I just finished feeding each of my eight employees (or my “minions” as I like to call them) a generic looking sandwich so they can get back to work slinging out plates of spaghetti carbonara and pumpkin soup to the customers streaming into my restaurant. I was loathe to fork over $200 dollars for each measly sandwich but that’s the price I have to pay to keep my restaurant humming. As I take a break from running the joint to read up on the latest MLB playoff news, I get an SMS from Les.
New Baby here!! Yay!! Trade water with me.
Immediately, I jump on IM and ask if baby indeed really is here. (Baby is the surprise two week early little boy of her cousin and my good friend).
YEAH!! Give me your water.
This is serious business. Serious business indeed.
Welcome to La Pata Negra, my own little restaurant homage to the best jamón in the world. You want to eat at my restaurant? Well, find a way to convert yourself into pixels because La Pata Negra resides inside the virtual playworld of Restaurant City, a Facebook app created by Playfish. Les got me hooked on this game two weeks ago and it has become another addictive time suck device suitable for procrastinators everywhere. I can personally vouch for its effectiveness.
Restaurant City is a popular game with over 10 million virtual restaurants floating around and even real chefs joining in the fun. (I wonder if Victor Arguinzoniz is on Facebook and would he want to be the guest chef at my joint?)
The game works like this: you get a starter retail space, some basic furniture, and two employees. With one click, the doors are open without having to deal with zoning laws, health codes, or liquor licenses. Wine or beer is not on the menu…but I guess there are under 21 players out there. As your restaurant earns more money, you advance to higher and higher levels, which gets you a bigger restaurant space and more employees. The money you earn goes towards feeding your employees and buying fixtures, furniture, and equipment for your restaurant. You can also buy ingredients but trading with friends is more efficient since you save money and everyone gets what they want. Though this whole ingredient trading thing has turned my friends into mercenaries, some players more cutthroat than others using babies as leverage without batting an eyelid.
Even though this is a game, there are lessons to be learned from this app especially if you have ever dreamed of opening a restaurant.
Lesson 1: Don’t rush to expand. Understand your business and identify the bottle necks or you’ll suffer from growing pains.
It’s not as easy as just cooking and serving. There are issues of time, labor restrictions, and efficiency. You start out with a few tables and the more tables you have, the more meals you can serve, thus earning you money and more importantly, gourmet points which determine your level of play. If your customers are happy, you get more approval points which in turn, draws more people in. At the beginning, I thought I could add more tables with just one server and one chef. However, they couldn’t produce enough dishes and serve enough food to satisfy the customers. If the customers are kept waiting too long, they will walk out and reduce your popularity foot traffic. I couldn’t expand too fast even if I had the money because while furniture maybe a one time cost, if I couldn’t serve the customers, they would walk out the door. So you are limited by the number of employees you have.
Not only do you have to figure out the optimal number of customers you can seat given the number of employees, but you also have to figure out the best server to chef ratio. Through trial and error, I realized that lack of chefs were my bottleneck and I can provide good service to about 10 tables with just one server. But I also had to help out my lone server by adjusting my floor plan to minimize the amount of walking the server does to get from the chef stations to the tables. As I increased my employee base, I added more chefs until I reached an optimal service level before adding additional servers to the mix.
Lesson 2: Keep your employees happy and let them do their jobs.
Speaking of my minions, it was great to be able to hire my friends to work for me. Who wouldn’t want to work mano a mano with people whose company you enjoy? Naturally, I picked the best cooks like Supernova and Cupcake to be my sous chefs. Right now, in addition to the aforementioned, I’ve also got Les, JN, Megs, Fashionista, and Mama working along side me. If I don’t think the minions are up to snuff, I can also sack them like I did with Bihar. Don’t feel bad for him. The game is fair to hardworking folks and I was obliged to give him a severance package even though he was on the job for less than a week.
My minions are hard workers but like people, they get tired and need to recharge. Unlike real people, they don’t need rest, just food and a decent working environment. When my restaurant was expanding and I was trying to adjust to different layouts or server/chef combinations, it was hard to not want them to move faster. I don’t know how I wasted so many hours just watching my pixelated minions moving about doing their jobs and grinning with pleasure with each “ka-ching” of the register and scrutinizing their every move whenever I saw customers leaving dissatisfied. But I realized that it would drive me crazy just staring at them if they got slammed during a rush of customers and I had to step away. I took a cue from my corporate job: Don’t micro manage good employees. I picked the crème de la crème so I had to step back and let them do their jobs. My responsibility was to provide the most efficient serving environment for them and just and come back on payday, or rather, feeding hour.
