One of the main issues faced by any budding restaurant operation can be the most challenging, controversial and oft-criticized or loved aspect of the entire business. It is the pride or bane of the place, often within the same day, and it is the post on which the entire hat of the business rests.
It is, of course, The Menu.
Even places that declare themselves to be, say, an Italian place or a Thai restaurant have the same issues as those with less ethnic fare, albeit in a tighter realm. Food from Northern or Southern Italy? Do we go with authentic regional dishes from a specific part of Thailand or do we Americanize things and go for a more pan-Asian approach? This is where those new to the business face special challenges, since they too often try to go with a broad menu that tries to please everybody but really pleases nobody. They wind up with a menu is biblically long and clutters the kitchen with way more inventory than is practical or usable until too much starts to spoil and they have to throw it out, which is costly.
In one of last year’s columns, I dealt with the idea of how a restaurant has to choose its customers as much as inviting the customer to choose it. The owner has to look at a series of things, such as nearby parking, demographics of the neighborhood, surrounding traffic patterns and the like. He/she also has to understand that all the free “advice” coming from friends and neighbors is pretty much worth what is being paid for it.
So-called “destination” restaurants are very, very rare, particularly in the New Orleans area. There is simply too much good food available nearby for most customers to want to drive specifically from, say, Kenner to the French Quarter just to eat – unless there is a particular event attached to the going. The reverse is even more true – Orleans Parish residents are loathe to drive to Kenner or, particularly, the Northshore to eat unless they have another reason for going that way. There’s simply no need.
Once a place decides on a general food approach, there are further specifics to be addressed. Pretty much anyplace is going to have to offer at least some vegetarian options and likely something gluten-free. Unless the place is licensed as a bar and has poker machines out in front of everyone, there will also be a kids menu or at least some things that can be made so. A seafood place will have to offer some non-seafood items. A burger place will have to offer some lighter fare, for instance, since not everyone in a four-top can or wants to eat the same thing.
It is, to a degree, like playing three-dimensional chess. Another layer would be where the target customers live and how much tourist traffic can be reasonably expected. A menu tailored to those living mostly in, say, Metairie will be different than one aimed at those in the Lower Garden District. A place in the CBD, which pulls the work crowd in from all over the metro area on workdays, has to decide if it’s even worth staying open after 4pm.
Breakfast is another issue. I know from experience that everyone says they want breakfast available, sometimes at 3pm in this town. This is appealing to an owner, since breakfast is usually a high-profit meal. But the reality is unless a place specializes in breakfast, it usually only draws a crowd on weekends.
Even when a menu is in place, it has to change periodically to reflect customer demand and inventory realities. It is constantly subject to various tweaks as certain things go in and out of season and/or as prices change.
I’ve been dealing with this quite a bit lately as we work out the kinks. It’s fun but sometimes frustrating, since there are many issues to put in balance as we come up to speed. The key is to listen to customers and to observe habits and patterns.
…but mostly, it’s a case of knowing when to go with your gut. After all, that’s what we’re feeding.
Craig Giesecke has been a broadcaster and journalist for over 30 years, including nearly two decades at the AP and UPI covering news, sports, politics, food and travel. He has been the owner of J’anita’s for five years, serving well-reviewed upscale bar food and other dishes, and is now banquet and special event chef at the Warehouse Grille. Comments are encouraged and welcomed.