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David Hensley

How can I retrain my customers?

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So, I've recently become the Exec, at a local place. I've no real authority to change the menu, thanks to my owners. I can, and have, tried my best to improve the existing menu, as it stands. I've been met with about a 50/50 split of lovers and haters. The lovers, of course, urge me to keep going in my current direction, which I appreciate. The naysayers, however, are of an old lot, local folks who only discovered the place, because they heard (and discovered) that the food was bland, and unexciting.

What should I do? My owners are about 50% sympathetic to them, and its killing me, because I have to work twice as hard, to make both flavorful, and bland food, haha.

I'm caught in a position in which I like my owners, but hate my customers, ya know? Perhaps it's the opposite, now that I think of it...

I'm literally at a 50/50 point, as far as tableside commentary is concerned. Half love it, half hate it. The ones who love it are youngerish, 30-35, people like me, almost. The older crowd is really becoming a problem, though. Tonight was slow, but we still had about 20 people come in at once, half of them ordered steaks, mid-rare...then sent them back until they were mid-well...

Those of us in the business know what I'm talking about, and know that I mean no offense to anyone...

How can I, if I can at all, retrain my customers to accept tasty food, instead of pasty food?!!?

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Simply put, you won't be able to "retrain" anyone to your tastes. Attempting to do so will see them move to other dining options.

 

Many chefs try out new options as specials first and then migrate them to the regular menu if they become popular. How about suggesting some new dishes that would appeal to the younger demographic as specials? If they are successful, you can work to have a menu with some "traditional" courses and some "modern" alternatives and thus keep both groups happy.

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David Hensley,

 

I feel for you, in your creative endeavor, but nickrey is right. Your role is not to educate palates, but to provide what pleases your customers.

 

The only advice I might offer is to convince your employers that the younger clientele are going to be around a lot longer, have more disposable income, buy more booze, and might bring their offspring into the loyal patronage.

 

Good luck!


Edited by Thanks for the Crepes (log)
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I have little experience in the business, but common sense tells me it takes longer to get new customers than it takes to loose old ones, so you're confronted with a fine balancing act. Nickrey makes a great suggestion on specials.

Another idea might be for you to try to acquire new customers during off-peak periods by offering special menus during those times. It strikes a balance by trying to attract new customers while not alienating old ones and could be a source of creativity for you and growth for the owners. If you're able to demonstrate customer growth and loyalty with food to your own liking, you'll be better placed to convince the owners to allow you to expand. At the end of the day, it is all about $$$.

Hope that helps...


Edited by Nicolas Escudero Heiberg (log)

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I feel for you.

 

But, I think you need to love your customers... even with their faults. I'm in a service industry too and I can guarantee you that my customers are more annoying than yours.  Took me years to get to the place where I stopped trying to change their ways and just accepted who they were.  Life got easier.

 

Give them what they want and be glad they are happy.

 

They will die off eventually.

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When we go out to eat, we usually seek out a meal that is too much trouble to fix at home or that contains hard to source ingredients or offers something we have never eaten before.  When talking to older folks I find that many of them no longer are able or want to cook the meals that comfort them most.  Many are looking to recapture them when eating out.  Often they no longer need to feed large families or have the energy to cook like that anymore. They want old memories not new ones.

These people often equate dining out and eating the foods of their younger days with their best memories.  I know a local restaurant that has been a big success just because they cater to the elderly crowd.  Boiled to the brink of death green beans, roast beef that seems pre-chewed, jello salad with everything but the kitchen sink in it....you get the idea.  And they do a whale of a business.  

 

It isn't easy to find a middle-of-the-road menu.  If you are open for lunch, maybe you could go heavy on the "pasty" stuff then.  Around here, seniors go out to lunch more than dinner.  Save the more "tasty" items for the dinner crowd. Offer some cross over items to see which will appeal to all age levels. 

Whatever you do, don't mess with the old ones.  If they like you, they will be customers for life and spread the word about your place.   The young ones tend to move around and are fickle.  have to try a place the minute it opens and often it will become the new darling and your is left in the dust.  