Lesson 3: The best restaurants specialize. Not everyone can be a Chinese restaurant or a Cheesecake Factory.
As for the menu, there are preset dishes that require three to five ingredients and the best way to earn points is to specialize in a few dishes and keep increasing the levels by amassing the needed ingredients. Right now I’ve got tomato basil soup and pumpkin soup as my starters, margherita pizza and spaghetti carbonara as my entrees. No, it’s not a Spanish menu and doesn’t reflect the name I’ve given the place but jamón ibérico is not the list of dishes I can plate. However, paella is on the menu so I’m slowing working on gathering ingredients for that dish, along with crème brûlée (an alternative crema catalana). Every day, you get one new ingredient and you can also answer a food quiz correctly to get another ingredient. There is an ingredient market that you can buy any of three random daily ingredients using virtual dollars or even real dollars for a wider selection.
In a nod to the farm to table movement, at level 16, you get a plot of land where you can plant a seed whose produce you harvest when mature. I’ve got 7 hours until the plant grows and I can’t wait to find out what it is. Keeping my fingers crossed for vanilla or saffron, both of which I need.
The other way to build your ingredient base is through trading with Facebook friends who also play Restaurant City. Ideally, everyone is specializing in different dishes and there fore have the need for different ingredients. However, some ingredients for dishes overlap and some people are specializing in the same dishes, so there can be heavy competition when it comes to trading ingredients. My friends look through my ingredient list on a daily basis and if they see something they like, there may be a scramble on the trading block worse than the NFL draft. When I was new to the game, I would just trade away prized ingredients without a thought as to what I wanted out of it and ended up with things like sausage or ramen, which I don’t plan to use with my concept. Now I’m wiser and will only trade for ingredients I want. So whomever offers the ingredient I want, gets the trade. Although that doesn’t stop some people from jostling for the final trade, complete with stealthy messages imploring me not to trade certain ingredients with others even if the competition is a spouse or a sibling.
Today was the most mercenary though as an actual baby was used as leverage for a competition over a glass of water which I had to trade (see beginning of post). The only reason I connected the dots from baby to Restaurant City is because I just received water as an ingredient today and Les is even more addicted to restaurant city than I am. Yes, that was stooping low but she got the water because I am a sucker for my friend’s baby news. Even her competitor for the trade acknowledged the genius of the tactic, however low and sneaky it might have been. Lest you all wince in discomfort (come now, it’s not like she sent a kid airborne in a giant balloon), most of my other trades are friendlier.
Lesson 4: There will always be a few customers who will never be happy no matter what. They are just going to have to suck it up. You don’t want their business anyways.
Customers. They are every restaurant’s life blood and source of everything maddening. I think I grew a couple of strands of white hair from this exercise alone. Those munchkins are demanding. They waltz in and they want a table right away. Even though I provided them a really nice waiting area, they still complain. And if there is a seat available, some of them don’t see it and so they stalk out and ding my popularity score. Some walk out because they can’t find the clearly marked bathroom. By the way, a quick gripe here. I don’t know why some of my customers keep flooding the toilets and even though I bought a nice sink, not all of them wash their hands after they do their dootie!!! I know that the game does mimic reality to some extent but that’s just gross. E-coli anyone?
At first, I was trying to please everyone and not wanting anyone to walk out the door because of a wait but I realized that since I couldn’t expand my restaurant, I was going to have to deal with a few bad reviews and do my best to maximize overall happiness. The customers who were served would be happy and give me good reviews that will far outnumber the bad. There will always be a few unhappy customers, even if you provide plush waiting areas, a clean dining environment, attentive service, and tasty food. You can’t cater to these guys or you’ll run yourself mad for trying.
Lesson 5: Be hands on and stay involved.
This isn’t a medieval lord and serf relationship where you just provide the coins and castle walls then sit back and collect your tributes. The game is interactive and requires participation. You have to feed your employees to keep them working otherwise they keel over from exhaustion and the garden withers from lack of water. That is why I log in regularly to monitor the service and layout for any needed modifications. Or you can be like Les and have a non-pixelated friend run her restaurant while she is at work. Regardless of your method or your madness, if you put in the time and thought needed to make the business successful, you’ll ultimately feel pride and joy as your restaurant empire grows. Even if it only exists in a binary world.
It’s late now but I’ve got to check in on La Pata Negra and my minions. Make sure they are fed and water my plants before I turn in. That’s just want a good restauranteur does.