Restaurant Efficiency

NOT just another restaurant review

Writing Menus Like A Journalist

Journalists are taught to speak clearly, directly, and with purpose. Chefs are taught to let their food speak for them. While a great dish can truly inspire even the most dormant of taste buds, this statement is not necessarily accurate.  Chefs do speak for their food – some do a better job than others – but all convey their food through the use of a menu. Though the menu may seem as a simple listing of facts, a good menu does so much more as it leads customers along the specific dining path the owner personally creates. The menu allows the chef or restaurant owner to direct customer spending in the way that best suits the restaurant’s interests. If used appropriately, the menu can act as the restaurant’s most efficient advertising platform.

Menu Copy

The way in which a menu describes a dish can move the hunger from a diner’s stomach to the eyes, and appealing copy can provide exceptional returns for a restaurant. Below, I describe how Nolita restaurant Osteria Morini expertly constructs their menu to not only attract the diner, but also to tell the diner what to order.

Speak plainly

This concept is particularly important when dealing with restaurants that specialize in foreign cuisines. In this case, the cuisine is authentic Italian. Osteria Morini uses the seductive quality of the Italian language to entice the diner with words such as “Pasta E Minestre Tipiche Romagnole” but is smart to translate in the less sensual but just as important description of “Traditional Pastas from Romagna.” In this way, the restaurant cleverly draws your eye with the new and different and then successfully keeps it there by providing an English translation. This combination of authentic Italian with plain English can spell dollars for the restaurant, as customers are more likely to take a chance with a new and exciting and likely expensive dish.

Speak directly and with purpose

To the less experienced restaurateur, it is difficult to constrain the delicious descriptions of a menu into just one page, but this component of menu planning is crucial. Just like a strong article, menus should welcome, not burden, the reader. The more copy on a menu, the more likely the diner is to become overwhelmed, and just pick one main dish at random. But a well-versed restaurateur knows this is not the way to a profitable business, as it is important to subconsciously suggest pairings and multiple (not one) dishes to a diner. Osteria expertly conveys this concept, in the way it breaks up its simple yet descriptive cuisine in its one page menu. It starts the eye on the left corner of the menu with the appetizers, ensuring that diners see this section instead of just flipping the page over to the entrée section. Then it moves the diner’s eye to the right, exposing the creamy pastas and polenta. Finally, it draws the eye down to the entrée section, which in itself, is compartmentalized by protein (meat, fish, and grilled meats). With this placement, the chef takes the diner’s eye through the culinary path of his choosing. By the end of this journey, the diner will have a clear idea of an appetizer and wine pairing, along with a pasta and complimentary protein, not of his choosing but that of the chef’s. The menu has effectively advertised and sold a 3-course meal to a diner simply by using concise language and appropriate product placement.

The Underdog

An entrepreneur once told me that the easiest way to own a failing business is to open a coffee shop. This comment got me thinking – why would running a hip café that sells sustainable coffee beans be such a terrible investment? Wouldn’t the caffeine practically sell itself? Well, let’s break down the business. Coffee Shop A opens early in the morning and continues to remain open late into the evening. This means several shifts, and a reliable staff is expensive. These baristas sell products such as cappuccinos and blueberry scones at $3-$5 price points. A patron then enters and indulges in a $3 cup of Joe and spends the next 3 hours studying for a Chemistry exam. At that rate, you earn $1/per customer/hour while spending $8/per barista/per hour (not including actual food costs). Not exactly a winning business model. This is not to say that no coffee shop can be successful. This is New York after all—where anything is possible, dreams come true, and even small, local coffee shops can turn extremely profitable returns. Let’s now break down an actual business, a coffee shop that has seen great success since its inception in 1996, The Grey Dog’s Coffee.