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David, I understand you're passionate about what you do. That's a good thing. However, I suspect you're not going to change the owners any further, and you're mostly not going to change the customers you so vividly "hate." So, as I see it, you have three choices: 1) continue working with the same attitude and therefore continue to dislike your job (and probably continue to butt heads with the owners); 2) adust your beliefs to be more accepting of your current clientele and make the best food possible within those parameters; 3) start looking for a job more in line with your desires.

 

I don't know about Roanoke, but here in GR we "older" folks still have our familiar/bland/medium-well restaurants (so I've been told; I stay as far away from them as possible), but we also have, and support, our adventurous/tasty/local-sourcing ones.

 

You might want to read this old (and long) forum: Cooking for 50 Senior Citizens.

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There's a blog somewheres on eGullet that gives a detailed accounting of what happens when you try to get old diners  to eat new food. Can you have an early bird period say from 4:30 or 5:00 to 6:30 that's heavy on the old reliable stuff, and save the newer items for after the early bird special period.  Some restaurants in this area have a separate early bird special menu with a limited selection, and lower prices.  The harder you try to train your older customers, the harder they'll resist , and some take a special delight in putting  " youngerish, 30-35, people" in their place.

Edited to add that Alex beat me to it.  But he's younger than me and can type faster.


Edited by Arey (log)
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I am now technically part of that 'older crowd' I guess - but I am pretty sure I have tastes still like the younger ones.

There is light at the end of your tunnel I think - I don't think those of us edging into senility now have the same tastes as those of my father's generation. My parents were raised on bland food - and it was the food they made and consumed with gusto to the end (though, I did get my father to like middling bland by the end of his life, really spicy things were beyond his ability to stretch his palate). I hate to put it the same way as gfweb did but he is right - they will die off. I don't think 'my generation' will be going back to pablum any time soon.

If I were you, I would at least partially cater to them for the time being and when you notice their numbers diminish, start quietly modifying the menu to be a bit more exciting.

All that said, your location (on the edge of 'south' and in a relatively small town) may also be an issue that one would not have in more northern areas. I find southerners often are not too adventurous (except in larger places where there is also a larger more transitory younger group of people - perhaps in a college town - I know Asheville is finally coming out of the dark dull ages) with their flavourings and more traditional in general in their likes and dislikes when it comes to food and (particularly) cooking times.

ps. I can appreciate your problem. A few years ago I 'taught' cooking to a group of seniors at my father's retirement home. I learned quickly that my tastes were not those they were interested in learning to acquire so I had to adjust my demos to just be a little fresher and less overcooked than what they got in the home dining room - we found a middle ground, but, it took time.


Edited by Deryn (log)
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... The ones who love it are youngerish, 30-35, people like me, almost. The older crowd is really becoming a problem, though. ...

It's the hospitality industry. You don't get to choose your customers. You still have to please all of them, even if they're not like you. It seems that either you have to change the tastes of the "older crowd" or you have to change your attitude toward them. I'm not sure which is less likely to happen. 

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Isn't this the ideal application of "sauce on the side" service?  For those who have no interest in a flavorful sauce, they can ignore it... for those who enjoy it, they're in control of how much goes where. No fussy special orders if everything gets served with the sauce on the side. You get to be as creative as you want and show off your mad saucier skills, and the meat and potatoes folks can always have plain gravy or nothing at all.


Edited by cdh (log)
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If I don't like the food at a restaurant, I don't come back. If I don't like the staff or service, I don't come back. If I thought the executive chef at a restaurant looked down on customers like me, I wouldn't patronize the place. It's that simple, and I'm not one of the oldsters you're disdaining. As others have said, you need to please your customers.

The ideas uptopic about offering special menus or dishes sound like good ways to see if you can broaden the customer base and express your creativity, at least a little bit. Maybe you can get support from the owners if you pitch it as trying to bring in additional customers.

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So, as I see it, you have three choices: 1) continue working with the same attitude and therefore continue to dislike your job (and probably continue to butt heads with the owners); 2) adust your beliefs to be more accepting of your current clientele and make the best food possible within those parameters; 3) start looking for a job more in line with your desires.

