5 restaurant owners talk about working hard, food trends and even having fun
Restaurateurs tend not to share their secret recipes. But when it comes to imparting wisdom on how they make their businesses work, they’re more than willing to open up on everything from how to keep up with trends to dining room design and creating a healthy work culture.
Michelle Flores-Gonzales, vice president and director of operations for Flores Financial, a Santee-based hospitality services firm, got five restaurant clients to do just that.
“What does it take to go the distance?” Flores-Gonzales asked the owners/executives of Starlite, Whisknladle Hospitality Group, Lolita’s, Tajima, Live Wire, Station Tavern and Whistle Stop. “Is great food and service no longer enough?”
Flores-Gonzales said she asked them “to share their pearls of wisdom about what you need to do to keep your restaurant flourishing for the long term.” Here are their replies in their own words.
What would be your top tip for budding restaurateurs?
Sam Chammas, Owner, Live Wire, Station Tavern and Whistle Stop, Est. 1992
Dare to be different. My advice? Be different. When restaurants are chasing each other’s tails, be the dog that runs in the other direction. Avoid copying other places, especially ones close by. Go to other cities, states and countries for ideas and then tweak them. Don’t contribute to the sameness that makes a dining scene boring. If customers are bored, they stay home and that hurts all restaurants.
Question hype. Secondly, try not to get caught up in the hype. When we opened Live Wire 27 years ago, you ran your restaurant and that was enough, but these days you also need to run a virtual restaurant! Or do you? A digital presence is important, but is it why most of us get into this wild, wonderful business? This industry is still about people. It’s about looking your customer in the eyes and asking, “How’s it going?”
Don’t be afraid to go small. Small restaurants are part of the patchwork on the quilt that makes up the San Diego dining scene. The food hall trend is a reflection of the “get small” movement. They’re a great way to try out an idea and grow.
Share your successes. Finally, share your success with the people who got you there. My partner, Joe Austin and I hired Thad Robles as a manager years ago and we recently made him partner.
To what extent does restaurant design make a difference?
Matt Hoyt, Owner, Starlite, Est. 2007
Back in 2007, we wanted to open a place that would feel timeless, so we went to great lengths to create a space that felt like it had always been there. I think that’s important; it adds weight to your concept and doesn’t date as quickly. The majority of our customers are local San Diegans and we keep them engaged by refreshing and updating the cocktail and food menu.
Let staff be themselves. Another key to success is to run your business as one big family. We want our staff to embrace who they are, so we don’t have uniforms or have everyone look the same. I think it gives guests a sense of warmth and avoids any pretentiousness.
Spot a trend. My last tip would be to have fun and, if possible, get ahead of a trend. We resurrected the Moscow Mule in 2007 long before other places in town were serving it. The drink was considered obscure when we brought it back to life it; we had no idea it would be one of the most popular cocktails in the U.S. by 2011!
How has being a family owned restaurant been advantageous?
Dolores Jackson, President, Lolita’s Restaurants Inc., Est. 1984
Alongside great food and service, you’ll need serious commitment and a belief in your brand and its roots. Lolita’s is a 35 year-old family-owned business and we approach every day with the same passion we had the day we opened our doors. In fact, our founder, Joaquin Farfán Sr., continues to cook his scratch-made recipes at the original location six days a week and Dolores “Lolita” Farfán still passes along her wisdom in staff meetings!
Get your hands dirty. My advice to anyone getting into the business is to never shy away from hard work. Our commitment to high quality ingredients shines through in every dish. Build a connection with your community, be it through food or monetary donations.
Be an industry expert. Immerse yourself in the wider industry by reading articles and attending restaurant conferences so you can stay abreast of trends and stay relevant. Things change, not just on your menu, but in the expectations of your guests and employees; restaurant design; the whole dining experience. Elicit feedback from guests so you can respond to changing needs.
Ultimately, remain true to your brand! The restaurant industry is a way of life, not just a business.
How do you decide what to focus on?
Sam Morikizono, Founder, Tajima Restaurants, Est. 2001
Quality ingredients and fair prices. At Tajima, we focus on high-quality ingredients to match our top-notch service and hospitality. We also believe in fair pricing, which is why we work hard to create a menu that’s affordable for everyone. After all, ramen is a street food by origin that’s crafted to nurture the soul. That’s why we do everything possible to create premium meals that fall within the minimum wage price range.
Embrace trends but remain true to your values. Aside from food and service, I’d say it’s important to stay up-to-date in the culinary world. Change happens quickly in this industry, and after five or 10 years it’s easy for restaurants to fall behind when it comes to current trends. I’d recommend staying abreast of fads and flavors, and hitting refresh on your branding, while remaining true to your core dishes and values.
Build a great culture. Another important factor for us, since we set up in 2001, has been building a positive and supportive company culture. One of our strongest core values is leading by example to inspire our team. It’s an expectation of management, but also employees. This has helped us build a tight-knit unit, plus it enables our crew to extend this same sense of kinship to customers and the community. This is a food business, but it’s still all about people and relationships.
What are the keys to your success?
David Sui Balanson, COO and Partner, Whisknladle Hospitality Group, Est. 2008
Treat Employees Like Family. There are two keys to success. One is family. This means focusing on your employees as much as, if not more than, your external guests. This industry’s hard and if employees aren’t enjoying themselves it’s going to show, so it’s vital you commit to creating a great employment experience. When employees leave us, they often return because they realize we’re so focused and prepared to invest in helping them be successful.
Stick to Your Core Values. The other key is core values. Know what you stand for, who your guests are and how to cater to them. It’s natural for there to be a lot of chaos and creativity when you start out, but as you grow, you realize what’s important. Whenever something’s not going well, we come back to our mission statement: “Delicious food, exceptional service, genuine hospitality” and usually find that one isn’t being executed to the level we’d expect. It sounds too simple but 90 percent of the time it fixes our issues.
After 11 years in the business, those three things really mean something to us and our team. We’re not forever explaining. That’s because we have one of the most rigorous training programs in the city. It’s structured, fully resourced, and part of our culture.
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