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Pro Tips For Restaurant Success

Above: Chef and owner Vincent Francoual (left) and restaurateur Paul Dzubnar.

When Paul Dzubnar thinks about his business strategy as a restaurant owner, it comes down to diversification.

“I think about it like investing in the stock market,” says Dzubnar. “You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket.”

With his sixth and seventh restaurant concepts in the works, Dzubnar stays true to that philosophy.

After rising through the ranks of Green Mill Restaurants, starting as a district manager in 2002 before becoming a franchisee, company vice president and eventual president and CEO, Dzubnar went into development mode. But simply adding more Green Mills to the map wasn’t his vision. Instead his sights turned to the original Green Mill Café location on Grand and Hamline avenues in St. Paul, which offered pizza by the slice and housed the company’s delivery operations.

“I decided the space was under utilized and we weren’t generating enough sales to maximize the real estate,” explains Dzubnar. He came up with Twisted Fork Grille and in 2010 converted half the space to a concept more focused on sandwiches and upscale entrées than pizza. “It’s in the exact same location but they each have totally different customers,” says Dzubnar. “We’re able to capture more customers with different offerings.”

That same year Dzubnar met Pete Rifakes, the founder of Town Hall Brewery at the Seven Corners intersection in Minneapolis, and a partnership formed. They’ve since opened two similar brewpubs, slightly re-concepted and with different names: Town Hall Tap near Minnehaha Falls and Town Hall Lanes, a bowling alley in the Lake Nokomis area. Each is tailored to the neighborhood’s demographics, says Dzubnar, with a fourth iteration in the works in Northeast Minneapolis.

That aforementioned diversification continues with Crooked Pint Ale House (downtown Minneapolis and Apple Valley), which Dzubnar owns with some of his Green Mill partners, and Sweet Pea’s Public House in St. Paul. Concept No. 6, however, is a departure from that neighborhood approach.

“What this concept is going to be, Uptown doesn’t have,” says Dzubnar of the 7,500-square-foot restaurant he’s installing in The Walkway, the mixed-use development at Lake Street and Girard Avenue that’s also home to Coup d’état.

Calling it Scena on Lake, Dzubnar says the 300-seat restaurant will offer American fare with Italian and Mediterranean influences at multiple price points. The space will include two bars and two patios spread over two levels.

“I’ve spent more than 100 of my own hours researching this concept,” says Dzubnar. “It’s going to be different than Coup d’état, which is mostly small plates, and have a menu with broader appeal.”

The original plan called for Scena to open before the end of the year, but delays make an early 2015 debut seem more likely, something Dzubnar isn’t too worried about.

“I’d rather do it right the first time rather than rush it,” he says.” He’s also working on a seventh concept, Harriet’s at 40th and Lyndale in south Minneapolis, which is shaping up as a pub similar to Sweet Pea’s.

Dzubnar says the creation of each concept provided its own learning experiences, and after 12 years he’s picked up some wisdom he’ll gladly share with others considering a restaurateur’s life.

Know the neighborhood. Dzubnar, a White Bear Lake native living in St. Paul, says he wouldn’t be as successful if he selected sites outside the Twin Cites. “Around here I know what the price per foot should be and I know based on my concept what I can afford … you really need to understand the neighborhood. That’s maybe the most important of all.”

Once you know the area, choose the right site. “Whether you buy or lease your real estate, choosing the site is probably one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make,” says Dzubnar. Know your kitchen and cooler needs, and the demographics and foot traffic necessary to be successful, then find a site that meets those criteria. “And you’ve gotta get it at the price you know you can afford. Think about it as keeping occupancy costs at X percent of your sales.”

Learn the business from the inside out. As a Green Mill district manager, Dzubnar worked every position, from bartender to pizza cook, among others, and relies on that experience often. “The best way to be successful in the restaurant business is to know every nook and cranny, every nuance of your business,” he says. “It will help you down the road when you run into problems and you can help guide the people in those positions because you’ve been there.”

Understand the financials. “At the end of the day it’s a business,” says Dzubnar. “Look at the balance sheet as a tool to improve your businesses. It shows your strengths as well as your weaknesses.”

Love hospitality. “No matter what you’re doing, no matter what your price point is, you really have to be focused on making people happy. You have to be a diehard customer-service person.”

Keep reading for more tips and advice from some of the Twin Cities’ best in PR and real estate—plus some management wisdom from chef and owner Vincent Francoual.

