Dear Roy’s Management: in a world where kitchens think their job is to turn a dollar into two by contracting rather than exceeding, where customers are mere commodities – to be consumed and thrown away, you stand in the starkest contrast as a beacon of true excellence.
Few businesses can benefit from economies of scale more than restaurants. The marginal increase in cost for every extra steak you sizzle or tuna you sear is negligible compared to the cost of cooking up the first one. Lots of restaurants shop for scale but in their quest to squeeze the penny, they end up using far more scrapple than they should. Filet Mignon with gristle. Tuna with tendons. This is unacceptable past the price point of an Applebee’s but how many times have we all been seared this way ourselves? At Roy’s, they ONLY use the good stuff and throw the rest away. They can afford it. They train and retain the best staff and buy/build the best software. They even have a CRM component!!! (Customer Relationship Management for you non-nerds; more on that later.) I consider the fact shameful that in the near-decade it’s been open, I have only eaten at Roy’s Chicago 19 times. Barely twice a year and that includes the 4 times that I ate there in 2002 when it was brand new. Looking back, this bothers me.
How much can I praise Roy’s service? Let me count the ways. In late 2002, the server overheard the female proclaiming that her favorite food was French Fries. In her misguided youth, she didn’t even eat fish. So there wasn’t much for her to have at a Hawaiian Fusion restaurant. Or was there? The server interrupted and offered her the following: “We don’t really have fries on the menu Miss,” he apologetically said. “But we do have potatoes and a deep fryer and we could probably swing some fries for you pretty quickly.” We were absolutely stunned. This in the first week of their opening! Compare that to the places that won’t even separate the white from yolk. She had the fries and they were really, really good.
Flash forward 3,169 days, to Saturday, August 27th, 2011. The last time we had tried to have dinner was in mid-June. They made us wait too long and we left. Yeah, yeah, it was only like 20 minutes – I know I have an unreasonably short fuse in this regard and have no patience for 20 minutes of “they’re paying their bill.” It’s called management! Of employees and more importantly: of customers! Buy them a round of drinks – AT THE BAR. See how quickly they will scurry. Anyway, we’re never rude about this – we just give them a 5-minute warning and leave exactly 5 minutes later. In most cases, the cheerleader (hostess) will force a smile and maybe even an “I’m sorry.” And the host at Roy’s did actually seem sorry. But he also made a note of the incident. A note that would come back to greet us 2 months hence.
Dinner was predictable. In its excellence. The canoe for two appetizer is good enough for two but I can easily eat the thing myself. The butterfish was everything I remember at the Sunset Tower and the tuna…oh the tuna. For fear of fomenting more religious war: Roy’s has, without question, the BEST tuna filet I have ever had. I’ve been there 19 times. Someone in the party has always had one. I’ve always tried a piece. It is the BEST! And it’s consistent. Red Light had a tuna appetizer that came close mainly due to sauce and seasoning but nothing close to the quality of the underlying fish-flesh. Even Naniwa occasionally serves us cuts that have been too close to the tail. I do not know how Roy’s does it or how much they throw away to make it work. I don’t even care if they have their own breeding farm in Port Lincoln, Australia. If someone ever asks me where to have the best tuna steak I will always tell them Roy’s.
As we were wrapping up and NOT ordering dessert because we had (as usual) overeaten, the manager stops by to ask how things had been. We think it boilerplate; same as the retail store employees telling you they have more sizes in the back. So we give our boilerplate response: “it was great.” But oh, no…the manager was armed with CRM! And we were not expecting it. He says to us: “I’m glad, because it seems like the last time you were here, it was not so great.” Huh? One doesn’t expect to be made to think on a Saturday night after a dinner. We honestly forgot about June. But Roy’s’ software didn’t. They had a note to tell them exactly what transpired and even though the host was likely history, the database remembered all. We had a bottle of wine subtracted from the bill and a personal note from a manager. Technology had enabled a big chain to behave like a small-town restaurant by keeping data, mining it effectively and putting it to use. I shop at Nordstrom instead of the boutique because they have a no-questions-asked, make-me-happy policy. So why do I turn up my nose at a restaurant for the crime of having more than one location? Roy’s is simply one of Chicago’s brightest stars and has been since pretty much day 1. And on this point, we need to draw a thicker underline and vote with our dollars for restaurants deserving it.