Our Veal Parm Story: A Cautionary Tale for the Brand-Conscious Entrepreneur

I was in the restaurant one night working as an expeditor (bringing hot dishes to tables), and I noticed that our new server from the North End, Giuseppe, kept submitting orders for veal parm. It had been the same thing all week on tables Giuseppe served -- veal parm, veal parm, veal parm. He had probably taken 15 orders for veal parm that week, more than we'd had in years.

We'll make anything for a guest, even if it's not on the menu. But veal parm is most definitely not on the menu. It's an American-Italian invention that you can find anywhere, and in some places they use low-quality cuts of meat. We're northern Italian and we use high-quality cuts. The veal we use for our dishes is veal tenderloin, the best veal you could possibly imagine. It's a crime -- a crime! -- to smother our veal in cheese and sauce. But we'll make it for you if you want it, because we're driven to please our guests.

I went over to Giuseppe and tapped him on the shoulder. "Hey, can I ask you something? Why do you keep getting veal parms? Hardly anyone ever asks for it, but for some reason you always get veal parms."

He shrugged his shoulders. "I recommend it."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. "What do you mean you recommend it? Why would you do that?"

"Well, the menu here sucks, so I think you should have veal parm on the menu."

"I'm sorry, what?" I was blown away. We were standing in the middle of a restaurant with 250 seats, the place was a zoo, and you couldn't get a table. Did this guy just say our menu sucks??

"Yeah," he said. "You should have veal parm on the menu. This is an Italian restaurant."

"Well, not really, it's an Italian, we're not American..." And as I was getting these words out, I was thinking, Why the hell am I defending myself? So I stopped. Waving my hands, I said, "You know what? Forget it. Come with me." I walked Giuseppe over to our time clock and signed him out. "You're leaving right now. Give me the receipts and credit card slips from your tables."

I fired him on the spot -- the first time I had ever done that, and hopefully the last time, too. I was just so mad. He thought we were a typical American-Italian restaurant. I love American-Italian places and eat at them often. But Davio's had always been different, because I had wanted us to stand out with dishes you can't enjoy elsewhere. We had worked so hard over so many years by that point to become known first as a Northern Italian restaurant, and by 2002, as a Northern Italian steakhouse. He was telling our guests to order something that ran totally counter to our brand. Who knows what else he was telling them?

Whether you own a restaurant or any business, it's vital to make sure your team members are supporting rather than subverting your brand. You have many daily tasks to attend to, but your biggest role is to serve as brand steward. It's you who establishes the concept of the restaurant, and it's you who instills it in the community and in your employees. Fail to keep watch over what your employees are doing and saying, and before too long, your brand will become unclear. Your restaurant will sink into mediocrity. Customers will stop coming. And you'll be left standing there, wondering why.

Giuseppe might still be working for us if I hadn't been on constant brand patrol. Who knows, today we might have been known as the veal parm restaurant. What a thought!