Amid the mountains of Aspen, Colorado, this year, Food & Wine magazine hosted the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen 2017 that draws in hundreds of restaurant industry professionals — and hungry diners follow to join in on the fun, too. We were fortunate enough to sit in on some of the trade programming that took place and featured industry luminaries from across the U.S. In case you missed out on some of the sessions, here are some key takeaways from the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen 2017.
Hospitality and culture should be your number one priority.
Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG) has always been at the forefront of hospitality and building strong employee culture. Andrew Zimmern, moderator of the “Cultivating Culture” panel at Food & Wine Classic in Aspen 2017, asked Meyer how he defines culture and how it affects his restaurants: “Culture is the way we do things around here. You have to work at creating an intentional culture. It is our responsibility to know our truth north — or what our values truly are.”
To contribute to the culture at USHG’s restaurants, Sabato Sagaria, the chief restaurant officer, has started passing out letters celebrating something they call “CDRs,” which stands for Caught Doing Right. Sagaria will go through all of the restaurants’ diner reviews and pull out the reviews in which the diner specifically praises an individual staff member. Then he shares this praise among all of their peers the next day with a letter including the written review. Instead of focusing on what they can become better at, USHG focuses on all of the talents of their staff and what they are doing right.
Bobby Stuckey of Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder explained, “Hospitality is not just a switch you can turn on — it’s something that you need to integrate everywhere.” His partner chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson continued, “When Bobby and I worked at The French Laundry together, we learned that hospitality was all about extraordinary generosity. It became all about the employees.”
Tip-included is still very much alive.
At USHG, they famously implemented a tip-included model, which the industry still seems to be wary of. However, at this group, they view it as a part of the culture of treating their staff with the utmost respect and generosity. Meyer stated, “How can you say that you are going to create a culture and team that puts your employees first but give all of your money to the offense and not the defense?” Another concern with tip-included service has been how it will affect the diner, but Meyer has seen that it doesn’t seem to be impacting guests as much as they initially thought it might. “There’s the initial sticker shock for the guests, but they get used to it and they like it,” he notes.
Sustainable farming is the future.
During the “Changing Culinary Landscapes” panel, Anya Fernald, founder and CEO of Belcampo, discussed the sustainable farming practices they implement on her farm. She says, “We built restaurants to make really good farming possible. The current model doesn’t really work. Only nine percent of a cow is steak that is typically eaten by the general public, but we use so much of the cow that we make about 15,000 dollars per cow. We need to help and support good quality producers achieve scale in this same way.”
The road to scale is education for farmers and butchers. “We need to legislate teaching skills back into the professional food industry,” Fernald continues, “My butchers know how to slaughter, cook, and serve parts of the beef that many others don’t know how to.” While many diners can be wary of eating these different cuts of beef because it’s not what they’re used to seeing on menus, Fernald has found that introducing a health connection between the diner and new cuts of beef encourages them to eat more of it. “Bone broth has become one of our main sources of revenue for Belcampo because we continue to educate our customers on the health benefits of the collagen found in the bone broth,” she reveals.
Even the number one restaurant in the world challenges itself to innovate.
For the unenlightened, Eleven Madison Park in New York landed at the very top of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017. On the “Adapt, Evolve, and Innovate” panel, moderator Curtis Stone asked Will Guidara, co-owner of the Make It Nice hospitality group (Eleven Madison Park, The NoMad), “When you get to the top, why close the best restaurant? Why evolve?” [Eleven Madison Park has recently closed to renovate]. Guidara responded, “‘Endless Reinvention’ is Eleven Madison Park’s motto. People hate change, but we hate complacency. Change can be uncomfortable, but we’ve continued to change over the years so we are more comfortable with it now. We believe that in order to be the greatest, you have to be authentic. We don’t want to serve an experience we wouldn’t want to experience ourselves.”
Authenticity = success.
Throughout the “Adapt, Evolve, and Innovate” discussion, all of the restaurateurs featured were adamant about remaining authentic. A few restaurateurs communicated that the essence of relevance is to let everyone engage and present ideas. New perspective allows you to maintain significance in the industry. It’s vital for hospitality professionals to keep their egos in check — and to keep listening.
More specifically, Alon Shaya (Domenica, Pizza Domenica, Shaya) used to care about fitting in, but his home education teacher changed his life and helped him get his first job cooking at an Italian restaurant. Shaya helped cook for those in need after Hurricane Katrina, and the experience made him realize that cooking was what made him truly happy. He later traveled to Italy to deepen his learning and returned to New Orleans to open Dominica. A year later, he opened Shaya in order to reconnect with himself and his roots. Overall, he stressed that it’s important to be authentic to you. Share that with the world and it will likely become relevant.