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Trial by fire: Working out the kinks with friends and family

December 11, 2020

I suspect that my interest in restaurants stems, at least partially, from my lifelong appreciation for complex machines that run smoothly and reliably. In my former life, the success of my business depended on the reliable operation of several million dollars’ worth of precision audio and video recording machinery. Some of it ran smoothly and reliably day in and day out, and some of it - well, not so much.

From time to time the manufacturers of that equipment would ship prototypes to us for sort of a real-world “shakedown cruise.” Techies call it a beta test. We would put the device through its paces and try to make it fail. Perfectly OK when paying clients weren’t involved.

A restaurant is like those machines. If it is well-designed, maintained, and all the parts fit perfectly, it will run smoothly. But if even one part isn’t right, the machine can become a liability, costing money rather than making money. I got to thinking about all this (and perhaps beating this machine metaphor to death in the process) a few weeks ago at a Friends & Family event at a newly opened restaurant in Ocean City, Md. Think of it as a beta test, but with food and wine.

A Friends & Family is not all that different from that testing phase where a machine is subjected to stress in order to expose, analyze and correct potential failures in operation. Shortly before opening, smart restaurateurs invite the media, friends and family (or some combination thereof) into the restaurant to simulate a busy service to put the kitchen and serving staff through their paces. And like any beta phase, sometimes it runs well, and sometimes it doesn’t. But since it’s not for real (i.e., the food’s free, so shut up and eat), the ownership gets a chance to fix glitches before real customers replace us freeloaders.

My first experience with this phenomenon was at the long-gone Fleetwood’s supper club in old-town Alexandria, Va. The kitchen was instructed to make every dish on the menu as quickly as possible - the only problem was that they didn’t invite any people. So my business partners, the construction crew, the sound/video reinforcement crew, many of the inhabitants of our office building and whoever else happened to be nearby enjoyed a foodie free-for-all, with dishes flying out of the kitchen like UFOs. In recent years that process has been streamlined a bit, and some of the relatively recent openings turned out to be fun for the invited guests, and enormously enlightening for the owners and staff.

Nowadays the typical F&F can take two forms. A few local eateries have made the event a stand-up affair, with passed hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar (you can’t give away booze in Delaware). Though we moochers had lots of fun, it wasn’t all that educational for the restaurant. Patrons are not ordering from the menu, so the staff didn’t get to practice on the computer ordering system, and the kitchen didn’t get to practice prep, cooking and plating “on the fly.”

The most effective strategy is similar to what I experienced last week: Faux patrons were seated by host/hostess staff. We ordered from the menu as the server entered our orders into their brand-new handheld devices. In most, cases, the servers managed to get the device to actually send the order to the kitchen. As they got better at data entry, the kitchen got to deal with an ever-increasing stack of tickets. Floor staff quickly figured out how to move around the room without spilling soup on anyone’s head. In the (mercifully unlikely) case where you do in fact end up with soup on your head, you can’t complain. That soup was free.

Last week, those experienced restaurateurs added a new wrinkle: Passersby noticed the activity and ventured in, assuming the eatery was open. Rather than being sent on their way, they were informed of the trial in progress and were seated with a big smile. Why not! It potentially creates new customers, and it enriches the beta testing process that will hopefully result in a machine that runs smoothly and actually makes money. What better way to keep a restaurant-full of staff gainfully employed!

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at byesbek@capegazette.com.

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