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Removing Gotta-Have Menu Items

MY WIFE AND I HAVE OWNED OUR RESTAURANT FOR 17 years. We have seen the good and the bad, the ups and the downs. Our town is a ‘tourist town’, where few of our colleagues or competitors seem to care about repeat business — we thrive on it! One way we do this is by listing our regular customers' names next to the entree they regularly order. We say that someone has to order an entree at least 15 times in order for his or her name to make our menu. Hardly a week goes by without someone telling me they have met the criteria, or someone comes in for dinner to try something because they have a friend whose name is on our menu.

We are also known for being consistent in terms of our food quality. I have to believe that part of that customer perception comes from having a core menu that does not change very much or very often. As for the ever-present accountant, I used to have a cartoon that had a gentleman speaking to his server with the caption “My compliments to your cost accountant!” This is not how we run our restaurant, but would suggest that if an operator has food costs issues with a favorite dish of his customers, now is the perfect time to fix his margin problems. I think everyone is preparing themselves for price increases. I hope everyone is prepared for the ramifications of their actions. In closing, if my chef is bored he can run another special or two, but we will not take a chance on offending our regular customers by removing entrees that are favorites of theirs.

Dale Hatcher
The Dunraven Inn
Estes Park, Colorado

Thanks for the laugh [Removing Gotta Have Menu Items, March] I work both front and back of the house in our restaurant and can identify certain regulars from the kitchen when their orders come in. I can relate to the chef in your story, but love the fact that my chicken Parmigiana and angel hair with meat sauce is the highlight of Tom's week. He's been coming in for six years. Ken and Reba are adorable with their split sandwich and salad twice a week.

Those and many others have become like family and their frequent business is my bread and butter. I use my daily specials to flex my creativity and to keep things interesting for customers like Scotty who only orders off the special sheet. I have tried changing things up in the past and have had to resort to putting items right back on the menu. I will gladly accommodate any reasonable request from any customer. As long as I have the ingredients what's the harm? Sometimes chefs forget that we are in the customer-service industry. It's not all about ego. I feel bad for your friend. He will probably not return to that restaurant and in this climate who can afford to lose our most valued clientele?

Janice Darelli
The Stuffed Olive
Eagle, ID

As per dealing with regulars on this subject, it's a hard hard battle. I run a small cafe in Manhattan's affluent Midtown East with a small menu. The regulars for the most part are an older crowd of very sophisticated New Yorkers. Their standards are extremely high and they expect that because of their status as regulars their input should be taken very seriously. Over the past few years I have fought with them over old/new menu items. I love to change my menu as it keeps things not only fresh with the food but fresh for the staff, both front and back of house. I have a few items that have been on the menu since day one that I would not change by my choice, for the simple fact that they are dishes I am proud of.

My regulars always let me know when I have taken something off the menu that they loved, and they constantly remind me of that every time they come in. I take it in stride and know that they will soon fall in love with another dish until I change that on the menu as well. If customers want to be considered and treated like regulars then they have to trust the chef's menu changes and just enjoy a dish like life, only for the moment.

Jonathan Romans
Executive Chef
Ze Café
New York City

I am totally with you on when i go out to eat, something different every time. But as an owner/operator of a little Italian restaurant for the past 26 years, I would have to say it's a 50/50 split on them against us.

How I handle it is we do our best to have the ingredients available to recreate the dish they love. We let the customer know this by printing it on the menu, but also by telling them if they express disappointment when speaking to their waitperson. If the ingredients are not on hand, we always ask them to let us know when they are coming in next time, and we will make it a special the night they arrive.

As far as maybe not being as thoughtful as I should have been before putting this item on the menu, you pegged it. I let my creative spirit flow, creating a dish that is really popular, but then retiring it because it's not profitable.

Alisa Coffin
The Great Impast
Brunswick, ME

I own a restaurant that is full of loyal returning customers. So loyal that change is a huge issue. We have a large menu with 6-8 additional specials every night. Usually the specials are our gauge to try new things.

Most of the time we will keep the preparation of a changed dish in house for a while to ease the transition. Often we are still making sandwiches last offered three or four menus back. It's important to keep around old copies of our menus because sometimes the guests know the dishes better than we do!

Joe Baldino
Bryn Mawr, PA