As proud sponsors of the Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Flavor conference, the OpenTable team spent last week up at the Greystone campus in Napa for a few days of discussion, demos, and culinary workshops. The theme of this year’s conference was “Casual By Design,” a nod to the proliferation of new casual concepts and formats being explored by some of the world’s best chefs and operators. Whether fine casual, upscale casual, street food or food halls, casual dining has never looked or tasted better — and we learned a few things about what’s giving this movement momentum. Here are seven tips and insights for success in today’s casual dining.
1. It’s not going away.
“Fine casual,” or whatever you want to call the intersection of quality and efficiency in food service, is here to stay, said Las Vegas restaurateur Elizabeth Blau. She insisted that casual was the reality of the restaurant industry today, between health care, real estate, and all of the other costs facing operators. But that’s an opportunity, too: “We can do something that’s a lot of fun and also make a profit.”
2. Show value in everything you do.
If you’re sourcing ingredients well and putting care into your operation, your prices will likely be higher than guests expect from a counter-service operation. At San Francisco’s Barzotto, Chef Michelle Minori and her team make everything in house in an open kitchen, using the best ingredients they can find. Their challenge is to control everything so they can keep price points lower, and actually over-deliver on expectations.
Joe Hargrave of Tacolicious explained the quality-efficiency balance colorfully: “Just because George Harrison didn’t have huge guitar riffs doesn’t mean he didn’t know how.” In other words, it’s not about showing off, it’s about doing what you do well.
3. Be willing to evolve.
Barzotto opened with a simple menu of five pastas. Sounds streamlined, right? But their sophisticated guests, especially their regulars, were getting bored. Minori shifted to a format where now 70% of her menu showcases consistent favorites, while the rest changes seasonally so customers can come back and try new things.
4. Achieve consistency if you want to scale.
On the flip side, San Francisco’s Souvla doesn’t ever change their menu — but they do operate three different locations now. So their challenge is of a different sort: how do you make sure guests are going to get the same chicken salad they love in each one? Blau added, “Often it’s not the guest who wants creativity, it’s us.” Be humble, and pay attention to what your guests are telling you.
That leads into her next point: to be successful in casual, it’s a good idea to create a concept that’s either very specific (i.e. Souvla’s limited menu) or all about customization (build-your-own, Chipotle-style models). “Pick a path and go for it.”
5. Forget the association between “ethnic” food and cheap eats.
In a conversation titled, “What’s next for Southern food?” John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance discussed the idea of “culinary racism” with a panel of chefs from the American South. As Eli Kirshtein, chef of The Luminary in Atlanta, explained, you can put a dish on the menu labeled “ember-cooked meat” and charge much more than you could for barbecue, even though it’s the exact same thing. It’s time for us, and for consumers, to shed their pre-conceived notions about what Vietnamese, Korean, or Mexican food should cost. If you’re sourcing high-quality ingredients and treating your employees well, you’re going to have a higher price point — period.
Asha Gomez, chef and author of the cookbook My Two Souths, had a $75 check average at her Indian-Southern restaurant Cardamom Hill. “It surprised people,” she said, but she was able to tell her and connect the dots for them in a way that they understand and embraced it.
6. Try to be many things to many people.
If you can create a concept that’s relevant to many different circumstances and times of day, you’re in luck, said Charles Bililies, owner of Souvla. Diners craving Souvla can order online and pick up, have food delivered, or invite a date to the restaurant and order a bottle of wine.
Similarly, Michael Fojtasek’s Austin restaurant Olamaie is a special-occasion Southern restaurant, the cuisine is rooted in nostalgia. “We try to serve food that people are surprised by, but that feels familiar,” he said. Olamaie serves a porch menu outside that offers a more casual representation of his food, including Talk of Texas pickled okra and a tasting of Southern hams.
7. Be nice, and be yourself.
Wearing a suit every day “kind of sucks,” said Hargrave. Why not wear a T-shirt instead? After opening and closing a fine-dining restaurant, he turned next to a more casual format because it felt more true to who he was as a person.
“The most important aspect of fine dining is being nice,” he added, not about serving on the left or what glassware you use — and kindness and efficiency lend themselves easily to casual. That sentiment was echoed by some other speakers over the course of the conference. Bililies keeps a sign on the wall that reads: “Make it nice & be nice.” He explained that working in fine dining, in environments where everyone was constantly striving for perfection and tended towards aggression, turned him into a person he didn’t want to be. “I wanted the opposite of that.”
Photos courtesy of Kristen Loken, The Culinary Institute of America