Creating the Holy Trinity of Restaurant Experiences

Restaurateurs know that although the food is critical, it’s only one of the factors that determines success. In this extraordinarily competitive market, the guest experience has always mattered and today it’s more important than ever. Whether your restaurant brand is fun and raucous or elegant and luxurious, paying attention to every point along the guest’s journey is not optional anymore. Today we’re speaking to Anna Neri, a branding specialist who’s worked with food service brands for over 10 years, about how restaurateurs can up their game with the guest experience.


Melinda: Restaurateurs know that although the food is critical, it’s only one of the factors that determines success. In this extraordinarily competitive market, the guest experience has always mattered and today it’s more important than ever. Whether your restaurant brand is fun and raucous or elegant and luxurious, paying attention to every point along the guest’s journey is not optional anymore. Today we’re speaking to Anna Neri, a branding specialist who’s worked with food service brands for over 10 years, about how restaurateurs can up their game with the guest experience. Thank you so much for joining us, Anna. We’re here today in the beautiful Hotel X on the 27th floor and maybe you could start off by telling us what you’re doing here, about the new project that you’re working on.

Anna: Absolutely. Well, thank you for having me. We are very excited. Our company has been in the hospitality space for, it’ll be our 37th year this year. So, we are extremely excited about some of the new projects we’ve recently taken on. And one of them is Hotel X Toronto. We are the food and beverage partner, and within Hotel X Toronto, we not only run all of the food and beverage services, everything from the room service to the banquet services, but we also have a partnership with our Falcon SkyBar, which we’re sitting in right now, which is comprised of 3 floors, 27th, 28th and the rooftop on the 29th. We also have the second floor, which is Maxx’s Kitchen, and that is our everyday food restaurant within the hotel. And soon to be open, we have Pétros 82, which we are extremely excited about. It’s a work of love for our founder, Peter Eliopoulos and the rest of the team behind it. It will be a Mediterranean and raw bar and it’s going to be on the main floor of the hotel. It’s going to open up, we are hoping in the late summer and we’re really working on all of the final details regarding that right now. It’s our major project at the moment.

Melinda: So, when you’re developing a new concept and you’re defining the guest experience, where do you start?

Anna: We start at the core of what Peter and Paul’s is, and looking at the experts within the team at the moment, they’ve nailed the concept of hospitality down. They are experts with making sure they deliver five-star hospitality.

So we start at the core of who we are. From there, we launch to the brand itself that we’re opening at the moment, which is Pétros. And we look at how do we take these qualifiers of what we know we do right every single time within our Peter and Paul’s brand and match it to what we want to deliver with this new experience, Pétros 82. And from there, there’s core attributes that pretty much evolve to developing a new defined kind of theme, but with the core of the brand in place.

I think from there, what we want to make sure happens is that, no matter where you are, whether it’s at, you know our Universal Eventspace or at the David Duncan House, we want to make sure that when they enter Pétros 82, they know they’re entering a Peter and Paul’s experience, but with the influence of what Pétros 82’s personality is. So we start with the core.

Melinda: Right. The brand.

Anna: The brand being Peter and Paul’s, that’s right.

Melinda: So, after you understand what you do well and how to deliver it in that space, what comes next?

Anna: A lot of panic. Well, what really comes next is, we define what Pétros 82 is or whatever it is that we’re working on at the time. So, what do we want to give the customer? What’s the Holy Trinity?

  • How do we want to service our employees?
  • How do we want the experience of the restaurant to look and feel?
  • How do we want the food to taste?

And if we can look at those three elements and tie them back into the overall brand, but again, with its own flair and personality, we start with those core areas and then we drill down. So the people, how do we train the people? What do we want them to say? How do we want them to greet guests when they’re at the door? How do we want them to say goodbye to guests when they leave? You know, are we asking runners to be able to provide water every 10 minutes? Do we want them to be able to place the check at the end of the evening on the table or do we want it handed to the guests? Those are kind of the details we establish through the culture of the people.

