Synergy’s Best of 2019: Restaurant Discovery

Dec 31, 2019

As we wave goodbye to the ‘10s, foodservice news is chock full of food and restaurant trend predictions for the coming decade. For our last newsletter of the year, we wanted to highlight some of the great dishes and concepts that inspired us during our Discovery tours across the country. Some of these locations just might surprise you:


You might think of this Florida city as the home for Disney and Universal Studios, but “The City Beautiful” is also home to a number of distinctive dining and bar hot spots. At the top of our list is BarTaco, a rustic and beachy destination for amazing handhelds and a margarita brimming with fresh-squeezed lime juice. A small menu on both the food and beverage side makes it easy for the kitchen to pump out freshly prepared tacos, rice bowls, and sides. Guests order using a dim-sum-like menu and everything hits the table as soon as it’s ready.

Tacos from BarTaco

On the bar side, Mather’s Social Gathering delivers quality cocktails and an over-the-top experience. A quick trip up the nondescript Mather Building elevator drops you off in a reimagined 1800s-style speakeasy with soaring ceilings and an impressive collection of antiques. Mixologists behind the onyx bar share and stir a collection of classic libations with twists from today. Notable drinks include The Phoenix with a hit of fresh jalapeño that will keep your lips buzzing, and The Grand Frozé with a float of Grand Marnier. Order your favorite spirit with a square ice cube that’s as clear as the summer sky.

Grand Froze from Mather’s
Clear Ice Cube from Mather’s

Orange County, CA

We thought we’d seen it all in the California county that serves as our home base, but there’s always something new happening in the OC. One of our new favorites is CDM Restaurant and Bar, an elegant establishment in Corona Del Mar that’s thankfully close to our offices. CDM combines the upscale comfort of a plush living room with an industrial central bar and edgy speakeasy downstairs, along with a focused men that celebrates seasonal ingredients. A menu standout is the BBQ Heirloom Carrots with pecan butter and an herb dressing, both unexpected and incredibly savory. We sampled this dish in July and can’t stop thinking about it.

Carrots from CDM

We can’t mention Orange County without mentioning one of most respected restaurant companies, the Hillstone Group. No, their locations aren’t new on the scene but any of their Orange County locations serves as a mini-bootcamp on how to operate a great establishment. From the closely curated menu to ingredient prep to order to their teamwork approach to customer service, Hillstone is the platinum standard for food quality and guest experience. Check out our in-depth article on Hillstone in last month’s newsletter.

Chicken Sandwich


The capital city of Texas has long been known as a center for culinary creativity. Our Discovery tour there this fall revealed a commitment to modern food trends alongside traditional food standards. Odd Duck lets their trend flag fly with their playful combinations of down-home, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and Indian flavors. A few standouts we sampled included the Green Chile Crab Pimento with everything-bagel-seeded crackers, and the Chicken Fried Fish

Crab Pimento from Odd Duck

Heads coated in a fish bone caramel sauce. Odd Duck cuts loose with their take on mashups, much to the diner’s benefit.

Fish Head from Odd Duck

Riding the traditional train is Terry Black’s Barbecue, one our favorite spots on our Austin tour. You can’t swing a stick in Austin without hitting yet another barbecue joint, but Terry Black’s stands at the top of the wood heap. They focus on the classics – brisket, beef ribs, chopped beef, and sausage – and put their energy into crafting some of the best smoked meats in town. A few sides and sandwiches round out their offering. You won’t find trendy food here, just amazing ‘cue.

Terry’s Black BBQ Pit


Florida’s sultry city to the south lays claim to tons of nightlife and beautiful beaches, but the city’s downtown core is becoming known for its vibrant food scene. Our Discovery tour in Miami revealed some of our favorite dishes of the year.

You wouldn’t expect a restaurant with a Russian name to offer some of the best sushi in town, but Novikov more than delivers. This glamourous hotspot features new style sashimi and premium sushi along with maki, rice and noodles, and wok-fired dishes. One of our many favorites included a grilled king crab leg with a creamy truffle sauce, where the meat was removed from the shell, cut into bite-size pieces, and arranged back in the shell for easy eating.

Crab Leg from Novikov

Another wonder was braised pork belly pressed for 48 hours, cut into cubes, and kissed on the plancha with a sweet soy sauce.

