Quality in Quantity: Management Tips for High Volume Restaurants

by Jessica Dukes
Vicky Wasik
October 2010

You’re the executive chef at a resort hotel. You juggle a coffee shop, banquets, a buffet, and a fine dining restaurant. You’ve got 16 sous chefs and a total staff of over 300. If you could meet together with other chefs doing the same thing, headed by a panel of three of the most established chefs in the business, would you have any questions?

The panelist chefs at the 2010 StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress business seminar “Quality in Quantity: the Art of Running a High Volume Restaurant” came packing answers. Three chefs, Mark Andelbradt, Franklin Becker, and Scott Boswell, represented the types of restaurant where a girl can get a burger and her date can order something from the raw bar, or else the Venison Carpaccio or Korean BBQ Po’Boy— and any of the other 500 or 1000 or so diners that evening are welcome to do the same.

High volume chef and seminar attendee Dirk Flanigan of The Gage and Henri in Chicago, IL, says that high volume is perfect for the opposites-attract type couple. So she’s a meat-and-potatoes girl and he’s into nose-to-tail eclectic global cuisine? No problem. You offer a lot of people a lot from which to choose, and voilà: You've got a thriving business. Right?

Will Blunt, managing editor at StarChefs.com and moderator of the panel, wanted to know: How do you stay creative and inspired when you’re not touching every plate at pickup? How do you maintain high quality of both product and service in the type of environment where you may have 47 people working back of house, as is the case at Chef Becker’s place?

Chefs Andelbradt, Becker, and Boswell compared notes on revenues in the multiple millions of dollars, weekly meat budgets of $70,000, 500-pound weekly orders of filet mignon, 400-pound weekly orders of tuna, and staffs of 850, including full-time buyers. These huge numbers— not to mention boisterous banter that at one point compared the rush of managing a high volume restaurant to sex— added up to an exciting morning.

Off-the-charts sales and budgets aside, these chefs know how to run a savvy business and put out a product that garners critical acclaim. Among the attendees were chefs at high volume restaurants across the country, reps from restaurant design firms, PR specialists, distributors, and vendors—all wanting in on the tricks of the trade.

Bang for the Buck

Seminar attendee David Thompson, business review specialist of Sysco Corporation, says that since the economic downturn began, value is the word. With the buying power and high turnover that high volume allows, these restaurants can over-deliver on bang for the buck, where others can't.

As Chef Becker of Abe and Arthur’s in New York City put it, there is no doubt that his raw bar is of a fresher quality than any other he’s ever worked with, including the raw bar he ran at Brasserie in New York City: “It’s all about turnover.” It’s the reason why Chef Boswell of Stella! and Stanley in New Orleans can offer gumbo with fresh oysters, which was voted the city’s best, for under $10.

So the “safe bet” burger on the menu at a high volume can be a blend of Creekstone Farms chuck, brisket, and skirt steak, custom-ground by farm-owner Pat La Frieda. That’s exactly what you’ll find at Abe & Arthur’s. Says panelist Chef Mark Andelbradt, of MDA Culinary Management and Consulting and formerly executive chef at TAO in Las Vegas, NV,  it’s about nurturing relationships.

When Andelbradt was running TAO, he reported an annual revenue of $70 million, making his restaurant the highest grossing upscale eatery in the country. His advice? “Keep it simple, stupid. You enter into a contract with your purveyor. You have to honor that agreement. If you pay them on time, they’ll remember you.”

Tricks of Clever Design

Citing a Cornell University study, Will Blunt asked the panelists to share their thoughts on increasing turnover. In high volume, the diner should feel welcome, but also “antsy” to leave within about an hour. The study covered elements like lighting, music, table placement, and seating. Though none claimed to be an environmental psychologist, the chefs emphasized that the set-up has to be as easy to clean as possible for quicker table-turns.

After the ICC, we took a tour of the high volume restaurant The Gage, in Chicago, with the aim to view environmental psychology in action. Would it seem blandly commercial? Would it give off a conveyor-belt feel?

Amidst the up-tempo music and patrons living it up, the design layout at The Gage adhered to the points covered in the Cornell study and at the seminar. And the atmosphere was cool business casual— nothing Bennigan’s-ish about it. So your diners can love your restaurant’s vibe, but still be ready to ask for the check. And you can do an average of 11 or 12 turnovers a day, or 15, which Boswell reported has been known to happen at Stanley.

What’s Your System, Specifically?

From design, the chefs segued into a discussion on management. Thompson, who does consulting in addition to being the primary supplier to a number of upscale high volume resort restaurants in Virginia and North Carolina, says that the seminar made clear “that the key to high volume is organization. You cannot do it without a system.”

