By Frank Schuetzendorf
A conversation with Werner Küchler, Director of Paris’s Relais Plaza restaurant.
Walk along the gallery leading from the hotel’s lobby towards the restaurant, and you will see photographs of Marlene Dietrich, Catherine Deneuve, Tom Hanks, Sharon Stone and many other well-known figures posing with Küchler— not the other way around. Werner Küchler has met, served, and conversed with the world’s great, rich, and famous. He has even sung to them.
For 44 years, he has orchestrated operations, events and ambiance at the renowned Art Deco restaurant as effectively and more charismatically than most CEOs manage international corporations. Küchler’s remarkable track record extends well beyond creating a magical, sought-after restaurant experience. He cultivates an impressive international network that he manages through his address book—a smartphone—and at times acts as private concierge for desperate, loyal customers who have nobody else to turn to. He is a passionate singer who regularly performs for delighted customers during the restaurant’s monthly Jazz Night. He is also a passionate food lover, a well-travelled citizen of the world, and a semi-professional cyclist with close ties to the Tour de France.
But above all, he is an inspiring leader. Throughout Küchler’s tenure at the Relais Plaza, not one apprentice has failed, and the members of his team are known for their loyalty and commitment—the average length of employment on his team is 20 years.
His beginnings at the restaurant were humble. More than 45 years ago, Küchler left Germany and arrived by train at Paris’s Gare de l’Est. He spoke no French, knew no one in the city, had nowhere to go, nor any firm plans. He spent his first night in the City of Lights under a historic bridge. Perhaps he had an epiphany there, because he started looking for work immediately. He knocked on the door of the famous Hôtel Plaza Athénée, located on the Avenue Montaigne in Paris’s haute couture district, and was hired as a room service waiter in 1973. Quickly understanding the trade and taking advantage of opportunities, as he is skilled at doing, Küchler entered the Relais Plaza restaurant.
EHL Senior Lecturer Frank Schuetzendorf caught up with Küchler, now in his 45th year of running the Relais Plaza at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée.
Frank Schuetzendorf and Werner Küchler.
In this exclusive interview, the legendary restaurant director shares his insights on building customer loyalty and running a successful restaurant operation over a period of more than four decades.
Q&A. Talking with Werner Küchler
FS: Werner, what inspires you about what you do?
WK: I think that this should be the most important question for everybody in life.
What inspires me? There’s the relationship, the sharing experience, and then there’s the constant questioning of the status quo, the everyday enquiring if things have been done the best way they can be done.
Then there are the simple wisdoms of life. When I first started out, for example, we were the only restaurant on our street. So it was easy. The restaurant was packed every day. When the manager retired, they hired another one, and it was the same thing. Then the general manager gave me the opportunity to become the manager, and I said: “Okay, I’ll do it, but there are many things that are wrong. I cannot work like this, because the day will come when we will have to work in a different way.”
Eventually, many other fashionable restaurants opened and, almost overnight, our restaurant became empty. So I said to the GM, “You see—it’s because we weren’t ready. Now let’s start to work on this.”
FS: Tell me your approach to customer loyalty
WK: If you don’t know how to work on this, it can be like fireworks. Restaurants that open and provide something new are fully booked every day, but after a month nobody returns.
My approach has always been, “We have to seduce, sell, satisfy and keep the customer, don’t let him get away.” If you work on these four major elements, then you have the key to keeping your customers.
Building a customer base is important for my revenues. When you speak to your customers, you learn what they like and how to treat them. Those customers will tell you if you’re on the right track or not. Sometimes you may have to walk away, but you always have to listen to and take in what they have to say and what they are telling you. I believe this is the key to satisfying the customer. Then, if the customer tells you something about something that he doesn’t like that much, but comes back and sees the little changes you’ve made because you agreed with what he said, you’re beginning to earn his loyalty.
FS: But how many of those customers will become loyal?
WK: For a restaurant of 100 seats, a base of 1,200 to 1,500 regular customers should provide you with an occupancy of 50 percent. But you also have to recognize and greet these people by name when they arrive.
FS: So what’s a loyal customer?
WK: In some places like mine, customers come every month, some come every week, and some come for lunch or dinner twice or even three times a week. You recognize and can remember these regulars.
But some customers who come three or four times a year—that requires a different kind of work.
