Travis Todd's grandparents started a small crab factory in 1947 to produce some of the finest Blue Crab meet on the eastern shore. Nearly 70 years later, the business has evolved into Ocean Odyssey, a beloved destination restaurant run by third generation family members. Travis Todd grew up around the family business and has been a part of it for most of his life. When I interviewed Travis for our upcoming book, we had this exchange about changes to the business over the years...
As your business has evolved, what are some of the values that have not changed?
"First and foremost, the thing that hasn’t changed is just a feeling of belonging, to a certain extent, and family dedication. When I say family, I’m talking about extended family as well. I think Dorchester County is truly an area where, when you hear people say it takes a village to raise a person, you know that’s very much alive here. One of the things that attracted me into it is just that really strong sense of community and really strong family pride in what we do and what we enjoyed for several years throughout the history of it, and fought for, for several years of our history too. Once you sink your teeth into something you don’t really want to walk away from it, even if the punches are coming pretty hard.
Number two, and this has always been consistent, is our dedication to using 100% domestic blue crab. I made my decision to really jump both feet first into this thing at a time where imported crab meat was hammering away at the market share of domestic crab meat, whether it was Maryland crabmeat, Virginia crabmeat, Carolina crabmeat, Louisiana, what have you. There was a big push in a lot of restaurants to purchase crabmeat sourced from Venezuela, Indonesia and elsewhere overseas. It was fine. There’s nothing wrong with that product. But the problem for us was the marketing — people were coming to Maryland and sitting in these waterside restaurants and eating these “Maryland style” crab cakes. That was always the key word – “style.” As long as you had that on your menu, you could use whatever you wanted. These guys were buying this crab meat from international providers at significantly less cost. I get it — sometimes in the restaurant business you run on tight margins. You have to do those things with various products. But, for us, we were so connected to Maryland seafood and Maryland crabmeat and having a background in manufacturing before being in the restaurant business that it really created a gigantic amount of respect for the product."
Did you ever consider using imported crabmeat?
"That’s one of the things where we definitely draw a line on the sand. There’s a lot in this world that requires flexibility and openness, but that’s one thing where we would sooner take crab cakes off the menu. It’s too much a core of what we are, what we came from, and what the history of our family business is. That really comes from Pops. He was there for a couple years when that crab meat was really infiltrating the market. The guys would come by and bring us samples. They wouldn’t last too long in here before he would politely ask them to walk back out the same door they came in. He didn’t even want a can of that product to be seen in this place. I think that we’ve certainly drawn the line there and have never wavered from that. In all our minds we’re pretty proud about that." I admire that approach so much. If you do too, you can listen to the entire interview here on our iTunes podcast, or read it when the book releases in March. Wil
Keith Santangelo is the co-owner of Bourbon Street Bar & Grille in New York, NY. We interviewed him for our upcoming book, Restaurant Owners Uncorked Part II, coming in March. Here said this when I asked him to share his general advice for people interested in owning an independent restaurant...
"If I could give people advice it would be that it seems a lot scarier than it is. And it’s a risk. But a lot of things come with risk. This is something that people are really passionate about. I love the mom-and-pop restaurants, I love independents. Corporations are great too, but what really makes this industry special in my opinion is the individual owners. It’s getting harder for people like that to operate. But it is possible. And I do believe the industry will see it through. I believe people have a lot of fortitude. To me, nothing will ever replace that independent restaurant that really nails it as far as an experience for people going out and having hospitality and dinner and celebrating things together. If you really love those sort of things it can make it all worth it. There are a lot of things that are scary and that are challenges. But the one thing I’ll say to people is, 'It’s possible. You can do it. Get in there and work. Learn as much as you can.' If you find the right opportunity, it really can work. A lot of those statistics of the failures include people that have really never worked in the restaurant industry before and maybe have no idea what they’re doing. If you feel like you have a good idea of what you’re doing – I say go for it. Follow the right advice and take the right precautions, but this is a great industry and it can use more creative, genuinely hospitable people to open more places. I really believe that."
Lots more commentary like this in the book, as well as the back stories of all of the twenty-one owners we interviewed for it. In the mean time, if you like this type of content and haven't read the original Restaurant Owners Uncorked, it's here on Amazon. The Schedulefly Crew Wes, Tyler, Wil, Charles and Hank
When I interviewed Bret Oliverio from Sup Dogs for our second Restaurant Owners Uncorked book (it's coming soon - the first book is here on Amazon), we had an interesting exchange about being bold enough to be different from the crowd... Wil - "One of my favorite business books is called Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd. It talks about how important it is to take a stand and to be different. If you really want to create something special, you have to go about it that way."
