FACE IT: Food is America’s New Pastime
By Michele Willens
Think of it as Moneyball for the restaurant world.
Mixing dining with data, author and entrepreneur Damian Mogavero should have some serious impact with his lively new book, The Underground Culinary Tour. Just as major league baseball found new ways of assessing a player’s value, (On base percentage vs. homeruns, for example) Mogavero is using magical metrics to help restaurants attain success in the booming culinary arena.
“It’s a great time to be a foodie but a tough time to be a restaurateur,” Mogavero says. “For the former, good food can be found anywhere these days, from taco trucks to Terminal C at the Newark Airport to a Fort Greene Food Market under high-rise condos. But for owners and chefs, there is more competition than ever, with food, beverage, labor and real estate costs all going up.” Mogavero also points out that because people are into trendy tastes, they have become “disloyal urbanites,” meaning they are less likely to return to favorite places when there is always the next new one to try.
A graduate of Harvard Business School, Mogavero early on saw a need for offering technology tools to those in the hospitality world. He started a company called Avero, a software entity that provides insights to restaurants in order to spur profitability. Much of the information is included in the new book. “Where baseball managers have sheets with a player’s stats, we have server cards,” explains Mogavero. “We show a restaurant how fast they can turn a table, how to better train staff, and so on.”
For example, Mogavero’s expertise greatly helped an eatery in Montauk, which, due to seasonal weather, was only doing business a few months a year. Even on beautiful days, folks were lazy about leaving the beach. The restaurant devised a way of securing a boat to ferry hungry beachgoers directly to the restaurant. Take two helpings of big data and mix in a whopping cup of creativity.
Some of the top names in the business, such as Danny Meyer and David Chang, are fans. “Damian is helping to change the way we eat, one white tablecloth bistro, one meatball shop, one restaurant chain at a time,” says Meyer, who wrote the preface to the book. (Which has been on top of both the Entrepreneurship and Food lists) While it is aimed at the new generation of foodies, and those who serve them, Mogavero is now constantly asked to lecture, including to groups eager to apply his tricks of the techie trade to their own non-edible businesses.
While he clearly acknowledges using social media, he has some concern about its ability to generate instant food criticism, not always positive and often anonymous. “You never know if the person is a competitive or disgruntled employee,” he says, “or if they, in fact, ever set foot in the restaurant. We need more monitoring in that area.”
Overall, Mogavero is excited about the new emphasis on eating and serving well, and not just in the big cities. “We’ve seen good chefs going to secondary markets—like Minneapolis, Denver, Portland,” he says. “Palates have evolved and it’s never been a better time to eat out.” As for the future, he envisions virtual restaurants and more of a mobile experience. “It is possible that before too long, some customers may never set foot in a restaurant to enjoy it in a different way,” he adds. “There are some famous chefs who claim some food actually gets better as it is being delivered.”
The next David Chang and Danny Meyer will learn a lot from the The Underground Culinary Tour. Meyer still recalls how Mogavero helped when his empire was just getting under way with the first Union Square Cafe. “His information was critical to helping us improve our efficiency at purchasing ingredients, optimizing our menu mix, and ultimately preparing better meals for our guests,” claims Meyer. The rest is history.