You have to feel your way when, say, Mr. Smith comes four times a year. How he dresses or the way he looks—these provide information about his values, expectations, and who he is. You have to read all the signals—to bring you back and make you remember or feel what he is expecting something from you. He must be recognized! Of course, when he comes three times a year, you’re not sure to recognize him, but he still expects a lot from you. After a while in this business, you begin to acquire a technique for remembering, for how to think back to a day or a dinner, or how you spoke to this couple. Maybe you had spent a lot of time with them. You can really lose this customer if you’re not able to remember him or give him the time he is asking for and expecting.
FS: Today we use a lot of reservations systems and social media to attract customers. Yet, what we are talking about here are the subtle, underlying things and emotional intelligence—things we cannot extract from raw data.
Is this something you can teach and learn?
WK: For me it always comes back to my core customer base. But even before that, what I first need is superior quality in cuisine and service. It then depends on what kind of clientele I want and what kind of experience I would like to provide.
Say, for example, I seat a beautiful couple that comes in to enjoy a pleasant dining experience with some nice wine. As I said in the beginning, I have to seduce. But how I do this is key. The most important thing is to give—to give good service to everyone and special little attentions to my customer base. So I investigate: Is this couple staying at the hotel? Or have they bought a nice apartment in Paris? Or do they plan on coming to Paris several times a year? In any case, I know that they’re observing us. They look around and they see that the restaurant is like a club: the atmosphere is nice, and the team is providing attention to everybody. This gives them a sense of belonging to the group of diners who are present.
There are some things you shouldn't do to such guests. You shouldn’t share your whole life with them on the first encounter. Just give them a little attention: make them feel valued and let them know that you would be honored to have the pleasure of seeing them again—just little things—because you’re not sure if they’ll come back one year later. If you tell them your whole life story and the next time they bring friends, they will expect you to recognize them—something you cannot be sure you’ll be able to do.
When you do recognize them, then you can go a little further: you can give them a nicer table, make them feel more and more part of the club, or you can thank them simply by sending them a card like “Thank you for coming….” Those are all nice gestures, and they don’t cost much effort or time.
Therefore, to me, customer loyalty means that you know your customers.
FS: Being in the same establishment successfully for the past 45 years—how has this contributed to your life?
WK: The restaurant is a brand. It’s an institution. But there are other institutions. And by maintaining this institution and by helping it grow and consistently evolve, little by little—doing better every day—you develop into a leader. The leader does not necessarily have to agree with Chef or the owners, but he has to be very clear about and say what he wants. There are so many restaurants that were great—for example, the world’s best restaurant, Maxim’s. They changed the leader. They took a man and replaced him with another man—a more corporate Yes-man that would never dare to go against the decision makers—and that’s the way you lose your way.
You have to fight for your vision, and the best tactic is to bring in business, which is more difficult today than in the past.
FS: How hard is it to build a winning team?
WK: Many years ago, everyone was paid on commission, based on your customers. Today, you pay your staff fixed salaries, which makes it much more difficult to excite and motivate people to work with you—especially if they have to be in the restaurant for lunch time and again for dinner, knowing how difficult it is when you live in Paris. And it’s even more challenging when the restaurant is open seven days a week and if, within the same hotel, there are different approaches to working together.
To succeed and keep the show running, you have to focus on yourself. You have to believe in yourself and not give up. If I gave up, I wouldn’t like myself anymore; I would feel bad. Of course, there are moments when I tire out, but I know that I will come back. And if you try in your life and you fix little challenges, it’s the same. There is never a straight line, there are always difficulties. But when it works out, it inspires you, and you try another, and another, and another time. This provides you with confidence, which then gives you the confidence of all your employers, because you are realizing things that have never happened before.
FS: The restaurant and its patrons make you, and you make the restaurant. Is this a comment on your networking skills?
WK: I think the name and the brand are always more important than the manager, but you also have to acknowledge that some brands no longer exist because they were not able to find the right manager.
I have found that, in creating this base of loyal customers and, with it, the network, moments happen when all the stars align—when things suddenly connect. If you don’t see this when it happens, you are blind or too absorbed in the operations to notice.
But you need to connect these things together, because it provides new business opportunities. You need to step back and let go to see the opportunity, which is why you have to have confidence in the people around you. But you also have to control—that’s important. Sharing this vision is not always easy to communicate, but you have to try to and persevere.
