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.
Brook and Andy Stowers
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.
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For many people, the only type of the work they’ll ever know is working for someone else. For others, staring their own business or following through on a late night idea is part of their genetic makeup.
Here’s the interview:
Question: Why did you decide to open your own business and was it difficult to leave the security of your 9-5 job?
I’ve believed since I was 15 that I’d start my own business someday, so perhaps I was biased. My goal was to have fun creating something myself. My father was a dentist, and his independence influenced me. If he had a 9-5, I’d probably have thought “that’s just the way things are done”. I did a 9-5 for three years, but largely did so to validate my college education. I did not like much about the corporate culture, from the schedule to the power structure to the inefficiencies and inequities I saw in the corporation. It was not hard for me to leave emotionally, and financially, I had no obligations like a mortgage or children, so it was relatively risk-free. I knew that if I failed that I could go work for a company again, and give another go at my own business later.
Question: Why did you go into the business you currently own? How did you differentiate yourself from competition?
1. Low barrier to entry, so that I could learn it and start it easily, without much hassle.
2. Low start-up costs, because I didn’t have much money.
3. Could be done anywhere, because I wanted the option to move wherever I pleased.
4. Inelastic demand – I wanted my business, like the locksmith, to provide something that customers would find essential, and no real alternatives but to pay for.
6. Low operating costs – This makes the risk less, because if it costs less to run the thing, there’s less chance of going bankrupt.
I patiently bided my time and kept my eyes open, observing all of the small businesses around me. I knew, for example, that I wasn’t about to start my own pizza shop, which has a large startup cost, huge competition, ties you down, etc. I knew a specialty service field was the best model. When I was exposed to the field of nuisance wildlife removal, I found that it met all of my requirements. I wasn’t even excited about the prospect of starting such a business – I simply knew without a doubt that I would do it. There was no reason not to.
Question: Talk about failure and starting your own business, should most small business owners think that they may fail?
Yes, all small business owners should think that they might fail. This keeps you realistic and on your toes and motivates you to work hard. If you think that it’s going to be Easy Street or that you’re entitled to success, you probably won’t work hard. My first year in business was difficult. Despite all of my shrewd planning, I wasn’t prepared for many of the surprises my first business threw at me – like how to not be shy with customers, and actually charge them. I broke even in my first year and watched my living expenses eat up my small life savings. But I was stubborn and determined as hell, and I spent every moment of every day making sure that it would work. I basically refused to fail and I did everything I could to make sure that I didn’t.
Question: Did you start your own business because you wanted freedom, to earn more money, or bring a great idea to market?
My primary goal was freedom, of course. Not just freedom from the 9-5, from having someone else tell me what to do, but from many of the constraints that lack of money place on life. So in that sense, I also wanted more money, in order to buy myself that freedom. Work hard for a few years now, and enjoy a life of financial freedom later. By freedom, I don’t just mean a life in which I can make my own decisions; I mean a life in which I have enough money to always live free of worries about bills, a mortgage, or anything. But money aside, for me, the satisfaction of running my own show, with no one telling me what to do, and knowing that I did it all myself, it felt great. It’s actually true that I started to work harder, much MUCH harder once I had my own business. But it was work that I cared about, and it was fun. I kind of felt the phenomenon that it’s not really work unless someone else makes you do it.
Question: Would you do anything different if you had to start all over again?
I would have started sooner! I would have skipped college and started my own business right out of high school. Barring that, I would have graduated college and then burned my degree and started up right then. I regret ever wasting time sending out resumes, wearing business casual, commuting, listening to a boss, yearning for the weekend to come, and waiting around for a tiny paycheck. Aside from that, there’s a million little things I’d have done differently w
ith my specific business, things that only time and experience taught me. I got a lot tougher with time. All this said, it’s easy for me to be confident because my business worked out, and I’m not arrogant enough to discount the value of luck – or more specifically, the absence of bad luck. One accident could have made me fail, and I’d be here today telling you that I wished I’d taken precautions against that accident, or perhaps I would be sour on the idea of my own business altogether. And I was often very reckless. So if I had to do it all over again, perhaps I’d be more careful than I was – I’d have started off with more capital, emergency funds, insurance, and better research and planning. The reality is that I just dove in somewhat recklessly. But then again, that’s really what much of life, from relationships to art to business, is about. Sometimes you have to just dive right in, results be damned, because if you don’t, you may never get started.
Question: Describe your business model.
My first business was a mobile service business. I ran a nuisance wildlife removal company. I drove around in a pickup truck with ladders and tools and helped people with problems with wild animals, such as the removal of squirrels from the attics of a home. I started marketing in the Yellow Pages, and quickly learned that the internet was a more powerful and economical marketing tool, so I got very good at internet marketing. My business grew with time, as I got better at marketing, got repeat and referral business, and better at actually performing the job. Then a lucky thing happened, which is often the case when one starts to learn and create value. I got so good at internet marketing that soon other wildlife operators were asking me to do their online marketing. I parlayed this into selling online advertising for them through my websites. I started to split my time in half, doing both wildlife field work and internet marketing. The internet marketing grew so large that I sold my field operations business and focused only on the internet marketing. The field work was more fun – it was great to be outdoors doing real labor, handling real critters. But the internet work is higher income with less labor, or what one of my friends calls “mailbox money”. Now that it’s in place, it operates itself, with only a little maintenance. I now have the money and freedom that I originally set out to have, and it feels freakin’ awesome! I’m super pleased.
My advice to anyone – just allow this idea to sink in your head: you don’t have to rely on the traditional career structure of a good education, a solid resume, climbing the ladder at a 9-5. Believe that yes, you can do it yourself! Once that idea is in place, you start to notice the small businesses all around you, that people no smarter or harder working than you managed to create. Save up your capital, and when you get that moment in which opportunity knocks, in which you see that slam-dunk business that’s just right for you, then pounce! And go at it like a maniac – at first, the business isn’t your job, it’s your life. And for crying out loud, be smart, competent, and responsible! I’ve watched hundreds of small businesses over the years now. Many have failed, yes, and so many of those were people who had a gold mine in front of them and simply shot themselves in the foot by being careless and lazy – not answering customer calls, not delivering goods or services as promised, simple things like that.
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