Chef Boswell kicked off the central theme of the seminar with news from Stanley. From day one, ticket times at Stanley shrank from 40 minutes to nine minutes, 45 seconds. Seminar attendee Executive Chef Don Yamauchi of Motor City Casino in Detroit, MI, just had to ask, “How exactly did you do that?”

On ticket times, Chef Becker advised that “the food can be artsy, yes, but the pickup has to be quick. No one leaves the kitchen empty-handed.” And no taking partial orders from tables.

About a year after opening Stanley, Boswell decided to step back from daily operations in the kitchen. He focused instead on putting a management team in place. He formed Scott Boswell Enterprises with his wife Tanya in 2009 and began to hire people who were “young, ambitious, and talented.” From there it was a matter of trial and error, repositioning his team and fusing or separating or inventing jobs (for example, splicing first director of kitchen operations and then culinary development coordinator from the chef de cuisine position) until everything fell into place.

Playing Chess and Walking Around

In a follow up interview with Chef Boswell, he detailed how his newly hired director of operations immediately set about writing manuals for everything in the restaurant. Says Boswell, “he actually couldn’t believe that we had been able to function up to that point without them.” He added that before implementing his system, the restaurant seemed to be growing at too rapid a pace for him to keep up. “It was difficult,” he conceded.

Since stepping back, Boswell says he’s become more of a “chess player”. One of his “many right hands” holds the informal title of “culinary analytical guy”—a chess move that worked brilliantly. He now relies on this young talent to “walk around and ask questions about everything...with the idea of how to make something better.”

The result of  Boswell’s system is Café Stanley. The addition is scheduled to open before the 2011 Carnival season. It’s a 1000 square-foot “idea” located adjacent to Stanley that seeks to catch spillover. Says Boswell, “We started to realize that if there was a 45 minute wait [to be seated], we were losing 30 to 50% of those people.”

On maintaining the system, once in place, Andelbradt quoted restaurateur Richard Melman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’s theory that “management is walking around”: It’s important to develop relationships with employees and to ask questions with the aim to constantly make improvements. At TAO, Andelbradt took the extra step of contracting shopping services to monitor service quality. As he said, “You can only call up your own restaurant so many times to [test making] a reservation before they start to know it’s you.” Thompson of Sysco later observed, “one of the things that I took away from the seminar is that in this day and age, service is as [important] if not more important than the food.”

Cooking Essentials

The panel jumped into the topic of menu development and quality assurance with analytic verve. They agreed on pre-portioned fillets of fish, poultry, or meat. Andelbradt discussed using marinades at TAO, and Becker shared his basting recipe. He also recommended par-cooking just before service and quick-cooking proteins such as scallops or arctic char in place of salmon. Becker called it “the art of cheating”, but Boswell was quick to step in: “It’s not cheating—it’s essential.”

We’re not talking “sand-bagging” here, so no pre-cooking food and leaving it to sit on the line through service. Becker detailed the usefulness of the C-Vap at Abe & Arthur’s, where he keeps steaks in the drawer until pickup, then throws them back on the broiler for caramelization. Boswell told us that the same piece of kitchen equipment is partly responsible for his by-now famous reduction of ticket times. For the time-consuming ham and cheese omelette sandwich or for Canadian bacon that could potentially occupy a lot of very limited space, “the Winston C-Vap holds it perfectly, perfectly, perfectly, perfectly.”

“It’s a Completely Different Game!”

What separates the good from the great? It’s all about asking questions. It’s what motivated Becker’s decision to hire two employees full time whose sole function is to make crab cakes, 30 pounds of them, per day. It’s what was behind Andelbradt’s move to hire a full time buyer: One day he asked himself why his sous chef was spending more time receiving orders than cooking. Since the ICC, Boswell informed us that a server at Stanley brought food to a table of 14 before the drinks had even been served. Said the chef, “So, now we’ve got to figure out how to make sure that the drinks go out first.”

In closing, the panel returned to Will Blunt’s point raised at the beginning. Can a high volume chef still find inspiration or room for creativity in a corporate environment? At that point, the energy in the room was at a pretty high pitch. Andelbradt claimed, “It’s a completely different game!” as Boswell nodded firmly, and together the chefs agreed that it is different, and it’s exciting. In their enthusiasm, the chefs even got a little carried away— but we’re happy to forgive a raunchy comment or two in the name of passion for one’s work. In the end, the chefs maintained that high volume does inspire; it requires a high level of integrity, it is intense, and if done properly, it can give you quite a charge.