Janet Fletcher - June 2014
Leading lights in the f&b world, entrepreneurial chefs, and mixologists put their heads together at the annual Greystone Flavor Summit co-presented by Food Arts and The Culinary Institute of America to ponder marketing to Millennials, cosseting Chinese travelers, and enhancing the hospitality experience.
Millennials—how to reach them, please them, keep them—dominated the debate at this spring’s Greystone Flavor Summit, the annual Napa Valley conference for volume foodservice leaders. “A nomadic group looking for the next experience” is how one presenter described this notoriously hard-to-grab contingent, those 21- to 36-year-old humans born with attached mobile devices.
But if speakers and attendees couldn’t agree on exactly what Millennials want, everyone knows that this plugged-in cohort is driving seismic change.
The invitation-only meeting addressed a range of hospitality issues beyond courting Millennials. As always, ideas and insights fly at a dizzying pace during this two-and-a-half-day conference. What follows are just a few of the key take-aways:
To the risk-taker go the spoils. Keynote speaker Barbara Lynch, who operates a $24 million restaurant empire in Boston, grew up in a housing project there. Lynch’s father died before she was born, and her mother raised her seven children on a waitress’ income. Taking her first cooking job at 13, Lynch has thrived by leaping into the unknown with bold ideas: The Butcher Shop (a retail meat counter with foodservice); Stir (a cookbook store with a demonstration kitchen); and Menton (a fine dining restaurant in gritty South Boston). With 350 employees now, Lynch says she has learned to keep staff by promoting from within. “You have to give them time and space,” she says, “but everyone in this company knows they can grow.”
Fish where the fish are. Katie Button, with her husband and parents, opened their Spanish-influenced restaurant, Cúrate, in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2011 because that’s where the need was. “We were looking for a place where we could be part of the community, and we looked for what was missing,” says Button, whose résumé includes stints at elBulli and José Andrés’ Washington, D.C., restaurants. Merging a Spanish vibe with local flavor, Button and her team operate a 90 seat venue that serves 500 covers a day. “The wonderful thing about opening in a smaller city is that you get to be the first to bring something to a region,” says the chef, who makes her version of Catalan’s esqueixada with local trout instead of the traditional salt cod.
Learn to “speak” Chinese. The growing number of Chinese in the United States—both as travelers and as residents—creates challenges for operators who don’t understand Chinese customs. Turn obstacles to opportunity by hiring Mandarin-speaking staff and studying up on the culture’s practices and preferences. Chinese diners prefer to eat at round tables, a symbol of good luck, says Stephanie Yuen, a Vancouver consultant. They want their tea served in a clay pot, their seafood pulled from a tank, their meat with bones—and they typically don’t want cold soup, raw salad, or cold water. Offering a moist towel at the start of a meal is a simple gesture, says Yuen, “but in the eyes of Chinese customers, that’s good service.” Hoteliers have the same obligation to “read” their Chinese guests and help them retain their rituals when traveling. Put slippers in the rooms. Provide toothbrushes and toothpaste. (Many Asians don’t travel with them.) Refine your in-room tea service. And make sure there’s congee for breakfast. “These little ‘isms’ are going to help us achieve hospitality much better,” says Jonathan Heath, a hotel executive and former CEO of New York City’s China Center.
Bones are back. “We’re seeing a big comeback in bone-in steaks,” reports Jeremiah Bacon, executive chef of the Oak Steakhouse and The Macintosh in Charleston, South Carolina. At long last, cattle have bones again. Millennials in search of a dining experience have boosted sales of the tomahawk steak, a massive rib steak with the entire rib bone intact. Conversely, Bacon also sees smaller cuts taking off, but they need to have height on the plate. Phil Bass, a meat scientist with Certified Angus Beef, demonstrated how to solve that dilemma. Removing the deckle—the rib eye cap—yields a smaller rib eye that can be sliced into petite yet thick steaks. Fortunately, the little-known deckle is one of the tastiest cuts on the carcass, claims Bacon. He has no trouble moving 40 to 50 portions a day.
Brainstorm some bar energy. New Orleans cocktail luminaries Ti Martin and Lu Brow, from the Commander’s Family of Restaurants, never stop cooking up creative ways to sell another drink. At the two year old SoBou, a South of Bourbon Street saloon, the beer garden has tables with self-service taps dispensing local craft brews. Building on the town’s entrepreneurial spirit post-Katrina, SoBou hosts “BarPreneurs” events, where contestants get to pitch an idea to a venture capitalist behind the bar. The winner gets lunch with the v.c. Both SoBou and Café Adelaide’s Swizzle Stick Bar have a bar chef’s table where patrons can experience a menu of paired cocktails and food. Brow spearheaded a quarterly cocktail brunch at Café Adelaide. “It gives people permission to drink on a Saturday,” jokes Brow, executive bar chef for the restaurant group.
Make your wine list an adventure. “Millennials don’t care where a wine comes from or what grapes were used to make it—but is it worth drinking?” says Wine Spectator editor-at-large Harvey Steiman. Today’s young wine drinkers respond positively to lists with hard-to-come-by offerings like single-grower Champagnes; natural wines; and selections from less-traveled wine regions like the Loire Valley, the Languedoc, and Spain’s Bierzo. “The customer wants to Tweet or Instagram a bottle and show off a discovery,” says Steiman.
Hoteliers: Reboot your restaurants. The days when hotel dining represented the epitome of luxury have long vanished, replaced by formulaic experiences in bland dining rooms with zero personality. No wonder hotel guests spend their lunch and dinner dollars elsewhere. “Caesar salad, Cobb salad, and club sandwiches do not make an identity,” says Susan Terry, vice president of culinary operations for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts. Terry and her co-presenter, Beth Scott of Hilton Worldwide, urged hoteliers to create distinctive restaurants that compete with independents. Engage with travelers on social media. Make menus accessible on mobile devices. And cultivate the new gatekeepers. “If you ask a Millennial what a four-star rating is, they’re not going to say Mobil or AAA,” says Scott. “They think: TripAdvisor, Facebook, Yelp.” Worry less about consistent brand standards and more about offering an experience tailored to each location.
Don’t ignore the Millennials. Judging by the summit, the Millennials are the most catered-to and analyzed generation ever. They have $200 billion in spending power, with more influence to come, says Darren Tristano of Technomic, a Chicago consulting firm. They enjoy going out in groups (think communal tables), like to customize their restaurant meals, and often seek to align their spending with their politics. But first, last, and foremost, they want WiFi. Offer Internet access, or kiss them good-bye.
Janet Fletcher is an award winning journalist and the author of more than two dozen books on food and wine, including Cheese & Beer and Cheese & Wine.
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