Book Excerpt – Preparation, Partners, and Putting On A Nightly Production

Jim Parker co-owns Red Hat On The River in Irvington, NY with his wife, Mary Beth. Jim left a very successful, twenty year career in the movie and film production business in 2003, to start a small bistro in Irvington. On a whim.

Seven years later, Jim and Mary Beth are at their restaurant seven days per week, and they make the hard work and passion they pour into it look easy to the many guests they serve every day. Red Hat has established itself as an institution, so much so that people have been known to take the 30-minute train ride from Manhattan to dine there. The Clintons have even visited…twice. Jim told us that when he started, he knew nothing about restaurants, and he learned as he went. It’s pretty clear that he has learned quite a bit about what it takes to succeed in the restaurant business…

Put On A Nightly Production – I feel like every night, the curtain goes up here. It’s very theatrical. And we do believe in creating an atmosphere in our fine dining restaurant for every single person that comes in here. This is their leisure time, and they’ve chosen to spend it here, and I take it really, really seriously. Obviously, without good food, you’re done. But we worry about our customers’ good time. It’s all about the sound, the imagery, the hospitality, and the charm of our whole staff. So if I had to put it in a couple of words, I would say that, besides the obvious – the food – it’s all about the casting and the script.

Make Every Customer’s Experience Perfect – I have a little bit of a different bent on things, because I didn’t grow up in the restaurant business. I had been a customer all of my life. So I’m flattered by the fact that people take the time to come down to where we are, spend the money they spend, and choose to spend their money with us rather than somewhere else. And how many times can people go out a week? I don’t know. Maybe it’s once every two weeks. But whatever it is, it’s very flattering that people choose to come here. And we’re very careful with our staff, to make sure they understand that. A lot of the folks are young that work in the restaurant business, and sometimes when they are moving at breakneck speed, they don’t realize that when two people want to go out for dinner, and maybe leave their kids at home for the evening, it can be quite costly. Babysitters. Gasoline. Dinner. So every step of the way, we want that experience to be perfect.

Let Your Staff Self-Police – I kind of have a self-policing group here. And if someone’s a little bit on the edge, they don’t let ‘em into the family. They take their job very seriously, and they want people of their own ilk serving along with them. So we’ve been very successful in that respect.

You’ll Sweat. Just Don’t Let ‘Em See It – It’s funny because people that don’t know the background will come in and think it looks pretty easy. And I don’t ever want the public to see me sweat, but I’ll tell you something, I sweated for several years.

Have You Worked With Your Potential Partner In The Heat Of Battle? – My original partner was somebody I knew as a family friend. I had known him for twenty years. But I did not know him in the heat of battle at all. All of the sudden, I knew him in a different way. And that’s the difference. So I would never go into something like that again, unless it was someone I had worked with in this business.

Hire Integrity & Charm Over Experience – I won’t just find people to fill a role, just because they can perform some of the duties. It’s more than that. When people walk in here looking to work with us, I worry more about their personality, and their integrity, and their charm. And I don’t really care of they can do the job or not. At least not initially. I have to make sure that whoever every single customer deals with – whether it be a bus boy, a floor runner, the food runner, a host…it doesn’t matter – has to be engaging, and has to care about that person being in our space.

Preparation Is Critical – I anticipate and live the experience before it happens. And I just don’t meet people that think that way. It’s a little bit like I can’t sleep at night, and it’s a little bit annoying. Because you never rest. So I envy all of those that don’t think that way, but I do think it’s the key to being successful in some respects. So sharing that perspective with the people I’ve worked with for a long becomes helpful, because preparation becomes a way of operating.

Customer Experience Is An Art, Not A Science – In a lot of ways, what we do is very personal. I don’t treat the restaurant as, we have X amount of seats, and we have X amount of people coming in, and one way or the other, we’re gonna figure out where to put ‘em. It’s all about being hospitable, and making it work for our customers. It’s like being able to go, “O.K., we see how many reservations are coming in. We know we have these groups coming in. We also know a bunch of the different folks, and they’re kind of anxious about where they sit, or what they drink, or what they eat.” And then we figure out how we can move people around, so we can figure out how these people can be happy here, and these people can be happy there.

It Doesn’t Have To Be Complicated – When you go into a restaurant and you’re ignored, it’s so obvious to me why they’re not doing well. As a customer, when you are ignored, you start to wonder what else they are ignoring. If you’re going to ignore the guests, you’re probably going to ignore all of these other things. It doesn’t matter if you have a trendy looking place, or a cool looking bar, or the greatest chef in the world. You have to engage the people that come into your place, day after night after day after night. And remember who they are, and why you’re here.

Staff Will Do As You Do – I think people have tendency to emulate people that are in charge, or that are successful, or that they respect. I certainly did as I grew up.

Make Charitable Contributions Simple For Yourself – Years ago, everybody and their mother came to me looking for a charitable donation for some fundraiser. And I was like, “This is bullshit. I can’t believe this!” I’m looking at it thinking, If I give to this one, and not that one, I’ll offend that one. And how much do we give? I didn’t know what to do. But I decided to just give everybody within a fifty mile radius $50 when they made a request. People would say, “Well, we want dinner for four.” Or, “We need an ad for $250.” I’d say, “We don’t do that.” So instead of discriminating, I just decided to give the same amount to everybody. We give a lot away every year. But it’s real simple to figure out, and I just look at it as part of the advertising budget.

Fight For Advertising Prominence – I’m relentless about it. I drive these people nuts up here. I want somebody to open a newspaper, and their eyes are going to go right to that third page, and that’s all I’m concerned with. And they have to promise me that, and then I’ll advertise with them.

The Schedulefly Crew