Day 18: The business of food

Wednesday morning skies

Today’s lecture day took a different view of food, cooking and the industry we’re currently immersed in. Instead of learning more about the craft of cooking, today we looked at it through a much more practical lens – running a food business. Why? Because regardless of the type of restaurant / cafe / product / market stall (delete as appropriate) we might want to open, whatever it is – essentially we’ll be running a business. And given the competitiveness, cost and competition in the industry, we need these skills if we’re to succeed.

For me, what was also super interesting is how much cross over there is between what I learnt today and my pre-Ballymaloe life of user experience and service design. It’s just instead of it being about service design and improving customers’s experience with their banks, we’re talking restaurants.

We were lead through the day by Blathnaid Bergin, aka The Restaurant Advisor. Blathnaid has worked in the Irish food industry for a long time and helps different types of food businesses succeed. As far as I can tell, she does this by essentially using service design methodologies to help her clients improve their service; identify pain-points and gaps in the experience, spot areas for improvement and then help them redesign what they do, to do it better. From customer experience touch points (such as the design of restaurant interiors and the service style delivered by the waiting staff) to what goes on behind the scenes across the whole end to end service, such as menu planning, supply chain, ordering, training of staff, staff experience, technology, waste disposal etc.

As well as great food, we learnt about the importance of understanding people, emotions and experience in running a food business. Know why people eat out, decide how you want your customers and your staff to feel when they come to your restaurant and design your service accordingly. What experience are you trying to create?

Blathnaid is a big fan of systems; advocating a comprehensive set of structured systems across the business, as one of the most important and effective ways to create an operationally smooth service and a consistent experience. I’d add to that a strong culture, ethos and set of values is important here too; they can influence behaviour as much as a rule book or standard operating procedures.

We talked about the business models of the McDonalds and Starbucks of the world, who (as much as we might turn our nose up at their product and how they go about it) deliver their brand of services seamlessly.

There is just so much detail to take into account when setting up a restaurant. As one small example, take a plate. While you obviously want a plate that you like the look of and that fits your brand, you also need to consider;

  • Can they fit in the dishwasher and if so, how many at a time?
  • How much do they weigh and how many plates can your wait staff carry in one go?
  • Does the size affect portion control?
  • Are they stackable?

(Cue need for a customer journey map if ever I saw one…)

I left the day being reminded of how much work there is to run any sort of successful service, be it baking or banking.

It’s about standing up and being known for something. Perfecting a craft and delivering something great. Understanding people, what they want and what they need. Inspiring and developing your staff to help you deliver your dream. Being a visionary (seeing the big picture of what you’re trying to achieve) as well as understanding the detail (costs, cash-flow, margins and mark-ups). Gathering constant feedback on what you’re doing and always looking for ways to improve.

No easy task.

I don’t like that saying “if you chose a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life”. I think it’s bollocks. It doesn’t matter how much you love food, running a business and making a living from cooking is hard! Anything you do too much of you may end up loving a bit less. But, I do believe it was said well in that lovely movie ‘Hector and the Pursuit of Happiness’. He said this:

Happiness is doing a job that you love, or doing something you are passionate about.

Food for thought.

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