We also marveled at Zuma Miami, a monolithic space in which a cluster of cooks prepare sophisticated twists on Japanese izakaya cuisine. We enjoyed watching the bartenders craft a few whimsical drinks like the Zombie Cocktail, a tequila concoction served in a Day of the Dead mug adored with a tiny straw hat and mint sprig.

Zombie Cocktail from Zuma

In looking back at the restaurants that caught our eye, a few patterns emerge. One, a focused menu of top-notch dishes and drinks. Two, a commitment to quality and culinary craft. Three, a fully realized concept that provides a memorable dining experience. Solid and timeless lessons for all restaurants to heed instead of chasing the latest food fads.

We are looking forward to our Discovery tours in the new year and to unveiling a new set of favorites. Let the Roaring ‘20s begin!


California’s Ban on Latex Gloves

Dec 31, 2019

With all the effort these days to provide eco-friendly packaging and to reduce waste, you would think the upcoming ban in California on latex gloves would relate to that cause. However, that is not the case, although the reason is still very critical—allergies.

The prevention of food-related illnesses consists of proper handling, storage, and cooking of food. Further, this includes ensuring that food allergens are clearly labeled on packaging and menus. You may be familiar with the frequent advisories about shellfish and peanuts; however, allergies to latex are widespread. Approximately 6% of the general population is allergic to latex. Those affected may experience itchiness, hives, wheezing, rashes, swelling, chest tightness, or even anaphylactic shock. Allergic reactions to latex can occur from ingesting or touching a latex product or even inhaling latex particles. Currently, there isn’t a cure for this growing ailment.

The new bill “would prohibit the use of latex gloves in food facilities and retail food establishments and require food employees to use non-latex utensils, including non-latex gloves.” California will join Ohio, Hawaii, Arizona, Connecticut, and Rhode Island with this latex ban. Foodservice operators do have options, however. There are several non-latex gloves alternatives available including nitrile, vinyl, and polyethylene options.

Keep your customers and your staff safe! Please follow us on social media for additional important restaurant news.


Best from Foodservice and Hospitality Expos 2019

Dec 30, 2019

What a year 2019 has been for the foodservice industry! We were fortunate enough to travel the country to check out the latest trends, greatest tools, as well as the movers and shakers in the hospitality space. It was a delight to engage in person with others and to get hands-on experience with restaurant innovation. Our Chef, Anne Haerle and Synergy co-founder Dean Small, were invited to share their knowledge and expertise in workshops, specifically on menu innovation techniques and how to increase sales. We want to take this opportunity to share with you our insights from our trips to food shows and restaurant discoveries.

Anne Haerle: Turning Obligation into Opportunity
Anne Haerle presenting at the International Restaurant & Foodservice Show of New York

During our trip to the International Restaurant & Foodservice Show in New York and the Healthy Food Expo, we learned about many new products and several tech-driven device demonstrations. Notable robotic devices included the Suzumo automated sushi maker and a very impressive salad-making vending machine called Sally The Robot by Chowbotics. Sally is a robot that vends fresh salads, bowls, and snacks 24/7 in just a 3×3 space.

Salad robot, Sally
Sally the food-making robot

Eco-friendly packaging and plant-based foods made a consistent splash at the restaurant and foodservice conventions we visited. Zero-plastic straws made from brown rice from Edible Ecoware, as well as spoons you can eat made by Planeteer, were a couple of innovative items we came across. In the beverage space, “CBD-infused” certainly abounded, be it in sparkling water or water-soluble CBD powder that can be mixed into your coffee! More in drink trends: plant-based alternative milk like oat milk, collagen, mushrooms/adaptogen powders and draft lattes. Healthy food in the form of microgreens has been something we’ve seen a lot of this year with an emphasis on how to grow your own in-house.

Planeteer eco friendly spoons
Edible spoons by Planeteer LLC

There were some exceptionally memorable gadgets we found to be unique such as Snow Van’s machine that made a snow dessert out of virtually any liquid. Over at the IAAPA Expo in Orlando, we also checked out technology that printed custom selfies on drinks! At the NRA Show, Dean was especially impressed with Peel-A-Ton from Astra Inc., a machine that quickly and efficiently peels veggies and fruits.

Drink your selfie
Selfie on your drink, created by SIPMI

We are excited to see what 2020 has in store for the restaurant industry! Please follow us on social media to keep updated on the latest trends in food and hospitality as we traverse the globe on our culinary discoveries.


