One of the most fundamental elements of the customer experience in our industry is often the most overlooked when it comes to investing in our restaurants: the tabletop budget. Let me set the stage with one example. At Kendall College, our School of Culinary Arts runs an open-to-the-public fine-dining restaurant to provide our students with real-life experience.
We look at every aspect of our business to ensure a fantastic customer experience: location, price point, ambience, tableware, service, menu, etc. Still, one of the most frequent compliments we receive from our guests is, “I love the bumblebee shaped dish you use to serve honey.” Of course we get compliments on our food and our service, along with a few suggestions, but for some reason that silver-plated bumblebee honey pot used with our tableside tea service is memorable to our guests.
If you have the opportunity to invest in tabletop, consider the following:
We eat, first, with our eyes. Most diners take a picture of their plate or beverage and post it online before tasting it. This means that before having any idea what their meal will taste like, they have not only provided your restaurant with free word-of-mouth advertising, they have also started to make a judgment on whether your menu lives up to their expectations.
Never sacrifice function for form. Appearance remains important, but how a tabletop functions is even more critical. If your pieces are not conducive for both front-of-house staff and back-of-house staff, your bottom line will suffer. A plate is your chef’s blank canvas, but it has to fit on the table and your servers need to be able to efficiently deliver it to your customer; pretty plates that require six trips to serve four people will undoubtedly leave the food, and your guests’ experience, cold. Your guests need to be comfortable using your pieces so that they can enjoy the experience. If your guests have no room on the table or cannot figure out where to set their knives, they might not appreciate the fine fare you have labored to provide. When it comes to tabletop pieces, you want a work horse and a show pony.
Memorable does not equal expensive. Nor does expensive equal memorable. While it is absolutely critical to have a tabletop budget, it is not necessary to have a large tabletop budget. You do not have to spend an arm and a leg to create a memorable experience. Not only should you take into account the cost of the items (dishes do break, after all), but you should also try to keep your menu as the focal point. I’ve seen very simple concepts work as remarkable and functional tabletop pieces: mason jars as glasses and wood slabs for plates, for example.
In building a memorable experience, the tabletop is an opportunity to tell a story about your restaurant — to bind every part of your establishment into one cohesive narrative — and place it front and center in the dining experience of your customer.