feed the beast
Houston Restaurants Need to Stop Becoming the Old Guy on the Block
Have you ever been out to dinner and looked across the room, only to spot a couple in their mid to late 50s just eating. Just that — eating. There’s no conversation, no joy in their faces, no excitement about a new flavor or presentation. I bring up this point in reference to the dining scene in any city, state, or country, because when it comes to food — and the experience of food — it really matters.
It matters even more when you’re hearing it from the mouth of a chef and restauranteur in Houston, a city that is not only doubling in size but has no boundaries to its growth.
As the brains behind a few of Houston’s restaurant staples — Roost and Lillo and Ella ring a bell? — I’m no stranger to media coverage, good or bad. I have a reputation for shooting off at the mouth and saying what I feel, despite knowing at times that I need to shut the fuck up and just grin. I’m a flirt, an asshole, and a tough business owner to work with, and exude a short temper at times, too.
That being said, I’m also passionate about my field, extremely reliable, and pretty damn hard working. And opening my first restaurant — Roost — at 24 years old really opened my eyes to the reality of this industry. It was an extreme lesson in patience, money management, and respect of an old space. I was taking a risk that many haven’t, and probably never will take. I put everything I knew into Roost and I still learn new things every single day. And as we’re approaching our fourth year of business, we’re busier than ever. So how do we stay relevant?
Not easily. In a city that is 655 square miles, the city of Houston could contain the cities of New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and Miami. That is remarkable. Think about the sheer volume of restaurants in each of those cities, and the population of people, buildings, homes, and traffic. I’m a Houston native through and through. I was born and raised here, went to college here, and I do business here. Ninety percent of my extended family lives within a four mile radius of each other. I’ve seen this city grow to the roughly 6.8 million people living here now, and containing the 11,118 restaurants plus that we dine at.
Is all of this important to know in order to talk about how your restaurant stays relevant in the Houston restaurant scene? Hell yes.
But why Kevin? Because children — how the hell do we remember our favorite restaurants, or where we are going to spend our birthday, anniversary, special occasion, or a night on the town? Relevance. That’s how.
The reason I brought up the couple at the beginning of this blog is because I compare the restaurant business to a marriage. When you first get married, it’s exciting. You have the nuptials, everyone is happy and partying — and then there’s the new house, and you build that home together. You have something to call your own; perhaps you have your average 2.5 children, and you continually grind to maintain all of this.
But what happens when the kids are gone to college, the house needs work done to it, your nest egg isn’t as big as you expected it to be? You didn’t get to travel or see the fam as much as you wanted either, while you strived to give them everything you want? It’s then that things get blasé and dull. You lose the zest for what you used to want and the drive to get it when the smiles and exuberant thank you from the kids or your spouse is gone. That is exactly what happens in our restaurant world.
Opening up is always the best time of your tenure. You see customers examining your menu, the surprise and jovial expressions in their face, and how they admire your decor and the new space. You learn how to run that baby within a month. When business is booming, you’re on top of the world. Servers are happy because they are getting great tips, and the staff is becoming comfortable but are still learning new ways to become more efficient. Pushing a quality product is still the number one priority, and you’re slowing giving more and more trust to your employees, letting them sell, sell, sell. The honeymoon phase is what we call this in the restaurant world.
See, honeymoons. I told you it makes sense to compare the restaurant business to marriage. I’m not as crazy as you guys thought, eh? But what happens after the honeymoon in our world though? After the new “hip” restaurant opens down the street, and after a food writer gives you the review you’ve been waiting for. What happens after your staff has jumped ship to make money during another place’s bustling opening phase? This, my friends, is what turns the boys in to men. Ask any restauranteur — it’s what we fear most — but also what keeps us on our toes and thirsty for fresh blood.
If this business was easy, everyone would do it, and at times it seems like they do. There are restaurants doing business all around town that you used to love to take friends to, and celebrate events at, and pretend like you were their golden child. They knew your name, your order, and where you like to sit, and that’s exactly the issue.
Becoming complacent is the death of any restaurant, and sometimes, any business in general. We are in a world full of celebrity chefs right now, and diners can’t wait to come in with their opinion of how the food should be. It’s really up to us to appeal to that fresh and new experience every single time. It’s about meeting that expectation day in and day out without selling out to one’s own laurels or stubbornness.
I was brought up being told that the customer is always right, and that a restaurant should always give them what they want. Now, four years in and two restaurants deep, I say screw that! If we give an inch, they take a foot. I’m here to be trusted, to be your chef, to do my job, and offer you something high quality and intriguing. Let me do my job. I promise I will give it my undivided attention, making sure it is up to your taste and standards. In return, don’t forget about me the next time you want to spend your hard earned dollar on a treat to enjoy the company of your family and friends and our product.
And now that that part is out of the way, I’d like to say this, too: Restaurant owners, chefs, service industry peeps…you should also stop being totally undiscerning tools. Give your guests a clean and professional environment to come eat. Don’t skimp on your product. Don’t hire any Joe Schmo to push your product. Don’t skimp on repairs or upkeep of your baby. Stop making excuses when it slows down and either fix it, or bite the bullet and move on.
If I hear about another landlord dispute in this city, I’ll lose my fucking mind. It’s bullshit — absolute bullshit. If a business is doing well, paying their rent on time, and in a binding agreement, they don’t close overnight and disappear. Let’s totally get that out there — this is coming from an individual who owns property and knows those lies.
All in all, don’t stop caring. Show your wife or husband you still love them, and that you can still spice up the relationship with new and exciting things. Show them that they can still trust you to do what’s right in their eyes, and that you are there for them like they should be there for you. Does that make sense if I replace spouse with the word dining guest? Abso-fucking-lutely!