How I Became a Restaurant Consultant

Dec 05, 2019

How did you decide to become a restaurant consultant?

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and working at Windows on the World Restaurant in the North Tower of the original World Trade Center, I had the opportunity to meet and ultimately work for Joseph Baum, who at the time was the most prominent and renowned restaurant consultant in the world who created many iconic New York restaurants.

My exposure to Joe and his team of industry giants who traveled the world helping organizations create new and exciting restaurants and unique dining experiences that changed how people used restaurants was my inspiration.  I thought Joe had the ultimate career and I hoped that someday I would have the opportunity to leverage my knowledge and experiences to help others and become a restaurant consultant.

What was your best memory while attending the CIA? 

My education at CIA was an incredible experience, and the Chef’s and instructors were fantastic.  What made it memorable was the ability to take classroom education and skills and then apply them on weekends while working at Windows On The World Restaurant. For the first two months I was pitting olives in the Garde Manager Kitchen, and then one evening, there was a kitchen altercation, and the next thing I knew, I was making soufflés and decorating cakes in the pastry kitchen.  Being avid skiers, The Chef and I hit it off immediately. As a result, he moved me around many parts of the kitchen, and I got an amazing education working in the busiest restaurant in the world. 

A very close CIA friend managed to land a part-time job working on the Rockefeller estate in Tarrytown NY, on weekends.  Because all of the exclusive parties and events at the estate he needed a Co-Chef to assist in all of the food preparation and service.  It was often a laid back event allowing us to get to know many of the guests as they were always excited to hang out in the kitchen and watch us prepare the food.  From those experiences we got to know many political leaders and foreign dignitaries like Dr. Henry Kissinger and his wife who were regular guests. 

What did you do after you graduated from the CIA?

After three years at Windows On The World, I decided I wanted to learn more about Dining Room Management, so when a new opportunity presented itself as a Maître D at a highly regarded restaurant in Theater District, I decided to make a career move. It was an old school restaurant with excellent table service and lots of tableside cooking.  I was given the challenge to learn the business from another perspective and hone my dining room hospitality skills and improve the guest experience through elevated table service.

In the late ’70s, I decided to move back to Aspen Colorado and try and open a food service business with my close friend from the CIA. After carefully surveying the market we determined that the two big voids in the marketplace were catering and a need for a great bakery to service the local restaurants.  Given the lack of real competition and affluence in the market, we believed we could be successful if we could raise enough capital to launch the business. We found a great location and obtained a small loan, which allowed us to purchase used restaurant equipment at an auction. We leveraged our education and work experiences and began catering private events and baking European style breads and desserts.  As young entrepreneurs we made everything from classic charcuterie, croissants and wedding cakes to ice carvings and sold them to restaurants and hotels. The catering portion of the business began to get a lot of traction and we picked up many private parties from wealthy business people and celebrities like the Bee Gees, Diana Ross, Lucille Ball, the Kennedy’s and several international political figures who had private aircraft and always wanted the best, so catering was always an over the top event. 

In the late ‘80s, I was recruited by El Torito Restaurants, the largest Mexican dinner house chain in the world, to run all food service for a 220-unit organization with twelve restaurant brands and $420M in sales annually.  Working for a national brand that was in a huge growth and acquisition mode and working with fantastic restaurant operators was a unique opportunity. My responsibilities were broad and included menu innovation for domestic and international restaurants, quality assurance, kitchen operations, training, and supply chain.  This exposure to food, beverage and how to run highly efficient operations gave me the confidence and skillsets that I believed would be extremely useful as a consultant to small to mid-sized companies. 

How did you make that transition?

The Synergy Team

I realized that I had obtained a lot of knowledge working for El Torito, and I had a great gift of helping restaurant managers be successful. As an entrepreneur I wanted to do more with my education and experiences so given the contacts that I had made in the restaurant industry I decided this timing was right to make a career move. I wanted to create a small restaurant consulting company that would focus on helping restaurant operators optimize their financial performance through menu innovation and restaurant operating efficiencies.

In 1988 I launched Synergy Restaurant Consultants. I was very fortunate (and lucky) to land several large accounts that occupied all my time. I knew it was time to expand, so I reached out to my close friend Danny Bendas and former business colleague who also happens to be a CIA graduate and industry professional, to join me on this new journey. Since then we had the pleasure of working with over 270 domestic and international chains and over 1,600 independent operators. Over the years our team has grown with talent from around the US and globally. I am so thankful for my business partner and the incredible team we have built.  Their contributions have genuinely made Synergy a leader in the industry and a better company.

