10 Insights from Scottish Chef Scott Smith on opening Norn and what it takes to make a new restaurant a success

Scott Smith Norn

Chef Scott Smith started his career in a busy Aberdeen bistro and knew the kitchen was where he wanted to be. ‘I used to take ‘sick’ days from school just to spend more time in the kitchen,’ shares Scott.

“Without a doubt, my favourite job was at the Peat Inn, learning under Geoffrey Smeddle. At times it was very tough and I had a long commute, but it was the most rewarding place to work. If you really gave 100% to that kitchen, then Geoff would give you back the same in helping you develop. The owners were both very generous bosses who understood the importance of staff,” says Scott.

Scott’s mentors have influenced him greatly, here he shares ten insights from opening his new Leith restaurant, Norn, and everything that has gone into making it a success.

1) Define the philosophy behind your restaurant concept

The thinking behind the restaurant concept was fairly simple. I wanted a restaurant that would serve top level food and drink, but in a space where the guest could feel completely relaxed. I wanted it to be buzzy and have great music (at least what I think to be great music).

Also, it was very important to me that we were doing this sustainably. The set menu and how we run our service developed from this. How could we possibly have an à la carte lunch, à la carte dinner, set lunch, tasting menu etc. and say we are sustainable, especially when starting out – there would be so much waste. Having the chefs serve the food directly was also a sensible development for us as the menu would change regularly.

Norn Dish 2

2) Select a unique, meaningful restaurant name

I came across the name ‘Norn’ when I was researching some old Northern Scottish Isle recipes and ingredients. I looked up some words I didn’t understand and discovered that they were part of an ancient, extinct language. It was spoken in the Northern Isles off the north coast of mainland Scotland. It tied into a big part of the restaurant’s concept of rediscovering our heritage. I do get asked what Norn is… a lot!

3.) Identify your approach to hospitality

I would say my approach is to be very personable with the customer. People are in my restaurant out of choice and have chosen to spend their hard earned time off with me. That puts a big responsibility on my team and I to perform to our best every time and to not blanket each customer with the same script or the same experience. I try as much as possible to tailor their experience.

Norn Inside

4.) Find a location and site that works for you

I had looked at three other sites prior to getting the keys to Henderson Street. At first I was a little unsure of the site given that the previous restaurant – Plumed Horse – had such a great reputation. I decided to make it work in this site and went for it.

5.) Plan your opening menu

The opening menu hadn’t even been looked at until a week before opening. I had a lot of ideas and the beginning of dishes, but as we have one set menu based on the best produce, there was no way of knowing what that produce would be.

The team planned ahead and made store cupboard ingredients by preserving (drying, fermenting, pickling, curing, etc.) all the good produce on the months leading to opening, so we had a good larder to accompany the fresh produce at the time of opening.

During opening week we played with different ideas until we were happy with the seven opening dishes.

6.) Recruit, develop and retain the staff you want around you

I will usually hire on attitude over experience. Somebody can get in with a glowing CV and have worked at all the top places, but if they aren’t going to work well in my team, or seem like they might be too arrogant to cook the way I want them to, then you will see the back of them within a week. I would rather hire someone who has experience in a lower level kitchen, but is itching to learn.

Although currently I have a very good team, people that are good and ambitious will always be looking for the next thing to move on to and to learn from. It’s only natural. I continually think of ways to retain and develop staff so that they enjoy working for me and want to stay long term.

7.) Create your pre-opening marketing plan

A lot of the pre-opening marketing was done by our PR Manager. She has done a great job for us and ensured we had the numbers we wanted for the soft opening. She also brought us a lot of reviewers and the accompanied attention that comes with that, which has been great for the business. Social media is also a very important tool. We have a Norn team Whatsapp group that we all share photos on and then use on different social media channels.

Norn Bread

8.) Prepare your team for the opening night

I was very lucky that the team with us for the opening was just as excited as I was, if anything, the pep talk before service was more to do with getting them to focus and communicate together. Also a lot of positive encouragement was given, that first service is a very nervous time.

9.) Debrief, evaluate, and change things after the soft launch

The soft launch was scary. All the planning and plotting in my head was about to go live and you always question what you have missed. Luckily I believe that it was very successful. There were a few errors of course, but we had people there who were very kind and gave us constructive feedback that we took on board and actioned. It was very important for us to debrief with all staff after the soft opening and to take the time to discuss what went right, and what went wrong.

We restructured the staff roles a bit. We saw which areas were too overstretched and shifted things to relieve this. We also reevaluated the entire flow of how the customer is met and built more of a rhythm to the start of their meal. Getting the systems right early is crucial.

10.) Welcome customer feedback

I have a very clear vision in my mind of what I want the dishes to be and taste like, but if something isn’t working for the customer, then it isn’t right for the business. We have the advantage of taking the food to the table from the kitchen ourselves, so we get to talk with the customer directly as chefs. This is a great and constructive way to receive feedback. We certainly don’t react to all of it though, not everybody can be pleased, and if 19 out of 20 of your customers love a dish, you don’t change it because of one negative comment. You can also note the particular customer’s preference for their next visit.

Now that you’ve opened your own restaurant, what is your best advice for aspiring restaurateurs?

I’m not sure I’m in the best position yet to be giving advice as we are still a very young business. I guess the best thing to say is that, for a lot of chefs, it is all about the food, but it is so important to visualise your restaurant as the full package. Put the same level of detail into everything, and prioritise your time very wisely. Time becomes a rare commodity!

Also, get your figures completely worked out and double check your business will be viable. Finally, make sure you save enough of your working capital, you will need that to keep you open until trade picks up. A lot of businesses shut down because of overlooking this last point. You will lose money to begin with!

What’s next for you?

My focus now is on improving the great start we have had at the restaurant. We have already made the decision to expand both our front of house and our kitchen teams. One thing we are doing is creating a beverage section in the kitchen so that it is one of our chefs responsibilities to do all the teas, coffees etc. and give it the same level of detail and attention that we give our dishes. We want our customer experience to be perfect from the point of booking, right up until they order their final drink.

Photos courtesy of Norn

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