Thursday, 6 November 2014

We need to talk about fraud.

It's an awkward subject that few people like to think or talk about but, if you operate a business, it is essential that you do.

Statistics show that employee fraud is the most common type, and that cash businesses are most susceptible. There are certain controls which can minimise the risk, and in my experience, it is an area where restaurants are particularly weak.

I've come across employee fraud whilst working on company audits, and I've experienced it first hand when I was in the restaurant business. Without the correct controls in place, I may never have detected it and would have continued on in blissful ignorance. I know that many restaurants out there exist in this state.

If you own a restaurant, then as an absolute minimum, you should:

  • Accept that fraud exists and could occur
  • Implement strong controls and procedures
  • Continuously monitor and control activities 
  • Ensure there is clear segregation of duties so that no person is in a position to commit fraud, then cover it up.

I once worked with a client in the U.S who operated bars and restaurants. Initially, he had a major issue with me suggesting that if he didn't know whether his staff were committing fraud, then they almost certainly were. 

Over time, when this proved to be the case, he was extremely upset that the person he trusted most was stealing from him. The experience completely changed the way he operated his business, and with the implementation of a few simple controls, he had the peace of mind that his exposure was greatly reduced. 

It is very difficult to completely eliminate fraud but the risk can certainly be minimised. In my experience, although all situations are different, the following common threads exist in most cases of employee fraud in restaurants.

  • No controls exist or they are weak and inadequate 
  • Employees are poorly managed and/or poorly treated
  • Trusted members of staff have unresolved personal issues such as addiction etc. This is often completely covered up.

So the message is clear. As unpalatable as it may sound, if you operate a restaurant, you are already in a high risk business for employee fraud. If the opportunity exists for your employees to commit fraud, then it is quite likely that it is happening. 

If you would like advice on fraud detection and prevention, please email me.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Memorable Meals - Part 2

No doubt you've all been on tenterhooks awaiting my top two most memorable meals, so here goes! 

2. The Sportsman, Kent, England 2008

It was quite literally a toss of a coin between this meal and the number 1.

Faversham is and hour or so from London Victoria on the train, and a further 20 minutes by taxi takes you Seasalter on the Kent coast. It may seem like a lot of hassle for a pub lunch, but this is no ordinary pub.

The Sportsman, on the face of it, is a modest old boozer located right on the beach facing into the North Sea. It is surrounded by marsh where the lambs they serve graze happily. This is one of the key features of Stephen Harris's cooking. The ingredients he uses are literally on his doorstep and are some of the best you will find anywhere in the world.
The Sportsman, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent.
When compared to some of the more elaborate meals I've enjoyed, the cooking at The Sportsman may seem simple. The acid test for me though, is that six years later I still remember every bite of every dish as if I tasted it yesterday. 

Their tasting menu is available only on weekdays and as we were there on a Saturday, we chose off the á la carte. To start, I ate one of the best dishes I've ever tasted. Their spider crab risotto packs an incredibly intense shellfish flavour from the brown meat, offset by mild sweetness of fresh white meat. The balance of salt, savour, sweetness and the almost bitter intensity results in a flavour hit that is not easily forgotten.

Spider crab risotto at The Sportsman, Kent
The food here is very much produce driven and the abundance of seafood on their doorstep means the ingredient quality is spectacular. My main course of grilled slip sole with seaweed butter needed nothing else. Perfectly cooked fish less than three hours old with a sauce which enhanced it's subtle flavour. Seems simple, but I've never encountered anything like it before or since. 

Sole with seaweed butter at The Sportsman, Kent

Meat dishes and desserts proved to be at the same impeccable standard as the fish, and the atmosphere was so warm and welcoming that it was a wrench to head off for our train. 

They make their own butter, ham, chorizo, salt & cheese, among other things. These guys were creating menus from local, sustainable ingredients years before Noma made the concept fashionable. 

The Sportsman won a richly deserved Michelin star a few years ago. On the basis that two stars are awarded for food which is worth a special journey, I can't think of a more fitting candidate.

1. Mugaritz, Errentia, Spain 2009

There are few high end restaurants in the world that divide opinion quite like Mugaritz. It seems that people either love it or hate it. As you can probably guess, we loved it.

San Sebastian is one of my favourite places on the planet, and a great destination for a short break. Whether it's the superb pintxo bars of the old town or any one of the plethora or multi starred restaurants, it's a must visit for food and wine lovers.

Mugaritz is located outside the town of Errentia, about 20 minutes by taxi from the city. The quiet farmhouse type location gives little away about the cutting edge molecular gastronomy going on inside. 
The exterior of Mugaritz, Errentia, Spain.
Before dinner we had champagne and snacks in the garden and were immediately impressed by the staff. Although extremely professional, they were relaxed and seemed to really enjoy their work. After their signature "edible stones" with aioli, we were shown into the calm, yet impressive dining room.
"Edible stones" at Mugaritz
The dining room at Mugaritz
We chose one of their tasting menus with matching wines and settled in for what was to be a stellar experience from start to finish. The professional yet friendly service continued throughout and the staff made us feel like they sincerely wanted us to have a night to remember.

Chef Andoni Adriuz is a disciple of El Bulli and since he opened Mugaritz in 1998 has pushed the boundaries of modern cuisine. His techniques are widely used now but he has continued to evolve and is still at the forefront of his genre. 

What impressed us most about his cooking was that in addition to being visibly spectacular, the flavours were bold and delicious. This was no exercise in style over substance.

Every morsel we ate surprised and delighted us in equal measure,  but a couple of dishes stand out in my mind. A "surf and turf" of sorts using crayfish, pig tails and Iberico ham was a carnival of flavour & texture, and their signature chocolate dish was the best I've ever tasted. 

