Podcast

Episode: 462 |
Stan Sagner:
Food Industry Consultant:
Episode
462

HOW TO THRIVE AS AN
INDEPENDENT PROFESSIONAL

Stan Sagner

Food Industry Consultant

Show Notes

Stan is a senior executive with deep expertise in digital and traditional media with a focus on food & beverage and hospitality-related businesses. As a food industry consultant, he has worked with a diverse range of global clients including Sony Pictures International; BBC Worldwide; and India Today Group. In today’s episode, he talks about his strategic consulting service in the entertainment and media space, food and hospitality, and the intersection of the two. You can reach out to Stan at ssagner@gmail.com.

Key points include:

  • 05:52: Types of projects
  • 10:53: Menu insights – pricing and items
  • 18:27: Working with developers
  • 25:17: Room service issues

 

One weekly email with bonus materials and summaries of each new episode:

 

Stan Sagner

 

Will Bachman 00:00

Hello, and welcome to Unleashed the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. I’m your host will Bachman. And I’m here today with Stan Stagner, who had a career in advertising in television. He has an MBA. And then he dropped it all to go to culinary school, he trained as a chef worked in Michelin starred restaurants that he shifted over who was became a food columnist, a restaurant critic. And now he’s a consultant, doing all things related to the food industry serves restaurants, serves consumer packaged goods, companies that want to have food products, he also works with developers that are thinking about adding a food component to their development. So everything related to food, is Stan Stan, welcome to the show.

 

Stan Sagner 00:47

Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

 

Will Bachman 00:48

So Stan, let’s start with restaurants. So you walk into a restaurant, and maybe with me, and you’re noticing all sorts of things about that restaurant that I would not pick up on, what are some of the things that that you’re looking at that you’re noticing that an ordinary restaurant goers not gonna pick up on?

 

Stan Sagner 01:10

I think that I Well, first of all, I come at it with a degree of compassion. We’re an S recipe, an ordinary restaurant, or go or may not simply because I’ve been on the other side, and I know how difficult it can be to juggle all the things that you’re trying to juggle, particularly now in the pandemic. But I noticed things like how long it takes for the front of house to engage you and to make eye contact. And to read the situation of who’s coming in whether the request of the reservation is met, whether you’re kept waiting, or seated at the time that you had scheduled your table. And sort of the general care and feeding of the guests over the course of the meal that there’s there’s, roughly speaking, tend to break things into two categories, which is one is the the food experience. And we can certainly get into the weeds there. But but the surface experience is as if not sometimes more important than the food. And, and that and that really is the difference between a successful experience. And, and, and one that isn’t.

 

Will Bachman 02:32

We were chatting before about noise levels and restaurants. And there’s been some articles in this, I think maybe something in the Atlantic and noise levels have gone up. And that’s that’s in some ways intentional, tell me a little bit about that.

 

Stan Sagner 02:48

This is, that was a technique. And it I think it’s happened naturally. And it was something that restaurant has picked up on and have taken advantage of is that the when the volume levels are up in a restaurant, and it depends on the type of venue, but it has two effects. One is that it creates a more of a sort of a rock is party atmosphere. And that has been that’s been tracked to lead to more alcohol consumption, which raises the average check and generates more revenue for the restaurant. So there’s, there’s a direct correlation to, to the performance of the restaurant to noise, believe it or not. The other is that it it be inversely it creates sort of a pressure for the meal to end people don’t want to be subjected to that indefinitely. And so tables tend to turn more frequently. And, and the ability to have a second or third or third and a half turn, depending on the restaurant in the open time in the close time and the type of meal. Again, there’s the average check time compresses because of the noise level. So it’s it’s an it’s not a technique that I’m particularly a fan of simply because it degrades the experience and there are certain customers particularly older customers or or customers with children who find it excruciating. And and, and I understand why.

 

Will Bachman 04:32

Yeah, I’ve seen some restaurants or been to somewhere. It was to such a degree that you you could not even have a conversation like even shouting to the person next to you. It’s just the opposite of my style. And I’m a little bit hard to hearing, particularly when there’s a lot of noise in the background. So those are particularly not not fun for me. Now I know that restaurants are in the only

 

Stan Sagner 04:54

interrupt. I just tell you a quick story when I was reviewing and I’m not going to identify the restaurant but when I was running Feeling there was a particularly hot restaurant in in, in lower Manhattan that kind of took that to the extreme and the food was terrific. But the noise was so loud, I was at a table with, I think six people that the waiter couldn’t actually hear my order. So I had to text it to the waiter, essentially, write it onto my phone and hold it up for them to not because they couldn’t hear me over the noise of the surrounding tables and the music that was playing.

