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What do you think of an empty restaurant?


Mussina
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We have a small restaurant located in a lovely, but remote location. We get no drive by traffic -- everyone makes a reservation. Since we've been open (a short time) we've received some really nice reviews and good publicity. That said, we are almost entirely dependent on word of mouth. People have the perception that we are an impossible reservation and some will book months in advance. Saturday nights are usually packed and we do have to turn people away most Saturdays. Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, however, can vary wildly from very busy to depressingly empty.

Here is the question -- what would you, the dining public, think if you came to our place on an off night and found 15 people in the place? Would it depress you? Could you have a good time if everything else was to your liking - food, service, etc? Would you think the place was failing and does that impression have greater ramifications (i.e. do people start spreading the word that that the restaurant is not making it - a perception that could snowball - or do people give us the benefit of the doubt since we are new?)

I am curious as to your thoughts. We torment ourselves about about a really slow night more because of its effect on someones dining experience than even the effect on our bottom line.

Thanks!

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I travel a lot, and often find myself in unfamiliar areas looking for something to eat. If I don't know anything about a restaurant, and see it is TOTALLY empty, I don't go in. Fifteen people would however be more than a critical mass for me.

That said, one of my current restaurant hangouts is almost always empty. Good chow, bad location, and more expensive than a lot of people around here want to pay for Chinese.

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I'd go in, worry about the restaurants survival, and enjoy myself.

And then tell lots of people how good it was, to improve its chances of being around for me to visit again.

My dad wouldnt open the door.

"You dont know everything in the world! You just know how to read!" -an ah-hah! moment for 6-yr old Miss O.

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Personally, I prefer restaurants that are not busy. If I see the kitchen is not in the weeds I expect the staff will produce a signature meal with few distractions - as a customer, this is money well spent. I have dumped enough cash on busy weekend nights for sloppy plating, under-cooked food and hassled FOH. I've had enough. So to answer your question, I wouldn't mind in the slightest if I and my crowd were the only table seated in your place. In fact, I would enjoy it more. Rumours be damned if your kitchen continues to rock your town. You have enough to worry about!

How many seats do you have? Website?

Have you considered mid-week, prix-fixe, multi-course specials?

"I took the habit of asking Pierre to bring me whatever looks good today and he would bring out the most wonderful things," - bleudauvergne

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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How big is the restaurant? And how important is "buzz" to the dining experience? I find that in a more formal place -- where conversation is relatively hushed and you have drapes and carpets and other sound damps -- you barely notice a small crowd. A lot of places seem incomplete if they don't have enough energy, though, and it's easy to feel that either a) you were dumb and showed up at the party before the cool kids came or b) you're witnessing a restaurant's death throes.

Since we like to eat relatively late, we've also had the experience of walking into places at a not-unreasonable hour -- 8, say -- and by 9 had the feeling that the entire staff is staring at us, waiting for us to go home (even if that's not the case).

And, not to disagree entirely with johnnyd, (and to agree with Holly) I think most restaurants require a certain amount activity to hit their groove -- maybe not full, but 2/3 full. Otherwise the staff energy level seems to drop, servers trying not to hover disappear at bad times, cooks don't get their rhythm going and the timing gets weird, and so on.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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I think most restaurants require a certain amount activity to hit their groove -- maybe not full, but 2/3 full. Otherwise the staff energy level seems to drop, servers trying not to hover disappear at bad times, cooks don't get their rhythm going and the timing gets weird, and so on.
True, and true. I have to admit suffering this unfortunate malaise occaisionally (you better believe I speak up!), but most times I find a greater attention to detail when places are quiet. Maybe I'm just lucky. But I'd agree that half to 2/3 full house has just the right hum.

"I took the habit of asking Pierre to bring me whatever looks good today and he would bring out the most wonderful things," - bleudauvergne

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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I don't mind walking into an empty or near-empty restaurant, but I know many people do. All I care about is the food and service I find when I'm there (and I agree that there is this paradox where often the service/food can be lacking when the place isn't busy).

If I owned your place, I'd worry more about what I could do specifically to do more business on those weaker days. A lot of money flows to the bottom line by increasing business on those days.

I've seen places in Boston (where I live) do some cool stuff. Here are a few:

> major ingredient night. For example, let everyone know that Tuesday is lobster night featuring 3 or 5 or whatever special lobster dishes not available other nights.

