5 big takeaways from the restaurant industry’s famed Welcome Conference

Restaurateur Simon Kim on stage at the Welcome Conference | Credit: Stefanie Tuder

With seated reservations across North America up 10% in August compared to 2021, it’s only fitting that the Welcome Conference’s theme this year was an enthusiastic “welcome back.”

Co-founded by influential restaurateur Will Guidara, the Welcome Conference has been bringing together hospitality professionals since 2014 as a way to gather, recharge, inspire, and connect. It offers a moment and place for restaurant people to mull over new ideas, while forging relationships that bring everyone closer together.

Speakers this year ranged from award-winning restaurateur Simon Kim, who spoke about the power of identity in restaurants, to business powerhouse Kat Cole, who shared her techniques for learning leadership lessons from unexpected places.

OpenTable was there in full force to soak up the knowledge and continue to think critically about the future of the restaurant industry. Here’s what we learned.

Space matters

Priya Parker, acclaimed author of The Art of Gathering and host of The New York Times podcast “Together, Apart,” kicked off the programming with a social analysis of the very reason we all dine out—gathering. According to Parker, restaurants are a temporary world you enter for an experience you can’t control, and she encouraged the audience to consider the space they’re in when hosting or getting together. Whom do you gravitate to first? Why?

From the architecture of the room to the topics of conversation, so many factors go into a successful gathering (and, metaphorically, restaurant experience), not the least of which is how the host sets the stage for connection amongst guests. Parker ran an interactive exercise with the theater-sized audience to show how understanding the reason people are there can be step one to a successful group experience.

Answers don’t scale—questions do

When the former CEO and North American president for Focus Brands (Cinnabon, Carvel, Jamba Juice) gives you business advice, you listen. Kat Cole’s advice was action-oriented and applicable to leaders of all kinds of teams. Cole, now the president and COO of Athletic Greens, a new nutritional supplement, spoke about the power of questions, and how asking every employee the same set of questions can lead to powerful—and potentially surprising—results.

Cole’s specific questions: 

  1. What is one thing we should stop doing?
  2. What is one thing we should start doing?
  3. What’s one thing you would do differently if you were me to make the business better?

The power of “and”

The butchers feast at Simon Kim’s Cote | Credit: Gary He/Cote

When you embrace your identity, good things happen, according to Simon Kim, the award-winning restaurateur behind MICHELIN-starred Cote in New York City. Kim spoke to the audience about his identity struggle growing up in both South Korea and the United States, and how he toggled between the two.

Once he embraced the fact that he wasn’t simply Korean or American—but rather Korean and American—things settled into place and his career and restaurant took off. His conflict between cultural identities and eventual success finding home and belonging in both, and how that resonated with diners, was a powerful lesson.

Find your “one thing”

You may or may not have found it yet, but Mississippi restaurateur Robert St. John is convinced we all have our “one thing”—the one world-changing passion inside each of us. For St. John, it’s not the ten restaurants he owns, 11 books he’s written, or podcasts he hosts, but rather the non-profit organization Extra Table he founded that’s dedicated to feeding Mississippi’s hungry.

According to St. John, he thinks the restaurant industry’s way back to “normalcy,” and in fact something even better, is through community and focusing on our one passion outside our day jobs.

Community heals all

Community was a central theme of the day. St. John spoke about it, London restaurateur Asma Khan spoke about how hospitality is about connecting people, and James Beard Award-winning chef Erick Williams literally said, “Restaurants are hospice to our communities.”

Williams takes that notion very seriously, where at his Chicago restaurant Virtue, he leans heavily into his Black heritage, providing Black Chicagoans with a place to feel at home and celebrated. He also spends much of his time outside the restaurant focused on helping inner-city youth through charity partnerships.

His resounding idea at the Welcome Conference was that leaning into restaurants’ impact on communities and working to better their communities is the way back to a new and better normal.

This new and better normal was a clear focus for what restaurateurs are embracing every day, and Welcome offered them a chance to pause and reflect on how to build this better normal—something the entire industry is striving for.

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