Ep 172: Restaurant Talk With Travis Talbot

publication date: Aug 29, 2022
author/source: Jaime Oikle with Travis Talbot

Travis Talbot

Good one on tap for you... Jaime gets with was great having Travis Talbot, Principal & Lead Strategist of Hospitality Arts. The two circle around a variety of restaurant topics including...

  • Market niches
  • Hooks & how they set you apart
  • Company culture and positioning
  • Social media tips
  • Menu engineering
  • The COVID Catalyst
  • Removing friction points
  • and more...

Lots of good stuff in this one...Check out the episode...and article version below...

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Link: Hospitalityarts.group

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Jaime: Travis, let's start with your job title on LinkedIn. It says, "hospitality polymath, master planning strategist, concept creator, experiential designer, performance coach, and trend analyst." There's a lot there...

Travis: You really could put all that under one header and just say restaurateur. But when you're on LinkedIn, you've got to be a little bit braggadocious to stand out. The number one thing that I would put forward in saying what I bring to the table, and what we offer our clients is strategy. There isn't a single role in hospitality that I haven't played at some point in time, other than an accountant. I started in the industry at the age of nine, working for my mom at a diner as a dishwasher. I've worked all the way through every role that's been available from being a bouncer at university, to Front of House Manager, to bartending, to DJ, to culinary in the back of the house. It's good because it allows me to look at projects from quite a few angles and perspectives.

The Success Formula...

Jaime: You say that your formula for success is a "combination of sociology, behavioral economics, EQ, HQ, scar tissue, and a few breathtaking bottles of Cabernet." That's quite a recipe there!

Travis: We looked at the projects that we really pulled off well and found out what we had done that contributed to that success. Scar tissue is straightforward - putting your time in and learning from mistakes along the way. I always tell clients there's nothing they could say to offend me. There's nothing that's going to shake me; I've got the "scar tissue." We've also got the emotional intelligence (EQ) - we can read the room. We're in tune with what's going on with today's workforce. We have hospitality quotient (HQ) which means we help clients define what hospitality means to them. The best insights we get from our restaurant operators happen when we sit down in the restaurant having a meal and lowering the defenses by having a few glasses of wine. So that became our model.

Project Types...

Jaime: Let's talk about a typical project - what are some of the things your firm does?

Travis: We're definitely 360, with the exception of accounting, but our main focus right now is our niche in the ski resort industry. The reason we've ended up there after doing Ma's and Pa's, chains, multi-unit concepts, and working with celebrity chefs is there's a real paradigm shift happening in the resort world. We call it the Vegas paradigm. The whole model of Vegas used to be debauchery, slot machines, and booze. Then they started losing their audience and had to reinvent themselves to appeal to a broader audience. So, they started to focus on food.

Traditionally speaking, the whole model of ski resorts has been the snow, the mountain, and the ski lifts. Eventually, they started realizing that part of the customer journey was food. You could have the best resort with all the amenities in terms of lifts, firepower, and groomed runs, but if when people get off the hill for something to eat and all they're offered is a hot dog and gas station food, it destroys your brand. So we saw that as an opportunity.

For the last six, seven years, we've been focused primarily on ski resorts. Within that we have the master-planning. How many pizza places should they have? Do they need a fine dining operation? What kind of menu offerings should they have? Do they have any niche offerings or hooks? Are they being sustainable? How are they sourcing their products? We help with efficiencies, ergonomics, back-of-house design, recommendations on equipment, streamlining menus, and working through the mechanics. So that's where we do most of our work and we put that all under the header of master-planning. We do a lot of menu engineering. We use Behavioral Economics, Psychology, and Sociology to think about why we are doing this menu. Why are we presenting this offering? How does it resonate with the guests? Is it something that you guys are just slapping on the menu because the food and beverage director likes it or is it something that resonates with the customers? We've put a lot of thought into how the guest is thinking and how we can resonate and create emotional value with the guests.

The Importance of Hooks...

Jaime: I want to go back to the word "hooks." My buddy Roger always says a restaurant can't have enough hooks — things that pull you in. How do you think about hooks?

Travis: They're mandatory. Growing up, every restaurant had something specific they offered that brought in customers. It was, "Hey, we have to go to Billy T's on Tuesday night because it's Peking duck night and it takes two days to prepare the Peking duck.." For me, the hook is the reason why are people are going to your restaurant over all the restaurants around you. Nowadays, everyone's doing trends, but no one's actually investing in their hooks. I look at Mike's Pastry on Hanover street, you can get a cannoli in every second restaurant in Boston, but people line up for hours at Mike's. That's their hook. How they make their cannolis, the size, how they box it and twine it. I think that every restaurant should have that compelling dish that they've crafted and mastered. It should be better than everybody else around them. They're known for it and they should market the shit out of it. When you turn a guest into an ambassador, you know you've done your execution on that product well. You've told a good story, and people are not only buying into the story, they're sharing it.

"Marketing Starts In-house..."

Jaime: Let's talk about marketing, branding and culture. What do you think?

