Dining in Tuscany

The Answer is a Question: Unlikely Observations on Dining in Tuscany

[Note: This was written in Florence, Italy in early 2022.]

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What questions go through a customer’s mind before choosing which restaurant to eat at? The answer—for both the customer AND the restaurant owner—may surprise you.

Years ago, about the time Darren Hardy took over the helm, Success was one of my favorite magazines. Although I enjoyed the content, what I really loved was the audio CD included in each monthly issue. If I was sitting in one place, I could read the articles in the print copy. However, I spent a lot of time sitting in a vehicle–yes, this was before Audible–whether commuting to and from a military base for work or traveling up and down the west coast to visit family, and I loved listening to the Success CDs.

There were some that I listened to so much that I literally wore them out. Unfortunately, I don’t remember who a lot of the speakers were, but many of the lessons have stuck with me through the years…er, decades.

I remember learning about the ‘latte factor’ from money guru David Bach. I recall a very interesting conversation about asking someone–most likely a business client–how they felt about something on a scale of one to ten; and then, if their response was anything less than a ten, following up with the question, “What can we do to get you to a ten?” Or it could apply to a relationship, any response less than a ten, would be followed up with the “What can you do to get to a ten?”. I will never forget a dialogue between an extremely successful businessman, visiting Las Vegas for a conference or something, and a millionaire ‘escort girl’ he befriended at a crosswalk, whereby he learned about ‘street business’ and what it means to separate business from pleasure despite any potential overlap.

However, one of the most interesting and intriguing interviews involved a conversation revolving around a top-tier restaurant owner and how they have an infinite waiting list and standing room only, due to specific practices they perform daily, which I’ll get into shortly as it happens to be the underlying focus of this article.

 Before I continue, let me point out that I have a problem. No, not that it’s been ‘professionally’ diagnosed, but I believe it’s a form of ADHD or something. Maybe it’s from drinking too much wine, Skrewball (unfortunately hard to find in Italy despite many Italians—like my daughter’s boyfriend—craving it) or limoncello while writing. On the other hand, I think it’s related to what best-selling author David Epstein refers to in his eye-opening book Range, I go very wide vice narrow in my interests and research, much like a polymath. Therefore, please forgive me for acting like a modern-day television viewer who jumps from channel to channel, and each program doesn’t make a bit of sense…okay, that’s an entirely different rant…blah, blah, blah.

In 1988, I joined the U.S. Navy with the intent of coming to Europe to race ‘real’ bicycles. Well, that, and to get a paycheck as I had been living out of a 1977 Volkswagen Beetle while trying to survive as a BMX freestylist on the west coast of the United States.

Fortunately, after my initial military training, I was offered a position in Sicily. Although I thought I had a pretty good grasp of world geography, I had to run a mile down the road to the base library and check out a world map–remember, this was before Google maps, MapQuest, etc–to see where Sicily was compared to Italy. Once I realized Sicily was part of Italy, I quickly accepted the offer. No regrets!

Not to sound like a cliché–but to make a long story short–I spent more than a dozen years in Sicily with the Navy, racing bicycles, rock and mountain climbing, traveling, lifting weights, AND eating!

Yes, when you’re spending three, four, five or more hours a day riding a bike as a competitive cyclist, climbing mountains, and training for the powerlifting world championships, I was burning a lot of calories. But and this is significant, the more calories I burned, the more pasta, bread, and sweets I could eat.

Although I never took a formal course in Italian, I was fortunate enough to work with a couple dozen Italian engineers who taught me Italian. Well, as long as the lessons involved the previous night’s television shows, the latest soccer standings, or…their most recent encounters with their mistresses. I was never sworn to secrecy, but due to potential ties with La Cosa Nostra–it was Sicily after all–I never risked going to their wives with some of the stories I heard.

The thing that I could always count on with my Italian colleagues were fantastic recommendations on where to eat, not just during the week, but also on the weekends at all-day feasts at agriturismos (OMG…if you’ve never experienced one, you have NO idea what you’re missing! Possibly the best dining experiences anywhere…EVER!) on the slopes of Mt. Etna, which were almost always preceded by several hours riding with the gruppo (Italian cyclists).

Despite the fact there were myriad opportunities to eat within an hour from where I lived, my favorite place was this little place in Catania that had absolutely no sign outside, no public advertising, nor reservations accepted. They had maybe 6-8 tables inside and it was frowned upon to ‘wait’ outside their weather-beaten doors before they opened, which might be 12:43 p.m. or 1:17 p.m. or maybe not at all that day.