Pork & crayfish at Mugaritz
The signature "Chocolate Bubbles" dessert at Mugaritz
There was a playful side to some of the dishes with items on the plate turning out to be radically different than they appeared. This created an interaction between staff and guests and helped foster the relaxed and convivial atmosphere. 

On a tour of the kitchen I will never forget how calm and quiet it was, especially given the number of chefs. Mugaritz seems like a great place to work, and Andoni Adriuz seems like a genuinely nice man. In my opinion, this is one of the key factors which made our experience so unforgettable.

As I mentioned at the outset, the most memorable meals are usually the result of multiple factors falling into place, but at the core of every single one are the basics....great food & service. Trends may come and go, but these fundamentals will never go out of fashion.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Memorable Meals

What makes a meal memorable? I've pondered this question for years and have yet to come up with a definitive answer. From the time we were old enough, my significant other and I worked, saved, travelled and dined. She is still putting up with me some 24 years later, and we've clocked up a lot of great meals in that time.

For me, there are a lot of variables which contribute towards a memorable dining experience. Context and expectation are certainly key factors, as is the mood of the diner. For example, the same plate of jamon and olives is likely to taste infinitely better with a warm Spanish breeze in your face than on a rainy Tuesday somewhere off the M50! Also, when dining whilst on holiday, you are more likely to be relaxed and overlook small issues that may irritate more easily if you had to be up for work in the morning.

Over the course of this post and the next, I will attempt to list my top 5 most memorable meals, in reverse order. It's a bit like naming your favourite albums, in that it could change easily depending on how you feel at a particular time. I've eaten some simple meals that have personal significance and are memorable for reasons far beyond what is on the plate. A tomato bruschetta in San Gimignano springs to mind. For that reason, I've tried to pick meals where the food was at a similar level, and the overall experience was very special. As rough criteria go, it's the best I can come up with!

So here goes....before I change my mind again.

5. Thorntons, Portobello, Dublin 2001

Before moving to The Fitzwilliam Hotel, Thorntons were located on the canal at Portobello. At the time, the front of house was headed up by Olivier Meisonnave more recently of Dax. A young Graham Neville, currently head chef at Restaurant 41 was behind the stove. 

Thorntons Portobello : First 2* in Ireland. Source - Thorntons Website

The restaurant had just won it's second Michelin star, the first in Ireland to do so, and we went to celebrate our anniversary. 

It was one of those perfect nights where the planets lined up, and everything fell into place. We ordered the tasting menu and as we knew Kevin & Muriel, a couple of extra courses arrived from the kitchen. The food and service were at a level we had never experienced in Ireland before. The stand-out dish that lingers long in the memory was scallops & foie gras with ceps and black truffle. In the wrong hands it could have been overpowering, instead it was flawless cooking and the perfect balance of rich and delicate. 

Kevin Thornton is one of the best Irish chefs of all time and anyone who is interested in food but has not experienced Kevin's cooking, should put that right as soon as possible.

4. El Cellar de Can Roca, Girona, Spain 2010

We went to Girona for a weekend on the recommendation of our friend and food journalist, Corinna Hardgrave. At the time, Can Roca had 2 Michelin stars and were pushing hard for a third. Since then, they've gone on to reach 3* and No. 1 in the World 50 Best.

The earliest reservation they accept is 9pm and it was unusual to be only diners in the room at 9.05pm...especially with a long, multi-course menu to come. They had a choice of three tasting menus, which by international standards were cracking value. From memory, the one we chose was 10 courses plus extras for about €100.

Dinner started with a bonsai olive tree being wheeled to the table. Hanging from the tree were caramelised olives stuffed with anchovy gel. The slight crack of the coating yielded an umami hit of warm anchovy that kick-started the taste buds into life. This was followed by a series of snacks before the first course from the menu arrived.

Over the next four hours, we enjoyed course after course of technically perfect, beautifully balanced food. As with most tasting menus, some dishes stood out more than others and even now I remember the sole. It was deceptively simple yet near perfection. Immaculate fish coupled with strong flavours that managed to elevate but not overpower.  

Sole with Mediterranean flavours at El Cellar de Can Roca

The restaurant is located in an unassuming suburb of Girona but once inside the gate, the stunning courtyard building and cool, contemporary setting set the tone for a very special experience.

The stunning dining room at El Cellar de Can Roca
Obviously this is very much a special occasion destination and for most people, myself included, probably a once in a lifetime meal. If the opportunity ever comes your way...grab it with both hands.

3. Gregan's Castle, County Clare, 2010

I'd never heard of Gregan's Castle until friends of ours, who really know their stuff, raved about the food. County Clare is one our favourite places in the world so we needed little persuasion to hit the M7.

The hotel has real charm and we immediately felt at ease. We'd been advised that in order to really experience the talent of chef Mickael Viljanen, we should opt for the tasting menu. 

Gregans Castle Hotel, Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare

When we took our seats in the modest dining room, it was difficult to foresee the gastronomic treats which lay ahead. 
The savoury beetroot meringues with smoked eel set the tone for what was to be a game changing dinner. 

Much of the cooking was rooted in the French classics but the techniques and processes were like nothing we'd seen in Ireland before. Every dish managed to be original and inventive, but most importantly, the flavours worked and each mouthful was utterly delicious. It's rare to find a tasting menu without a single bum note, but this was flawless.

Mickael Viljanen's cooking - Inventive, modern, but always delicious
Mickael has since departed the Burren for The Greenhouse in Dublin and continues to push boundries. For my money, he's the most talented chef working in Ireland at the moment. 

I'm going to wrap up this post now as it's getting a bit long. Stay tuned for the next post which will follow shortly, and feature my top two most memorable meals. 

Monday, 6 October 2014

The facts about restaurant no-shows

I started working in a restaurant at weekends and school holidays when I was 15 years old. It may come as a surprise to some given my *ahem* youthful appearance, that this was all of 27 years ago!

