Building emotional ties the way to lure diners, chefs told


LONG-WINDED MENU descriptions with “cheffy” terminology are out and upmarket comfort food such as gourmet hamburgers and artisan hot dogs are in. That’s according to Michelin-starred chef and kitchen consultant John Wood, who addressed a food and hospitality masterclass held by Fáilte Ireland in Wexford yesterday.

Speaking to owners of food and drink businesses in the southeast, he said the economy had scared people and they were looking for “a safe harbour”. Restaurants and hotels should attract these consumers by building emotional ties and connecting to communities.

“They need to audit their businesses based on economic survival, reassurance, intimacy and friendship, feeding guest knowledge, feeding guest emotions,” he said. “People today are expressing entirely new and more complex sets of concerns.” They want artisan and locally produced foods and a feeling of comfort and safety.

Mr Wood said the recession had encouraged diners to “trade down” in certain areas in order to trade up in others. “That’s what’s behind the explosion of gourmet hamburgers smothered in the likes of Manchego cheese and Iberian ham, or artisan hot dogs served with goats’ cheese and guacamole or home-made relishes, or French fries livened up with Parmesan cheese and truffle oil.”

Customers were becoming more adventurous with starters and desserts but were still looking for the comfort element on menus and were being quite careful with their main course selection.

Wood’s past workplaces include the Savoy and the Dorchester in London, the Ritz in Paris and Burj al Arab in Dubai.

Chefs, he said, needed to take an interest in what happened “on the other side of the pass”. Dining rooms would be empty if food was delivered with unfriendly, unprofessional and slow service. “Generally customers will forgive slightly substandard food before substandard service,” he said.

Wood advised front of house staff to get as much information from first-time diners as possible when they made a reservation. They should use that information to make the dining experience unique and personal.

“Take interest in your guests and they will take interest in you,” he said. To avoid the possibility of waiters annoying customers, he advised: “Look where the guests’ eyes are looking. If they are looking at each other, leave them alone.”

Fáilte Ireland said it had organised the masterclass to help people to see their businesses through a fresh pair of eyes with the help of some top hospitality consultants.

Eating out: What’s hot

Gourmet comfort food such as hamburgers;

Locally sourced produce and food from the restaurant garden;

Healthy kids’ meals and smaller versions of adult meals;

Sustainability, particularly with seafood;

Gluten-free options and menus that are conscious of allergies.

What's not

Formal dining;

Long-winded dish descriptions on menus;

Importing food from overseas when it is available locally;

Molecular gastronomy;

Processed foods and artificial colourants.