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R&IEditorial Archives2005April 1 — Special Report

Detail Work
Top 100 restaurants maintain leadership through commitment to continual improvement.

A deep-blue ceiling evokes the sea at Fulton’s Crab House (above); a whimsical ram surveys the bar at Maloney & Porcelli (below).

When times are good, Ray’s Boathouse gets rid of the staff.

“Every year we have to stay on top of things; raise the bar. If we don’t, guests may stop visiting,” says Maureen Shaw, general manager of the Seattle restaurant. “Last year was a great one for us, so we sent the staff out to do what we call restaura-touring. Eight employees went to Chicago and another eight went to New York City to see what the other great restaurants are doing and gather new trends.”

The tour groups included Executive Chef Charles Ramseyer (who has run the kitchen since 1993), Chef de Cuisine Peter Birk, Pastry Chef Marcia Sisley-Berger, sous-chefs, dining-room and marketing managers and others. Given Ray’s 10% sales increase last year (to a record $9.5 million), the quest was not for solutions to problems. Nor was it a recipe hunt: Since opening in 1973, the restaurant has specialized in fresh fish and shellfish preparations. The travel mandate simply was to taste, look, smell, learn and enjoy.

Staying on their toes is how operators remain among the Top 100 Independent Restaurants. Viewing financial success as the means for improvement is a common trait among the leaders. Continual upgrading is the rule: Banquet space gets expanded; menus, wine lists and price points are evaluated and adjusted; marketing programs are augmented. All this is done with an eye to improving the experience of each diner.

It’s simply a matter of “repair maintenance,” says Al Fleenor, president of Portland, Ore.-based Pacific Coast Restaurants, owner of Top 100 member Portland City Grill. “You watch every aspect of an operation and fix what’s needed to take care of every customer,” he says. “I love replacing carpeting. It means it’s getting used.”

While Portland City Grill benefits from its 30th-floor location, Fleenor reminds staff that “it’s going to be the same great view next time. Always sell the food, I tell them.”

Two (soon to be three) corporate chefs continually reassess the Grill’s menu as well as those at Pacific Coast’s other independent and chain operations (Stanford’s Restaurant & Bar and Newport Bay Restaurant). “You analyze what’s selling and make changes one click at a time,” says Fleenor. An expanded sushi menu now accounts for $1 million annually.

Portland City Grill’s average check of $35.50 is essentially unchanged from 2003. “We keep portions generous and prices more than competitive. You don’t need to put a vacuum into someone’s wallet,” he says.

Anticipating Needs
St. Elmo Steak House’s menu hasn’t changed much in the last half-century, says General Manager Chris Clifford, but that doesn’t mean operations at the 103-year-old Indianapolis institution aren’t always reevaluated.

Long known for its wine cellar (17,000 bottles and more than 1,000 labels), St. Elmo last year added a 14-seat wine room for private dining. Immediately it was solidly booked months in advance. The rise in the restaurant’s average check to $72.22 last year from $63.07 was less a result of passing on substantially higher beef prices than of heartier customer spending, Clifford says. “People are drinking less, but drinking higher-end,” he says.

Average dinner check at this year’s Top 100 Independent Restaurants.

Four wine-dinner events last year in conjunction with vintners sold out and St. Elmo likely will do eight this year. “We don’t do them to drive business on slow nights but just as a way to reward frequent guests. We do them for cost,” he says.

Such events can improve relationships with distributors as well. A tasting of 45 vintage 2000 cabernets held just before the release of the 2001 was a hit with customers, raised money that benefited a children’s charity and moved 60 cases of wine. “It helped with our allocation of the 2001s,” he says.

A Maloney & Porcelli guest who favors cabernet is likely to be told by a sommelier about new arrivals of the varietal to the New York City restaurant’s cellar. A database shared by all Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group operations stores guests’ food and wine choices from their five previous visits. Details are appended to reservations so that servers and sommeliers can tailor suggestions and services.

“If a guest prefers a booth, that’s also noted,” says Kevin Dillon, Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group regional director. “But we train staff to be careful. You want guests to know that we care about them, but we don’t want to scare them by seeming to know too much.”

Branding Irons
Harris Ranch Restaurant always has served its own beef: The Harris family also owns an 800-acre feedlot, meat-processing facility and farms that raise onions and garlic. Last year the Coalinga, Calif., restaurant began pouring its own wine.

The parent company has grown wine grapes in Lodi, Calif., for many years, selling them to wineries. Last year it decided to use some of the fruit to bottle its own Zinfandel. It joined the private-label Harris Ranch Restaurant Reserve wines a California winery produces for the restaurant.

A success in Chicago, a second Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab recently opened in Las Vegas.

Private-label wine, like the house-branded beef, is part of what makes Harris Ranch special, says General Manager Kirk Doyle. When mad cow disease threats caused some to back away from beef last year, Harris Ranch’s reputation for controlling quality helped protect it. “Our guests know that we’re controlling product from the beginning,” Doyle says. “In fact, we saw beef sales go up.”

Raising its own beef doesn’t shield Harris Ranch from marketplace factors that influence pricing, however. It felt beef-price increases and made some menu adjustments. Prices were lowered on some higher-margin items, raised on others. “We did a better job with menu positioning,” Doyle says of adjustments in the entrée mix that encouraged trade-ups and increased the average check.

When the restaurant observed price sensitivity with wines, it increased by-the-glass pours from the standard 3 to 4 ounces to 8. “People from Napa or Sonoma are accustomed to a 3-ounce pour, but other guests weren’t feeling the value,” Doyle says. “It’s important to us that they do. With 8-ounce glasses, we’re still making our dollars while making customers happier.”

Satisfying guests simply is what the hospitality industry is about, says Fleenor. “It’s not a hard business. It’s the people who run it who can make it hard.”

View the R&I Top 100 Independent Restaurants

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