The Dining Experience

I currently work for Cooper’s Hawk. It’s been a great job at a great restaurant. Many of the principles of what goes in to making a great restaurant can be found here. Delicious and diverse food, top-notch service, fun atmosphere and a distinctive concept. It all elevates the process of eating and turns it into a dining experience. This is the thing I seek out the most when I dine out.

I first explored this concept in depth back in 2001, when I went to work for Buca Di Beppo. Back then, it was the fastest growing restaurant chain for three years in a row. It was peaking and I was there to see why. The concept was unique among italian places, and stubbornly so. They only served family-size portions, based on specific recipes that emulated theĀ southern italianĀ immigrant experience. No single-serve portions, no parmesan or alfredo (those are northern italian) and plenty of quirky decor. The service dynamic was very team-based and the staff was well-managed by a great general manager (aka paisano partner) who shared leadership and success insights with his staff, so they could grow as he did.

He was the first person to talk to me about the dining experience, how eating out was about more than just the food on the plate. During training excursions to corporate, he and other GMs would venture out to the competition, to see how the brands were represented at the store level and look for ways to improve Buca’s own approach. At that time, Buca had a strong brand and vision and stuck to it. It was the key to their success. Over the years, I’ve applied the principles I learned there to both my own service efforts, as well as how I view dining, branding and dealing with the public.

I haven’t frequented Buca as much in the past few years. They lost sight of what made them work, introducing less than their best alfredo, single-size portions, and menus on the tables instead of on the walls. They got carried away the moment they let themselves be less than what they were by trying to be more to more people. In my opinion, they, and the many companies like them, should be content with a smaller pure brand than a larger diluted one. In late 2002, when I left, they had close to 80 locations. Today, they have about the same.

Oh, and my old GM? He brought much of what he learned to Cooper’s Hawk. He’s now a Senior VP, and much of what we both learned back then can be seen as part of the foundation for what makes the company successful today. In fact, I’m still convinced he’s the reason we have a Chicken Saltimbocca at the Hawk, because it was one of the best dishes Buca offered back in the day. Enjoy!

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