They had no menus. And if you were lucky enough to sit down, you could look directly into the kitchen. A wine list? Hah, it was either ‘rosso or bianco.’ And the son or daughter who took your order would literally ‘yell’ your order into the kitchen. Nothing written down or typed into an electronic device.

But, the food was AMAZING! And inexpensive!

Yes, I ate millions of calories…I burned millions of calories. If I could have ridden ten hours a day I would have, just so I could eat more.

The most interesting thing was that despite my insatiable appetite, I found it nearly impossible to gain weight. Oh dang! Those were the days.

Sorry, I’ve digressed…rabbit holes are my kryptonite.

My wife, who is studying at Gonzaga University, and I have been here in Florence for about two months. We try to stick to our ‘diet’ by following the standard American diet (SAD), but drift to the much more beneficial Mediterranean diet.

Before our arrival in Florence, we agreed to be ‘flexible’ in our diet and try as many local eating establishments as possible.

Therein lies a problem compared to what we’re accustomed to. In our hometown, with a population of about 1,000 people, we have a handful of restaurants–including a Burger King and a McDonalds.

Florence, on the other hand, has a population of about 385,000 and nearly 3,850 restaurants according to Restaurant Guru (that’s like one restaurant for every 100 residents). As one popular food critic noted, you could hardly stand on any street corner in the city and throw a rock without hitting a ‘good’ place to eat.

If you’re a ‘foodie,’ there are numerous Michelin-starred establishments to drop your hard-earned wages. Likewise, if you’re from outside the European Union (EU), you may want to try out the diverse menus at McDonalds, Burger King, or Subway, which sell alcoholic beverages…and yes, dozens of bicycle deliverers await your order outside the fast-food establishments to bring them to your doorstep.

Over the course of the past two months, my wife and I have eaten in a couple dozen restaurants–from Lo Scudo, one of the most popular locations in Florence (recommended by one of our good friends), to Ristorante La Reggia Degli Etruschi, a hilltop paradise in nearby Fiesole with amazing views, to Spadaforte a sidewalk cafe in Sienna’s Piazza del Campo–and one thing I’ve been intrigued at is when ‘potential’ customers walk up to the menu posted outside and check it out.

As noted before, in our local community, or even the much larger community of the greater Spokane area, which has a population in excess of 460,000 people and ONLY 1330 restaurants (or about one restaurant for every 345 residents), potential customers rarely WALK–notice the emphasis on walking–up to the restaurant and check out the menu. No, in our community and so many other similar ones in America, you pretty much already know if you’re going to eat there or not (thanks to social media reviews, friend recommendations, convenience to home, etc).

However, here in Florence there are a bazillion choices. Every time we sit down to eat, we observe dozens of potential customers checking out the menu posted outside the restaurant. I would conservatively estimate that less than one in ten actually choose the restaurant we chose, yet the majority of the ones we eat at are highly rated or meet our exacting standards.

So, bear with me for a minute…or two or three.

Well, hold that thought. I am a huge follower of Socrates and his ‘method of inquiry’ to arrive at the answer to a question. Like I always say–the answer is a question.

Therefore, I ask a LOT of questions…much like Socrates did with his dialogues.

What do potential clients look for in a restaurant as they look at a restaurant’s menu? Does the location or name matter? What about the staff’s attire?

Most of the potential clients I observe are not looking at the physical appearance of the restaurant as they peruse the menu. Many of the restaurants look very similar. Does it make a difference if the menu is translated into English? Quite possibly they may acknowledge the number of clients already seated in the restaurant or lack thereof. We have been to some locations that only had a couple tables and others that had NO tables yet a line of more than a hundred people waiting for ice cream, a cold cut sandwich, or an alcoholic beverage.

At this point, if they are inside the restaurant, and if the restaurant has already started cooking, I wonder if any of the smells influenced the customer’s decision to choose that restaurant over another.

The majority of the time, for those establishments near our hometown north of Spokane, Washington, nobody is positioned outside to ‘entice’ customers to come inside. In Florence, more often than not, a staff member waits near the menu table to greet the potential customer. And that’s it…either they come in or more often than not they walk thirty feet down the street and check out the next restaurant.

What is the potential customer looking for? A certain item? A certain kind of decor? The lowest prices? Are they looking for a bazillion TVs to watch some sporting event, which ain’t gonna happen in Florence.

Upon our arrival in Florence, we spent several hours looking for ‘pasta e fagioli’ one night. Another night, I spent an hour looking for a restaurant that sold take-out pizza at around 6 p.m., which was about an hour before most pizzerias opened.

So, what entices a client–potentially a foreigner–to eat at a particular restaurant?

