B2B companies are waking up to the fact that to grow faster than their competitors, they need to differentiate their customer experience. Taking another lesson from outside of our industry, today we will examine how CX design elevated a restaurant to a transformative experience.
Alinea “is not a restaurant, at least in the conventional sense.” This simple line on their website is quite the understatement. In fact, the name itself is from the symbol we all remember from grade school English for starting a new paragraph, but the definition is “a new line of thought.” This describes the bold vision for the restaurant overall, as well as how they approach the meal. While Chef Achatz’ philosophy and is well told in his autobiography, Life on the Line and summarized in “Chef’s Table.” Where he states that “at Alinea, we are trying to curate an experience.” “I want the guest to have a sense of wonderment of what will happen next?”
While the Netflix special highlights the creativity and magic of this experience, after reading: the Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath, I realized that this can be done programmatically. Creating elevated moments requires three key actions, raise the stakes, break the script, and boost sensory. Through the lens of a meal at Alinea, let’s explore how this was accomplished.
Raise Stakes – Making a reservation at Alinea is an innovative experience in its own right. Rather than making a reservation, one purchases tickets (via an application called Tock, which came from the co-founder of Alinea, Nick Kokonas). Certainly, this is important to the commercial success of Alinea, but it effectively raises the commitment of the guests. Much like going to a sporting event, concert, or theatre, we demonstrate a higher level of commitment, and that anticipation builds as we approach the event. Certainly, this is risky, as there is nothing worse than unmet expectations, but the Alinea team took this head-on.
Break Script – At most restaurants, you walk up to a kiosk, a host or hostess greets you, and then you head to your table. Alinea immediately breaks this script. You don’t see the dining room when you first enter. You are greeted, and despite buying a ticket for 2, escorted to a communal table. We enjoyed our first course at this communal table and then were escorted into the kitchen for the second course and cocktail. In the few minutes it took to complete this course, we returned to a dining room that was completely transformed and were now left to enjoy our table for 2. Our eyes were drawn to the artwork on the ceiling (more on that later). And we were presented with our menu, which was a series of one-word descriptions. There clearly is a sequence, but it is not clear to us at the time. Using the Heath methodology, this is setting up the “reveal” and the “reward.”
Boost Sensory – This might be the most transformative component at Alinea. Throughout the meal, all 5 of our senses were fully engaged. The multi-sensory engagement plays a significant role in evoking old memories and creating new ones. As Chef Achatz says, “we are working in the emotional
realm as much as the sensory realm.” While there were several examples, the most memorable was from a course called “Nostalgia.” This is the
“floating food” shown the Netflix special. While being presented a balloon as a dessert course is an impressive achievement, sucking out the helium, which tasted like bubble gum evoked memories of childhood, while creating a new memory that will be anchored for a long time.
Certainly, these ideas can be combined and were in the course called “paint.” Our server got on a stool, took the artwork off the ceiling, and placed it on our table. The lights turned off, and loud music filled the dining room. The kitchen staff then proceeded to paint different items on the artwork, finishing with a chocolate globe that was then broken to splatter on the table. A completely unexpected, but an experience we won’t forget.
Upon completion of this meal, we were presented with a vellum overlay to our menu, which explained the courses in more detail (and provided a perfect souvenir of the evening). This brought the experience full circle. From the outside, all of this looks like a magical, creative process. However, by combining the lessons of Chef Achatz and the Heath brothers, we can develop processes at scale that drive customers to the positive emotions we want them to feel throughout the customer life cycle. Like a professional kitchen, it requires creativity, discipline, and attention to detail. To apply these lessons to your customer journey, download SBI’s Customer Journey Map Tool.