Over the weekend, we found a new restaurant to try. It was not newly opened, just that it has not popped up on our gastronomical radar until now.
Why write about it? Well, because it is Spanish. And we love authentic Spanish food – which is hard to find outside of Spain. To be even more specific, this restaurant specialises in Basque food. It so happens that over the summer, we were on a road trip around the north of Spain, and we had enjoyed great eats throughout the Basque Country, so that added to our excitement.
The restaurant was chic and modern. When we arrived, there was only 1 table occupied. I heard Spanish being spoken amongst the staff – that’s always a good sign. Soon the restaurant quickly filled up.
Just as we were chatting over drinks, a smartly dressed man approached. We thought he was one of the guests from the other table. Without any introduction, he stood in front of us for a good three seconds before asking if we were ready to order. The initial interaction was odd, but we simply assumed he must be the owner, given how he was dressed differently from the other staff.
I asked enthusiastically about their specialty – txuleta, well known aged beef in the Basque region, and how it will be cooked. He corrected me, saying it is txuleton, singular. All right, I did not know we were splitting hairs over grammar.
“Ok fine, how is your txuleton cooked then?” we asked. Instead of answering our question, he launched into why their txuleton was special, without explaining why it was special. He merely repeated how this was a unique dish in the restaurant and if we were interested, we should try.
We had to stop him to let him know that we were familiar with the Basque Country and its cuisine. We just wanted to know how the beef will be cooked. Is it over a fire or…?
Again, we were interrupted and the conversation went nowhere, because he began name dropping, telling us which area this beef came from. And it was a special dish of the restaurant, so it was worth trying.
There was no connection, no engagement, and definitely no coherent communication. But it did start to get awkward.
Finally, when asked once again how will the beef be cooked, he replied, “Just like in Spain. With salt and pepper.”
I could see my partner trying to stifle a laugh. The answer was totally unexpected, because we just wanted to know the cooking method, such as either grilling over fire or à la plancha; or in a more conventional way, on a pan, in an oven. We wanted to know because it mattered to us how the beef would eventually taste. But the man seemed not to grasp any of that. I did feel like we were being treated like idiots, which was annoying but also amusing.
At this moment, I had to wonder if this person was the owner, or if he was even Spanish, or Basque. There was no humour, no warmth, nothing friendly about this interaction. And it continued so for the rest of the evening, which led us to question how authentic the food would be, and caused us to regret ordering the most expensive dish in the restaurant as our main course.
From the other tables, we did hear one of the Spanish staff engaging more with the other diners. She told them about her life growing up in south of Spain, and explained to two elderly diners the difference between normal jamon and a bellota jamon. The diners were delighted to finally understand the difference.
Then, the meat was served. What was surprising was that the txuleton was delicious! It was just like what we had in San Sebastian. Steak cooked to perfection, well seasoned and well charred, juicy and flavourful. We did observe from the open kitchen later that there was no fire nor coals, but there was a plancha grill and the steak was put in the oven for a while before being served. The man disappeared after that, never coming back to check if we liked the steak or if we found it “special” just like he had repeated incessantly.
What a missed opportunity!
The food was good, and I believe diners would be curious to know more about the authentic ingredients that were being used. Wine lovers would appreciate the chance to hear how different the Spanish wines are, and why they would go well with the food. All these would lead to more sales, and converting more diners into regulars. However what the staff did was simply to highlight the surprise set meals and how it worked. There was no one to weave a story for inquisitive diners about Basque cuisine, no one to highlight the authentic Basque dishes, no one to explain why the restaurant had decided to take a bold step in offering txuleta, which is not so well known outside of Spain, yet if you love steak, it certainly could not be missed. Despite the higher price, it was everything a food lover could ask for – and would pay for.
This is an example of how businesses sometimes neglect or underestimate the power of their authenticity. They miss the opportunity to leverage on it and use it to tell a compelling stories for the customers. You would associate Spain with passion and warmth, but the experience in the restaurant felt nothing like that. I could also imagine how if more people knew about how authentic this restaurant is through the story they could have constructed, it would attract more customers.
A spokesperson is essential in conveying the value of your brand. It could be the owners themselves, it could be a mâitre d, it could simply be all the other staff and cooks working there. Everyone should be educated in the company’s brand story and be ready to use that to engage with each guest. Because dining in a restaurant is not only about eating, it is an experience, and each diner inevitably becomes a part of the food story. These customers will go on and tell others about how great their experience was, or how awful it had been.
To achieve success in F&B business, it is as important to serve good food, as it is to provide an extraordinary experience. This restaurant has nailed the food part, and it is lucky that no competitor has come along yet to contend the reputation for offering authentic Basque cuisine. Perhaps that is only a matter of time before someone comes up with a good story for that.