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The “It” Factor

What separates a successful restaurant from one that doesn’t make it?

Drive through any town, big or small, and it won’t be long before you pass an empty storefront. Many of these abandoned shells are former restaurants, still identifiable by once-beckoning signs and marquees. 

It breaks my heart every time I see one. I know the owners poured their blood, sweat and tears into them, working grueling hours and sacrificing much of their personal lives to build something special. 

Often, these failed businesses are near similar operations that appear to be thriving. So if location isn’t the determining factor, what separates a successful restaurant from one that doesn’t make it?

I call it the “it” factor. When people feel “this place has it,” they come back again and again. It’s difficult to define exactly what “it” is, but let me try. 

We are all basically alike in that we love to enjoy ourselves. So we search for experiences and things that will make us feel good. We’ve all left a restaurant or store thinking, “I’m never going back there.” These places just didn’t have “it” for us. 

Conversely, there are places we love to go again and again, that make us feel welcome and comfortable. These places have created a brand that resonates with us. That’s “it.”

How customers perceive your brand

I really like this definition of branding from Gordon Food Service North America Commercial Segments Manager Doug Owens: “Your brand is your promise to your guest that is unique and readily identifiable, supported by demonstrated behavior and executed by your team.”

I like this because it emphasizes that business is about customer perception. You have to make your customers understand that you have something they want; then you have to deliver that something every day and every way. 

Here’s the kicker: “Something” isn’t just one thing. It’s everything that contributes to a customer’s evaluation of your operation. Think of your guests as embarking on a journey when they choose to dine at your restaurant—a journey that results in a final impression of your operation. Everything you do will either positively accelerate or negatively decelerate their path to deciding whether you’re “it” for them.

Be aware that your customers are experiencing your operation from a number of vantage points. Perhaps that couple is coming in because they found you online or have a friend who recommended you. Maybe that mother saw an ad or drove by with her kids and liked the look of your place. Any or all of these may have been enough to encourage a new customer to stop in. You may never know the motivating factor, so a consistent approach to all of them is vital. Each can be viewed as a critical moment in the consumer’s decision to choose you.

Regardless of what motivates customers, all come in with an expectation. Exceed that expectation and you’ve delivered “it.”

Accelerate the customer journey

Let’s revisit the journey I mentioned and the critical moments a customer will experience along the way. I like to refer to these moments as “touch points.” They are a series of opportunities to influence your guests and optimize the dining experience.     

Attend to these seven touch points and you’ll be on your way to achieving the “It Factor.”

Curb appeal. How do your building and parking lot look to passersby? Go out front and experience it the way customers would.

Hello, appetite! Is your host/hostess creating anticipation by offering a friendly greeting, an honest appraisal of wait time, a look at the menu and a promise of delicious things to come?

Tease me. Does your host/hostess lead guests to tables with purpose and panache? Do the décor, cleanliness, noise level, and table settings suggest a pleasurable meal? (See From the Other Side of the Table column on page xx for a diner’s perspective on why tabletop matters.)

Decision time. Is your wait staff trained to sell rather than simply take orders? Do servers know how to read customer cues and tailor their approach accordingly?

Lookin’ good. We eat with our eyes first; are your plates picture-worthy? Food presentation is theater, so set the stage for a satisfying experience. 

Ready, set, eat. Does your food deliver on the menu’s promises? Is it delicious, appropriately portioned and attractively presented? Is your wait staff poised to sell desserts before the customer gets full?

Gotta go. Is the bill delivered in a timely manner? Are customers thanked for their business? Does the host/hostess invite them to come back?

I’ve just barely scratched the surface of touch points and their role in giving your place the “It Factor,” but I promise there’s more to come on this topic.

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