North Fork restaurateurs share the secrets to what makes a good restaurant

02/21/2012 9:00 AM |

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Chef Michael Hegeman (left) and owner Jonathan Perkins, Cooperage Inn, Baiting Hollow.

To have a successful restaurant you gotta love it.

So says Rachel Levin Murphy, manager of her family’s landmark Greenport eatery, the Soundview. “It’s fabulous, fun, fascinating and challenging, but I love to work hard and I enjoy people. Every day is an adventure.”

We asked Ms. Murphy and other area restaurateurs to share their experience and advice. Their responses have been condensed and paraphrased for brevity.

Location, Location, Location

Jonathan Perkins of Cooperage Inn: Being on a main road, easy access and a free-standing building; that’s very important. It really identifies you.

Noah Schwartz of Noah’s: High visibility, as well as traffic, is important and, in our case, foot traffic. A location that fits your theme in an area receptive to your concept.

Terry Harwood of Vine Street: A neighborhood that fits your style and your projected price point, with easy access, curb appeal and high traffic. People told us we bought on the wrong side of the Island, but Shelter Island is the location, not a specific address. It doesn’t hurt that we’re on Route 114.

Jimi Rando of Sweet Tomato’s: Visibility and foot traffic. We’re in walking distance from the North Ferry, in the Heights, with great views.

Farouk Ahmad of North Fork Oyster Company: The best location depends on the type of restaurant. If you’re catering to tourists, you need to be where people walk. We’re a little off the street, a good place for people to relax and enjoy the quality of life without too much of a crowd.

Ettore Pennacchia of Touch of Venice: Being on a main road is most important. We tripled our business in the first six months after moving from Mattituck Inlet. If you’re a paint store, it doesn’t matter so much, but a restaurant needs exposure.

Ed Tuccio of Tweed’s: City sewers are important, and you need a large, year-round customer base.

Diane Harkoff of Legends: We’re in a very small town, and the ‘tucked away’ feeling, coupled with water views and a long drive past open farmland, adds to our charm. Our guests love the feeling that they’ve made a special discovery.

Alistair MacLean of La Maison Blanche: Location is not necessarily the key. It does play a part but, at the end of the day, if you have a good product, people are going to come.

Adam Lovett of A Lure and aMano: Don’t be in a rush to pick a location; look at traffic, what the area has to offer. Before opening aMano, we saw that the area was up and coming; we were willing to take a chance.

Layout

Mr. Perkins: The kitchen should be in the middle, with easy access for servers, spreading out traffic, and the dining room built around that area. Smaller, cozier rooms with soundproofing, music and candles for atmosphere.

Ms. Harkoff: Some people enjoy seeing the kitchen at the center, as part of “the show,” but I don’t want to be reminded of all the preparation. Our layout keeps the intimate dining room separate from the child-friendly, sports-themed bar.

Mr. MacLean: There’s no one right layout; some of my favorite restaurants in NYC have kitchens you can’t swing a cat in but still offer an enjoyable dining experience.

Mr. Harwood: The kitchen should be roughly one-third of the total square footage. Your bar, bathrooms and kitchen should be near the center. This makes good engineering sense and helps with flow and cross-utilization of staff.

Mr. Tuccio: We’re limited in space; we use every nook and cranny. You have to comply with all the health department and handicap laws; you have less leeway than years ago.

Mr. Rando: It’s less about layout, more about chemistry. We don’t have hard lines between the kitchen and the front of the house. The staff hangs out together; there’s lots of camaraderie.

Mr. Pennacchia: We wanted room to do private affairs. You need enough seating to make the money for your salaries, but you don’t want it to be overly big, or you can’t give proper service.

Mr. Ahmad: It’s about flow. The kitchen should be on the same level as the dining room, allowing an efficient flow of food. It should be easy and practical, no obstacles. Servers can go back to the kitchen for communication.

Mr. Schwartz: The kitchen works best in the back, unless you’re designing an open-kitchen concept. It’s nice to have a separate bar area to accommodate a livelier crowd as well as waiting patrons. Use hospitality to make your layout work. If you’re good at what you do, people will enjoy it regardless of layout.

Staffing & Service

Ms. Murphy: Find people who share your ideals. Customer service is paramount; if you don’t have good customer service, nothing is working.

Mr. Ahmad: Staffing is the hardest part; training and oversight are key. We don’t have a large pool of people to choose from. You have to work hard and be there, as the owner, 16 hours a day in the peak months. You need to make sure customers keep coming to you; they have to get what they can get in the city.

Mr. Pennacchia: Look for people who are bright, intelligent, clean-looking and trainable. No. 1 is that they’re friendly, laugh and talk with customers. Customer relations start with the waitstaff; they have to present what you’re all about. You have to treat them with respect and let them know what you expect.

Mr. Harwood: Good service is one-third of the equation. Just be nice, smart, clean, have a good work ethic and high morals and we’ll teach you the rest. In the early days, it was almost paralyzing how difficult it was to find staff; it’s gotten a little easier because we’re open year-round and can keep most of our staff employed. The payoff is when a kid who’s worked for us since she was 14 is able to graduate from college because she worked for us.

Mr. Schwartz: I look for someone I’m comfortable being around; I’m probably going to be around them more than my own family. I hire first on attitude and experience second. Good service is crucial, but so is being friendly and professional. Find people with the right attitude and some intelligence and mentor/train them to be what you’re looking for.

