Business Builders

Timeless Tips from Past Issues

As an Idea Exchange for Independent Restaurateurs, La Trattoria has published over 1,000 proven ideas in the past nineteen years. Because many of these ideas are equally valuable today, we are sharing some favorites here. If you enjoy them, let us know at (800) 328-8667, and we will consider featuring more in the future.


Ways to Further Boost Food Quality

Most Independents recognize that their success depends on serving food that is consistently superior. That is why it pays to continually work on further enhancing the quality and consistency of your food. Here are three ways fellow Independents have done just that!


Preportion Cheese for Pizza Consistency

Former pizzeria owner Dave Ostrander reduced ingredient waste and increased pizza consistency in his shop by preportioning his shredded pizza cheese daily. Using a scale, Dave measured exactly the right amount of shredded cheese into individual sturdy plastic cups. The full cups were then refrigerated until needed.

This way, when “cheesing” a large pie, Dave’s pie men simply emptied a full cup onto the pizza. (Split evenly, one cup also makes two medium pizzas.) As a result, each pizza baked more consistently and was less costly because less cheese was “spilt” by overzealous pie men throwing handfuls onto each pie. (Originally published in 5/03)

Dave Ostrander, Owner, Big Dave’s Pizza Oscoda, MI


Taste Tests Establish Target Flavor

In Italian cuisine, large portions tend to be the rule. With pizza, this tradition of generosity often carries over to topping quantities. After all, if a little tastes good, even more certainly tastes better, right?!? Well, through blind taste testing with his employees, Mike Ahles discovered that for some ingredient combinations (especially for specialty toppings with complex flavors), the opposite can be true.

Therefore, when developing specialty pizzas, Mike conducts staff taste tests between different versions until he hits an optimum flavor blend by ingredient quantity. He then carefully “specs” those quantities for his employees to follow so his customers can count on that same flavor every time. Surprisingly, Mike found that objective flavor testing often led him to use less of some expensive specialty toppings than he would have otherwise expected! (Originally published 8/93)

Mike Ahles, Owner, Giovanni’s Mammoth Lakes, CA


Improving “To Go” Food Quality

Dine-in restaurants who add takeout/delivery often do so without considering what impact the process may have on existing menu items. However, as Tim Wiltshire discovered, some menu items hold up better during transport than others.

Therefore, before offering any menu item “to go,” Tim puts it through “container trials” by recreating takeout/delivery conditions. That is, the item is placed in the “to go” container and held there for 15 to 20 minutes, before reinspection and tasting. As a result, Tim’s “to go” menu is limited to “transport friendly” items. The “trials” have also led Tim to spend a bit more for better containers that demonstrably enhance post-delivery food quality. (Originally published in 5/03)

Tim Wiltshire, Owner, Famous Murphy’s Reno, NV


Ideas to Attract New Quality Oriented Customers

When great tasting food is your primary competitive advantage vs. the chains, your best bet in attracting new, quality oriented customers is getting your food into their mouths (or in the case of Nonno’s Ristorante, the aroma into their noses)!


Spreading Your Own Word of Mouth

Everyone you meet outside of your restaurant is a potential customer. That’s why restaurateur Dan Parisi carries a pocketful of business cards to hand out whenever he runs neighborhood errands.

The cards, which feature the restaurant’s address and phone number and a line for a validating signature (to prevent fraud), entitle the bearer to one free pasta dinner or small pizza at Dan’s place. Presented along with Dan’s winning smile, the cards have attracted many to try Primo Ristorante for the first time, while Dan’s great food brings them back for more. (Originally published 6/95)

Dan Parisi, Owner Primo Ristorante Barrington, IL


Get Regulars to Bring Friends

Knowing that friends often share similar tastes in dining, restaurateur Joe Nawrocki encourages his best customers to introduce their friends to his intimate café by presenting them with a gift certificate so they can treat their friends to a nice dinner out. And because newcomers are accompanied by good friends who already love Joe’s food, their visit is typically the first of many! (Originally published 6/95)

