A restaurant’s story is more than what fits on the menu or what shows up on the plate. Sharing it in a way that resonates with diners creates a connection, a bond that can increase sales and lead to loyal customers. But if a restaurant’s story and identity aren’t built off anything genuine, customers won’t buy into it.“Don’t build a restaurant off of trends. Build it off of something that reflects who you are,” says Ty Fujimura of Fujimura Hospitality in Chicago.
Consider Entente, the concept that Fujimura opened with some of the city’s notable hospitality creatives—Chef Brian Fisher of Michelin-starred Schwa, Mari Katsumura, the ex-pastry chef at fine dining Acadia and Angie Silberberg, a beverage expert formerly of Acadia and Soho House. “We wanted an evolving restaurant that feeds off the sum of its own parts by banding together a collection of experienced talent in one room and pushing for a true collaborative effort in the kitchen,” Fujimura says. The team shook up the traditional role of the executive chef by sharing the duties. Each person contributes to the menu, which is driven by seasonality and cross-cultural interpretations of global dishes. “We’ll start with very traditional techniques but use ingredients from outside of those techniques’ region (of origin),” Fujimura says.
The wine menu follows a similarly wide-ranging, yet thematic structure that adds to their story. “We’re taking a northern latitude around the Willamette Valley area (in Oregon) and then a southern latitude around Russian River, California, and wrapping that around the globe to use a common climate but different terroirs,” he says. Even the restaurant’s name Entente, which means amicable understanding or agreement in French, reinforces the concept of collaboration.
Lead with the Food
All good storytelling starts with elements worth talking about, which, for restaurants, means food. When space opened up next door to their uber popular Eventide in Portland, Maine, Arlin Smith and his partners landed on a noodle bar concept. Inspired by an ancient Chinese tradition of serving a bear’s paw stewed in honey—deemed a delicacy—to honorary guests and tying it to the concept of a bear emerging from hibernation to feast on honey from a wild beehive, they came up with the name The Honey Paw.
The story piqued diners’ interest, but they weren’t immediately sold on the menu. “Right out of the gate, the food seemed too fussy,” Smith says. “We were trying to put our best foot forward but realized some of that fussiness may turn people off, especially in a casual restaurant.” Smith reworked the menu, offering dishes with wider appeal such as smoked lamb khao soi in a Burmese coconut curry with fermented mustard greens, crispy fried noodle and lime, as well as a lobster tartine topped with a salad that changes seasonally.
Back It Up—All the Way
Sharing the restaurant’s story shouldn’t stop with food and drink. Every element of the restaurant, from decor to service, should communicate a cohesive, meaningful message. For The Honey Paw, burnt honey colors appear throughout the restaurant and custom handmade lampshades shaped like honeycomb work as accents.
Equip Your Storytellers
Front of house staffers, who function as the narrators of a menu’s story, are essential to gaining customer buy-in when it comes to the concept and menu. “Any server can regurgitate ingredients of a dish,” Fujimura says. “It’s about providing informed service—being able to convey the thought process behind the dish and how that plays into our idea of global flavors and different techniques.” At Entente, servers and front of the house staff, including bartenders and food runners, are expected to know the menu, which Fujimura reinforces through tastings and encouraging them to ask questions.
Invest in the Story
While diner-facing staffers are expected to know the menu and its story by heart, it’s even more important that they believe in the concept. “It’s about not only mastering the menu but also being able to personally attach yourself to a part of the menu,” Fujimura says. “It helps when they can get excited about the food because they truly enjoy it and can represent it personally.”
Encourage staff to connect to the menu and how it’s presented, which in turn ensures quality service, Fujimura says. For example, if your concept uses local purveyors, offer field trips to the farm, so staff can experience firsthand the way produce is grown or protein is raised. For a training session, bring purveyors to the restaurant for show and tell.“If a person is not enjoying his or her job or isn’t 100 percent behind the restaurant, that feeling spreads like cancer. You can’t have that,” Fujimura says. “You need to have pride. It puts the diner in a place where they feel comfortable, where they trust the server and the chef.”