Bret - "I totally agree. I think a lot of that applies to what we’re doing. College is the most fun time in your life, so I want to be the most fun restaurant out there.
You have to know who your audience is. I think one of my strengths and my wife’s strengthsis knowing what college students in a college community want. We do get a ton of families in for lunch and a ton of families in for dinner. It’s not just college kids that come into our restaurant. But when I think about college, it’s all about girls and having fun. That’s what our business has to be all about.
Our hotdog is six inches long, but it’s not too thick. It’s not like you’re eating some big, giant hotdog at the stadium. Our patties are hand-packed fresh, hand-smashed. We smash them out real thin. To me, it’s a little easier for a girl to eat it. A group of college girls isn’t going to want eat a big, giant piece of cow before she goes to a house party with her friends. Everything we do is sort of with the college girl in mind — everything from our drinks to presentation of our food to the décor of the restaurant. My mentality is that if you can be successful doing that, the guys will follow and the community will follow. If I visit a college town, I want get a college experience. We went to the University of Florida a couple years ago to go to football game and I wanted to see my wife’s whole college experience. I wanted to be around the students — I wanted to be around the Gators. We get complaints: the restaurant’s too loud, it’s too bright, there are too many girls in there. They say, 'Your staff act like sorority girls.' Well, this is college. I mean, what do you want? I saw one Yelp review where some guy was like, 'The food was great and the service is good, but their staff is laughing and they’re loud and they’re having fun. This isn’t a sorority house, girl. This is work.' I’m thinking, 'This dude just doesn’t get it.'
Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the stuff I hear is positive, and I love it. With complaints, my dad always says, 'If there’s someone that really doesn’t like being there, it’s like having a remote control. You could turn the channel if you want.' There are always other options. You’re not going to be for everyone, that’s for sure.
If we make a mistake, or we’re in the wrong, I am over-the-top apologetic. I’ll do anything I can to make it right. But my mentality, first and foremost, is to side with our restaurant and our staff, because most of the time they know what they’re doing. Those are the people you are working with, day-in and day-out. I really side with our staff first, but if there is stuff that comes up and if we mess up a ticket or the ticket time’s thirty minutes or whatever it is, then I’m the first one to apologize. I know when we’re in the wrong. But there is something to be said for sticking to your business and your staff and your beliefs."
You'll hear more from Bret soon. His is the most amazing story I've come across in five years of interviewing restaurant owners, and we're sharing it in a new film we plan to release in March.
We've been hard at work on the next Restaurant Owners Uncorked book. The first one, available here on Amazon, came out five years ago next month. It has sold around 15,000 copies and has received great reviews. If you'd be interested in knowing the stories of 20 successful independent restaurant owners, you'll enjoy it. All of the owners were very honest with both their successes and their failures.
The second book features 21 owners, many of whom read the first one and told us they enjoyed it, so we asked them to be in this one! We've been collecting their pictures lately, and I wanted to share a few of them. All of them have inspiring stories and offer extremely useful wisdom they've picked up along the way in their journeys in the restaurant business.
Wil and I have been blogging stories for almost 10 years now. This is still one of the best posts I've ever read and it's still true 5 years later. Thought I'd share it again because not only is it humorous (especially if your a Star Wars fan)- it also has a great lesson.
Here it is....
In 2009 Wes and I went to the National Restaurant Association's annual trade show in Chicago. We'll never go again for these reasons. But while we were there, a very interesting thing happened. A guy we had never seen spent quite a bit of time hanging out at the booth directly across from us. He didn't work for that company, but he is a consultant and liked to bring his customers by their booth to introduce them to that particular exhibitor.
He would typically have four or five people with him, and he would linger behind them as they listened to the exhibitor, which meant he was lingering very close to our booth. In fact, since the isles aren't very wide (at least not in the way back bowels of the smaller of the two exhibit halls, where we were stationed), he was lingering pretty damn close to our booth. Close enough that traffic was clogged up and quite a few folks turned and walked in the other direction.
Anyway, not far along into the first day, we overheard the group mention something about "scheduling" and our eyes lit up. "Hey, sounds like they're going to speak with us next." But the annoying, lingering, traffic clogging consultant promptly mentioned our competitor's name, and told the group to follow him. They disappeared around the corner.
It was as rude and disrespectful of a gesture as was possible. Wes and I stared at each other in total disbelief, and we had to hold each other back from following the guy and telling him to go ... well, I'll save the profanity. But you get the point.
Needless to say, we remembered that guy very well and we hoped to never see him again. But alas, just a few months later, I was invited into a meeting about a potential partnership with some folks here in Charlotte, and as I walked into the conference room and looked up, this scene from "The Empire Strikes Back" quickly flashed through my mind...
