Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Think Local First DC seminar on Ingredients for Success - Opening a Restaurant in DC Part III

Part III of Ingredients for Success - Opening a Restaurant in DC
Branding, Greening, Hiring/Retaining, Doing Business Locally
Click the links for Part I and Part II
Branding - How important is it?
Joe Englert said there are three things you need to spend money on:
  1. Good shoes
  2. A good bed
  3. Branding
Look to youth when deciding what outlets to spend your money on.  A lengthy part of the conversation focused on using interns for various duties, but particularly social media. They are in-the-know about what's being used before older folks catch on.  Keep your eye on them though, as sometimes you'll get a wild one in the group.  You don't want them damaging your reputation.

Marry your brand to a good organization that has lots of followers/members.  DC is full of them.  Find a group you can identify with hold on to them.  Make them part of your family.

Think about what you want to do and stick with it.  It's important to stay relevant, but don't spread yourself too thin chasing the next big thing either.  Your core, once established, will let you know how they want to maintain their connections to you.

When doing anything promotions-wise make sure your staff is engaged and on-board.  Customers can smell exasperation emanating from staff.

Logo and web presence - Make sure it is representative of your brand and the business and what customers can expect when they walk in.

Integration is important - you have to be sure that your brand is pervasive and consistent.  All output should have the same look/feel.  Be sure to copyright your branding.

Engage your neighborhood.  Find an employee who's also and artist and can do some great things with sidewalk chalk.  Get your neighbors talking (in a good way).  Give them a reason to stop in.  Don't underestimate the authenticity of small moments.

Find your brand ambassadors and engage them.  These are the people who like you, and like what you do, and are willing to tell people about it.  They will bring their friends in, and encourage those friends to bring theirs.  Treat them well and make them feel like part of the team.

Greening: Be a steward for your community.

There are many ways you can help the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) when you're opening and running your restaurant. 

Try to buy from local farmers as much as possible.  It will support your local economy.  You'll need to be creative, and your menu will have to be seasonal.  Obviously you can't buy EVERYTHING locally, but make the effort where it's possible. 

Use LED lighting.  It's more expensive up-front, but it will save you in energy usage and bulb-replacement costs/effort.

Think about composting. can set you up.  It takes a little more effort on the part of the servers and kitchen folks, but it reduces your garbage pickup dollars and output.  They take it away and do the work for you at a flat rate based on the number of bins and number of collections. They wipe out the bins for you as well so there's no mess.

Make your green initiatives part of your story as well.  People will feel better about being part of something that has more environmental responsibility.  List what you do to be good to the environment on your website or in the restaurant, or both.  Be transparent and tell the story.

Hiring and Retaining Staff:  How to find and keep good people.

Washington DC has some great resources to help you staff your restaurant.  There are numerous programs through One City One Hire and ROC-DC that provide assistance in training employees, sourcing them, and helping you make the most of the resources available at no cost to you.
Not mentioned in this seminar was another great placement program available through DC Central Kitchen. They train people to work in kitchens through an extensive program and it's a great way to get people back to work who need jobs.

Outside of the programs mentioned above, the more hospitality focused resources for finding employees are Craigs List, The City Paper, The Chef Link, and local food blogs.

Many restaurant owners will poach good people from surrounding businesses.  People come and people go from restaurant to restaurant, but always keep in mind how you'd feel if someone did it to you.  Just a thought.

Retaining staff is another issue entirely. Andy Shallal had a lot to say on the subject and I was impressed with his dedication to keeping employees engaged and motivated.  For starters Andy provides his full-time employees with paid health insurance.  His labor costs are higher than your average restaurant, but he feels that the investment is worth it when it comes to reduced turnover and training.  His training pay is $10.25 an hour for FOH, $11.25 for BOH and he provides paid sick leave as well as vacation.
He has regular meetings with staff to keep everyone in the loop and engaged and provides ongoing training.  The training encompasses not only hospitality skills, but life skills that apply outside the restaurant.  If you want to keep your folks happy, make them feel appreciated.  Value their opinions, educate them, and empower them.

Closing points were sometimes funny, often poignant, and a few were contradictory.  This just goes to show that there isn't one specific formula that will work for everyone.  Find your groove and make it yours.  Here is what the experts had to close with:

Trust your instincts and don't be outsmarted by experts.  Listen to what they have to say but don't be swayed easily.

Purchase the real estate, then open the restaurant; if not, make sure you understand the lease.

Understand the work-life balance and leave time for your family.

Bring your family into the business because it's all-consuming.

Savor and understand your failures.

Figure out your weaknesses, and hire someone who does those things well.

I would like to end by saying thank you to Think Local First DC for providing the opportunity to attend this seminar and to the participants and presenters.  This was a great event and I look forward to attending more.

If you have any questions please feel free to comment or send me an email @

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