At the South Beach Wine & Food Fest in Miami, a panel of hotshot chefs/restaurateurs discussed the changing face of customers.
At the recent South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach, a panel of famous chefs discussed how the average restaurant diner has changed dramatically over the years. Not only are they younger, they often boldly take photos of their food to post online before their first bite. How are these new diners impacting the current dining landscape? Tackling the question were Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov (Zahav and Federal Donuts), Miami chef Michelle Bernstein (Michy’s, Sra. Martinez), New York City chef Marc Murphy (Landmarc, Ditch Plains), Boston chef Tony Maws (Craigie on Main) and Miami restaurateur John Kunkel (50 Eggs Restaurant Group). Moderating the panel was Jennifer Baum of Bullfrog & Baum public relations.
What does today’s diner look like?
Customers are clearly more casual in how they dress and how they order food, Bernstein observed. These younger diners are not as worldly and have not eaten as well as the previous generation of diners, she added. “They write and blog about everything . . . and they think they know what they’re talking about, but they often don’t.”
What happened when you went from fine dining to a more casual style of cooking?
“I got sick of high-end cooking with $110 check averages. “Now my check average is around $55 and I can feed 1,000 people a day,” Murphy said. “I wanted to make my food approachable and affordable, and I could do that by making cheap ingredients taste good.”
“Zahav is a casual restaurant with $45 check averages, but we didn’t start that way. Customers wanted it that way,” Solomonov added.
Are diners more demanding?
Diners tune into the Food Network and they know about foods from watching, but may not haven even eaten many of them, said Maws. “I’ve been at the restaurant for nine years and we have become more well known, but (high) customer expectations can be unrealistic.”
Certainly more diners are asking about what is sustainable on the menu and where the ingredients came from, added Maws. It’s no longer unusual for diners to come into the kitchen to inquire about the source of tuna or another ingredient.
“We went from fast casual to casual and we simply can’t do a 100 percent sustainable restaurant on this level and make money,” said Kunkel, referring to his restaurant chain, Lime Fresh Mexican Grill.
“We will do whatever it takes to make customers happy,” said Solomonov, but that can be very difficult when lamb prices go up 300 percent and you can’t afford to offer a popular dish.
“When the price of an ingredient goes up that high, we take the dish off the menu,” said Murphy.
“In my case, when the cost of lamb rose, we put lamb ribs on the menu instead, because they are less expensive,” said Bernstein. “We seek out cheaper cuts. It’s why you’ll find brisket on our menu.”
“We do the same sort of thing,” added Maws. “If we make it (a dish with inexpensive ingredients) delicious, people will come. But it has to be good.”
How is it affecting business?
“It’s forcing restaurants to be more consistent,” said Murphy, pointing out that any bad dish that goes out of the kitchen could result in a bad online review.
It’s one thing to have a diner criticize your food, said Bernstein, but when they attack for personal reasons, “it really pisses me off.” She said she’s been criticized because someone didn’t like her comments as a judge on Top Chef. Another accused her of using canned corn. “We never use canned corn!”
Solomonov admitted he’s “frustrated” by Yelp because it’s difficult to defend yourself against attacks from anonymous people.
Maws said at first he did not respond to attacks on Yelp, but now meets them face on with his own blog. Nevertheless, he adds: “It’s my job to make customers happy, not prove I’m right.”
“We had a blogger make a comment about Yardbird (Southern Table & Bar) that I thought was wrong, but we turned the blogger around with kindness,” said Kunkel.
How do you feel about customers taking photos in your restaurants?
“We take the subject very seriously,” said Solomonov. “I feel people know that the quality of the pictures they are taking (of his food) may not be great (and take that into consideration).
“I can’t worry about photos and bad reviews,” said Murphy. “The customer is not always right.”
Maws said he is disturbed that customers will take photos and complain online during an eating experience instead of saying something to their server, who can fix the problem on the spot. “It doesn’t make sense!”