That's right, our buddy was seated at the table already, awaiting my arrival. I literally thought my jaw was going to hit the floor when I saw him sitting there. Like Han Solo, I wanted to escape but I was trapped. I sat down and listened to what these folks had to say, though I'll confess that since I already knew the meeting wasn't going to lead to anything for us, I spent the hour imagining how I was going to be frozen alive and then eventually rescued by Wes, Tyler and Charles. Then we would strike down our foe...
Joking aside, and I'll spare you why he was there and what the meeting was all about, this story leads me to one of several reasons we don't like the idea of partnerships: you never know what your potential partner's true agenda is.
I got lucky because I knew at least one of the people in that room did not have our best interests at heart. I have no idea what would have happened had we pursued that partnership. Would that guy have tried to sabotage us? Would he have passed along sensitive information to our competitors? Or would he have come around and been a true advocate for us? Anybody's guess is as good as mine, but thankfully we got lucky and never had to find out.
This post is long enough, so I'm going to make it Part I of "Why we don't partner with anybody." More to come.
Today we launched a new Schedulefly mobile site. It's really sweet and it works on any device of any size. Rather than write complicated apps for specific devices, we are putting our effort into one simple, well designed site for everyone. It keeps things much simpler for us all around. And honestly - downloading and installing software on your phone (and updating it each time we change it) just so you can manage your schedule and communicate with your team using Schedulefly - is a bit overkill on the technology side.
It works just the same as our old one, it's just been redesigned to look better on all devices. We also snuck in a few new things like profile photo uploads, documents, and a few of our most used reports.
If your not using our mobile site yet and would like to check it out - just open your phone's browser and visit http://m.scheduefly.com. Log in just once and save it as an icon to your home screen along side all those other Apps (there is help on how to do that on the login page). Now your just one touch away from your schedule and all the other goodies avaialable at Schedulefly.
One more thing I wanted to mention today. It's really important to us that we don't make your life more difficult - when trying to make it better. We want you to be able to get in and get out really fast - with the least amount of friction possible. We are not looking to keep you on our site all the time and we certainly don't want you to be handed a ticket number for a customer support or technical issue. If we had more technology and more people and more stuff - I'd bet you eventually would. Technology is certainly making our lives better in general - but it can also be super frustrating when it tries to do too much. The lack of technology is sometimes what keep things pleasant, useful and reliable. It's a tough balance to achieve but we definitely lean towards doing less.
Man, time sure does fly. It's hard to believe it's almost 2017. We are mighty thankful for another fun year and wanted to thank the more than 1,600 new restaurants for their business this year - as well as the thousands of restaurants who've been with us for more than a year. We really do appreciate being chosen and we get excited at every single restaurant that joins us. Since we focus on restaurants with just one location or maybe a handful of locations/concepts at most - we get to thank many many people for choosing us and for their business - as opposed to thanking just a few groups of people that make a decision for hundreds or thousands of locations. It's a very fun and rewarding adventure to serve them. Speaking of that - we recently added a short paragraph to the Our Adventure page on our website - I thought I'd share it here as well. It sums up the kind of company we are working hard to become.
Over the last 10 years, we’ve really doubled down on our focus of offering a simple software product with a small, helpful team behind it. We’ve done this because it makes the work we do, and our lives in general, so much more enjoyable. Since the 5 of us here are just like many of you, (consumers and customers), we truly appreciate those companies that offer just what we need with really great service behind it. We know how awesome it is to find a company like that and we know the feeling of loyalty we have for those companies, once we do. It’s almost as if we found something surprising. Something unexpected and something we love. For that reason, we work very hard to be that kind of company too.
Cheers and Happy Holidays!
The 5 guys at Schedulefly
In 2007, Wes wrote the first lines of code for Schedulefly. That was the beginning of a movement, a movement to lead independent restaurants to a new place with staff scheduling and communication. Back then all restaurants were using pencil and paper or Excel, and Schedulefly was launched to give them a better way.
The problem was figuring out ways to get restaurants to follow us. We tried all sorts of things to spread the word, from email campaigns, to exhibiting at trade shows, to cold calls, to mailing flyers, to going door-to-door, to hiring a PR firm, to offering customers $100 for every successful referral they made, to using Twitter. You name it, we tried it. Yet when our free trial sign-up forms came in and we read how people found out about Schedulefly, we saw they had either searched online or they heard about us from a new employee, or a friend in the industry, or through some form of natural, organic referral. Online searches and referrals. That was our bread and butter. No matter what else we tried, the evidence was clear that our outbound efforts were a waste of time and money.
