Cat Cora and Tobin Ellis: A One-Two Powerhouse Punch
"We're one big dysfunctional happy family," said Tobin Ellis of BarMagic during his and celebrity chef Cat Cora’s keynote. At the time he was talking about dive bars but the quote most certainly applies to just about every type of hospitality venue. Each business operating in our industry is a mélange of personalities, experiences and influences that have to be managed properly to achieve success.
One of Cat Cora’s restaurants operates in Singapore. Ocean by Cat Cora is a 22-hour flight away for the Iron Chef. Cat makes this trek at least 3 times a year and stays for about 2 weeks. To rein in the dysfunction inherent to our industry and keep everything running like clockwork, the restaurateur says that owners and operators must be present. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean always being there in person. While she definitely encourages putting in face time whenever possible (and actively making the time to do so), Cat also suggests using phone calls, emails, Skype, etc., to touch base, strategize, manage, offer guidance, and do everything else that helps protect an owner’s name and business. This advice applies to single- and multi-unit operators alike.
Success in our industry also depends on pulling the threads tighter than our competitors. Of course a solid foundation and love and passion for the business, food, and beverage are critical – we all know that. But today’s informed consumer demands operators pay the closest of attention to the details. A connection between the bar and the kitchen goes a long way to fully realizing a venue’s concept. Balance the food, balance the drinks, and watch the bottom line build.
"If I'm not bringing people through the door, my staff isn't making money," said Cat.
It’s that bar and kitchen connection that helps to keep those doors busy. Cat offered several ways to make that connection, beginning with creating a collaborative culture between the front of house and back of house. Culture, if not as important as a venue’s concept, can be more important. Cat has a low turnover rate in her restaurants, indicative of healthy culture. Customers can feel a lack of cohesive culture between FOH and BOH, and if you're not building that culture you're negatively impacting your bottom line. Cat involves her GMs, chefs, assistant managers, basically everyone, with menu changes. This ensures that everyone is working together; even though she’s the boss she knows it’s beneficial to her staff and bottom line that she's inclusive and makes everyone feel important. Encourage open communication and creativity between FOH and BOH to build a less dysfunctional culture. Collaboration leads to the staff having a lot of fun with the menus and specials.
"It's fun to see food ending up in the drinks," says Cat. For instance, she suggests putting fried olives on the menu. Pit them, bread them, and fry (or bake) green loves with herbs and olive oil. The kitchen can also use asparagus to connect the bar with the kitchen. The vegetable plays well with vodka and gin, so use lemon when preparing asparagus and also use it with vodka and gin cocktails to tie the two together.
An innovative and informed chef, Cat also had suggestions for the elevation of bar food classics. Consumers aren’t just more informed about trends, cocktails, and cuisine, they’re more informed – and more concerned – about their health. Luckily, even something as relatively simple as the jalapeño popper can be made healthier and also be elevated in the process. Use a creamy feta filling, flour, egg and panko and bake the poppers to appeal to health-conscious guests. Sometimes elevating a food is as simple as doing better than the competition. The burger, another classic bar food, is an excellent example. Start with 20% to 25% fat and be sure to avoid overworking the meat. Is your competitor’s burger chewy and/or dry? They’re likely overworking the meat and failing to make sure there are air pockets in it. Keep from making those mistakes, generously salt the outside, and use a hot pan, grill or griddle. Cat has two other burger secrets. One, add a bit of butter in the center of the ground meat and work it in. Two, she’s opening a burger spot in Santa Barbara, California.
A final lesson that Cat and Tobin shared during their keynote was simple but essential. Learn when to say no. When an operator has discovered which products are heroes and which are dogs, they must be able to say they will no longer offer what isn’t working. Learn to say no to ideas that don’t match the concept. Say no to anything that will hurt the brand’s name. That is not, as Tobin said, a rookie lesson.