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September 02, 2006

The Difference Between Compromising and Being a Great Garde Manger

Part of the reason I participate infrequently in the marketing blogosphere is because of the lemmings who will gladly follow any of the marketing blogging gurus off the cliff without critical thinking.

Today I came across a post from Seth Godin that at first pissed me off because of what I considered a poor example of the point he was trying to make.  But upon re-reading the "$15 for breakfast" line in said post, I agreed he was (partly) right for being pissed off at the thought process of the hotel's kitchen and service standards.

Then I got pissed off all over again reading the references to his post.  If the people who cited Seth's post really believe what they're saying and are indeed in charge of marketing for their organizations, I'd be watching things very, very carefully as CFO of those companies.  Everyone seems ready and willing to jump on some "no compromise" bandwagon, screw the costs.

And for most businesses that's just plain dumb.  There has to be compromise.  It's just done in intelligent, clearly thought out ways that doesn't feel like compromise. 

It's possible to have both compromise and excellent service.

Seeing as Seth made a point of noting that his post was not about breakfast I'll make my reply not about food.

What's the best restaurant in the US?  Most would say the French Laundry.  Chef Thomas Keller is a genius with food and presentation.  Taking into account his nightly five course, eight course and tasting menus, plus amuse bouche for his VIP tables, his kitchen might be cooking up four to six dozen different finished dishes on an average night, most of which don't share ingredients except herbs and stocks.

You'd expect to pay top dollar, especially considering its Napa Valley location.  And some would say it is expensive.  But most familiar with food preparation would consider the French Laundry's prices extremely reasonable given the lack of overlap of ingredients and the sheer number of different dishes that pass through the kitchen. 

Needless to say, Friday and Saturday night reservations are booked months out.   

Then consider Lola Bistro in Cleveland.  It is a highly acclaimed restaurant where in the late 90s early 00s, Chef Michael Symon carved out a reputation for putting out stellar entrees with nothing over $20 (prices are now higher, but still, the most expensive entree is only $32 and both the mean & median entree prices are under $25.)  In other words, dining out at the acclaimed Lola's will cost you about the same or less than at national chains like McCormick & Schmick's or Ruth's Chris. 

Chef Symon is an expert at keeping his costs down.  But he doesn't compromise.  He only uses excellent ingredients.  The thing is, you'll find these ingredients used in several dishes on his menu, just in different ways.

Chef Symon has figured out how to both appeal to the budget constaints of a blue-collar Midwestern city while also serving food the equal of the top dozen restaurants in the US.

Needless to say, Friday and Saturday night reservations are booked months out.   

Consumers might want every restaurant to be like Keller's.  But that's simply an unreasonable request.  Somebody's got to be top dog and everyone else is less than that.

However, it's not unreasonable for every kitchen to have a mentality of a top garde manger to make sure that every ingredient is used as completely as possible and that any scraps are put to use in creative ways.  The "compromise" is not substituting a canned shelf-stable roasted red pepper for a couple of slices of fresh red pepper to accompany one omelette on a Tuesday. 

The "compromise" is selling the customer on cauliflower instead because that's what you have.  But it's damned good cauliflower.

Now, Seth has a great point on the omelette.  Per his example, for a kitchen at a major hotel to not be able to accommodate a request for a white omelette is ridiculous (this doesn't apply to your local diner).  There are hundreds of brilliant ways to use the yolks.  And if the kitchen doesn't know how to separate the two (or uses one of those yellow egg mixes), then it's time to get a new chef or close the kitchen.

So to respond to Seth's "not about breakfast" thoughts, here's what I'd do in my hotel kitchen:

Seth:  Can you use a cast iron skillet?
Us:  Yes, we have a couple of skillets we use for charring meat and fish dishes. 

Seth:  Can you cook this in a skillet that's never touched animal flesh?
Us:  No, we can't.  Sorry.  Are you staying at the hotel?  Excellent. May I suggest a vegan place two miles from here.  We'll take you over by shuttle.  Just call us a few minutes before you're ready to leave and we'll pick you up.

Seth:  Are you going to use a real stove to make this?
Us: Um, yeah.  (Aside to nobody in particular: Where does this guy eat that the kitchen staff suggests propane burners?)

Seth:  Will you be using fresh herbs?
Us:  We have locally-grown organic rosemary, basil, cilantro, Italian parsley, thyme and mint at all times as we base our menu on market availability of fresh herbs.  But if you'd like another herb, it will likely be dried, although we also dry many herbs here. 

Seth: Can I get a whole wheat tortilla instead of toast?
Us:  Might I suggest a couple slices of our Mt. Athos Fire Bread, which is a whole-grain artisan loaf baked locally by a guy who was personally trained by one of France's greatest master bakers?  Would you like to try a piece?  If you don't like that, we can make some tortillas from scratch if you don't mind waiting a few minutes.

Seth:  I'd like only egg whites in my omelette.  But I'd like my omelet to be just as big as everyone else's.
Us:  Certainly sir.  Our white omelettes are made with five eggs.  (Note to self: have Johnny save the yolks and we'll do something with hollandaise tomorrow).

Seth:  I'd like fresh veggies as a garnish, not hash browns.
Us:  This morning I can offer you locally-grown organic carrots or zucchini as julienne, or we'll mix both if you prefer.  However, before you choose, I'd like to add that our hash browns recently won the US Hash Brown championship.  They are made only of organically grown local Ohio Red potatoes along with sweet onions and red and yellow peppers from a farmer here in Lawrence.  We use an organic grapeseed oil and grey sea salt to pull it all together.  Are you certain you'd like the carrot or zucchini?

Us: Very well.  Would you like coffee with that?  Today we have a Cup of Excellence winner from the recent Panama auctions which we can brew by press pot or as an Americano.  You'd like tea?  Green, black, white or red?  Very well.  Thank you for your order sir. 

I'll note that Seth is a vegetarian, not a vegan.  I just exaggerated the point on the pan to indicate what I think an appropriate response would be to a customer who is a real PITA vegan. 

Point of this exercise is to note that in the food business, it's irresponsible to keep extra quantities of things around "just in case" somebody wants to order.  Margins in this business are threadbare thin.  If someone wants to give stuff away to keep one customer in a hundred happy, go right ahead.  See you in bankruptcy court next Spring.

But, creative use of existing resources and solid knowledge of your product offerings enables most out-of-the-ordinary customer interactions to be handled without promoting irresponsible financial behavior or screwing up cost-effective established processes.

And getting management and staff together on that page is, IMO, pretty exceptional.

03:18 PM in TSMR Rants | Permalink


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Posted by: Kyle Smith | Sep 7, 2006 2:12:25 PM

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