At the restaurant trade program at the Aspen Food and Wine Classic, "What's Next: Navigating the Near-term for Long-term Gains," celebrated chef Thomas Keller explained why, in some cases, business at his restaurants actually improved during the recession. He also shared his thoughts on staffing, training, and expansion, and revealed whether or not he's actively tweeting (spoiler alert: he's not).
Keller was intimately knowledgeable and surprisingly frank about the details of the operations of his restaurant empire. Some examples: Pre-recession, 95% of private dining at his New York City restaurant Per Se came from the financial industry and required zero marketing. Once the economy tanked however, cancellations started coming in. "In 2009 we dropped 20%," said Keller, "and we needed to rethink what we were doing with private dining and how to market it." On the upside, it's slowly coming back. In New York City, starting late last year, there's been renewed activity coming from the financial sector.
Keller talked about how investment is absolutely necessary: "Build a better mousetrap. It's about spending money and making the commitment." When the recession hit, his Las Vegas restaurant Bouchon saw an immediate reduction in business, posting a 25% drop in revenue. Amidst such a decline, however, Keller did not lay off any employees in Vegas in the interest of staff morale.
The restaurants in the Napa Valley (Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, and French Laundry), meanwhile, performed well, with Bouchon bucking the nationwide trend and posting its best first quarter ever in 2009. Also, Per Se had its best summer ever in 2009.
Keller hypothesized that people were saving money and not traveling to places like Europe or Asia, and instead were staying to close to home and spending money.
Later, Keller spoke about the need for integrity and the need for a quality staff. "It's hard to advise anyone here to what to do," said Keller. "But I can confidently say that the experience of your team is as important as the experience of your guest." And Keller makes a commitment to his staff: his restaurants train and mentor the next generation — whether it be the maître d', sommelier, or chefs — allowing for greater opportunities and continued growth.
Even in terms of expansion, staffing is, according to Keller, "our biggest challenge. If we don't have the ingredients or the individuals to execute it, we just won't do it." Saying that it's hard to hire from the outside to get quality staff, it can take 12-18 months to get new employees "thinking the way we need them." Keller wouldn't even open a new restaurant if he didn't have at least six to ten people ready to move from an existing restaurant.
The biggest shocker: Keller, having recently signed up for Twitter, admitted to the crowd, "I don't tweet myself, I have a social media manager."