Every spring, I change something in the dining room of my restaurant, which is located just off Chicago's Magnificent Mile. Last winter, I decided that this is the year to spruce up my tabletop, specifically my china and glass service. I felt that I had to do this in order to keep the atmosphere fresh for the many regular customers who have been patronizing us for most of the seven years I have owned Volare. While my furniture is relatively new, I plan to replace my carpeting later in 2004, something I do every three to five years. After all, I'm in the retail business, just like a department store, and I feel it's important to continue to update the look of our place.

Chinaware, more than any other tabletop component, sets the mood for a restaurant. I am replacing my undecorated white china with a contemporary pattern from a British manufacturer whose ware is known for its durability, which was the single most important factor I considered when choosing a new pattern. While the china's look and quality are also important to me, this supplier's breakage warranty is what really tipped the balance of my selection.

I have also ordered brightly colored bowls for my pasta service and special, decorated bowls for risotto in order to add some pizzaz to our tabletops. With my glassware, my objective was clear: reduce the number of items in use. My goal is to have only three types of glasses for beverage service — a 12-oz. all-purpose tumbler (for water, high-balls, soft drinks and iced tea), a stem wine (for both red and white) and a rocks glass. If I add anything else, it will be only if absolutely necessary.

I replaced my expensive, imported flatware a number of years back with an attractive, heavyweight pattern that is more than serviceable. Considering the amount of loss I was experiencing due to theft and in the dishroom, this was a big cost savings. I did, however, retain many of the stainless-steel service items (shakers, cruets, sugar bowls, etc.) on our tables.

My advice to salespeople who call on us is to understand our business and to listen carefully to what I say I want.

Before I make purchasing decisions, I do most of the research myself. With 31 years in the business, I feel I know what will work, although I do listen to my chef and, to some extent, the excellent dealer salesman who has been calling on me for years. I regularly read trade magazines, including the leading retail food publications, I attend trade shows and, (very important) I regularly visit colleagues operating new and leading established restaurants here in Chicago.

When I get down to the specifics of selecting a china or glass line, I have found that knowledgeable sales reps are extremely helpful when they bring in samples and set up different table settings. Nonetheless, I generally don't listen too closely to salespeople; I trust myself more.

In considering which advice I might give other operators who are undertaking a remodel or new opening, the most important step is to plan ahead! I think that 90% of owners (myself included ... in the past) wait until the last minute before attending to our tabletop designs. Operators must have every piece ordered and in stock well in advance of an opening. It is also wise to plan a soft launch. To illustrate, against my recommendation, a friend recently rushed to open a new restaurant just two weeks before last year's NRA Show (always a big traffic generator in Chicago). It was, predictably, a disaster.

My advice to salespeople who call on us is to understand our business and to listen carefully to what I say I want. Too often, E&S salespeople lack this skill and end up losing my respect, my ear and, ultimately, my business.