What is in this article?:
- Small restaurant operators expanding despite the odds
- They look for niches to fill.
- They build a strong internal culture.
Beating the odds and competing against the resources of the big chains isn’t easy, but many concept creators have found a formula that works. What are they doing right?
Gingham is one of Enlightened Hospitality Group's growth vehicles.
They build a strong internal culture.
“We make sure our first priority is teamwork,” says owner Jeremy Merrin, who has expanded the Havana Central brand to five locations. He likes to see staff members develop friendships, because he believes it fosters loyalty. “You will tend not to want to leave a company if you are working with friends,” he observes. As Havana Central expands to new locations, maintaining that culture gets more difficult. But Merrin makes sure to bring veterans along to help develop the right atmosphere.
Kevin Finn, president of Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant, says grooming internal talent is a priority for his company, which has nine brewpubs in the Northeast and will open its 10th next year. Servers endure intensive training and testing before they hit the floor to ensure high standards. Managers clock in “so we can make sure they aren’t working too many hours,” Finn says. The promise of a management post is a compelling incentive, and it’s not just talk. The current director of operations started out with Iron Hill as a hostess.
“I’m passionate about creating opportunities for people, helping them grow and experience things,” Finn says.
Brennan calls the internal culture the DNA of Enlightened Hospitality’s units. “We need to make sure from restaurant to restaurant that the g.m.s, managers, hosts and servers understand the DNA. There is literally a blueprint and a book so everybody understands it,” he says.
That goes double for the DJ, since an eclectic mix of tunes that changes throughout the day defines the restaurant. “The hardest part of the whole DNA thing is certainly the music,” Brennan says. “We have a one-strike policy with our DJs. There is no second chance. And we are meticulous in how we police that.”
They choose sites carefully.
“We tend to be a little prudish or elitist” when it comes to site selection, Lark Creek’s Dellar says. The kind of restaurants Lark Creek builds aren’t going to work in a strip mall or in a less-sophisticated market. “It’s really important for us to locate where people understand what we do and understand the difference between good and great.”
Being able to reach two locations with relative ease is important for a small organization like Sirhal and Spinner’s. “It makes it easy for us to move back and forth. We spend a lot of time together at both of the restaurants, but we can divide and conquer when we have to,” Sirhal says. The third restaurant also will be in the city.
They staff up strategically.
At some point, a growing organization needs to bring in help from the outside. That’s what Merrin found out when he had three Havana Central locations open in New York. When Merrin migrated over from the jewelry business, he quickly learned that running restaurants was a bit more complicated than it looked. “I was working crazy hours, not making money and spending my time putting out fires,” he recalls.
Merrin knew he was onto something with the concept, but he wasn’t happy with how it was developing. He found a consultant—Arlene Siegel—who helped him build a team to take his organization to the next level. One of the first hires was an operations expert who helped him hire better managers and look at processes. He is working on his fifth location and is ready to hire a purchasing director now that the volume is there. And he plans to open two to three restaurants a year going forward, “carefully, so that each restaurant stands on its own.”
“It took us a long time, but we finally figured out how to make money and how to run restaurants.”