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Turning Mistakes into Learning Opportunities

Episode 58

031722-podcast the quarter

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People are at the center of Norm Theard’s life, and his restaurant The Quarter Creole Cuisine is another example of that. As the youngest of six, Norm spent time helping his mom recreate recipes from generations past that he brings to life in his restaurant with innovative twists. Hear how Norm continues his family’s legacy through authentic comfort food with excellent service to match. Reviewer Steff B. shares her memorable dining experience at The Quarter and what left her longing to return to this Claremont staple.

On the Yelp Blog: Read more from Norm on the value he sees in the authenticity of his staff, telling them, “I want you to do your thing and want you to say it the way you want to say it. I want you to tell [customers] whatever you’re most passionate about—tell them that.”

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind their interaction.

Lets see what’s behind this week’s review.

STEFF: There’s an ambience to the entire restaurant, that really you get a hint of from outside, but once you walk through those doors, you do get a little sense of being transported to just a place that’s very different and very creative and maybe a little bit magical. There’s, you know, something a little extra going on there.

Inside there are these beautiful lush fabrics and just ornamentation everywhere, hanging from the ceiling. It’s on the floors. It’s against the bar. It’s everywhere. And it really is a full space that is designed to embrace the culture of the food that they’re presenting and serving, which is nice because it’s not just the experience of eating food, then, it’s the entire dining experience, which I like quite a lot.

EMILY: That’s Steff B, a reviewer living on the east coast who was visiting family in California when she discovered The Quarter Creole Cuisine. It is now one of her favorite meals of all time and an experience she plans to get on a plane for again someday soon. She had many great things to say about the restaurant in her review, so let’s take a listen to the best parts.

STEFF: This was SUCH a treat. The design of this restaurant is great. The service is stellar. The food is phenomenal. There was NOTHING but excellence throughout our whole dining experience. A brief breakdown of the plethora of dishes we ordered, shared across the table (there’s a lot to go through, so I’ll keep each dish’s review to just a highlights reel):

Burrata (this was a special): truffle oil over a bed of greens with light red pepper sauce and crostini. Holy cow, this was my favorite. The burrata tasted SO fresh, I wouldn’t be surprised if they made it in house. The truffle oil was also excellent quality. Fantastic. Absolutely would recommend.

St. Charles catfish—wow. Melt in your mouth, lightly breaded, perfectly seasoned and flavored catfish. Possibly the best I’ve ever had. We ordered this instead of the chef’s signature catfish only because it came with catfish etouffee (so it was like getting to try two dishes in one). Would recommend. This was my favorite of the entrees.

I would come back here 1000%. Our waiter was also on point with bringing not just our courses but also our plethora of dishes out in perfectly timed waves: his service was thoughtful, well paced, and well executed. He also recommended a drink to me which ended up not being to my taste: I ordered something else and, very unexpectedly, we weren’t charged for the recommended drink in the end (which was just a very nice gesture, since someone else at the table did drink it). Also, the presentation across every dish was wonderful. Same with portion sizes (this is not a small plates kind of place!).

We couldn’t get reservations ahead of time so we arrived a little before they opened at 5 to see if they’d take walk-ins, and we were offered patio seating or a table at the bar. I am so glad they had room! This was not a meal to be missed. Truly, everything was really delicious and I can’t imagine you could go wrong with anything on the menu. I’ll be dreaming of that catfish and burrata, especially!

EMILY: My favorite reviews are those where you can almost smell the food being brought to the table and feel the warmth of good company and quality service. Steff’s review does a great job of showcasing how the food, ambience, and service come together to create a uniquely Quarter Creole Cuisine dining experience. To learn more about how the restaurant came to be and later found success, I spoke with executive chef and restaurant owner Norm Theard. Here he shares the inspiration behind the business.

NORM: It’s a tribute. The restaurant is a tribute to my mom and our cuisine. It’s Creole food. We’re all Creole folks. Mom and dad are born and raised in New Orleans, and food’s really important to us.

My partners are my siblings, and they have nothing to say other than they enjoy the food. So they have no business input whatsoever. They completely trust me, which is great and it’s basically like going into our house and eating food. So that’s what we’re trying to bring to Southern California.

EMILY: Throughout our conversation, it became clear that Norm’s family is more than just an inspiration–it’s at the core of his business.

