The Perfect Restaurant

This is a rant of uninformed thoughts and theories about running a restaurant.

Setting

I'm writing this from Newark Airport Terminal B, where I just had a very unsatisfactory meal at one of the in-terminal restaurants.

This restaurant was a standard table-service Italian restaurant, the only one that serves hot food in this section of the terminal, so they have a captive audience of x000's flowing through every day. They must pay a lot for this position.

However it is suboptimally run:

  • The restaurant seats about ~100 at a time
  • I observed a very long wait time to get seated. A party of 4 was told they needed 20 minutes. about 10 people in line at any time to get seated.
  • I myself, a single seater, took about 10 minutes to get seated.
  • I then took another 5 minutes to get a waiter's attention
  • after giving my order, it took about 20 minutes to get served my food
  • after my food, I got the waiter to get me the bill, and spent another 10 minutes getting her to take my card and then signing the bill
  • which means, of the ~1 hour i was there, more than 40 minutes were just waiting around for shit to happen.

Arguably the seats are non negotiable, and the cuisine is a given. However I often entertain the fantasy that I could run a restaurant to run more efficiently, make more happy customers, and make a lot more money.

The Waiter

For example, we need to drastically reduce the responsibilities of the waiter as they are probably the most obvious bottlenecks to turning over the tables. Here are the Jobs to Be Done of a waiter:

  • Explain/recommend food (rarely used)
  • Take orders
  • Serve Food
  • Serve Bill/Take Card/Cash
  • Deliver Card/Change
  • Clear Tables

For the waiter, the more jobs to do, the more training must be done, and all of these jobs are juggled among a number of customers. For the customer, each of these are blockers in their path from entrance to food to departure.

We could reduce the jobs to:

  • Explain/recommend food (rarely used)
  • Serve Food
  • Clear Tables

...making the overall job more of a "busboy" than "waiter". For a high-end restaurant, this would of course destroy the experience, but let's be real, you're not really going for fine dining in an airport terminal, and some of us (me) actually prefer fewer blocking interactions.

For the rest, the restaurant could invest in a PWA or tabletop ordering system like Ziosk.

Audience Segmentation

Probably the biggest immediate unlock in terms of revenue is getting rid of the implicit assumption that every customer wants to be seated. If I didn't have an hour to spare, I would not be a customer of this restaurant. This seems like a lost opportunity. In fact if I misjudged the restaurant and went in with only 30 minutes to spare, I would likely have a very stressful time.

Shake Shack does a great job of this segmentation idea. Even though it is not a regular table service dine-in restaurant, it establishes a "drinks and shakes" line and an "everything" line. This recognizes the fact that people only want a drink are faster to order and serve compared to people who want both drinks and food. This contributes to increased overall turnover, as well as customer happiness because those with lower specific needs are treated accordingly.

We can apply this model to the airport restaurant by having a special "quick service" aisle at the counter. This would feature a section of grab-n-go food and drinks. This serve a much wider audience, and additionally any food prepared in-house can be batched (and therefore made a good deal faster as well).

At the extreme, this half-and-half model might in fact end up with the restaurant turning into a fast food (or "fast casual") restaurant if that is successful enough.

Misc

A grab bag of other ideas I like:

  • reducing the number of menu choices not only makes it easier to stock inventory and to batch produce, but also reduces paradox of choice for the customer and therefore turns over tables faster
  • combined payment/loyalty services across restaurants
  • no tipping
  • every item in a category has the same price

The Perfect Restaurant

To be clear, I don't mean "perfect" as in universally the best. Obviously hole-in-the-wall, crappily run restaurants can be downright amazing. I just mean "perfect" in terms of capital/operational efficiency. There are two existing models of restaurants which I like a lot in terms of capital efficiency:

  • Cloud kitchens - restaurants with no "front of the house" and just go all in on delivery
  • but if you must have a front of the house: Ichiran Ramen has the best model

Ichiran takes the normal table layout:

https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/rotfkUOln3GTqZVCxBGoVVRodqk=/0x0:3000x2004/1200x675/filters:focal(1260x762:1740x1242)/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_image/image/64047807/20161020-Ichiran-13.0.0.1476987280.0.jpg

and turns it into booths:

https://cms.qz.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/ichiran.jpeg?quality=75&strip=all&w=1600&h=900

These things are as amazing as they are controversial. The seats are arrangeable so that a slot of 4 seats can be taken up by 1 and 3 people, or 2 and 2, or 4 people, whereas at a typical restaurant even 1 person at a 4 seat table often means it is unavailable to others. The singular, uncomfortable focus of it means you are there just to eat and you don't dally. The menu choices are spartan.

https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/5a42805a32601ef9384a031d/1557054552749-MUOUC2IR8AXFY2JQ6FPJ/ke17ZwdGBToddI8pDm48kO2EirJcbJ_u9gbpM6ANlFNZw-zPPgdn4jUwVcJE1ZvWQUxwkmyExglNqGp0IvTJZUJFbgE-7XRK3dMEBRBhUpziOZQ1Gd-lJE91aJwIJmrKhZ9cq5_x7u6xs3JK1_D-juDmDgpvm6LDYr_IkTm9h6I/Ichiran++Ramen+for+Solo+Diners_Midtown+NY_NYC_K.Martinelli+Blog_Kristen+Martinelli.png

The key genius though, is the floor layout:

https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTxVrlL3SBqn7UIwNV7HfktS8-p54Q4f85GsbzizDbqGutXGODSAQ&s

Diners are arranged along one long corridor and waiters can see which need attention by way of buzzer - there is no need to navigate through tables of guests.