How the Restaurant of the Future is Beyond a Dining Room

In late 2019, Wired coined a Seattle-based independent restaurant as the “tech-obsessed, hyper-experimental restaurant of the future.” Fast forward just four months later and that claim was put to the test against 2020’s global pandemic. As industry-leading chefs and CEOs from David Chang to Tom Colicchio and David Meyer relay remorseful sentiments about the hardships they’re facing as they shutter their restaurants, Chef Eric Rivera’s wild ideas behind Addo now seem as if they were predicting the new crisis-shaped reality.

This is what’s interesting about creativity and innovation – it rarely comes from where you’re looking and Rivera’s not letting these would-be “leaders” off the hook. Taking to twitter, he’s calling them out for what he views as neglectful leadership and a lack of innovation.

Despite the bravado displayed in Rivera’s threads, the most interesting thing about him is his passion for why cooking matters and the willingness to lay out his entire playbook for others to follow. If you’ve ever wondered what customer obsession looks like, keep reading as we delve into this passionate interview with Chef Rivera.

TBD: Tell us about starting out with two-seat pop-up dinners and how that shaped what your restaurant, Addo, became.

ER: Back in 2017, I started with two seats at a time with a 15-course tasting menu all out of my apartment. I was also doing a bunch of pop-ups around the city and eventually started renting out restaurant spaces that were vacant at night. Basically, I was always doing whatever I could to feed people or sell food to make it happen. Until finally, I got an opportunity to take over a brick and mortar space I was already doing pop-ups in that went out of business.

It’s been evolving from there trying to figure out what people want, what people will spend money on, and how to keep the restaurant going. Everything from a caviar tasting menu down to a Not A Popeye’s Fried Chicken Sandwich night, we really do anything and everything in between. It’s just always been the way we’ve done it.

Even during the last month and a half [March-April 2020] with every restaurant going into lockdown [due to the COVID crisis], the only real change for us was that we couldn’t have people in our dining room. In just a couple hours of reprogramming a few things, we thought about what we were doing and how we could tweak that to fit. For instance, adding the Addo for the People program where people pay it forward or finding charities and people in need that we can deliver to and provide meals. It’s a really wide range of things that we’re doing and shows how we’ve always been super scrappy.

TBD: What do you mean when you’ve described the restaurant as your own incubator and how does it differ from a traditional restaurant?

ER: It’s looking at data points, studying what we’re getting as far as sales, and figuring out how far we can go with it. There are certain nights when we’re doing dine-in with three to five different experiences in one night. Sometimes realizing we only sold two tickets and others selling out. So you look at how many times we did sell out. How many times can we keep doing this? Have we done it too many times and am I tired of it? It’s just a constant driving of ideas and menus to keep things new.

The goal has always been to get people to come back and the way you do that is by not being a single concept. Unless you’re a dive bar or on the lower end, like fast-food style, there just aren’t that many concepts that bring people back multiple times. And yeah, there are many people that would come to a restaurant maybe five to ten times a month. I wanted to find out how we can get more and it means changing things up.

That’s why we operate as a brand more than a single concept restaurant. I want people flying in from different states, different parts of the world, different parts of the city using this as an anniversary or birthday thing, but I also want it to just be their normal place they visit three times a week.

TBD: Was frequency of visitation versus the typical chef’s menu your thesis from the beginning or are they somehow related?

ER: Totally related. The food that I want to make is very different. It’s not the same thing. I’m not beholden to a recipe. I’ve never been that way. For me, it’s something different every time. It’s more like improvisational jazz than playing sheet music over and over again and that keeps it exciting for the guests too. “Oh, I like when they play this song, but then they did something different this time and it’s so much cooler!” That’s the kind of vibe that I want with the restaurant. They come in and come in often because they can see it evolving over time for unique experiences.

TBD: How do you maintain a sense of brand or being in such an experimental environment?

ER: It’s just being consistent with the drive behind it all that people can see. Whether by means of social media or newsletters, there’s a constant communication between the diner and ourselves to let them know what we’re doing now and what’s next. Even in asking them what are some things that they think we should do.

TBD: How much of what you adjust at the restaurant is based on customer feedback versus gut reaction?

ER: It’s different every time and always has been. Everything from the on-site experiences to taking people on tours in various parts of the world or state to show different areas, ingredients, preparations and techniques, I think we can be anything. That’s the best part. It doesn’t have to be all about protecting the brick and mortar restaurant. That’s just where we pay rent.

Right now as it stands, I have 3000 square feet that’s basically being used as a warehouse, not a dining room. There aren’t a lot of people that function that way. That can understand how the dining room can be something different. Like, I don’t give a shit. I pay rent on the space. If I need to flip the thing over in two seconds, I’ll do it.

It’s kind of my job to think of the cool shit we can do. There are things like hardcore styles of cuisine that I won’t do or feel like we’re not good enough to do because there’s a level of respect that comes with that. Even if I practice it over and over and over and over again, it still feels very disingenuous. The stuff that we will do is based on experience and time and it’s not just us trying to sell something to sell something.

