I will never forget a painful experience I had at Mario Batali’s Babbo in New York City. The boob with whom I agreed to have a blind dinner date with hadn’t the faintest idea of the difference between burrata and bean dip. While we sat in the squishy-seated Greenwich Village eatery, my date forced the waiter through explanations of everything on the menu, loudly asking: “what’s Bucatini?” Exasperated, the waiter finally said: “sir I would just suggest the Spaghetti Bolognese.” My date looked at him quizzically and said: “What’s that?”
I wanted to crawl under the table.
This article is meant to make a point about how authentically Modern Latin your menu items really must be and whether this helps, or hurts your business. Are you selling out by including enchiladas on the menu instead of the Ropa Vieja? Would it be distasteful to anglicize the national Venezuelan dish of Pabellón criollo by calling it something else? Would a simple title of “Black Bean and Pork Stew” suffice to describe a Brazilian Feijoada?
At Babbo, Mario went for the fully authentic Italian descriptions. Being the famed or now, infamous, iconoclast who could get away with making orange Crocs a fashion statement, he sourced every rare ingredient he could find. Though the Bucatini all’Amatriciana had a description: “with Guanciale, Hot Pepper and Pecorino,” even I had to pull out my iPhone to look up “guanciale.” As a foodie, I loved this adventure!
Customers, the bulk of whom pay your bills, hate this.
No one wants to feel stupid or intimidated; hungry customers just want to be sated. Some of the more sophisticated ones might go for a little nostalgia and entertainment – but they too, in the end, want something satisfying. My point? You must ask yourself: do I want to be cool, or do I want to build a business (and still be fabulous)?
The only thing to remember is this: business ceases to exist without a customer. Know thine customer, then give them what they want.
There have been many chefs famed for taming what were at one time considered exotic cuisines and modernizing them. Pierre Selvaggio of Valentinos is one of them. He explained to me once that when he opened the place in 1972, his was the first Italian restaurant in Los Angeles without red and white checkered cloth on the table and Spaghetti Bolognese as a menu selection.
I am not dismissing Spaghetti Bolognese as anything short of the complex dish it is, but in his mind, it was far too pedestrian. If Selvaggio was French, he’d never stoop to serve crème brûlée, but would opt for marjolaine or a croquembouche. So, being the brave soul that he is, Selvaggio served up shellfish and crudo. Can you imagine crudo at that time? That was way before sushi became fashionable, yet he persevered with his high ideas. It took a long time for things to catch on, and he suffered greatly by paying to educate an entire city’s palate to accept something new. His story, however, was a success.
Though we tend to deify restaurateurs like Pierre, here is the truth of choosing this path: if what you have is seriously innovative, it’s going to be more expensive, more time consuming and incredibly competitive. Ask any MBA, and they’ll explain to you that smart business folk look for industries that have innovated in the past few years are trending – and go in once a consumer base has been educated and established. Only then – do they attempt to do something slightly different – and crush it.
This being Southern California, we are surrounded by foodies with money and, gratefully, we live in a time and place in history where we are so wealthy that going out to eat is a pastime. There is much more room to be inventive in this market, but the question is: are you in business to make money – or spend money? If your customer, like my date, knows not the difference between a pupusa and a Salvadoran Stuffed Quesadilla, how will you build your menu?
ABOUT THE WRITER | Alyson Dutch
Alyson Dutch, the CEO of Malibu, California based Brown & Dutch Public Relations, is the
author of PR Handbook for Entrepreneurs and PR Handbook for Food Franchisees. Dutch’s
communication style is straightforward, genuine, and savvy. Her passion for her work
drives her to apply her knowledge in a creative, yet methodical manner. In addition,
she has a keen understanding of the cultural sensitivities that rule the business
marketplace and commands the media’s attention.