Welcome to In the Weeds, our series in which Dallas restaurateurs explain behind-the-scenes aspects of the food service business—parts of the job that customers never see. Today we asked our expert panelists to turn their eyes toward the customers. We asked them about us.
Meet our experts:
- Sawsan Abublan, co-owner of fast-casual chain Shawarma Press
- Tanner Agar, co-owner of upscale restaurant Rye and cocktail bar Apothecary
- Jon Alexis, restaurateur behind TJ’s Seafood, Malibu Poke, Escondido, and Ramble Room
- J.R. Muñoz, owner of the bars Will Call and Elm Street Saloon
I asked each of them to think about how Dallas diners have changed their habits and preferences. Here’s what they had to say. (My comments and subject transitions are in italics.)
Read part one: What Must Happen Before a Restaurant Can Open?
Part two: How Do Restaurants Choose Their Locations?
Part three: What Are the Most Surprising Hidden Costs of the Restaurant Business?
Part four: How and When Do Restaurants Decide to Raise Prices?
Part five: What Is the Right Number of Employees for a Restaurant?
Part six: What Changes When a Restaurant Opens a Second Location?
Do we want comfort foods, or to try new things?
Jon Alexis: What diners want has radically changed in the last three or four years. When life seemed calmer, people wanted restaurants to educate them, excite them, intrigue them, surprise them. A lot of designing a new restaurant concept was, how do I create something different and new? There’s already 26 ramen places, how do I put my spin on ramen?
Today it’s so much more back to—people just want to be fed and forget about their problems for an hour. Concept development has changed remarkably, from how do I get attention with something new, to how do we make something really comfortable that will make somebody’s life better and somebody happier? It’s less about the new innovation, and more about how we take care of people.
At TJ’s when I had a special, I used to sell 50 to 60 a night of the special, and now I sell 20 a night of the special. I have the same amount of diners, but they want the thing they’ve been craving for the past six months.
Sawsan Abublan: Dallas-area diners have become adventurous when it comes to trying new foods. I especially noticed an increase in younger-generation customers. They’re eager to try new things and share their experiences with others on social media. In our case [after the pandemic], we gained new customers who wanted fresh flavors—especially young adults who never thought they’d stay home for over a year!
Changing habits: drinking preferences, the end of cash, and going vegan
J.R. Muñoz: I just had a conversation with one of the guys from Deep Ellum Brewing about how the younger generation doesn’t really care about craft or draft beers. They want to drink the hard stuff. The craft beer, the flavors that it has with it, maybe [age] 28 and above kind of got tired of drinking your typical light beers and that’s where the craft thing came from. But tequila’s definitely the number-one thing now these days.
During the week, when you get tourists in, people coming for conventions or traveling for business, they’re interested in trying local beers. During the week is when we sell drafts. On the weekends it’s all about ranch waters, cocktails. But the older generation that likes craft beers, that’s the generation traveling on business.
Tanner Agar: I do think that in Dallas people don’t appreciate that the public will pay to eat vegetables that are well-delivered. Yes, we’re the home of the steakhouse, I don’t know that anybody does this the steakhouse experience better than Dallas. But there’s absolutely room for beautiful products with vegetables. So much of the time people tell me, “my favorite dish was the cactus,” or “my favorite dish was the roasted vegetables.”
Rye has become a very popular vegetarian restaurant. People come to Apothecary and say, “we read about you on our vegan app. We’re here to eat the vegan food.” We’re like, this is a cocktail lounge. It wasn’t supposed to be about the food! The vegan bolognese at Apothecary is a massive hit. Non-vegans come in and eat it regularly. There’s a guy who gets it every week.
So it’s funny. We spend so much time in our meetings being like, “guys, we got to think of more vegetarian stuff.”
J.R. Muñoz: The biggest thing I always talk about is the cash. At the end of the night you used to be able to tip out your bartenders in cash. Now since there’s hardly any cash transactions, you pretty much have to total all their tips and pay them on a later day. There’s not cash to pull out of the register. Now that you can pay on your phone, there’s even less cash.
If you got robbed there’s not much that anybody can get these days. There’s not as much cash in the building as there used to be, if you heard old bar tales about how the safe got robbed and $15,000 got taken. I used to hardly ever go to the bank unless I was depositing extra cash, and now I have to go to the bank to bring petty cash in.