Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What I Learned About Theater from Restaurant School

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the week, Connie Hall.

Let me start off by saying that I am a CHEATER. I offer you “What I Learned About Theater from Restaurant School.”  This is not an original post.

I cheat in the interest of cross-pollinating some pro-active, inspiring, and not-whiney conversations that are going on right now among independent theater makers.  This was my first post as a grantee and contributor for The Field’s Economic Revitalization for the Performing Arts blog.  Fellow grantee-bloggers Jon Stancato of Stolen Chair, Caroline Woolard of Our Goods, and Joanna Mendl Shaw of Equus Projects, as well as the Field’s executive director Jennifer Cook, have been totally brave and inspiring in embarking upon their projects and sharing their successes and failures, so I wanted to point you all in their direction.

I also cheat in order to offer a prelude to a Creative Conversation I will be joining LIVE at WNYC’s Greene Space on Monday, June 14 on the subject of “501(c)3: Is it working for me?”  It is hosted by ELNYA and moderated by Melissa Dibble of EmcArts. It should shake things up in a good way. I was asked to join because I have decided not to incorporate as a not-for-profit. At least not yet. Please come.

What I Learned About Theater from Restaurant School Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant, an actor-run ensemble theater company. We create live episodic performances about a fictional ensemble theater company that runs a fictional restaurant.  But, the food is real.  The actors themselves make the meals from scratch, and we serve family-style to the audience seated at communal banquet tables.  (Read about how we create our menus on The Jew and the Carrot.)

Last year, with concurrent project support from the ERPA program and a scholarship from Women Chefs and Restaurateurs I was able to attend the Culinary Management Program at the Institute of Culinary Education.  I like to think of it as a form of extreme dramaturgy for my role in the show as restaurant manager.  I went hoping to apply the for-profit business model of a restaurant to our artist-driven theater company.  Sounds simple enough, right?  With some time to reflect, here’s what I learned about theater from restaurant school:

Lesson #1: Our problems are not unique.
The class met three times a week.  Two out of three classes were taught by Vin McCann, former VP of Boulder Creek Steakhouse Group and current owner/operator of the Wells House in the Adirondacks.  Vin’s favorite thing to say was, “The restaurant business is a disease.”  By this, he meant that it was a risky, labor-intensive, heavily-regulated, low-margin, business with a high burnout factor, and that the only reason to do it is if you just can’t help it.  Sound familiar?

Like theaters, restaurants have limited seating and face the problem of limited distribution.  Each restaurant has an optimum sales volume given the seating capacity and the service style of the house.  This is the point when sales plateau because you cannot turn tables faster or raise prices further without losing customers.  The only remaining course to increase profitability is to control food and labor costs.  We were quizzed on this concept, with the bonus question “What is the optimal cost of labor percentage?”  The answer was supposed to be as little as possible, but I wanted to pay my ensemble members as much as possible.  I answered the question wrong on purpose. 

Because of this inherent limitation, restaurants have a lifecycle.  It averages about seven years.  After that, a new restaurant needs to open in order for the business to keep growing.  Pause.  I wanted to strengthen and give longevity to our existing group, not grow for the sake of growth.

Vin’s second favorite thing to say was “We are not artists.”

Lesson #2:  We are not artists.
Our class represented the most diverse collection of oddballs (geographic, economic, cultural, education level, age, you name it) that you could possibly put in a room together.  But we all wanted to open a restaurant.  One classmate, a Bahamian former bar owner, wanted to provide for the public what her grandmother provided for her family.  By piling the table high with good eats and offering a warm welcome, she could give people the feeling that they had enough. For the fabulous club kid from Vegas who was getting a restaurant for his 21st birthday present, it was the promise of a glitzy design all his own and the spectacle of tall food served by runway models.  For the Korean who wanted to open a fried chicken shop, it was an essential philosophical response to life: Since the one thing human beings have to do in order to stay alive is eat, you should do that one thing well.  Most of my classmates had a strong vision and felt personally compelled to do their work despite many practical incentives not to. 

But we are not artists?

No, because we have to serve the diners (aka audience).  It doesn’t matter if a genius chef knows that a certain combination will make a better dish if no one will eat it.  It doesn’t matter if we like red when the customer wants white.  Above all, we cannot fall in love with an idea.  We have to be willing let it go, fast, and re-coup our losses if it just isn’t working.  We are not creating something for our own self-expression. 

