Monday, July 30, 2012

Fall in Love with Old Cape Cod

Every summer, my family vacations on Cape Cod because, in the words of the old Patti Page song, we're “fond of sand dunes and salty air/Quaint little villages here and there....”  As anyone who has visited the area can tell you, behind each of those sand dunes stands a seemingly endless string of restaurants and clam shacks with identical menus and interchangeable names (Ahab's, Capt’n Parker's, The Yankee Clipper…).  Each establishment boasts “The Cape's Best Lobsters/Chowder/Fried Clams.”  You can almost imagine that every buttery lobster roll or fried seafood plate is cooked in the same gigantic kitchen.  

Yet, for all of their similarities, some of these spots thrive year after year while others last only to the end of the season.  Why do these restaurants have varying levels of success when they are all offering the exact same menu? The difference is in the execution:
  • The successful spots offer exceptional hospitality.  Note the smiling hosts, caring managers, and well-trained servers. At the shack with the longest line of diners, you never have to ask a sluggish waiter to wipe ketchup from the duct taped vinyl booth or to bring silverware with the meal.
  • Success is also based on operational systems that are simple and dependable.  Sunburned families can trust that their piping hot dinner will arrive at the table before the cranky younger cousin finishes a second baggie of oyster crackers.
  • The best restaurants are well-tended with clean rest rooms, new looking menu boards, and freshly painted trim.  Patrons aren't greeted by the unappetizing scent of cheap disinfectant, stale beer, old cooking oil, or the dreaded "fishy" smell.

Even in the most casual settings, the secrets to success in hospitality are not a mystery. Placing a premium on care, cleanliness, and consistency makes all the difference. The companies who do this are the most financially stable and earn an ever-growing fan base.

Having returned to Chicago some ten pounds heavier, I find myself dreaming of my loved ones, laughing around a table filled with succulent lobsters, a quahog or two, and a round of ice cold beer.  Patti Page was right:
If you spend an evening you'll want to stay
Watching the moonlight on Cape Cod Bay.
Let's Lobster Roll!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What's Next?

Grant Achatz is one of the most progressive and inspiring chefs in the world. Every few months, his restaurant, Next, changes its menu to reflect a new culinary theme. The same menu is served nightly throughout each period.  Thus far, Next has celebrated the cuisines of Escoffier and Ferran AdriĆ  of El Bulli, as well as Achatz’s own childhood reminiscences. Currently, Next pays homage to Sicilian food. Reviews of the restaurant are always incredible as is the long list of diners eager to spend hundreds of dollars to experience the creative menus and culinary wonders.

For all the acclaim the restaurant has garnered, however, the idea of regularly recreating the menu isn’t revolutionary to catering companies and our chefs.  We too serve different themed menus, except, rather than changing them seasonally, we do it constantly.  It is not unusual for a caterer to prepare anything from Mediterranean to Asian, Classic French to Texas BBQ…all in a single week!

There are other challenges unique to the catering world.  For example, while a fine dining restaurant serves dozens of guests at various intervals, caterers may be required to serve hundreds simultaneously on a strict timeline. Caterers are often responsible for designing different visual themes that may extend to equipment, decor, and even server uniforms. Add to that the challenges of producing events in historic venues, tiny galleries, private homes, or a tent under the stars, and you begin to understand how complicated the job of “Caterer” can be.

How many times have I heard catering chefs say they yearn for the familiar routine of working a restaurant line? How many times have I seen fine restaurant chefs, stripped of their normal surroundings and equipment, wrestling with their first off-premise event? Caterers should take heart! I believe that if you can master the off-premise event with its ever-changing demands, curve balls, and peculiarities of cooking and serving spaces, you are prepared to succeed in any hospitality setting.  Consider that you are positioned to be the industry’s “Next” big thing.