Since Day 1, “Any Meal, Any Time, By Reservation” has been our motto here at Chestnut Street Inn. We felt it was a pretty self explanatory kind of catch phrase. Anyone can book for any meal any time of day, as long as I know you’re coming. Apparently not so.
First of all most people have a hard time grasping the fact that we are willing to cook any day of the week at any time of day for any size party. That’s highly unusual, so that part I understand. The other thing that most people don’t seem to realize is that we are in fact open to the public. You do not have to actually sleep here to enjoy a meal here. The third part of the equation that is a challenge is the reservation part. Most people have a hard time deciding to do things ahead of time. So I thought I’d elaborate a bit on this notion and try to explain it better.
We started doing things this way because we wanted to run a restaurant but didn’t want to have the typical problems most restaurants have that end up resulting in their untimely demise. The big one?? Waste. Most restaurants have a ton of food on hand because they have a huge menu and have no idea how many people will or will not show up. If they don’t use the food in a timely fashion, they throw it away. That’s business suicide.
By asking people to make reservations and commit to a booking, we only buy the exact amount of food that we need and don’t keep any excess on hand. This gives me the ability to provide guests with a much higher quality product than most restaurants are capable of stocking. Let’s be honest, the average restaurant gets most of their food off of a truck. The ingredients are the cheapest possible and in the largest quantities possible. They can stay afloat because they are plating at about 10 percent cost per plate. In other words, the cost of the food on each plate was somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 percent of the bill. So 90 percent of what you are paying is gross profit.
There are of course other costs involved that mean the net profit is way lower which is where most restaurants end up losing their shirts, i.e. employees, overhead, etc., but the pure cost of the food itself is around 10 percent. (Note: I realize this isn’t all restaurants, and I know plenty that don’t follow this model, but the run of the mill places and chains are indeed following this model. In fact, the biggest chains are the worst offenders, plating at 5 percent or less.)
Now, because we don’t have employees and because the overhead of the building is absorbed by the rooms we have for rent upstairs, I am able to buy much higher quality food. We are too small to order off a big truck, and we don’t want to. I actually go to the farm or to the store to pick up much of what I am using, or I go to my backyard and pick it.
What does this mean for you? It means that I am actually plating somewhere in the neighborhood of 50-60 percent cost per plate. How can I stay in business by doing that? Reservations. I’m not wasting a thing. This does indeed cap the income potential of my restaurant compared with many others, but I’m OK with that. The moral implications of supporting my local community and of feeding my clients the healthiest and freshest food I can provide is far more important to me than being able to afford a Corvette convertible.
Additionally, our model of serving one menu per night Chef’s Taster style also helps us control cost and is the newest, most hip way of structuring a restaurant. Many of the biggest chefs in the world are adopting this model, and it makes sense. They are more focused on farm to table and on taking advantage of the freshest possible foods. It also allows them to flex their creative muscles. I would argue that by giving up a little control you actually get a better quality meal. Restaurants that have huge menus cannot possibly make everything great. Their recipes have to be dumbed down so that many people can make them and so that they taste the same every time someone comes in. To me that is boring.
I like the fact that what I am getting is the best possible product the chef can produce on that given day and that it may not be like anything I have ever had before. In fact, I go out of my way to seek out restaurants that have chef’s taster menus because that is my preferred method of dining. Will I like everything they put in front of me? Maybe not. But that’s not the point. The point is that it is an experience and an opportunity to try something new.
That being said, I am more than happy and willing to accommodate people’s dietary restrictions and/or likes/dislikes, but I will strongly encourage you to try something before you dismiss it as something you don’t like. Tastes change all the time and not everyone prepares things the same. You may not have liked butternut squash before, but in crispy ravioli format, I guarantee you will love it. That being said, if you book for a night and tell me you absolutely despise something on the menu but still want to book, I will do what I can to adjust the menu for you within reason. Because it is just me in the kitchen preparing all the food, I have the liberty and ability to adjust menus much more readily than a large restaurant. And I know I will do it right because I am not relying on an underpaid restaurant worker who doesn’t care to do it.
And one final note. While I do require reservations, I do not necessarily have to have them a week in advance, unless of course it is a menu that happens to sell out. I often am able to accommodate someone 24 hours in advance or less, even though I prefer 48 hours, so I have time to source my ingredients. Even day of in some cases if it is a smaller party or if I’ve had a cancellation. So don’t let the reservation part of it scare you off. We don’t want to make it difficult for people to book, we just want people to realize that we are a small mom and pop organization and that in order for us to do what we do in a way that is affordable enough so that we can stay afloat, we have to have some criteria for keeping those costs down. I think most people can appreciate that in this challenging economy.
Is what we do for everyone? No. And I am mindful of that. But I think more people would be amenable to trying us if they really understood what exactly it is that we do. We always like to say, food is an adventure. In fact, it is the safest one you can possibly take. (Certainly more so than say jumping out of an airplane, which we just recently did, but I digress.) Sometimes the greatest pleasures in life come from throwing caution to the wind and trying something new, and for me, new experiences in the culinary realm are the most fun kind of adventures you can try.
Monika Sudakov is the chef and innkeeper at the Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.