Dear restaurant owners,
First things first. I would like to congratulate any of you reading this. My hat goes off to those of you who managed to stay afloat during the last twelve months. Keeping an eatery open at the best of times is no mean feat. Sixty per cent of restaurants do not survive their first year, and eighty per cent never make their fifth birthday party. Sobering stuff. So well done you. However, and you knew the however was coming didn’t you? You could just sense it. I have a few words of advice for anyone not coping with the sudden influx of guests. And from what I have witnessed since we have all been allowed out to play again, that appears to include quite a few of you.
Like most actors, when I was treading the boards I often spent more time waiting tables than I ever did stood onstage at the RSC with Ken n’ Em. I wore everything from starched white aprons in five-star restaurants, to party hats in ‘burger joints’ carrying trays of cocktails for overzealous bridal parties. During that time I learnt an awful lot about what makes a restaurant work. And believe me, if you do not want to be in the statistics above, there is an awful lot to learn. A wonderful manager once used the ‘fire triangle’ analogy when describing the successful running of a restaurant to me. As we all know, a fire will not burn if it runs out of oxygen, fuel or heat. Likewise, a good restaurant will not survive if they are lacking A) Good food. B) Good service. C) Good atmosphere. Sounds simple no? Then why do so many of you get it so wrong?
No doubt all three factors are important, but I think it goes without saying that we ought to look at food first. This bit should be the easiest to get right. Good quality local ingredients cooked to perfection. Simple. But is it? If you cannot get the first bit right, I am sorry to say this, but you should not be running a restaurant. Moving swiftly on. Having sourced your marvellous ingredients, next you invest in a marvellous chef. Your wage bill should be around one-third of your general outgoings. If not, you are not paying enough. Which will make the second part of this equation slightly tricky. Good chefs are hard to find. Pay them well and keep hold of them.
On to service. A different manager from the aforementioned once said to me “I want the style of service you find in an Italian Trattoria, not a prissy French restaurant”. I knew exactly what he meant. I have walked out of places on numerous occasions before even tasting the food as the service was appalling. And this does not just mean slow. Over-formal or over-friendly waiters can be the death knell of a good meal. Like chefs, a good waiter is worth his weight in gold. (Are you seeing a pattern here, dear Managers?). A waiter that can “weigh up” a table knows exactly how to behave with couples on a romantic night out, families treating themselves, or a group of rowdy football fans celebrating their team’s win. Having worked in the industry I may have high expectations when I eat out. But meet them and you may just have a customer for life. And as my ever-increasing waistline demonstrates, I am a good one. So take note.
Last, but by no means least. Atmosphere. Why do so many restaurants in Malta slip up here? The best waiter in the world can serve me the finest food known to humanity, but if the restaurant is lit like a dentist’s waiting room, the music is inappropriate for the clientele or the loos are a disgrace, I would never dampen the threshold again. The most important word here is clientele. Know them well. Do your market research, work out exactly who you want to attract. If you build their Mecca, they will come, rest assured.
So, dear owners, I hope you have not seen this little letter as a ticking off. As I said at the beginning, I am all too well aware of the precarious nature of the industry, and I admire anyone who is still operating today. These words are not an admonishment, nor are they strict instructions. They are kind words from your friendly Uncle who has been around the block a bit and wishes you nothing but success. To all of you brave enough to tackle running a successful restaurant, you have my full support and admiration. Just do it well is all I ask. I look forward to meeting you soon.
Lots of love and all the best,
Ps The first person to recognise my favourite restaurant in the whole wide world from the above pic gets a small sweet sherry on me.