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There's Nothing Trendy About Quietly Improving a Restaurant, Bobby Stuckey Says

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On the House is Eater's column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and others in the hospitality industry who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, master sommelier Bobby Stuckey of Frasca Food and Wine talks about a creating a lasting restaurant where continuos improvement is always the target.

stuckey.jpgOur goal and experiment when we opened Frasca in the summer of 2004 was to open a restaurant that improved each year – not only for the guests, but also for me and Lachlan and our employees. So, every year we have tried to improve.

Now, I do want to say that this is much harder than anyone thinks, because there is nothing trendy or fashionable about quietly improving. Media and journalists are looking for the newest, hippest, trendiest piece of news that's happening right now.

Because of this, doing something over the long haul is not necessarily something we focus on here in the US. Mostly in the US, you (operators) spend all your money on the build-out right when you open; you hire the mercenary people that you think are the best that you can get, and you go for that initial review. And then ten years later, a lot of those restaurants are not still here. Focusing on continual improvement and creating a better environment for guests and staff is really dear to us.

When we opened Frasca, we did it on a really small budget. The idea was to improve each year, stay fresh, and become a better restaurant 10 years later than the year we opened. Looking back, there are some key things we have done in the last few years that have helped us become a better restaurant.

At Frasca, we closed after 6 years and did a major remodel. We built a new kitchen, added more space for our guests, built more wine storage, created a way to properly take care of glassware and make sure that our glassware remains as pristine as possible. These are things that you don't get a lot of credit for, but that you quietly do.

Coming into our tenth year, we actually now have the same amount of tables as when we opened, but we've taken out some tables (small two-tops) to better take care of the guest experience. It's really scary to do that as a restaurateur – you reduce the number of available seats to add a better experience for your guests.

One basic tenet of our business that is hard to do is to be there nightly, and sustaining that for years. Sure I miss service when I am traveling for Scarpetta or when I'm in Denver for Pizzeria Locale, but at the end of the day, 10 years later, I'm most often seen on the floor at Frasca. A well-known GM from New York was dining with us over the holidays, and remarked that I was actually there to close the restaurant at the end of the night. After ten years, he couldn't believe that I was on the closing shift.

I'm there for pre-service and I'm there to close the restaurant. Many owners and managers want to delegate these tasks, but there's no substitute delegation that can inspire staff to take care of the guests. The management team has to be fully engaged in order to do that every night.

To do a restaurant like Frasca, there are a lot of unsexy pieces – unsexy because they are labor intensive and you don't get any credit for it. So much about a restaurant is about what you're doing right, from a media perspective: snout-to-tail a few years ago, the explosion of the cocktail program, the natural wine movement, whatever it is… it's really less sexy to just do the basics – like taking care of guests, making sure that the wine glasses are perfect, making sure that the wines you have on the list are balanced and taste great. I think about those things all the time.

When it comes to execution – like pre-service, for example – there are so many resources out there for us to find ways to better take care of guests. Through reading blogs, paying attention to the notes you have on file from previous dining experiences, and conveying those to the staff every night. A staff changes all the time, and the staff come to work in different moods with different stresses in their lives. And the way to get everyone focused so they can block out the stress of the holiday or problems with childcare or personal stresses is to focus on the task of hand that night – taking care of guests. It can't be done partially. It has to be done completely every night.

It's a psychology of the guests, and a psychology of where the staff is.

I don't think there's enough credit given or conversation about what the hospitality industry goes through during the holidays. In other industries, for Thanksgiving, for example, they get four days off. The hospitality industry is working so hard during the holidays…how do you get them motivated to be chipper, to create holiday cheer for the folks coming in who are also stressed about the holidays or whatever is going on in their own lives?

Recently, we closed the Caffe in order to better take care of guests. Closing the Caffè affected a lot of Caffè guests, but in the long run, it will positively affect two other sets of guests – Frasca's private events and Pizzeria Locale Boulder guests.

We are always looking to ask ourselves: Are we doing the right thing for the majority of our guests?

One thing that is really interesting is how you talk about food trends, and bend to the food trends, when your restaurant's cuisine is based on a certain region. Meaning, how can you write a menu that takes care of gluten-free diners when you're an Italian restaurant? For us, we have a few different options: rice course, you can order a corn fusilli if you're allergic to almonds and we make a cavatelli with almond flour. We're always thinking about ways to cater to the guests. Ten years ago, even five, that wasn't even discussed.

After year one, when we realized that as a restaurant group we were traveling, seeing other restaurants and meeting other pillars of our industry, we asked ourselves how do we bring them to Denver and Boulder? Our guest chefs series has helped invigorate our guests and our staff, and it has been invigorating for a lot of local young culinarians that have used these dinners to come in and meet sommeliers, chefs, winemakers and authors from around the country and world.

I think about when Michael Anthony was here in November; there were chefs that came by for a glass of wine (and no dinner) who wanted to meet Michael, or who had met him before and wanted to reconnect with him.

Last week, we had John Snyder, the GM of Chicago's Next, here staging with us. Because I'm a master sommelier, people like to stage front-of-house at Frasca; it's not as common as a kitchen stage, but we embrace it. And it's been so great to have all of these front-of-house stages at Frasca; we've been fortunate to have some of the most talented industry peers from across the US and sometimes the world stage with us. It's been a wonderful experience for staff and guests – for everyone involved.

Over the years, we have taken our entire staff to Italy five times. We still take smaller groups to Italy, but once you get to certain size, believe it or not, the trip grew to point where it was not effective anymore.

We are committed to continual wine education for our staff. We have a budget that has nothing to do with our restaurant's wine program so staff can blind taste, keep improving their skill set, and challenge each other. The wine education component is such an expensive venture but it ensures that people are always improving.

We spend about $5-6,000/year opening wine to taste for staff. If you're a waiter that is learning to be a MS, you'd need to spend that alone on wine education – that's at least 10% or more of your salary on wine education. We can spend that money across the whole staff. When we open a bottle, we have a whole group tasting. I used to work at restaurants that didn't help out with wine education and I know how expensive it is.

Being trendy is not always the same as being relevant, and vice versa. If you look at the trends over the last ten years--molecular cuisine, farm to table, tip to tail, Nordic cuisine, foraging--during each wave, restaurants opened within these trends and chased them. Because they are not still here to speak to that trend, they were not relevant. Also, there are some great and relevant restaurants in the world that are totally "of the moment," but not trendy. I never feel like a lunch or dinner at Le Bernardin is trendy--but man, it is always relevant.

Creating an environment, in both front and back of house, where you can help make people great lasts a lifetime. Sure, it's harder work, but the end result is astonishing. Look at what Laura Cunningham from the French Laundry did in the mid-nineties. She took employees that grew up in Napa (before Napa had a world-class service culture), and made them world leaders. She then took the same approach to NYC with the opening of Per Se, and they did it again. Twenty years later, their service leaders are both people who were effectively groomed on-site: GM Michael Minnillo, who started as a kitchen employee and moved to food runner, and Larry Nadeau, who has been there since year one.

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