SME Interview with Matthew Cunningham , General Manager at Tribeca Tavern in Cary, NC

  1. Tell me a little bit about Tribeca Tavern. When it was established, the number of locations and who are the target customers.

Tribeca Tavern has been around in its current iteration for three years. The restaurant itself has been around for about seven or eight. We do locally sourced, homegrown, made from scratch burgers and things that go well with burgers. We do a lot of really good North Carolina seafood. We grind our own burgers. We own a brewery, which is the Mash House Brewery in Fayetteville. So those are our two primary locations. We also have a food truck, which just launched this fall, and a catering company that focuses primarily on weddings.

The target customers are primarily families in the Cary area. It’s a very family sort of town, lots of travelers, people who’ve moved here for jobs, and their families. A lot of teenagers, a lot of young kids.

What’s the number of locations?

Really just one, the Cary location but we are the owners of Mash House Brewing Company in Fayetteville so that would be a second location, and the catering and the food truck.

  1. How do you create product demand? Or, in other words, how do you recognize a gap between what people buy and what they really want?

In this respect, the restaurant primarily relies on customer feedback. We offer several methods for people to leave us feedback. The one we prefer obviously is face to face in person. And so we have a team of managers who, during the dinner service or the lunch service, are going out and visiting with the guests as they’re eating. So, we can take their feedback then and then when we hold our manager meetings, we can implement the things at that point.

We also have a marketing company who handles our social media, so we get a lot of feedback on social media, so we’re able to implement those things as well, and then they also handle all of our sort of, call it broadcast advertising, mostly email blasts. And then we get some feedback from those things as well.

The primary way that we know what the people want and how to change what we do, is through their direct feedback.

  1. How do you market the restaurant? What kind of advertising do you use to reach the right audience?

We do obviously a lot of person to person word of mouth. But again, our marketing company advertises all of our large events and all of our menu changes and all of our specials for us via email and our website. We also invest a lot in the community, so through charitable donations to things like silent auctions and charity functions, we’re able to bring a lot of people in that way, just by getting our name out as members of the community. And then people who want to support the community will follow that road to us.

Do you do print or radio advertising?

No radio, very limited print advertising. Occasionally we’ll do a mailing, some signage at our catering events. You know, we do a lot of things, for example Cary Tennis. When they’re having their large tournaments, like the Atlantic Tire Championships, we’re out there over a week every day. And we’ve got our truck out there with the branding on it, and we’ve got our signage out there and then we have our employees out there in their branded Tribeca Tavern uniforms and they’re serving and so people can go there and they can either order our food through the concession stand, or they’re present at an event that we’re serving, and they see our name and if they have a good experience, they’ll come in that way. That’s the closest thing to print advertising that we do.

  1. Do you advertise more around the holidays and other special occasions?

Yes. The holidays are our busiest time of year. So, leading up to that for example, we go through and will look at all of our previous holiday reservations from the year before and contact all of those people. Grass roots sort of marketing. So we start by taking the people that have already been here and then going from there based on referrals.

  1. Does Tribeca Tavern host or participate in any public events such as festivals, fundraising, on a regular basis?

Absolutely. We do trade shows and food shows. We do city festivals, when they have parades or things downtown, we’ll send a booth out and be serving our food out there. But with the implementation of the food truck, we’re also participating in a lot of food truck rodeos. We’re also going out to local breweries that don’t serve food and trying to do work with that relationship, where the people will go to the brewery or to the bar and have their drink and then they get hungry and we’re right there to get their food.

So, the food trucks are a great tool for that, for getting out into the community. We do tons of charitable donations for like I said, for silent auctions and things like that.

  1. How often does the restaurant participate in such events?

I would say multiple engagements a month, and with the food truck that’s growing to multiple engagements per week, which is very nice.

As far as things that we organize ourselves, really the central things there are our themed dinners. So, actually next week we’re doing a Mash House Beer dinner, where we have blasted everyone on our email list, and we’ve put up our signage, and we invite people to come and just sort of sample things that are in the style of what we do. You know, we make the multi-course menu from scratch of things that are not on our regular menu, maybe we’re trying out new ideas, maybe it’s sort of direction we want to go but we’re not sure how the public’s going to take it. We use these as an opportunity to kind of test those things out. And we’ll do those four or five times a year.

  1. In your opinion, what social events are the most effective in creating brand awareness?

The food truck is, from what I’ve seen in its very short time with us, we’ve only had it a couple of months, but it is showing amazing promise. For example, our first engagement we made a projection of, I think we projected $300 in sales the first night with the food truck. Tried to keep it modest. We ended up over double that in our first engagement.

It’s also increased since we’ve launched the food truck and released all the publicity about that, we have seen 50 or so percent growth in private dining inquiries for the holiday season, so I mean that’s all very promising.

  1. How often do you update the menu and prices?

At least once a year. We try to be more seasonal. We do have several tools in place that we can use to keep us seasonal without having to change the menu. We train our servers to go through different features. We do a chicken feature that changes once a week, we do a burger that changes once a week. We change our soups regularly. So that offers us the opportunity to kind of tweak and play with the menu without having to actually go through the trouble of reprinting and retraining the entire staff every few months. But at least once a year we overhaul the menu completely.

