Today OpenTable released our list of the 100 Best Brunches in America, based on over 5 million reviews of more than 20,000 restaurants from verified OpenTable diners. This week we’ll be spotlighting a few of the restaurants that were recognized on Open for Business to learn more about what makes a successful brunch. Here, we talk to Christian Pendleton, General Manager at New Orleans institution Brennan’s — by some accounts, the place where brunch service first began.
“I choose to believe — and I think a lot of people do — that what everyone knows as brunch now is actually a derivative of breakfast at Brennan’s, which was started 70 years ago,” says Christian Pendelton, GM at Brennan’s in New Orleans.
Here’s the story, as Christian shared with us: Owen Brennan owned a bar on Bourbon Street, and he was friends with the owners of Antoine’s and Galatoire’s and Broussard’s, all acclaimed restaurants in the city. They played poker every night, and one night they bet Owen he couldn’t open a restaurant (what does an Irishman know about food, they argued?). He took the bet and opened a new space.
A book had come out called Dinner at Antoine’s, and one of Owen’s friends said, “If there’s dinner at Antoine’s there should be breakfast at Brennan’s.” Since Owen didn’t think he could compete with the other restaurants at dinner, he wanted to offer something different — and he chose breakfast. The four-course experience (cocktails included) took off.
Read our Q&A with Christian below for more about breakfast and brunch at Brennan’s.
What makes your breakfast and brunch service unique?
We do a lot of table-side cooking at breakfast. For a lot of people that’s a real treat. If it’s the older generations, that’s how they remember dining when there was not a restaurant on every corner and you didn’t go out to eat five times a week. If you’re in the younger generations, you really don’t do table-side cooking anymore because chefs don’t want to give up the control of their food to the service team. But table-side is still very much considered an art in New Orleans.
Every day you have the option to have Bananas Foster, which was invented in the restaurant, and Crepes Fitzgerald. We also do soft scrambled eggs table-side, and what we serve with them changes with the season — truffles in the fall, crawfish right now.
What is it about table-side cooking that people love?
There’s certainly the performance aspect to it. Especially high-quality restaurants have forgotten that on a basic level we go out to eat to be entertained. That doesn’t mean you need a circus clown at your table, but as we have become so serious as an industry and passionate about what we do — and I think that’s a great thing — every once in awhile we lose sight that it is supposed to be fun and relaxing and entertaining, too.
What are some of the challenges specific to brunch, both for the service team and the kitchen?
At the vast majority of restaurants, the shift that you wanted to work was dinner because that’s where you made your money. Here, it was reminding the staff that the shift you want to work at Brennan’s is breakfast, because that’s how we made our name.
It is the most grueling shift I’ve ever seen in my professional career. We offer it seven days a week. On Sundays we open for breakfast at 8 a.m. The dining room team is in at 6:30 and the kitchen teams are in at 5:30. At 8 a.m., we’re welcoming 50 guests in the door. And we are still welcoming 50 to 60 guests at 2 p.m. By the time they’ve enjoyed everything it’s often 3 or 4, and you’re cleaning and rotating your stations — it’s an easy 10 or 11-hour shift of constant interaction.
For so many of our guests it’s a bucket-list thing to say you’ve had breakfast at Brennan’s. You cannot mail it in. From a management point of view, trying to get the staff motivated, making sure every guests is happy and touching all the tables, all the cooking… and for the kitchen, we have a very large menu from today’s standards. As in every kitchen, it’s that constant quest for both perfection but almost more importantly, consistency. It is not uncommon for one of our cooks, Miss Wanda, who does our poached egg station, to do 300 to 350 Eggs Benedicts on a given day.
What can you do to ensure consistency?
I have a great chef and very strong sous chefs. It’s been a journey trying to figure out. We’re better now than we were a year ago, but we’ve still got a long ways to go.
The original members of the Brennan’s family went bankrupt four years ago, and a different member of the family bought it out of bankruptcy with a partner, and we were closed for 18 months for renovation. Then we reopened. Ralph Brennan’s challenge — and his partner’s and mine and the chef’s — was: how do we honor the best parts of the history of Brennan’s but acknowledge that the younger generations are looking for something different?