That meant we needed to do two things well: 1) make sure people that found us through search were clear when they visited our web site about who we are and what we offer, and make it easy for them to get started with a free trial; and 2) live up to the expectations of people that heard about us through a referral, which meant a focus on straightforward, reliable software and exceptional customer service and ease of doing business with. We payed enormous attention to those things, and decided to take a patient, long view of our business, focusing not on finding ways to get people to come to our site, and instead on what happened once they got there.
Today, 250,000 people at over 6,000 restaurants use Schedulefly. They come to us partially by online search, but mostly by referral. Referrals from friends, new employees, new managers, etc. We see it every day on our trial signup forms. It never ceases to amaze me how many of the trials come in from good old fashioned word-of-mouth.
At this point, we are no longer leading the movement we started. Our customers are. We have 300 free trials going at any time, and a large majority of them came in because one of you told somebody about Schedulefly. It's breathtaking to watch it happening, and all five of us feel grateful to be a part of it. We will keep waking up each day and doing our part, making sure the software is straightforward and reliable, and making sure any time one of you needs something, we take great care of you. Otherwise, you are taking this thing wherever it's going to go.
Thank you for taking us this far. It will be fun to see where we wind up.
I recently interviewed Michael Chernow for our upcoming book, "More Restaurant Owners Uncorked." Michael started The Meatball Shop in Manhattan with Daniel Holzman in 2010, and it quickly grew to six locations and gained national attention. Last year he ventured out on his own to open Seamore's, a very popular local seafood restaurant in Brooklyn. Michael's passion is contagious for the restaurant business is contagious. Here's a small clip from the interview.
What lit your fire to get started in the restaurant business?
"I grew up in Manhattan, and I wanted money in my pocket. In order to have a five-dollar bill in my pocket at all times, I needed a job. When I was thirteen years old the only place that would hire me was a restaurant. So luckily, I kind of just fell into it. But very quickly thereafter I found out that I was more passionate about people, hospitality and food than anything else. And, really, my passion resides in people. The best way to feed that passion is to surround myself with people all the time. So, that’s ultimately what I set out to do. I followed my passion, followed my dream, and ended up really creating a life beyond my wildest dreams through luck and hard work.
Without the people, the food doesn’t matter. It’s really a people business, internally and externally. You can have amazing food, but without the right people behind it or serving it, it doesn’t resonate. My real pride and passion is in the people that work with me. I put them before everyone and anyone, outside of my wife and my son. If you put all your blood, sweat and tears into your staff and into your people, that makes everything work like a well-oiled machine. Everything else will fall into place. The people are the most important piece of the business.
I break it down like this … If you have a retail concept, like a clothing store, a guest walks in the door, and you have one or two people walking around the floor trying to sell product. You have one or two cashiers. In the restaurant business, somebody walks through the door and there’s a host at the door. There’s a manager on the floor, there’s a bartender, there are five servers, four bussers, somebody at the take-out station, six cooks in the kitchen, five cooks out there prepping. So, that same sixty-dollar transaction which needs about four people in a retail store, needs about sixteen to eighteen people in a restaurant. You have to understand the amount of people that it takes for the same sixty-dollar transaction is huge.
Being able to keep all those people happy and excited and pumped to work is a full-time job. I love it. That’s the part that I love most. The instant gratification is truly incredible if you do the right thing. Every day is a new battle, a new challenge. You have a lot of people that are doing different jobs. Everybody has a protocol. If everybody works well and does what they’re supposed to do, you win. It’s just an incredible business."
You can listen to the entire conversation with Michael as well as interviews we've done with dozens of other successful restaurant owners here on our iTunes podcast.
Angela Salamanca owns Centro in Raleigh, N.C. During her interview for our podcast, this exchange stuck out to me...
What is it you hope that people who area a part of the Centro team take with them?
To not be afraid. To take what’s there and run with it. To honor your talents. To learn how to work as a team and realize that there’s really a lot of power in letting other people be part of your dream, or be part of this journey. How to be intentional every day when it comes to the shift, when it comes to your relationships, when it comes to everything. Just how to be intentional about who you are in the world, or who you are through your team, or who you are for your family. Because it makes a difference. Everything that you do and everything that you say to anybody in the world makes a difference. Sometimes that difference can really change their lives. It could be something little or it could be something huge. Make sure that the difference that you’re making is a real difference, where you can move somebody into action so they can do whatever it is that they want to do like moving to another country or pursuing a different career or really taking on the possibility of recreating family and relationships. Have an intentional life. I feel like that’s what’s made the biggest difference in the way that we work.
Angela is a very passionate woman who inspired me when I interviewed her and who lives the life of intention she hopes her team members will. You can listen to the entire interview here on iTunes.