Chef Duffy has helped open nearly 100 restaurants. He understands as well as any other industry veteran that the week leading up to opening night is crucial and the stakes can’t be any higher. People risk their livelihoods and reputations when they decide to open a restaurant.
Every element—money, time, sweat equity, and more—leads up to a single moment: Throwing the doors open for the first time to the public, press and competition.
Last night’s episode of Opening Night found Chef Duffy in the historic Corktown neighborhood of Detroit. Over the past few years, close to 30 new restaurants have opened in Corktown. Working to open a challenging concept of their own were Chef Matt McGrail and co-owner Joe Mifsud.
Cork & Gabel, the restaurant Chef Duffy was helping, is Chef McGrail’s first restaurant. He’s an experienced chef but not having opened his own restaurant before led to a few big mistakes in the week leading up to opening night.
Apart from some pavers that needed to be installed and concrete that had yet to be poured, Chef Duffy was a big fan of Cork & Gabel’s exterior and interior designs. He took note of the exterior door and learned during a tour of the space with Chef McGrail that the entrance was made from an upcycled industrial oil drum. The interior was loaded with highly custom details.
Another challenge was the concept itself. Mifsud initially wanted a German restaurant. Chef McGrail didn’t think people would go out to a restaurant serving only German food. Instead, the chef combined his and his co-owner’s roots: Chef McGrail is Irish and Italian, Mifsud is German.
Upon first encountering and tasting through the Cork & Gable menu, Chef Duffy didn’t think it really captured the Irish-German-Italian or IGI concept. In his opinion, for the concept to be successful, every item would need to fulfill on IGI fully.
One menu item seemed to present the most notable food challenge. Called the Life of a Potato, it’s a high-concept potato dish that expresses the life cycle of a potato. This item consists of various types of potatoes prepared in different ways, and it confused Chef Duffy.
With one week to prepare Cork & Gable, Chef Duffy came up with a three-step process for a success:
- Cook and taste everything so the back- and front-of-house teams knew the entire menu.
- A night before they open, test the entire team with friends and family service.
- Execute opening night.
Training & Education
Day one complete, the entire Cork & Gable team was brought in to learn the menu and receive education on the concept. The team appeared eager to learn about the restaurant, the menu and their roles, but there was a problem—there weren’t any recipes written down.
There was a pad of paper with dishes listed on it, but the recipes were all in Chef McGrail’s head. The front-of-house team was on hand to be educated on the menu. The back-of-house was in the kitchen, ready to practice prepping and cooking the menu. Without recipes, however, the whole Cork & Gable team was just…there.
Chef Duffy sent Chef McGrail to type up the recipes and give them to the whole staff. At this point, Chef Duffy explained that he views recipes as the building blocks for everything coming out of the kitchen. If the staff doesn’t have the recipes, they can’t execute the menu.
When he’s opening a restaurant, Chef Duffy executes a simple but effective plan: start with the menu, build the recipes, hand the recipes to the team, the team executes the recipes. After Chef McGrail typed up the recipes, Chef Duffy’s process began.
As items were executed, they were served to the servers who were educated by Chef Duffy. One thing they learned was perception. Presentation, explained Chef Duffy, has been proven to affect guest perception by changing the flavor of a dish.
Among the items prepared by back of house and tasted by front of house were seared scallops with potato puree and pickled cabbage; a hamburger; lamb Bolognese, and Life of a Potato. The front-of-house team gave positive to each dish, but Chef Duffy felt the hamburger was too plain. Team reaction to Life of a Potato shocked Chef Duffy—they loved it.
Going Green (Dot)
Cork & Gable wasn’t where Chef Duffy wanted them to be by the end of day six. The menu wasn’t finalized, there wasn’t a fully realized plan for execution or plating. Tension arose when Chef Duffy said he didn’t think Chef McGrail showed any passion for the menu except for Life of a Potato. That didn’t sit well with Cork & Gable’s executive chef, and he made it clear that he had poured his passion into the menu for two years.
To help ease the tension, Chef Duffy took Chef McGrail to a Detroit restaurant that specializes in sliders. Green Dot Stables does $3 million dollars a year, owing to more than just delicious, high-quality, creative sliders.