The problem of people making bookings, confirming on the day, and then not turning up, was as big a problem then as it is now.  The difference now is that it gets reported more thanks to social media. This may just prove to be an important factor in reducing the problem over the long term.

The first reaction of most people when they hear about it is "why not take credit cards and charge a fee for no-shows?" This is a perfectly reasonable suggestion but difficult to implement in practice here. The reason is that there are specific economic factors which need to exist in order for this to succeed. Demand must exceed supply. This is the case at Christmas time which enables restaurants to requests deposits and credit card confirmations.

My own view is that we do not have a large enough pool of diners in this country, nor do we have a sufficiently well developed culture of dining out. It has certainly improved but I still think that too many Irish diners are indifferent about their choice of restaurant. Price is the biggest driver for many.

Like most restaurants, we had a big issue with no-shows in Alexis. We decided to pilot a scheme for four weeks in 2011 to try combat the problem. We planned to take credit card details with every booking and charge a fee of €25 per person for confirmed bookings that were unfulfilled. It was a spectacular failure and we abandoned it after two weeks. We found that regular customers only very reluctantly gave their details, while others were outraged and simply went elsewhere. It appeared that we succeeded only in getting our customers' backs up.

I've read a few suggestions on Twitter and various other media recently about what can be done to eradicate the problem here. Most are unworkable, mainly for the reasons outlined above. International destination restaurants such as Grant Achatz's Next in Chicago can get away with selling tickets. I suspect that Irish restaurants fighting for business to survive would have a harder job.

So what can be done to solve the problem in Ireland? I don't believe there is any one "quick fix" solution. In my opinion, the best chance of reducing no-shows in the long term in education. The more the issue gets highlighted in social and mainstream media, and people become aware how damaging it is for small businesses, the better chance of it eventually becoming frowned upon and socially unacceptable. 

In the meantime, restaurants can look to take credit card details for peak times like Saturday nights to ease the burden. In addition, they can over book to compensate for inevitable no-shows. This has to be carefully managed however, and must never penalise guests who arrive on time for their reservation.

The restaurant business is tough enough without having to deal with this unnecessary and avoidable problem. Genuine issues can always arise, but in many cases it is caused by people either staying in the pub or else booking several restaurants and deciding last minute which one to go to. 

Every time I read restaurants tweeting about it, I remember how disheartening it was. It's one of the very few things I don't miss about the business.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Bloggers ; No rights without responsibility

My last post seems to have upset a few people. I received a lot of emails and messages about it, many of them from bloggers. They ranged from mildly miffed to incandescent with rage, the majority falling somewhere in between.

On foot of the apparent confusion about the points I was trying to make, I thought I'd clarify my position. 

The relationship between bloggers and restaurants has changed considerably over the last few years. In the UK it is not unusual for food bloggers to be flown off to exotic cities and destinations in return for reviews of their experience. This practice operates on a smaller scale here, with bloggers mainly being invited to dine in restaurants in return for a review. 

I can see all sides of this relationship as I organise PR events for some clients, I used to operate a restaurant, and now I write a blog.

I have no difficulty with bloggers being invited to restaurants or events. If I invite bloggers to an event, I do so with a completely open mind. If they attend, enjoy themselves, and write a good review, that's the best case scenario. If they do not enjoy themselves, then I would have no issue whatsoever with them expressing that view on their blog. I have far more respect for those who give their honest opinion.

I believe strongly that in order to exercise your right to express your opinions on a public forum, you are duty bound to be honest. You should also declare that you are an invited guest. People may rely on the information you provide, so as a minimum you should be truthful. 

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence about bloggers approaching restaurants looking for payment in return for a positive review. The reverse also seems to happen. Either way, both parties should hang their heads in shame. 

I know from experience that there are PR companies out there offering x amount of positive reviews on Trip Advisor as part of their package. They should also be ashamed of themselves.

In summary, if you have a blog, the absolute minimum people have a right to expect, is that you declare when you are an invited guest and that your opinions are honest. If they are well written and well informed, then so much the better. 

Hopefully this clears up my position on the matter. Please feel to use the comment function below or email me on if you wish to share your views.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Everyone's a Restaurant Critic...

It would appear these days that no matter where you are in Ireland, if you throw a stone, you'll hit a restaurant critic. The spawning of myriad blogs and review sites has meant every man and his dog now has an opinion, and isn't afraid to use it. I say this without any hint of irony! 

For my money, those reviewing restaurants in this country can be broadly categorised as follows:

  • Professional critics with a good enough knowledge of food, wine & restaurants to write about the subject.
  • Professional critics with sketchy knowledge who could just as easily be writing about travel or gardening.
  • Bloggers with a good enough knowledge of food, wine & restaurants to write about the subject.
  • Bloggers who like going out but don't know very much at all about food, wine or restaurants.
  • Joe Public keyboard warriors who can't wait to get home from a restaurant to fire up Trip Advisor or Yelp.

Let's start with the professionals. Like any profession, some are stronger than others in their chosen field. It should be borne in mind that the role of a professional critic is to write entertaining copy as much as express their opinions. 

We have some excellent critics here but I certainly enjoy the writing of some more than others, even if I don't always agree with their opinions. Some I don't bother reading at all. I was once asked by a professional critic if they could have their beef cheek cooked medium with the "gravy" on the side. Safe to say they fall into category two above.

Blogs in the UK have emerged as a very powerful force in the industry. Bloggers such as Elizabeth on Food and Andy Hayler are taken every bit as seriously by top restaurants, as any of the major print media critics. 

We don't have any blogs here with that kind of power and influence, but there are no shortage of armchair critics. I counted 21 restaurant review blogs without making too much effort. I counted 4 that were worth reading. The rest were either freebie puff pieces or more geared towards booze, the food element being little more than a sideshow.

