Interview: Running your bistro as a tight ship

We spoke to Tazio Birraria Pizzeria and Cucina’s venue manager, Ray Zhang, to learn his top tips for getting your bistro ship-shape.

Understanding your limitations, budget and sorting through the most effective cost-to-plate techniques will put you in good stead for years on end.

There’s plenty behind the scenes creating a great bistro experience

It starts with the composition of a great menu. Then you need to refresh it regularly, and consider special offers for themed events.

Understanding your constraints, staying focused, and controlling input and output is the key to turning a profit.

Take it from the expert team at Tazio, one of Melbourne’s preeminent Italian cucinas, situated on thriving Flinders Lane.

What are your tips and tricks for creating a compelling bistro menu?

Ray: We always aim to make everything approachable by putting our own twists on the classics, but never anything too left field as it intimidates the casual bistro setting clientele.

When you combine this methodology, a team of fully trained chefs and quality ingredients, it’s hard to go wrong.

We were once caught out with our signature dessert of banana pizza with custard, praline and vanilla bean ice-cream, when the Queensland floods pushed banana prices over $25 per kilogram.

We committed to the dish, our loyal customers appreciated the gesture and it created a great talking point. The end result was that we factored in the higher cost of goods into our marketing budget and customers didn’t mind.

What is your advice for costing the menu?

Ray: We aim for an average of 30 per cent mark up as best practice across the board.

Although this is on the higher side of things, we do this for a number of reasons.

Firstly, it allows costlier items such as steak and fish to be more readily accessible. We found that pricing all meals under $30 (or perhaps $40 for some restaurants) makes our venue a place where diners can frequent multiple times at week.

Secondly, we factor in that our higher margin items such as pizza, salads and pastas will have a much greater volume due to daily promotion offers and lower overall starting price point.

Reinvestment into the business is huge, correct?

Ray: Yes. This helps the bottom line, and it helps keep staff happy and high-performing.

In terms of the venue, we prioritise repairs and maintenance, and purchasing of machinery to reduce or eliminate repetitive tasks. Among the best recent purchases is a reverse osmosis glass washer, which eliminates the need to polish all glassware and cutlery! The unit removes impurities in tap water, so everything dries streak-free.

Staff retention is another key factor in turning a profit. More experienced employees are able to operate more efficiently and have much greater selling capacity. So working conditions and culture is a smart investment.

Read more: The transformation of Club Condell Park

How often do you refresh your menu and why is that important?

Ray: We make a habit out of refreshing incrementally whenever an item isn’t working – a wine, dish or meal deal.

We ask ourselves: if a few thousand people have seen the menu this month and none of them have chosen the item, is there any reason for it to still be there?

A good example is that our discovery that, given the current economic climate, expensive items such as XO Cognac and Champagne can stay on the shelves in a bistro environment for year. This is problematic, as it represents cash tied up in dead stock. We solved this problem by moving the stock along through free upgrades and cost price specials. In turn, we replaced the premium with more competitively priced comparables that sell more and cost less.

Tell us about the importance of themed events or meal deals to attract new business?

Ray: Meal deals have been popular and are always promoted on our A-Frame. Any meal that isn’t taken up by a number of customers is re-evaluated and an alternative is found.

We have found food and beverage packages to be the most successful, especially those priced under $20 for lunch and under $30 for dinner.

Themed events offer the opportunity for longer meals at greater spend per person. For instance, during Good Food month in 2013 we packaged together a three-course, five-drink special for $65. This represented great value for the diner and brought in a different category of guests, who were able to sample a large number of offerings at the restaurant.

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