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January 22, 2004
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FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Restaurant Success

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When I first heard of the closing of the Wild Sage Cafe, my first feeling was one of sadness, even though I always found the food less-than-inspirational. But when both locations went out of business, I started thinking about why.

What I came up with I'll call an open letter to the restaurants of Las Vegas. It is my take on what makes and breaks, a restaurant that operates on the sweat and vision of it's owner, not some group of accountants and food efficiency experts in Atlanta.

Dear Mr. and Ms. Restaurant owner,

What's the first thing a customer notices about a restaurant? I know you're going to say it's ambiance or the fantastic kitchen smells or maybe that fabulous menu you spent months designing and fretting over. No, the first thing people notice is the name and the sign. If they can't see the sign, they can't read the name. And if they can't see or understand the name - something obscure like ''Town'' or ''Match'', Or ''Elavie'' or ''Culturari'' may work in L.A. - but not here in the food boonies. Names like ''Atlas'' or ''Chimchurin'' confuse and frighten potential customers and they talk themselves out of trying you out. And if the name is difficult to pronounce - like the otherwise fine Cafe Vigne in Green Valley - I can suggest several good bankruptcy lawyers.

So signage is important - REAL important. Get a good simple design, spend some real money, and get it out to the road where people driving from both directions can see it. The McDonald brothers figured this out in San Bernardino sixty years ago, but sweet little Wild Sage, decided to open in a space that no one, including the previous two owners, thought to place a visible sign upon.

After seeing and feeling invited to your restaurant, people have to walk into it. This is more intimidating than you think. The success of chain restaurants rests mainly in their ability to make people comfortable, and ease the anxiety factor that all of us, including an old road-food warrior like me - feels when first entering an unknown place. Two rules apply: the fancier you are the more you should fawn over every customer, and everyone should get a sincere smile and a seat, immediately - watch any busy Asian place OR the Outback for that matter.

Next get a menu that's easy to read...the Wild Sage always failed miserably on that score, and your halfway home. Service is important too, but you can't serve those who are not there. Nothing about food you say? Heck, that's the easy part. Just look around. People will eat anything. Sirio Maccioni once said that he wasn't in the food business, he was in the hospitality business. All of you should take that clue from the gastronomic godfather's mouth.

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