The romance of the restaurant business, by the numbers

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Damian Mogavero (at Drexel University's Academic Bistro) is founder of the software company Avero, which helps clients solve problems such as food ordering and staffing. Restaurateurs are artists, he says, and “I actually thought that the data could make them better artists.”

Haddonfield native Damian Mogavero is not a chef or restaurateur. In fact, his experience on a restaurant floor stopped at busing tables at the Cherry Hill Hyatt as a teenager in the 1980s. In the dining world, though, he is regarded as a visionary.

In 1999, after working as a chief financial officer for a restaurant group, Mogavero started analyzing restaurant data in his apartment, on the premise that smart interpretation would boost the bottom line. Avero, the software company he founded, now counts as its customers some of the top names in hospitality, who use it in real time to solve problems in areas such as staffing, sales, food ordering, and theft prevention.

As much as Mogavero touts data to help a restaurant or nightclub, he contends that the future of the industry also depends upon embracing its creative side and adapting to trends. 

For a decade, Mogavero and associate Alice Elliot have organized what they call the underground culinary tour in New York, to which they invite restaurant CEOs from around the country to visit 15 edgy, so-called new-guard restaurants over 25 hours. The CEOs, in turn, can adapt the insights to their own companies. 

The mixture of left and right brain -- data analytics and the artistic side of a restaurant -- is the premise of Mogavero's new book, The Underground Culinary Tour (Crown Business). 

I chatted with him at the Philly Chef Conference on March 6 at Drexel University.

When did your interest in restaurants begin?

I fell in love with the restaurant business as a teenager. I loved that job. It was fun to be a part of the center of the action of a busy dining room. I learned one very important lesson. The general manager said: "If you want to be successful in this business, just do one thing. You need to exceed guest expectations." From that moment on, I was hooked in the restaurant business.

I also have a love for numbers and so went to La Salle University to study finance. Ended up working on Wall Street and worked at a firm called Dillon Read. Did that for two years and went to Harvard Business School, and that's where I met my mentor, Gary Loveman, who was a service management professor.

 I  ended up being a CFO of a restaurant group, where I asked very simple questions to my chefs and managers, like: Who are your top and bottom servers? Why'd your food costs go up? Why did labor costs go up? They gave me blank stares and wrong answers and they spent half their time on administrative things, as opposed to being on the floor of a restaurant. That's really the business problem that I saw. All these answers to these important questions were buried in a bunch of Excel spreadsheets in the back office. No one ever got in the restaurant business to be in the back office. They're artists. I actually thought that the data could make them better artists. If you're able to have the data, you can make more profitable business decisions.

How did you set up Avero?

I brought together a team -- the sommelier, a chef, a manager, and three techies. Literally, the techies had no idea why would I ever hire restaurateurs. They literally couldn't build code, and they were right. Of course, the restaurateurs are like: "Oh my God. These guys are geeks. They don't know anything about the restaurant business." Literally, the restaurateurs became more computer savvy and the techies are eating foie gras and drinking nice wines.  

Why should a consumer find your book compelling?

It's like [the book] Moneyball for restaurants. I think that people love Moneyball because they were interested in baseball and how Billy Beane really used data to transform baseball. I think the only thing bigger than baseball is food.

You talk about old guard and new guard. Can the old guard become new guard?

Absolutely. The new guard has got nothing to do with how old you are. It is really your spirit and your energy, and are you embracing data and technology? Are you adapting your concept to the foodie generation? Whether you're a one-year-old restaurant or, in Brennan's case, a 70-year-old restaurant [in New Orleans]. They basically use data to really help make sure all their servers are trained.

As a consumer, you see the eggs Sardou, you're in the courtyard, you hear the fountains. It's dreamy New Orleans. You've got the Cajun Bloody Marys, the Bananas Foster, a dish that they invented. What you don't see is the magic behind the scenes, that the software is making sure  all the servers are really providing great guest experience. They're making sure that they don't run out of the favorite dishes they want.  

What is the resistance to using data to solve management problems or to improve profitability?

I think the restaurant business is one of the most artistic, creative businesses there is on the planet. I love it for that. Sometimes one may think that data might inhibit that creativity and just doing it by the numbers. I've spent my career basically with the notion that you can actually use data to be a better artist. Provide better, more consistent hospitality.

How many times do you go into a restaurant, get a great experience, and go back to the same restaurant and it's totally different? They don't know the wine list. They don't know the menu cold. How many times do you go in when it's understaffed?  How many times you want to eat outside except the patio's closed? How many times do you go and you're like, "I can't find the server to have my check." They're actually data problems.  The restaurateurs that embrace the data actually provide a magical guest experience and are actually better artists.

How do you select the attendees of the underground culinary tour?

We identified operators who are really innovating in terms of ingredients, beverage, space, and what I call X factor.  The guests learn what's happening and what the trends are so they can adapt it to their own concepts. The trends used to take 10 to 20 years to go from New York to the rest of the country, and now, because of social media, it takes six to 12 months.  The future of our industry depends upon embracing the data side and embracing the creative side, and adapting to the trends. The restaurant tour is doing these two things. The new-guard restaurateurs are going to be the ones feeding the future diners in America and around the world.

Have you ever been tempted to open your own restaurant?

Of course. Haven't we all?