at Illinois Restaurant Association's "Ask the Experts"
At an annual event packed with the cream of Chicago’s culinary crop, we explored the only questions that really matter to a restaurant operator: what is the secret to getting great and loyal customers — and staff — in the door and what inspires them to stay with you? Among our experts: Beverly Kim Clark, chef/owner, Parachute, listed in Bon Appetit’s Hot Ten and James Beard Award finalist for Best New Restaurant; Kimberly Galban, director of operations and managing partner, One Off Hospitality, who has managed some of Chicago’s finest restaurants; Shin Thompson, executive chef, Furious Spoon, with three wildly popular ramen concept restaurants in Chicago, and a fourth opening shortly.
SPEED ROUND 1: How do you attract customers?
Clark: It’s a small world now and people hear quickly if we give them a great experience and a value they can’t get anywhere else. Most important is your food has to wow them and be interesting, delicious; service needs to be kind, courteous, engaging, prompt. We change our menu quite often, and that takes a lot of work behind the scenes, but we also keep some items on there perpetually so people can return to their favorites as well as try something new.
Galban: Keeping your concept unique and quality-driven, ever-changing gets people through that door, but it’s all about the service you provide that gets them back. Know your guests, know their names. Our guests are like family at this point — we have guests who have met at our restaurants, gotten married at our restaurants and now bring their families to our restaurants. We haven’t started a loyalty program because we haven’t found one that would really appeal to our patrons. Our repeat guests would say ‘I don’t need a free sandwich, I come here because I enjoy myself.’
Thompson: Be able to describe your concept in five words or less so you can get your message across easily. Our concept is house-made ramen noodles and hip hop music. We do one thing and do it well, and we’re proud to have just six items on our menu – it’s difficult to market a wide range of foods without diluting them. The hip hop creates a fun atmosphere and lots of people love it. Others may not, but that’s ok. I’d rather have half love it than have everyone think we’re just ok. The ones who love it will be loyal and there for you all the time.
SPEED ROUND 2: What marketing tactics work best?
Clark: We use Instagram to show what’s going on inside the restaurant. But we realize the need to be up on all social media telling people our story rather than just letting others tell it for us. It’s also important to be open to all the different avenues to get your story out — talk at a panel, judge a competition, write an editorial in Eater.
Galban: Social media is a big driver, but we also depend on print media to drive a story. We generally stay with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but examine the customer and location demographics to determine the most appropriate platform.
Thompson: We do all kinds of PR and social media, but one of the cool things we’re offering now is noodle classes. We show customers the whole process of how we make them fresh every day at our shop, and how they might try it at home. It gives customers a real appreciation for what we do, and makes for a great outing.
SPEED ROUND 3: How do you hire and retain quality staff?
Clark: Communicate constantly, and provide a path for growth. We do check-ins with staff at three weeks, six months and a year, and if they indicate at that point they want to grow into something new, we create a development plan to help them achieve it. We also rotate positions so people are in every type of job, and are never bored.
Galban: We always say we won’t open a location unless we have the team behind it. All ideas from staff are encouraged, and we urge operators to view the restaurant as their own. In fact, we hope they go on to open a restaurant with us, or on their own. The dream for us is to promote from within. We stress working alongside your peers to become a family. In fact, many spouses and friends work together at our restaurants and that’s a real positive because oftentimes the best referrals are from your own staff.
Thompson: When interviewing, I always try to envision if I can see working with this person long term. It’s not foolproof, but it works pretty well. Keeping good people is tough, but it comes down to a culture that ensures proper training and coaching. Reach out every day to people you work with, and always consider what you as an employer can do to make your staff’s job easier. We have two reviews a year but we make sure our managers always have an open door so people can come to them at any time with concerns or ideas to make the shop run more efficiently.
SPEED ROUND 4: Your best piece of advice
Clark: Have a strong sense of who you are when you tell your story. For us, it’s the experience of creating great food that we love to eat. There were no Korean-American restaurants when I grew up, so we created the restaurant we wished would have existed.
Galban: Dial in on your concept and make sure you’re not trying to be everything to everyone. Ask: what is your central vision, what is your specialty, your signature? That’s your heart and soul. Don’t lose that.
Thompson: Make sure you are 100 percent confident in your products and service before you go to market. Is it really a product people want at a price they want to pay? Most people struggle with that part, because you have to consider it objectively and get opinions from hundreds of people first. If the answer is yes, go to the next step. Restaurants that struggle have fundamental problems like bad food or inconsistent service, so you need to be willing to hear some truths that can be hurtful and make the necessary changes.