From pop-up restaurants to secret eateries, guests are driving an increase in unique dining experiences. Follow their lead and bring a taste intrigue to your operation.
There’s a restaurant in Toronto that is accessible only through a hidden door in a comic book store. An eatery in Montréal that seats diners around an indoor wave pool. A country market in Coombs that serves food beneath a grass roof grazed by a herd of goats.
In an increasingly competitive landscape, these operators have devised creative ways to stand out. They’ve gone beyond food and service to offer a unique dining experience. And they’re not alone.
“It’s something of a trend,” confirms Denis Bourbeau, a Quebec-based Director of Marketing and Procurement for Gordon Food Service. “Much of it is being driven by younger generations, who have a sense of adventure about dining and seek experiences that they can share with friends and through social media.”
“They’re explorers,” adds Ontario-based Gordon Food Service Corporate Chef David Evans. “For them, it’s about discovering something different.”
But the appeal isn’t just restricted to millennials, says Murray Penner, a Gordon Food Service Director of Marketing and Procurement in Delta, British Columbia. “Boomers have the time, money and appetite to indulge in what can be pretty elaborate experiences.”
Indeed, when it comes to creating these out-of-the-ordinary concepts, the sky’s the limit—just ask the company that goes around Canada serving dinners at a 22-person table hoisted by crane into the open air, 46 metres above the ground.
Here are a few tips for serving up a unique dining experience.
Leverage your location
An unusual or unexpected site can create a sense of excitement. It doesn’t have to be as extreme as sky-high dining—Penner points to an Italian eatery located in a turn-of-the-century heritage home in downtown Vancouver, and Evans singles out a Toronto barbecue joint surrounded by factories and a car-wrecking yard. The fact that these spaces take some effort to find only adds to the allure.
Don’t have the luxury of a cool location? You can make any site more fashionable by adding an outdoor patio. “We have an obsession with outdoor dining here on the West Coast,” Penner says. “Use heaters to keep your space open in the winter.”
If al fresco dining isn’t feasible, consider taking your brand on the road via a food truck or pop-up restaurant.
Focus on fun
Exclusivity, secrecy, humour, nostalgia, even sensory deprivation—like serving meals in a pitch-black restaurant—are all worthy hooks to hang your concept on.
Evans speaks fondly of a Toronto pop-up concept that requires would-be patrons to write a letter requesting an invite to one of their dinners, all held in different locations. Bourbeau hails a chef and two friends who cooked and served meals in a small place that felt like their home. It’s all about having fun with the serious business of foodservice.
Penner acknowledges that fun can be scary to operators. “It takes courage to create something unique,” he says. “Think of it as giving your guests an entertaining story to tell about your restaurant.”
Guests will tell these stories on Facebook and other social platforms. So that’s where you need to be engaging with them. “You have to generate word of mouth to get people in the door,” Bourbeau says. “Social media is the best way to do that.”
Keep the online conversation going by providing plenty of “Instagrammable” opportunities—like the Pac-Man light installation on the ceiling of the aforementioned comic book-themed restaurant or the spectacular views from a rooftop patio.
Put food first
An effective social media program will get people into your restaurant—but it’s the food that will bring them back again and again. “In the final analysis, it’s all about the food,” Evans says. You can go wild with location, décor, ambiance and menu, “But you still have to deliver on the basics. Otherwise, you risk being a gimmick.”
“Unique” is a great asset for a restaurant to have—but quality, consistency and attention to detail will always separate an enduring success from a flash in the pan.
From pop-up eateries to private dining clubs to underground supper spots, secrecy is all the rage in foodservice these days. These venues are often a means for chefs and restaurants to explore dishes outside their usual repertoire, or to test the waters for new concepts
Evans says the cutting-edge fare typically served at secret restaurants appeals to hardcore foodies. “And discovering the secret makes them feel special.”