by Margaux Salcedo | October 15, 2017
What does it take to be a successful restaurateur in this new world full of tech-savvy, well-traveled families? Not just a good menu, apparently.
Chef RJ Ungco, a graduate of the esteemed culinary institute Les Roches in Switzerland, is a restaurant consultant who gives advice on anything and everything you need to know about starting a restaurant, managing a restaurant, even saving a restaurant.
His company assists restaurateurs in everything from conceptualization to branding, developing a chef’s menu, constructing a restaurateur’s dream restaurant, and streamlining day-to-day operations, helping in hiring and training staff as well as marketing.
He has worked with restaurants on the brink of closing. He looked at their sales and price trends, studied their target market, and then advised them on how to tweak the concepts to make them become money machines.
He has worked with restaurants such as Casa Roces, Cafe Enye, Peri-Peri Charcoal Chicken, Parmigiano at Resorts World, Toni & Sergio, Shrimp Bucket, Spatzle at Shangri-la Plaza, Rue Bourbon, Poke Shack and Ponzo’s beside the St. Alphonsus di Ligouri Church in Magallanes. Out of town, he has consulted for The Nest in El Nido, Palawan, Chateau de Busay in Cebu, Chateau by the Sea in Mactan, and Flotsam & Jetsam in La Union.
I picked his brain on what it takes to be a successful restaurateur in today’s world, given that there is so much competition.
His answer revealed something about today’s customers: It’s no longer just about the food; a lot has to do with marketing.
“Having delicious food is a given,” RJ explained. “But these days, it’s not enough. Customers are more sophisticated or at least try to be.”
This reminds me of the Madrid Fusion 2015 ad showing a young working girl engrossed in her thoughts about the dish before her: “The seasoning is spot on, nice acidity. Noodles al dente … and I love the scallions. It’s just missing something … something smokey.” Then the camera pans down and it turns out to be a simple bowl of mami. Or the artsy young man, wincing in what almost appears to be sympathy for the pastry chef who almost perfected her dessert: “So close, she almost got it perfect … It’s sweet, nutty, creamy all at the same time … but a pinch of sea salt would have nailed it just to set off the caramel.” Then the camera pans down and it’s just leche flan.
People no longer just eat; they want to experience a meal
Also, everyone is now a food expert, thanks in large part to social media, especially Instagram.
But food must not only be Instagram-worthy. “Use of textures and colors is important but the restaurateur should try to tickle all five senses of the customer. Aside from addressing a customer’s sense of taste and smell through the food, he should also activate hearing with good music, sight with great design, touch with interactive food items. This gives the customer a better overall experience at your resto,” he advises.
Beyond that, you must also tug at sentiment. “A lot of customers now are well-traveled so use your ingredients to bring out a bit of nostalgia, like remind them of their trip to Morocco with the plates that you use or a cooking class they saw of Marco Pierre White with the technique used for your chicken,” he suggests.
I guess he means a chef must bring out that moment in Ratatouille where Anton Ego, the fierce restaurant critic, remembered his childhood with the cooking of Remy the rat-chef—that take-me-back moment that brings the eater to a place of wonderful memories.
Just like in any other business, however, no matter how good your food is, if no one knows about it, it won’t translate to income for your restaurant. So RJ advises to invest in marketing.
“It’s a marketing-driven industry now, so a restaurant should spend on marketing the equivalent of 10-15 percent of bimonthly costs,” RJ says. “This may not immediately translate to an increase in sales but it’s important so that the restaurant get its message across. Awareness alone about a restaurant plays a big role in its success.”
He also acknowledges the importance today of “influencers” or “tastemakers” or social media personalities who allow marketing strategists to use them as subtle advertising platforms.
He admits, however, “Social media is both a blessing and a curse for restaurateurs.”
Marketing agencies now send these people to restaurants “so that enough influencers would say that your products are okay.”
Admittedly, this is also the reason why there are a lot of restaurants today that seem to be hyped up by influencers or tastemakers but when you visit, the food is just so-so or pretty but not tasty. This applies internationally as well.
One must not necessarily have a unique concept to make it in the market today. Instead, RJ emphasizes you must understand what your target market wants. Or if you are stuck in a certain location, know what the market in that area demands.
“Don’t insist on selling steak and fries in Binondo,” he says.
You must know the behavior of your market. Is your location near a church? In a condo building? Do you cater to families or single persons? What are their habits? What are they willing to pay for? Then look for angles to penetrate the market.
He cites himself as an example. “I’m a chef but there are already so many chefs, so since I have a business background and am very creative, I focused on consultancy instead.”
After understanding the market, a restaurateur must be open to change. RJ has acted as consultant for restaurants that needed fresh eyes to see why they were not making money.
He shares the hardest clients are those who are not open to change and those who are only concerned about income without having any passion for the very things that make the restaurant come alive.
Most important, though, is the restaurant owner’s dedication. The owner must commit to the restaurant or else, no matter what he or she does, the restaurant will not be a success. “The key is day-in and day-out consistency in everything you do.”
The restaurant must always be on its toes. “There must be constant innovation not just in the food but in all aspects of the restaurant. The staff must always be one to two steps ahead of customers so it is important to take good care of your human resources as well because they are your brand ambassadors.”
“A restaurant business is not all glam,” he stresses. “It’s really a lot of hard work.”
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