It Takes More than Food to Make A Great Eatery
By Heather Corcoran
You’ve landed a star chef and found a great location, and now you’re ready to open the next hit restaurant. But in a city with 20,000 eateries, what does it take to survive – and thrive – when 50 percent of restaurants in the city don’t make it through their first year?
Throughout the city, restaurants from the massive Buddakan to the cozy Little Owl are counting on more than just food to lure in customers. So while intimate little joints like the Waverly Inn are quickly replacing the glitzy, high-concept spectacles of recent years, creating a total experience is still a top priority.
Finding a niche is key, said Paco Underhill, president of Manhattan-based retail consulting firm Envirosell. His company has used its research on the psychology of shopping to advise companies like Starbucks.
“You need to do something within the terms of your expertise,” he said. That means if you aren’t an über-chef, don’t try to become one, he added. “You need to have a clear understanding of what you want to accomplish,” and “understand who you want to come in the door.”
To get those customers inside, restaurateurs need to create an experience, said Clark Wolf, president of restaurant consulting firm the Clark Wolf Company.
“You need a reason to come, whether it’s the owner, the chef, the location, the food, the design, the architect, the backer,” he said, and the more bold-faced names the better. “When you go there something needs to happen and it can’t be bland.”
Restaurateur Jason Denton is a good example of how those in the industry strive to create a unique experience for customers.
“Obviously, the food is a giant concern, but we share a lot of equal concern in creating an environment. I call it moods and foods,” said Denton, the co-owner of ‘inoteca and ‘ino with his wife Jennifer and Lupa and Otto with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. From buying furniture inspired by his trips to Italy to playing his favorite records, Denton is a hands-on owner.
The right music is an important tool in creating the right experience, experts say. That’s where Jeremy Abrams of audiostiles comes in. Drawing on his background working at records labels and at VH1, Abrams and the rest of the audiostiles team create customized playlists for a variety of clients, from restaurants, hotels, stores and spas to people simply looking for new music.
“Radio’s kind of more and more generic these days so there’s room for new kinds of music programmers and tastemakers to do something different,” said Abrams. For him, that means creating a musical portrait of a brand for restaurants like Café Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne, Per Se and Pop Burger.
“Restaurants are a good opportunity to hear music for customers … a new way to check out music that you wouldn’t hear otherwise.”
Good music and flashy décor might bring in customers, but what keeps them coming back is quality. The key to a successful restaurant, said Underhill, is “being able to successfully operate day in and day out. Every time you fail, there are countless other options” for the customer to choose. Especially in New York.
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself admiring the flower arrangements at Mario Batali’s Babbo or del Posto. After all they were created by an artist; one whose work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
Simone Shubuck has been the in-house florist for both restaurants since they opened, carefully choosing the right blossoms to compliment the regional Italian cuisine. She also happens to be represented by Zach Feuer, a Chelsea gallery with a roster of young talent.
At first, her day job and artistic career were unrelated, “then over years of being involved with flowers it just kind of seeped in,” said Shubuck. “Now that I notice where they overlap I embrace it a little more.”
Like the bouquets, her drawings are the result of a careful selection process – picking and choosing paper and imagery the same way she selects tulips and peonies. “I think the process of just picking out flowers, thinking of them in terms of materials and choosing colors, it could just be like a fun way to shift your thinking when you go back into think about constructing a piece of artwork and what materials you choose,” she said.
But the shared attention to detail isn’t the only place where the two intersect. Shubuck’s drawings are lush concoctions, filled with a fantastical mix of plants, animals, delicate printed textiles and plays on music and pop culture. It’s like the diary of a collector, seemingly random connections made by what the artist calls her “Rube Goldberg machine” of a mind.
And given her wide range of references – everything from the ladylike crafts of her grandmother and great-grandmother, to the work of Viennese artists like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt that she first encountered at the Neue Galerie—each image is full of surprises.
Photos: The Russian Tea Room; Simone Shubuck “Monifruit Tree” 2005, Courtesy of Zach Feuer Gallery