 

Will Bachman 05:34

Yeah, they probably taken a little bit too far. Yeah. Now I know, I know, I know that restaurants aren’t your only customer segment, client segment. But tell us a little bit about the types of projects that you do for restaurants or restaurant tours.

 

Stan Sagner 05:52

So I, I’ve done a variety of things in just actually, this week started with a new one. Essentially, what I tried to do is refine the experience for the restaurant, on different levels two to two, extract as much revenue and reduce the sort of the pain of getting to it as as much as possible. So one restaurant that I worked with, we, we basically were trying to get over the hurdle, and it’s a pretty significant one of the pandemic. And, and it was, it was a restaurant that was thriving. But all of a sudden, we couldn’t do indoor dining, the sort of food that we served was very labor intensive. Our specialty were tasting menus. The this space was small, by design, but it during a pandemic, even when we were able to restore indoor dining, we couldn’t go to full capacity. And those many other factors had huge, huge impact on the ability to keep the lights on. And so for the last year and a half, we essentially tried to and I think succeeded in reinventing the model of that restaurant and looked at everything from the ingredients that we use to the menu that we serve the staffing model, we experimented with all sorts of things like takeout that something we had never done before meals to go meals to prepare at home that had been essentially prepped at the restaurant, we had a bakery component, we had a almost like a bodega commissary component. We did special events, we did virtual events. Basically, we threw the paint with repainted the wall for a year and a half to come up with every possible way to both keep money coming in to pay the rent and, and keep the staff intact, which we largely did. And at the same time maintain the DNA of the brand, which was that was probably the most difficult part. Because if you start to mutate too far, you don’t you mean nothing to to anyone at that point. And we had nine years of you know, a very hard fought reputation to protect. And in that case, I think we did a pretty good job but certainly made mistakes along the way. I’ve just started working with new client that is a restaurant that is part of a museum. And they it’s by and large, it’s it’s a good experience the food is good, the chef is talented, the surface is pretty good. So all the all the the basic features are there, but everything around it is in need of an overhaul the physical space is uninviting. They have a very rudimentary form of marketing they’re not on social media. They’re not on reservation platforms. They’re vicious visual presentation of their food is not very good. And so we’re kind of breaking it down to its its its most basic parts and rebuilding it and an a more appealing contemporary and, and really customer facing and engaging way. It was it was it was it is a restaurant that takes its clients or its guests for granted. because they’re already in the museum. And what we’re trying to do is make it a more memorable experience and also appeal to people who are outside of the museum that don’t have to be there that want to be there. So it’s a really fun project, because I believe very much in the mission of the museum, but I also believe that this is a terrific restaurant that people need to discover.

 

Will Bachman 10:26

You mentioned menus, and that might be a whole specialty consulting area in itself. But what are some of the things about restaurant menus? In terms of prices, in terms of the number of items that shouldn’t be on a menu? Not too few, not too many, maybe, you know, any other kind of insights on restaurant menus that the ordinary consumer might not be aware of?

 

Stan Sagner 10:53

That’s a great question. I think that, again, each case is is is somewhat individual. But one thing, and this is something that we do spend a lot of time on is it when you prepare a menu, and you prepare food, there’s, there’s different constituencies that are simultaneously considering this food, it’s the guest that’s sitting at the table. It’s the, the food writer at at the legacy publication, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and, and, and, and, and groups like Michelin, who’s who’s reviews, or, or, or press really moved the dial in a very significant way, you’re doing it for social media, for Instagram, and the pictures that your guests are taking, you’re doing it for digital media, and, and, and listicles. So you’re trying to you’re trying to please a lot of different people at the same time. And so we try to be conscious of all those things. And, and, and so that’s, that’s sort of part of the filter. And you’re also thinking about actually two other categories, you’re thinking about your peers and your competitors, and what they’re doing. And you’re you’re both acknowledging trends in the food world, but you also don’t want to mimic what everyone else is doing. Because you you want to have something that is competitive, and individual and creative that makes your your establishment worth going to. And you also have a chef who works very, very hard, in most cases, or probably in every case, working 10 1214 hours a day. And this is their form of creative expression. And you want to honor that and give them room to be creative, because it’s actually one of the few perks of that job. At the same time, you want to be conscious of general food trends right now, I would say that, that, certainly in New York City and other major metropolitan areas, there’s a real craving for authenticity. And, and, and assertive flavors people want particularly I think, in part, maybe fueled by the pandemic, and people’s inability to travel, that that food serves as a kind of a surrogate. And so if I can’t go to France, or India, or wherever it is, I at least I want to taste it. And so they don’t want muted flavors, they don’t want water down. Fusion, they want the real deal. So that’s important. The cost of ingredients is absolutely critical. And, and with sort of the beaten to death subject of supply chain issues, some products are just unavailable or at a price point that makes him prohibitive. And so you need to factor that in and in some cases, you still go forward with them because they’re so so closely identified with your brand and your ethos and others you need to find substitutes. So I could go on and on but there’s there’s a lot of things that are going into the thinking of a menu before it goes out there.