There are some questionable goings-on between bloggers and restaurants which sparked a huge debate in the UK recently. I hear that similar murky doings are now happening here. I have strong opinions on the issue which will be the subject of an upcoming post.

I save my most bilious contempt for one particular breed of amateur critic. There are people out there who will sit in a restaurant, eat a meal, tell the staff everything was lovely, before shooting home to write a scathing review on Trip Advisor. 

This is wrong on so many levels, but mainly because it is totally unfair on the restaurant who never get an opportunity to address whatever issues arose. Then again, maybe that's not the point.

It also serves to underpin Trip Advisors' reputation as a flawed, skewed and totally untrustworthy source of information. A quick scan of their top 10 restaurants in Dublin will illustrate this point. Nothing against those listed, but if a tourist visiting Dublin relied on this information, they would miss out on most of the best dining options in the city. 

Before anyone screams "hypocrite" and points out that I have recently reviewed a restaurant on this very blog, let me clarify. I have no issue with reviewers, professional or amateur, once their content is honest, informed, and readable. Reviews can give restaurants the oxygen of publicity that they may otherwise be starved of. 

From my own perspective, my review was a once off but I took the responsibility seriously and my views were 100% honest. I feel strongly that people should do likewise when posting their opinions in any public forum. 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Buying smart is key to success for restaurants

Back in 2002 I was appointed financial controller of a medium sized construction company. One of my first projects was to design & implement a centralised purchasing system. This would replace the existing decentralised system of individual sites all over the country buying their own materials. The objective was to save 3% of the €25m per annum spent on materials.

Before I got into any of the details I contacted two of the biggest and best companies in the industry and asked if I could sit in with their purchasing departments for a few days and learn how the market leaders operated. They kindly obliged and put up with me asking endless questions until I got a clear idea of how good purchasing systems work.

The project took 12 months to develop and a further 6 months of tweaking to get right. It was worth the effort as it highlighted so many weaknesses in the old system and revolutionised the way the company bought. The target savings were exceeded and the system is still in use today.

You may be thinking " so bloody what!?" but bear with me, there is a point to all of this!

Purchasing is a key area for any business, especially those with high input costs, such as restaurants . Regardless of the size of a business, the same basic principles apply. 

In my experience, it's an area where restaurants can be weak and exposed. Ordering tends to be done on the back of a napkin and phoned in after service. Goods arrive, often during busy periods, are signed for by whoever answers the door. The invoice arrives, gets processed and paid. Shortfalls are often filled in by sending the KP to the local supermarket. 

Bigger operations may have more structure, but I know for sure that what I've just described applies to a lot of small independent restaurants. 

With a few small changes, requiring very little extra effort, restaurants can reduce their purchases by 10%. To put that into context, if a restaurant has a gross turnover of €15,000 per week, they will spend approximately €4,000 just buying food & drink. A 10% saving would deliver €20,000 per annum into their bottom line and, ultimately their bank account. When you add in consumables and other non food/drink purchases, this figure rises to €25,000. Not an insignificant sum, I'm sure you'll agree.

It goes back to what I've said in many other posts about the skillsets required to operate a restaurant. I would never knock a great chef for being less than great in the paperwork department. Everyone should play to their strengths. 

Purchasing is a skill that is very much valued by large organisations but often unrecognised by small ones. It can literally be the difference between success and failure for some small businesses. 

If you think you could buy better or would like to find out more information, please feel free to drop me an email.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Restaurant Review: Etto, Merrion Row, Dublin 2.

This is not a restaurant review blog.... for a few reasons. Mostly, because there are lots already out there and I don't think the world needs another one. Also, I have a lot of friends in the industry and I work with several restaurants, so in order to maintain those relationships, I think it's wise to leave the reviewing to others.

On that basis, this may well be my one and only review. I don't work with Etto, nor do I know the guys behind it so my opinions are 100% impartial and written purely as a punter. This restaurant is by no means perfect but gets so many things right that I feel compelled to share my views.

You've probably gathered at this stage that I like place, so I'll get the negatives out of the way first before I start eulogising about the food. 

They were not blessed with much space so the seating area is tight. I'm short and weigh less than ten stone yet still find it difficult to squeeze between the tables. I can imagine they've encountered some issues with more generously proportioned people. The tight space and hard surfaces also make it quite noisy which means that you have to talk loudly to be heard. With neighbours in such close proximity, this makes intimate conversation a no-no ( I heard way too much about a fellow diner's medical issues recently). 

So why do I like this restaurant so much? Mainly because I always leave there happier than when I arrived. This is my acid test for any restaurant. 

The menu changes regularly and they offer a set lunch at€20/€25 for 2/3 courses or an a la carte option of small plates and larger main courses. This will prove considerably more expensive than the set menu option but value has two elements; price and quality. The ingredients on the ALC are notably higher end. 

On the most recent visit we both chose the set lunch despite being tempted by the squab on the other side of the page. Nevertheless, the set lunch is so appealing that there are no losers in the menu roulette game here. I chose a vegetarian starter of beetroot agnolotti with goat's curd and cavalo nero. The pasta was silky with just enough density to hold the sweet, earthy beetroot filling. Toasted walnuts added texture and feather light, micro planed Parmigiano Reggiano combined with the fresh curd to add a salty tang. The cabbage added both flavour and nice hit of iron to give the dish more substance. A really well thought out, well executed dish in keeping with the excellent vegetarian offerings the always seem to have here.

A bad photo of a great dish. Beetroot agnolotti.

The other starter was that Piedmontese classic, vitello tonnato. I find this dish always tastes better than it sounds. Wafer thin slices of veal in a creamy tuna mayonnaise with capers. I told you. Thankfully, it's a delicious dish and this version was no exception. The capers were deep fried which transforms them into crispy taste explosions but also makes them less acidic. A minor gripe would be that the dish needed more acidity and fresh capers would have provided it. 

