Opinion | Noma’s Failures Are the Restaurant Industry’s, Too

Food & Drinks /

I’m not the first to recognize the fallacies of our business model. Fast food, counter service and drive-throughs proliferate for a reason. Think about your region’s most noteworthy chef, the one with a James Beard Award and a custom apron. I bet at a certain point, after being anointed a creative genius by diners and journalists, your favorite magician decided to pull a burger joint, a taco shop or a fried chicken shack out of his or her toque.

I did it myself, twice. After five years, Chef & the Farmer had grown quite popular. We were about as busy as we could be, but staying open was a balancing act between making money and losing it. We had staff to promote to management but nowhere for them to go, so with a dose of hubris we opened a burger spot called the Boiler Room right across the street. Five more years later, we opened a pizza place more than an hour away.

For us, any culturally appropriate concept would have done as long as it involved less service, labor, square footage — really less of everything than its demanding, insatiable money pit of a big sister. All we needed was volume. The goal was to make enough profit from burgers and pizza to ensure the future of the mother ship, Chef & the Farmer. That’s a lot of investment to try to make money off the original.

Those efforts were measurable success stories. But opening new locations is soon met with diminishing returns. Resources get stretched. Morale wavers. The magic that kept the bad investment afloat the first time inevitably gets diluted. A growing restaurant group is made of stepsisters, black sheep and favorite children. Nobody goes to work for Vivian Howard so they can flip burgers at the Boiler Room.

There are alternatives. We could raise prices, but any price adjustment that would wholly fill the cracks in our foundation would be so high that it would drive customers away. Brunch, lunch or breakfast could also increase revenue. However, brunch and the like require staff who work for tips, which are never as rewarding when you’re serving eggs Benedict. And when people have the opportunity to eat in your restaurant for a lower price, they often do. That tends to be enough to satisfy someone’s taste for a while.

I love where the last 30 reckless years pushed the experience of dining out. But, in that time, our industry has failed to similarly push our business model to sustainability. To thrive, we have to start thinking like chefs in our offices as much as in our kitchens: Make the most out of the least and don’t waste anything.

I plan to reopen Chef & the Farmer in the next year. It will suit both the guests and the people who feed them. We won’t rely on the diners to pay servers; the chefs will serve, cafeteria style, at our retrofitted kitchen bar. The energy we put into elevated service and its trappings will flow directly into the only “program” we have chosen to keep — our food. Most important, we will open to diners just four days a week, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., because that’s the kind of schedule that nurtures staff retention.

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