I recently had the pleasure of dining at Alinea with one of our Sales Directors, Greg Brown.  We were in Chicago visiting Sears, who has been a client for several months now.  I remembered Alinea from the May 2006 issue of Wired; the article was titled, "My Compliments to the Lab".  Since we were in Chicago, I had to go.  I am too much of a nerd and foodie not to.

Alinea reminded me of how being unique and great can spark word of mouth in a profound manner.  The genius behind Alinea is Grant Achatz, who is only 32 but worked under the infamous Thomas Keller at The French Laundry, a restaurant that is widely known as one of the best, if not the best, in the country.  But Alinea is far different.

Corridor to AlineaFirst, you open a door into the building the restaurant is housed in with no hostess standing by.  Instead, you see a long empty corridor that appears to be getting smaller as you walk down it.  It is an architectural optical illusion, and Greg and I almost got a sense of vertigo as we walked towards the end of it.  No door into the restaurant was to be seen, which I found to be very odd.  Then, all of a sudden, a door slid open with mechanical precision and a near-silent swooshing sound.  It immediately made me think of Star Trek; my second thought was "how cool".  This "portal" into the restaurant prepares you for a transition.  I first learned about the power of portals over dinner with "The Wizard of Ads", Roy Williams, at a sushi restaurant here in Austin.  I suggest you read his memo if you want to learn more.  Once you start to look for portals, they show up everywhere (for example, in movies actors frequently walk through a door into "another world" like an insanely energetic nightclub or a horrific scene).

Walking into the restaurant, which is quite cozy (not cramped) with two levels, you notice the open kitchen on your right.  Grant works there in the kitchen every evening, many times until 3:30am.  I noticed that there were about 15 chefs in the kitchen (all looked 30 or younger); all were dressed in very professional modern, white attire.  There was a MacBook in the center of the kitchen that Grant constantly referred to in between preparations.  Two hostesses greeted us (also under 30) and took our coats.  Instead of a stuffy feeling, you felt energy.  The hostesses were very friendly and professional, saying, "Welcome to Alinea", in unison.Alinea kitchen

They sat us at a nice table where we could see ourselves in a mirror.  Only the mirror was at the back of a long tunnel under a staircase.  It appeared to be another room, but sure enough, it was just a mirror – looking at us.  Another "cool" moment.  At a Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) conference a year ago, I had the pleasure of seeing "Scott" speak.  He has worn a nametag for 2,285 days straight and evangelizes on being approachable (essentially he is speaking about the power of openness and communication – "getting real").  His main message was: do something worthwhile with your life, be "that guy", be something that when people ask you what you do for a living their response is "that's cool".  Back to Alinea: it was clear to me, by now, that Alinea was going to be a cool experience.  There was no way this meal was going to suck.

Our waiter was a sommelier.  He looked like a good friend of mine in Austin, the founder of SKYLIST, except he was a little heavier set and wore a modern-looking suit and tie.  He was also young and looked wise but in a "high-tech industry" sort of way, not in a stuffy sommelier sort of way.  We talked about our options, of which there were only 4.  A 12-course tasting menu (takes 3.5 hours), a 24-course tasting menu (takes 4.5 hours), standard wine pairing, and "premium" wine pairing.  It was 8pm, so we went for the 12-course and he recommend the standard wine pairing unless we were really picky.  Although I love good wine, we picked standard; this was, after all, Alinea.

Potato, truffle, parmesan mash-up!The entire meal was an incredibly cool experience.  The food was outstanding and incredibly unique (again, science meets food).  I wouldn't say that every dish was perfect (one of the dessert dishes was too large for what it was, for example), but most of them were (definitely made my top-five list).  Our sommelier didn't just know the wines well – he had personally visited every winery (it was like an around-the-world course from Spain, Italy, Austria, and the U.S.).  They were all very good, and I had some varietals that I have never had before.  Each dish had its own utensils and everything was kept incredibly clean and fresh.  There were many dishes, flavors, and serving presentations that I have simply never seen anywhere.Lamb with rosemary

During the meal, we had plenty of time to talk with each other and the waiters.  The tables were perfectly distanced from each other where there is just the right level of noise.  We learned that Alinea had just been rated #1 in the country, essentially beating out the long-time winner, The French Laundry.  And this was for a restaurant that was the same age as Bazaarvoice (we both opened around May 2005).