That pretty much covers it. I've been working under option #2 for almost 6 years now. I actually feel option #3 is the best option when possible but the options for places to cook aren't particularly wide or varied where I live and I don't have plans to move any time in the near future.

 

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While the seniors might have a preference for comfort food, I suspect that the owners might value the 'comfort revenue'.  If they're making enough money to keep their heads above water, selling a change may be difficult.

 

However, perhaps there's a way to play both sides of the equation.  Create a "Seniors' Specials" menu in addition to your new, more trendy menu.  Let the two menus compete in the same space.  Let the wait staff make the call to provide one, the other, or both depending on the table.

 

If the new menu starts bringing in more of the younger crowd, the seniors will take themselves out of the equation.  If the new menu fails to bring in appreciably more business then your existing older customer base will still feel catered to.

 

From there, the only issue is doing both menus from the same basic inventory.

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Gee I don't know.  If I were given the old farts' menu and later saw some middle aged guests  eating something that looked much better than what my menu offered,  I might be pissed.  Not all seniors are stuck in their comfort zone nor do all young diners crave cutting edge.  For some, eating out is all about the choices and if the waitstaff takes always half of them on his judgement call, I'm out of there.  Separate menus at different times of day sounds okay, at the same time of day might be iffy. Keep in mind that apparently there are few means of communication faster than the senior citizens grapevine!  While we are still booting up our computers to email , they have spread the word on your place far and wide.  If the words are good ones, congratulations.

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I don't really like the idea of separate menus, except to feature some boring stuff as early bird or happy hour but in a non-ageist way.  Are some of your new dishes big hits or are you just attached to them?  Look at the product mix, sales don't lie.  If you need to have a chicken breast on the menu, make it a chicken breast that you know is as good as it can be.  If done-ness of steaks is an issue, maybe switch from rare, medium rare, medium to a description of how much pink/red color it will have.  Different steakhouses all seem to have their own definition of cook temps anyway, so train your servers to say 'the chef's medium rare will still be pink and cool in the middle, is that your preference?"

 

I also disagree with the idea that your clientele is fixed.  But if you are going to change the menu enough that the old diners are driven away, you'd better be 150% sure you can attract and keep enough new ones to stay successful.

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So, I've recently become the Exec, at a local place. I've no real authority to change the menu, thanks to my owners. I can, and have, tried my best to improve the existing menu, as it stands. I've been met with about a 50/50 split of lovers and haters. The lovers, of course, urge me to keep going in my current direction, which I appreciate. The naysayers, however, are of an old lot, local folks who only discovered the place, because they heard (and discovered) that the food was bland, and unexciting.

What should I do? My owners are about 50% sympathetic to them, and its killing me, because I have to work twice as hard, to make both flavorful, and bland food, haha.

I'm caught in a position in which I like my owners, but hate my customers, ya know? Perhaps it's the opposite, now that I think of it...

I'm literally at a 50/50 point, as far as tableside commentary is concerned. Half love it, half hate it. The ones who love it are youngerish, 30-35, people like me, almost. The older crowd is really becoming a problem, though. Tonight was slow, but we still had about 20 people come in at once, half of them ordered steaks, mid-rare...then sent them back until they were mid-well...

Those of us in the business know what I'm talking about, and know that I mean no offense to anyone...

How can I, if I can at all, retrain my customers to accept tasty food, instead of pasty food?!!?

 

You can't, just like everyone else said.

 

Anytime there is a new chef, any time a place changes hands, or anytime someone wants to 'jazz things up' in a kitchen with an existing customer base, you'll have pissy people, and you'll have customer loss. That's just how things are.

 

People like what they like, and as bad as it sounds, generally speaking, the older bracket *really* like what they like, and that's it, no changes, and nothing new. When you're in a situation like this.....honestly, it's not worth it if you're trying to steer things in a new direction - that or you just suck it up and collect your paycheck, and deal with the fact a certain crowd will like one direction, and one will like the other. You just can't make everyone happy, and you won't be able to change their minds.

 

It sounds pretty bleak, but it's how it is. 

 

There always comes a time when you just have to decide what's more important - cooking just to make the customers happy, or cooking to make yourself happy, because there are a million restaurants and areas where it can't be both. 

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