Thursday, January 15, 2009

Writing a Menu Entry (Carl Jr's Toilets NOT Bullet Proof)

The morning started with a review of food-related stories in the news. The NY Times featured a story about the French food critic Francois Simon, supposedly the model for the evil cartoon critic Anton Ego from Ratatouille, and how he cooked in a kitchen for a few days and allowed volunteers to critique his cooking (they were as vicious as he, unsurprisingly). In Park Slope, the Get Fresh Table & Market announced they would start table service for breakfast and brunch -- interesting, because they're initial concept was selling pre-portioned and processed ingredients in kits and the like to take home and cook yourself.

The 2nd Ave Deli, a favorite of mine and my father (and my friend Yana), is opening a new location on 1st Ave on the upper east side to be closer to the old folk clientele who complain that even their new location on 33rd and 3rd is too far. At least between 1st Ave and 3rd Ave, it averages out to 2nd! Richard closed the discussion with a few wacky stories, ending with a man who accidentally shot a toilet to pieces at a Carl Jr. in Utah as he was getting off the pot. It seemed he had a license to carry concealed, but not the common sense to keep the safety on while taking a crap!

We moved on to a menu work shop. Richard distributed a random menu to each table, and then we brainstormed and presented what we felt we knew about the restaurant strictly by the menu. My table got Outback Steakhouse, a pretty extreme example. The top of the cover has a drawing of what looks like a bouquet of tombstones, with the tag "Home of the Bloomin' Onion". Friendly, casual, tongue-in-cheek, between the 'G'day Mates' and the kangaroo, no Australian cliche will be left behind. On the inside, between the "Aussie-tizers" and the hand written typeface with a lot of exclamation points, this is clearly a "fun" child-friendly and child-like theme restaurant, with Crocodile Dundee as a key cultural touchstone. And yes, they will throw whatever you want 'on the barbie'. Ick.

After the break, we got into the nuts and bolts of writing a menu entry. A menu is the primary marketing tool of a restaurant, among other things -- and more often than not, there are no pictures, just written descriptions. To paraphrase an old saw, writing about aromas and taste is a bit like dancing about architecture.

Richard busted out some dos and don'ts. DO: Provide variety in method, ingredients and flavors. DON'T: use subjective terms (like a "USDA Prime" steak vs. a "tender steak"), mix and match within one menu item -- it's low rent and renders the item nebulous.

Richard gave the example of Burger King introducing "Extra Crispy Fries" a few years ago -- a massive flop. How crispy is extra crispy? Better to call the product "twice-fried fries" or something, promising a method rather than a final subject experience.

Any menu item can be built from a selection of five basic elements:
  • Temperature: the most optional, as many times people can assume
  • Method of Cooking: always, unless understood. A cake is not a 'baked cake', but if a piece of fish is deep fried, you better say it.
  • Main Ingredient: Introduce early on to establish value. "Grilled Shrimp with Pasta" is high value, but if the dish is a mound of pasta with some grilled shrimp on top, "Pasta with Grilled Shrimp" will less likely make the client feel ripped off.
  • Part: "Chicken Breast Panini" adds value to what is considered cheap meat. "Chicken Scrap Stew" does not.
  • Modifier: What makes the dish special, especially needed for classic dishes.
There are two kinds of modifiers:
  • Complimentary Modifier: Goes along with the natural property of the main ingredient. ex. white fish with lemon -- both are simple & clean.
  • Offset Modifier: Contrasts with the main ingredient. Ex. Duck L'Orange -- duck is gamy and fatty, the orange is fresh, sweet and acidic.
Richard further expounded on the different elements, showing how some words mean the same thing but sound more expensive. Chicken Breast vs. Breast of Chicken. Pan-fried vs. Sauteed. Chicken with Mushrooms vs. Organic Farm Raised Humanely Treated Hen with wild oyster mushrooms and truffles.

Class closed with a lecture from career services and the resources available to the student body. Monday is a holiday, people, so we'll continue next Wednesday. See ya!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Field Investigation Recap / Introduction to the Menu

The day started with each group getting up in front of the class and discussing the restaurants were were assigned to investigate. To recap, we were split into five small groups and sent out at the end of last class to check out local Italian eateries in the Chelsea area of Manhattan.

