Restaurant leaves a tip to diners: Be different

ON EXCELLENCE

August 16, 1993|By TOM PETERS

On a late autumn (June) night in Auckland, New Zealand, my wife, Kate, and I went in search of a meal, heading to Parnell Street -- home, we'd heard, to lots of good eateries. Indeed, we could see dozens of establishments through the cab window. At a randomly chosen point, we said, "Here" -- and got out.

The choice was inspired. In a moment, no more, we decided to eat where our cab had dumped us.

Most restaurants post menu boards outside. Valerio's was no exception. The text was another story:

"Sometimes menus do not reflect what you might find in a restaurant. So I didn't bother with one.

"In our restaurant you will find atmosphere and character. Friendly and witty staff. A half-crazy owner and real food.

"The kitchen is in open view to the customers and you are welcome to inspect it.

"The cockroaches left me long ago. The only animals left are my cats (Jeffrey and Luigi). Otherwise I am stuck with a bunch of paranoid human beings to deal with!

"If you are accustomed to all this, then come down and join us for a pleasant lunch or dinner."

It was more than enough to rope us in.

The setting was cozy, and we ended up at a table across from Valerio himself. Greet us? Forget it. He was busily rummaging through stacks of invoices and receipts. We were promptly handed a menu, though, in character with the posting outside. It began with the rules of the road:

"May I remind you that . . . we don't do family counseling. We still love children (ours!). Nothing is for free in this place. We do welcome uncomplicated tourists. . . . If the noise level is too high, adjust your tongue."

It also laid out the culinary philosophy: "Momma was always right! No fancy sauces, no frills or nouvelle cuisine, but sensible, genuine, tasty, hearty food." Tasty? It was fabulous.

On the way to the gents', I halted abruptly before a wall of framed letters -- letters of complaint! One, from the sales director of a local TV station, said the service was lousy, the choice of white wines skimpy. Framed with the letter was a copy of Valerio's insulting response. The customer had "three hours at a so-called business lunch [to complain]," but hadn't uttered a word. Why now? And, hey, white wine is not a house specialty.

Choking with laughter, I returned to our table and began a most remarkable discussion. For the next 45 minutes, Kate and I talked about dropping what we were doing and starting a restaurant, restaurant- bookstore or sidewalk cafe. No other endeavor could so encourage individual expression, we mused.

Last week, I promised tips for creating a business around the idea of beauty. I think I just did. Let's turn analyst (reductionist, heaven forbid) and see what can be learned from Valerio's.

1. "Wow!" Valerio's had superb food. But mostly it was a kick. Valerio's had beauty. Spunk, spirit, character, kinkiness, personality -- call it what you will.

2. Surprise. The Macintosh, with its mouse and icons, surprised most users in 1984, changed their idea of computing. So, too, Post-Its and our concept of sticky. And Valerio's.

3. Holy Toledo! Look, it was such a happening that we thought (for an hour anyway) about changing our lives.

4. Subversive. Starting with the anti-menu posting and continuing with the public letters of complaint, Valerio thumbed his nose at conventional wisdom. Likewise, early Apple computers were clearly anti-computer computers, symbolized by the fun apple logo and the firm's sandal-clad founders. Such things make the customer a co-conspirator in a pirate adventure.

5. Heart. Valerio's made a connection. It was refreshingly, joyously human.

6. Lively. Valerio's is energetic. Not loud (Valerio won't allow it, remember). Certainly not glitzy. But aerobic, nonetheless.

7. Beyond satisfaction. Valerio's does not "satisfy." Nor "exceed customer expectations." Valerio's redefines expectations. A restaurant? A way of life?

8. "I'll know it when I see it." In his novel, "Lila," Robert Pirsig wrote, "Quality doesn't have to be defined. . . . Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions." Despite the inevitable howls from the Total Quality Management crowd, I agree wholeheartedly with Pirsig. There is a place for measurement. And a place for art. Both are important. Art endures. Have I defined beauty to your satisfaction? Probably not. But I contend that just using terms like the ones above will get you thinking in useful -- and nontraditional -- directions. Give it a try. And if you're ever in Auckland . . .

(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-8200.)

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