- A “restaurant whisperer” is a person who offers objective feedback on your business from the customer’s viewpoint, but it can’t be just anyone, says Billy Manzo, owner of Federal Hill Pizza.
- “The secret to building a successful business and brand is recognizing that you’re not perfect and doing something about it,” Manzo notes.
By Billy Manzo, Federal Hill Pizza
Independent restaurant owners miss out on roundtable brainstorming sessions—you know, when a board of directors or a project development team gets together and tries to figure out ways to better a business? Most owners are spending their days trying to stay in business. They’re in the kitchen. They’re dealing with suppliers. They’re trying to come up with engaging content for their social media platforms. There can be little time for brainstorming—and no board or managers to brainstorm with, other than a business partner.
Still, they need guidance—a person to tell them what’s happening on the front lines, to serve as an accountability partner. A person I like to call a “restaurant whisperer.”
What is a restaurant whisperer? This is a person (or people) who offers feedback on your business. But not just anyone. A restaurant whisperer should be:
- Professional: a leader in his or her field who understands what it takes to be in business.
- Personable: someone who is easy to talk to, but not necessarily a friend. Friends can be too sympathetic to your cause and don’t often give you their real opinions because they don’t want to hurt your feelings.
- An outsider: someone who is not in the restaurant business and can offer a unique and objective viewpoint. Other restaurant owners tend to be a little biased in the way they do things.
- Local: someone who “breathes the air,” who understands the people in your two- to five-mile radius.
- A customer: someone who knows your brand and product well.
- Unselfish: someone who is willing to take the time to give you advice without perpetually looking at their watch.
- Trustworthy: someone you can depend on. This can be a hard one to gauge. All I can suggest is to go with your gut.
How do you find a restaurant whisperer? In my experience, you probably already know a few worthy candidates. I’m sure you have one or two customers who visit your restaurant regularly and like to tell you their opinion—problems they notice that you haven’t had time to address.
I met my first restaurant whisperer 11 years ago, when I opened Federal Hill Pizza in Warren, Rhode Island. At the time, I didn’t feel I knew the consumer base in Warren—and in the neighboring Bristol and Barrington areas—as well as I should. I had a customer who was coming in regularly. Mike was a respected urologist in the community and a huge restaurant guy who loved pizza! He and his wife, who worked as a nurse in Boston, went out to dinner regularly. They had kids, were smart, had ties to the community, and knew the area well. They checked every box.
One day, when Mike came in for dinner, I approached him and said, “Doc, I have a proposition for you. Dinner’s on me once a month. I want you to come in, so I can talk to you and pick your brain.”
“You don’t have to buy me dinner,” he said.
“No, I’m going to buy you dinner because I’m hiring you,” I said. After all, what was this going to cost me? A mere $250 a month retail? To get thousands of dollars’ worth of advice? It was a no-brainer.
He agreed, and we got started.
That first dinner lasted three hours. Mike and his wife were so excited that someone was asking them their opinion on a topic outside of the medical field. And the suggestions they gave me were such logical, common-sense ideas that I probably would have never thought of them!
Suggestion No 1: “You should give customers less food.” This one surprised me. Was it possible to put too much food on customers’ plates? “Where we live, on the weekends people are not big into leftovers,” Mike told me. “We work Monday through Thursday, so on Friday, Saturday and Sunday we want to eat out. If we bring home any leftovers, we’re not going to eat them, and the kids aren’t going to eat them—they’ll eat their own leftovers, but not ours—so the leftovers will probably go to the dog.” I’m dead serious. He was telling me straight, so we started putting less food on customers’ plates and haven’t looked back since.
Suggestion No. 2: “I love the pictures on the wall. You should have more.” More pictures? That’s going to make a difference? “Yeah,” Mike said. “I just want to see crazy pizza stuff on the wall.” I said OK and started putting all kinds of cool artwork on the walls. Sure enough, shortly after our conversation, I would walk around the dining room during operating hours and notice that when people sat down, they were chatting about the artwork: “What’s that? Look over there!” I couldn’t believe it. Then they would ask me questions about the pictures, and I would talk about the stories behind them, how they related to me and the restaurant. It became a wonderful bonding experience, and many of those customers became repeat customers!
Suggestion No. 3: “I love these rags!” During one dinner, Mike said to me, “I’m dying for a seafood fra diavolo with red sauce and linguine.” I said, “No problem. How saucy do you want it?” At the time we had white mappines, or dish towels, on the table—you know, the ones with the blue stripe? When I was a kid, we never used napkins. We used mappines. My wife and I would battle as to whether we should have mappines or paper napkins on the restaurant tables. Mike said, “Billy, I’m going to tuck this rag into my shirt. That’s how saucy I want it. Thank God you’ve got these rags on the table.” Mappines for the win! I no longer had to deal with putting 20 or 30 paper napkins on the table. (Years later, I had to eliminate the mappines, though, because of cost. And then came COVID, of course, which was the final nail in the mappines’ coffin.)
Suggestion No. 4: “You should put antibacterial soap in your bathroom.” At his medical office, Mike noticed that his patients had a habit of squirting antibacterial soap into their hands before he came into the examination room. He said my customers might appreciate antibacterial soap in the restrooms. And he was right. We blew through that soap like crazy!
Month after month, I was learning a little more about who my customer was. It was a wonderful growing experience. After four years, Mike and I ended our business relationship, but we became dear friends along the way. That’s the great thing about “hiring” a restaurant whisperer: You can end the arrangement at any time and begin working with someone else—as long as you don’t end the arrangement because you don’t agree with the stuff the whisperer is telling you. You can’t do that. You have to sit there and listen. Even if you don’t think the person is right, give it a day or two. You might realize there’s some value there.
Listen, I’m not perfect. (My wife likes to remind me of this.) But I know that the secret to building a successful business and brand is recognizing that you’re not perfect and doing something about it. And since we don’t have layers of management in what we do, we can create those layers by reaching out to the people around us.
As I always like to say: “Stay in your lane, and let others drive in the lanes you can’t occupy.” If you can do that, together, you will drive traffic.
Billy Manzo Jr. is a veteran restaurant operator and the owner/chef of Federal Hill Pizza, with locations in Providence and Warren, Rhode Island.