Make your restaurant a dining destination

This is part of Restaurant Hospitality’s special coverage of the 2013 South Beach Wine & Food Festival held in Miami Beach, Fla., Feb. 21-24. • See more from South Beach

Chef panelists, from left: John Besh, Stephanie Izard, John Kunkel and Jenn Louis

While New York, Chicago and San Francisco are considered among the country’s top dining destinations, some of the world’s best restaurants are today found in cities that were not considered hot spots for a great culinary experience. So how do you make your restaurant a dining destination? Chefs John Besh of New Orleans; Jenn Louis of Portland, OR; Stephanie Izard of Chicago; and John Kunkel of Miami answered that question at a panel at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. Food Network TV host Marc Summers moderated the trade panel, sponsored by Bullfrog & Baum.

How important is location?

Besh: There are chefs like the Paul Kahan and the Marc Vetri who target less-than-glamorous areas that are on the verge of becoming the next big destination. But it's not just the name on the restaurant that makes it a success. Everything has to come together to make a restaurant a success.

Louis: That's right. You can't just have great food. You have to have great hospitality and provide a great experience, too.

Izard: Having a name does help. After I won Top Chef, people began to follow me. We went to an area that was still undergoing revitalization, and customers came. But once they've followed you, you better have all the other important factors in place, including the right service — even what your staff wears to set the stage.

Kunkel: When a customer calls your reservationist, it all begins. You have to have everything in order, and that's not so easy in Miami, where the service population is so transient. We are constantly training new people to provide the level of service we demand.

So the location is just one part of what makes a restaurant a success?

Kunkel: It is, but you can't forget that you're running a business. That's why we do target areas that need to be revitalized. You get better rent prices and it gives you a better shot at success.

Izard: People like the idea of going to off-the-beaten-path places. Adventurous diners don't like to go to tourist spots. But, as we've said, once you've gotten them to your place, you can't let them down.

Kunkel: But then there are guys like Danny Meyer who will go into an expensive area to establish his Shake Shack in a city. Once it's a success with the local population, he'll move into less expensive areas.

Louis: No matter where your restaurant is located, you can't forget that one of the most important things we do is make our customers feel good. Some of them will come through the door and be in bad mood. If you can put a smile on their face before they leave, you'll always put butts in seats.

Kunkel: Too many people get into this business and have no idea how to run a business. If you don't understand the nuts and bolts of running a business, it doesn't matter where your restaurant is located. It won't succeed.

Louis: I was running a catering business and it was doing very well. Then my husband talked me into opening a restaurant and I had no idea how much of it would consume my time. And on top of that, we opened in 2008 when the economy fell apart. We were lucky because we got great press and we were smart enough to take care of our staff. We fought through the tough economic times.

The importance of staff

Besh: Your staff is vital. As a business owner, you have to create a culture that surrounds the idea of taking care of others. That, ultimately, is what we do. You can't have people working for you who don't understand that.

Izard: As a chef, I could not longer be simply focused on the food. I had to know all the numbers associated with opening a restaurant.

Kunkel: That's right. Just because you have a line of customers out the door doesn't mean you'll make money. You have to know how to do a P & L, and you have to know how to control your food and labor costs.

Besh: After I opened restaurant number one I swore I wouldn't open another one. But I did, and going from one restaurant to three was far more difficult than going from three to nine restaurants. After you've opened several restaurants, all your controls are in place, but getting there isn't easy.

Izard: For me the hardest thing about opening the second restaurant was how I would divide my time between the two.

How difficult is it finding qualified culinary help?

Besh: We have more qualified cooks than ever before. We are a more mature culinary country and the impact that chefs like Emeril [Lagasse] and Wolfgang [Puck] have had in driving others to culinary schools can't be underestimated.

Kunkel: True, but the key is finding a chef who will fit into your culture.

Besh: Ultimately, what we all do is making a living making people happy. If you can do that and understand the business side, you'll be a success no matter where your restaurants are located.

Restaurant Hospitality editor Michael Sanson reported live from the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach, Fla., Feb. 21-24. The event, now in its 12th year, attracted more than 60,000 attendees, 150 celebrated chefs, and 250 wineries and spirits producers. A component of the festival is several trade talks designed specifically for restaurant operators. Sanson’s reports from South Beach focus on those talks and interviews with top chefs attending the event.