One must always understand people behind data to truly appreciate the sector’s dynamics. And the skills required from the staff of leading bars and restaurants are simply astounding.
Learning to deal with demanding patrons with a smile, playing tag team with your colleagues, and being on your feet all day in a fast-paced environment - while ensuring that you are at full capacity and maximise profit, takes a certain type of individual who has a genuine passion for the industry. Restaurants are not the place for solo performances because it takes great teamwork to deliver great service for business survival. For a customer to positively rate the venue, the food, the service, the ambience, the interaction with bartender and restaurant manager (pre and post visit) - everything must be exceptional.