What is your biggest accomplishment as a restaurant consultant?

I wouldn’t say building a highly regarded national brand with an impeccable reputation and being recognized as industry leaders and subject matter experts in all areas of the restaurant business. Instead, I would like to believe that Danny and I, along with the rest of our team, make a positive difference in people’s lives. That is what brings me the most happiness and fulfillment.


Exceptional Customer Service: Your New Secret Weapon

Dec 02, 2019

Crush the holiday competition this year by focusing on what’s most important — your guests

With the holidays upon us and restaurants gearing up for that big end-of-year sales push, how can operators grab their share of diners? Lots of chains offer LTOs or double loyalty points to increase foot traffic. Other concepts offer seasonal specials or deals on gift cards. With your competition jockeying for your customers, how can you stand out and grab your fair share?

As with most strategies in the restaurant business, a “back to basics” approach usually reaps the greatest rewards. One of the most essential strategies for success is great customer service. As consultants, we travel across the US and around the world each year, dining in every kind of establishment from fast food to fine dining, sampling every cuisine available. Without a doubt, the biggest driver of a great guest experience is the front-of-house team that consistently delivers warm and engaging hospitality.

As another year draws to a close, we wanted to share some great customer service examples from one of our most admired restaurant chains, the Hillstone Group. Founded in 1976, the company operates 15 separate concepts in a dozen states. Each location offers a menu of around 30 items, all of which are consistently well-executed. While the food is stellar, we regard the Hillstone service model as “the gold standard” in the restaurant industry.

After visiting more than a dozen Hillstone locations across the country, we’ve compiled a list of outstanding customer service techniques that the company employs to turn guests into raving fans:

Take a Team Approach: While each table is assigned a lead server, several waitstaff will touch that table during the guests’ visit. Front-of-house staff are trained to circulate throughout the dining room, looking for empty plates and glasses to whisk away before the guest even notices. Similarly, servers run finished dishes from the kitchen as quickly as possible, even if that food is going to a table delegated to another team member. This coordinated approach places the emphasis on serving the guest and removes the “that’s not my table” mentality from the equation.

The Eyes Have It: We’ve all dined in busy establishments and felt frustrated when it’s hard to catch the eye of your harried server — or any server — when you need more water or another fork when yours hits the floor. Not so at a Hillstone restaurant. Servers and runners are trained to make eye contact with guests as they travel through the dining room. This technique focuses the staff on guests’ needs in an immediate and personal way.

Little Touches, Big Impact: Many restaurants serve their martinis in a chilled glass. But at Hillstone, you’ll get a new chilled glass when you’re half-finished with your drink. This small gesture creates a huge guest impact and enormous goodwill. At Hillstone restaurants that serve water from glass bottles, under-counter reach-ins are strategically placed in the dining room, so the servers always have access to a cold bottle of water for any table. These seemingly small gestures have been carefully crafted to elicit an emotional response from the guest. From a brand standpoint, putting so much effort into something as small as a chilled glass or cold water demonstrates Hillstone’s commitment to making the guest feel welcome and important.

It’s Personal(ity): While the restaurant industry is keenly aware of the nationwide labor shortages, Hillstone maintains strict hiring standards for their servers to obtain the personnel required to execute their customer service program. First and foremost, they hire for personality and attitude before experience. The company knows they can train their recruits on the procedures needed to be successful. Hillstone would rather hire people with less server experience so they can develop them from the ground up and spend less time breaking bad habits.

A dish from Bandera, a Hillstone Restaurant

Train to Meet Expectations: In the Hillstone model, a thorough and detailed front-of-house training program is a given. Servers and runners go through extensive instruction based on specific goals and processes — nothing is ambiguous, and new team members know exactly what the company expects and how to achieve it. While the investment is significant, it’s another way that Hillstone demonstrates its commitment to be the best when it comes to customer service.

How can you adopt a more customer-focused service model? A good place to start is to check your online reviews and any customer feedback you’ve gathered or have been given. Do customers comment on food not coming out hot from the kitchen? Develop a strategy for solving the issue, then train your team on the new procedure. To solve the cold food problem, you can try heating your plates in an oven beneath a stovetop or in a cheese melter. If servers are constantly running back to the kitchen for additional condiments regularly requested by guests, redesign your tablescape to make these items available.