  • Specialization:   The creation of the assembly line highlighted the cost-cutting profitability of specialization, where people or machines would be responsible for a single part in the process of making the whole. Those with a comparative advantage in one thing – making latte’s for instance, would be solely responsible for producing drinks, and those with superior customer service but underwhelming culinary skills would only take food or drink orders. This division of labor allows each person to be the expert at one component of the operational flow. When each person is enacting a task they have the comparative advantage in, the establishment will not only increase production, but will increase output at more efficient rate yielding a lower cost. Through this division of labor and specialization, management can exploit their staff’s strengths in such a way that each worker maximizes the efficiency of each component in the operational process whether it is in a production plant or a restaurant dining area.
  • Ordering:  Grey Dog takes this basic economic concept and applies it towards their own seamless ordering process.  Customers are initially introduced by a greeter, who secures a table using a unique placeholder, such a bright bandana or chain, but does not actually escort the party to their seats. This saves time for the host who does not have to wait for a party to gather to their seats. Instead, he can quickly scan the establishment for more empty seats for the next party. The diners then proceed to the coffee bar where they place an order with the cashier instead of generically waiting for a waiter to take their order. The cashier electronically transmits food orders to the kitchen and drink orders to the baristas behind the bar. After only a few minutes, customers have a table and a warm drink in hand, just as they sign the check for their order. This operational flow saves the customer time because they need not wait for a waiter, and more importantly, it saves the restaurant money. During peak hours, Grey Dog only needs one cashier to takes orders and one or two baristas to make drinks instead of a team of waiters, cashiers, and baristas. This specialization from greeter, to cashier, to coffee maker makes the entire ordering process a tight operational production.  There is no need for a massive staff in order to facilitate movement, as the specialization process optimizes the efficiency of each staff member to the point of maximum utility. The efficiency means lower costs and happier clientele both of which add significant $$$ to a coffee shop’s profit margins.
  • Self-Service Dining:  Another unique way Grey Dog cuts costs and increases profitability is through the restaurant’s self-service type dining experience, at least in part. After diners place their order, they seat themselves based on the system of placeholders explained above and obtain their own set of silver wear, napkins, and condiments while they wait for food runners to bring their freshly prepared food. These “extras” that waiter would normally provide at a sit down establishment is left to the diners own discretion. Maybe one patron is content with a cup of coffee and chooses not to get water, and maybe one patron is especially thirsty and pours a large glass. Either way, these personal preferences are left to the person. In this way, Grey Dog can provide a menu, which offers both coffee and pricier café type entrees such as sandwiches and soups while applying an ordering scheme similar to a coffee shop that simply offers drinks and simple, inexpensive pastries. This operational scheme saves the restaurant a lot of money in terms of resources, as the owner need not pay staff to wait on tables.  Instead, they can invest in kitchen resources, foodstuffs, or simply rake in the profit margins.

Grey Dog has proved Adam Smith’s division of labor true through their own operational process and they have the profit to prove it. Since the coffee shop opened 15 years ago, Grey Dog opened two more busy and successful establishments in the village and SoHo. Through the restaurant’s ability to exploit their staff’s strengths, the management of Grey Dog has optimized the efficiency and profitability of their restaurant to appeal to both the thirsty consumer and the profit hungry investor.

The No Name Café

Last Friday night, I found myself with a craving for Latin Food, and an unwillingness to travel anywhere above Houston. With this in mind, I tried my luck at the small Latin eatery, Café Habana.  Unsurprisingly, my not so far travels were in vain, as the crowd had dispersed well into the Soho sidewalk. Not to be disheartened, I walked down Prince St. to discover another Latin menu with a Cuban flair. I tried to Yelp the place before officially walking inside but was at a loss for the name, as I searched for some type of identification on this restaurant. I could find no name on the side of the façade –or on the window’s menu—not even a clear greeting on the front door. Slightly frustrated but significantly hungry, I decided to give the café a shot regardless.