NORM: It’s all about trying to keep it true to what my mom cooked and what my grandmother cooked and what my great-grandmother cooked and so on. I’m not going to ever bring any ingredients into our kitchen that my mom couldn’t put her hands on. So I’ll come up with new dishes often, but that’s something that my mom could have come up with if she, if she had the time to do it, if she wasn’t, you know, taking care of six kids. So that’s what keeps it true. And it keeps the smells together when you walk in it. So I can tell people it’s Creole and it is Creole.

EMILY: Norm talks about his flavors and inspiration for his dishes with such passion. And he leads his business with authenticity, which many customers have noted really shines when interacting with the staff. Norm’s philosophy around training his staff encourages employees to share their authentic selves.

NORM: I don’t give them a script. I tell them, I want you to be yourself because we’ve probably all experienced that server who had the script and say, ‘Hello, my name is Joe, and I’m here to be your server tonight.’ And then it just feels so fake and it just kind of makes them uneasy and they never really connect with you, the diner.

So I tell them the exact opposite. I want you to do your thing and want you to say it the way you want to say it in whatever order you want to say. I want you to tell them whatever you’re most passionate about, tell them that. And it comes across to people like Steff, because it’s true. It’s real. It’s impossible to act that out.

And like I said, we’ve all seen them. Felt that uncomfortable server who’s really having a difficult time with that. We don’t want that to ever happen. And that makes the guests uncomfortable too. So I want that just to be like someone you’ve known all day long or you’ve known them forever. And they’re just chit-chatting about that menu.

And they’re telling you, they’re just gonna walk you through the experience and make it easy for you, you know, like you’re at their house.

EMILY: Like you’re at their house. Wow— that really resonated with me. And Norm’s so right! When a server is scripted, you can tell. And when I ask my server a question about the menu or request a recommendation, I want it to be genuine! Not what the chef is trying to push that night.

So how does Norm familiarize his staff so that they can make such recommendations to customers like Steff?

NORM: Certainly. Of course, they tasted everything before they actually get on the floor. So they usually spend some time in the window where the food’s coming up and when the food’s coming out, they get to recognize all the food. They’ve already gone through the menu itself, so they know what the food is, now, they’re getting the visual connection between the food and what’s in the description.

And then there’s the tasting. So they’ll taste everything on the menu. And then when, if there’s a mistake in the kitchen, which happens we’ll get two or three, sometimes four plates that are messed up. I look at the bright side of that. It’s like, okay, we messed up a catfish with brown butter crab sauce. I don’t care. Let’s put that in here in the wait station and let’s all taste this. So, they can continually connect with how good this stuff is.

And it’s so good. So then they’re there. They’re continually eating. They think it’s beautiful, but they always, and I always encourage them to taste stuff. And if there aren’t any mistakes, we will just make food. In an effort for them to continually taste so they can, they can start to crave it.

EMILY: I want to emphasize how important I think it is that Norm truly encourages and immerses his staff in the food and the dining experience to ultimately share their love for it with customers. And, it certainly seems like something to crave, especially after reading Steff B.’s review. With that, I want to circle back to the idea of reviews and get a better understanding of why customers leave reviews and, if they’re like Steff B., quite lengthy ones.

STEFF: Writing the review to me is about helping communicate why I want to go back there to the larger community to help share that experience and share that positive, just that meal in whatever way possible. I think something that’s very special that food is it’s communal and it is a shared experience and it may not be sitting across the table from someone, it might be sitting, you know, years later in the same table with different people, but you had the same shared experience, and you’re able to connect over that shared experience from that restaurant that was just spectacular or that chicken that blew your mind or whatever it might be. So for me, writing reviews, the best advice I can give is if you’re passionate about what you had, about what your experience was, put that passion into your review. Write it, write that review for yourself for your future self. So you don’t forget. And you never forget. And for others to help them make decisions that maybe you struggled with at the time.

EMILY: I love the way Steff describes writing reviews as a way of documenting an experience, and one that can be shared with a larger community, but also those that one may be sitting across the dinner table from. I hope future reviewers will take such a passionate approach as they write their reviews, because it is certainly noticed by many, especially business owners.

NORM: Regarding Steff B. and the way she wrote her review, it was just such fun to look at because I kind of forgot the fact that I was the owner of the restaurant when I was reading it. It was lengthy and it was so descriptive and it just kind of took me on this ride from the ambience to the food, to the server, to the feeling of her table. And then she mentioned to you that she writes reviews in an effort for her own memory so she can remember what she liked, and the way she wrote it is a killer way to write a review. I think, because that’s the way, instead of them trying to, like a reviewer, trying to, you know, point out all the bad stuff, if it’s bad or all the good stuff is good. She’s trying to point out what her experience was and why it was phenomenal. I want to go.

