Food & Wine Classic: Adapting to a changing industry |

Food & Wine Classic: Adapting to a changing industry

From left, Tony Mantuano, Tom Douglas, Andrew Zimmern, Barbara Lynch and Hugh Acheson.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

In an industry that is constantly evolving, adaptation might be critical but it’s not always the answer to success.

That’s what a panel moderated by celebrity food personality and author Andrew Zimmern discussed during the Food & Wine Classic’s American Express Restaurant Trade Program on Friday. Panelists included Hugh Acheson, Tom Douglas, Barbara Lynch and Tony Mantuano.

“Life is not planned very well — it’s shot at us at point-blank range,” Zimmern said.

The 2016 American Express Restaurant Trade Survey found that 87 percent of restaurant operators believe incorporating technology in their restaurants would help attract more customers. But in Friday’s panel, that kind of adaptation wasn’t a high priority for the group of restaurant owners onstage. When an audience member asked panelists why many new industry-related technologies aren’t well-received by restaurateurs, Acheson, a celebrity chef, author and restaurateur, pointed out that it’s because technology can’t replace hospitality.

“We knew what Champagne that customer liked way before the tech provided it because we wrote it down. Basically, if we rely on that type of stuff, we’re going to create a soulless industry,” Acheson said. “These restaurants have souls and that what makes them better. That’s what wins us awards. That’s what makes us good employers. You give me all the tech and I will give you a restaurant that anybody can do. And I can do what the tech can’t do — I can provide the nuance and personality and authenticity to something. Data doesn’t do that.”

As restaurateurs have increasing access to data that tells them about their customers — demographics, what they like to eat or drink, etc. — Acheson and Lynch, who owns eight restaurants in Boston, argued that good restaurants have had that data for decades because they pay attention to their customers.

“That’s hospitality,” Lynch said.

But Zimmern noted that consumers are changing, and the industry has to respond whether it wants to.

Douglas, who operates 18 restaurants in a 10-block radius in downtown Seattle, said he never thought he’d have to play along with the technology, but now he finds himself responding to it. He’s starting a delivery kitchen to catch up to a side of the restaurant business he never thought he’d enter. And in what he describes as “socialist Seattle,” he’s adapting to much more than technology.

Seattle imposed a $15 minimum wage for all workers. Douglas adapted by eliminating tipping in most of his restaurants, although he does add a 20 percent service charge. The reason? Tips aren’t considered wages in Seattle, but commissions are, but that doesn’t change the fact that his payroll is costing him $5 million more this year than last.

“We’ve decided to sacrifice profits this year,” he said.

As city governments impose more laws — another pending one Douglas isn’t thrilled about is a predictive scheduling law, meaning schedules have to be written more than two weeks in advance and staff members must be paid if they’re called off a shift — and technology changes the players in the game, the already tough restaurant business is continuing to get tougher.

So how do you stay ahead of all of that and still come out on top?

“The biggest thing is you have to be authentic — you got to be real,” Acheson said.

The topic of dynamic pricing was something panelists struggled with as it relates to authenticity. Dynamic pricing — meaning prices rise and fall along with peak times or days of the week, much like airlines and hotels do — is a hard pill to swallow for restaurants with relatively fixed costs. How do you sell a customer a piece of salmon for $30 one day, but sell the same piece for $35 the next?

Acheson said that creates a big problem, but Mantuano thinks it’s inevitable that dynamic pricing will become part of the industry.

As for the rest of it? Some things might stick, but with technology constantly changing, Lynch said the inconsistency of it keeps her mostly away.

“It changes too quickly,” she said.


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