Finally, look for opportunities to genuinely surprise and delight your guests. Maybe that means surprising each table with a sample of a new menu item or creating a Welcome Kit for each new guest that contains the manager’s business card and a bounce-back coupon. Give your team the strategies, tools, and training they need to succeed, and you’ll soon be setting new standards for customer service.


Leveraging Tech to Improve Customer Experience

Dec 02, 2019

We all know a warm smile and courtesy go a long way in the hospitality industry. There’s no underestimating the power of person-centric service. But in today’s day and age, customer service is so much more than training your staff best practices. In the restaurant space, guest satisfaction is dependent on a multitude of things, from the speed of service to quality and taste of food. 

You can have the friendliest and most skilled staff on hand, but if the systems you have in place aren’t up to date with consumer expectations and preferences, you won’t score high on the customer satisfaction scale. Luckily, technology for the restaurant industry exists to help operators increase efficiency and visibility. Let’s look at how modern restaurant tech can assist you with elevating the customer experience.

Mobile-ordering and delivery: Convenience is at their fingertips, literally, when people are able to order food online. You can build an app like Dominos or Burger King, and if that’s not in your budget, you can sign up for third-party delivery services like UberEats, DoorDash, and GrubHub. Make sure to have an area in your restaurant that indicates where to pick up phone and mobile orders, too.

Kiosks: Self-ordering in-storae via kiosks can significantly speed up the ordering process. According to recent research from Tillster, more than 65% of customers said they would visit a restaurant more often if self-service kiosks were available. The benefits not only include shorter wait times but heightened order accuracy, reduced labor costs, more upselling opportunity and of course, improvement of the guest experience. Moe’s Southwest Grill is planning to open all-digital, kiosk only locations in Pittsburgh and Charlottesville, Virginia. Denver restaurant chain, Birdcall, exclusively uses kiosks for ordering at their locations. If kiosks don’t fit your budget, you can offer tablets for table-side ordering—guests will still enjoy a self-service experience.

Loyalty Programs: Sure, punch cards are still around, offering things like one free drink on your 10th purchase. But in 2019 it’s time to time to turn to technology to elevate your loyalty programs and get more people engaged with a great loyalty program to boost customer retention and guest satisfaction. Companies like Upserve, CandyBar and Fivestars offer automated loyalty programs that either connect to a customer’s credit card or phone number, helping to create a more seamless process in rewarding your loyal guests.

Technology will always have a hard time competing with great human customer-service, but when used strategically in conjunction with a well-trained staff, it can greatly enhance your guests’ experience.


How To Implement Catering at Your Restaurant

Oct 31, 2019

Convenience is huge in the foodservice industry. Think about how many restaurants you know that offer online ordering and delivery. 34% of consumers utilize , options more often than a year ago, according to a recent survey conducted by Technomic and the National Restaurant Association. The same study also found that 39% of consumers say they use drive-thru more than they did a year ago. Clearly, to-go dining accounts for a substantial portion of off-premise sales.

But say you’ve got that covered—you’ve partnered with a third-party delivery service, and you even have a drive-thru window. However, you’re still looking for ways to increase off-premise sales. It may make sense for your restaurant to expand into catering. Offering catering to your patrons gives them yet another avenue of convenience, whether they need large meals for office luncheons, holiday parties, birthdays, or other special occasions. David Meiselman, CMO of ezCater stated that catering makes up 18% of sales on average at restaurants that offer it. Did you know that KFC and Chic-fil-A offering catering? The sandwich chain Potbelly has rolled out delivery and catering in all its locations. But how feasible is it to integrate a catering program into your sales strategy? What about the costs and logistics? Here are some things to consider:

  • Choose your format: Figure out whether you want to offer full-service catering, carryout, drop-off, or all.
  • Simplify your catering menu: You don’t want to allow your guests to order anything en masse from your menu. Limit your catering menu to a few items, including your best sellers and sides, to allow for quicker and more efficient cooking and prep time.
  • Calculated pricing: When thinking about how to price your catering items, consider the fees associated with catering and factor them in. These costs may include transportation, packaging, and other expenses as it relates specifically to your catering operation. It’s a good idea to see what your competition is charging, too.
  • Get your kitchen ready: Make sure your kitchen has adequate space and equipment to accommodate large orders. This includes counter space, refrigerators, cookware, ovens, burners, and more.
  • Don’t forget to market: You won’t get a catering order if you don’t market it! Make it known on your website, emails, printed menus, Yelp, social media profiles, banners, and signage that you offer catering.

