I’ve been a big fan of The Ritz-Carlton, Toronto, especially after a chance encounter with the property’s Director of Food and Beverage Operations Arjun Gopi, who offered to give me the royal tour of their signature restaurant, TOCA. An unassuming shorthand for Toronto, Canada, the most striking feature of this luxurious Italian dining spot is its glass-walled, impossible-to-miss cheese cave positioned right at the entranceway. With this cave à fromage as a centerpiece, TOCA has fully embraced cheese as its narrative spine with decadent cuisine infusions, cave tours offered daily or at the guests’ convenience, a dessert menu that’s three-quarters cheese, wine pairings expertly curated by the sommelier and a monthly event series. There are some fantastic lessons here for how you can enhance revenue and your reputation.
A restaurant is far more than its food
Ingeniously built between a cluster of structural concrete support columns, if it wasn’t encased in glass and used to age veritable, wheel-upon-wheel of cheese, this corridor would be able to comfortably house an extra two foursome tables. Thus, a serious argument had to be made in favor of building the cave in the first place, for which Arjun and the TOCA Restaurant Manager Peter Muir offered several.
Foremost is the sense of place. Observable from every table, the cave helps make each meal exceedingly memorable through its additive dose of visual stimulation.
Moreover, the tours on hand, along with the sight of sous chefs hustling back and forth as they prepare cheeses for use in dishes and formal presentations, all help to bridge the topic of consumer education. That is, while your top priority at a restaurant is to deliver a satisfying meal with great service, your guests, particularly at the luxury end, are looking to enrich their livelihoods and their appreciation of the many fascinating intricacies of our vast planet. TOCA does this by making all its patrons that much more in love with cheese, thereby heightening the overall dining experience beyond the food..
Cheese is the new wine
Restaurateurs the world over take great care in crafting a superb wine list, not only because the markups on alcohol are enough to make their businesses solvent, but also because they know that the right wine can boost meal satisfaction. Following the tour of the cheese cave, I sat down with Arjun and Peter for a salivating tasting prepared by the TOCA’s in-house sommelier, Lorie O’Sullivan, which perfectly demonstrates why cheese is a forgotten frontier in the wine profiteering equation. It’s one thing to be presented a platter of four cheeses and four corresponding wines, then left to nibble as you see fit; it’s a whole other stratosphere to be guided through these pairings one-by-one with a brief explanation including tasting notes, place of origin and any unique elements for each.
To elaborate upon TOCA’s dedication to its cheeses, the current dessert menu lists 20 cheeses sorted by milk type (sheep, goat or cow) with only five traditional sweets. Two observations are worth noting from our pairings: First, the cheeses as well as the wines are expressive of TOCA’s Italophilic theme, further reinforcing the restaurant’s narrative. Second, both are representative of the local region, as Toronto is situated within a few hours’ drive of a few niche viticulture regions as well as several burgeoning artisan cheese communities
Takeaways for every hotelier
While I doubt your already-built restaurant has room or renovation budget for a dedicated cheese cave, the key lessons are twofold.
For one, customers eat with their eyes. In order to become truly memorable and lever your eatery towards synergistically building the property’s reputation, you have to offer more than just the food on the plate. This is known as experiential dining. While TOCA’s cave à fromage is near impossible to duplicate, your restaurant may interpret this in the form of servers torching a crème brûlée tableside (cooking anything in front of the guests, really), a roving cart for special promotions, excellently curated music congruent with the outlet’s theme, or even a jazz pianist tickling the ivories all night long. The point is to get creative and give something extra beyond the cuisine itself.
Second is that sophisticated customers also eat with their brains. Your guests want to be wowed, surprised and engaged with all five senses as well as to get a slice (pun intended) of new knowledge in the process. Many prestigious restaurants offer cellar tours for patrons while brewpubs will let you explore their adjacent processing facilities prior to ordering. Use the facilities at your disposal, but know that this tutorial approach relies entirely on your staff and how well they are able to pay these insights forward to customers.