Real Restaurant Owners: An Interview with Saltwater Grille’s Andy Stowers
DineAbility had the pleasure to interview Andy Stowers, owner of The Litchfield Saltwater Grille, to get to know him, learn the challenges and triumphs of owning and running a restaurant, and investigate what makes The Litchfield Saltwater Grille successful.
A little bit about Andy…
Andy was a software industry executive with a logistics and supply chain technology company for nearly 20 years, running a global sales and marketing organization. Andy and Brook sought a new direction in life and took the plunge in the restaurant industry. After a thorough and meticulous search, their passion landed them in Litchfield, CT, and in 2013 the new proud owners of The Litchfield Saltwater Grille were born. They traveled all the way from the North of Wisconsin to make their dream a reality.
1. How long have you been in the restaurant business?
A little over one year
2. What does your restaurant do to keep your menu new and exciting?
We refresh our menu 4 times per year, tuning dishes, changing plating, adding a few items and retiring others. We also maintain specials which change 2-3 times per week for lunch, dinner and happy hour. We use these specials to make the dining experience diverse without making radical changes to the core menu which might offend the sensibilities of our conservative demographic.
3. We all know service is key. How do you motivate your staff to keep a constant service ethic?
One of the toughest components of managing a restaurant is maintaining good staff. Play to your strengths as a manager. In our case, we lead through positive reinforcement, encouragement, and continuous reminding. Beyond that, keeping good staff is critical. Staff work for us for a variety of reasons but it boils down to enjoying the job and making money. If you can give them both components, they have no reason to leave. As a manager, leading by example and holding yourself to the same standards you expect from your team is critical. They will respect you for that.
4. Starting a restaurant can be expensive and takes a ton of resources. What advice can you give with someone who has the restaurant "dream"?
We probably underestimated the 1st year investment by 50%. We bought a working restaurant and ran into a myriad of “small issues” that are like buying a complicated antique house. I would also recommend that, depending on concept and income requirements, a person plans for having saved nearly a year of income going into an investment like this.
The learning curve is steep and there a lot of moving parts that can be the proverbial “death of a thousand paper cuts.” We were lucky, in that our restaurant was generating a profit in 4 months and we met our revenue growth track expectations in the first 6 months.
5. What kind of marketing and advertising initiatives have worked for you? What haven't?
Marketing is tricky. We did a soft launch so that we didn’t overwhelm ourselves and fail out of the gate. We then took a couple of high profile print ads and then local radio about 60 days in. You have to balance wanting volume with being able to execute well. Word of mouth is ultimately the best sales tool but that requires great execution. If you fail out of the gate, it could take months or years to recover.
Whenever you can, tie a call-to-action to every promotion so that you can have an idea of performance. We are focused on Facebook, Loyalty Programs, WOMMA, GOOGLE, EMAIL and then use print and radio for brand development. Be careful to try to measure response from marketing whenever you can.
Also, I would avoid using heavy discounting strategies or continuously offering % discounts or buy-one-get-one discounts as customers will get trained quickly to wait for the coupon. Event based marketing and charity fundraisers are also good. Just research your market and then tie in good partners for these events.
6. What are some of your biggest failures and what did you learn from them?
Never sign long term contracts for anything. If a company wants a 1 year commitment, look for a different supplier. Saying "no" isn’t bad. They all pressure us to lock in for 1, 2 or 3 years and in 3 months I regret it as I found a better solution. Our customers don’t commit to us to come in every week for three years, so why should we commit unless we are confident we're locking in a great deal? The other big issue for us was not doing a thorough job of evaluating the building, the lease, and the mechanical systems.
This was my fault for getting overly excited and not thinking through all of the little details that go into a large restaurant with 15 refrigeration systems, 7 HVAC systems, and 200 electrical circuits. We survived it OK only because we are extremely mechanically inclined and were willing to work 70-80 hours per week for months. If we had to contract out every fix, it would have put us under in the first 6 months.
Let professionals evaluate equipment and mechanical systems. Even if you are leasing, have a lawyer look at the lease and hire a building inspector or contractor to look at the building and give you the cold hard facts on what you might face. You then can make an educated decision knowing where the gremlins are.
7. Who do you look to for guidance and mentor-ship in the business?
We spent a lot of time looking for a third party consultant that understood the business, the market we were going into and the concept we were buying. It is important to have a third party on your side to help get through the startup. We looked for menu design, marketing validation, concept alignment, plating, pricing, service, staff, and equipment analysis. DineAbility brought this to the table for us and provided great support.
Beyond that, we spent more than 1 year prior to purchase taking classes from Cornell’s graduate school of restaurant and hospitality management, leaning on friends that we viewed as great business people and restaurant owners (not just people who worked in restaurants but MBA’s who owned big restaurants). Now we look for customers’ input. We have ears wide open to them and our employees. We take all of the input, good and bad, and filter and aggregate it to help guide us. Beyond that, we use consultants like DineAbility to help us solve problems such as implementing our new loyalty program.
8. What are your next moves?
Restaurant two is hopefully going to happen in 2015. There are a lot of moving parts but that is our objective along with another 10-15% growth.
9. If I were an 18 year old kid what advice would you give me on starting a career in the restaurant field?
Go to college get an associates in business/finance or bachelor’s degree. Along the way, work in restaurants that seem like they would be something you might like. Find restaurants you admire, work for them. Learn how all the pieces work. From dishwashing to waiting, to bartending, hosting and cooking. The more you learn, the better. But get that finance/business degree.
Most businesses fail because the founders don’t know much about running a business. Plus you have to know if this is the right business and working in one will give you a lot of insight. Lastly, seek out and establish relationships with people that are successful restaurant owners. Look for people that have achieved as much or more than you can imagine. Find people that will challenge you and push you to think critically – not people that will just give you platitudes.
10. What's the hot item selling at your restaurant these days?
Raw seafood and Bourbons.