It’s a strategic move to transition into catering, but not necessarily an easy one. However, when done correctly, it’s a decision you’ll be glad you made. If you’d like professional advice on how to implement restaurant catering into your operation, please contact Synergy.


Are Hybrid Restaurant Concepts the Answer to the Surging Take-Out Trend?

Oct 28, 2019

“A mega trend that looks to grow tenfold over the next decade.”

This is what Swiss investment giant UBS said about the online food delivery trend after its in-depth research arm Evidence Lab released the findings of an intensive report in 2018.

“We estimate the global online food ordering market could grow more than tenfold over the next decade or so, to $365 billion by 2030 from $35 billion today. The ramifications could be substantial. We see a bright future for food delivery platforms, and positives for the restaurant sector as delivery adds a further growth engine.”

Is ‘Netflix and Chili’s’ here to stay

As home television screens get bigger and entertainment streaming services more comprehensive, people cocooning themselves at home most nights doesn’t appear to be a passing fad. We can now order from our favorite restaurants on an app and have the food brought right to our doors without making reservations, fighting traffic, or enduring long waits for a table.

This is a great way to satisfy an immediate craving, but it would be incredibly unfortunate if the art of dining out gets lost in the push for convenience. There is still much to be gained by meeting friends, enjoying the atmosphere of a great restaurant, and having an interpersonal exchange with your dining companions and service personnel. Not to mention experiencing food prepared and presented as it was meant to be – fresh to order, delivered to your table at the proper temperature.

Some additional numbers

According to an October 2018 column by Forbes Food and Drink senior contributor, Alicia Kelso, “statistics for off-premise dining are staggering.” She cites a study by CHD Expert indicating that restaurants are going all-in on these options.

  • Takeout for pickup is projected to generate $124 billion in sales this year
  • Takeout with direct delivery from a restaurant: $32 billion
  • Takeout with delivery from a third-party delivery company: $13 billion
  • Catering for pickup or delivery: $40 billion

The explosion of online ordering fills more than an “in-between” niche. People who are busy with work, commutes, kids’ activities, meetings and events don’t have to settle for frozen or fast food for speed and convenience. Just a few short years ago, cities such as New York or San Francisco were the envy of much of the rest of the United States because they had delivery options that varied outside the realm of pizza and occasional Chinese to “you can have anything delivered!”

Now, with apps like GrubHub, Postmates, DoorDash, and UberEats, a variety of delivery options are available for cities large and small throughout the country. You can get food as basic as Burger King to items as indulgent as rack of lamb and lobster delivered to your door, depending on which of your local restaurants are partnering with the third-party delivery services and what menu items they’re offering.

But how do restaurants maintain excellent food and brand standards when product is not being conveyed in a controlled environment that helps provide optimal quality?

Before we answer that, let’s first examine some of the pros and cons of offering online delivery:

The good and the bad of online delivery


  • Extends reach beyond normal geographic range, introducing your restaurant to an audience it might have previously missed
  • An additional revenue stream that can transcend seasonal cycles and build towards large orders, etc.
  • Helps customers discover favorite menu items to create repeat business
  • Great marketing reach and impetus to customers coming in for full dining experience


  • Menu items are not presented at ideal temperature, timeliness or presentation
  • There is little room for error; incorrect or inadequate orders are not easily rectified as they are in-store. This may result in customer annoyance far greater than a situation where a manager can quickly control and solve.
  • To-go orders, particularly large orders, take a lot of additional organization, packaging and production space. For instance, all sauces and condiments must be on the side, menu items often need to be deconstructed, so one element doesn’t compromise another, etc.

Logistics, logistics, logistics

To-go drivers wading through a crowd of in-house diners and those waiting to be seated can be chaotic, to say the least. Sufficient space and manpower to properly execute high delivery volume or large catering orders are becoming a necessity for many restaurants. The needs for this niche are so demanding, creating a proper workspace could require remodeling the front or back of the house or both. Parking adjustments should also be made.

