Restaurant Tech 101: Introducing His Royal Majesty The Sun King

The sheer size of the restaurant business attracts many a tech start up founder to build products that could tap into an industry so large. Restaurants in the USA account for over $709 billion in sales annually. That’s over $1.9 billion in sales a day. Around 14 million people are employed by restaurants. That’s 10% of the US workforce!

There are around 1 million restaurants in America but I’d like to tell you about just one place that is pretty typical and at the same time, exceptional.

There is a little French joint in Manhattan with white table cloths, rich dark wood chairs, deep red cushions and banquettes that could have been plucked straight out of Paris. The walls are adorned with huge framed prints of Toulouse-Lautrec inspired ads for Noilly-Prat Vermouth, Lillet and other obscure spirits that the clientele pretend to be familiar with. The lights shine dimly down on a black and white tiled floor and a marble bar top. Very classic, very French. The servers wear buttoned down white shirts, black pants, long butcher aprons and smug attitudes.

On every menu is a caricature of Louis XIV, The Sun King, drawn by some famous illustrator friend of the owner. The arrogant smile on the the high wigged visage of Europe’s longest reigning king matches exactly with the one worn by the ruler of the Upper East Side’s longest reining bistro. This is not a coincidence.

Every night, six times a week, exactly at nine o’clock sharp he steps out of a taxi and assesses his kingdom from the curb looking for anything out of place. He adjusts the daily specials sign in the menu box before he strides through the front door and in a booming voice announces, “Good evening all?” Did he mean it as a question? Will it be? The staff’s expressions go from smug to nervous.

He pushes past the people waiting at the host stand and the matre ‘d helps him with his coat. The King picks up the reservation book, grabs a pencil, and with a flourish erases a name and flicks away its remains. “That one doesn’t dine here ever again.” No one dare ask why. He declares that he’ll take his dinner at the window table. The waiter in that section begins to sweat and immediately starts to go over the specials in his head. All of his other tables will be neglected so he could give His Highness complete devotion.

The waiter is graded on how he presents the specials, quizzed on ingredients and judged on over all worth. Food is sent back to the kitchen to be re-made for no apparent reason. Bottles of wines are “sampled” again and again and again. The waiter is granted a taste of a particular vintage and is asked for his opinion only to be informed that his palate is too oafish. Then more “sampling”. The criticisms are always blunt and frequently cruel but a bruised ego is a small price to pay for the privilege of serving The Sun King.

This display only last for about an hour. Sometimes there is berating, sometimes tears or even an occasional pat on the back, but after a brief one sided screaming match with the chef, The Monarch breezes through the dining room, pausing briefly to share a red stained smile with a few regulars. Then he is off into the New York City night leaving his waiter happy to still have a job. I was that waiter once. I endured his ire and was eventually deemed worthy enough to become a bartender. With a witty quip and a Negroni just how he liked it, I avoided his critical eye until I eventually decided to get the hell out of there.

So here’s some more numbers.

Seven in ten restaurants are single unit operations. The King had another spot downtown but he closed it when it became too much of a hassle to lord over both. Eight in ten restaurant owners started their careers in entry level positions. The King was once a lowly waiter at a theater district spot that still stands to this day. And nine out of ten restaurants have less than fifty employees just like the little kingdom on the Upper East Side.

So here’s the moral to the story kids.

If you think that you’ve got an App, or a SaaS or the next big tech idea that’s going to help a king run his or her kingdom any better, you’d better come correct! Like I said at the top, this is just the story of one restaurant. There are literally a million other kingdoms. Some kings are kind and some cruel, but make no mistake. They are KINGS and they rule!

This is not a fairytale.

The bistro is still there. I won’t be so crude as to mention it by name but it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out where it is. The food is overpriced and delicious. And I really don’t think His Majesty will care that I’ve written about him, not that he’d ever read this. He doesn’t own a cell phone or a television. The only computer you’ll find in his realm is an elderly PC in the microscopic office/supply closet/liquor room. There is no Point-of-Sales system. All the orders are on hand written dupes and all transactions are punched in on an ancient cash register. It’s clicks and rings keeping time until the return of the The King tomorrow night.

*** Stats are from the NRA website (http://www.restaurant.org/News-Research/Research/Facts-at-a-Glance)

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