Caramel dessertSo, what are the lessons learned here?  Well, first of all, Grant Achatz decided that Alinea would be very unique and spectacularly good.  I didn't get to interact with him, but this is one detail-oriented founder.  From the interior design of the restaurant (the portals, the spacing of the tables, the modern look, the two levels); the energy, intelligence, professionalism, and friendliness of everyone that works in it; to the incredibly unique format (12 or 24 course), mind-blowing food, and incredible wine; Alinea is the Purple Cow (a compliment to Seth Godin's book on being unique).  As a matter of fact, Alinea means "a new beginning" and the symbol for the restaurant is a new paragraph mark.  The result?  A #1 ranking in the country in less than two years!

So you aren't Steve Jobs or Grant Achatz.  You aren't as cool (I'm certainly not either)?  What do you do?

Listen to your customers.  I am constantly evangelizing to our clients on the value of analyzing customer reviews to redesign their products, strengthen their services, and form stronger relationships with their suppliers.  Customers are willing to be open and honest with each other.  That's why they write reviews – to help each other assess fit and value.  And there is a literal gold-mine of information in this data.  Use it!  As Sam Decker says, "this is customer oxygen".  Breathe it, be unique, and be spectacularly great.  Revenue and profit will rapidly follow.Alinea's "paragraph mark" logo

In closing, I would love to hear from you on what your most memorable restaurants are, and if you have learned anything from them that you have applied to your business.  Some of my other favorites are Morimoto in Philadelphia (#1 on my list for food and almost #1 for interior, right after Alinea now), Michael Mina in Las Vegas (unreal seafood), and Uchi in Austin (unreal sushi and authentic, exotic Japanese cuisine).

Quick note: all of these photos came from Flickr, where there are 782 photos matching the keyword "Alinea".  I did experience the dishes that I included photos for.

Update on May 16, 2008:
My good friend, Matt Cohen (CEO of OneSpot), just sent me this article in The New Yorker about Grant Achatz fight with Stage IV tongue cancer.  It is a fascinating read, and I sincerely hope Grant wins this battle.

9 Responses to “Science Meets Food (at Alinea) and How Being Unique Triggers Word of Mouth”

  1. Robert Fajardo

    V ery expensive, but with received value.  Interesting, novel, imaginative, and fine dining experience.  Thank you. Robert A. Fajardo 

  2. Brett Hurt

    Ok, I tried Casa de Luz with my good friend Matt Cohen, founder and CEO of OneSpot. It was good – extremely wholesome and unique. VERY casual. People were there in mostly yoga gear. That whole complex, meaning “House of Light”, is very wholesome and “Austin”.

    It is no Alinea, though. Not even close. Alinea is an experience you will never forget, trust me. I’ve been five times now and can’t wait until my sixth.

  3. Brett Hurt

    Ok, I tried Casa de Luz with my good friend Matt Cohen, founder and CEO of OneSpot. It was good – extremely wholesome and unique. VERY casual. People were there in mostly yoga gear. That whole complex, meaning “House of Light”, is very wholesome and “Austin”.

    It is no Alinea, though. Not even close. Alinea is an experience you will never forget, trust me. I’ve been five times now and can’t wait until my sixth.

  4. Brett Hurt

    Matthew,

    Casa de Luz does sound both unique and fantastic. Apparently they impressed you enough to blog about it as well! Surprisingly, I haven’t been there, and I will try it soon.

    Best,
    Brett

  5. Brett Hurt

    Matthew,

    Casa de Luz does sound both unique and fantastic. Apparently they impressed you enough to blog about it as well! Surprisingly, I haven’t been there, and I will try it soon.

    Best,
    Brett

  6. Matthew Grayson

    Great post. If getting your customers to email their friends about your restaurant is a sign of success, then motivating them to blog about it means you’ve got lightning in a bottle.

    I remember my first time eating at Casa de Luz in Austin. Though very near the center of town, it sits next to a beloved riverside park. The restaurant’s ‘portal’ builds on the tranquil theme – you walk under an arch and through a whimsical garden to reach the door.

    But it’s inside Casa de Luz that I gained the best business insight–the value in getting a prospective customer’s mind off of the “pain” of selecting and paying for a product, and focused instead on the “reward” of using it. Ultimately, it establishes a foundation for customer loyalty and reduces price pressure, the bane of healthy profit margins.

    In Casa’s case, upon entering, you’re greeted at a clean, modest desk, where you pay a flat fee for your meal. It’s always a round number, no fiddling with change. The price is about the same as a dinner at TGI Friday’s.

    Afterwards, you have nothing to concern yourself with except enjoying their distinctive dining experience. The main room is outfitted with warm woods and bathed in sunlight, an open kitchen prepares macrobiotic vegetarian food, and picnic-style seating encourages informality and relaxation. Even the table settings invite curiosity; shakers of savory crushed sesame seeds and naturally salty nori flakes substitute for their black and white equivalents.

