Industry Spotlight: Aaron Placourakis

Aaron Placourakis
President and CEO,
AMP Restaurants Ltd., a multi-unit operation on Maui
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The best part of the changes that I’ve seen over my last four decades in the industry is the level of employees that we can access. Back in the day, some people were only working in the industry until they got a ‘real job.’ I think now, more people are employed by the food-related industries than any other in America.

In the interview process, I’ll ask, ‘what is your five-year and 10-year plan?’ Oftentimes I’ll hear, ‘I’d like to have my own catering company, or own a restaurant, or get into international restaurants.’ Sometimes I hear, ‘In the next five years I’ll get my own sitcom. By then I’ll be able to finish night school and get the pick of the litter.’ For the most part, though, the professionalism has increased.

It’s not as if the restaurant industry is the only one that has exploded, but with so many innovative concepts that are super-unique and not just a bunch of copy-cats, the growth is healthy and the most exciting it’s been in the 40-plus years I’ve been around it.

The way television and the media has made our industry a lot more visible makes it more attractive to people. They can relate to cooking shows, and different types of shows like people coming in and saving bars. You see the challenges and how they motivate people, so more people can relate.

Also, more people are educated on food and food products.

40 years ago I used to hear once in awhile about an allergy to shellfish. Thirty years ago I started hearing about lactose. Twenty years ago came increasing numbers of vegetarians and vegans, and 10 years ago, the gluten-free era started. Does that mean that 40 years ago, gluten was okay? There are more challenges for us to adjust to, and of course these are legitimate needs, so we need to have options that will be able to fit anyone.

One customer might just not like peanuts, but a lot has to do with how it’s articulated. We just have to assume everyone’s going to die if we don’t accurately execute their dish in accordance with their requirements. This also has to be a consideration in equipment purchases and kitchen design.

Despite the recent renaissance, ‘farm-to-table’ dining is actually the most primitive version of the restaurant industry. In the old days, you had to buy products that were close to you, it wasn’t just an option. The evolution of travel, transportation and air freight 60, 70 and 80 years ago, put products from all over on restaurant tables. And now ‘farm to table’ is the latest and greatest thing.

I was kind of raised old-school. My mentors Peter Canlis, Nicholas Nickolas, and Trader Vic, all these classic guys’ restaurants were extensions of themselves, so they were always making adjustments that might be better for their guests.

Like them, I like to catch things before a customer would, and the only way to do that, is to be in the joint on a nightly basis. I continue to do that. For me, for the money customers are spending, the ownership should be represented. I like to be there, it’s an extension of me, and I like for my people to see that I put labor into the restaurants as well. It makes a statement to everyone in that place working, so they know you’re willing to do the job. Not just to pull rank, but because you care enough to do it with them.

It’s like Yul Brenner performing as the King of Siam in “The King and I” more than 4,600 times on broadway (over different spans of time). He put his game face on every night, and that’s what we have to have, that same feeling of ‘we’re performing every single night.’ You’ve got to really want to do it, otherwise it’s going to show. Body language doesn’t lie.

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