Welcome to our first edition of Restaurant Innovators. Each month, we sit down with independent operators and chefs to chat about the creative strategies they’re using to solve existing problems in the industry. Follow along to learn from fellow colleagues in the field.
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Fiore Fine Foods, a popular, modern Italian, full-service concept, based in Philadelphia
After the recent birth of their son, husband-and-wife team and restaurant owners Ed Crochet and Justine MacNeil wanted to gain back more time together and increase their quality of life. They also wanted to help create greater work-life balance for staff after noticing people “gravitating towards wanting a more normalized schedule”.
Crochet and MacNeil decided to drop dinner service and rebrand as a daytime cafe, moving into a new location that cuts their total seat count from 78 to 20. The plan is to open by late spring of this year.
Finding the right location: Wanting to decrease overhead, Crochet and MacNeil decided not to renew their lease and instead search for a smaller location. The couple viewed dozens of potential real estate options before settling on a former cafe space. The location’s major appeal largely centered around the neighborhood, offering significantly more foot traffic than Crochet and MacNeil’s former location. It was also already built-out with most of the infrastructure their new concept required.
Planning a new schedule and menu: Crochet and MacNeil are shifting their operations from dinner Wednesday through Saturday, plus Sunday brunch, to a five-day-a-week daytime schedule. The menu will target breakfast, brunch, and lunch diners, but still include some of Crochet’s savory dinner staples, modified so that the dishes feel less formal and can travel home without losing quality. MacNeil is expanding the pastry program, and the new location will have a gelato case for walk-up scoops. With a smaller in-person dining area, the goal is to make up revenue through a larger takeout program. “No matter what’s going on, whether there’s a recession or not, everyone's got to eat breakfast, and it’s not as splurgy as dinner. So that really pushed us in this direction,” said MacNeil.
Staffing: After announcing the concept change to their staff, Crochet and MacNeil invited everyone to move with them to the new location. Given that check averages are typically lower at a daytime spot, Crochet and MacNeil plan to raise the hourly wage for servers so that no one’s pay drops. The couple is currently deciding whether to adjust menu prices or implement a service charge to account for the pay increase.
Name change: “Fiore Fine Foods” will shorten to “Fiore” for a more casual feel.
Research trip: Leading up to the opening, Crochet and MacNeil planned a trip to Italy for research and inspiration. “We try to do that regularly,” says MacNeil. “We have a giant list that we’re bringing with us to help us study.”
Work-life balance: Alongside offering daytime hours, Crochet and MacNeil want to improve work-life balance for their staff in other ways. “For years, we’ve talked about offering things like four, 10-hour shifts instead of five, eight-hour shifts, and we’re making sure we’re constantly communicating with staff about what they’re interested in,” says MacNeil.
Staff retention: Most of the current staff were excited about the opportunity to work daytime hours. A majority of the team are moving to the new concept with Crochet and MacNeil – excluding bartenders. “We won’t have a liquor license, and that’s where their passion is, so we’ve tried to do our best with giving reference letters and being as communicative as possible,” says MacNeil.
Making daytime hours sustainable: Crochet and MacNeil have cut costs by choosing a smaller location and making operational changes, like eliminating their reservation system and downsizing from three POS systems. The couple is also planning for much more foot traffic and a bigger takeout program.
Stay tuned for post-opening results: After Fiore officially opens, we’ll check back with Crochet and MacNeil to learn more about the results of their transition from a dinner service model to a daytime cafe. In the meantime, you can learn more about their concept shift through our interview with MacNeil below.
For our full interview with Justine MacNeil, read on.
I’d love to learn more about what ultimately inspired you to pull the trigger on shifting to a daytime concept.
Our son was born a year ago, and that put a lot of things into perspective. Ed and I worked nights for our entire career, about 15 years each, and we never really had a problem with it, but with a baby – they don’t just go to your schedule, you go to theirs. Both Ed and I work back of house, and oddly we really do like working together, even though we spend so much time together. But now we’re working opposite schedules. We want to get back to supporting each other both in and out of the home.
