Recently some industry “friends” came in to try a ton of my food. I know they are opening a similar concept in another neighborhood of the same city. I felt like I should tell them to go away (in different terms), but took the high road and treated them as I would any industry people. But is it bad form to do that? I can see doing R&D in other cities but in your own backyard?
This is a tricky question and one that comes up from time to time. I think one of the best things a restaurateur can do to be successful is to dine in restaurants, your own and competitors. It keeps you current, generates new ideas, helps to benchmark performance against competitors, and can show goodwill among colleagues. Due to a variety of factors—too busy, working during prime restaurant times, not wanting to spend money at competitors, saving funds or, perhaps most importantly, not wanting anything to do with restaurants on one’s day off—many restaurateurs don’t get out much.
When they do, many restaurateurs make it a point to dine far afield. They don’t want to be recognized or interacted with; they want what many guests want—good food, beverage, service and atmosphere. Others like to go where they are known to support friends, former employees and enhance their relationships in the local industry. All of this can be challenged when a visit to a colleague’s restaurant is a blatant research and development excursion to experience a direct competitor’s concept—and possibly to take inspiration or ideas from the meal.
In my city of Philadelphia, this scenario blew up and got some national attention when a chef accused visiting competitors of spying, stepping into the kitchen uninvited and asking intrusive questions about dishes that took decades to hone. There is clearly a difference between knowing what is happening in the local dining scene and reverse engineering dishes to replicate down the street. In some cases, to prevent the spying accusations or keep things quiet, I’ve been asked to do the investigating for someone, usually a real estate developer thinking of courting a chef or an investor considering making an offer.
Overall, my advice is to be loud and proud on both sides. Restaurants are open to the public, and if someone really wants to know what you’re up to, they will. Don’t make them resort to wearing a disguise, sending a friend or waiting for your day off. Be gracious but private with any information you wouldn’t normally share with guests. Buy them a round of drinks and wish them luck—but not too much luck. At some point, you’ll be on the other side of the table and will expect similar treatment.
More on analyzing the competitive environment here.