The Soul of a Restaurant, Part II – Tipping Points

A while ago I considered the idea of the soul of a restaurant – those intangibles, or, as the case may be, tangibles, that contribute to the very essence of a place.

The soul can be anything really, derived from anywhere. It can be a person, the menu, the structure, the music – all of these contribute to what someone experiences when they enter the building. The soul is what connects all of these, the unifying undercurrent. It is at once ineffable and accessible to whoever enters. To be clear, the soul is not a manifesto. Not every restaurant has a manifesto. Mine, for example. There are guidelines and traditions and inspirations but nothing codified, nothing to which we must stick. The soul is how those guidelines and inspirations coalesce, how they are influenced by the human souls inside, by the building itself, the personalities, the interactions, all of it. It is how we choose to present ourselves, our food, and our meaning.

Consider the menu. The menu could be considered the core of the soul. A restaurant is always, ultimately, about food. The decor, the service, the setting, these all affect the experience of the food, but food is the one constant.

And so at what point is the integrity of the menu, of the food, lost? Can it be? Does it matter?

What are we? Are we Italian? Sure. Californian? Perhaps. A pizza place. At least partially. A wine shop? Certainly. But we do, in a sense, defy categorization. Which is totally fine with me, it just makes it a bit more challenging to elevator pitch my place of work. The point is, we are not any one single thing, so how do we decide to what we are staying true? And when do we cross that line? And, ultimately, if that line is crossed, does it really matter?

Over the summer, I started regularly receiving phone calls for delivery requesting the inclusion of ranch dressing. Which we do not have. Because we do not make it. For a few reasons. However our reason for not having ranch dressing has just as much to do with its lack of Italian origins as the fact that generally people use ranch to dip their dry, uneaten pizza crusts at the end of a meal. And our crust shouldn’t need a dipping sauce. It’s fantastically flavorful and textural as it is, it requires no adornment, it’s beauty is in simplicity.

Yet, what would it mean to have this popular, oft-requested item available? Like I said, we don’t have a manifesto of our food – although we have a clear set of influences, we are adamantly nothing other than delicious. Yet it feels like a violation somehow. A breach of integrity, a nod toward the dark side. An encouragement of a habit from which we feel our food should be exempt. Do you give the customer what they want wherever possible, or do you hold your ground?

I struggle with a variation on this question with my wine list as well, particularly as it pertains to local bottles. We are fortunate in that we have been well-supported in the last two years by business with local wineries – catering everything from small lunch meetings to large daily meals feeding overworked harvest crews. And yet, I carry almost none of their wines. Because again, while I don’t necessarily have a manifesto for my selection, it is certainly guided by a set of influences and desires. Mostly Italian. Focus on lesser-known styles and varietals. Practically nothing that can be found across the street at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods.

But why do I have to stick to this? Ultimately, what does it matter? If I pick up a big name Chardonnay from one of our top customers, it will probably sell well. Even though this wine is not like anything else we carry, it is not as if its very presence on the shelf will poison its neighbors. Or will it?

Currently, among our many identities, we are known as a place to purchase unique Italian wines. People will come to the store for that specific purpose. While we do of course carry a small number of California wines, and there are certainly some customers who come for those particular wines, the more likely draw is the Italian selection. These wines are affordable, they are different, and, quite honestly, they are delicious.

But if I were to introduce a larger domestic selection, or even more recognizable Italian labels, at what point does that identity get lost? We have limited space, and so what is the tipping point where my selection goes from unique yet affordable Italian to generic selection with an Old World influence? And at what point does the customer recognize that shift – whether consciously or not – and consequently when does their perception of us change? Or, perhaps most importantly, if I start featuring more conventional products, how will that affect the less conventional items that have done so well?

Customers come in and ask for Susumaniello by name. Susumaniello is an indigenous Italian grape grown in approximately one and a half villages in Puglia. It is delicious and makes a fantastic, unique and highly affordable wine. And people in Napa. Napa! Napa, where premium, universally coveted wines are made down the street, and people are choosing to drink Susumaniello! That is so cool to me. And I almost feel as if I owe a stringency of selection to my customers, to those that were willing to try something new. To those who took a chance – a chance that only cost $20, but a chance nonetheless – and were rewarded with a delightful new taste.

But again, this all comes back to the idea of the soul. Is the soul of this restaurant, this wine list, is it dependent on obscurity? Would including a mass market crowd pleaser fundamentally throw off the balance, simply by its presence? Does it erode the trust the customer has placed in us? Granted it seems unlikely to affect the sales of a single wine that has already done well and which customers have already come to love, but what about future Susumaniello’s? What about the Freisa that customers are just starting to get to know, or the Ruche I want to bring in? Nerello Cappuccio, Ciliegiolo, Friulano, Grillo, and Pelaverga? If we have built our identity on highlighting these unusual and unknown wines, what does it mean to sell them alongside the very definition of homogenous, some might even say soulless, chardonnay? Or moving outside the domestic market, and adding a mass market Chianti or Pinot Grigio – still Italian, still well-priced, but known entities without many of the characteristics I generally favor in my selections. One bottle like that might not make much of a difference, but at what point does it fundamentally change the image we put forth? When do we no longer feel like place for interesting Italian wine, but simply a place that sells wine, some of it Italian?

To me, ranch dressing and buttery Chardonnay represent the same crawl toward a tipping point that disrupts the soul of our restaurant. They are both items that could appeal to our customer base, are not necessarily guarantees of profit, but are unlikely to be harmful to our business, and my rejection of both has nothing to do with their potential for quality. They are simply not who we are, and quite frankly, that’s enough.

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