4 Ways Restaurants Are Creating a More Authentic ExperienceDon’t just be different. Be real.
In the restaurant business, bigger is not always better. As more consumers opt for local, authentic dining experiences, small independent restaurants are starting to gain ground on larger chains.
“There is certainly a rising anti-chain sentiment” among consumers, said restaurant consultant Aaron Allen of Aaron Allen & Associates, whose clients represent $100 billion in restaurant business around the world.
Chains may have bigger marketing budgets. But, said Allen, “Where independent restaurants have the advantage is the ability to move quickly, localize the experience and put out truly unique offerings and experiences.”
Related: How to Appeal to Millennial Diners
What does it mean to create an authentic dining experience? “Being original and unique in a way that is also credible and believable,” said Allen.
Here are four ways local, independent restaurants are pulling it off.
Taking local sourcing a step further
As more consumers embrace the farm-to-table movement, they’re looking for meals that reflect local fare. Locally sourced meats and seafood topped the list of the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot 2016 Culinary Forecast, with locally grown produce coming in third.
One restaurant that has done well by focusing on local ingredients is The Market Place in Asheville, North Carolina, which has been specializing in farm-to-table cuisine for more than 35 years. But it’s taken local a step further by partnering with ecotour company No Taste Like Home to create “find dining” experiences.
Expert guides lead participants on a foraging expedition to collect edible wild plants, mushrooms and more. “That evening,” said Alan Muskat, CEO of No Taste Like Home, “the restaurant prepares guest’s very own ‘catch of the day.’”
Offering exclusive beverage options
Unusual or even exclusive drink options can help set a restaurant apart.
Ecco, a nationally recognized Mediterranean restaurant in midtown Atlanta, does this with its “Ecco Exclusives” wine collection. Since the cultures represented in Ecco’s concept (French, Italian and Spanish) are wine-centric, the restaurant uses exclusivity to create an elevated and authentic culinary experience for their guests.
“We are generally the only restaurant in the state, and many times in the country, who pour these wines,” said Stuart Fierman, director of restaurants for Fifth Group, which owns Ecco and six other Atlanta-based restaurant brands. “Several have been imported directly just for us.”
Of course, restaurants can also stand out by offering special non-alcoholic beverages. Serendipity, a kid-friendly destination in New York City, for example, is known for its frozen hot chocolate.
Using creative storytelling
Authenticity isn’t just about what’s on your menu — it’s also about having a brand story and telling it.
If you’re using your Southern grandmother’s recipe for fried chicken, find ways to make sure guests know it — and train your servers to talk about it. If you started your fish shack restaurant because you come from a long line of fishermen, incorporate the story in your decor, your menu and the conversations your servers have with guests.
For Alma Cocina, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Atlanta, a prop used to occasion storytelling is a tamale cart that gets wheeled in every Tuesday for Tamale Tuesdays. It belonged to Alma chef Chad Clevenger when he lived in Colorado and was known for its posole and tamales, which were voted the best in Denver. Alma uses the cart to inspire one-on-one conversations with guests and share the chef’s story.
Making a genuine connection with guests
The way a restaurant interacts with its guests can also help it stand apart. Yuca’s in Los Angeles, a family-owned restaurant with a 40 year history, makes a deliberate effort to build connections with customers who are waiting in line by engaging them in conversation, said proprietor Dora Herrera.
“Time flies when you’re laughing, joking or sharing a story,” she said. “Customers feel special when the owner takes the time to get to know them.”
“Customers feel special when the owner takes the time to get to know them.” -Dora Herrera
Having the owner or chef take an occasional stroll through the restaurant to visit with guests can create a memorable customer experience. (Recognizing returning guests is a big plus.)
Diners have a surplus of restaurants to choose from. Making them feel genuinely welcome and adding a human touch to their experience will make them more likely to come back — and even become brand ambassadors.