Five Tabletop Mistakes to Avoid

Our tabletop experts share their experiences to help operators from all segments get the most bang for their buck when dressing up what is often referred to as the most important three feet in the house.

The notion of a "tabletop mistake" might seem unusual. From pretty plates to nice flatware and gorgeous glasses, what could go wrong when it comes to this creative, fashion-oriented side of the industry? Plenty, sales reps will tell you. When it comes to the purchase, storage and use of tabletops, here are five common mistakes — and the best ways to combat them.

Mistake #1: UNDERBUYING OR OVERBUYING

Sure, dealer sales reps would love it if their operator customers bought an endless number of tabletop items. Good reps, however, know how to right size those purchases, just like a good foodservice designer can help match a kitchen's true equipment needs.

Simply making room in the budget up front helps offset underbuying, and even overbuying problems, according to Lisa Hackworth, product and merchandising specialist at Wasserstrom. "Tabletop tends to be one of the last things operators budget for," she says. "After buying all the equipment and food, they realize they don't always have a budget for the pieces they really want."

Michael Gold, key accounts manager at Edward Don & Co., also sees underordering as a top mistake. Though he works hard to stay within budget, he advises, "Don't cut yourself short. Spend the extra $500 and get some extra glassware so when you open your doors you're not in the weeds."

The biggest problem with underbuying plates, dishes and silverware, these reps say, is not being prepared for an opening, a huge event or other major dining happening. "The operator may have a soft opening and realize they don't have enough of this plate or that plate," says Anne Ladd, director of merchandising and tabletop for TriMark SS Kemp. Operators look to her to help get them to the right number ahead of time.

Last minute ordering — a poor solution to overbuying — can really make costs skyrocket, resulting in the complete backfiring of an original intention to be thrifty, according to Jason Sem, senior business development manager for the San Francisco Bay area with R.W. Smith & Co. and FE&S' 2014 DSR of the Year.

"You can save a ton of money if you can think ahead rather than paying air freight, which can be double or triple the cost," says Sem. "I've gotten calls from people that they need something by Friday — the rush shipping ends up costing more than the products themselves. Ten years ago people had a ton of stuff on their shelves, but after the market crashed years ago everyone is pretty much bare-boned now."

Consistent, efficient inventory management can help operators plan ahead to save costs on shipping. "It's a huge mistake not to do weekly or biweekly inventory," says Sem, who notes the benefits of having a little extra supply on the shelves in case pieces break or a private event pops up. "Otherwise you end up with the type of situation where bartenders don't tell management they're out of martini glasses until Thursday night, and then they need a rush order. Or in a rush to buy products you don't normally buy, you end up with five different styles of wine glasses, and everything is mismatched."

Ladd also sees poor inventory management as a major mistake when it comes to tabletop purchasing. "For the most part, when they ask us to project how much they need, we generally project lower, especially on china, silver and glass, but we always want to have a backup plan."

Logo items in particular need to be managed, due to four- to six-week lead times, according to Ladd.

Having extra tabletop on hand can be a problem for smaller restaurants without the extra storage space. Some suppliers, such as TriMark SS Kemp, will work with customers to stock items on their behalf.

Openings are actually the best time to stock up, not just to ensure preparedness, but also because that's when many manufacturers offer the best discounts, points out Sally Harris, a sales rep at Singer Equipment Co. who focuses on tabletop across all foodservice segments. She recommends buying one and a half times the number of seats for china and considering extra glassware.

Don't forget about those accessories, either, Harris advises. "A lot of people forget about oil bottles, salt and pepper shakers, dipping dishes, bread baskets — all those add-ons that are easy to forget."

When shipments come in, both Ladd and Sem suggest unpacking only what's needed initially and storing the rest in the original boxes. That way, in case of overordering beyond the extra bit of inventory, or if there is a problem with the order, rectifying the problem becomes easier. "If items go unused we have a better chance of negotiating a stock balance with the manufacturer than if all the cartons were opened," says Ladd. Stock balances are essentially exchanges for more of another product instead of returns, which some manufacturers might be less reluctant to perform.

Storing product in its original packaging instead of leaving it unwrapped and out in the open on shelves also helps prevent accidental breakage.

Mistake #2: NOT STICKING TO YOUR OWN STYLE AND NEEDS

Just like the menu and decor, tabletop has to work with the restaurant's concept and cuisine to be successful.

"The biggest mistake I see clients make is they see a dish or plate with someone else's food on it and want the same thing," says Morgan Tucker, senior account executive at M Tucker, covering New York City. "Just because it looks good at another restaurant doesn't mean it will look good with your style of cuisine."

Portion and table sizes also play a role here. Purchasing too large a plate for a small-plate menu item might make the portion seem too small. And, buying too many larger plates when the tabletop size runs small can crowd the table and prevent guests from ordering multiple sharing dishes at a time.

"If you have a 21- by 21-inch table and you purchase 12-inch oval platters, you're not going to be able to fit everything on the table," Tucker says. "You might also alienate someone who wants a cocktail and also a glass of wine."

This is where samples come into play. "When buying commercial products, operators have the unique opportunity to take advantage of many manufacturers' generous sample programs," she says. Tucker views chefs as though they are artists with their own paint supplies and styles; they have to try different mediums to find what works best for them.

Mistake #3: MISMATCHING THE WRONG WAY

A somewhat mismatched, slightly eclectic tabletop seems to be a growing trend.

"There are so many items out there, and that's what makes each tabletop so different and eclectic," Gold says. "Generally, customers right now aren't saying we need this line or that line and buying all the bowls and plates from that exact line. They're buying this bread and butter plate or that steak knife because it stands out on the table."

