On a recent morning in Wisconsin, employees of The Informalist restaurant took a field trip.
Clad in jeans, sweatshirts and sturdy shoes, they toured DragSmith Farms in the town of Barron to walk among the micro greens and organic vegetables they’d be serving later that night.
“We toured the greenhouses and the farmer’s house and saw a good deal of our salad mix,” says The Informalist’s front-of-house manager Amy O’Connor. The idea, she notes, is to ignite the staff’s passion for the farm-to-table concept the restaurant brings to the town of Eau Claire.
Like farming, the business of feeding people is hard work, which, when done right can flower into something truly great, she adds. In this week’s Recipe for Success @ Boxerbrand, O’Connor discusses the challenges and innovations handled by a restaurant that proudly bills itself as a “collaboration of sincere people and innovative flavors in a downtown dining space.”
Q: Your website describes The Informalist as “a collaboration of sincere people and innovative flavors in a downtown dining space.” Please tell me more.
When I came on board, I thought I had to hire people who were either passionate about food or Eau Claire or both. But I quickly realized that success at our restaurant comes from hiring people who are passionate in general. They can be painters, or musicians, it doesn’t matter. What they bring is passion and individuality.
Having good food can only take you so far in the restaurant business. The experience needs to be great as well. And that’s where the innovation of our flavors and the sincerity of people comes in.
Our executive chef Amy Huo trained at Blue Hill Farms in New York with Dan Barber, and she’s committed to bringing innovation to our flavors and sourcing our food locally. And our servers are encouraged to recommend dishes that they love, to be honest about it, rather than trying to sell the most expensive steak dish.
Q: How does a visit to the farm inspire your staff?
Our staff know the farmers on a personal level so when they recommend a dish they can tell a diner that they watched the farmer personally trim the greens being served that night. This adds a level of authenticity to the experience for the patron, and it helps our employees feel they’re part of a collaborative community.
Q: What’s your secret for attracting customers?
We have built-in business that comes from being part of a boutique Doubletree Hilton called the Lismore. So, we see a lot of international travelers, people who are out on the road 300 days a year. But being in a smaller town like Eau Claire, we’re still enjoying a “new” buzz since opening about a year ago. We still have first-timers coming in.
We also do a lot with social media and have a contracted photographer on staff. He came along on our field trip to DragSmith Farms and we’ll use his pictures on social media channels like Instagram. We also have a short one-minute video in production right now that describes our concept. When it’s finished, we’ll share that on our website and also on social media. But in terms of advertising dollars, we haven’t done a whole lot of that.
Q: How do you remain competitive?
When we opened last April, we were among three farm-to-table concept restaurants opening up around the same time. But we’ve been able to remain competitive because each has a slightly different niche. One is more of a supper-club vibe, the other offers an entertainment venue with live jazz or a DJ, and we just really focus on the food and beverage. We have a very beautiful space and Amy our chef is scrupulous about beautiful platings.
Q: What obstacles have you faced, and how have you overcome them?
Well, Chef Amy is wonderful. But I should note that she’s actually our third executive chef since we’ve been open. We had a challenge finding our footing, but now that Amy’s on board, things have really improved. Someone who visited us last June would not have the same experience as someone who comes to us this June. Everything has dramatically improved, and our online reviews reflect that. Since Amy took over, our scores have been very positive, in the 98-percent range.
Q: What advice would you offer someone wishing to open their own restaurant?
My advice is to hire for passion, not necessarily for experience.
For kitchen, it’s different because there’s so many OSHA rules. In the last couple months though, I’ve hired people who’ve never served. But who are passionate individuals. I would rather teach someone who’s green about serving, than to try to retrain someone with bad habits. Our staff gets along really well. Everyone hangs out outside of work. And we have a great, passionate group. — The Informalist of Eau Claire, WI uses Boxerbrand’s Linen Naturals menu cover line in its presentation. Thank you!