Vitello Tonnato. 
By now the space had filled but service from the three FOH staff never missed a beat. They've clearly figured out the flow of the room and glided around without a hint of stress, even when clearly busy. They were well versed and interested enough to answer any questions from their guests and seemed to really enjoy their work. 

Main courses were pork and hake. Pork came in the form of a thick organic chop which had been griddled on the outside and was perfectly medium rare in the middle. I've huge admiration for restaurants with the courage to serve pork pink as I know from experience how challenging it can be. The quality of the pork was superb and a punchy romesco sauce, which managed to be both rustic and refined at the same time, elevated the dish way beyond the sum of it's parts. Some beans and greens balanced the dish and roasting juices added meaty savour.

Organic pork chop with romesco sauce.
The hake dish summed up on a plate what this restaurant is all about. The fish was clearly spanking fresh and cooked just at the point, giving a buttery crust on the outside and translucent, barely cooked flakes in the centre. Sounds simple, but I encounter perfectly cooked fish rarely enough for it to stick in my mind when I find it. The bold accompanying flavours of brown shrimp and a velvety purée of trompette mushroom & truffle transformed the dish into a show stopper. Without question this dish was firmly 1* Michelin standard.

Hake with new potatoes, brown shrimp & trompettes.

The wine list here deserves special mention. Unsurprisingly it leans heavily toward Italy but the rest of the old world, especially Spain, is also well represented. Some very classy European wine makers are listed and while this is inevitably reflected in the pricing, there are some real gems if you know what you're looking for. 

As it was lunch time, we stuck to glasses from the short list on the board. It was a limited choice and my garnacha from northern Spain wouldn't have been my first choice with the pork but stood up well to the robust flavours. As I had some left, I chose the cheese of the day instead of dessert. 

Clonmore is a firm goats milk cheese from Cork and had a mild flavour that would have benefited from not being in the fridge. Truth be told, we'd have just as easily skipped dessert although the delicious warm greengages with toasted almond ice cream were comforting and moreish. A couple of short, perfectly extracted espressi rounded off a memorable lunch. 

I note that Etto won "Best Casual Dining" at the Food & Wine Awards recently. I'm not sure that this category does justice to what these guys are doing. The staff and setting may be casual and relaxed but make no mistake about it, this is a serious restaurant. I mentioned in a blog post recently about the rise in "casual fine dining" in London. I predict that we will see a lot more of it here over the next few years and restaurants like Etto & Forest Avenue are leading the charge. I know that there is Michelin pedigree in the kitchen at Etto and this clearly shines through in some of the dishes. It may be too soon for them this year, but they could be an outside bet for a star in the future. For me, their food is certainly worth a special journey. You heard it here first!

Monday, 18 August 2014

Is the customer always right?

The short answer to this is yes. Except for when they're wrong. This piece in Bon Appetit magazine spells out some of the situations where the customer may not be always be classified as "right". I've experienced some of these first hand but can happily report that they are very much the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of guests dine out to enjoy themselves and when they are met half way by staff who are keen to make that happen, the foundations of a long and happy relationship may be laid.

The key point here is that it's a two way relationship. Paying customers have the right to expect good service and restaurateurs and service staff have the right to expect good manners in return. The most common area where this breaks down, is when guests arrive late or do not show up, without letting the restaurant know. 

I used to find this particularly stressful around Christmas time. I recall a particular incident when we had turned away over 100 customers as we were fully booked, only for a party of 20, who were confirmed earlier in the day, not to show up. 

A Galway restaurateur took to twitter recently to make his feelings known about no-shows during race week. The matter was picked up by the local newspapers and sparked a lot of debate about the issue, and how it was handled. Personally, I didn't agree with the way he went about it, but I could certainly sympathise with how he felt.

Many people in the industry feel that credit card deposits should be taken to secure reservations and only refunded if the table is cancelled. This is fine in theory but I know from experience that it's tough to implement in practice. In addition to this, the market is so competitive that very few restaurants are prepared to risk alienating potential customers. 

In order to combat the problem of no-shows, some high end restaurants in the U.S are now selling tickets for a reservation. Nothing like payment in advance to focus the mind when it comes to fulfilling a restaurant reservation. I'm not sure this would work anywhere else in the world other than the U.S. Some restaurateurs Stateside seem to get away with far more than most people would be prepared to put up with as guests.

This review of 3 Michelin Starred Brooklyn Fare on the website Fine Dining Explorer, illustrates exactly what I mean. Cesar Ramirez clearly runs his operation with an iron fist and prioritises his own ego over the paying customers who keep him in business. When you include tax and tip it's about $300 per head for food alone. Regardless of how good the food is, I don't think I'd forgive myself for paying that amount of money to be treated like that. I've been lucky enough to eat in a few 3* restaurants and have always encountered the highest standards of service and professionalism.

Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare... Zero Tolerance Dining. Source:

David Chang's Momofuku Ko has a reputation for similarly hostile service and lack of respect for their guests. I've had a few experiences myself  in New York restaurants where service staff were abrasive to the point of rudeness. I think it's a New York thing and locals accept it. 

They have such a strong culture of dining out in NYC, and have no problem queuing for 2 hours to get a seat in the hottest new restaurant. In order to do so, they put up with a certain amount of being taken for granted. The demand/supply relationship in Ireland is the opposite way around, partly because we do not have such a strong eating out culture. This may go some way to explaining why you hear more about the disrespectful behaviour of customers rather than restaurants in Ireland. Also, we just wouldn't put up with it here!

