Peter Esmond has a deep appreciation for what hospitality really means. From helping his parents run a cozy bed and breakfast in Colorado as a teenager, to running the floor at arguably the best Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City — Thomas Keller's Per Se — he’s experienced the ins and outs of guest management on every level. In 2012 he launched Set for Service, a restaurant CRM and guest management platform which was acquired by Reserve earlier this year.
Peter Esmond, GM of Reserve New York and Head of Restaurant Product
We chatted with him recently on the biggest misconception about the restaurant industry, how food tech has only just begun to innovate on the operations side of things and what it was like being an actor.
How did you come to be involved in hospitality?
I grew up outside of Chicago in the suburbs, and when I was 13 my family moved to Breckenridge, Colorado with the dream of opening a bed and breakfast. We moved out there and built a custom lodge that we eventually moved into when I was a freshman in high school. My teenage mornings consisted of waking up, helping serve breakfast and delivering coffee to people’s rooms before going to school. Whenever I answered the phone I said, “Little Mountain Lodge.” So being a host has always just been part of my daily life.
How did you end up in New York?
I was a theater buff in college, and I was actually studying theater at USC in Los Angeles. But I wasn’t a big fan of LA. So I moved to New York where I finished school at a professional acting conservatory called Circle in the Square. I happened to meet up with an old friend of mine from Breckenridge, and she was working at Jean Georges at that time as a bartender.
At that point, my brother had decided to become a chef, and he got into the culinary school in Hyde Park. So we both ended up in New York at the same time. When I first moved here I was actually staying at his place in Poughkeepsie and then taking the train down to go to school. So I got part of that culinary world from him and then started working at Jean Georges as a server. I worked there for six years. In that time, I did some acting and at one point I waited on Laura Cunningham (Thomas Keller’s partner at The French Laundry), and we got to chatting about San Francisco. We started to become friends, discussing different guests and what was happening in each of our markets, and at one point I asked about the new location in New York City and if they needed any help. She asked if I wanted to come out to The French Laundry and start working with them out there and return in a few months when the restaurant in NYC opened. At that point, I was really looking at my acting career and that lifestyle which was so inconsistent and crazy and thought, “This would be a great opportunity.” So the path split, and I decided to go down the path of food and beverage.
Then you worked at The French Laundry in California for a while, right?
I moved to California for what was supposed to be a three-month process at The French Laundry, but after eight months the New York location still hadn’t opened. So in that time, I basically worked through every front of house position that they had. I fell in love with the people, the concept and everything about it. I came back to New York, worked briefly at Bouley for a few months, and then opened Per Sein February, 2004.
How was Per Se’s style of service different from the typical fine dining experience?
Per Se, and The French Laundry before it, is really known for a very cool, American style of service where it’s very comfortable and approachable and personal but in a very formal setting. I was the maitre’d at Per Se for the first two years, running the door, running service, putting a lot of those philosophies in place from California. Prior to that, fine dining had always been more stiff, more classic, more European style, and what was great about The French Laundry was — while it’s a very high end experience — the people taking care of you are fun, they’re friendly, you like hanging out with them. So that was something we really wanted to embrace — that we weren’t stiff or subservient.
Tell me a little about Set for Service — what was it and what was your role there?
I was the founder and CEO of Set for Service. I originally conceptualized it when I was the GM of Per Se because we needed a tool to help us with our guest database, and there wasn’t anything out there that did the job right. And then in 2012, I actually started to develop it in addition to working at Rouge Tomate. The original concept of Set for Service was a cloud-based guest database where information could be shared across multiple restaurants in a group — social profiles for guests, customer notes and tags to help restaurants understand what preferences there were and a few other features to give them a little bit more flexibility and compatibility that other reservation systems didn’t have. We launched it at the beginning of 2013 and started to work with Eleven Madison Park and then Tom Colicchio’s Group, Crafted Hospitality. We eventually built out a native iPad app, and then we spun off the database management (CRM) part of the platform into its own product. We found that with a CRM component that actually connected to a restaurant’s table management solution as well as a point-of-sale system, you could actually get a lot of insights without actually risking something operationally important like reservations systems.
