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A large helping of soul

Restaurant success hinges on several tangibles—great food, good service and appealing ambience are essentials. But then there are the intangibles that make a restaurant special; those extras you can’t easily define but contribute immeasurably to the overall dining experience. Some call it “soul.”  For me, soul is an overall feeling of warmth that pervades the space; a welcoming feeling that makes me feel like I want to return again and again. For others, it might be a buzzy vibe.

At the “Got Soul?” Trade Talks session held during the recent 2013 New York City Wine & Food Festival, several restaurant industry pros tried to nail down this intangible. The panel, moderated by Jennifer Baum, president of Bullfrog & Baum Public Relations, included Chris Cannon, partner in the soon-to-open All'onda and Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen; Gabriel Stulman, owner/operator, Little Wisco Restaurant Group; Vicki Freeman, co-owner of Five Points, Cookshop and Hundred Acres; and Arlene Spiegel, restaurant consultant.

“Authenticity” was cited by all the panelists as the essence of soul. But then opinions diverged slightly.

  • Cannon believes “soul starts with clarity of vision”
  • Freeman agrees, saying that “soul evolves when the FOH and BOH have the same vision”
  • Stulman stated that “soul can’t be defined by a singular thing; it comes from working with people who share your DNA”
  • Spiegel noted that the root of the word “restaurant” is “restore;” when guests come to a restaurant with soul, they feel restored

Soul also hinges on connection—both the staff and the customers have to feel connected to the place. Freeman spoke of a restaurant she opened with her husband/partner, chef Marc Meyer, that didn’t work out. “We took over the space that was Provence and renovated it,” she recalls. “When it opened, it was overdesigned and I didn’t feel connected to any part of it—even the food. Everything depleted the restaurant’s soul.” When they scrapped the concept and started to tear apart the space, Freeman instantly felt more connected to it. Provence re-opened as the farm-to-table Hundred Acres and is now a success. “You have to put some of yourself into a restaurant to give it authenticity and soul,” she assert.

Sustainability was another theme that emerged. “Soul is sustainable, ‘cool’ is not,” said Spiegel. Stulman added some specifics: “Screw the graphics and design…without great staff you have no soul. It’s about the bartender who greets regulars, the maître d’ who hugs customers, the servers who get involved with guests. You have to give your employees freedom so they establish pride in ownership.”

He and the other panelists reiterated that “hiring for warmth” is the crucial first step in creating a restaurant with soul. “You have to constantly reinforce the good intentions of each employee,” explained Cannon.

Recently, I met some friends at New York City’s Union Square Café. It’s been around for 25 + years but I had never been there for dinner. Everyone in the industry knows that owner Danny Meyer is the hospitality king and puts an enormous emphasis on staff training. As soon as you walk into the restaurant, you feel the results. From the hostess to the servers, the sommelier to the busboys, the staff reaches out to every guest, regular or not. The ambience is warm, inviting and casual, maybe even a little worn around the edges. But as a guest, you feel cozy, pampered and important. That’s soul. 

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