As mentioned above, there is a very small margin of error and the best way to minimize a confusing clash of takeouts and dine-ins is by providing team members organized space from which to work. If one Uber Eats driver accidentally receives an order meant for another, it will likely result in two separate parties being extremely unhappy.

Takeout packaging areas should be designed for maximum efficiency the same way the line and the expediting areas are. All common tools should be in easy reach, which includes condiment cups, containers, wraps, utensils, bags, etc. Anything the team member needs, such as dressings, garnishes, condiments, etc., should also be easily accessible.

When evaluating a dine-in order in the kitchen, the chef and/or expediter can easily do a visual assessment to ensure every plate is correct. This is not nearly so easy for takeout. Once an order is packed away, viewing a menu item is difficult, particularly when using any eco-friendly packaging that isn’t transparent plastic. Every time a container is opened to check for accuracy, you expose the item to air, which increases the risk of it getting cold or stale.

Wood Ranch debuts WR Kitchen & Bar to rectify this challenge

It’s taken time, commitment and care to build your brand, reputation, following and customer relationships. Those who love what you offer are the heart of your company’s success. The last thing you want to do when keeping up with evolving trends is to turn your back on your brand’s history and loyal supporters.

In the evolution of every restaurant or product, there will be times when you need to evaluate what is working, what is not, and how you translate any changes to be consistent with what people already love and trust about you. If you betray the trust of your brand loyalists and brand ambassadors, you may deeply undermine your company’s reputation. So how do you weather seismic shifts in the market without risking that trust and loyalty? The leadership team at Wood Ranch had an idea for the rising costs of running a restaurant with a large footprint, requiring significant staffing day and night while a share of its business was converting to pickup or delivery options.

Known for its cozy, dark-wood, rustic atmosphere, the flagship brand was having difficulty translating to lighter, brighter, faster restaurant trends. But those who know and love Wood Ranch expect the traditional architectural and thematic elements.

What if they created a sub brand that wasn’t a replacement of their flagship but an extension? It could solve many of the dilemmas the company was facing without undercutting its existing brand elements. The solution: WR Kitchen & Bar, a “more casual dining brand with a smaller format and streamlined ordering system,” according to media reports announcing the first location in Laguna Niguel, California. It opened May 2019, and a second location is set to open in Carlsbad, California in the fall.

Not an overnight decision

According to media reports announcing the new concept, the operators of Westlake Village-based Wood Ranch had been considering the idea of opening a smaller-format concept for more than eight years. Rising costs of maintaining Wood Ranch was becoming prohibitive and they wanted to find a way to offer more value to guests with a new twist. Leadership was clear that they didn’t want the new concept to be fast-casual but they did integrate some of the more efficient elements to form their hybrid idea.

The full bar element elevates it from any fast-casual confusion, even if the ordering/delivery element is a bit more automated than most full-service establishments.

When diners enter, they see a bar that goes along the length of the restaurant. This is where diners order food and drink, similar to how it’s done in London pubs. The bar has three ordering stations.

Once they’ve ordered, diners receive a pager and can seat themselves at any available table. There are servers on the floor who will assist with additional food and drinks, though non-alcoholic beverages can be refilled at a self-serve station. Customers pay via iPad on tables for those who have ordered from the table.

The quality of food, drinks, and friendliness of the staff are all designed to maintain the level Wood Ranch has cultivated since it first opened in 1992, an era known for big restaurant footprints and large portion sizes. Other similar concepts, like Claim Jumper, also based in Southern California, are now struggling because a unique course correction couldn’t be made in time to keep the flagship afloat in shifting trade winds.

It will be interesting to see where this goes. When a company with a 27-year history understands it needs to pivot without making a full about-face, maybe that will spur the innovation of others facing similar challenges.

Innovation and a clear understanding of goals and challenges are key. Restaurants considering such a significant shift should consider bringing in the expertise of a consultancy. They can help you address every element of the change, from branding and product to operations and marketing logistics.



Increasing Sales: A Simple Strategy for Restaurants

Oct 18, 2019

Synergy was hired by a restaurant to help them develop a new concept by recommending a range of strategies to help them improve food, beverage, and sales. We helped them realize their potential and gave them a clear food vision that would address and meet their financial goals.  With increasing labor costs, they did not want to raise menu prices as that can often be problematic with their loyal customer base. So instead, we addressed the problem by re-engineering the menu and upgrading several items to optimize margins and improve profitability. The changes encouraged customers to try new and exciting offerings, which increased check averages while keeping the core menu prices stable. 

