From building a loyal customer base to utilizing data to improve hospitality, solving your own restaurant problems can often be worth the timely investment.

There’s something about the restaurant world that churns out top-tier problem solvers. It’s like we’re wired for it—equipped to handle curveballs at the drop of a hat, from the host who miraculously conjures up a table for the group that “thought” they had a reservation, all the way up to the CEO of a large restaurant group easing investor concerns. In every role, we tackle more problems before lunch than most people do all day. 

We can spend so much of our time rapidly resolving a variety of smaller problems, that we risk losing sight of our ability to address larger problems. Throughout my career, I’ve had the pleasure of being involved in various industries—everything from restaurants to dry cleaning to technology. Below, I recount some of the challenges and lessons I’ve learned throughout more than a decade of restaurant ownership, like 1) how to elevate your business to be a local staple; 2) how to rake in revenue doing what once seemed impossible; and 3), the one I’m most proud of—how to definitively improve your service, even if your team is a mix of aces and amateurs. 

1) How to elevate your business to be a local staple

Back in 2011, we opened our first Middle Spoon Desserterie & Bar to great success; we frequently had more patrons than seats. A wonderful problem, sure, but our only option for expansion within the building was an old boiler room with no windows. Not exactly the makings of a hotspot (unless you’re the boiler I suppose). On top of that, guests would need to walk through our kitchen to access this area. As a team, we kept discussing possibilities until we came up with a plan. We turned the boiler room into a secret, password-protected speakeasy called Noble. The passphrase would change every week and be sent out via our mailing list. 

The exclusive nature of Noble drove our mailing list numbers through the roof, and we always made the passphrase an inspiring saying to encourage opens. This gave extra value to our guests and allowed us to stay top of mind. We achieved what few restaurateurs do: producing weekly marketing our customers actually sought out. To date, north of 55,000 people have signed up, and we enjoy close to a 40 percent open rate. Noble has also appeared on Canada’s Top 50 bars list numerous times. 

2) How to rake in revenue doing the impossible

We’re all about the delicious desserts and innovative cocktails at The Middle Spoon. But here’s a challenge: how do you deliver those cocktails to eager customers wanting to enjoy them at home, which legally speaking was a no-no for years? When I looked at the industry, I noticed two things: more distilleries were opening restaurant/bar environments, and distilleries were allowed to deliver to their customers. The light bulb flickered—if distilleries were taking the plunge into our world, surely there was a loophole for us to enjoy some of the same benefits they do. After about a year of research and red tape, I was able to secure a small distillery license that allowed me to deliver my cocktails. This was more than a game changer; we had redefined the rules. The average distillery would process their orders and deliver them within a few days, but we treated it like typical restaurant deliveries and had product to customers within the hour. Fast forward to pandemic lockdowns, and this initiative proved to be a saving grace.

3) How to improve hospitality with data

When I got into the restaurant industry, I was surprised to find we were using solid data to help us manage nearly every aspect of the business, with the notable exception being tableside interactions with our guests. If our food and drink is the heart of our offering, then the relationship with our guests must be the lungs, right? Why were we leaving this to an individual’s perception of time rather than something more concrete? 

We all know how frustrating it is in a restaurant to be looking for a server that never seems to be around. It’s even worse when your customers tell you it happened to them in your place. When you ask one of your employees during service, “when was the last time you were at Table 105?” the answer is always “I was just there,” but the tables darting eyes seem to suggest otherwise.

When I couldn’t find a ready-made solution for this problem, I set out to solve it myself. I completed a few courses in computer programming, then to accelerate the learning curve I hired myself a private teacher, a brilliant computer engineer named Hugo. After honing my skills and years of research, Hugo and I completed the first version of Table Touch—a software program that uses small devices placed both on the underside of the table and in employee’s aprons to form a connection when the two get close to each other. The connection-event is sent back to the program, processed and displayed at server stations. On the display you’ll find how long it’s been since an employee has visited a table, with green, yellow, and red color-coded timers to easily identify what tables need attention. 

You’ll also see which employee is assigned to the table, how long it’s been since the guest sat down, and which employee was the last to visit the table. The reporting function allows us to see what employees are in line with our guidelines, which need some work, and which are great at helping their teammates. When we connect Table Touch to our POS, it allows us to see the real monetary value of table visits to both our sales and our servers’ tips. Beyond the improvement in service, Table Touch is also driving additional revenue, both from sales the server is making but also as a stand-alone product other restaurants are now using for themselves.

Though people in the restaurant business may be some of the best problem solvers out there, part of our issue is we’re also some of the busiest people. It’s tempting to sweep larger puzzles under the rug for another day. But whether you’re trying to transform a boiler room into a must-do experience, legally deliver cocktails, engineer the perfect guest experience, or solve whatever hot-button issue you have, the most daunting hurdle might be setting aside the time to start. If you do, I think your future self will thank you.

Ciaran Doherty is an experienced owner/director with a demonstrated history working in the restaurant/bar and other service-based industries. In 2011, Doherty and his wife Lacey opened The Middle Spoon Desserterie & Bar in downtown Halifax. The niche restaurant offers high end desserts and craft cocktails with a supreme focus on quality. Doherty is also the co-founder of a software company created to help solve service based issues in the restaurant industry.

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