Over the past few months, I have researched behavioral economics, social networks, epigenetics, and the spread of ‘fast food’ and have come up with more questions than answers. And I’m not even going to go out on a limb and try to predict the movement of the blackbirds flying around our apartment every evening. Is it the church bells which spur them to fly or something else?

Ultimately, I would like to propose a massive experiment whereby I would place an observer at EVERY restaurant in Florence to record the number of people who look at their menu; the time spent doing so; their physical reactions; and if they actually ate there or not–24/7 every day they are open.

Although I would be very interested to know what the clients thought of the food and service, I would be more interested in WHY they chose that particular restaurant over another. Another question would be whether or not they did any prior research (online, from a travel guide or other credible resource) on where to eat AND if they wrote a review after eating?

So, let’s take off down another rabbit hole and ask a few more questions.

What if, based on current research, the restaurant owners could dramatically increase the percentage of potential customers who view their menu and ultimately dine in their establishment? I’m sure that might be very appealing to most of them, but on the other hand, maybe not. Some businesses and their owners are complacent with their current situation—scale up…no way, we’re doing just fine!

But let me step back for a second…in most American restaurants here’s the typical progression of events–you sit down and are given a menu at which time…before you even have a chance to look at the menu, you are asked what you’d like to drink as they provide you with ‘free’ ice water (I’ve never gotten ‘free’ water, let alone with ice in Florence). Then you’re prompted to order more drinks, appetizers, and main courses. And let’s not forget ALL those specials. Many American restaurants spend a small fortune on printing costs for food, drink, and dessert menus; special flyers; kid’s menus.

A few minutes later you might be given some sort of ‘salty’ snack to promote more drinking. Ah, I reminisce about the days when they gave you a bucket of peanuts and you could throw the shells on the restaurant floor. And when all of your food–appetizer, main course, and dessert–arrives at nearly the same time, the bill is placed on your table. The server is quick to note that you don’t need to hurry, but as soon as you’re ready they’ll take care of the bill for you.

Oh, did I point out that they’re also very proactive by ‘suggesting’ how much to tip them. It used to be a good tip was 10% and was easy to figure out. Nowadays, the suggested percentages are like 15, 18 or 22%. They even have apps for your smartphone to help you figure out what 18% of your bill is. [Note: I just went to a ‘chain’ restaurant March 13, 2023, that suggested a gratuity of 20, 25 or 30% and although the service was ‘ok,’ the food was terrible.]

Here in Florence, and the other places in Tuscany we’ve eaten at, the service has been on another level compared to the majority of the places in the United States AND almost all of them only include a miniscule cover or service charge (usually a couple Euro per person). I have lost many challenges while trying to add a tip to the bill. Really!

In my introduction, I noted how an immensely successful restaurateur consistently kept his place full of enthusiastic patrons. How did he do this?

First, while the prospective clients waited in line, a host/hostess would provide samples of the day’s most exquisite menu items…like sweet and savory appetizers, and/or maybe (my own emphasis) something to encourage more alcoholic or food purchases.

The second thing the host/hostess would do during the checking out phase would be to ask the client when they would like to book their next reservation. Now keep in mind this is a highly desirable location and reservations are very limited.

And talk about service above and beyond…one customer, while waiting in line, requested a certain kind of cold beer, which the restaurant did not normally carry. One might expect the owner, who often was the one greeting customers with the free samples, would just offer another choice. However, instead of taking the easy way out, he took off down the street and around a corner to a beverage store and promptly returned with an ice-cold bottle of the client’s beer of choice.

WOW! When, if ever, were you treated as a customer like in the previous examples?

In his groundbreaking book, Salt, Sugar, Fat, Michael Moss notes how fast-food restaurants capitalize on the fact that people can’t resist these tastes.

Therefore, what would happen if more restaurants—NOT just here in Tuscany—offered exquisite samples of their wares drawing on the allure of all of a customer’s senses? Or they were more proactive in their marketing efforts with respect to providing samples which focused on salt, sugar, and fat?

Finally, what would be the opportunity cost of obtaining one more customer vice losing them? While studying marketing for my MBA, I recall a famous case study, which noted that if somebody had a positive experience from a product or service, they would tell three people; if it was a negative experience, they would tell at least ten others. Hence, word of mouth advertising could help a little or hurt a lot.

Before coming to Florence, we were watching one of our favorite cooking shows, which focused on the chef visiting Florence and eating in some of the most popular locations. He showed his favorite ice cream place, where to get the best cappuccino, and his recommendation for the best Bistecca alla Fiorentina although almost every restaurant serves it.

On the way from the airport to our rented apartment, I asked the taxi driver which was the best place to eat Bistecca alla Fiorentina…he recommended the same place as the famous chef. And when I bought my wife a Florentine-made leather purse for Valentine’s Day, the shop owner also recommended the same place—Perseus!

