Could the 'perfect restaurant' ever really exist?

Mark McCabe

Mark McCabe

Chef Patron 1st August 2023
Mark McCabe

Mark McCabe

Chef Patron

Could the 'perfect restaurant' ever really exist?

Ever since I became a co-owner of the The Ethicurean I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the ‘perfect’ restaurant. A restaurant that is so well conceived and executed that it manages to be a perfect circular economy – never wasting anything, paying staff and suppliers a fair price and engaging in the local community, all the while giving guests a meal they will never forget at a price they can afford. 

It sounds farfetched I know but I’m intrigued by how close it's possible to get.

Our industry is so difficult to survive in, let alone succeed that a lot of what we do in hospitality is compromise. 

We can’t charge what we need to, despite rising costs, for fear of losing customers. 

We can’t buy ingredients that are grown with the planet in mind because they are too expensive. 

We can’t pay our staff as much as they deserve because the money isn’t there. 

We can’t even think about asking our suppliers for less plastic packaging because there’s a million other things that need doing first. 

We might want all these things, and recognise that, by and large, the industry needs these changes, but the real world is tough and the margins are tight as it is.

No restaurant is perfect. Of course not. Nothing is perfect. But that doesn’t mean we can’t dream a little now and then. 

So, over the next few months I’m going to write about what I think the perfect restaurant would consist of and how we might, if not fully achieve them, make steps towards these markers in our own ways.

I’m no authority on restaurants and I’m certainly green when it comes to owning and running them. 

I’ve been working in hospitality on and off since I left school, I’ve done bar work, Front of House, Back of House, cafes, restaurants and even two summers as a butler, but it’s only in the last ten years I would consider this my career.

It might seem slightly rich for someone like me to think I have anything worthwhile to say, particularly on something as high and mighty as the ‘perfect’ restaurant. 

There are many chefs and restauranteurs on these hallow pages with far more experience than me and I’m not for a moment going to suggest I know better than them. But I do feel like I have a rather unique insight into hospitality. I didn’t come through any of the traditional routes into kitchens, and as such, maybe view things through a slightly different lens. So anyway, here goes. 

The perfect restaurant must start with strong core values. Any business should really but when you work in an industry that expects extremely hard work and high levels of dedication for a comparatively small wage (to other skilled jobs) then there needs to be more. There needs to be a clear reason why. Why are we giving up our evenings and weekends? Why are we working long hours on our feet all day? Why are we still relying on tips to top up our salaries? 

On paper, restaurant work is pretty shitty. Most of us do it because we love it. We couldn’t necessarily tell you why we love it, but we do. That pool of people is getting less and less however and it’s no longer enough for businesses to be able to rely on them. 

So to attract, and retain, staff a restaurant needs to sell its vision.

Many of the top restaurants now offer better hours than ever before. They offer health insurance and gym memberships and training days. Salaries are higher and more consistent. So why are we still seeing restaurants across the sector struggling to attract and retain talent. 

I believe this is because people want more than a job, they want to be part of something.

In his TedTalk from 2010 which summarises the incredible book “Start With Why”, Simon Sinek talks about how all of the great movements of the 20th Century have been driven by an idea, a belief, not just a product. 

This belief, when articulated and lived by then attracts those who believe it too and want to be part of it.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

There are a couple of hospitality businesses that I think do this well. Silo, Doug McMaster’s restaurant in Hackney has extremely clear messaging about the type of business it strives to be. ‘Waste is a failure of the imagination’ is repeated again and again across all of their platforms. It says to everyone who sees it - we are a restaurant that imagines a better world. 

This messaging attracts customers and staff who share this vision and ultimately will choose to be part of it over, say, a restaurant that is closer to home that makes equally nice food or a job that pays a higher wage. 

This core messaging doesn’t have to be as high-minded as changing the world either. It can simply be, ‘We believe that through hard work and self-discipline you can achieve everything you want.’ 

Adam Handling and I have very different views on staffing our restaurants and we spoke about this a fair bit during our episode of Grilled back in April. ( Our approach to work/life balance is vastly different and I instinctively back away from expecting long hours from people but the truth is, his staff retention is pretty excellent, far better than mine in fact. So why is that? 

I think it’s because people know exactly what they are getting and they believe what he believes. ‘Come and work for me and I will give you the tools to become the best professional you can be. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.’

Once you have your reason why, it’s essential to communicate and live by your values. If your team cannot see these values on display all the time, then they can’t be expected to live by them either. 

When we relaunched the Ethicurean after Covid I had big dreams. I wanted to prove that you could run a fine dining restaurant that was responsible in everything it does, sourcing well and paying wages that don’t rely on service charge. We attracted a team who understood and believed in communicating a message to our guests that invited them to see things the way we did.

But over the past year I’ve found it increasingly hard to find the energy to share my passion with new members of staff. 

As costs have gone up and compromises made, our vision has been eroded and our retention has stuttered. Without a strong culture and a shared sense of purpose, restaurant work is a hard sell for most. We must find a way to reignite and communicate our own enthusiasm before we ask others to be enthusiastic on our behalf. 

As Sinek also says:

‘The goal is not just to hire people who need a job, it’s to hire people who believe what you believe.’ 

**An excellent resource for building a strong restaurant culture can be found here:

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