The content of the discussion centered around the three tenants of the concept statement: Design, Service, Food. From determining what these three elements were about, we took educated guesses about what these places did to be competitive; Chelsea has a LOAD of Italian eateries, multiple spots on each block. Here is a quick breakdown of what we looked at, and in italics how it differentiates themselves.
  • Da Umberto -- high end prices, clubby, hard to notice. Quiet date spot
  • Olive Garden -- illusion of a bargain, family-friendly, familiar to commuters and tourists. Safe & unchallenging
  • Le Zie -- Ugly decor. Inexpensive. Interesting, fresh menu. For locals
  • Il Bastardo -- Modern with nice traditional touches. Space to socialize & drink. Not-so-quiet date spot
  • Bar Baresco -- Very wine oriented, lots of small plates. Sit for a snack and a drink
My team covered the last one. The presentation in class was a bit of a practice in public speaking, and I ended up speaking for us. Since we were there when it was closed, my wife and I had lunch there yesterday. The food was good, but we were offered wine and opportunities multiple times -- at one point my wife mentioned her pregnancy to politely get the waiter to back down. That caught the attention of the class, a few murmured congratulations. Huh. There is something to this public speaking thing. After that little pregnancy-aside, they seemed more alert to my comments about the design of the bathrooms (individual rooms with mirrors on three walls for checking yourself out), the large backroom (which according to the waiter, used to be a disco back in the day) and the slightly loud Euro-disco music in the dining room (which would of probably evoked a stronger negative reaction from an older clientele.)

Second part of today's class was an introduction to the menu. As mentioned earlier, one of our texts is called Management by Menu, whose pretense is that all planning, design and strategy in starting and running a food service operation is determined first by the menu. Richard proposed the question: What does a menu tell you about a restaurant.
  • kind of food served
  • level of dining
  • clientele targeted
  • service level (depending on how simple or complex dishes are determines the amount of training both front and back of house staff need, as well as how much staff)
  • preview of the atmosphere and decor
  • beverage selection
  • operation information
  • expectations of how much time the client will spend (a snack joint is a quicker turn around than a fixed menu with 6 courses)
  • determines your equipment (a grilled steak will require a steak and....a grill)
  • food & beverage cost
  • space needed (expensive restaurants tend to give more wiggle room to each diner than a fast casual, which will pack 'em in)
A well designed menu is a key to success, in both it's content and graphic design. Richard quickly sketched two menus on the board. One was the proportion of an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper, the other was long and thin. The first had two dense columns of squiggles, the later a few small bunches of squiggles punctuated by spaces between them. From these basic sketches, we could infer that the first was from a lower-end place that could accommodate snackers and drinkers to a diner with a broad appetite, while the later was probably on the higher-end, demanding more of a commitment from the client in terms of time and money.

The class ended with another round of the mission statement workshop. Jazzman was absent, Pastry still hasn't written one, so we reviewed Northfork's statement again first, the coffee and gelato cafe in Long Island's Northfork. We bounced around the idea of the clientele's expectations -- if they are up there going to wineries, well, that's not kid friendly. Perhaps take the concept of the winery and transpose the coffee and gelato product on it? A flight of small tasting cups of coffee, matched with a flight of small tastes of gelato?

Then we got into mine, the first time it underwent the scrutiny of my fellow students, who seemed to dig it. While defending it and explaining it more thoroughly to Northfork, she said she started getting hungry for pizza -- I guess that's a compliment to me, that my enthusiasm got her motor running. Richard joined us and chimed in on my concept, giving some pointed (but always kindly) advice and pointers. I won't go into it here, but he did hint that opening a restaurant to create a reputation to market a pizza product on might be the way to go. I'm not surprised, as opening a restaurant is the whole gist of the program. However, there must be a way to make a reputation in pizza in ways other than just opening a storefront....maybe hooking up with a celebrity chef? Partnering with a known restaurant? Associating with another brand? His comments made me think, and will revise and add notes for tomorrow's class.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Introduction to the Menu / Mission Statement Workshop (Baresco, you're on notice!)

Richard started the day with 'Odds & Ends', where students speak of their restaurant experiences from the past weekend, through the filter of what we study. Russian Pam Anderson seems to go out a lot, late at night, with her husband -- they hit up Spice Market and Fig & Olive on different nights, both in the Meat Packing district. Other than being surprised by the lack of business they were doing on weekend nights around midnight, she was primarily annoyed by the 'small plates' of F&O being too much food -- no one likes to over-order.

The Ramen Kid described waiting for 2 hours to get a seat at a hot ramen bar, and drank a lot of sake in their bar while waiting. The advantage of hype -- people are not only happy to wait for a table, they spend on high-profit booze and the line itself becomes a sort of advertisement for others.

Whitey Sushi Cook described a dinner at a high-end sushi joint that offered nothing by way of dessert -- that annoyed Richard, as it's such an apparent way of pulling in a chunk of cash easily, particularly when the restaurant is not busy and you don't need to vacate the table. I chimed in, as I went to Korean BBQ with my friend K this past weekend -- I never get dessert at Asian joints, but she was in the need for a sweet and ended up getting the ONE thing they had for dessert -- red bean ice cream. It was good, but still. They were in a big hurry to get us out of there, there was a line.