And then, with the experience of the space, that one’s a very long project. That one is just about every touch point you can see. Just like when you’re walking into this space, where are we placing the chairs? How are we making sure our bar looks? Are we looking at white linens or are looking at, you know, no linens? Are we making sure that we’re wrapping around the seating to be able to get the best views of the lake? Every element has to be looked at because what I believe is that, when you walk away, it’s not just about the food, it’s about every element of making it a memorable experience, and all of those touch points take a lot of time, a lot of time.

And then the third one is obviously the food. Everyone in the organization, I think that’s a prerequisite of being on board with this company, you have to love food. And, for us, we adore food. The owner himself is European, so for us, he comes with this big bold love of being at a table and enjoying food as an experience and as part of who they are, who they are as a family, giving this experience to their guest. And he wants to translate that into the touch point of our restaurants. So, for us, the food isn’t just about the taste, although the taste is incredibly important. It’s about the type of food being served, the quality of the food and where we’re getting the food from. It’s the way we plate the food. It’s on top of how does the plate look.

So, every one of those aspects of that Holy Trinity has tentacles everywhere to try to kind of make sure feedback to the brand of giving that five-star experience of Peter and Paul’s.

Melinda: Yeah, that absolutely. I wanted to go back a little bit to the employees, because, in food service it’s said you’ve got turnover.

Anna: It’s huge.

Melinda: And especially if you are a five-star restaurant, you want to deliver something exceptional. How do you make that happen?

Anna:You know, again, I go back to brand culture. It’s in the hiring process right up front. So, if you can capture employees that have similar personality traits to what the brand is and the value proposition of the brand, I think from there you’ve eliminated a large portion of the turnover, because if you can match the culture to the person, from there you have a longer shelf life with the employee.

It’s pretty much a marriage, right? You have to get in on the foundation of the same values and beliefs in what you want to offer your guests. If you can get that right, what ends up happening is, people fall in love with the place that they work, and they can temper the good with the bad because they know that we have the same common vision. And I think that’s really important when you’re hiring employees. That goes right to the dishwasher, to the executive chef, to our sommelier. Like it’s so important to make sure that people have that same vision. So, articulating what your brand values are at the beginning, with our organization in the hiring process is incredibly important. And then what we do is we try to develop a culture of fun. This is hospitality. Outside of maybe the Raptors, I really don’t know who else has more fun in this world.

Hospitality is a fantastic space to be in. We believe in nurturing that fun and we believe in nurturing empowerment with our individuals to be able to make choices to improve that guest experience and not have to go through a layer of bureaucracy to try to resolve a situation. And I think when you can give those tools and match the culture to that employee, you’ve set them up for success and hopefully wanting to have a long-term career with us. And we have people who’ve been here a very long time and we’re hoping that same success will be matched with the people we start to hire at Pétros.

Melinda: It is a little easier with a five-star because you get people who want, this is a career.

Anna: It’s a huge career. And if you look at some of our other spaces, and whether it’s our venues, or even if we look at David Duncan House, when we acquired that a couple of years ago, that too was a restaurant that had been around for 35 years, and it changed ownership with us a couple of years ago. We kept a lot of that staff and we nurtured that staff because these were people that had been with that restaurant for 25 years, as this was their career. They were career servers and they were fantastic. And then what we just did is we adapted the menu and we evolved the menu to be more in keeping with what we believed in was offering great food, and then we tried to nurture that culture with them on what Peter and Paul’s was about in delivering consistently that five-star experience every single time. So, yeah, you’re right. When we’re looking at a premium delivery of service, we do have those people with that right mentality in the sense where they get it, they know they’re not going into fast food or fast casual service, they’re going into a career in delivering exceptional experiences to the guest. And it’s a certain type of person, because it’s a lot of work.

Melinda: Right. So, you were mentioning something that I wanted to ask you about, which is, if you are rebranding or acquiring, how do you approach changing something that maybe some people, maybe customers like it, maybe they don’t like it, there’s some equity there. How would you approach that differently?