I wondered if maybe artists couldn’t afford to be artists anymore either.

Lesson #3:  The best restaurateurs are stage magicians.
The third class each week was taught by Steve Zagor, the director of the program and former manager of Shelly Fireman’s Trattoria dell’ Arte.  He was a not-so-closeted theater geek, who liked to try out his different accents on the class and erupt into spontaneous role-play situations in which you were obliged to participate.  Steve’s favorite thing to do was give examples of extreme hospitality, and to point out situations where, with no extra cost, you could impress your guests with how much you care that they have a great time.

Like theaters, restaurants provide a live, subjective, temporal, experience.

The best restaurateurs know that the product they are selling is theater and not food.  Customers rarely complain about the food, and most often comment about the service. External marketing and advertising is most effective in bringing in initial business and first-time customers.  After that, it is all about internal marketing intended to bring in repeat business.  A great meal (aka play?) doesn’t always make a great story. Complainers are powerful, and customers remember and repeat the worst experiences because they make the best stories.  But when the manager notices you don’t have an umbrella and goes out of his or her way to surprise you with a complimentary one, you will repeat that story.  Personal attention also makes for good stories.

We had to write service scripts for what a customer should experience from the moment they made a reservation to the moment they walked out the door. Are there good signtlines? Is the chaos of back-of-house operations concealed from front-of-house?  How does the menu (aka program) orient you to the experience?  What does the place smell like?  (There is a whole industry of manufacturing scents to impact consumer behavior:  Ladies, this holiday season, watch out if you detect vanilla being pumped through the vents.  It makes you buy more.)  How is the table set?  How is the server trained to reply when asked for extra lemon?  Are the bathrooms clean?  Does someone say goodbye?  Do you send a thank-you-for-coming email?

All of this script-writing is called “four-walls marketing”.  The term makes me as squirmy as “audience development” or “donor cultivation”, with its connotation that money is always an underlying ulterior motive for kindness or consideration.

Where is the sincerity in this?  See Lesson #4.

Lesson #4:  Compensation is not the most important key to retaining staff. Or, the reason to go into the restaurant business is to have fun.
The most important person to keep happy in a restaurant is the dishwasher.  The seamless operation depends completely on him or her, and he or she is generally the lowest paid worker.  Restaurant workers tend to be either unskilled low-wage workers or those with career aspirations in other industries. Many actors, not coincidentally, are waiters.

More than compensation, the statistics show that the most important factor in retaining staff is a positive work environment. People like to feel like they are a part of something that matters, like they are empowered to solve problems, like they are hosts rather than servants.  Happy staff create a happy place.

Lesson #5:  People are willing to pay for theater! 
No one knows the real price of a theater ticket in the not-for-profit sector.  Tickets are so heavily subsidized by contributed income that audiences have no idea what it should actually cost.  Restaurants have done a much better job of relaying this information. A word of advice from their industry to ours:  Never offer discounts. It is a slippery slope that causes people to devalue the experience.

People pay for theater every time they go out to eat.  Consider the theater of the New York City  A hamburger that costs the same amount to make ranges widely in price depending on the venue.  I gladly pay twice as much for a hamburger on an interesting geometric plate with nice lighting accompanied by soft music than a hamburger in a dive bar.  And I still think that’s what it costs. 

In a restaurant that is doing great food costs account for 25-35% of sales.  The difference between the cost and the price is the margin. This margin is why I haven’t given up on this pricing experiment yet. Conni’s Avant Garde Restaurant seeks to price our theater tickets at four times the food and beverage cost. The payment for the theater is in the margin, and it is more than we are used to getting from ticket sales. I strongly believe that we theater artists are uniquely qualified to create live experiences that are more memorable and transformative than any restaurant. We just haven’t taught people how to pay for it yet. 

Lesson #1:  Should theaters have a lifecycle?
Lesson #2:  Does a theater artist have a bigger responsibility to him/herself or to the community?
Lesson #3:  Assignment: Write a script for what an audience member experiences at your theatrical event.  Hint: It starts before and continues after they are seated for the play.
Lesson #4:  How important is it to sustainability that actors in a production have a voice?
Lesson #5:  What tangible thing besides food could you offer to audiences as a basis for ticket pricing?

Meet us for dinner in Massachusetts this summer!  OBERON in Cambridge, Sundays July 11, 18, 25 and August 1. www.cluboberon.com

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