Connecting all these beautiful things together works—it brings you business and opens up new playing fields. For example, the Tour de France cycling championship had their annual party at the Relais Plaza for the third time, and important managers are coming to the Plaza Athénée Hotel and booking rooms and tables. They have become friends. In 2018, the Tour de France will come down the Avenue Montaigne—our street—because we have connected the dots. And, tonight, I have a big private party with 15 journalists outside the hotel, where I’ll be an ambassador for my restaurant, the hotel, and the Tour de France.
FS: Your network is impressive. What's your secret? And how do you connect with customers that will make them want to give you their private telephone number?
WK: Believe it or not, each time the telephone rings and I see it’s a customer, I consider this a gift.
It’s important to me that a customer can directly express his wishes to me. The restaurant is open seven days a week, but I also take my days off and holidays. When I am not sure that the little things are going to get done or when the team needs help and advice, I tell them to contact me. Even if I am on holiday, off, or in a very busy situation, I take the call. Because, for me, that’s a gift that makes the relationship stronger.
FS: What about generosity?
WK: The thing is you create habits—habits that you cannot give up because you are training your customers. For me, it’s important that the customer leaves the restaurant and that he is 100 percent happy—the price, the quality and the service all working together to create the customer experience. If I see or feel that things were not all right, I can intervene.
There are signs, and I sensitize my staff to look for these signs—for example, if a customer doesn’t finish his main course. Asking simple questions to find out what’s going on is important. This information must come to me and when it does and it’s not okay I can go very far to make it right.
So, it’s important to read the signs. This also creates customer loyalty. Opening your eyes and ears to listen to customers and letting the customer talk is important. We should always question ourselves when the customer is telling us something.
FS: What are today's customers looking for? How can you make a difference in this competitive world today?
WK: It's always the same things. What they need is to feel welcomed, which is more difficult today than it was before. Attitudes have changed, money has changed, the world is a faster-paced place today. It’s difficult to distinguish people today, because the way they dress is unrevealing. Again, you have to recognize the signs, which I’m not always able to do with customers wearing holes in their pants. Are they coming from Dior or from a second-hand shop? I don’t know.
FS: Today’s managers are butterflying around and trying many different jobs. What does the next generation of managers need in order to be successful?
WK: I have the feeling today that our lives are on rails. We are cultivating a lot of followers coming from schools and big companies—but they are on these rails. They do their jobs more or less well, but it’s as if they are on autopilot. They speak and teach business, financials, resources, but not entrepreneurship.
This really surprises me, and I feel the way they are going is the wrong way. They seek their customers through social media. Maybe it works, maybe not. I can only say that I know how much we spend and how many people we invite through these channels, but I don’t know what it brings back. Maybe I just don’t know how to calculate this, but if it really works and it’s good, why are hotels not packed? Why are restaurants not packed?
I believe in working little by little, one customer at a time, one-to-one. Secure your base, because they are your best ambassadors. I talk a lot, but I can also show results, and I am proud of that. That’s also the reason why I’m still here—because the customers are coming for an ambiance. They’re coming and they’re expecting something, so they force me to do my best every day. And I also know that I can call upon this base of 50 to 60 percent regular customers when I need them and I will get a response, because I know them.
FS: How does success look like in the future?
WK: For me, the secret is to produce daily and yearly honest and emotional work, and to meet, learn and remember. Despite all the technology and social media available today, it comes down to hard work and ethics—there are no substitutes or short cuts. There are some luxury industries today that are smart—they’re focusing on one-to-one again. They understand one-to-one and the value behind it, because one-to-one becomes one-to-five, and one-to-five becomes one-to-ten, through ambassadorship.
Also, what’s important to me is to not complicate things but to get to the heart of things. Instead of spending a lot of money, read the customer’s signals, then work on getting recommendations through seduction, sales, and customer satisfaction.
FS: Gandhi once said: “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider of our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favor by serving him. He is doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to do so.” Any comment?
WK: It’s important that your employees know that you are with your customers all the time, both on the job and off. I have the chance to live close to my restaurant, and every day I look to see who is coming. When customers I know have traveled and are sitting in my restaurant, I often stop by just to say hello. This is fantastic—and it costs me nothing. Why do I do it? Because they—nobody else—shaped my life. And it’s my way of saying “thank you.”
This article was first published in May 2018 in Hotel Asset Management.