Anna: Yeah, and that’s a really good question, because it is something we had to deal with a couple of years ago when we acquired David Duncan House. If you’re familiar with the restaurant, it is in North Toronto. It had a long-standing history as one of the best steak houses, I would say in the early ‘90s. And then, over time, that started to decline. And it was in a historic house, let’s not forget that. So you basically cannot touch most of that, the location and the perimeter of the home. And it’s funny, and I’ll give you a personal story of mine when it comes to David Duncan House. When I was brought on board, I am very much a fan of cleanliness and modern. That’s a personal take on my personal aesthetics. And I was walking into this very dark steakhouse, and I don’t even eat red meat, which by the way, was something that I also had to acquire personally. I do now, but I didn’t at the beginning. So I was like, wow, this is really different. And, if you know the Peter and Paul’s brand, we are very bold, very modern, very fresh. But, it’s in the boldness that we take on projects like this, because for us, this was something we truly believed we needed to maintain the integrity of.

There is something so beautiful about the idea of coming into a steakhouse and you know you’re going to get an exceptional steak and tableside Caesar and all of the different exceptional qualities of having that white glove service in an old school, historic home. And so, for us, we were like, “Well, how do we take this idea and marry it to this very bold, very exciting brand called Peter and Paul’s?” And for us, it really became about balancing the integrity of a steakhouse with the modern approach to dining in 2019. For us, it became more about the flavors of the menu. It became about making sure that the seating was refreshed and comfortable, updating the carpet, keeping the integrity of the curtains and the lighting. We have this beautiful mosaic going right across the ceiling of stained glass. We really tried to update it, but keeping the heritage of this old school, Frank Sinatra kind of steakhouse intact. And surprisingly, it became this perfect balance. It happens to be, and I’m not saying this because it’s one of ours, but one of my favorite places to dine now. Because I feel like I’m getting an exceptional menu in this really cool experience of an old-world type of service. We love the idea of the challenge of being able to marry the two and we think we’ve done an incredible job with that. And then there’s certain elements we updated. The washrooms, they’re all state of the art. We updated our kitchen; we updated our private rooms. They’re all beautiful marble and fresh and modern. But the integrity of the restaurant and the old school look and feel, we just refreshed.

And it’s a very cool balance. And I think, again, it goes back to sometimes in that Holy Trinity of restaurant design, service, and food, sometimes you only work on a couple. And I think that when you’re taking over an existing restaurant and really not changing the name and none of that, I think then from that point what you have to do is say, “Okay, where do we dovetail, and where do we kind of let them almost take a little bit of the lead and allow us to evolve in our overall brand?” Because it really was a good compliment of the old with the new.

Melinda: I’m going to talk a little more generally about food service and the guest experience. What are some of the big failures that you see out there when you go out and you’re just going out for dinner wherever, whether it’s quick service or fine dining, what are some of the things that put your teeth on edge?

Anna: Well, you know, sadly, I see quite a bit of that because part of our role here in our jobs at Peter and Paul’s is to go out and understand what the competition is doing. And I see a lot of good, but I also see equally a lot of bad, and I guess some of the things would be not listening to the guest, not accommodating the guest. Things that I think in my mind, and I’ve dealt with it and I see it on our day to day, so I know what takes a lot of change and a lot of infrastructure and support to make a modification versus what is just being friendly. Maybe because we are in five-star, maybe because we do try to deliver it every single time, a perfect guest experience. We know it doesn’t always work, but our heart is always in the right place to attempt that. I think that it goes back to perhaps one or two things. It’s either not enabling your front of line staff to be able to make decisions. And I think the other part of it is not hiring the right people that understand the culture of what you’re supposed to be delivering for this guest experience that’s in line with the brand.

So some of the things are when you’re asking for an accommodation to a plate and that’s not happening and/or something as simple as someone not greeting you at the door when you’ve been standing there and you’re looking for friends that have already been seated and someone not saying, “Hey, I’m sorry, I see you’re here. How can I help you?”

Those, to me, are big no-nos in this industry, because it leaves an impression, and a series of little impressions will be the final decision on whether someone’s going to come back or not. And Toronto’s a great city with a lot of restaurants, and if you can’t offer that memorable experience, the likelihood of them coming back, which in our world is so important, is going to be slim.

Melinda: Yeah.

