Restaurateurs across the globe seek ways to make their eateries the most exquisite; for TOCA, at The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, cheese is the answer to “experiential dining.”
Few restaurateurs would argue that cheese isn’t a good meal or wine accompaniment. But still less are properly leveraging these savory pairings to enhance the overall dining experience and subsequently turn a better profit.
I’ve been a big fan of The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, since long before it even opened its doors, as I was eager for this esteemed brand to finally make its mark in my home city. Even though nearly every feature and amenity in this hotel is worth lauding, I have seldom mentioned the local Ritz-Carlton before because, alas, I lack a reason to stay at a hotel over the comfort of my own house some 20 minutes away. All that changed, however, after a chance encounter with Arjun Gopi, the property’s director of food and beverage operations, wherein he offered to give me the royal tour of their signature restaurant, TOCA.
Perhaps the most striking feature of this luxurious Italian dining spot is its glass-walled cheese cave positioned right at the entranceway. It’s impossible to miss for anyone who saunters onto the mezzanine floor of the lobby, and indeed, it sets an impressive tone for what’s to come. With this cave à fromage as a centerpiece, TOCA has fully embraced cheese as its narrative spine. Offerings include decadent cuisine infusions, cave tours given daily at 5:30 p.m. or at the guests’ convenience, a dessert menu that’s three-quarters cheese, wine pairings expertly curated by the sommelier, and a monthly event series. As it concerns all hoteliers, there are some fantastic lessons here for how you can enhance revenues and your reputation.
A restaurant is far more than its food
When building this cheese haven, both Gopi and Peter Muir, TOCA restaurant manager, had to make an argument for building the cave in space that otherwise would have comfortably housed two four-seat tables. The cheese cave is built between a cluster of structural concrete support columns, encased in glass.
Observable from every table, the cave helps make each meal exceedingly memorable through its additive dose of visual stimulation.
Moreover, the tours on hand, and the sight of sous-chefs hustling back and forth as they prepare cheeses for use in dishes and formal presentations, help to bridge the topic of consumer education. That is, while your top priority at a restaurant is to deliver a satisfying meal with great service, your guests, particularly at the luxury end, crave something extra. Befitting the self-actualization zenith of the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid, they are looking to enrich their livelihoods and their appreciation of the many fascinating intricacies of our vast planet.
Some people accomplish this by traversing the many hidden destinations untouched by the blight of urbanization; others achieve it by exploring those same megacities in search of niche subcultures and amazing slices of life. TOCA does this by giving all of its patrons a whole new love and appreciation for cheese, thereby heightening the overall dining experience beyond what only food can do.
Cheese is the new wine
Restaurateurs around the world take great care in crafting a superb wine list, not only because the markups on alcohol are enough to make their businesses solvent, but also because they know that the right wine can boost meal satisfaction. Following the tour of the cheese cave, I sat down with Gopi and Muir for a salivating tasting prepared by the TOCA’s in-house sommelier, Lorie O’Sullivan, which perfectly demonstrates why cheese is a forgotten frontier in the wine profiteering equation.
To partially reiterate the point made about heightening the meal experience through education, its one thing to be presented a platter of four cheeses and four corresponding wines, then left to nibble as you see fit. It’s a whole other stratosphere to be guided through these pairings one-by-one with a brief explanation, including tasting notes, place of origin and any unique elements for each.
By emphasizing cheeses in this regard, Ritz-Carlton is further differentiating itself from other fine dining establishments and well on its way to, as Muir described it, “achieving a perfect cheque at every table” – that is, customers who order appetizers, main dishes, alcoholic beverages and desserts, maximize revenue per turn.
Takeaways for every hotelier
While I doubt your already-built restaurant has room or renovation budget for a dedicated cheese cave, the key lessons for you here are twofold:
For one, customers eat with their eyes. To become truly memorable and lever your eatery towards synergistically building the property’s reputation, you have to offer more than just the food on the plate. This is known as “experiential dining.”
Think of it as live entertainment, or dinner theatre minus the kitsch. While TOCA’s cave à fromage is near impossible to duplicate, your restaurant’s interpretation of this may be in the form of servers torching a crème brûlée tableside (cooking anything in front of the guests, really), a roving cart for special promotions or excellently curated music that is congruent with the outlet’s given theme. The point is to get creative and give something extra beyond the cuisine itself.
Second is that sophisticated customers also eat with their brains. They aren’t eating with you, and they certainly aren’t zealously returning to you time and time again, for the same-old fare they can get anywhere else. Your guests want to be wowed, to be surprised and to be engaged on all five senses as well as get a slice (pun intended) of new knowledge in the process. Many prestigious restaurants offer cellar tours for patrons while brewpubs will let you explore their adjacent processing facilities prior to ordering. Use the facilities at your disposal, but also know that this tutorial approach relies entirely on your staff and how well they are able to pay these insights forward to customers. Hence, a good starting point for any guest education endeavor is to train your team accordingly.
And for those of you who have the opportunity to visit Toronto in the near future, be sure to make a reservation at TOCA and witness the cheese cave for yourself.
One of the world’s most published writers in hospitality, Larry Mogelonsky is the owner of Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited and the founder of LMA Communications Inc., an award-winning marketing agency based in Toronto. His experience encompasses hotel properties around the world, both branded and independent, and ranging from luxury and boutique to select-service. Larry also sits on several boards for companies focused on hotel technology. His work includes four books, “Are You an Ostrich or a Llama?” (2012), “Llamas Rule” (2013), “Hotel Llama” (2015) and “The Llama is Inn” (2017). You can reach Larry at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss hotel business challenges, to inquire about his consulting services or to book speaking engagements.
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