Fortunately for us, I was able to get a reservation on the Saturday night before Valentine’s Day…with the stipulation that we arrived exactly at 1930 and were done eating before the majority of the customers arrived at around 2100. No problem.

We arrived about ten minutes early and were immediately seated. There were already a dozen customers eating when we arrived. When we stopped by to make the reservation, it looked like it was a small dining area with half a dozen tables. However, once inside it was like a labyrinth of rooms, tables, chairs, and clutter as we made our way to our table. The decor was incredible…very traditional and vintage.

The food and service were amazing. The steak melted in my mouth and the roasted potatoes were to die for. The three recommendations were spot on.

Let me add that before we had finished, the restaurant was packed, and I have no idea where they sat all the clients that kept passing by us.

Once we arrived at our apartment, after having to walk back as we could not find a taxi, another story in and of itself, I was eager to check out the online reviews of the restaurant (Note: I did not check it out beforehand as I wanted to remain unbiased). I could not believe that the restaurant was ranked #817 out of 3,800+ restaurants in Florence! Packed with dozens of customers waiting outside as we left that night.

Coincidentally, when I tried to add a tip to the bill, the waiter said the owner did not allow it! What? Yes, reread that.

So, this brings me to another question–if a restaurant is packed every night and has an extensive waiting list–why would they need to offer free samples or focus on expanding their marketing efforts?

However, keep in mind that this was the only restaurant we’ve seen that was standing room only. Surely the first 816 restaurants must be even better, right?

We actually ate at some in the top 50…and we also ate at some that established food bloggers and gurus recommended in their top ten and none were as ‘busy’ or tasted as good as Perseus.

Well, I have never placed much emphasis on online reviews, especially after finding out a business could not only ‘buy’ positive reviews, BUT they could ‘buy’ negative reviews for their competitors’ websites!

Another interesting marketing concept I remember from one of the Success CDs focused on quality vs quantity selling. The example was that of a newly graduated MBA who was preparing for their initial job interview. Despite already being in debt up to their eyeballs, the potential new employee would go further in debt buying a nice suit or outfit to look good at the interview.

The store salesperson would gladly get them into a budget-friendly outfit that would hopefully impress the interviewer.

If the new MBA graduate was hired, they would almost immediately need to purchase some more suits or outfits as well as accessories. Possibly, that is why a lot of employers provide an ‘advance’ on the new employees first pay checks.

So, the new hire goes back to the clothing store and buys several outfits/suits in order to maximize their clothing choices (maybe they even read a book on ‘how to dress for success’).

Fast forward a year or two and the young employee just got a promotion or raise and happens to venture into a little nicer clothing store and the salesperson has them try on some ‘nicer’ clothing…and amazingly, the material feels awesome, the fit is better, and of course the price is much higher. However, the successful business employee drops their entire bonus on the new outfit or suit…and accessories.

By now you’ve figured out what happens next in this cycle. The employee enjoys wearing the nicer clothes so much more than the older and cheaper ones that they have to upgrade their whole wardrobe…and this cycle continues.

Keep in mind, I have not even touched on peer pressure or trying to ‘keep up with the Jones’ with respect to transportation, food, electronic gadgets, housing, vacations, etc.

What does this have to do with restaurants in Florence? Well, a lot it turns out.

I doubt Perseus really cares they are ranked #817 as they are constantly packed. The only way to ‘scale up’ their business would be to add another restaurant, much like the young employee who goes from that first outfit to adding more of the same to their wardrobe.

The next upgrade is to figure out how to raise prices and/or increase margins…and then repeat this process.

Now then, let’s get back to some of my original questions. What causes a tourist to choose one place over another? What can be done to entice a potential customer to come in and eat rather than just glance at a menu and then walk away as a staff person says, “Buon giorno. Ha fame?” Or as many of them speak multiple languages, “Hello, are you hungry?”

Also, how can restaurants maximize the potentially addictive nature of salt, sugar, and fat to increase sales?

The past week I read a couple books–Change by Damon Centola and Hooked by Michael Moss–that discussed some additional considerations with respect to social

networks (marketing) and food choices (addictions). I wonder if the really successful restaurateurs are reading these books and that is how they are more successful than others? [Hint: Whether you’re a consumer, restaurateur, or ANY business owner…I highly recommend checking out these books ad the others highlighted in this article.]

Finally, as I need to get ready to go overindulge in another exceptional meal here in Florence, I have raised more questions than I have provided answers for. However, everybody is in a unique situation and ultimately has their own questions to ask. My final piece of advice is to focus on the questions and never stop asking them. Good luck!

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