  1. How do you handle customer complaints and show customer appreciation?

The most important thing in handling a customer complaint is remembering that they are the ones who keep us floating. So, when a customer has feedback to offer, it’s important to take it seriously, and it’s important to treat them as though they are right. There’s that old saying ‘the customer is always right’ and it’s very rarely true, but you have to treat them as though they’re right, you have to make them feel like a guest and make them feel appreciated. And so the most important thing is to not contend with their feedback, but rather thank them for it. And explain to them how you’re going to implement it. And that’s something that I do when I do receive negative feedback, I go into great detail in my response to the guest. I go into great detail about how we’re going to address these issues.

Do you have a person who curates social media, and keeps track of complaints?

That’s sort of a two-person process. So our marketing company receives the negative feedback first. And they have a software set up that when they receive it, it sends a message to all the managers here because it’s negative feedback we received. So, they’re the ones who receive it, and they’re the ones who keep track of it. On Facebook particularly, they also will respond to these complaints sometimes. But primarily, the person responding to the complaints is myself, or the Director of Operations, or if it’s something that is related to catering, the Catering Director will reply to those. But it’s important to make sure that the person who’s responding is the person who can accurately answer the question. Because you don’t want to have someone just responding to feedback with an apology and no substance. So, it’s important to make sure that the person who’s responding to feedback knows what they’re talking about.

And what about showing customer appreciation, how do you do this?

We have a few things. We have a rewards card, which has been in operation for years, and we’re actually talking to this new company about a different sort of rewards process, but our existing rewards card is a thing where a guest accumulates points the more they dine here. And so that makes them feel appreciated. Anybody who’s signed up for that also gets in on our mailing list, so they’re receiving regular updates from us letting them know that we’re thinking of them and that we want them to know what’s going on here, because we want them to come back.

In addition to that, the rewards card also affords them a gift the month of their anniversary, and a gift on their birthday. And so that adds sort of a personal touch. Yes, we know when your anniversary is. Yes, we know when your birthday is. Yes, here’s something for it, you know? And that really makes people feel appreciated. It is a double edged sword, however. Because when, maybe there was an issue with the computer system and that’s not responding the way it’s supposed to, and maybe people aren’t accumulating the points the way they’re expecting to. They can get very upset and so again, it’s just about sort of fielding those concerns and being able to deal with it.

A lot of times, we’ll reward people for loyalty in other ways. We do trivia on Wednesday nights and the people who know about trivia come up for trivia and it gets really competitive, and then they win a prize. And the prize is always a discount off their next visit.

If we have people who leave negative feedback and their feedback is productive, we’ll leave them a gift card and that’s good for their next visit and you know, we’re trying to reward people, not only for being loyal, but for being honest. And when they come to use with feedback we can use, we want to reward that because we want them to know that hey, we don’t think of this as a complaint, we think of this as a tool to help us get better.

  1. What strategies do you use to accommodate growth in the restaurant?

That’s really the hardest part because when a restaurant is growing, you need more staff. And quality restaurant staff, because the restaurant industry is such a large and diverse and thin spread industry, finding quality staff can be very difficult. So the number one thing that we look for when we’re thinking about growth is finding the right people to put in the right places, to be able to accommodate growth.

It very, very much helps to have an intern. Internship affords people the opportunity to get in and work and learn because they want to, not because they need to pay the bills. Finding people that have that motivation is very, very important.

That’s really the hardest thing because you can always order more groceries and you can always accommodate more people, we time reservations so that we’re maximizing our dining room. We put people in two-hour reservation windows, so that we can seat someone at 5, and then again at 7, and then again at 9 and get three turns out of that table. The organization is probably the second most important thing. Beyond that, it’s all preparation. So the most important things are staffing, organization, and preparation.

When we’re thinking about growth, we get out, we recruit the right people, and we train those people to be organized and prepared.

Let’s say that for the last two-three weeks you have a lot of people standing in the hall waiting to be seated because you don’t have enough seating. And maybe it’s time to expand. What will you do? I guess it’s very expensive for the restaurant to decide to expand the number of seating.

It’s very expensive. Right. So, there’s a degree of sort of cost method analysis that goes on. For example, the building that we’re in currently seats 300 or so people. Upstairs is empty. There are no walls, there are no floors, but there’s an entire floor of space above us. So, we could literally double our size. More than double our seating capacity.

So, we have to think about okay if we want to expand, how much is it going to cost? So, to refurbish that space up there and make it a finished, usable restaurant space, probably three quarters of a million dollars. And so we have to think about how long it’s going to take us to recoup that, and how much of that recuperation is going to be the result of the upstairs space and not just maintaining where we are now. So, that is probably the most direct sort of growth preparation. And it’s again like outrageously expensive so we have to – it’s a very long process considering something like this.

But other things that we can do like, for example, that we’ve already done are the catering business and the food truck, right? So, we can have say if somebody contacts me and says “Hey, we want to have our wedding at your restaurant.” Oh well, I’m sorry the private dining rooms are all booked that day. There’s nothing I can do, I can’t accommodate that. But, we have a catering company if you have another venue, perhaps we can provide the food for you. And then they’re like “Well, yeah actually I can do that.” So now, we’re feeding another 150 people that don’t ever have to set foot in this restaurant. We call it good sales and we receive all of the benefits of a positive experience; the word of mouth, the repeat customers, and so this is sort of an incremental way to get to what you’re talking about.



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