A Restaurateur’s Test Kitchen Strategy

Michael Zislis believes in the restaurateur’s equivalent of the pop quiz. Every night, without advance notice, he visits one of his nine Southern California restaurants to make sure all is well. Zislis might stride into The Strand House, a sophisticated oceanfront restaurant in Manhattan Beach; the sprawling Rock’N Fish at the L.A. Live entertainment complex in downtown Los Angeles; or the Zinc Lounge, which is tucked inside Shade, the Manhattan Beach boutique hotel he also owns. If something isn’t working, Zislis wants to know fast. “Real entrepreneurs fix problems,” he says. “They don’t put their heads in the sand.”

Zislis is a compulsive tester and taster (he exercises an hour a day to keep pounds in check). Several times a year, each of his chefs presents 30 or so potential menu items. Only five or six will make it, and then only after weeks of tweaking. He recently rejected a raw kale salad as too garlicky and vetoed its croutons. The dish finally made the menu after diced grapes and champagne vinaigrette were added. (Zislis, 48, says his discerning palate helped him launch a successful craft brewery when he was still attending USC as an economics major.)

Vendors also face rigorous testing, with Zislis and four team members conducting monthly “cuttings,” or blind tastings. For instance, they might sample five suppliers’ unseasoned ground beef patties cooked medium-rare by one of his chefs. If a current vendor doesn’t score highest, it’s cut. “This keeps our vendors in touch with themselves,” Zislis says. “We had a fish vendor who changed the quality of some fish. After a cutting, it lost our business for a year.” The vendor had to win its way back, but he says it’s stayed four years in a row since.

Popularity Isn’t Everything

Every Monday, restaurateur Michael Zislis audits what’s selling and what’s not. But he realizes revenues aren’t the whole story. When Zislis removed low-selling sardines from the menu at his Circa restaurant in Manhattan Beach, “I’ve never gotten so much pushback from customers.” Sardines returned to the menu. “I sell only 15 sardine orders a week, while I sell 80 to 120 of everything else. But people who love sardines say these are the best they’ve ever tasted, and that's the kind of emotional connection you want to cultivate in your customers."

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