> Chef's choice tasting menu. I thought this was genius when I saw it. The customer gets a really good prix fixe price, but the chef chooses the menu for that night. A good way to use up what won't be good in another day or 2, highlight what the chef can do and get customers who maybe won't/can't pay the higher busier day prices.

-Mark-

---------------------------------------------------------

"If you don't want to use butter, add cream."

Julia Child

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The Chef's choice pix fixe meal is a great idea. I really wish more places did this. I'd make a trip out on a slow night for a good series of dishes for one price.

Another idea if you can, partner with a wine store in the area and do thursday night wine pairings. I love going to mid week wine tastings, breaks up the work week with fun.

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I don't mind dining in an empty or half-empty restaurant; it makes me think the place hasn't been "discovered" yet and I'm an insider. If I like the food and atmosphere, I'd then spread the word to my friends.

As others have suggested, you can build traffic on slow nights by promoting specials -- particular menus, special events, or lower midweek prices.

SuzySushi

"She sells shiso by the seashore."

My eGullet Foodblog: A Tropical Christmas in the Suburbs

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I'd be inclined to give it a shot. Some of my favorite restaurants are rarely more than 50% capacity when I visit (partly just coincidence and partly intention on my part, i dislike dining during absolute peak) In fact back in my hometown there was a good Vietnamese joint that, as far as i recall, my party was the only one there about 90% of the time--BUT, that meant the chef/owner had all the time in the world to come out and bullshit with us (knew me by name) and fro mtime to time spot us a random amuse or dessert to see what we thought. Definitely very cool.

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It takes years to build capacity on off nights in remote locations.

Its depressing when the staff outnumber the diners - been there and got that T shirt,

Don't try and fight it - open only at say Friday Saturday night and Sunday Brunch, unless for a private function, and make the numbers work on that. Increase the priice for Saturday night, and don't have staff or heat or light for the times you are closed.

You give yourself an easier life, and save money.

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I would go into a near-empty restaurant if I felt there were good reasons for the situation, such as a remote location and a weekday night. I wouldn't necessarily have qualms about the food, but sitting alone in a cavernous dining room might be a little off-putting. (I don't know what your seating arrangements look like, of course.)

The chef's prix fixe menu idea is a very good one. Maybe some advertising with a one-time discount coupon to try out the restaurant on a slow night? I've encountered some restaurants in out-of-the-way locations that do a very good business by offering specials with tour groups, resorts, and B &B's. good luck!

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If the menu looks good(I hope you have an up to date website)or if the restaurant has received a strong recommendation from someone I know and trust, I wouldn't hesitate to eat in an empty restaurant. If I liked the place, I would continue to go back regardless of how busy it is.

The situation you describe is akin to that of one of our favorite restaurants which is located in a small, rural town and off the beaten path. When we first started going there--and we almost always dine out on weekdays--there were never more the two or three other tables occupied. Now, some two years later, the place is doing a pretty good midweek business. The change must be through word of mouth because I don't think the restaurant advertises.

How long have you been open?

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Thanks everyone for the replies. We do have a website which I update with our menu every week. We also have an email newsletter which we send out to subscribers once a month. We are currently offering a Thursday and Friday prix fixe dinner (which we also offered in May) in addition to our regular menu. It definitely boosts business on Friday nights but seems to erode the Sunday brunch crowd. We tried a "First Seating" special (because the prix fixe people seemed to come earlier) but that wasn't terribly successful and we had people arriving at 4:40 to be sure they were there in time. We opened late last summer so we are still in our first year (and what a year it has been!). We seat 59 (we started with 50 but added more seats to accomodate the crowds on Sat. night). On a slow night, we will remove some of the table and set four tops for two which we hope makes it feel less empty.

Edited by Mussina (log)
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15 on an off night? I'd be impressed. We recently tried the latest incarnation of a very successful upscale restaurant that has "reinvented" itself recently; THAT was depressing. We got there before 8, and were probably the youngest table in the place by 20 years, and our average age was 36. No offense to anyone; it just seems a mix is what you'd be going for. And, by the time our entrees came we were pretty much alone in the place. We all agreed our food was unremarkable, and though we used to love the place and the chef is the same, we all agreed we wouldn't bother going back. No doubt your word of mouth is spreading. Keep it up. How do I get on the mailing list?

