NO MATTER WHAT the discontented diner may think, most restaurants are planned. Study those that become long-run successes in this lighly volatile business. From the reception area to the kitchen complex, from the menu to the uniforms, as amazing concern for details evident.
"It looks like a nice, easy business to go into," said John Cini. "But today it has become highly sophisticated. The days are gone when a guy can open up a place just because he cooks well and make money. Controls are needed. Only a large corporation can be an absentee owner and be really successful."
Cini's aim is to make the restaurateur's life easier, even if it means telling him not to open at all. His firm is Cini-Grissom Associates, "food service and management consultants," a blanket term for blanket advisers who will help tell a restaurant investor where to open, what type of place to open, what to serve and how to design, staff and even landscape the restaurant.
Operating from a headquarters office in an unlikely location - the Cabin John Shopping Center in Potomac - the 38-member firm has had clients as large as the World Trade Center in New York and as small as the Gate Soup Kitchen in Georgetown. A brochure lists 23 industries they serve , including hospitals, schools and colleges and correctional institutions. (Why the Cabin John center? "We don't have to be downtown," Cini responded. "It's convenient to the airport and I live two minutes from here.)
Go to the restaurants at the Senate, House of Representatives or the National Gallery of Art and you will find examples of the firm's work. Or range afield to Colonial Williamsburg, Circus World in Orlando, Fla., the Pan American Flight Kitchens at New York's JFK Airport or two fast food restaurants in Cleveland called "Eat Street" and "Cut the Mustard."
Cini's firm works done behind the scenes, out of public view, but it's a rich and rewarding life, full of stimulation and agony for a man with a bad back who must spend a great deal of time traveling.
It's been a family affair. His father sold restaurant equipment in New York City and, though now retired, still does occasional consulting work for his son. John Cini transferred from eletrical engineering to hotel school at Cornell, but not before learning about spatial relationships and absorbing a technical vocabulary that proved useful when he went into design. First, though, he learned the ropes in the back of the house at Stouffer's, sold equipment, worked as assistant to the president of a New York chain and at Marriott here.
"Stouffer's was special," he said. "They had created their own automated coffee system. It would make three gallons.If the coffee wasn't served in 20 minutes, the machine would dump it. They made six pies, then six more, not 20 ahead. I seldom see the same insistence on quality today."
Cini came to the Washington area ("a traumatic experience" for a New York City native) in 1963 as director of Marriott's design department. In the next five years he worked on hotels, in flight kitchens and restaurants. Then he "joined forces" with another Cornell graduate, F. Dewayne Grissom. With IBM, the World Trade Center and Colonial Williamsburg as early clients, Cini-Grissom was "super busy from the first." Until the recent addition of a management division, which actively seeks clients business came by referral from other clients.
Dealing with such a range of food service, Cini's view is catholic, probably too catholic for adamantly gourmet palates. He is pleased that the Roy Rogers restaurants he helped design functions well. He is convinced that the ability and ambition of the chef is only one of the factors that impresses restaurant customers.
"I don't believe the future of restaurants is all fast food," he said. "Young people will go to McDonald's or Roy Rogers for lunch, then they go to the Big Cheese or another Georgetown restaurant for dinner. They've traveled. They'll try any style. As they grow up, they become aware of quality. When they go out for a special meal they don't want to stand in line. They look for service and they pay for it."
Americans' peripatetic dining habits contribute to difficulty of predicting success for a new restaurant these days. According to Cini, who is one of about 200 members of the International Society of Food Services Consultants, he and his competitors prefer to begin at the beginning.
"All too frequently," he wrote in Kitchen Planning magazine this year, "a client will come to us with an idea, and no real basis other than his own 'gut' feeling that the idea is a viable one, and that there is a market for this type of restaurant."
Cini's approach is to do an analysis of the potential location and site: the age and income distribution of nearby residents, potential for local employees, transportation, competition and "a lot of things they haven't thought about. The failure rate in this business is put at 50 to 90 per cent, depending on what the operator is trying to do. We're trying to cut those odds. If we feel strongly there isn't a market and the client insists or won't modify his concept, we'll walk away.
"Once into the planning phase, the first step is to develop a theme and a menu. You shouldn't design a kitchen until you have a menu. It affects so many variables. You have to have a broiler if you are going to serve broiler items. If you are going to do French service, you have to plan storage space for the extra hollow ware (serving dishes and utensils). Think about it. The shrimp cocktail doesn't come out in a glass dish. It comes in a bowl mounted in a container that also holds crushed ice and is presented with an underliner. Even the dish washing equipment you need varies with the menu."
From there, with or without a consultant, the needs become more obvious, but the services can range from advice on employee relations to data processing. It's a long step from the time when kitchen design was often done by food service equipment representatives as a part of their sales pitches. "It was relatively unsophisticated," Cini said. "Often the kitchen wasn't important to the architect, so you would have to make it work within the space he gave you. We didn't have the clout to make him modify his thinking. Most of our work still is renovation - working within strict confines that already exist. Right now we're doing the John Marshall Hotel in Richmond. It's a challenge and lots of fun for that reason, but generally it is easier if we can work from scratch."
Cini said he has only two fixed precepts in approaching job. The materials will be the "highest quality" the available money will allow and the kitchen will "meet health standards anywhere." No compromise is worth it, he said, "because that's where you can kill a business. We try to make a place as nearly self-cleaning as possible."
Apart from design, he feels that the most severe problems restaurants encounter are caused by poor supervision. "There's no substitute for training," he said. "If you don't train your staff, the supervisors end up working on the stations" and the whole system cracks apart. In view, Cornell, long a leader in providing management talent for hotels and restaurant chains, is turning out "top management" candidates. Thus the increased importance of the Culinary Institute of America and a handful of other institutions whose graduates become well-trained "working management. There's a terrible dearth of that kind of person," Cini said.
The industry is fragmented. Owners feel they can't take time away to attend trade shows or even visit other restaurants, so they don't see trends. It's difficult for them to believe other can do their job, which may be right, so they don't analyze the operation and organize so it can run without them."
Not that things are much better at home.
"Home kitchens just aren't important to builders," Cini declared. "They rank in a league with garages and basements. Of course, it's infinitely more difficult to design a kitchen for one person than to lay out work stations in a restaurant and home equipment is dreadful, although commercial is not much better.
"One manufacturer tried to market a super-grade line of kitchen equipment, but nobody would pay the dollar.Our stove at home is not going to last very long, but I'm not willing to go out and spent $10,000 to remodel the kitchen. There are other priorities."