TBD: How does that apply to the adjustments you’ve made for the current crisis? Are you reacting to what you’re seeing and what you think people want? Or are you getting feedback from people that are asking you to do “X”?

ER: Both. We’re a little bit of everything to be honest. For instance, Ingrid, Addo’s director of operations, built a wine program out of knowing that all of the companies that distributors had been selling to were pretty much shut down. She knew that meant there’s a collection of wine just sitting in a room somewhere. We were like, “Fuck it. We’ll sell it.”

I have purveyors for fish and produce and it’s the same kind of vibe. They’re dealing with no one buying anything and I’m over here asking what they have that they need to move before it spoils. What do suppliers have that everybody projected to use with future markets? Take March Madness. It didn’t happen, but everybody was ready to have thousands of pounds of chicken wings ready. So, I should probably put chicken wings on the menu somewhere. There are all of these micro markets that you can deal with very quickly.

TBD: What’s been most surprising about the customer response or expectation?

ER: It’s mostly been really good. I’ve had a couple of outliers that I think were expecting more right out of the gate. For instance, one guy said, “I got this take out stuff ordered and it just didn’t really feel like fine dining.” To me, that’s on him. I can’t be there right now to make this how he thinks it should be, but that’s fine. I can offer a refund and he doesn’t have to come back again. It’s just about expectation. What is it that you or the buyer is wanting it to be?

A big one right now is managing logistics of delivery because we’re doing a lot of it. You don’t think about it at first, but people already have a standard of what they believe in for deliveries. They have Amazon Prime coming all the time or think about how Domino’s shapes expectations. They’ve been doing this forever. We have to compete with that frame of mind for a standard. It’s very interesting as a restaurant thinking, “Damn, these Domino’s guys have it.” And they do. They have it down to an art form from their app to their vans and cars with their little pizza heaters. Without realizing it before, as a restaurant you’re already way behind the standards of delivery.

That’s the essence of it. A brand like Domino’s is holding all the cards now and it’s interesting to ask yourself what it is that they do that makes it really cool. Is it their communication? Is it the spaced-out approach? Is it just making sure that stuff is getting there and the pizza isn’t upside down? Little things like that key off for me and provide examples of what we need to do and how we need to do it.

TBD: How does the “business” aspect of running the restaurant fit in and when have you had to alter plans because of it whether it be because of investors, other partners, or operational risks/limitations?

ER: The business side of it is very black and white for me. People are buying or they’re not. I’m asking why are they buying and why are they not buying. Why aren’t they buying repeated times? Why aren’t they saying it’s awesome? Then it’s throwing the ego in the trash and figuring it out. Luckily for me, there are no investors or outside help at all. Any decision that I make is all on me. I don’t have to communicate with somebody who’s only looking at a spreadsheet. That’s not the situation I wanted to ever put myself in for my own restaurant, let alone business.

TBD: You’ve mentioned that you have a lot of customer data and I’m guessing this is related to the ticketing system you use. How does that data play into or inform the experiences you offer?

ER: I started with ticketing systems day one. I worked for the Alinea group in Chicago, so I knew the good and the bad about Tock and figured out my own way to use it. While a lot of the back end is set up for table management and where to put people, I don’t need that. I just need it to function as a payment processing service and that’s the way I’ve taken it.

I can look at an experience where I need to sell 20 tickets in order to be fine and if people buy 19 of them, I’m like, “Dope.” Now, I know how to plan and what to order. We can also change it on a dime the next day if we notice an experience is deficient, which helps planning and advertising needs. We can put things out there and forecast it that way. That works very differently for us managing inventory of tickets that are bought versus seats sold and allows us to be that much more efficient.

That’s a big part of it and then we have about four or five different piles of data and analytics that I’m pulling from MailChimp, direct contact, any of our Instagram accounts and Facebook. We capture all of that to understand who the diner is for every single experience. Then wrapping that up, we know who to push and advertise towards. It’s very studied and we know who our guests are.

TBD: I’ve heard you mention that more traditional restaurants with fixed menus may struggle to adapt even with your tech stack because of the monotony of their offering. How would you use the tools you have in place to adapt a larger operation at scale – one that relies on the economies and operational rigor that come with it?

ER: It’s basically about taking the idea of what you are and what people know you for and thinking about what you have to do to stay open.

Look at the Cheesecake Factory. When you look at their menu, it’s enormous. It’s crazy and they can really hit a range. That’s an enormous scale of what I do, but they are so dependent on the dining room. Take that away and look at what they have left.

What I see is that they still have all the food, options and potential diners. So, why aren’t they taking the same approach we did? Why aren’t they doing delivery, or take out, or whatever? Why not funnel their money and resources to make that happen? I think it’s a matter of them having to answer to third parties saying, “No, that’s going to be too risky for us.” And right there is the difference between being open and having to shut down.

At that point, you have to realize that a lot of people on your team aren’t very creative or innovative and would rather stand around with their hands in their pockets expecting it all to just stay the same. At that point, shutting down is on them.

