Iron Chef Symon gets back to business

How a Cleveland restaurateur thrives in tough economic times.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Since claiming the coveted Iron Chef title in November, Michael Symon, chef-owner of Lola and Lolita in Cleveland, has had a jam-packed schedule full of travel and press interviews. But now, Symon says that things have "leveled off a little bit," and he's getting back to business as usual, planning for the year ahead and exploring new business opportunities.

However, with an economic recession threatening to crimp disposable income for many consumers, will U.S. restaurants suffer? While Lola continues to ride the post-Iron Chef wave, Symon mulls what other restaurateurs can do to inspire customer loyalty and dodge potential lean times ahead.

We haven't really felt the recession. For the most part, business has increased - it's been up 15% to 20% since Iron Chef, which is exciting. That's a good jump, especially for a restaurant that was really busy to start with. We feel extremely fortunate. An independent restaurant could never buy the publicity that we've been lucky enough to get for free.

However, we are trying to be responsible. Doing a second restaurant and other projects, we've learned to get better at planning ahead and keeping an eye on things. Obviously there's going to be peaks and valleys and we're trying to get better at planning for those. For example, we know that November and December are going to be the two biggest months of the year and then things might die down a little bit in January and February.

We're trying to keep all the numbers in line. The biggest focus is food costs, followed by labor. Labor is always going to get you.

Our food costs have spiked in recent years. The products are more expensive because gas is more expensive and it takes more money to ship them from one spot to the other. We always try to purchase locally as much as we can, which helps us a little bit. I think especially with gas prices the way they are now, it's not only the right thing to do for us, but it's also beneficial to the local farmers.

While buying local might not result in actual financial savings, the difference between buying local and not buying local has shrunk. For example, five years ago it was significantly more expensive to buy local strawberries than to buy California strawberries and have them shipped to Cleveland. Fresh chicken from a local farm used to cost twice as much as a Perdue chicken.

Those price differences have shrunk as gas prices have risen. Customers know that local products are a zillion times better. Plus they like supporting the local economy and local farmers, and it only costs a couple more dollars per portion instead of $8 or $9 more.

We're very fortunate. Our clientele has been very loyal to us for the past 11 years. The exposure from Iron Chef has been helpful, but at the end of the day your product and your service determine whether you get customers or not. If people decide to eat out less during a recession, the first restaurants that they will cut out are the ones that don't do a great job. So the pressure is even greater and it becomes even more evident that the strong are always going to survive.

How do we take care of our loyal customers? We try to make sure that customers that have been supporting us for years and years and years get preferred reservations. If they're in a pinch, we go above and beyond to make sure we get them into the restaurant, which is a big thing for them too. Occasionally we'll send out desserts, or buy them a cocktail; that's a small part of it.

It's also important to understand the likes and dislikes of your regular customers. Where do they like to sit? What are their favorite drinks and dishes? When we do our budget, we plan to give away X amount in food and beverages. It pays off in the long run, but only if you do it for the right people.

I tell my staff all the time, "Don't buy a drink for one of your buddies who comes in every seven years." If you're going to send out a cocktail or a little taste of food, make sure it's for the patrons who have helped us succeed for the past 10 years.

It's all common sense. You've got to make people happy in order for them to come back. The minute you forget that, that's when it's over. You've always got to work to your highest ability level. When times are great and restaurants are jamming, that's when some restaurants get sloppy and take things for granted. Never take things for granted.  To top of page

What do you think of Symon's customer-service tips? Are you a fan of Lola? Join our discussion.

Michael Symon: Iron Chef! FSB's correspondent triumphs in Kitchen Stadium.

Want to read Symon's own feedback on past episodes? Follow along on his behind-the-scenes blog.
Episodes 1-2
Episode 3
Episode 4
Episode 5
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