THE UNDERGROUND CULINARY TOUR
The Underground Culinary Tour is a high-octane, behind the scenes narrative about how the restaurant industry, historically run by gut and intuition, is being transformed by the use of data.
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PROFESSOR JAN W. RIVKIN
HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
MAXIMIZING THE MONTAUK SUNSHINE
It’s another sun-soaked summer weekend in the Hamptons, and it’s clear I’m going to need another glass of rosé. My good fortune is that I’ve got a beachfront table at Navy Beach, Montauk’s fashionable watering hole of the in- crowd, where refills of the colorful, lovely wine are rarely a problem.
I’ve come to meet with two of the owners to talk about food, wine . . . and data.
Waiting for them to finish up with smiling guests gives me a chance to do what I love to do here: watch the Technicolor sunset, an eruption of reds and pinks and oranges dancing among the waves and nuzzling the sand of the restaurant’s private beach.
When the sun’s just right, Navy Beach feels like the most beautiful spot in the world. When guests post photos of their adventures on Instagram or Facebook, every shot looks like something out of an ad campaign: gorgeous beach images artfully overexposed by a luminous sun shining over the bay.
To understand the setting is to understand why businesses here have always had difficulty surviving from year to year. The Montauk “season” reliably brings guests in for only three of those months. Visit any seasonal business, and you’ll meet people who cater to the desires of the summer trade. Nearly all of these entrepreneurs scrape by to survive. And yet Navy Beach has survived profitably for five years and is heading confidently into their sixth season as I write this.
How do they do it? How do they manage to maximize every single hour of the short, eeting summer season? How do they exploit nature, weather, and time?
They use math and data.
As you watch Fogo de Chão’s modern-day gauchos serving meat to guests at their tableside, it doesn’t take much to see how this unforgettable experience can quickly become a logistical nightmare. It’s one thing to cook a traditional meal—pizza or churrasco—with your family, but another to cook for an entire restaurant of guests. At home, if you make too much food, you can tuck the leftovers into the fridge. Someone will eat it tomorrow, or the next day. If you make too much in a restaurant, that food must be consigned to the trash by the end of the night. In a restaurant setting, leftovers are an expensive waste of money and food.
This kind of on-the-fly ordering is tricky to manage. I call it the Perfect Meat Dilemma. It’s like being an air traffic controller, only instead of shepherding 747s you’re juggling about sixteen different cuts of beef, pork, lamb, or chicken, cooked to a variety of different temperatures and levels of doneness.
By design, Fogo can’t wait for you to order. If they want to provide a continuous stream of meat perfectly cooked, they need to start cooking the right cuts of meat, in the right amounts, to the right temperatures, at the right time, before they know you’re going to ask for it. In short, they have to be mind readers.
But since psychics are in as short supply in Brazil as they are in the United States, Fogo de Chão has come to rely on a more effective technique for preparing and serving its food. They use data. Specifically, they have mastered the art of knowing their restaurant’s trends.
NUMBERS IN NIGHTLIFE
The night the cab lets me off in front of the MGM Grand Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, the facade of the largest single hotel in the United States is bathed in the glow of green lights. Just before I hop out, I take in the massive banners draped across the front of the building touting upcoming nightclub appearances by two world-renowned DJs— Calvin Harris on one, Tiësto on the other.
As I cut through the lobby and the floor of the casino, I can see that the gaming floor is busy, but it feels as if everyone I see has another destination in mind. Every guy I see is sharply dressed. Every woman seems to be attired in a tight black dress.
It’s club night in Vegas, and people are getting ready to make some noise.
At one thirty a.m., just as the party on the dance floor reaches its height and the fog machine is sending tendrils across the floor, the door behind us opens. Out march a half dozen bouncers, escorting A-list DJ Calvin Harris, arguably the best-known and highest-paid DJ in the world.
The crowd goes wild; my eardrums are about to explode.
It’s one of those Vegas moments when you think you’re consumed by madness. But that, of course, is illusion. The story of modern-day clubbing is actually a story of geekery and data analytics.
If you look at a Top 100 list of the highest-grossing nightclubs, seven out of the ten Vegas clubs on that list are all within two miles of each other. And they all have something in common: they all use my Avero analytical software.
INNOVATING THE FAMILY BUSINESS
Some cities are so closely associated with food that what you eat when you visit is almost preordained. The first time you go to Philadelphia, for example, you must try a cheese-steak sandwich. In Charleston, it is almost de rigueur that you have a bowl of she-crab soup and dig into a serving of shrimp and grits. In Toronto, it’s a big messy plate of poutine. In St. Louis, it’s BBQ. In New York, if you don’t grab at least one hot dog from a street vendor, or a slice of cheesy hot New York pizza, you may find yourself embarrassed to tell your friends that you visited the Big Apple.
And when you head on down to New Orleans, that hallowed city of saints and sinners, you must head over to the seventy-year-old institution Brennan’s, on Royal Street in the French Quarter, where teams of servers in salmon-colored ties and black vests or aprons bring you a succession of must-haves: turtle soup, seafood filé gumbo, roasted Gulf oysters, eggs Sardou, and crawfish étouffée or jambalaya. And if you manage to get to the end of a sumptuous repast there with the least bit of room left, you’ll finish off the meal with the dish Brennan’s brought into the world—bananas Foster. Gazing at Brennan’s from the outside—with its pink stucco facade, its tall windows with green shutters and black cast-iron balconies—you would probably conclude that such a place was too old-world, too hopelessly romantic, to be bothered with something as unseemly as data.
But you’d be wrong.
The story of how the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group came to adopt data and technology is really the story of how my friend Ralph and his team learned to survive. When he faced the greatest crisis of his career, the lessons he’d absorbed from data and technology gave him the tools he needed to be a better manager, leader, and neighbor.
Often I encounter restaurateurs who tell me that they don’t want to link the magic that happens in their dining rooms and kitchens to a bunch of ones and zeroes. It will distort the reason they got into the business in the first place, they tell me. But there’s no way someone can stroll the streets of the French Quarter, sit in the shade of dreamy courtyards to hear the sounds of the fountains, of jazz and blues seeping out of the music halls, and tell me that there isn’t magic galore in this city. In New Orleans, the Brennan family is a culinary dynasty. The various branches of this family have been feeding locals and visitors alike since 1946. Ralph owns seven eateries and a catering company in this city alone.
He did not come by his success easily. Since childhood, he’s watched his family undergo enormous change—the challenge of new restaurants, family discord, natural and manmade disasters. Somehow, the Brennans survived to become the best-known restaurant family in the city, and one of the best in the world. At first glance, old restaurants might seem like the ultimate dog who can’t be taught new tricks. But it just isn’t true. If the scion of the leading family of New Orleans dining has embraced data, if he has found it to be useful, transformative, and salvational—shouldn’t every restaurant that has come of age in the last decade consider stepping in with the New Guard?