Anna: I also think when we do big initiatives like a Winterlicious or a Summerlicious, those are great opportunities to get new customers in the door. But it takes us a lot of time to take on those initiatives, and we really consider them, we take a long time thinking about them and how we’re going to approach them, because as we’re trying to get 80 percent of new customers in the door to maybe experience our restaurant, we need to ensure that we’re set up for success in maintaining our regulars at that time as well. And that experience for our regular customer during those two to three weeks isn’t changing. So, before restaurants decide to take on a big initiative like that, they need to be set up for success internally with their kitchen and with their front of house so that no one is feeling discombobulated, whether it’s a guest or whether it’s our hostess or whether it’s our kitchen staff at the time. So, I do see slip ups like that happen during big events. And, to me, it’s all about the upfront communication and the proper planning.

Melinda: So, let’s go back to Pétros when you were mapping out the guest experience. Let’s just assume you’re starting to get a handle on the menu, you’re starting to get a handle on what it’s going to look like physically, and you have an idea of the type of employee, but now you’re actually in the restaurant and you’re opening, and you’re mapping out how you want the customer to walk through the restaurant and sit down and experience it. How do you approach that?

Anna: Well, it’s not just one person thankfully. I wouldn’t want that responsibility all on my shoulders. It’s a team of us. We have our store designers, or our restaurant designer in this situation. And we have Peter, our CEO and the owner of the company, as well as a whole network of myself, the executive chef, our general manager, our sommelier. We do the walkthrough, and all of us come with some level of hospitality experience. So, we all have a very good understanding, but together we all bring different perspectives. And you physically do the walkthrough, and you move the furniture, and you adjust the shades or you bring in shades because you realize the lighting at a certain time of day is going to affect so many elements, even as simple as the taste profile of your dish, right?

If it’s too hot or too sunny, that affects your food, or your wine for that matter. This is all about the human experience, and we do dry runs, we start up, fire up the kitchen to make sure we’ve got it right. And sometimes you get it right and then all of a sudden you’re looking at, the fish that you’re trying to get from Greece isn’t available anymore. So you have to rehaul it all. And that’s just the nature of the beast when you’re in this type of environment.

And there was a lot of planning. Gosh, if you look at our uniforms, that’s a whole other can of worms. I mean, that was just months and months of people trying on different uniforms and testing them in our other restaurants to see if they breathed properly, see if they didn’t wrinkle, so that people didn’t look sloppy. You know, wash and wear, if you think about it, it’s incredible. You have to love this business, because, to make a dollar here, it takes a lot of effort. But if you do it right, beyond the profitability part of it, you’ve nurtured a brand to life and it’s a brand that people aren’t coming to for practical reasons, they’re coming there for emotional reasons. And if you can win at that game, it’s a huge personal win for many of us that are in this space, because you’ve been able to create something that people can connect to on an emotional level. And that, to me, is the key to a successful brand.

Melinda: I think that’s an absolutely fabulous way to end our conversation.

Anna: Great.

Melinda: Thank you so much. It was fabulous.

Some key takeaways from my conversation with Anna. The first is the importance of staying on brand. In order to stay on brand, you need to define your brand and know it inside and out. Having a defined brand puts you in a stronger position in the marketplace and it will help guide decisions from menu items, to decor, to how you choose your staff. We hear this repeated over and over and over again from everyone we talk to, how important this is. The second is the importance of matching your culture to the people you hire. Although Anna is talking specifically about fine dining, the same principle should be applied to all dining experiences, and brands need to pay attention to this because it’s not true that people don’t expect good service from fast casual experiences. In fact, service can make all the difference. Creating an employee engagement program should help managers better understand how to filter applicants and should help employees deliver on your service expectations.

The third thing I think is critical for senior executives is to walk through their store experiences. Regardless of what kind of restaurant you operate, being hands on at that level will give you insights that you’re not ever going to get from a report. And the last thing I think she perfectly explained is that we have to remember people come to a restaurant for pleasure, and meeting their emotional needs should be something that food service operators are thinking about and how they deliver on culture, the experience of the place, and of course, the food.

That’s all for today’s episode. Thanks for listening.

Restaurant in Toronto Hotel
Photo of Pétros 82, the Lobby Bar at Toronto’s Hotel X.


Anna Neri is Vice President Branding at She is a business leader with a focus on building, revitalizing and turning around businesses through clear brand articulation, strategic planning, marketing communications, digital strategies, product development, and strategic partnerships.

Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email