Truly Investing in Customer Experience
Customer satisfaction is the prime driver of growth in the restaurant industry. This is especially true in the modern age where a few unhappy reviews on sites like Yelp is enough to send your revenues into a tailspin.
When it comes to restaurant ethos, you could say that the tabletop is the heart of the dining experience. The dining atmosphere, the interaction with the serving staff, the food, the plating, the small, thoughtful details all meet here. As guests take in the pleasure of their interactions and their meals, the four corners of the tabletops tie the dining and hospitality experience together.
Whether restaurateurs stick closely to tradition or aim to completely rework the definition of tabletop design, their choices have an impact on diners’ perceptions of their restaurants. Diners looking for more of a relaxed atmosphere can find it reflected in casual, unfussy tableware. Those searching for an upscale, classic experience can find it in crisp linen tablecloths, ornate utensils, and impeccable tableware accessories.
Today, the average build out cost across the entire industry hovers somewhere just above $3000 per seat. It’s not uncommon for restaurants to focus the majority of their budgets on the back of house kitchen equipment and top of the line chef’s toys. The interior design plan for the dining room space usually gets allotted next. And while one might think that dinner plates, glassware, flatware, and table service accessories would be included in an interiors budget, more often than not, these most-customer-facing items are handled last, almost as an afterthought.
A minimalist setup has become more and more commonplace and is the easiest way to go for restaurateurs. Budget limitations combined with a desire to reduce distractions in the front of house often mean that restaurants opt for a table service style that leans toward simplicity. However, chefs will attempt to inspire the imaginations and whet the palates of diners from the moment they enter the dining room. By providing a blank canvas, restaurants can ignite a sense of wonder and anticipation. By a assembling a Jackson Pollock feast for the eyes, tabletop decor can surprise and entertain. Either way, the dining table, itself, is the stage on which the theater of food is animated.
Fine dining restaurants have traditionally kept tabletops unadorned, save for crisp linens or perhaps a cut flower or two. The experience of calm presence and joyful communion with each perfectly executed dish is emphasized above all else. In one specific case, however, being overly minimal can get in the way of common sense. It will always hold true that diners want to dine in an immaculately clean environment, no matter how many stars are behind the name. Patrons value thoughtfulness and cleanliness at every level of a restaurant’s design, service pattern, and place setting. The use of flatware rests would fit as well at Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée as they would at Outback Steakhouse.
In Chicago, the Michelin three-starred Alinea expands the notion of common sense into a philosophy — where form is quite literally function. Each and every utensil, presentation plate, and tableware accessory provided has been handcrafted and work-shopped for months in advance. The functional form is incorporated into the conception and composition of each dish and acts as an extension of the food, itself.
“We decided that anything and everything on the table, including decorative items, must serve a real culinary or experiential purpose,” says co-owner Nick Kokonas. Their “hot potato cold potato,” a hot potato morsel with a black truffle slice skewered over cold potato soup, is served in a wax bowl made daily by the same chef who prepares the dish. Their chocolate dessert is served directly onto a silicon tablecloth.
This level of attention to the food—accessory—sensory—experience must also be paid to front of house food safety programs in any restaurant. Building on the evidence presented throughout this website, there’s an element to the tabletop—utensil relationship that begs to be resolved. Diners want to experience luxury and pristine conditions in every facet of operations.
The concept of a flatware rest, as a luxurious way of showcasing cutlery and a scientifically backed barrier to contamination, is less of a novelty than a necessity. Even at Alinea, diners STILL contend with their natural, biological need to shield, protect, and elevate their eating utensils. Not addressing this psychological burden for diners is an oversight, which causes unnecessary distraction. Chefs work so hard to earn their guests’ singular focus and heightened mindfulness. Flatware rests should, in fact, be regarded as functional extensions of the flatware, itself.
When it comes to spending on customer experience, some restaurants put money into the big things, but it’s important to not overlook some of the small stuff. At New York’s Cote Korean Steakhouse, Simon Kim spent $250,000 on lighting for the restaurant, which was chosen as a design signature for his brand.
Designing spaces that customers actually want to get off the couch for and show up to experience in person has never been more critical than in the current climate of food service. In the new Postmates and Uber Eats reality, in-restaurant sales are consistently declining as publicly traded and venture capital-backed delivery companies are growing faster than ever. Maintaining business and attracting new guests amid challenging economic conditions means coming up with ways to differentiate time spent inside a restaurant versus time spent with just the food.
In the third quarter of 2017, in-store restaurant sales declined by 2.2% and in-store traffic fell as well, by 4.1%, the second-worst rates in over five years, according to TDn2K’s Restaurant Industry Snapshot. That said, Union Square Hospitality Group CEO, and force behind the world’s top restaurant Eleven Madison Park and the Shake Shack empire, Danny Meyer, has said that the future of in-restaurant dining is still rooted in our shared humanity and desire to connect.
It’s safe to say that Mr. Meyer has a reputation for sparing no expense when it comes to investing in customer experiences. With one of the most successful hospitality groups on the planet, his instinct for remembering all the big and small things has paid off.
It’s the little details that make customers feel particularly special. It builds trust, loyalty, and enthusiastic engagement between a restaurant and its guests. Diners notice everything. From the moment they walk through the doors, until the moment they sit down to write their blog or yelp review about the experience, diners are the food critics, journalists, photographers, and art directors of today. They’re looking to be WOWED. The investments made into giving them a memorable and elevated experience will pay dividends across all platforms of social media.