    Casa omits almost every step that could be perceived as tedious or unpleasant. There is no waiter to wait for, no menu to analyze, and no bill presented at the end. Soup, salad, and cooled hibiscus tea are available whenever you like, and the entree is brought to you soon after you sit. Want seconds? Just present your plate to the kitchen.

    They say “no pain, no gain” but your customers certainly shouldn’t feel that way when it comes to doing business with you. When you leave Casa de Luz, it’s not hard to feel positively about having eaten healthy food in a soothing environment—thoughts about price seem unimportant, as you’re sure you’ve identified a superior product. You know you’ll be back.

  7. Matthew Grayson

    Great post. If getting your customers to email their friends about your restaurant is a sign of success, then motivating them to blog about it means you’ve got lightning in a bottle.

    I remember my first time eating at Casa de Luz in Austin. Though very near the center of town, it sits next to a beloved riverside park. The restaurant’s ‘portal’ builds on the tranquil theme – you walk under an arch and through a whimsical garden to reach the door.

    But it’s inside Casa de Luz that I gained the best business insight–the value in getting a prospective customer’s mind off of the “pain” of selecting and paying for a product, and focused instead on the “reward” of using it. Ultimately, it establishes a foundation for customer loyalty and reduces price pressure, the bane of healthy profit margins.

    In Casa’s case, upon entering, you’re greeted at a clean, modest desk, where you pay a flat fee for your meal. It’s always a round number, no fiddling with change. The price is about the same as a dinner at TGI Friday’s.

    Afterwards, you have nothing to concern yourself with except enjoying their distinctive dining experience. The main room is outfitted with warm woods and bathed in sunlight, an open kitchen prepares macrobiotic vegetarian food, and picnic-style seating encourages informality and relaxation. Even the table settings invite curiosity; shakers of savory crushed sesame seeds and naturally salty nori flakes substitute for their black and white equivalents.

    Casa omits almost every step that could be perceived as tedious or unpleasant. There is no waiter to wait for, no menu to analyze, and no bill presented at the end. Soup, salad, and cooled hibiscus tea are available whenever you like, and the entree is brought to you soon after you sit. Want seconds? Just present your plate to the kitchen.

    They say “no pain, no gain” but your customers certainly shouldn’t feel that way when it comes to doing business with you. When you leave Casa de Luz, it’s not hard to feel positively about having eaten healthy food in a soothing environment—thoughts about price seem unimportant, as you’re sure you’ve identified a superior product. You know you’ll be back.

  8. Matthew Grayson

    Great post. If getting your customers to email their friends about your restaurant is a sign of success, then motivating them to blog about it means you’ve got lightning in a bottle.

    I remember my first time eating at Casa de Luz in Austin. Though very near the center of town, it sits next to a beloved riverside park. The restaurant’s ‘portal’ builds on the tranquil theme – you walk under an arch and through a whimsical garden to reach the door.

    But it’s inside Casa de Luz that I gained the best business insight–the value in getting a prospective customer’s mind off of the “pain” of selecting and paying for a product, and focused instead on the “reward” of using it. Ultimately, it establishes a foundation for customer loyalty and reduces price pressure, the bane of healthy profit margins.

    In Casa’s case, upon entering, you’re greeted at a clean, modest desk, where you pay a flat fee for your meal. It’s always a round number, no fiddling with change. The price is about the same as a dinner at TGI Friday’s.

    Afterwards, you have nothing to concern yourself with except enjoying their distinctive dining experience. The main room is outfitted with warm woods and bathed in sunlight, an open kitchen prepares macrobiotic vegetarian food, and picnic-style seating encourages informality and relaxation. Even the table settings invite curiosity; shakers of savory crushed sesame seeds and naturally salty nori flakes substitute for their black and white equivalents.

    Casa omits almost every step that could be perceived as tedious or unpleasant. There is no waiter to wait for, no menu to analyze, and no bill presented at the end. Soup, salad, and cooled hibiscus tea are available whenever you like, and the entree is brought to you soon after you sit. Want seconds? Just present your plate to the kitchen.

    They say “no pain, no gain” but your customers certainly shouldn’t feel that way when it comes to doing business with you. When you leave Casa de Luz, it’s not hard to feel positively about having eaten healthy food in a soothing environment—thoughts about price seem unimportant, as you’re sure you’ve identified a superior product. You know you’ll be back.

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