The overall point that I am trying to make is that neither customers nor restaurants get it right all of the time. There is a happy medium which needs to be struck in order for both parties to get the most out of the relationship. Customers should feel valued and welcome from the moment they first contact the restaurant. In return, they should notify the restaurant of a cancellation when they can't make it, and be polite and civil to the staff when they can. It doesn't sound like much to ask from both parties. 

Friday, 8 August 2014

Do restaurants get a raw deal from the media?

This recent article in The Guardian got me thinking about the media's apparent obsession with the restaurant business and how journalists often seem to write about the subject with a slightly negative bias. I get that it's an industry which grabs the public's imagination. The miriad television shows based around it confirms that. What I don't get is where the suspicion and mistrust in much of commentary emanates from. It must come from somewhere, right? No smoke without fire and all that?

There are countless numbers of books written by "experts" who promise to lift the lid on what really goes on behind the scenes in restaurants. I've part- read most of them ( I only ever seem to get 20 or so pages in before giving up ). They generally trot out the same tired old nuggets of wisdom like "don't order fish in a restaurant on a Monday". Ground breaking stuff. The reality is that what happens behind the scenes in restaurants is not anything like as glamorous or shocking as the books or newspaper articles would have you believe.

When I publish my book entitled " What really goes on behind the scenes in restaurants", I don't expect it to make the best sellers list. Chapter one, "Dishwasher", will go into detail about how the dishwasher has broken down for third time in a month and the repair man is late, despite having promised to be there at 10am sharp. The chapter is balanced on a knife edge going into the final page as we find out whether or not it was repaired in time for lunch service. Things really start to hot up in chapter two when the new waiter doesn't turn in for his first shift. You get the picture. This is what really goes on behind the scenes in most restaurants.

So, back to my earlier question...where does the idea that restaurants are out to fleece their guests come from? I'm guessing that there are spurious tactics employed by some restaurant chains ( independents, in my experience, do not put anything like that amount of planning into menu psychology etc). It has all the hall marks of large scale strategic planning in board rooms by faceless people in suits. I'm further speculating that whistle blowers over the years have divulged these strategies to anyone who will listen and the whole thing has snowballed from there.

That is not to say that selling techniques do not exist in the restaurant industry, as they do in most industries. The difference is that journalists do not consider it newsworthy that a bicycle salesman has convinced someone to purchase a lock to go with their bike. If a waiter sells a side order with a main course however, it's deemed to be part of some Machiavellian scheme to shakedown diners.They seem to forget that it's a business. If I'm a restaurateur and I buy 20kg of fresh fish today and it doesn't sell tonight, then I'm going to put it on as a special tomorrow. I'm running a business. I'm not about to throw out an expensive commodity that will still be perfectly good to eat tomorrow. I genuinely don't understand why is that the genesis of so many newspaper articles and books.

So, before I get savaged by all the hacks out there lining up with examples of sharp practice in restaurants, let me add that I fully accept that there are exceptions to every rule. Some restaurants, especially in tourist destinations where they are not reliant on repeat business, go out of their way to rinse as much money as they can out of their customers. However, the overwhelming majority of restaurateurs, and I know many of them in this country, work extremely hard to survive and value every single guest who comes through their door. They wouldn't survive long if they engaged in some of the shenanigans suggested in the Guardian article and countless others filling column inches with increasing regularity.

Now I'm off to finish my book. If I manage to sell the film rights, I'm hoping Kevin Spacey will play the man who comes to change the filters in the kitchen extract.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Next Big Thing

I've seen lots of food trends come and go. From the 90's penchant for CalMed i.e tall food, pesto, sun dried tomatoes and tapenade to the current leaning towards foraged ingredients and new Nordic cuisine. In between we've seen gourmet burgers, bangers, bbq, and burritos. As I've mentioned in an earlier post, Dublin tends to follow London, usually with about a five year lag. So what's the next big thing for Ireland? That's the question that canny operators are asking themselves and trying to steal a march on the competition.
The following graphic charts trends over the last 12 months and, if you'll forgive the pun, gives plenty of food for thought.

Breakfast/Brunch has now firmly established itself as strong market and is clearly being taken more seriously by most operators. Small plates and sharing boards seem to be lasting longer than most people predicted. It appears we've realised that "tapas" as a concept can not really work here so we've developed an improvised version that suits us better. All the indications are that bbq is still hot, despite pulled pork having achieved ubiquity...the food equivalent of cocktails in jam jars.
Our consumption of chicken continues unabated, I suspect driven by 16-20 year olds who seem have an appetite for little else. UFC and KFC go hand in hand. All day dining is proving very popular and when coupled with speciality coffee seems to be a recipe for success. As we all become a little more health conscious those catering for specific dietary requirements and providing super food options appear to be thriving...yet still like a sly "dirty burger" now and again.
Large scale ventures which a friend refers to as "disco restaurants" seem to be thriving in Dublin City Centre, I'm not sure they would survive elsewhere.
Ingredient specific ventures such as Burger & Lobster, Duck, or Pizza & Porcetta are becoming increasingly popular. The predictability of this model make them very attractive for investors.
So to return to my earlier question, what will be the next big thing here? As the economy starts to grow over the next few years, I predict that casual, affordable fine dining will catch on here. This a big trend in London right now and the success of Forest Avenue suggests that the appetite is already here. I've been banging on for years about the lack to top quality casual Italian here that doesn't involve pizza. Places like TrulloBocca di Lupo & Artusi. I'm surprised this hasn't caught on here. Maybe next year will be the year my prediction comes true...even a stopped clock is right twice a day! I also see the increase in pubs serving good food and craft beer continuing, although the quality of both is a little inconsistent at the moment and needs to improve if it's going to stay around for the long term.
It's a very exciting time for the restaurant industry in Ireland at the moment and I feel we'll be heading into the next upturn with a more established base of people who eat out. As we become more discerning about our food and drink choices, the quality of what's available should continue to improve. That can only mean good things for diners and operators alike.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Ten Commandments of Good Service

Recent surveys conducted by Zagat across the U.S found that the number one complaint from diners about their restaurant experience was bad service. I suspect the same survey carried out here would yield similar results. Most people will forgive problems with their food if the service is excellent, few will be as forgiving if the reverse applies.