What did restaurants like about what you were doing?
They found it very valuable — we could extract the data from multiple locations and begin to merge it all together so they had a central database across all of their restaurants. We worked with a lot of the high end restaurants — STK, dell’anima, Le Bernardin and others — and it was great. We were able to easily pull together a lot of information, a lot of insights that they otherwise would have never had. We could run analytics on top wine spenders, top food spenders and top visitors, correlating a lot of it together. Then restaurant groups could act on that information during service and fold that into their marketing campaigns so they could do targeted outreach.
Why did you decide to be acquired?
It was really a shared belief in how technology can and should affect the hospitality industry. I met Greg and started talking to Reserve and realized that we would both be better off working together than separately to achieve our vision. In order to really take on the incumbents — these older, legacy, big players that’ve been around for a long time that were in the space — it was going to take more than just me and a couple of people. It was going to take a larger team — one that could be more effective than either of us were on our own.
And so you were acquired by Reserve earlier this year. What’s your role today?
I am GM of Reserve NY, so I oversee operations in New York which includes our restaurant operations and our marketing team. It’s fun. We get to deal on both sides of it, from the guest side to the restaurant side and connecting those pieces together. My other really significant role here is as Head of Restaurant Product, so I work with the product team and the tech team to develop the restaurant side of the Reserve product, which from a restaurant operator standpoint is not something we have seen before. A restaurant professional actually helping build the product that restaurants are going to use.
How have you seen emerging technologies affect how restaurants operate day-to-day?
Sadly, from an internal operations side, until the last couple of years nothing had really changed. The same old point-of-sale systems were still in place and clunky. What’s most interesting is that restaurants are really starting to embrace new technologies. Also on the other side, the tech world — in terms of startups and new concepts — they’ve begun to understand the restaurant space much better than they used to. And so some of the products that are being created are more appropriate for how restaurateurs run their businesses. Before, technologists just thought of restaurants as another small business so it became “whatever works for this over here will work for restaurants, too,” but those solutions never really worked. So the restaurant industry was very slow to adopt new technologies because nothing would really work for them. Not until recently have people started to see it as a very specific market and that they need to develop things that are specific to the restaurant owner.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about the restaurant business?
I think one of the general misconceptions, especially now with foodie culture and food TV and celebrity chefs, is the reality of how difficult the industry and lifestyle is. It’s not TV shows, it’s not all of this flamboyant amazingness — it’s really, really difficult work. It’s physical, it’s relentless, it’s exhausting. It’s in the trenches, roll up your sleeves and get stuff done, on every level. No matter if it’s a Michelin-starred restaurant or not, it’s 14-hour days on your feet, nights and weekends and every holiday. Whenever everybody else is off, you’re the busiest that you’ll be. The more that people understand that, the more they’ll respect how much goes into making the guest experience as special as it is. It’s a noble profession that people work really hard to make happen.
So switching gears, in your acting life, what were some of the roles you played?
I did a lot of off-off Broadway with a theatre company called The 42nd Street Theater Workshop. And then I did a national tour of The Little Prince.
Wow! So, do you sing?
I did. I don’t anymore. I’m a baritone. My wife is a much better singer than me. I met my wife in acting school. We were scene partners the first day.
What’s the best dining experience you’ve had lately?
The best experience I’ve had in the last few years was at Brooklyn Fare. It was some of best food I’ve tasted in long time. I also liked it because stylistically it fits with what I like — the flavors are very clean. It’s not very rich; it’s very light. There’s a lot of acid, so as you’re eating it’s really flavorful and refreshing, in a very pure sort of way. It’s such a cool counter experience with Cesar [Ramirez] cooking right there. And the plates they serve the food on are so beautiful. It’s amazing.