Toast is pleased to present a guest blog from one of the country's most renowned culinary experts, Chef Jacques Haeringer.
Chef Jacques is the executive chef and proprietor of the legendary L’Auberge Chez François restaurant in Great Falls, Virginia and is one of America’s most respected and innovative culinary personalities. Chef Jacques' restaurant has been voted “Most Romantic”, “Best French”, and “Best Service” by readers of Washingtonian Magazine for over 25 years.
Chef Jacques has served in the restaurant industry for four decades, so we asked him what changes in the restaurant industry he has seen. Read on for the five that stand out to him most.
I’ve been in the industry long enough to watch the restaurant business change (for better and for worse) over the course of four decades. And, I’ve been luckier than most chefs: I’ve watched these changes take place while running one restaurant that has managed to say successful all those years.
So, what’s changed since my father and I first opened our French country inn, L’Auberge Chez François in 1976?
Here’s the good, the bad, the ugly, and how we’ve adapted to keep our doors open for over forty years.
1) Customers Are More Educated Than Ever
My father opened his first restaurant in 1954, which was certainly pre-foodie revolution.
French food - like most international cuisine - wasn’t a main-stay in the American diet. Back then, we’d have parties sit down and the gentlemen would order cokes “for the ladies” and coffee for themselves. No one thought to order wine and customers were sometimes baffled by many of the classic Alsatian dishes we offered. We ensured that our servers were both knowledgeable and friendly, and could explain the menu to our customers without intimidating them.
Fast forward to 2017 and instead of asking what foie gras is our customers want to know what variety of peppercorns are in the pepper mills. Frankly, I think some foodies are so studied on every ingredient and dish that they’ve taken some the fun out of dining out.
But, the solution is the same now as it was then: our servers continue to be ambassadors for the chef. We expect them to be able to answer tough questions from the most knowledgeable foodie with the same friendliness and acumen as they did back when onion soup was a novelty.
2) More and More (and More) Competition
When we first opened our doors, there were a handful of high-end restaurants in the Washington-D.C. area and we were the only one in our part of Virginia. Dining out was a special occasion in those days.
There are over a million restaurants in the U.S.A and it looks to me like several new ones open within just a few miles of my restaurant every day. We’re in the midst of a restaurant craze and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
Our response to the onslaught of competition? We’ve decided both to change and to stay the same. Here’s how.
I opened my more casual restaurant, Jacques’ Brasserie, right on the grounds of our gastronomic restaurant to ensure that we kept up with the up with competitors who were attracting customers who didn’t want an upscale, special occasion meal. But, we’ve changed very little about our main dining room upstairs because customers see so many other restaurants open, close, and change, and they want the comfort of coming back again and again to enjoy a familiar menu and ambience.
We know that they like us precisely because we’re just as they remember us being for all these years. Customers have been celebrating and creating memories with us for forty years and they want to come back to the same place to do that over and over again.
3) Everything Is Available
When we first opened the restaurant, certain ingredients essential to French cooking like shallots and fresh tarragon weren’t always easily available in our area. We had to start a garden on the property out of necessity so that we could consistently grow what we needed for the menu. Today, of course, having an on-site garden and growing your own ingredients is quite the trend among chefs. Back when we opened, we had no choice but to grow our own.
A major change I’ve seen over the years is the increased availability of meat and produce form around the world. I serve fresh sole that was in the English Channel just hours before it is served to diners. This availability of ingredients has in part, I think, fueled the foodie revolution in America.
And, while it is nice for a chef to have a world of ingredients at his or her fingertips, I do believe that the best ingredients come right from our own backyard. I’ve expanded our on-site gardens over the years and continue to grow a great deal of produce right here at the restaurant.
4) Thank You Uber, LYFT, and the Rest
This next change is more recent, but very important to us.
Our restaurant is an inn set among gardens and there aren’t any hotels or other commercial establishments nearby. The rise of ride-sharing apps like Uber allow customers to come out and enjoy their dinner with wine and cocktails and have a reliable way to get back home. This is good for our business and good for our customers too.
It’s not just about drinking or not, it is about being able to relax over your dinner and have one less thing to worry about. I’m always happy to see technology improve the dining experience and I’m quick to suggest that customers just “Uber out to our place for dinner.”
5) My Friend and Nemesis: Online Reviews
We didn’t have the same level of instant, public feedback from customers 40 years ago. Now, we live and die by these reviews. We used to be frightened of the one day a year a food critic might be in the dining room. Now, every customer is a potential critic.
Every morning, with fear and trepidation, I go online to read our customer reviews from the day before. There’s OpenTable, Yelp, Google, and few other spots we check for customer feedback.
Fortunately, most of our reviews are good (we’re consistently Top 100 in the country as rated by OpenTable diners). But, occasionally, we get a negative notice and I do my best to contact the reviewer and find out what they think we can do better.
The only way to handle the phenomena of online reviews is to be on point all the time. It’s like having hundreds of food critics in the restaurant every night and that keeps us on our toes.
Despite the stress, I think that is a good thing.
Some Things Never Change!
Regardless of all the industry changes, the most important lesson I’ve learned in four decades in the business is that if you offer good food, a warm atmosphere, and friendly service, customers will keep coming back again and again.
And I don’t think that is ever going to change.