Cork & Gable and Green Dot Stables aren’t similar concepts. That doesn’t mean the operation couldn’t teach Chef McGrail some valuable lessons. The two chefs spent some time in the kitchen and Chef Duffy pointed Green Dot’s organization and consistency.
Check this out: A Deep Dive into HIDE, Part One: Funding, Opening and Expansion
Schedules, recipes and specials were posted where the team could easily access them. The kitchen staff’s consistency was evident as Chef Duffy and Chef McGrail tasted several sliders. Another lesson was what Chef Duffy described as Green Dot’s “full-blown ownership” of the concept. It was clear that ownership knows exactly what Green Dot is, and they adhere to that identity.
Chef Duffy also pointed to Green Dot’s social media as a key to their success. Social media, as Duffy explained, is the best way to build brand recognition today. “We all hate social media but in reality, we actually love it,” he said. People go to social media to learn who you are, and it’s free advertising.
Friends & Family
After their trip to Green Dot, Chefs Duffy and McGrail went back to work in the Cork & Gable kitchen to make sure every item fit with the IGI concept. They began with the burger.
Chef Duffy is a big believer in most restaurants having a signature burger on their menu, as long as it fits with the concept. This is because it can put new guests into their comfort zone if they’re not ready to be adventurous. As Chef Duffy explained it, when a person goes to a restaurant for the first time, they may not understand the menu right away. If they see a comforting burger, they’ll order it.
In addition to the new C&G Burger, Chef Duffy and Chef McGrail came up with macaroni and cheese with an Irish twist (it was made using sharp Dubliner cheddar); Irish stout stew; schnitzel BLT; shepherd’s pie arancini; and mushroom risotto, all designed to fully fit with the IGI concept.
Chef McGrail’s inexperience opening a restaurant showed when Chef Duffy asked about friends and family service. Chef McGrail and sous chef Mistofer had planned for three seatings with large headcounts: 77 guests at 4:00 PM, 119 guests at 6:00 PM, and 110 guests at 8:00 PM.
Chef Duffy didn’t mince any words—that plan was doomed to failure. In his experience, a better plan was two seatings that sat no more than 25 people every 15 minutes. Unfortunately, Cork & Gable didn’t have the phone numbers for most of the guests. The original plan was going to be the plan.
Things didn’t go well. All the first seating’s guests arrived and were sat at the same time. Both front- and back-of-house teams were slammed from the start. The kitchen fell behind, things got sloppy, and the first seating wasn’t fully served after two hours.
It was clear that three seatings were too much. Chef Duffy explained to Chef McGrail that if they didn’t pull the plug on the third seating, those guests wouldn’t be sat until at least 10:15 that evening. The restaurant would also be out of food by then. Chef McGrail canceled the third seating.
Check this out: The 4 Fastest Ways to Make More Money with Little to No Effort
The entire point of friends and family service is obtaining honest feedback. It’s a time to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and improve before opening night. Chef Duffy had explained that to the friends and family guests and implored them to be painfully honest when they filled out comment cards.
It seemed that the first lesson Chef McGrail learned will serve him well if and when he opens his second restaurant: three friends and family seatings are too many, as are more than 25 guests per seating. The other lessons helped Chef McGrail to revisit the menu and adapt before opening night, which took place the next evening.
By 5:00 PM on opening night, things were quiet inside Cork & Gable. The lack of a packed restaurant seemed surprising and disheartening to Chef McGrail. He though there would be a line out the door on opening night.
Things picked up a little after 6:00 PM. Still, Cork & Gable wasn’t slammed. However, the food was executed well and served quickly. The atmosphere was positive and promising—guests were eating, drinking, chatting, hanging out, and appeared to be happy and having fun.
In Chef Duffy’s opinion, Cork & Gable had dropped the ball regarding social media marketing opportunities, leading to quiet opening night.
Three Months Later
When Chef Duffy returned to check on Cork & Gable, he noticed signs on sidewalk and exterior that indicated the restaurant was open. He visited on a rainy Saturday night and was happy to see the weather hadn’t affected business—the dining room was full.
Not surprisingly, Chef McGrail had tinkered with the menu over the course of three months. Some items had been eliminated, some had been tweaked a bit. Chef McGrail and his team were delivering the IGI concept well, and there were plans to start serving lunch and open a patio area.
Chef McGrail had improved social media engagement, and Mifsud said sales were good.
Opening Night airs on Sunday afternoons on Food Network.