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Welcome to a Foodie Fantasy

Welcome to a Foodie Fantasy

Experts Share, Aspirants Listen, and Everyone’s Feeling the Love of the World’s Best Industry

For foodservice newbies and veterans alike, turning vision into brick and mortar reality is not easy, especially within the intimidating landscape of a top foodie town like Chicago.

But that only fuels Sam Toia’s mentoring soul. The impassioned president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA) recently created every operator’s dream scenario: a room filled with the cream of the city’s legendary crop of restaurateurs, industry gurus and top-tier professionals. Those individuals were not only prepped, but ready and willing to answer as many queries as can be packed into a series of intense, quarter-hour sessions.

Like speed dating for culinary entrepreneurs, the IRA’s “Meet the Experts” event stirred up many a scintillating dialogue and meaningful connection. As Kevin Boehm, co-founder of Boka Restaurant Group, home to some of Chicago’s most iconic chefs at Michelin-starred venues, wryly asked the food-savvy crowd: “Where were you guys 25 years ago when I needed you? This is an incredible opportunity to ask all the questions you want to go further in this industry. If you can’t get motivated in this town, you probably shouldn’t be in this business!”

Q: What should you consider before opening a new restaurant?

SOHN: What I set out to do with Hot Doug’s was create the restaurant I wanted to go to. My assumptions were that I was not unique and that I only needed to capture a tiny percentage of the population. I realized then you can’t be everything to everyone, if someone says ‘hey, why don’t you do this’ and you say ‘ok’ you’ve lost.

SINGH: Agreed. You can’t please everyone, so you need to identify and really understand your clientele base. But be realistic about the fact that if the number’s not big enough to support your overall business, you may need to change, because the situation will not.

BOEHM: Food, hospitality, design — all three are important to success. A unique design which has as many layers as your food keeps people interested and coming back. Take a long time to vet your recipes and be deliberate about the process because there are no second chances.

VAUGHN: Don’t spend all your money on the buildout. It’s essential to have enough capital to get you through the peaks and valleys of your first year as you build your name, and are able to accurately estimate and grow your daily volumes.

Q: What’s the most critical factor in driving traffic to a restaurant? Location? Service? Food? Celebrity chef? New concept?

SINGH: Traffic begins with the location first and foremost — you can’t beat a great location! Ideally you situate yourself where you can attract the after work crowd or tourists or neighborhood folks. We have an ideal site for Seven Lions, right across from the Art Institute on Michigan Avenue, but we needed to give people other reasons to seek out The Boardinghouse ... we made that about our James Beard-nominated chef (Tanya Baker), the incredible wine program, the ambience of a historic building.

MANILOW: I believe a restaurant needs a certain amount of soul to endure. Don’t just do what you think other people will like. Restaurants are a reflection of who’s behind it, and as long as they maintain their sincerity and deliver on their high standards, they’ll succeed.

MCEENERYy: Food quality, wine quality and service. We spend all of our energy on those, instead of gimmicks to drive people to our restaurant. On a daily basis, it’s all about the fundamentals, those win every time.

VAUGHN: Service is the number one way you keep people coming back. People will remember great service more than they’ll remember great food. In the recession era, we stressed discounts more to get people in the door, but now it’s all about the great experience they have when they’re here.

SORKIN: Although many believe location is key, to me it’s not. Do you want people to come to your restaurant because of where you’re located, or because they want your food? There wasn’t a lot of bbq in Chicago when we opened, so it was clear we were bringing something new. It’s all about the product and the experience you give people.

Q: So what’s the secret to great customer service?

SOHN: Treat people well, it should be like a little mini vacation when they come to your restaurant. You need to make it worth their while to come because there are certain factors you shouldn’t compete on, like price. I couldn’t sell my hot dogs cheaper than a chain, but I can create an atmosphere that makes people happy to pay a little more for my product.

COLLETTI: We try to create a feeling of great comfort by not overselling or upselling. Just about all restaurants take the opposite approach, but that’s our key philosophy.

LAPIDUS: I do not sell barbecue, I sell reasons to come back. All of our employees embody that value, from a 16-year-old girl at the front counter to managers in the kitchen. We do not have customers — they’re a transaction — we have clients for life. It’s not a huge science, but when you walk in, we smile at you, ask you how you are. Although we have a great menu, the food is almost secondary, it’s our service that brings people back.

SORKIN: We’re a bbq joint, no table service, so it may not seem like a place where you’d receive extraordinary service, but we try and build relationships with our customers and treat them like they’re in our house. One of the partners is always there, and stops by each table and makes them feel very welcome, asks what we can do for them, and they appreciate that we’re taking the time to do this.

Q: Has it become even more challenging to succeed in the restaurant industry in 2015?

SOHN: When I opened, social media did not exist and I couldn’t have been more fortunate in that regard. From when we first opened to a year later, we were two completely different restaurants. Owners don’t have that leeway now. When you open the doors you need to be ready and have it exactly the way you want. There’s a great deal of additional competition, higher stakes and bigger groups to compete against, who have more clout, PR dollars, extensive staff training programs, and can pick and choose their locations.

MANILOW: We see much more creativity now. Competition makes everyone better and you can’t just get away with offering what’s on trend because that comes and goes. Restaurant design is also hugely important now, and didn’t even exist a decade ago. And I’m not so sure food is the most important part of appealing to young diners, it’s the social experience that matters more.

Q: Your best advice to operators?

BOEHM: Find events like this one, ask lots of questions, and surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are.

SINGH: Realize that sometimes you’re not a good fit for a customer, their expectation level is not something you can deliver on. Maybe the restaurant’s too boisterous, or the layout doesn’t work well for them, or the menu doesn’t please. When you receive a negative review, it’s hard to accept, because as an owner, you want everyone to have a good time. Try to get in the right mindset and don’t let unfavorable reviews color the day’s interactions with your staff and customers, because they’ll pick up on it right away.

Q: How does an event like “Meet the Experts” strengthen our industry?

SOHN: The best we can all offer each other is our experience, but when you’re in the midst of the day- to-day grind, there’s no time. With an event like this, in ten minutes you can get your insurance question answered, learn about a product, get advice on any aspect of the industry.

SINGH: I always advise aspiring restaurant owners to do their homework, and I can’t think of a better place to start than with this unprecedented opportunity to tap into the experience of restaurant talent, attorneys, CPAs, PR professionals. This event is great for experienced owners too, to be able to ask others, ‘how are you handling the healthcare mandate, minimum wage, scarcity of good talent, etc.’ and get immediate feedback.

SORKIN: We’re all competitors on some level, but this is an incredibly friendly and supportive group of people. I talked to many restaurateurs when I opened up and they were rooting for my success. One of my first customers was long-time restaurant owner Ina Pinckney (Ina’s Restaurant), who took me under her wing and started giving me advice. This industry breeds that kind of camaraderie. If I can now share one thing that helps someone, I’m happy to do it.

TOIA: We have a real Midwestern personality. In Chicago our chefs and restaurant owners want everyone to succeed. We’re thrilled to bring everyone together and keep our industry flourishing ... communicating with each other is the key to success. Culinary tourism is soaring, and that’s true everywhere. Events like this help us grow the next generation of restaurateurs.

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