Fortunately for the establishment, I was pleasantly surprised with its interior organization. The hostess stand had a clear stance in the front of the restaurant (always a good start) with a likewise cheery hostess, who pointed to the convenient coat closet in the wall indent next to her. Points for a clear sense of entrance and for incorporating a seemingly unusable space in a very useful way. With high NYC rental rates, it is crucial to use any portion of restaurant space available. After I hung my puffy red coat, I noticed the long and narrow dining area. To be honest, I expected an odd floor plan, particularly in Soho. What I did not expect, was the restaurant’s optimal spatial organization. The narrow dining area was filled with many intimate tables for two next to an extended bar. Two person tables are key for this tight floor plan as they take up the least amount of space and can be combined to accommodate parties of 3 or 4. The extended bar was a particularly clever touch as diners could sit on both sides of the bar while still maintaining a table-like atmosphere and setting. This is ideal seating for large groups, who would otherwise exhaust the main dining space leaving it cramped and unpleasant. Instead, large groups get a comfortable and cool environment, as they are welcomed to a part of the restaurant otherwise unavailable to guests – the other side of the bar. This proximity to the bartender and actual bar area provides an environment that makes it easy for the wait staff to push drinks. And at $12 a cocktail, the drinks can really add up in terms of tips and revenue. So all-in-all, thumbs up to this seeming awkward café for a seamless use of  space.

As much as I wanted to love the café for its spatial efficiency, the restaurant still left much to be desired. Beyond, the restaurant’s lack of identification, the wait staff was not quite on par NYC standards, as I waited 15 minutes before I was greeted by my waitress. During that time, several different bus boys came by the table to refill the water glass, provide silverware, and present some quite yummy plantain chips. Yet, there was no introduction to the restaurant, the menu, or any evening. This is truly a missed opportunity for the staff to make contact with a new customer and to sell their certain items, whether it be an entrée, appetizer, or cocktail. While I waited for the waitress, I was left with plenty of time to pick out the restaurant’s negative aspects. My table had a quirky container of water paired with even funkier water glasses. This would be a great way to add to the restaurant’s identity and Latin influence if the busboy’s did not reach over the table to refill my glass ever few minutes. I was thirsty and the small glasses meant lots of refills. The use of busboy’s in this capacity is not only costly and a terrible use of resources, it also very burdensome to diners. After all, who wants someone interrupting the dining experience every few minutes for something as simple as a water refill? Let patron’s refill their own glasses. The reason a water bottle is kept on the table, so the table can decide when it is time to replenish the thirsts.

As I waited, I also made the effort to truly investigate the menu, which was far too complex and ill organized for the restaurant’s seemingly relaxed environment. The menu combined drinks and food and was at least 10 pages in length – much too long to entice the hungry diner. The restaurant should, instead, split their menu into separate food and drink menus. Specialty cocktails can remain on the food menu but it is unnecessary and confusing to keep a lengthy wine list next to the tapas selection. Confusing menus mean unhappy diners and that can lead to a loss in revenue or loss in potential revenue. For instance, tapas were on the menu and a great way to attract diners and dollars, as the small plates are less costly for the restaurant than entrees and are meant to be enjoyed with several other small plates. But if the tapas are hidden among a laundry list of wines, diners are less likely to order the dishes. Moral of the story – profitable menus need to be concise, clear, and attractive to the diners.

I established this impression all in the 15 minute wait for the waitress, and I was left unsure of the restaurants identity, roots, and point of view. I had no formal introduction by the wait staff, no idea of the name of the restaurant, and no clear picture of the restaurant’s dining style with the muddled menu. And although, the waitress proved to be quite a capable and pleasant personality and the food was nothing short of delicious, I left the restaurant with a lack of satisfaction. The beauty of New York is that dining is a way of life – a part of the city’s collective culture. The experience is just as important as the meal and this dining experience could have been enhanced with a few simple operational improvements from a more attentive wait staff that can market the restaurant, to a simpler menu that entices eaters, to an overall stronger sense of restaurant identity.

And for those still wondering, I did finally discover the restaurant’s name inside a handmade wooden cigar box, which held that night’s dinner bill at ‘Oficiana Latina.’


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