It's a hugely important element in any restaurant or café's business yet so many do not give it the attention it deserves. Many leave their servers to their own devices in which case their business is only as good as their weakest employee. As I've mentioned before, it baffles me why something so critical to the success of a business is overlooked so frequently.

I've delivered a lot of structured training programmes for FOH staff over the years and written several training manuals. All were tailored to specific types of business but some core principles apply across the board. These are the fundamentals of service which I refer to as the ten commandments.

  1. The customer is king. Never forget it. Sounds obvious but very often staff need reminding, especially in busy restaurants where guests can often be taken for granted.
  2. Love what you do and always try to improve. You need to have an inner desire to please and make people feel welcome and valued in order to succeed in hospitality. 
  3. Engage with guests, smile and always make eye contact. They should have your undivided attention at all times. Nothing worse that an indifferent waiter looking around the room while taking your order. 
  4. Keep your head up at all times in the room. Very common problem in restaurants is staff walking around the room looking down, usually to avoid being asked for something.
  5. A warm welcome on arrival and genuine thanks when leaving are essential. They are basic good manners and book-end the guest's experience.
  6. Be switched on and focused for service. It's like being on stage so you have to be well prepared and ready to perform...even when the restaurant is quiet. Ever noticed how the service is better in busy restaurants?
  7. Understand the difference between "serving" and "looking after" people. Any one can bring a plate or glass to a table without heart. Looking after a guest means consciously thinking about their needs and making them feel special.
  8. Always be honest with guests. This covers everything from not spoofing about menu items to not trying to sell them what you know they don't need.
  9. Be professional at all times, even when engaging with very friendly guests. Never cross the line into over familiarity.
  10. Take pride in your appearance at all times. From a crisp shirt to spotless fingernails, anything less than pristine is unacceptable.
These are the basic values that I have always tried to instil in my staff and others I've trained. It can be difficult at times because so many service staff are not looking to build a career in the industry but merely passing through en route to somewhere else. 

Working as a service professional has never been viewed as a career in Ireland in the same way it is in other countries like France, for example. This saddens me as I have huge passion for the industry and think it can be hugely rewarding, in every sense, for dedicated people who want to succeed. Maybe some day it will change...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

So you want to open a restaurant....?

Firstly, ask yourself why? If your motive is purely to make money or you've no experience but just always fancied the idea then turn back now. If you're a great cook and friends always tell you at dinner parties that they'd "totally pay for your food" and that "you should open your own restaurant" then please ignore your friends and continue to be a great home cook. I'm generally a glass half full kind of guy so please don't think I'm being negative for the sake of it. The fact is that the restaurant business is extremely difficult, even for experienced operators. Rank amateurs stand little or no chance. Without strong industry experience and a single minded drive to succeed, you should reconsider and save yourself more physical, financial and emotional stress than you could possibly imagine.

If you're still with me, then I'm assuming you have experience in the restaurant business and can call on expertise to fill in the gaps in your skill set where required. Right then, where do we go from here? You've probably got an idea in your head and hopefully have put enough thought into it to have a good understanding of what type of restaurant you'd like to open and where you plan to set up shop. Let me say at this point, that you should now be prepared to live and breathe the project night and day for the foreseeable future. 

Location, location, location...
The location of your premises is crucial to the success of your business. You should have your research done and a find a place that will work for the type of business you plan to create. Be sure to check out the existing competition in the area and the type of people the area attracts. If you are depending on footfall, then stake out your target premises over a period of weeks at different times of the day and night to determine if there is sufficient volume of people passing your door. Once you are happy with the premises, meet with the agents/landlords and establish the following:

  • Whether the lease is new or existing
  • What the rent review & break clauses are
  • If the lease is designated for restaurant usage
  • What type of licences previously attached to the premises
  • That the premises has the relevant fire/environmental permits in place
These are the basics that will determine if your initial interest should go any further. Once you are happy with the outcome of the initial meeting and the rent is within your budget, you should engage a solicitor to work through the lease clause by clause and negotiate the best possible deal on your behalf. Clauses such as access for deliveries and waste disposal conditions are ones which you may not have thought of, but can be deal breakers. Be prepared that this process can be frustratingly slow but in the meantime, you've plenty to be getting on with!

Get with the plan...
The next step is to prepare a business plan. There are plenty of templates available on line. Some are too detailed, others not detailed enough. The plan should detail every element of your business and should fit broadly into the following sections:
  • Company & People
  • Products & Services
  • Market & Marketing
  • Financial Projections
The business plan may be required by third parties such as financial institutions in which case, you should also include a one page executive summary at the front ( bankers don't like to wade through lots of pages and are more likely to put your plan in the "maybe" pile if you give them a good overview at the start). Your financials are going to have to stack up and should be prepared on a "worst case scenario" basis. Optimistic projections are never a good idea as, in addition to making you look naive to third parties, they will cause problems down the line when the first inevitable curve ball arrives. There are plenty of items which you won't have factored into your projections so it's always a good idea to seek professional advice. Even if you have funding in place, I guarantee there are at least 10 areas you haven't considered in your financials.
The plan is not just for raising finance however. As you work though every area of the operation and get it down on paper, you will find that the idea begins to evolve and develop and by the end of the process should have crystallised into a clear business model. Chances are, you will find yourself going back to it time and again as you move forward with the project. 