Our lease is also up in early fall of this year, and the location we’re at is pretty old. We’d need to invest a lot of money to maintain it. Then with the pandemic, like so many other restaurants, we pivoted and tried out a bunch of different [business] models. Some of these ideas worked, and some we won’t do again. What stayed most consistent for us was adding a pastry program and gelato on the weekends, and also breakfast sandwiches. No matter what’s going on, whether there’s a recession or not, everyone's got to eat breakfast, and it’s not as splurgy as dinner. So that really pushed us in this direction.
The other factor was that we noticed a lot more people gravitating towards wanting a more normalized schedule, and it’s difficult to get to that goal with a p.m. service. There’s been a lot of push and pull around, how do we help balance people’s lives?
I imagine that you’re planning to bring your staff with you to the new location. What has their general feedback been like, and have there been any concerns about lower tip sizes?
Many people were really excited. We opened up the opportunity to everyone, and there are a couple of people who ultimately won’t be coming – mostly our bartenders. We won’t have a liquor license, and that’s where their passion is, so we’ve tried to do our best with giving reference letters and being as communicative as possible.
We have a pooled tipping model, and none of our servers have brought the topic of tips to us yet, but we're going to make sure their pay doesn’t go down. We’ve talked about giving them a higher hourly wage. Ed and I are still figuring out what that would mean, whether that’s adjusting prices or implementing a service charge. But in order to bring our staff over, we don’t want anyone to dip in hours or financials.
Do you have any financial concerns on your end about cutting dinner service, and are there any specific changes to your business model that you’re planning?
The new space will eliminate a lot of overhead, just from the sheer size and also with forgoing some of the extra programming that a dinner service requires. We won’t need things as basic as linens. We can go down to one POS system instead of three. We won’t need to pay for a reservation system.
We’re planning for much more foot traffic in the area and a bigger takeout program. We’ll also have a gelato case for people to walk up and get a scoop.
Can you share more about what drew you to the new location and how that played a role in your decision to shift your current concept?
We’d been looking at spaces as far back as 2019. We had a few different concepts floating around in our minds, and when this place came up, it really did help solidify our plans.
It’s a former cafe. So we’re not going into a completely raw space, which would’ve been intimidating. We own our house in the same neighborhood, so there’s an appeal in being able to walk there, and there’s also a lot of apartment buildings going up in the area. I see so many people walking around, looking for places to eat. At our current restaurant, people that come to us have a game plan – it’s not from just stumbling onto us in the neighborhood.
You’ve mentioned that part of the goal behind the daytime shift is work-life balance. Do you see that as ever truly being achievable with a dinner-service model?
I think it’s achievable if you have people that want to work at night. For years, I thought it was crazy that people wanted to work during the day – the excitement, to me, was at night. But staffing has been tough these past few years, and it’s definitely harder to find a giant pool of people who want to stay until 2 a.m.
That has honestly been one of the more difficult things for us. In interviews, we tell people we only hire employees that are friendly, and that’s helped us keep people employed. People aren’t always best friends, but when they walk through the doors, they know they’re going to be met with people who are nice to each other. They feel a camaraderie with the staff and a support system. But I don’t know if it’s 100% their ideal world to work every single night.
Do you have any other thoughts on how to create more work-life balance in general, even as you shift to a daytime model?
It’s definitely something we’re thinking about. For years, we’ve talked about offering things like four, 10-hour shifts instead of five, eight-hour shifts. And we’re making sure we’re constantly communicating with staff about what they’re interested in.
We have a lot of ideas, but basically what it’s going to take is extreme organization, and that is something that works better with a daytime model and a focus on pastry. It’s production-heavy as opposed to service-heavy, with less à la minute factors.
You mentioned your close working relationship with Ed and that you two enjoy working side by side. Do you have any advice for other coupled operators?
I don’t always take it, but my best advice is to try to leave work at work and home at home. It’s so difficult, but the more that you can have that separation, the more you don’t have to bring as many problems home or vice versa.