Skip The Grand Opening Party

Alexis Walsko of Lola Red Public Relations (pictured above) in Minneapolis is the Chief Officer of Fun around her office, so for her to tell you not to have a party is advice you might want to heed. Here is why you shouldn’t plan a party to coincide with your grand opening

• Your staff—and yes, even you—are not ready. Your first few opening weeks should be reserved for getting in the groove of doing business and fine-tuning operations.  Find the A-game for your business and show that off post-grand opening.

• Most likely, you do not have enough square footage to properly entertain all the people you’ll want to invite. Service rooms, break rooms and offices are not places where people want to linger and schmooze at a cocktail party.

• If you are tempted to get a tent for the parking lot: Stop, drop and roll immediately. This is an unnecessary expense that will impact paying guests coming to your location. Consider a tent two to three months post opening when you have a rhythm of business and something to celebrate.

So when is the right time to party?
According to Walsko:

• At least three weeks after opening, when you’ve worked out the kinks and made sure everyone is comfortable with business operations so you can charm and impress all of your guests.

• When you, as the owner, can confidently say all elements of your location are “done.”  You are not waiting on additional signage, lights, products or collateral.

And when you do party Walsko suggests setting goals to help you curate the invite list, such as do you want media coverage, new customers, current customers, or community members? And then plan accordingly.

Find Real Estate Gold

Since joining Cassidy Turley Commercial Real Estate Services in 2001, Andrea Christenson (pictured above) has worked on hundreds of retail and tenant transactions, representing some of the Twin Cities top restaurant operators. Among her clients are 123 Sushi, Barrio, Masu, New Bohemian and Dunn Bros, and she’s also handled projects for Parasole Restaurants and Buffalo Wild Wings. The real estate pro knows the types of sites owners are looking for, and with more than a decade of local experience she also knows how and where to find them. Here’s how she approaches this all-important process.

• For starters, says Christenson, she needs to know her client’s financial plan, consider demographics and how much traffic is necessary to turn a profit. Once she provides a list of sites, it becomes a game of pros and cons. “I need you to tell me what you do and don’t like about every site,” she says. “Because in 30 days I need to think like you think.”

• Don’t take the first offer. Christenson tells her clients to have their architect and construction manager review the site before the lease is signed. “Have these experts lined up so you can price out the project and go back to the landlord with a counteroffer you know is reasonable.”

• Stay ahead of the game. Christenson keeps an eye on the market and is constantly asking about tenants who perhaps are paying rent late or otherwise on the verge of closing. “The best thing you can do for the client is be out in front of it,” she says. “I want to know about [a site] before it goes to market.” This helps her find real estate “gold,” those coveted second-generation restaurant spaces that already have the proper plumbing, HVAC and electricity.

• Provide added value. In a business that’s all about relationships, says Christenson, “I network, network, network. You need to have roots in each relationship. I’m able to make introductions for my clients to other people who can help them. I don’t make money off that, but it’s something extra I can do for my clients.”

• Her last piece of advice? Don’t overextend yourself. “I see operators who knock it out of the park with their first one, then they open a second location without the reserves to make it.”

Sucess Means Showing Up

The term “micromanagement” usually comes with negative connotations. Not so for Vincent Francoual.

“I don’t know what people are afraid of about that,” says the chef and owner of Vincent, A Restaurant, which celebrated its 13th anniversary this summer. “I start with a lot of micromanagement [when hiring someone new in the kitchen]. Then you kind of back off that a bit and it’s more leadership than management. As you go you enlist new leaders.”

Francoual learned that finding those eventual leaders means starting with the right attitude. From there, “I can teach you,” he says. So what makes a cook’s attitude “right” to Francoual? Enthusiasm, ambition, respect and, ultimately, real-time experience. “You never know how good they are until they’re under fire,” he says.

Food-cost management is equally important to the restaurant’s success and requires not only a tight inventory—Francoual uses Food-Trak software to manage this—but also a deeper appreciation for the food itself. “There’s a misconnection between how food is produced and the people who prepare it,” says Francoual. Food is sacred, he continues, and imparting that philosophy to the kitchen staff means less food waste as they understand its implications.

In the end, says Francoual, a restaurant’s success is earned. “If you want to keep it tidy and tight, you have to be there. There’s a human factor you have to take into consideration. On a busy night, I’m still on the line. You need to have that connection.”

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