Still, Gold points out, tabletop pieces need to be in the same category and, of course, match the concept. Color, texture and, most important, flow all remain important elements when it comes to picking out pieces. "You don't want a nice, sheer rim glass sitting next to a commodity, beaten product necessarily," says Gold. "It's one thing to go for a rustic feel, but it has to be higher end. If you have a set of very delicate wine glasses sitting next to a thick, clunky commodity water glass with a beaded rim, that's not right in my world. Just like you wouldn't have a rustic flatware pattern with a really modern set of china."

Harris also sees the importance of considering tabletop as an extension of one's brand. "Sometimes tabletop can be the last thing a restaurant thinks about when they've already made many food and equipment purchases," she says. Harris says that Henry Singer, chairman of Singer Equipment, once told her the most intimate part of the meal is the fork. And it's true: Tabletop is the first thing people see when they sit down at a table.

While many restaurants and chefs still like plain white plates, Harris believes in the importance of introducing some color and texture to a tabletop design — whether that comes in the form of woven placemat and runners, hammered flatware, or an intricate, wooden table. "One colored piece can really make the tabletop pop," she says.

Operations following the farm-to-table trend may want to consider a rustic look. Asian concepts might do best with square, clean plates and modern pieces, Harris adds. An Italian concept might want to pay closer attention to olive oil bottles and other accessories. Matching tabletop with a restaurant's decor — such as chrome, brass and steel elements — also builds concept and brand recognition.

Like Gold, Hackworth also sees the importance of matching the tabletop pieces to each other and the restaurant. "You wouldn't want to set crystal glassware next to clunky, colored recycled glass or contemporary, high-polished flatware next to more rustic plates. Eclectic is good, but not one extreme or another."

Sem has helped operators pick out tabletop in manufacturer showrooms so they can mix and match in person rather than use catalogs alone.

Mistake #4: TOO TRENDY, TOO CUSTOMIZED

Following trends too intensely is one of the biggest tabletop mistakes an operator can make, according to Hackworth. "You have to consider the volume and traffic as well as the food," she says.

Pieces the operation uses more frequently need to be durable, not just fun looking. "What might be fine for a three-star restaurant that does not turn its tables as frequently might not be appropriate for a high-volume restaurant or banquet facility — the demand on plates and glassware especially becomes heavier."

For example, Hackworth points out, some restaurants will branch off from plain white as the "retro" look makes a comeback in the form of old-fashioned floral and checked patterns from the '50s and '60s. A steakhouse could use these plates for sides or small dishes, but it might not make sense to use them for the steak. "In that case you want something more substantial," Hackworth says. "Trends are good for accent pieces, but you don't want to invest fully in those pieces, especially if it's something that might not be available for reorder in a few years."

Be wary of custom tabletop items too, says Gold. While a custom cutting board, for instance, can fit the food being served and make a presentation pop in all the right ways, sometimes it's best to investigate stock items before going the custom route.

"I once had a situation where the manufacturer had to make 70 custom cutting boards at a time but the customer only wanted 20, so what do you do with the extra 50?" Gold says. In that case, using stock product was the better solution. Custom products work better "when we have the time and if the
manufacturer's parameters match with the customer," he says.

Tucker points out the dangers with buying too many retail or artsy products to try to be on trend. "A lot of my customers want pieces that look like something you'd find in retail, but these are one-offs that might not be as easily replaceable," she says. Tucker once even had a chef try to buy pieces on Etsy.com, a website where people sell their handmade arts and crafts.

"They'll buy a few of these pieces and when something breaks they have an odd number," she says.

Often these trend pieces, while unique and interesting, are less functional and can't be cross-utilized throughout a menu. "One-offs are fine in some cases, but generally you don't want a bunch of these because then you're short on everything," says Sem. "You can save more money by using the same bowl with four different menu items as opposed to one."

Not thinking long term creates another common problem. "You want to run a fine line between something that's trendy but also classic," according to Tucker. "No one just wants to be the flavor of the month. You don't want to appear too gimmicky." Worst case, being too trendy can cost extra dollars if trends shift and you're stuck with a whole line of tabletop that's run its course.

Mistake #5: MISHANDLING

Training service and dishwashing staff to handle tabletop properly is paramount after those purchases have been made. Sem believes in this and will even spend time watching dishwashers on behalf of his customers to make sure they're using the correct, properly sized racks with the glassware. This prevents unnecessary breakage.

Mishaps related to mishandling happen most often during restaurant openings when staff is new and dishwashers are working furiously to keep pace, says Gold.

"You may have a beautiful wine glass, but proper warewashing and handling all comes down to training staff how to set and clear a tabletop," Harris says. Some restaurants won't allow staff to clear delicate glassware without a tray.

Harris, who works with hotels and country clubs, has also seen the mistake of putting ice in a hot glass straight from the dishroom, which causes cracking and breakage.

Many manufacturers offer chip warranties, Harris explains, which is a worthy up-front investment.

Tabletop should be fun. After all, it's the creative side of the industry that inspires chefs and helps them extend their artistry even further. It's also the fashion-meets-function side of the business that fuels many sales reps' passion for what they do. By learning to identify and overcome classic tabletop mistakes, operators can enjoy the fun tabletop brings while keeping their costs down and revenues up.

 Quick Tips for Avoiding Tabletop Mistakes

  • Don't unwrap shipments all at once. Store extra tabletop in original packaging to prevent breakage and help make returns easier in case of purchase error.
  • Watch dishwashers and servers closely during a service to make sure they're handling glassware and other pieces properly and using the appropriate racks.
  • Purchase a little extra up front to take advantage of opening discount programs and prevent running out of tabletop during an opening or banquet.
  • Mix on-trend items with classic ones as well as more durable pieces for longevity and rebuying power.
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