The Hillstone Edition
On restaurants, design, and service
Colin here. If I took a poll of WITI readers on your favorite restaurant experience (meaning food, environment, ambiance, sound), I suspect we wouldn’t find many chains on the list. While chains are often fairly derided, sometimes they’re the place you’ll find some of the most buttoned-up operations and consistent experiences (not to mention an ability to manage their profit margin). Atul Gawande wrote an exceptional New Yorker article awhile back that spelled out big medicine could learn from, wait for it, the Cheesecake Factory. He contrasts the restaurant’s exceptional and consistent sourcing, delivery, cost management, and delight factor to the shambles of modern medicine in the US. When recounting a tasty meal—that he acknowledges lowering his culinary street cred—he said:
In medicine, too, we are trying to deliver a range of services to millions of people at a reasonable cost and with a consistent level of quality. Unlike the Cheesecake Factory, we haven’t figured out how. Our costs are soaring, the service is typically mediocre, and the quality is unreliable. Every clinician has his or her own way of doing things, and the rates of failure and complication (not to mention the costs) for a given service routinely vary by a factor of two or three, even within the same hospital.
Turns out scalable operational prowess is important in service delivery. To wit, I ate at a restaurant recently that, while a chain, counts hospitality legends like Danny Meyer and David Chang as fans. While most culinary magazines tout the unique, the boutique, and the handspun, it turns out game respects game when it comes to insiders and their feelings toward Hillstone. It operates in a few different markets under different names: R&D Kitchen, Honor Bar, Houstons, and Hillstone. But each outlet is united by some interesting cornerstone themes, design cues, and service consistency.
Why is this interesting?
I didn’t really know Hillstone was part of a chain when I ate at one in Santa Monica. I did notice a few elements on entry including perfect lighting and a very punctual and thoughtful greeting by the hostess. The restaurant hummed with quiet efficiency—the service was tight, and the food was tasty. Turns out this wasn’t an anomaly.
When Bon Appetit’s Andrew Knowlton wrote a profile of the brand, he remarked, “In less than three minutes, we had confirmed our reservation with the smiling hosts, checked our coats, snagged some space at the bar, and ordered drinks. A small miracle that I could tell, was making her a believer. When, halfway through my martini, a bartender swooped in to replace my glass with a chilled one, her jaw dropped.”
There are also discernible and consistent design details that don’t seem very hard, but you realize they are quite rare:
Usually I’ll scan a restaurant to make sure I’m getting the best available seat. At Houston’s, I don’t have to worry, since almost every table is a booth. The Biels know that booths offer the privacy and comfort that a freestanding table simply does not. Each table also gets its own (literal) spotlight, meaning that you can read the menu without pulling out your phone for help—something my mom was quick to point out.
The menu is new American classics, delivered in a remarkably consistent manner across the portfolio. There are the cult artichoke dip, the ground chuck burger, and ribs that people really seem to dig.
The genius of the chain is improvements over time. They have observed what people want and relentlessly optimized to give it to them. The service is crisp because servers aren’t overburdened (they never have more than three tables) and it is a team effort (no food runners or bussers). Anyone can help out.
They also get the tiny details right:
Is it the napkins with buttonholes, just in case you need to affix one to your shirt like a spaghetti-eating character in Goodfellas? Is it the fact that every location has a single Mauviel copper pot that it uses to toss the just-fried fries with kosher salt in? Or is it the fact that you’ll never have to fix a wobbly table because they’re all drilled into the floor, thereby eliminating the single biggest annoyance in the history of dining?
In aggregate, I think I was probably noticing only a small modicum of these when I dined. But I could feel the intention and I could feel the obsession with details. And turns out, when you look under the hood, great operations and actioning customer feedback over time can be exceptionally sexy. (CJN)
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Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)
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