Dixie’s Owners Share Lessons in Longevity After 30 Years in the Business
Dixie’s on Grand owners (left to right) John Wolf, Peter Kenefick, Abby Geisler and Pat Kallemeyn. Not pictured is co-owner Mike Young.
Take it one customer at a time. That’s what the staff at Dixie’s on Grand has been doing for 30 years and it’s why the owners believe their restaurant will be around for another three decades.
“The biggest thing we do here in this building is taking care of each person, really safeguarding their experience,” said Pat Kallemeyn, part of the ownership group and general manager of sister restaurant Saji Ya Japanese. “You can throw money at a restaurant all day long, but in the end it comes down to what customers experience and giving them a reason to come back.”
“And there’s nothing in this building I won’t do myself,” interjected longtime Dixie’s manager Tonia Schmitt. “All of us are willing to do anything that’s necessary.”
Heads nodded in agreement as we settled around a table before a recent management team meeting at the restaurant on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue. Just a few days removed from their first World Fare Block Party celebrating the diversity of their three restaurants—Dixie’s, Saji Ya and the newest, Emmett’s Public House—along with Dixie’s 30th anniversary, co-owner Peter Kenefick (whose family owns the property) also reflected on the employee experience.
“It’s really about respect, we listen to our employees,” said Kenefick, mentioning regular employee dinners where “everyone honestly gives their opinion, what they like about working here, what they don’t.”
Dixie’s longevity directly correlates to its readiness to adapt to changes in the industry. In its early years, Dixie’s was the “drink and smoke kind of place,” said fellow co-owner and GM John Wolf, a spot for singles to hang out as they bar hopped down the street. Then came the smoking ban of 2006, which Wolf, who’s been there from the beginning, said definitely impacted business, along with stricter alcohol policies and tougher penalties for DWI offenders. All combined to push Dixie’s in a new direction.
Connected to Dixie’s, Emmett’s Public House has an Irish bent and is named for owner Peter Kenefick’s father, whose portrait hangs above the fireplace.
In 2007 the restaurant underwent an extensive remodel, saying goodbye to its neon look of the ‘90s and shifting its focus to Southern hospitality and comfort food.
“With the remodel, the younger demographic kind of moved on and our focus became more on the food, the restaurant experience versus the nightlife,” noted Wolf.
Server training and education became hallmarks, Kenefick added, “because [servers are] the ambassador to the customer.” Employees are increasingly cross-trained as a way to lessen the impact of the continued labor shortage.
The changes at Dixie’s coincided with the growing foodie culture and the general public’s increased level of interest in the authenticity of a restaurant. “If you are in the restaurant business, you’ve gotta bring it,” said Kallemeyn.
More recently, Dixie’s refocused its menu under the direction of Executive Chef Erin Lege, who hails from Vermillion Parish in the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun country. The fried chicken is his grandmother’s recipe and his gumbo won a gold medal at the 2008 Louisiana Gumbo Cook-Off. The number of menu items went from 50-plus down to 24, a necessary trim, said co-owner Abby Geisler.
“Having been open for so long, we just kept adding and adding so we really needed to pare that down,” Geisler said. “We celebrate the history and now need to reintroduce customers to the concept.”
“You have to spend as much or more energy keeping current customers as attracting new ones,” put in Kallemeyn.
With that philosophy and always on the lookout for an opportunity, Dixie’s ownership saw one in the Keywest Room, the restaurant’s banquet space. In 2015 the space was remodeled and a third concept, Irish pub Emmett’s Public House, was born, taking its name from Kenefick’s father who died in 2013.
“It was either at zero or 100,” Kenefick said of the banquet room. “It was putting huge stress on operations when it was busy, and when it wasn’t we’re still paying for those property taxes.
“Emmett’s has proven to be a much better use of that space,” continued Kenefick. And it’s an advantage to have the two restaurants connected. On St. Patrick’s Day, for example, “Emmett’s was getting slammed and so we served the same menu at Dixie’s to deal with the overflow and people weren’t standing around waiting.”
As he reflected back on Dixie’s 30 years on Grand Avenue, Kenefick said he’s perhaps most proud of what they’ve been able to give back to the community, “whether it’s time, gift certificates, resources—we always work hard on making the neighborhood beautiful however we can.”
“This business is different each and every day,” said Kenefick. “Whatever’s been thrown at us by the industry, we can figure it out. That’s the kind of team we are.”