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Restaurateur Frank Bonanno: In Praise Of The Late Diner

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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, chef and restaurateur Frank Bonanno of Bonanno Concepts talks about the late diner- that person who walks into the restaurant right before the kitchen closes- and what that person means to a restaurant.

End-of-summer afternoon, hot as death. We haven't had a single guest in Bones for over an hour, and just as we lock the lunch doors to begin dinner prep, four laughing women step into view on the sidewalk. "Oh, you're not closing, are you?" one asks through the glass.

Here's the dilemma: it passes in heartbeat, but it's a dozen thoughts long and starts with this: Is it worth it? Do we keep an entire team on the clock to serve these four women a meal? Can we discreetly work around them for the next service period? Will they linger? Will they drink? Will they be gracious? Will we?

I'd like to think at this point in my career those thoughts don't cross my mind. I'd like to think that I surround myself with like-minded professionals who would rather give up this business than turn away potential guests, who have stopped trying to size up a guest before she's seated, who can gracefully make the shift from dreaming of a bike ride on a summer afternoon to focusing on work for just a couple hours more. I'd like to think that, but I'd be kidding myself. Because for just a moment the novice in you--the junior, the juvenile, the young kid just starting out in the business—has a voice. That kid sizes up a late diner and rolls his eyes.

But I'm no kid. The people I work with—not kids. Here's what I see when someone walks into any of my restaurants--Mizuna, say, or Osteria Marco--at 10 p.m. I see diners savvy enough to go beyond the 7 p.m. reservation window, a rarity in the Denver market. That savvy is filled with potential. Potential for a server to connect more directly with a client in a relaxed dining room. Potential to discuss the food. Potential for eclectic wines.

Potential for a lifelong guest.

Don't kid yourself. The last minute Late Diner is well aware of the hour. The Late Diner knows there is polishing of glassware and table setting around him. The Late Diner appreciates any graciousness that comes his way—he's hungry, it's late, you're so kind to understand. The Late Diner (even more than the Angry Diner) will tell his friends about his experience at your venue. The chef made the most beautiful braised short ribs, he will tell his friends. The server suggested the perfect Barolo. He will remember that the lights and music stayed soft, and that when he left, every employee said Good Night and seemed to mean it. Not only will that Late Diner return, but he will see every meal with a bit of the rosy tint from that first experience.

If you're not willing to give customer service from the moment you walk in the back door until your apron's in the linen bag, you're in the wrong industry. Go sit in a cubicle and post to your Facebook account how you can't wait to get out of here. This business, the restaurant business, is unpredictable, and that's why we love it. We love the volatility, the adrenaline push that comes from making it through a busy night, the smile from satisfied clients. We want the Late Diner, because that is the easiest client of all to satisfy, and it is repeat revenue.

I'll go back to Bones now, to that summer afternoon, four ladies out on our sidewalk. Lacey is the manager on this day. Johnnie is running the line. They are consummate professionals. Lacey smiles, unlocks the door, welcomes the clients. These women, their names would be familiar to you, though at the time, they weren't to Lacey. These women ate their way through most of the menu. They drank sake on the patio. These women stayed right through prep and into dinner service, and when they were full and satisfied and ready to go, they threw tips like it was confetti. These women spread the good word, and we see them regularly at Bones. Everyone on the corner at 7th and Grant knows them by sight and by name. I have to say, these are the clients I got into the business for. They are happy and gracious, they push your comfort level, and appreciate the nuances of food and service—they reward you mightily for coming through. Lacey gets it, Johnnie gets it. At the end of the day, isn't that what this business is all about?

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