Improving Restaurant Brands: 3 Lessons from Wolfgang Puck

By: Donald Burns

7 Minute Read

Oct 12, 2016

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Wolfgang puck tips

You know the name.

The Austrian-born chef came to the United States in 1973, where he worked at La Tour Restaurant in Indianapolis. He moved to LA in 1975 and quickly became chef to the Hollywood elite. From his renowned restaurant Spago to the heights from which we know him now, Wolfgang Puck has built an empire. But was it all luck, or just well-executed branding?

To work inside his organization is demanding. Wolf and his team expect the best from everyone and all times. There is no measure for error and nothing is left to chance. Recipes are developed, tested, and retested until they meet the expectations of Wolfgang and Lee Hefter - his executive corporate chef for over 25 years.

If you can take in the message behind the obsession for perfection, you’ll see that the most well-known restaurant brands - at their core - have some key elements to their success. If you work in an organization like Wolfgang Puck's, you can basically walk away with a PhD in branding. You just need to open your eyes to the lessons found in everyday activities.

Restaurant Brands Lesson #1: Always Protect the Brand

This should be the mantra of every restaurant owner, manager, and chef. It’s about the brand, not you. Even when you have a brand that is built around your name (like Wolfgang has), it’s still about the brand. Period.

When new concepts are in the conceptual phase, two of the key questions to ask are:

  • "Will this enhance or diminish our primary brand?"
  • "Is there enough market share available for us to play at the level we want?”

You never want to enter a market where you’re fighting for table scraps. Some restaurateurs have the false assumption that they’ll go in and create a market. On very rare occasions does that ever happen.

How you position your brand in the market segment will largely determine if your concept is a hit or miss. Even mega chefs like Wolfgang are not immune to a bad brand positioning in a market. His now closed Seattle restaurant named ObaChine was a PR nightmare due to a controversial portrait of a Chinese man clad in a servant’s jacket that spurred protests from the large Asian community. He found it was sometimes better to close for the good of the entire brand.

This happened again for Wolfgang back around 1993 with this concept called Eureka. The brewery/restaurant was back then very forward thinking and when a deal with Sam Adams did not materialize, Wolf thought it was better to protect the brand. “I’m not going to sell my house just to make beer,” he is quoted as saying to the LA Times.

Even back then, Wolfgang had a keen commitment to always protect the brand. You'd be wise to have the same for your restaurant.

Restaurant Brands Lesson #2: Be ConsistentCTA

Great brands place consistency over creativity. When you work for an organization like Wolfgang Puck's, your ego will be tested. A lot of young and up-and-coming chefs think that the you walk into a company like Wolf’s and set the world on fire. Not so fast.

In Wolfgang’s organization, there is a policy that you’re not allowed to contribute recipes or ideas until you can flawlessly execute his menu - his way - consistently. For some ambitious chefs, that can be like knocking the wind out of someone. Pay your dues, follow directions, and replicate the food exactly the same way over, and over, and over again. In high level restaurants, repetition is the mother of all skills.

You have to understand the brands from a culinary viewpoint. What are the primary flavor profiles? Are there any cooking techniques or skills that must be mastered? Most restaurants communicate their brand identity through their menu. Remember, you must always protect the brand.

A Quick Note to Young Cooks:

Execute the food on the menu consistently and over time you’ll earn respect and trust. Only then will owners and chefs allow you to be creative with in the brand parameters.

Fair warning: working in a high-level kitchen is an incredible experience and you will definitely improve your skills just because you’re around people who play the game at a higher level. It’s natural human behavior that water seeks its own level. If you play tennis against people that you are better than, you never see improvement. Play against someone who is world-class and at first you’ll struggle. However, keep playing eventually you will improve.

The downside is that a lot of young cooks work for high-level chefs and develop the skills to play at that level while they are in that environment. It takes a lot of self-discipline keep pushing yourself to improve. High-level chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Lee Hefter apply a constant and never ending obsession for world-class excellence.

A lot of chefs have impressive culinary pedigrees on the resume and when they get into a kitchen of their own they fall apart. The reason? There's no outside pressure to keep pushing themselves.

Restaurant Brands Lesson #3: Create New Over Diluting Old

You cannot be everything to everyone as an independent restaurant. When you develop your restaurant and brand identity, think of it like a box. Everything that is inside the box is part of your brand. When you start putting things inside your brand box that don’t really play well with the existing items you start to dilute the brand.

Never dilute the brand.

When Wolfgang wanted to explore the concept of an American steakhouse he could easily just added more steaks to the menu at Spago. However, that would dilute his flagship brand. So instead, he opened a new concept called Cut.

Once you figure out what makes your brand work with your guests, you really don’t want to mess with it. Sure, a little innovation now and then keeps things fresh and new for the guests. Just don’t overdo it.

In a recent discussion with the restaurant owner it was brought up that he wanted to change a menu item. The conversation went like this:

Owner: I really want to change up the batter on my fried chicken.

Consultant: Are you getting complaints? Is it not selling?

Owner: No. People love it and is my bestseller.

Consultant: Then why you want to change it?

Owner: I’m just bored with it and I wanted to change it around?

Consultant: You never want to change things just because you’re bored with them. It’s your number one seller, highest profit margin item, and the signature dish that gets you rave reviews online about. Changing that will have a negative impact on your brand and your bank account.

The owner elected not to mess with the item that could affect his bank account balance and damage his restaurant's brand identity. That’s a smart operator.

Most of the time you don’t need to reinvent the wheel if all it needs is this little air in the tires. Change for the sake of change leads to your guests becoming confused about your brand. When guests are confused by restaurant brands, they lose trust in them. When they lose trust, they lose confidence. When guests lose confidence, they go to another restaurant.

Improving and Protecting Restaurant Brands

What do you do to defend and promote your restaurant's brand? Do you believe in consistency of restaurant brands or do you see the value in brands that change with the times? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!

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