I spoke of my recent experience at Batali's Otto -- the cold temp, the distracted waitress, the over-cheesed and poorly-made pizza. The professor said that underlined the fact that most people don't know what good food is -- places with a name like Batali can get away with sub-standard food because people just assume it must be good because of the media cloud. Richard went on a bit about the design of the restaurant -- the front is a very elegant bar...that is almost all standing room. They can pack in a lot of people for those high-profit drinks. Looking from the bar, you see a long dining room, with tables to the left and right, all spaced pleasantly with lots of room to move. However, when you pass through, there is the main dining room, with its smaller tables, chairs that bump up next to your neighbors, and waiters who must serve from only one spot at the table because theres no space to get in there.

Our introduction to the menu was not what I expected. It started with a simple question:

Why do people go out to eat?

Here is what the class threw out, in no particular order:
  • Do not have to/want to/able to/no time to cook
  • Special occasion
  • Socialize
  • Convenience
  • To be served
  • Entertainment (or as some restaurant reviewer once coined, "Dine-utainment")
  • No equipment (Pepe's in New Haven has a coal-burning oven, I do not)
  • At work
  • For a business meeting
  • Travelling/touring
  • Exploring a different cuisine
  • Killing time
  • Get out of the apartment
  • To be in a warm/cool room
  • Seems like it's cheaper (though even with the cheapest places, it's usually not if you really know how to cook.)
And two things that the professor pointed out that we did not mention:
  • Hungry
  • Nutrition
If your going to try to meet the needs of your clients, your concept should focus on the first list. If you think your client is coming to your restaurant mainly because they are hungry and seek nutrition, you're most likely going to be derailed by everything else that goes into how one chooses a restaurant....

And the next question was:

Why do you choose one restaurant over another?
  • Convenience
  • Cost/value
  • Location
  • Consistency/reliability
  • Perks/promotions
  • Food quality/quantity
  • Service & staff
  • Ambiance & decor
  • Recommendation
  • Beverage selection
  • Sanitation
  • Habit
  • See & be seen
  • Entertainment value
All these factors serve to make a restaurant competitive. Richard again pointed out that food is just one of many factors -- in most cases, it's not the factor that makes you competitive. In fact, it's more likely to hold you back. When thinking of a strategy for long term competitiveness, certain things will serve you better than others. Being cheap is not particularly effective, as shown by the fast food price wars started by Wendy's then mimicked by all the chains. Burger King's flame-broiling over McDonalds, now there is a factor that would be neither cheap nor easy for a competitor to take over. As is Lombardi's coal-burning pizza oven.

Next up was more Mission Statement Workshop. We each introduced our statement at the table and chose which one to pick apart. Both Jazzman and Pastry didn't write one: dudes, why are you spending your time and money here if you're not going to do the work? Chicagoette had semi-formed statement about a Mexican-themed home style restaurant, and I presented my statement about my pizza product, but took it off the table as not being a restaurant (and felt a bit egotistical to put it forward, as no one else seemed to want to lead the table.) Lenin-Pisser had switched seats with Northfork, a blonde lady with a mission statement about a coffee/gelato cafe attached to an (already existing) artisinal coffee roaster on the Northfork of Long Island. That makes me a little excited because B 'n me have been spending vacation time on the Northfork since we met, so maybe forging a new connection with it could be really cool.

Professor opened up talk to pick apart the other groups. Russian Pam Anderson had an idea for a Mediterranean wine bar in the west village, which sounded like a strong concept but her grammar was lacking a bit. Whitey Sushi Cook had an idea for a sake-smoking bar, which Richard pretty much shot down from the start as being illegal in NYC, where the statement said it was to be. The smoking restaurants that were grandfathered in after the smoking ban will be losing their smoking rights soon, and the legal trickery needed to open a smoking restaurant makes it nearly impossible now.

I asked the professor for his view on the effect of the smoking ban in bars and restaurants in NYC, and he said it was exactly as predicted: there was a small dip in customers briefly, but soon came back stronger than before and stayed that way. Proof positive that the bottom line is that there are more non-smokers who like to go out than smokers, but non-smoker's behavior don't make smokers want to stay home or leave early.

We spent the last half-hour broken up into random groups and were then sent out to explore some assigned Italian restaurants in the neighborhood. On Wednesday we'll reconvene with notes, and write concept statements for them. Problem is, at 11am on a frigid Monday, any restaurant that doesn't do a breakfast service is very closed. Bar Baresco looks very nice from the outside, with nice modern leather-backed seats, but I'll just have to hit it up tomorrow for a meal with the wifey. Bar Baresco, look out, I'm comin' to student-review you!