Why a good backstory is as important as the menu

For Top 100 Independents and other restaurants, the backstory is as compelling as the menu.

Frequently, I get asked what it takes to be among the Top 100 independent restaurants in the country. Indeed, the concepts in our annual ranking have a number of things in common. They tend to be large: Bavarian Inn of Frankenmuth (No. 84 in the ranking) and Zehnder’s of Frankenmuth (No. 68), both in Michigan, lead the pack at 90,000 and 80,000 square feet, respectively. Or they tend to have high check averages—fine-dining and special-occasion restaurants such as steakhouses make up a good chunk of the list—often in high-volume, tourist-packed cities such as Las Vegas and New York. There are some exceptions, of course.

But there’s another thing that many of the Top 100 Independents have in common, and that’s a story. There’s 102-year-old Joe’s Stone Crab (No. 3), which traces its roots back to a small lunch stand at a “bathing casino” before its Miami Beach home was even a city and before anyone knew that stone crabs were edible; and where, eventually, Jennie Weiss (wife of the “Joe” who is the restaurant’s namesake) counted Al Capone among her regular customers. There’s also Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse in Chicago (No. 65), located in the building that once hid gangster Frank Nitti’s vault, which is accessible through the restaurant’s bar and available for free tours during regular hours of operation. As examples like these suggest, it’s often more than the steaks or snapper that keep customers coming through the door and the reservations list overflowing.

Indeed, several of the operators who completed our survey told us that word of mouth and personal recommendations, whether from patrons or concierges, were a key driver of traffic and sales. And customers, in particular, are more likely to evangelize about a place if there’s an interesting yarn to spin.

Sure, guests may tell their friends that the grilled octopus at Lavo New York (No. 4) is the best they’ve ever had or that the $39 brunch deal at Portland City Grill (No. 66) is a steal. But what really will get people to gush and elaborate and sound knowledgeable at parties—which, let’s face it, is what we all want—is to know a little something more, a little something interesting about a place they like.

An operation needn’t have a long history or a famous chef in the kitchen (or a connection to organized crime like Joe’s and Harry Caray’s) to capture consumers’ attention. Our daily banter around the office frequently is peppered with “fun facts.” For example, fun fact: Bob Chinn (whose Wheeling, Ill. crab house is No. 25 on the list) got his start delivering Chinese food on foot at age 14. Fun fact: Scoma’s (No. 48) has its own 46-foot fishing boat parked next to the restaurant on San Francisco’s Pier 47.

The point is to share your story, whatever it is. We offer tips on how to tell your brand story. Because, while it’s important that customers know what’s on the menu or how much you charge for your prix fixe lunch, what resonates is what you stand for and how you communicate it.

The end.

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