 

Will Bachman 14:21

So it seems like you could you know, sub you know, you have to balance all those different interests you could optimize on how’s it how’s it gonna look on Instagram but you might be sub optimize other places. Talking about staffing a little bit what’s been going on and in your conversations with restaurants about staffing user to hear about, you know, its restaurants having difficulty hiring people, what have you been seeing?

 

Stan Sagner 14:50

It’s it has the dynamic has changed, and it’s changed for a number of reasons. One is that there are people who have simply left the industry that they’ve they’ve, you know, in New York, they’ve moved back home because they were stuck with high rent and working for a restaurant that, despite its best efforts, wasn’t reliably open or wasn’t open at all. So, so there’s, there’s a whole talent pool that has has left, hopefully not for good, but there, there, it’s certainly been diminished. There’s a pool of people that with experience who want a different experience than they’ve had before, and, and it’s a reset, that is an opportunity, but also a challenge that they want to be treated better they want some of the benefits that they see white collar workers getting in terms of, you know, did certain things that white collar workers take for granted, like, health insurance and, and, and time off and, and, and sick days. And, and, and, and, and all sorts of other things. And they also want to work in a culture that is far more compassionate than historically, restaurants have, often tended to be not always, but they are very high pressure. Places where people work very hard in the work is both mental and physical. And, and, and there’s a real desire for that to be rationalized, and, and moved into a place where that kind of work is more sustainable. And, and I think that that’s happening, and there’s certainly plenty of restauranteurs that are taking it very seriously, some of them started before the pandemic, some have always been doing it and some have, have heard the call. And, and simply, you know, because of competitive issues, they need to pay more, they need to treat their people better, and they’re doing it. And I think that’s a good thing. And I hope it continues. It makes these places, better places, happier places to work, it’s, it translates into a better experience for the guests. And, and it leads to less turnover, which means that that the the employees that are there are taking pride in what they do. They feel loyal to their, to their establishment and to their guests. So but, but that does impact the jack, and customers need to be aware of that, that they’re paying more there’s a reason for it. And it isn’t, it has nothing to do with the greed of the restaurant or right now they’re they’re barely getting by.

 

Will Bachman 18:01

Yeah, one area that I’m intrigued by is your work with developers that are looking to add some kind of food component to the development. Could you give us a few examples of that? What what that’d be would be apartment building or a mall? Or? Or an airport? Or what sorts of developers? Are you working with? Walk walk us through a couple case examples?

 

Stan Sagner 18:27

Sure. Um, so I’m working with a few at the moment. One is, is it’s an overseas developer, that is planning a it’s a very, very large scale development of essentially a plan city. And they’re looking for concepts that are not homegrown it food concepts that are both fine dining and fast casual, that can be exported. And, and replicated there. And, and the sorts of things that they’re looking for are are things in the plant based space in the ethnic space, and they’re enter and there seems to be a strong interest in nostalgic or sort of pseudo nostalgic Americana. And so what I’ve been asked to do is identify brands that could be standalone or multi unit, that that the the essence of that brand could then be essentially bottled and taken overseas and then recreated there, but there’s a lot of work that happens between the identification of the Brandon opening the doors because you need to often adapt the menu and the workflow and, and the space and the staffing to the idiosyncrasies and the limitations of, of your host country. So that’s that’s one example. Another is, I was recently contacted by a boutique hotel in New York City, and they’re looking to add a food component, they’re looking for an operator, which I’m not, but I’m going to put them together with an operator. But but but the interim step is to conceptualize an experience that makes sense for the space and for the clientele. And that includes, you know, what if they’re their business, or leisure travelers, whether it’s sort of mid priced or for or boutique sort of high price, what the competitive environment is in the neighborhood, of what other restaurants that are out there, what, what is sort of unique and interesting, that can help market, the hotel, as well as thinking about a room service component, and a menu that can be adapted easily enough to, you know, to the guest who shows up at 11 o’clock, because their flight is late, and they just want a cheeseburger or something, or something close enough to that. So we’re in early stages on that project, but I’m, I’m looking forward to it. Because I think there’s, there’s a lot of moving parts, but it could be a lot of fun.