Joe Nawrocki, Owner Café Piccolo Scottsdale, AZ


Aroma Based “Advertising” alla Griglia

Restaurateur Ralph DiTullio welcomes warmer weather (and uses it to full advantage) by cooking fragrant foods alla griglia (on the grill) in front of the restaurant every Friday and Saturday night. Locals who stroll through the neighborhood on the pleasant, warm evenings are drawn to Nonno’s by the enticing aromas from his grill to discover what’s cooking! (Originally published 5/03)

Ralph DiTullio, Owner Nonno’s Los Gatos, CA


Rapid, Responsive Service

In this Success Story originally published in May of 1994, Chicago restaurateur Dino Lubbat does a nice job using rapid, responsive service to make the most of his modestly sized dining room (and even smaller kitchen)!


Success Story: Trattoria Dinotto, Chicago, IL

Minimizing Guest Waiting

Dino’s service philosophy can be summarized as “The guest should never be left waiting or wanting.” Therefore, while guests are never rushed, Dino’s service team (servers, bussers, expediters) work together to anticipate customer needs and eliminate unnecessary waiting time throughout the customers’ stay.

For example, quick bussing and table setting following guest departure means Dino’s newly arrived guests can be seated sooner (also minimizing table “dead time” for greater sales productivity).

Upon arriving at the table, these new guests are immediately greeted with warm rosemary bread, herbed butter, and pesto spread, which helps reduce their perceived wait until the server presents the menu and daily specials.

Providing Attentive Service

Each table is actively assisted by the entire service staff (from server to busser) who have been cross trained in each other’s functions. So rather than expecting guests to wait for their “assigned” server, even the bussers and expediters are trained to take wine orders, knowledgeably answer questions about entrée preparation, etc.

To encourage server teamwork, tips are pooled across all stations and service positions. Even the bussers get a 20% portion because of their active service role. By reducing server territoriality within the small dining room, Dino has given each of his service team members incentive to satisfy each and every guest in the house.

Kitchen Is Geared to Responsiveness

Responsive service also requires the smooth flow of orders into and out of the kitchen. Because Dino’s small kitchen is often pressed to full capacity, a single mistake could lead to a chain reaction of backups, with no time to catch up.

Therefore, to avoid time wasting prepping during the rush, Dino establishes par levels for ingredient prepreparation based on carefully recorded ingredient usage from prior weeks. And to facilitate high speed cooking, ingredient components are carefully prestaged within easy reach of the chef’s station.


While some operators facing similar time constraints might prefer to simplify the menu or prepare some or all of their foods in advance, Dino feels cooking dishes to order (and serving them with time urgency) gives them a fresh flavor edge which can’t be beat. Given the capacity crowds at Trattoria Dinotto, it’s clear his customers


Slow Night Fundraisers

Turning a slow night of the week into a revenue sharing fundraiser is a powerful way Independent restaurateurs attract new, quality oriented customers and support the community … without discounting, which can attract disloyal price shoppers!


Charity Fundraiser Builds Slow Nights

Chuck Testo boosts typically slow Tuesday and Wednesday nights 10% to 15% while increasing his hometown loyalty by donating a percentage of that night’s sales to a selected local youth group, school, or club. A new group is selected weekly from applicants who apply well in advance. The event is publicized through flyers distributed by the group to their friends and family and via Chuck’s weekly newspaper ad.

The kid oriented program allows Chuck to demonstrate his care for the community while also giving him a polite way to control his response to the many organizations which approach him for contributions. As well, it directs his charitable giving in a way which also benefits the business! (Originally published in 12/93)

Chuck Testo, Owner, Testo’s Italian Restaurant North Troy, NY


Classroom Contest Increases Fundraiser Participation

Like many restaurateurs, Linda DuLisse of Pizza World helps local schools raise money by allowing each participating school to distribute flyers announcing “fundraiser night” at her restaurant. Linda then donates a percentage of that night’s sales to the sponsoring school.

However, since Linda wanted to maximize Pizza World’s donation (and total sales), she didn’t leave student participation to chance. Therefore, Linda added a “classroom pizza party” contest to reward the class redeeming the most flyers at the fundraiser.

