From the Kitchen – Growing Pains

Scott Plath on September 17th, 2016

To chase the burrito was my epiphany while attending the (excellent) “grow your brand” seminar organized by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. That was nearly three years ago. As an MRA board member, I attend as many of our seminars as time allows. They are always invaluable.

This “aha!” moment came soon after the speaker warned: “Do not chase the burrito” (and then something about Chipotle’s success being a “one in a million” occurrence … blah, blah … my mind was already off to the races!).

Let the games begin.

Psh. Burritos. Brilliant, apparently. Difficult? What’s so tough about fresh, fast, funky, streamlined and sustainable. Plus, their decor is cold … the staff’s culinary growth is limited … the protein is scant … there’s no beer. I’ll add a bar. Some smoke. A short rib. Gooey cheese. Amazing wine. A vegetarian rice bowl. Profit sharing for the staff. And a “welcome home” vibe (if your home is combination urban-vibey meets woody-smoky). Screaming yellow, red and green drinks. Turmeric, watermelon, wheatgrass. A menu for millennials and boomers — after all, we love the same food. We raised you dudes on gooey cheese.

I have many epiphanies, most often at 5 a.m., both a blessing and a haunting curse. But this one promised to be life changing.

Dining society is changing fast, “home meal replacements” born as the buzz phrase for the trend. Every day there is another burger or burrito joint, another pork or new pizza concept. Bistros have been replaced by “The Something Kitchen,” and mediocre fast-casual concepts abound. Not coincidentally, the proliferation of restaurants steadily outpaces the number of employees needed to staff them properly. The talent pool dilutes, qualified cooks become a rarer commodity every day, health care and the minimum wage increase almost simultaneously as motivation and availability wanes.

(As a side, it’s not so much the higher wages that threaten profitability — responsible owners want qualified, committed staff to earn — it’s the waste; the burden of turnover, recruiting, training, the unmotivated, students, and the incredible unemployment debacle as an all-too-easy alternative to showing up at work every day that creates the column for another morning.)

But this guy has the answer. (I really do!)

A team-driven profit share and a brilliant menu with proper, (mostly) healthful, chef-driven food designed by chef-partners who get to be creative and impassioned by day, and then attend their kids’ soccer games at night.

The guest chooses to bring some home for the family, or stay, relax, chat. For this new age — less wheat, less butter (not NO butter, just less) — fast, fine, fresh, for here or vamonos. I got this.

Menu version No. 1 was written that same week. Southern hospitality meets Northern sensibility. It was judged “too Southern” by my brain trust. “More global” was next. The business plan came soon after. We hired an operations guy, a systems expert who, tired of the corporate grind, helped launch Qdoba and then Wahlburgers. Excited by the prospect of innovation. Great fit, great resume. “Sir, our infrastructure needs to be strong, the profit and loss management by our existing general managers tight. Growing at the expense of the existing restaurants is not an option, and a man must know his limits.” I am a miserable organizer. But epiphanies? I’m your guy.

We began developing the recipes — the smoke, the cure, the braise — items for both “Joe” and “Jordan.”

Our designer created the storyboard. I shared the plan with our bank guy. “No problem, Scott,” he said. “We’ll give you all the money you need; you’ll barely have to sign anything.” (I may be paraphrasing.)

We settled on a name. Then another. Menu? Check. Logo? Check. Money? Check. Now what? We need the multiunit chef with the right stuff to oversee all future locations. We hired a recruiter. We found our chef. A Hawaiian-via-Boston dude. A systems guy. A professional with the culinary mettle to match our menu vision who agreed that we should create a path to ownership for our top people at each future location — a liberating road for wannabe chef-owners. Brilliant. We all agreed, one location per year. We created Stones Hospitality Group. We designed the uniform. We wrote another menu … we brought it all together. Booya!

Now, “all” that’s left … the absolutely right, high volume, location, location, location …

I hired a top restaurant lawyer and found an expert site-selection guy through the MRA (“He has placed over 200 successful restaurants.”) Then a top-notch real estate agent with a Panera, Chipotle, NYAJ’s kind of resume. And we looked. And we looked. And we look …

Andover first. On Main Street — a perfect site for our new finer diner! (Perhaps we should change the name to “Main Street Diner?” Focus, Plath, focus.)

Ultimately, after many visits, the site was too expensive to modify for our lower price point. North Andover next. Not enough parking. Littleton. Not enough “day pop.” Tewksbury. Too far from the highway. Sudbury. Too sleepy. Burlington.  Saturated. Waltham. Too small. Fenway. Too expensive. (I’ve grown fond of my first born, and my home.) Marblehead, Manchester, Nashua, Lowell, Billerica, Westford, Somerville … always too much or too little of something. It must be perfect.

Amid it all, an unforeseen personal issue rocked our director of operations, and he departed back to Legal’s — “I wasn’t looking,” he promised. This news was a blow to both the new chef and me. We were a great team of three. We mourned, and adjusted. We will be a great team of two. The chef assured me: “I will be with you for many years.”  He wrote the bonus plan. We modified our existing restaurant menus for “test kitchen” opportunities. Brilliant.

Then Hyatt called my chef-friend as he was morphing into our new director. “Sorry we lost you … big things happening … we’ll double your salary.” (Did I mention that qualified hospitality folks are in short supply?) “I wasn’t looking,” he, too, promised as he, too, made his way back to corporate. Bye-bye, chef. It was fun while it lasted.

I’m writing this column at 5 a.m.

No epiphanies today. (Just an independent restaurant owner and his new drawing board.)

I may need to attend another seminar.

How to grow your brand. Faster.

Sigh.


Scott Plath, along with his wife Kathleen, owns Cobblestones of Lowell and moonstones, in Chelmsford, Mass. Scott possesses a deep well of humorous and insightful stories, which can be found here on our website.

 

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