Who Will Start the Dialog?

I enjoyed lunch yesterday with celebrated two-star Michelin chef, Laurent Manrique. Laurent recently left San Francisco’s award winning Aqua to pursue other culinary opportunities, including spending more time working on his winery in Spain. Chef Laurent is also a founding partner of Café de la Presse, a very successful French bistro located at the gates of Chinatown. Yes, location is important, but the Café is a big hit, especially for homesick visitors from Europe.This was less of an interview and more of a philosophical discussion, with a very talented and experienced restaurateur, who is originally from Southern France. Rather than discuss fine dining or this dreadful economy and its impact on the San Francisco dining scene, I asked Laurent about the new bistro segment and what he’s learned recently. Sure, we discussed product quality, menu pricing and margins, the importance of using good ingredients, creativity, customer expectations, restaurant design, wine selection (and pricing), facility size and service standards. We talked about customer behavior and expectations. We discussed the high cost of creating and developing a fine dining restaurant in 2009, and what it takes (effort and cost) to manage a two-star Michelin restaurant today and why a 4,000 sq. ft. bistro makes sense.This was a great conversation. I really enjoy connecting with smart, successful, experienced operators - when they are open and honest, as Laurent always is. It’s revealing, not to mention educational. This was a one-on-one dialog about fine dining and managing though the Great Recession that morphed into a philosophical discussion about what we can do better as operators and as an industry. This was an engaging discussion mostly about one segment between two people who share a passion for this industry. I think we (mostly Chef Laurent) came up with a lot of good ideas. But, the reality is, that conversation and the ideas are no documented.So I wondered. Have we, as an industry learned anything from these past few years operating restaurants this economic sh*t storm? I bet we have, as a collective, learned a hell of a lot. What if we could extend this discussion to include hundreds of restaurant operators from all segments and from different countries? What if we all shared our experiences –those that worked, and those that didn’t - freely and openly? What if we, as an industry, re-examined, re-evaluated and re-invented? What if we shared not only ideas, but together, as a community, figured out a way to create a better, more modern, more economically viable restaurant business model that made this industry even more viable. What if the bi-product of this ongoing dialog was a more enlightened customer, more profitable restaurants, better communication, and greater use of technology? Are we not taking advantage of this crisis to learn, share and document how we survived it?FohBoh was created to enable this type of online form and documentation. Social media are allowing us to share and dialog online and asynchronously like never before. So, who will start the discussion?
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  • I absolutely agree. Many restaurateurs have not experienced ups and downs such as we've been seeing and it's a frightening thing to go through. But despite the negative side of this economy, it has created its own learning curve and those who weather it, like sailors in a storm, will find their own safe harbor.
  • I think this is the time of real innovation. It has been a hard adjustment for most of us but one that is normal in other parts of the world. Our generation has grown up largely unchallenged financially and this is a big learning. As the second oldest profession, restaurants will not go away, simply evolve. It all starts with your thinking, yes, you personally. Keeping your own thinking positive is were it all starts and learning what is most important to you and sticking with it.
  • There's so much that's exciting going on right now, from re-invention to the whole fresh/local/sustainable movement to mobile technology and social networking - very exciting.
  • Thanks Marshall - nice resume! And, congrats on your venture. Check out, claim your restaurant and get a free social media reader. using an interesting technology to gather reviews from all sources (except Yelp!, of course).

    Also, check out, They have a host management system that is killer and cheap and socialmediakitchen for help with social emdia strategy and implementation.

    I'll check out Bishop's on the Square on a visit to SF soon!
  • I worked for Chef Laurent for two years at Aqua and saw first hand his incredible talents. The knowledge I gained while working at Aqua opened up so many opportunities for me. After leaving Aqua I spent time at Farallon, Rubicon with Star Chef Stuart Brioza, then on to Masa's with former French Laundry Sous Chef Greg Short, and finally landing at Restaurant Gary Danko. I left Restaurant Gary Danko to open my own restaurant, Bishop's on the Square. I have slowly incorporated more of a Bistro style menu into my restaurant after originally starting out on the fine dining road. This economy has been tough, but in order to succeed to have to be willing to accept change, and this country is again going thru change.
    I am looking at more creative ways to market my restaurant, so if any one has any ideas please shoot. Congrats Chef on a wonderful San Francisco adventure and best wishes in the future. Your former line cook, Marshall Bishop
  • I see other segments getting into locally grown, seasonal, fresh, sustainable foods as well as fine dining - a lot of non-commercial operators picked up on this before many of their commercial counterparts. I don't think it's something one segment or another will lead - I think it's a movement that is underway and reaching broader popularity daily.

    What the new business model will be for restaurants is another question though. Yes, it should incorporate the above elements but it needs to be one that makes it economically feasible for operators to offer good quality at reasonable prices.

    I talked with a suburban Boston operator the other day who told me that in his 30 years in this industry, he's never seen customers pull back from spending as they have this year. Yet here in the city, and from what I read, in Manhattan as well, thing seem to be improving for many restaurants.

    I'm seeing a lot more interest in bistros and gastropubs and suspect the 'new model' could fall into this category.
  • Michael
    I will give it the old college try and respond with a message that is linked closely your to posting regarding the fine dining segment of the business and the opportunity to use FohBoh et al as forums to convey, rant, rave and discuss ideas for meeting the future on its own terms. It is my contention that the fine dining segment is the natural (no pun) channel of the foodservice and restaurant industries to expand on ideas discussed between you and Chef Laurent to include a real concern, leadership and implementation for serving environmentally, socially and financially sustainable food to its public. The upper 20% of the restaurant business, those establishments with brand name equity and designer chefs have the allegiance of and act as trendsetters to their public and as such are incredibly powerful viral agents. Match that with the social marketing punch of the Internet and a powerful and fast moving force is created.
    It will be the fine dining segment that will lead the way to make food choices that emphasize delicious, locally grown, seasonally fresh, and whole or minimally processed ingredients that are good for us, for local farming communities, and for the planet. It's my 2 cents that fine dining chefs and restaurant management can serve as models to the culinary community and the general public through their purchases of seasonal, sustainable food and ingredients and their transformation of these ingredients into delicious food. Everyone knows of, and rightfully so, global warning, pollution, the ozone layer and fossil fuel reduction. But looming in our future is a global food crisis and seafood food will be the first casualty. With our oceans being gobbled up at an alarming rate to feed an increasingly hungrier world, unless one aspect of food supply chain steps up and assumes responsibility and leadership to protect our oceans, its stakeholders and ultimately us, we will be facing a future filled with short food as well as fossil fuel supplies. Retailers, even Wal-Mart (Wal-Mart?) have introduced guidelines to suppliers regarding sustainability, carbon footprint (or in my example, fishprint), traceability and other green issues. But no one in the food business acts as a such pundit, trendsetter and is as followed as loyally as the players in the fine dining segment. Together fine dining can mean fine living too. We need to come together at a special place. It's the intersection where socially concerns, environmental issues and financial prosperity goals meet. And we need to get to this place real fast.
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