For the food cost of a few pizzas and soda donated to this subsequent party, Linda has significantly increased family participation in the school fundraiser, resulting in increased school donations, increased Pizza World sales (on what would otherwise be a slow night), and enhanced loyalty from customers who appreciate Linda’s charitable efforts! (Originally published in 6/98)

Linda DuLisse, Owner, Pizza World Middletown, NY


Boost Fundraisers by 50%

School fundraiser night can boost slow night traffic while encouraging new families to try your food while paying full price. When parents eat at the restaurant that night (and present a flyer distributed by the school), the restaurant donates a fraction of their purchase dollars back to the PTA. Because some busy families have schedule conflicts (soccer, piano, etc.), pizzeria owner Rik Jones extended his fundraisers to three consecutive nights (e.g., Monday through Wednesday). As a result, the number of participating families per fundraiser increased 50%! (Originally published in 2/07)

Rik Jones, Owner, Cicero’s Pizza San Jose, CA


Suggestive Selling

When done properly, “suggestive selling” techniques help servers understand how to better satisfy guests while increasing their own earning power. This story was first published in May of 1994.


Service That Sells is a practical, hands-on guide to increasing restaurant profits through suggestive selling. The book evolved from a successful training program developed by Independent restaurateurs Jim Sullivan and Phil Roberts. Written in a light, easy to digest style, Service That Sells is loaded with take home value.

Proactive Service Replaces Order Taking

Suggestive selling is proactively finding out what guests’ likes are and then recommending specific menu items, rather than simply taking the order. Properly done, it can help guests make selections in tune with the occasion, try new menu items, and enjoy a more complete dining experience. As a result, guests are more satisfied, servers earn bigger tips, and restaurant sales increase!

Larger Check Averages Add Up

How effective is suggestive selling? The authors say their check averages grew by about a dollar over a year. Put into perspective, this represents an additional $1.00 worth of toppings on a pizza, or four guests sharing a $3.95 appetizer, or a $16 bottle of wine split between four guests at every fourth table, etc. To a restaurant averaging 500 guests per week, even just 50¢ more per guest means $12,500 per year in additional sales.

Broadcast on WII FM

To successfully train servers in suggestive selling, you need to understand that they listen to “radio station” WII FM (What’s in it for me?). So use paper and pencil to show your servers how suggestive selling just five more $3.00 appetizers per shift at a 15% tip x 5 shifts per week will produce an effortless $10 per week! Repeat the exercise for desserts, specialty drinks, etc. and the resulting possibilities will grab their interest.

Suggestive Selling Techniques

In suggesting appetizers, drinks, desserts, etc., don’t ask guests “yes or no” questions (e.g., “How about some appetizers?”) which invite a “no” response. Instead, have your servers suggest a choice of items (e.g., “Would you like to try some freshly baked ‘Crostini al Pomodoro’ or perhaps our popular ‘Scampi Antonio’ before dinner?”).

Increase the chance that dessert will be ordered by presuggesting special desserts as guests are first seated. For example, “Don’t forget to save room for our authentic hand stuffed cannoli. They’re absolutely delicious!”

Remember that to many guests, “coffee” signals the end of the meal. So as guests finish their entrée, servers should first suggest desserts, specialty drinks, etc. before mentioning coffee. Suggesting espresso or cappuccino instead of coffee is also a margin enhancer and a classy signature to your guests’ meals.

Improving Service Levels

To help determine which menu items to suggest that might best satisfy each guest, have your servers ask a strategic question like: “Do you have a really big appetite or do you prefer something lighter?”

In order for your servers to provide knowledgeable recommendations, they should know your menu inside and out. This includes the basic ingredients in every dish you offer (e.g., “a 6 ounce boneless breast of chicken, rubbed with garlic”), how they are prepared and served (“the vegetables are lightly sautéed …”); which “extras” (wines, specialty toppings, sauces, etc.) would go well with each dish, and the correct price of each item or extra.