Mr. Lovett: Staffing is very challenging on the North Fork; there’s a different work force than in NYC or the Hamptons. You need to get started early and have a good training program. For the bar, it’s important for people to know the area and have some skills, but they can be trained. It’s more challenging to get good staff in the kitchen. Having the chef as my business partner ties ownership to the kitchen; no one else will be as invested.

Ms. Harkoff: I like to surround myself with upbeat, efficient, knowledgeable, warm and friendly people, and I’ve found that philosophy has served me well in staffing Legends. When someone is happy at their job, they do a better job. Most of our bussers are local high school students, and we’ve been fortunate in finding local residents who enjoy waiting tables here year round.

Mr. Perkins: No. 1 is personality and appearance, presentation, qualifications, ability to learn and grow with us. I wouldn’t necessarily hire a pro with impressive credentials over a young lady with a good personality who would give good service and be friendly with customers.

Mr. MacLean: Look for people with a hunger to succeed, who would treat the restaurant as if it were there own; loyalty and honesty. If they have these qualities, then training them to your expectations is the easy part. Is it the labor pool of NYC? No, but with proper training and supervision, it’s very easy to get the best out of your employees with whatever vision you have for your restaurant.

Mr. Rando: I’m a firm believer in the power of positive energy. People want to come work in the environment we’ve created. Non-team players stand out quickly.

Mr. Tuccio: When I first started, I was impressed with résumés of people who worked in fancy restaurants. You think that can carry through to your restaurant, but lots of times you’re sadly mistaken. They have to really want to do a good job and make customers happy.

Food

Mr. Perkins: Most important is to be diversified. We draw diners and eaters. Eaters just want to have dinner; diners want the full experience, food plus ambiance. You have to put your ego aside. It’s not just what you can create, but different foods, different prices, targeting all different areas of that scale. We try to buy from all the local farms and carry all the local wines. Support local and local will support you.

Mr. Lovett: We like to keep it green. Local cheese, fish, fruits, vegetables, wine. Farmers come in, send business; it’s very gratifying. At A Lure, it’s all local; aMano serves local and Italian wines.

Mr. Rando: Everything’s made from scratch. I pick up my own supplies and ingredients. In season, we use 80-90 percent local fish and produce. Most of our meat is from Long Island and upstate New York. I like to use suppliers who can indirectly come back and support me.

Mr. MacLean: We use as many local vendors as we can. If you have a good product, word of mouth will eventually draw the customers, but clever advertising in the right publications of your targeted demographic helps. Smart use of social media in this day and age is imperative.

Mr. Harwood: Just serve good food and be consistent about it. Most of the products we use are from within 100 miles, and most of that within 25 miles. You have to visit the local artisans, wineries and farmers. Get to know them and they’ll be proud that you’re using their products.

Mr. Pennacchia: If you’re opening a new restaurant, look at the location and what it might need. Use the best ingredients. Don’t worry about cost at first. If people really like it, then worry about cost later. If you put out inferior food, you don’t deserve to make it. Top shelf all the way.

Ms. Harkoff: Our location in prime farm, fishing and wine country means we have great access to the building blocks of any cuisine, and we take advantage of that. We might give our fabulous local fresh striped bass an Asian twist one night and an Italian the next. It’s an approach that serves us well and keeps our guests coming back.

Mr. Schwartz: A distinct theme sets you apart from the competition and lets customers know what to expect. We use as many local ingredients as possible. Make friends in your community and learn who likes what they do. They typically have the best product.

Mr. Ahmad: People come for quality, fresh food, produced from the earth on the North Fork and from the sea around us. If you don’t have it you shouldn’t be in the business.

Ms. Murphy: We’re constantly updating the menu; you can’t stay static. Chef Nancy Santiago is doing incredible things with fresh, local ingredients. We always look for ways to satisfy more people, keep wide appeal and a very good price point, very good food.

Mr. Tuccio: I like to promote the agricultural crops of eastern Long Island. We grow our own bison, serve vegetables from our next door neighbor. You can’t disguise the quality of the food; North Fork people know quality. The chef and I go get the produce, go through every box. And I feed those bison every day; I know what they’re eating.

Last Words

Mr. Pennacchia: Value! Make people feel you’re giving them value and they’ll keep coming back.

Ms. Harwood: Pay your dues and get your practical experience in the best places. Owning or running a successful restaurant doesn’t happen overnight and it’s not for everybody.

Mr. MacLean: It’s very important to keep your finger on the pulse as to what the competition is doing. You might be successful right now, but you’re only as good as the last meal you have served, and restaurants come and go all the time. Never get complacent.

Mr. Tuccio: Very few restaurants are successful immediately; you get an initial bounce from curious people. It’s really important to have something unique and do it well, with the best quality ingredients you can get.

Mr. Rando: For a family business, being on the premises, staying small and independent and maintaining quality control are vital.

Mr. Perkins: The biggest thing is having knowledge. The owner has to have control of what goes on in the restaurant. If you have control, the food stays consistent.

Ms. Harkoff: Along with stamina and sufficient funding, a good, positive outlook is essential. The restaurant business is full of ups and downs. It’s not a business for someone who wants everything to run smoothly every minute of every day, but it’s a great business for someone who likes to meet new challenges and interact with an immense range of personalities.

Mr. Schwartz: It’s a hard business, but if you love what you do, you’ll never “work” another day in your life.

Ms. Murphy: It’s a whole melting pot of good things. The customers keep it interesting, combined with the staff, the weather — everything else flows from it. I’m so lucky to have a family business that suits my character. I get to break bread with people and enjoy a spectacular view.