 

Will Bachman 21:45

See more about that kind of multiple choice options for of designing and experience at a boutique hotel. Maybe maybe you could give us sort of some examples of what a final outcome might be from, from either real life or potential answers to that whole question of where you might land. You know, like,

 

Stan Sagner 22:10

I think, candidly, this is this is somewhat new to me, but um, some drawing from personal experience that’s informing how I’m working with this client. But But what historically, hotel food has been viewed as sort of as a second tier experience, that hotel is required to have a restaurant because its guests need it. It’s it’s it’s not it’s not given first priority. And and it’s an it’s it’s almost like a little bit of a stepchild in the industry where really ambitious chefs don’t want to go to a hotel, because it feels like a step down. It’s almost roughly analogous, sort of pulling from my, my former career of, you know, movie stars don’t work in television. And we know that that’s changed and and this is this is in the in certainly in the process or has already changed in the world of hotels hotels are this goes back to Ian schrager. And Steve rebell, in in the 80s, and 90s, making hotels destinations and, and social and cultural meeting places and, and making them sort of hip, places that people wanted to be. And so there isn’t any, there, there shouldn’t be any disparity towards towards the hotel restaurant, and I think you’re able to attract really talented chefs to do really interesting things. And being in a hotel is and there’s no disadvantage to it. And so, so, so, so we’re taking that approach is, let’s, let’s look at this almost as the anchor tenant, as being a destination restaurant, not just for the guests of the hotel, or for the neighborhood, but for the city at large. And, and this is a place that a serious reviewer would consider and that is is in contention for the same accolades as any other restaurant. So, so that’s component one. And then and then you have the practical concerns of, you know, people who are staying at the hotel need to have breakfast before they go to their meetings or before they go to the airport. People want to have food in the room. So, so a room service component is is is necessary, but can can be tricky to weave into a fine dining experience. And then you have all sorts of other You know, other other support services that you may need to provide grab and go and things like that?

 

Will Bachman 25:09

What are some things that are tricky about room service? You know, for hotel

 

Stan Sagner 25:17

the hours for one, I mean, you’re basically needing to, you’re needing to, depending on how you run the business, be able to be on demand for customers, you know, in some cases, 24 hours a day, and you need to staff accordingly, you need to have a menu that that is functional that way that, you know, that they what’s called the, you know, when you fire something in its restaurant lingo for, you know, from the time that it’s ordered to the time that it’s cooked or prepared to put on the plate delivered. And, and you want to, you want to think very carefully about that, that operational flow, from the time that that customer calls in the order. Yeah, you know, how many ingredients are there? How long does it take to prepare them? How long does it take to plate it? Does it look appetizing, then it has to be delivered to the room? Does it degrade during that time. And so there’s, there’s a lot of factors built into that. And that’s part of the reason why room service menus are so simple, often add, because, you know, you don’t want to have 20 dishes to choose from. And you, you don’t want to have food go to waste. And you also don’t, you need to have, you know, the person that’s on a 2am be able to make the dish as well as the person that’s on at 6pm. And so it’s often dumbed down. And, and there’s efforts to, to make things a little more interesting to add more flavor to add a little more complexity, but, but by and large, you want to keep those things fairly simple. And another thing is, going back to our earlier conversation about menus Is that too much choice actually can work against you, in that there’s guests can get overwhelmed. Um, this has been empirically proven that the more choice you give, beyond a certain point becomes paralyzing. And people don’t know what to decide, and they don’t know what to choose, so they don’t choose anything.

 

Will Bachman 27:55

And so I’ve heard there’s optimal number is like six or seven or eight or 10, or something, something in that order that sort of

 

Stan Sagner 28:03

I again, I think it depends, but but that sounds about right. And, and again, that that I draw from my experience in television, that there was this move for, for in before streaming, that more channels meant more choice. And that was a better experience for, for for viewers. But what happened was that and it was proven over and over and over again, that we went from 40 channels that you get channels to 200 to 500. But the actual number of channels that people watched, in terms of their sort of heavy rotation, maybe would increase by one or two, and never really got beyond 13 or 14. And so, you know, giving people ate desserts to choose from, is not really it’s doing them a disservice. And so you want to hit certain flavor notes and certain sort of century buttons of, you know, try to make sure you have something that’s chocolate, have something that’s kind of decadent, have something that’s kind of fruity and fresh, but, but and always sort of staying within the, the, the mission of the chef, but But you don’t you don’t want to you don’t want to create more than you need to.

 

Will Bachman 29:35

Fantastic. Stan, if listeners wanted to follow up with you or find more about your your work in your firm, where would you point them online?

 

Stan Sagner 29:44

Um, I would point them to believe it or not. My my general email address. I’m in the midst of launching a new one but it isn’t ready yet. So it’s just a stagner@gmail.com

 

Will Bachman 29:57

Great. We’ll include that in the show notes. Stan It was fascinating having this dive through restaurants and food development and thanks so much for joining today

 

Stan Sagner 30:10

was my pleasure

 

30:11

thanks

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