Amy in Michigan
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Thanks again every one for all the helpful feedback. The forum is truly an invaluable resource.

We are located in Northeastern, Connecticut (Eastford) and the name of the restaurant is the Still River Cafe. Our website is www.stillrivercafe.com which I created and maintain/update.

My husband and I opened the restaurant last August. We were both lawyers with passions that strayed far from the law (Bob loved organic gardening and I loved to cook). We spent a year and a half renovating a 150 year old barn on our property into the restaurant and we grow 90 - 95% of the produce we use at the restaurant on our farm (and utilize as many local purveyors as possible).

We received a lot of publicity initially because our town was one of the last two dry towns in Connecticut. We drafted an ordinance and after two town meetings and an all day vote (the turnout was larger than any presidential election!) we were successful in changing the law and can now sell beer and wine (the law thing came in handy). All the local tv stations were there for the vote and the story was even picked up by CNN and the NY Times.

In the Connecticut ZAGAT survey we were mentioned in the introduction, along with Paul Newman's new place in Westport, under the heading "Grow it and they will come" and that pretty much echos our "field of dreams" philosophy going into this ("Build it and they will come"). Our greatest asset is also our greatest liability (our rural location). We always knew this would be a challenge, as such, tried to create a destination type place that would draw from all reaches of the state as well as Boston, Providence and the Berkshires and we have had some success on that front at least on Saturdays. We know that organic growth in the restaurant world takes time (thus my original post -- how do people react to a restaurant that is quiet when they get there?) and it is nice to hear that diners, to a degree, understand this as well.

As I mentioned, it has been quite an experience so far. Lawyers think they work hard :laugh:

Thanks again,

Kara

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The place looks beautiful. Given the dynamics of the slow periods, would it be possible to reconfigure the space to make it look less empty? For example, removing some of the tables on slower nights... doing something to make the space seem smaller, more intimate?

Just a thought.

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Mussina, thanks for the info. I'm originally from the Boston area, and I will let people know about your restaurant. It looks beautiful, the menu sounds wonderful--a "destination" restaurant for your region.

Are there other recreational or cultural activities that would bring people to your local area? People could do a daytrip from one of the cities (preferably not just on weekends), including a meal at your restaurant. Are there any B & B's close to you?

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We have a small restaurant located in a lovely, but remote location.  We get no drive by traffic -- everyone makes a reservation.  Since we've been open (a short time) we've received some really nice reviews and good publicity.  That said, we are almost entirely dependent on word of mouth.  People have the perception that we are an impossible reservation and some will book months in advance.  Saturday nights are usually packed and we do have to turn people away most Saturdays.  Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, however, can vary wildly from very busy to depressingly empty. 

Here is the question -- what would you, the dining public, think if you came to our place on an off night and found 15 people in the place? Would it depress you?  Could you have a good time if everything else was to your liking - food, service, etc?  Would you think the place was failing and does that impression have greater ramifications (i.e. do people start spreading the word that that the restaurant is not making it - a perception that could snowball - or do people give us the benefit of the doubt since we are new?)

I am curious as to your thoughts.  We torment ourselves about about a really slow night more because of its effect on someones dining experience than even the effect on our bottom line. 

Thanks!

I've had this experience frequently, since I travel and rely on reviews and Zagat and so on to decide where I'm going to eat. I'd walk in, anyway, since I need dinner, and judge you on your food and service, not on your critical mass. One of my standard Japanese places in Dulles-land never has more than 5 or 10 people dining on a week night, seems like, but it survives and I keep coming back.

If you have a coupon for it, you don't want it.

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How close are you to Pomfret? or Woodstock? I have friends who live in Woodstock and will try and visit the next time I am in the area if you are nearby.

There are a lot of boarding schools in the area. I know it would be infrequent business but could you spread the word of mouth through the parents of of kids in those schools.

and maybe part of your problem is that your website says you are only open on Friday and Saturday nights. Not Thursday and Sunday nights.

The most important thing for someone visiting a restaurant website to know immediately upon viewing is when exactly a restaurant is open, and I really had to search to find out your hours.

But the place looks gorgeous and the food divine.

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