I wish she lived around me in Southern California because I would check out all of her reviews, and if she could write other reviews like that, I would go and check those places out. And I would order the things that she ordered because the descriptions were poetic. That was the most poetic review I think I’ve ever read on Yelp. It was just great. Happened to be for me. Yay! But it was just… it was beautiful.

EMILY: It certainly was very poetic, and now I’m dying to try the catfish and burrata, and maybe even a drink or two recommended by Norm’s staff.

As we wrap this story up, I do want to stay on the topic of reviews though, because Norm has such a valuable perspective to share.

NORM: So looking at reviews generally, I mean, luckily they’re pretty good, which is pleasant for me, but there’s the occasional negative review. And I’m just of the school of thought, thinking that I just don’t want to respond to reviews because I’m just trying to give the customer their voice without me chiming in, you know, so I’m not trying to either say, ‘Hey, that was awesome, thank you so much.’ And then bring my own, you know, toot my own horn or say, try to tell them that either, they got it wrong or that we’ll try again, you know, try harder next time. I just let it stand on its own, you know, like a piano, you know, it’s going to be either in sync and in harmony with the rest of it, or I was going to be a one dissonant note over there that’s just a little different. But if there’s way more notes that are in harmony, then it’s giving you what you need. It’s telling you what you’re looking for as a reader.

So if you look and you see a gazillion five or four star reviews and you see the one bad one, oftentimes people just read the bad ones, but then if you have a chance to read the good ones, there’s no reason for me to get involved.

The only time I’ve ever gotten involved. If it’s just something that’s crazy, I think in 600 or so 650 reviews on Yelp, I think I’ve responded three times. Otherwise, I’m just totally silent because I think it’s better.

To me, it’s more of a focus on the customer to let them have the mic.

EMILY: Norm created a really interesting simile between a review and a piano, and that idea is something I hope restaurant owners, and business owners in general, can hold on to as they read and interact with reviews. Sometimes, reviews will be in harmony, yet other times it will be dissonant.

I want to point out that my typical piece of advice for all business owners when it comes to responding to reviews is do it! There’s immense value in responding to both positive and negative reviews publicly. But I also respect and understand that that’s not always the best policy for every business. Norm has his reasons that he lets the reviewer’s opinion ‘stand alone,’ and I respect that conscious decision. But know that responding is always an option on Yelp.

To close out today’s episode, I’m going to let Norm continue to share his thoughts on reviews, and how sometimes, your food or your business can be exactly as you intended it to be and still some people might not like it— but that’s okay.

NORM: Sometimes you just can’t reach and please everybody. So that really has come to fruition. When I taste something like somebody will send something back and that’s fine. If they don’t dig it, we’ll give them whatever else that whatever they want. And we’ll see if they like that one. And hopefully we hit that one on the head.

My sous chef, Ian, and I will always taste whatever is returned to the kitchen. Even if you stuck your fork in it, we’re going to taste it, just to make sure that there’s nothing wrong with it.

And then that’s where I really started to connect the dots between, okay. You can have people that don’t love your food and the food is exactly how you want it. And that’s just, you know, okay. That’s okay. So you might get, like, there was a recent review of saying that they just didn’t like the menu items.

It’s like, okay, we’ve got 40 menu items and if I present them as best I can. And I tasted your dish and, you didn’t like it, but I think it’s as good as it can possibly be. Then that’s just, okay. We’re just at odds. And so be it. That’s a good reason for me not to respond to your review, just leave it. That’s cool.

But let it be, you know, let them say their piece, but it’s good for me to know that I’m not going to let that get to me that they are, oh my God, the world doesn’t accept my food. Well, some people it’s just not right for everybody, but the vast majority of the people are crazy about it.

EMILY: And that concludes our episode! Be sure to subscribe so you get new episodes every Thursday. I hope you enjoyed it and were able to take a thing or two away to implement in your own life. Whether it’s a new idea that you can bring back to your business, or a fresh perspective on how to be a positive influence as a consumer, we share these stories to inspire and create more meaningful connections in your local community. For more information about today’s business, or to connect with me check out the show notes!

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