Travis: When I was working in Vancouver for this guy named Roger Gibson, his line for everything was "marketing starts in-house." Your most valued people are your staff! I think that has been lost. Everyone's talking about "The Great Resignation." When I look at that, I think those operators didn't treat their people right. If you're losing people, you're a bad marketer in terms of how you're communicating your brand and how you're massaging your culture. Culture is a marketing vehicle as well. In Alberta, there's a famous chain called Earls. They've never been short on staff in the 30 years that I've known them. They just are never hurting for staff. You never see a "Help Wanted" sign or desperate Indeed ads. Good marketing is treating your people well and having a phenomenal culture. Then they will do marketing for you.

One thing we ask is "hey, listen, are you running a business of hostility or a business of hospitality?" What are your policies on scheduling? What are your policies on time off? What are your policies on sick leave? One reason I got into hospitality was schedule flexibility. I could go to school and pursue my rodeo career (which was a disaster). I worked with all kinds of people and for everyone it was all about flexibility. To me, the first step in hospitality is to look out for your people, understand their lifestyles, and work around it. You just don't see that often anymore. It's become a very hostile environment.

There's another operation out of Canada called The Keg. They've been in business for around 50 years. Their ratio for marketing pieces is for every three times they talk about their food, two times they talk about their staff and what a great place it is to work at. Whereas the majority of operators only showcase staff when they are completely desperate for more manpower. Your people are your biggest asset and it should be about them, your culture, and what a great place it is to work. The hospitality quotient.

Menu Engineering...

Jaime: Yes! Big missed opportunity. Folks, take Travis' nugget there and act on it - do something this week with your staff. Feature them, Instagram them, do a video - have fun with it. Let's go a little bit more on the business side. You used the keyword menu engineering a little while ago. As prices are increasing and inventory problems exacerbate, shrinking the menu and finding profitable items can be a big deal. How do you think about it?

Travis: The whole team, meaning chef, sous chef, front of house manager, one of your strongest servers, and hopefully the owner, need to get together and dissect your menu. Then you can talk about engineering it. Where can we go up in prices? What products should we be swapping out? For instance, chicken wings went through the roof during COVID. Well, there's still chicken thighs. And there's things we can do with thighs. And they're dirt cheap, right? So we can do popcorn chicken or shredded chicken. There are all these options.

When someone says, "Hey, prices are going up, we're getting murdered," I think it's a bit of a bullshit excuse. If that's the case, then sit down and engineer your menu. Find out what you can change to bring up profits, and it doesn't have to be food. Let's say you've hit your ceiling on pricing. Everything you've got in the menu sells, which I don't buy, but let's just say that was the argument. Then let's move to your beverage category. There's a threshold with food for what you can charge. One being your market competitors, and two being that food is emotional and people get emotional about what they pay for food. But if you charge 25 cents more for a Bud Light, no one's losing their shit, right? If you charge $10 more for a high end super cab, the person that can afford that is not losing their mind there.

Your menu has to be engineered and streamlined. Everyone doesn't need an Applebee's menu. You don't need 190 items to be a successful operator to appeal to a large audience. You need to do a few things really well and then promote them. Have those be your hooks, promote them well, execute them well, and then romance them to your guests.

Restaurant Tech...

Jaime: Let's move to technology in general. What are your thoughts on restaurant tech? How are you integrating it into some of your projects?

Travis: We used to say that restaurants and hospitality are always first to be last when it came to technology. "We're a people business, we don't need that. We serve food and beverage." But there's better ways to do it. COVID obviously did a lot of damage and ruined a lot of businesses, but we also call it the COVID catalyst. Because of COVID, we saw so much technology suddenly come into the marketplace. We actually started to see operators, regardless of whether they were technology savvy or technology fearful, asking what pieces do we need? Is it the QR code? Is it online ordering? Do we need to clean up our social media? Technology is finally getting into the model and it's necessary. You've got to have better technology in the kitchen. RATIONAL ovens and Combi ovens can save two or three bodies. Having dishwashers that have alarms on them to make sure you're not burning through chemicals. Infrared ovens for consistency, the impinger ovens and even something as simple as doing the ordering tableside via iPad. It may lose some personality, but at least the order is going in correct and it's firing in the back correct. You have less mishaps and less comps. I'm hoping to see technology more and more. I'm not at the stage yet where I want my food delivered by a robot, but there are definitely better tech options now to help restaurants.

For example, one challenge for resorts is the cafeteria. Customers get food at different stations and by the time they've gone through the nightmare of paying, their food is cold. Technology to allow customers to pay through different mediums can help alleviate these pains. Whether it's through Apple Pay, debit, visa, or cash, technology provides a whole ecosystem that needs to be considered now.

Tech is about removing friction points. If you want a good guest experience and a higher guest check average you have to make it easy for your guests to enjoy the experience. The easiest way to blow it is at the end doing payment. When they just want to pay and get out, not having technology options can leave your customers frustrated and upset. I would say the number one piece of technology that people should be embracing is payment. Figure out multiple ways to allow customers to pay.

Jaime: Great stuff Travis. We covered a lot in a fun way. Send folks to your website & social sites.

Travis: Hospitalityarts.group is where we're doing most of our work right now, specifically in ski resorts. My handle on pretty much all the social networks is Travis Tbone Talbot.

Link: Hospitalityarts.group


Jaime OikleJaime Oikle is the Owner & Founder of RunningRestaurants.com, a comprehensive web site for restaurant owners & managers filled with marketing, operations, service, people & tech tips to help restaurants profit and succeed.