Where’s Michael? That’s what everyone is asking. It is driving me crazy. Ever since I opened my restaurant I have lived in the wake of the previous owner. I changed the name of the place, the decor, and the menu. Yet, customers still come in and ask if I can make a certain dish the way that Michael, the old owner, used to make it. No matter what I do I cannot seem to shake the personality and charm the previous operator had over his customers. I bought this place with the intent and desire of creating my own mark on the tastes of the neighborhood. Instead, I am just living in the shadows of the previous owner´s entrees. When he comes in for dinner, people ignore me and run over to his table as though a celebrity just came to dinner. Any advice would be appreciated.
Ron in Florida
You are experiencing "owner appreciation". It´s one of the benefits of running a great operation for a long period of time — you make a lot of friends who miss you when you´re gone.
There are a few ways to deal with this that can be beneficial to your psyche and your bank account.
I will assume that you have purchased the restaurant in the last year and that you paid for it in full since you have changed the name, decor, and menu. Often, that alone is enough to upset "the locals".
When a neighborhood spot changes ownership, people become concerned – their patterns and habits are altered. For yet unknown reasons, every customer who eats at a place more than twice assumes partial ownership. Once the name and décor change, so do the memories that went with them. On top of that, changing the menu so that the Wednesday night pot roast may be gone forever is aculinary affront that may not bide well with regular customers. These may not appear to be big changes for new owners, but for the regular customer, changes can be traumatic.
In an attempt to sooth the transition it may be advantageous to create a few of the items Michael was known for using your own signature variations on them. Present them as specials. Use them on slow nights with advance advertising to see how much love customers really had for Mike. In doing this, you not only give people the opportunity to taste the flavor of Mike, but you also can tell them that you offered that special dish last Monday night and that it will be on the menu again next Wednesday.
Print a card that customers can fill out with their email address so you can notify them of the weekly specials by email- something Mike probably never did. On occasion, pick out a customer or two and tell them in the email you want to buy them a complimentary dessert or cocktail- make sure you let them know that they need to see you to get the complimentary offer.
You are currently in a personality contest with Mike. Use it to your advantage. Hospitality is based on personality, and, you now have the upper hand- you have the restaurant.
You must make sure that you are visible at all times. Table hop, briefly, introducing yourself to the guests. Get to know them by name and make sure that you have an answer for all their "Mike" questions.
It is also important that your staff knows what to tell people when they are asked about the specials, or the menu, or Mike.
And, finally, if all else fails, you may want to think about having a special "Mike Appreciation Night".
Make arrangements with Mike to have the party on a slow night. Get Mike´s customer list so you can send out the invitations. You can make this a surprise party for Mike if you want- talk to his wife, or daughter or a good friend who is a customer, arrange to get the list and invite as many of Mike´s friends as you can accommodate.
Don´t charge for the evening. It is a party. Make arrangements for a few speeches, roast style. As the master of ceremonies you can make Mike bigger than life.
Once the party is over, you will see an increase in fondness for Ron. Plus, for the $5000.00 or less it will cost in food and wine, you made a lot of friends and got your hands on a tremendous mailing list.
Good luck with your venture. And, don´t forget to capture email addresses. Someday, down the road, someone may need them to invite your friends to a party.