It has to evolve. But one of the unique things about New Orleans is that they are passionately loyal to their restaurants. They don’t want something to change. There was a real challenge for us to say, these are things that can never leave the menu. But how can we do them better and ask our most important, local guests to buy in?
Crepes Fitzgerald was always and only crepes and strawberries. When we reopened, I said, strawberries are out of season, so we changed the fruits. Our local guests were outraged. We want to feature the different fruits that are grown here locally so you’re getting the best possible ingredients. That decision I made was not wildly received by a percentage of our guests, but some were willing to give it a try, and they were like, this is great! It was a process.
What’s your approach to building a great brunch menu and creating a mix of dishes. Is it that balance between traditional and contemporary?
That is a key component. Historically the menu really didn’t change. Now, how can we keep our menu seasonal? It’s trying to honor history and the fact that the population of New Orleans has changed.
Now we have some dishes with strong Vietnamese influences, because there’s a budding Vietnamese culture here, and that allows us to do different things. There’s a strong influence in New Orleans, but there’s also a strong Spanish influence. And then you get into Cajun and Creole. How do we honor all that? How do we feature the best of what we can locally? And Ralph Brennan challenged the chef, saying, “I want everything made fresh from scratch every day.”
This was one of the most shocking things to me in our business: he turned what was an entire dining room into a prep kitchen. He was willing to put his money where his mouth was and give up a lot of seats — 60 to 70 — and turn it into a prep kitchen so everything could be made fresh every day.
He says, “I would rather do fewer people and give them the best possible ingredients and the best experience than do more people and sacrifice these other things.” That’s been a real challenge for Chef and I, to honor that level of commitment to cuisine and make sure we deliver that.
What’s the mix of visitors and locals, on average?
The tourism is a huge part of what makes New Orleans survive, so conventions have a huge play in that. But it’s probably 35 to 40% local and the remaining visitors.
And I’m sure the locals are the ones that come back again and again.
Hopefully. To be honest I’m sure there are some that haven’t, because we weren’t what their memory was of Brennan’s — right or wrong. But most people appreciate the fact that we have nice people trying to take care of great guests.
If you can get one of my staff members to say no, you have really accomplished something. We are absolutely the house of yes. What can we do to make you happy?
You talked about revamping the menu when you reopened. What tips would you have for other restaurateurs who are starting or re imagining their brunch?
Figure out what you want to be and be true to that, but always listen to what the guests are asking for. Be prepared to compromise. At the end of the day we are all here to take care of people, and if you are so rigid to your vision that you don’t listen to them, you’re really eliminating a lot of guests. But if you have an open conversation with your guests, you’re well on your way to being successful.
With the sheer volume of people who come in daily, what about efficiency? Any tips or learnings over the years for increasing efficiency?
We have different pieces of technology in the restaurant. Last year we were flying blind, but now I’m able to look back and make much better, educated decisions. I’m able to see the pattern with which guests arrived at the restaurant. Did we do more people earlier in the day, but they peeled off in the afternoons? So I’m able to have more things prepped and ready to go.
It helps us to plot out our days, weeks, and fiscal periods. It helps me make better budgets for sales, but more importantly, from a labor point of view. If I don’t need as many people at 5:30 in the morning because it’s a later brunch, they can come in a couple of hours later and be fresher in the back half of the day. I’m able to look specifically at what sells on certain days or times of the year. It’s all about how much knowledge we have, and then using that knowledge across the board.
Like every restaurant, the biggest efficiency you can have is investing in your staff so that you don’t have turnover. We’re always in a constant state of training, but you’re not in a constant state of building foundations.
Any tips for other restaurateurs on how to make brunch successful from a business standpoint?
When it comes to staffing, there are just some staff that will never buy in on brunch, no matter how financially beneficial it is. There are people who enjoy it, and that’s who you need — because every guest can detect someone who enjoys what they do and who doesn’t. You have to have people that are comfortable and really happy and can create that atmosphere people are looking for.
Same with cooks: nobody wants to be around someone who is miserable. Find people that are passionate. If you need to incentivize those people, do that.
The guests have taken care of all the incentivizing to work breakfast at Brennan’s. The staff takes pride in the fact that they are working the shift that made this restaurant famous. Everybody wants to be on the A-team, and for our restaurant that’s the breakfast shift.