"Hey, you know that food critic that writes for the paper. He´s with a group of people at table 23. I just heard him say that the Double Chocolate Fudge Cake Supreme wasn´t completely cooked and the stuff on top tasted like Vanilla Ice Milk. Is that bad?´
Heart racing? Adrenaline flowing? Of course it is. While we struggle to keep the lights on, the staff happy, the vendors comfortable, and the landlord paid or at bay, we all know the food critic can either slowly put an end to our struggling existence or turn life into a constantly packed palace of culinary notoriety. All with a simple nod of approval defined in stars.
The professional critic, who makes a career in the study of food, ambiance, design and location, is the restaurant owner´s greatest asset-if we have done our job- that day.
Critics are adventurers. Discovering the undiscovered is their job. Their mission is to announce to the world that the Rack of Lamb with Flaming Rosemary was delightful, hence opening the floodgates of prosperity for the two person show on Broadway. Or, down thumbing the Brisket on Chestnut, shortening one´s misery in the art of Alto Sham.
How may times have we panned the dining room nervously attempting to spot them? We think the guy with the crooked toupee may be a critic in disguise. We quickly call the staff into the kitchen. We tell everyone a critic is in the house. We demand sudden professionalism. "Straighten your tie. Put on a clean apron. Roll those sleeves down, the inside of you cuff has coffee on it."
Then, with a moments hesitation, we arrive table side, probing, interrogating as though we were Detective Briscoe. "How was your appetizer? Did you enjoy the New Zealand Purple Potatoes? Do you think the ceiling tiles are the right color? Did you get a refill on your bread basket?" Suddenly the customer makes eye contact. We realize it´s just Bob Johnson from Minnetonka Lane with a new look for winter. Not a critic. We can breathe easier now. We tell the staff- "false alarm".
That´s the rub. If we thought of every customer as a critic- and they are- we would accomplish the goal of regularly capturing stars. And, we would feel more comfortable when the professional critics arrived.
Critics never dine out in hopes of finding fault. They all know the difficulties owners, chefs and staff face. They understand the challenges facing restaurant operators in their quest for perfection. The problem is that often we, as owners. become lax in that quest. The critic´s job is to discover the undiscovered.
The problem arises when the two person show on Broadway isn´t ready for the critic. That´s why daily preparation for the visit is so important.
Make sure that you constantly remind your staff that the critics may be in that day. And, when customers show up, you won´t be lying.
Make sure you have a before-shift meeting , no matter how slow or busy you plan on being. If one person shows up and they have 20 friends with email, a critic ate at your restaurant, that day.
We all know it is more difficult to run a restaurant on a slow day rather than a busy one. Develop ways to keep the service rhythm steady whether busy or slow.
Make sure your food is fresh and prepared to the same standards as it was when you dreamt about your current venture. Otherwise, you were just having a sugar coated nightmare.
Know the difference between a professional critic and an advertising sales person who wants to review your restaurant and sell an ad. A professional critic arrives unannounced, usually undercover, and never makes it known what they are doing. Most likely they experience the restaurant two or three times. And the publication that they work for has a circulation that can make you or break you. After their reviews are published, If taken to heart, the real critic will point out inefficiencies that if corrected can only make your restaurant better.
The review -for- advertising- critic often does more harm than good. I have yet to see a less than glowing review from a critic associated with advertising. Restaurant owner´s suddenly read the review and think everything is fine. And worse yet, servers, chefs, and staff read the review and believe the paid for publicity exonerates all prior mistakes. Never believe your own press releases.
Remember, constructive criticism from a professional critic may seems difficult to swallow, but if heeded, may make swallowing in your restaurant more popular with your daily critics, your customers.