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The art of building a restaurant institution

Updated: Dec 4, 2023

Between 2002 and 2015 I ran a series of high profile, high pressure restaurants for the likes of Jeremy King, Heston Blumenthal and Daniel Boulud. All of which went on to become institutions in their own right.

All of these restaurants had a great offering, a desirable room and were effective from a service point of view. There are literally hundreds of restaurants across the city that deliver these elements very well. Only a few will be there in 20 years…

So what’s the secret?

A restaurant operator must be able to affect people. To do this, it must understand how people think and what moves them emotionally. Food, decor and service standards can and will affect people but over time they wane in importance as they become what’s expected.

A restaurant has to recognise that we, the guests, are human and deeply complex. We are sensitive, we bring our baggage, our ego, our need for feeling part of a tribe. A great operator needs to reach into that bag of psychological understanding.

When we attend a restaurant, at a fundamental level, we carry an expectation. Higher the expectation, higher the effort and attention to detail necessary. A great operator knows the individual’s expectation, which can vary greatly, and understands that a repeat visit is directly attributed to their ability to supersede it.

So how can a restaurant attend to each and every person’s individual expectation? Whilst achieving that 100% of the time may not be possible, to create an institution you must do this better than everyone else. Guests feel where you are on the scale.

Fortunately, there is some commonality in expectation. Most people want to be noticed and effort made to see them as a uniquely important. We deserve that as humans, don’t we? But especially as paying guests.

A great restaurant operator has strategies to make this happen. There are many touch point opportunities in a service to explore this and I’ll talk about some of the more nuanced examples in a future post. However, there is a very basic foundational strategy that has the power to significantly elevate the likelihood of a guest returning over time. That is to build the relationship, and that starts with using their name.

For something that seems so obvious, very few restaurants do this well. And why not? Well because it’s really hard to do consistently. Think about it. There’s every opportunity. Restaurants have all of the technology they need to support it, with or without the benefit of the same maître d'hôtel for 20 years.

Diligently using a guest names is a game changer. The operator immediately alters the interaction from one of faceless customer to uniquely important individual. What’s more, the use of name creates the opportunity to learn more and build the relationship further. It opens the door to a much deeper connection, built on trust, human to human connection, and catalyses that feeling of belonging, of being part of the tribe.

I’ve helped many high profile restaurant groups elevate their service through building meaningful relationships with guests. If you’d like to talk about how my mentorship and advisory services can help you level up your dining room to stand the test of time, get in touch.

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