The specific strategy we recommended was implementing a simple “game.” We encouraged our client to focus on those quick wins by playing the $3 Game. The rules? Look for ways to increase their average check by just $3. That’s it.

We were thrilled to get an update from the client last week. They took our recommendations and, utilizing the $3 Game, were able to achieve a $4.22 increase per spiny lobster dish as compared to last year. They also made the recommended change of offering this very well-received dish every day, instead of only a few days a week.  

A robust menu is a restaurant’s best-selling tool, and if you don’t create reasons for people to spend more money, you are not optimizing your potential revenue!


Blueprint for a Successful Restaurant

Sep 30, 2019

Planning for a successful first quarter and new year doesn’t start on January 1st. And if your doors aren’t even open yet and your restaurant is just a concept on paper, then you know that successful planning may take months or even years. Recently, Synergy’s co-founder Dean Small, was invited to speak on the CareerDay Blueprint podcast on how to create a successful restaurant. He shares his insights from his thirty plus year career as a restaurant consultant, including common mistakes new restaurant owners make, the importance of restaurant training and how to get restaurant funding. We’d like to share with you some of the interview. To listen to the entire segment, please go here.

Note: The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Dean Small: Having system standards and organizational infrastructure allows operators to maximize their productivity and their efficiencies, and reduce their labor costs, which are really big needs in the industry today.

Ashley Twible: Oh, I’m sure, I think you hit probably every major area, where some people just starting out struggle with. So tell me about some common ways that people use to find funding in order to open a restaurant. I think that’s one of the primary questions most people have is, “How do you pay for it?”

Dean: Well, if you’re not a seasoned restaurateur, and have experience it certainly becomes a little more challenging and you have to basically go to the old-school approaches using your own personal resources, maybe SBA. But even with SBA or banking you really need a good concept book and financial model to in order to get you funding.

Other ways is, you know, there’s obviously friends and family, there are banks, there’s trying to find a partner, investor but anybody who’s going to loan you money is going to want to see a rock solid—not even a big business plan—but more of a concept strategy and a financial model. What they want to know is, “What’s in in for me? When am I going to get my money back? When is my return on investment and what’s my upside?” So understanding that that’s what the investor’s looking for, you need to be ready to address those issues, otherwise it’s going to be challenging for them to write those big checks.

Ashley: And I think, would you agree, that probably it takes a bit a of time for a restaurant to start turning a profit?

Dean: Well it depends if it’s properly structured, it can start being profitable in the very early stages like like five to six months, you know, if not sooner. If it’s properly designed. Obviously, you need some run way if you want to get to that level. If you don’t incubate it the right way, it can take it significantly longer and in some cases never because you never get the model right. At the end of the day, the restaurant business any other business–there’s a financial model and you need to be able to put so much money into the bottom line in order to make it a viable concept. And if you can’t accomplish that then there never be an ROI. So that’s how you have to think about it. It’s not just serving great food, it’s really about how do you turn that great food and beverage and hospitality into a winning financial strategy.

Ashley: Well six months with good foundation and good structure and good guidance, I think, is relatively encouraging. I was anticipating a bit longer, actually, for some ROIs. So Dean, can you tell us some things to keep an eye out for when you’re choosing a physical location?

Dean: First off, you need to determine who is your target market. You want to find a location that really addresses who you’re targeting with the understanding that people like to basically choose restaurants that are within a three to five mile radius of where they live or where they work. So, that’s one piece. The other piece is you have to again understand your financial model because you don’t want to have your rent more than seven percent or eight percent of your projected gross sales. So if you think that you’re going to have a concept that’s only going to be doing about a million dollars a year in sales, then you need to have a rent factor of around sixty, seventy thousand dollars so that your financial model works. You shouldn’t be looking at real estate opportunities will not fit within the financial model of the business.

Ashley: Tell us some of the most common mistake you’ve see owners making when opening a new restaurant.

Dean: They don’t get professional help they, they let their egos in the way. They think they know a lot because they’ve eaten at a bunch of restaurants. They don’t really understand the business portion of the business in terms of how to make money. They get real estate that are much bigger than their needs are and then they get upside down on the rent really quickly.

To listen to the complete interview with Dean Small and hear more of his tips for a successful restaurant, please click here.