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I love writing this column. I love food and wine and I love sharing my thoughts with all my wonderful readers. But I must admit, after seven years and nearly 300 articles, sometimes it becomes challenging conceiving of novel ideas to discuss. That’s when I realize that all I need to do for new material is go out to dinner. While I truly appreciate the nearly insurmountable task of maintaining quality and service at a restaurant, it’s this same insurmountability that causes many eateries to fall short of the mark and provide grist for the “Food for Thought” mill. Call me critical and cynical but someone has to counterbalance the Cindy Bradys of the world.
This past Valentine’s Day my wife and I, like countless others, went out to dinner. We gave substantial thought to where we wished to share what should be a very romantic meal. A primary consideration was trying someplace new. We decided on an upscale establishment advertised in a reputable magazine and given the thumbs up by a friend, a fellow foodie with a discriminating palate. Other than the watery, mawkish asparagus soup, littered with strange, texturally discordant particles, the food was good. The Achilles heel however, was that we were practically rushed out the door.
Almost immediately after being presented with the menu, we were approached for our order. I think I got in two sips of my wine before being solicited for our choices. I probably should have balked right there and then. I expected, as in most establishments of such cachet, that we would have a few relaxing moments to sample our Valentine’s elixir and ponder our choices. Then, no sooner had we finished one course, the next was arriving. No time for digesting, lazily imbibing the wine, and generally savoring the moment. Twice we were in the middle of a course, with food on the plate and fork in hand, when the staff asked if they could clear our plates. Interestingly, no one ever came to check on the food, only to remove it. Then strangely, the arrival of the entrée, (the fourth course), took a little longer, and by “longer” I mean what I consider to be a normal amount of time between courses. One of the staff approached us and apologized for the wait. He stated that there had been some kind of mix-up with the order which was causing the delay. Ha! And I thought my stern looks and rebuffing of the waiters for attempting to remove our food prematurely was heeded. I naively concluded that they got the message and put the brakes on their assembly-line service when in fact it was an error which retarded them to an appropriate pace. And that’s why I’m critical and cynical Cindy.
This restaurant has clearly lost touch with the concept of “dining.” An inherent aspect of dining, especially at an upscale establishment, is basking in the moment, gently and unhurriedly luxuriating not only in the food, but the overall experience. A considerate eatery realizes that the period between courses is integral to the overall encounter. These segues are a time to sip your beverage, converse with your companions, gaze into your partner’s eyes, make some room for the next offering, and in general, fully absorb the moment as well as the meal. This is particularly expected at a preeminent restaurant. Instead, I shelled out $175 to be expedited like I was at Burger King.
What this restaurant is endeavoring to do is “turn over tables” as we say in the restaurant business, or in other words, maximize their profit. It’s simple economics. The more parties that can be served per table in a meal period, the greater the sales volume. Not only does the restaurant squeeze more income out of their space, the servers are likewise motivated to glean more tips. This tactic only applies however when the restaurant is at or near capacity. There is no incentive to turn over tables when the facility is half empty since there is no one to fill the vacancies. On a side note, during most of our Valentine’s dinner there were eight empty tables for two thus rendering their “beat-the-clock” approach even less understandable. Maybe they had overbooked later in the evening.
In all fairness, all restaurants, from the cheapest to the most expensive must be conscious about table turnover. The food business is way too volatile to take a lackadaisical approach to table management. It would be financial suicide to allow guests to languish for inordinate amounts of time at a table that could generate additional sales. However, like most financial strategies, it’s a balancing act. If overdone, the law of diminishing returns rears its ugly head and the stratagem backfires. People do not want to be rushed through their dinner, especially at an expensive establishment or when it’s a special occasion and they want to savor the experience. This eatery’s world-record-breaking pace left a bad taste in my mouth and I doubt I will return.
As I’ve said countless times before, repeat business is the lifeblood of any restaurant. Short-term profiteering can affect long term returns, a concept that is even more vital to sustained financial success than table turnover. Restaurateurs who fail to take this into account are flirting with financial peril. Valentine’s Day is a holiday when many people who don’t normally go out to eat do so. Many of that clientele use the affair to try a new place. As the old adage professes, you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. I think an occasion known for increased dining out is an ideal opportunity for a restaurant to showcase itself to the public and reap some new business, specifically repeat business. Or they can rush patrons through and temporarily squeeze every nickel out of their real estate. Time will tell how many are willing to rush back in.