As Venga’s cofounder and Chief Evangelist, I witness first-hand how restaurateurs differentiate themselves, and how the best stand out from the pack. I’ve been fortunate enough to watch hospitality titans around the world provide intensely personal guest experiences and treat every guest, not just their VIPs, like Norm from “Cheers.” In fact, that’s why Venga exists.
Here’s the story. In 1993, Rob Wilder and his partner José Andres opened their first restaurant, Jaleo, in downtown Washington D.C. Back then, they and their small trusted management team could be at the host stand and greet everyone by name. José knew who loved the corner table or craved the jurel con escalivada, while Rob always had a wine lover’s favorite bottle at the table waiting for them.
As their Think Food Group empire grew (now 27 locations strong), they couldn’t be at every location at the same time. That meant relying on General Managers to provide that extraordinary service diners had come to expect. And, as we all know, it’s rare (and a gem) to find a GM who stays at one place forever. So when a few GMs left, guess what – every detail about the restaurant’s guests walked out right with them.
Rob posed a challenge: “Can you clone José and me?” OK OK, he didn’t say that, but he did say, “we need a tool that matches OpenTable diner profiles to the point-of-sale so we can really get to know our guests and ensure that they get ‘the big hug of hospitality’ every visit, even if a rookie host is at the door. If you can figure that out, we’ll not only use Venga but invest in the company!” Rob’s musings became Venga’s “aha” moment and the core of what we do. He taught me a key lesson that has since become a theme in my discussions with countless restaurateurs:
Food and ambiance matter but, ultimately, what brings diners back and what breeds loyalty is the experience and how they were treated.
I’m excited to kick off a new series, The Road to Extraordinary, to give you the same front row seat to operators’ struggles, frustrations, and flaws that I’ve occupied at Venga. Luckily for you, this series will not lean on my hospitality experience to guide you. Prior to founding Venga, mine lasted a whopping three days – my best friend in college hired me as a bar-back, then fired me (probably because I was drinking the beer instead of restocking it).
Instead, I’ll be sitting down with Michelin stars, first-time restaurateurs, and a few guests out of left field (well, first base) like Washington Nationals All-Star Ryan Zimmerman, who is a part-owner of award-winning restaurant The Salt Line, and former President Obama’s Director of the National Economic Council Jeffrey Zients, who is co-owner of Call Your Mother (one of Eater’s 2019 best restaurants in America).
Through these chats, I hope you’ll learn as much as I do about their journeys, their setbacks and detours, and the secrets behind their triumphs. Along the way, they’ll share lessons and best practices you can bring to your own business.
The true utility of this experiment will be hearing from YOU about your problems, suggestions for interviews, and your own “aha” moments. You can enliven and help me shape this platform. I encourage you to email me at email@example.com.