It’s certainly no secret – running a restaurant at a profit is very difficult. You can see the evidence of how hard it really is just by making a mental note of how many places go under in a very short space of time.
To be fair, it’s not for everybody. The long hours, the difficulty finding (and keeping) good staff that won’t rob you blind, maintaining your cool during high season, and the patience and strategy you must cultivate during the slower season … it’s a complex equation made even more difficult by changing trends, competition, and not to mention the weather.
Even with decades of experience under our collective belts, we are constantly facing new challenges. Anyone of lesser temperament would likely crumble under the pressure – meaning, it really takes a certain type of person to keep the good times rolling and make it financially viable.
Luckily enough, Amy and I have a passion for hospitality; otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing it at all. In fact, it is our love of great food and wine that is at the root of it all, but as simple as that sounds in theory, those are two of the three things that can tank a restaurant right out of the gate. More on that in a moment …
Fortunately, there is a paradigm, and it is upon this all of our success hinges. As long as certain criteria are met, it allows us to focus on our guest experience, which, in the public eye, is the true arbiter of success.
The paradigm is probably the most yawning part of the bigger picture, but briefly, it involves a ratio of costs which must absolutely be kept within margins: food cost, liquor cost, labour cost, and prime/fixed costs (hydro, water, rent, etc). They all have ideal ranges that are based on a percentage of sales, and there is very little wiggle room. One wrong calculation can really tip the apple cart, and suddenly, there is zero profit, or we see a loss.
Customer experience is everything
The other part of the equation is the customer-facing side. As you probably know, your experience while you’re in the restaurant is everything. How you are treated, how you are greeted, how knowledgeable and friendly your server is, how gracious and intuitive the service, the timing, the pacing, the attention to detail. It’s truly the little things that really set a great restaurant apart from a merely decent one.
For instance, you can have a great chef and an impeccable product, but if you aren’t greeted nicely when you arrive, if the tablecloth, menu, or cutlery is dirty, if the service is rude or rushed, or if the management does not respond to problems in a caring and insightful way – worse yet, if there is no management presence at all – how can you justify what you charge for your product?
It’s like anything else, if the value isn’t there, people will simply go somewhere else. And often, you only get one chance. These days, in the age of Trip Advisor, Yelp, and other ratings and reviews sites, the customer is in the driver’s seat, so you need to make sure that you address any of their issues, however small you might think they are, before the customer leaves, or else you might be ripe for an online whipping.
For some new restaurants, this is a learning curve; but they will quickly find out that since there is no way to remove bad reviews, it’s always better to prevent them. Interestingly enough, even before this “new reality” took hold, we’ve always felt the need to be accountable, so for us, this might be less of an issue than it is for others.
And yes, we consider ourselves lucky. We’ve got great staff who have been with us for years, a dedicated and talented chef who is known as one of the top chefs in the County (and beyond), and a dining room that, while challenging from a size level, is manageable with a minimal labour force.
How we do it
Another way we maintain our reputation and composure? Reservation management. We are always mindful of protecting our staff so that they can do what they do best with a minimum of stress. This means pacing our tables in a leisurely way, and not rushing service so that our guests can be assured of the best possible experience. This is also why we (and most other restaurants) don’t take 7pm reservations. A lot of people wonder why this is, so here’s the scoop:
Everybody wants to dine at 7pm. However, if everybody came at 7, the kitchen and staff would be completely overwhelmed and service would suffer – it’s as simple as that. Sure, many high-volume restaurants, or even restaurants with larger seating capacity than ours will accept 7pm bookings, but they often have the extra staff and kitchen capacity to handle it. That’s the long and short of it. Too many 7pm bookings would also mean that our early diners would be rushed out so we could seat the 7pm’s on time. It would also eliminate the possibility of booking later tables, so our overall business, and our server’s livelihoods, would suffer. So next time you ask for a 7pm reservation and can’t get one, now you know why. It’s a popular time, and you’re not alone.
Are you hungry yet?
The Restaurant at the Merrill Inn has enjoyed much success and acclaim over the past 16 years, and we are blessed to have been a part of building its legacy. If you’ve never dined with us, we invite you to book today: call for a reservation and see what all the buzz is about. Cheers!