New Year’s wish list for North County restaurants

I eat out a lot so sure, I’m probably a little more sensitive to the little things that can make or break a dining experience. I don’t write this column to put a restaurant out of business so I try to focus on the positive and follow up with the proprietor after the fact with some helpful suggestions to try and improve the experience for future customers. I see restaurants open all the time and have a sense, almost immediately, about whether they will have what it takes to make it in an extremely competitive industry. While a lot goes into making a restaurant succeed, there are some basics that are too often neglected that can really help.
With that, here is my 2010 North County restaurant wish list.
— Train your staff and get them passionate about your vision. This is a huge issue in area restaurants. Attractive servers are great but educate them and have them taste everything on your menu. Get them excited about food; it really does make the dining experience that much better for everyone, especially your servers who should reap the rewards of providing that experience.
Some examples of this that have stood out over the past year include servers who can’t remember what the soup of the day or the special is. Those that have brought entrees out before the starters are done and ask where to put them, oblivious to the fact that they brought them out too soon. A few have claimed that everything on the menu was homemade when it’s obvious that it was not. I realize that staffing a restaurant is difficult, but like anything, you get out of it what you invest, so take the time to train, educate, and inspire your staff no matter what kind of establishment you run. This applies to every restaurant — lowbrow, highbrow and everything in between.
— Mix it up. I’m all for consistency and a good solid core menu, but change it up a bit with the seasons. I’m a big fan of osso bucco, but not so much in the middle of the summer. Menus that highlight local, seasonal ingredients show you are putting some thought in.
— Create a soundtrack that fits your establishment. Seriously, I guess smooth jazz has its place somewhere in this world, but there is so much more out there. Music should not overpower the experience but add to it. Get creative, create a killer mix that reflects your cuisine, vibe and the personality of your space.
— Huge menus are not a turn-on. To me it means you probably have a lot in your freezer. Trim your menu and focus on a core group of dishes that you do really well. Huge menus scream mediocrity.
— Add more micro and specialty beers. It’s official, ales and porters are here to stay and their audience is growing. Some work fabulously with cuisine and it’s always fun to develop interesting pairings. Light, mass-produced lagers have their time and place but for the most part, it’s not with food.
— Put some thought into your marketing. Your restaurant is your identity, put some thought into how you represent yourself. Unidentifiable food shots in your ads do more to confuse potential customers than entice them. Put together a well-thought-out marketing strategy that includes a mix of traditional and digital mediums. This does not have to break your budget either. E-mail marketing is inexpensive and a great way to update your customers with menu changes and specials. Social media can also work to build your community. Communicate with and reward your existing customers as they are your best source of new business. If you have questions about any of this, there is this fabulous little boutique agency called Artichoke Creative that would be happy to give you some tips.
— And, on one final note for those of you thinking of opening a new restaurant in the area, I think we are pretty much set on Italian, Mexican and sports bars. I know they tend to please the masses, but something a little more original would be fantastic. With that, here is to delicious, inspired, creative food and attentive, knowledgeable, and passionate servers. Not too much to ask right?

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