TBD: You’ve been critical of other chefs, especially celebrities, during the COVID-19 crisis calling attention to their lack of creativity beyond food. Why do you believe the “innovation” these chefs bring to recipes isn’t being translated to the business itself, the experience, or even the notion of what a restaurant is?

ER: The hardest thing for me to understand is how someone can be creative to win awards and high fives and not take advantage of the unlimited resources that come with it. A lot of these chefs start off working for somebody else. Then they get a thing and find investors somehow and end up with this iconic dish or two. That’s all a result of being creative enough to define a vision and open up a new business.

The thing that really gets me is that now there’s a speed bump in their little freeway and it stopped their Ferrari dead in the lane. That’s crazy to me because the same way that they spun up a new concept before, they’re not even thinking of it that way now. They’re defaulting to just shutting everything down. That’s not okay. There are people dying left and right and some of these chefs are on TV talking about how “it’s the hardest week in my life.” Really? I keep equating it to the 1% mentality. It’s just a joke.

Take owning 10, 15, 20 restaurants. That’s just real estate, right? When a crisis like this happens, what could you do? How about turning it into a soup kitchen? Or turning it into a place to support doctors and nurses after work? There are so many options. I know what I would do with those ten restaurants and I don’t have their resources.

Instead, we see chefs signing petitions and pleading with government officials to do “more.” They’re worrying about the wrong things. For some, the last financial collapse took them seven to ten years to recover. The same thing is happening again. If you didn’t take a chance to turn and pivot your business, then that’s on you.

TBD: Has your willingness to take risks ever backfired? If so, what’s an example of this?

ER: There’s been tons of stuff but I don’t look at it that way. I have a lot of ideas. Some of them suck. Some are really good. I’m just not worrying about the bad ones because I’m thinking about how to make the good ones better.

TBD: That’s an interesting answer coming from a chef. Instead of considering new menus, that sounds more like a tech entrepreneur talking about failing forward as fast as possible.

ER: That’s just me studying markets. I grew up here in Washington and know the story of brands like Microsoft and Amazon. There are parallels to all of that stuff and the way that I’ve launched things. I start with what is the idea behind the business? What is it that we’re trying to do? Was Bezos just going to sell books? Everybody thought he was, but no, he was just selling.

For me, it starts by answering what you are and what you do. From there you start to see parallels with what we’re doing. Worry about sales, the quality of food, the experience, and so on and then everything else kind of falls into place. I know not everybody is going to like everything I do or my approach. I’m not beholden to that. I’m beholden to my employees and the restaurant itself and generating stuff people want.

TBD: What’s something that you wouldn’t do and why?

ER: There are so many different things that I want to do that I don’t see why I should limit myself. Especially the way everything changes so quickly. If all the restaurants in an area close, I know there’s an opportunity for us to do something.

I’ll be honest, we didn’t do pasta a year ago. It wasn’t my thing, but I bought a pasta extruder a couple of months ago which was probably one of the coolest things I’ve bought considering what’s happening right now. People spend thousands of dollars on pasta that we make because people like pasta and they’re willing to buy it. So, I’m like, “fuck it, we’re a pasta restaurant.” It’s a different approach because whatever is needed I’ll make it happen.

TBD: What’s something that you would want to communicate to every independent restaurant owner in the country?

ER: You got this. There’s nothing you can’t do.

One of the biggest limitations when you first get a business comes from everybody asking you the dumbest questions over and over. What’s your business? What’s your concept? What do you guys do? What’s the deal? Over the last couple weeks the only thing I tell people about what we do is, we’re fucking open, that’s what we do. We’re fucking open. What’s my concept? Doesn’t matter. I’m fucking open. That attitude goes really far with guests and confidence of staff and puts everybody in a different frame of mind.

When things started happening here, the local paper and everything else was just doom and gloom. That’s not the right approach. There are people that have worked seven, ten, twenty years just to get a restaurant. Now, they don’t know what else to do. They’re wondering if the city or state or government can help. I’m thinking, don’t talk to those people. Talk to the ones that are willing to make something happen. Then that inspires other people to make it happen. Would you seriously ask Donald Trump for business advice, or would you rather talk to Warren Buffett? It doesn’t make sense. Think about who you’re listening to – consider the source.

TBD: Everything you’re saying ties back to a sentiment you’ve shared before that, “if you learn to cook then it’s your responsibility to feed people.” Is that your core philosophy?

ER: Yeah, here’s an example. Look at Ireland’s prime minister. He was a doctor before, but wasn’t practicing anymore. Despite still serving as the Prime Minister, he recently decided to go back to practicing. His reason? Because that’s what people needed him to do right now.

If you cook for a living and know how to cook, then don’t you think there’s a bunch of people that are hungry that need something from you right now?

Shortly after our time with Chef Rivera, he hosted a free webinar to further offer his experience and ideas with fellow chefs and owners opening with a challenge.

“Treat everyday like you need to pivot.”

To learn more about Rivera and his experiments with Addo, follow him on instagram or twitter where he often shares specific and tactical advice in threads like this. For anyone interested in the webinar, he plans to share that on his youtube channel.

We'd love to hear your thoughts and perspectives @tobedisrupted