Spread the word...
By now, you should be crystal clear about what you want to achieve and how you are going to go about it. Now it's time to communicate that message to your future customers. It's an exciting part of the process as your idea starts to have an identity and you can finally visualise your restaurant. A good marketing plan is essential and should begin 3-6 months before you plan to open. It should be targeted specifically at the customers you want to attract. In order to get this right, you must know exactly who your target audience are and crucially, where they get their information from. This may be one more area where you will need to enlist the help of a professional. As a minimum before you open, you should have the following in place:
  • A good website that is mobile friendly and gets your message across strongly. Your opening times, menus and contact details should be easily accessible and and require little or no navigation. 
  • A strong social media presence on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram 
  • Good, clear branding that sells your concept and is consistent across all of your media
If you have engaged a PR company, you may also have some print media exposure prior to opening and if your budget allows, perhaps a glitzy launch bash too!

Attention to detail...
Depending on the condition of the premises and what you're trying to create, you may also have a large building project and fit out to contend with, while all of the other areas need attention too. This is why I mentioned earlier about living and breathing the project 24/7. You will also need all the help you can get - preferably from experienced industry people ( Friends and family are great but simply won't think of all the areas you need to cover).
While your marketing plan and building programme are in full swing there are some critical areas that need your attention. You need to recruit staff & suppliers, and finalise your menu & wine/drinks/coffee list. Hopefully you already have key staff either on board or in mind, otherwise they will prove difficult to recruit due to the labour shortage in the industry. Choose your staff carefully as they will be your most important asset. Once your staff are in place you need to push on with the final preparations which will include, but may not be limited to, the following:

  • Finalise your menu, test all dishes and adjust if necessary.
  • Prepare detailed costings for each menu/drink item. Your fixed overhead will determine what GP% you need to achieve to break even and therefore will determine your selling prices. This is an important stage and you may need professional assistance.
  • Depending on the type of restaurant, you may need recipe cards printed.
  • Make sure all relevant licences & permits are in place as this could delay your opening
  • Get POS system installed, programmed and tested.
  • Organise cutlery/crockery/glassware. Make sure they are suitable for your business and fit comfortably on your tables.
  • Test all new equipment thoroughly as you do not want to find out that the grill doesn't work on opening night!
  • Prepare your sequence of service. This is what happens from the time the customer walks in to the time they leave. It covers every step of FOH service but should also detail every aspect of the food service from where the food comes out to where the empty plates go back in.
  • Arrange staff training. You should have as many sessions as possible before opening. These should start with the basics and get more detailed each time. By the time you're open, every staff member should be completely comfortable with the menu, wine/drinks/coffee. They should also have bought into the ethos of the restaurant and fully understand what you're trying to achieve.
  • Finalise your systems. Everything from reservations to purchasing, accounts, payroll, stock control, HACCP, cleaning, cashing up, opening/closing must be planned & communicated to staff. If you have strong systems in place from day 1, you stand a far better chance of succeeding.
And finally...
The whole process outlined above could take a year or more to come to fruition and will almost certainly test the limits of your patience. However, it is worth taking the time to plan in as much detail as possible pre-opening because in my experience, areas that are not right from day one are seldom ever right. Your hard work and commitment will be rewarded with an enormous amount of satisfaction once you open the doors and finally see your dream come to life. From that point on, the hard work really starts!!
I'll finish off with a couple of useful hints. It is worth while learning a few plumbing/electrics basics as you will be amazed how much you'll spend calling out tradesmen. All notions of glamour go out the window the first time you have unblock the loo!
 People are well meaning and everyone will tell you what you should be doing. Nod politely and ignore 99% of the crazy notions you'll hear! Stick to your plan and of course listen to your customers but filter out the non relevant stuff.
Once you get up and running and are happy with the operation, factor in some time off for's important to avoid burn out and you'll be amazed how energized you'll feel afterwards. 
I wish you the very best of everything in life, you'll need a bit of that along the way too.

Monday, 7 July 2014

My Top 5 Favourite Menu Items

I had a little whinge in the last post about menu items which make my heart sink so I though it only right in the interest of balance to get the positives out there too.

Like most people who have been in the business, or indeed who eat out regularly in decent places,  I can tell at a glance if a menu has been written by a chef who is serious about his or her food. In no particular order, the following are a few dishes and ingredients which make my pulse quicken when I see them on a menu.

Let me more specific. I love shellfish when it arrives in alive and kicking. Not frozen crab, chemically soaked scallops in tubs or those awful rubber shrimps. There is no substitute for the real thing and although expensive, if treated correctly is worth every penny. 

Crab risotto at the Sportsman in Kent. One of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. Source : Sportsman Website

I don't eat steak very often and almost never order it in a restaurant but if I see bavette I will almost certainly go for it. It has a little more resistance than the more tender cuts but more than makes up for it with he flavour it delivers. Served rare with crispy chips and bernaise sauce, it's up there with my death row last meals!

Not quite bavette but this underblade in Etto Merrion Row was absolutely superb.

I'm instantly drawn to any type of offal and applaud chefs who are brave enough to list it on their menus as I know it can be a hard sell. Veal liver is a particular favourite of mine and any part of a pig. Especially the head meat. Anyone who takes the time to slow cook a pig's head and meticulously pick the meat out when still hot, burning their fingers in the process, deserves all the support they can get!

It's becoming increasingly difficult to get wild game in restaurants as health & safety authorities require more packaging and labelling. A lot of game is now farmed but for me, the flavour does not compare to it's wild cousin. When eaten in season with some serious red wine all is right with the world. 

I mentioned in the previous post that I reckon the vegetarian options in a restaurant should be appealing enough for meat eaters to order them. I love to see vegetables getting the same treatment as every other prime ingredient and will order it without hesitation if some thought and TLC has gone into it. 

Let me know what menu items turn you on. For now, I'm off for something to eat as I've broken the golden rule of writing about food on an empty stomach!