All About Relationships

Good local restaurateurs know the key to success is happy people

Until recently, the definition of hospitality in the restaurant business was a lot like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous definition of pornography: You just knew it when you saw it.

Then along came Danny Meyer's Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. Meyer, the man behind such highly successful New York City restaurants as Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern, put to paper his philosophy for running a restaurant.

Meyer calls it "enlightened hospitality." The whole thing boils down to making people feel good and making people happy. And by "people," Meyer means employees first: He believes if the staff is happy, then the guests will be happy--which makes the investors happy.

Investors last? What a concept!

There's a lot more to it than that, of course, and here we are, in Tucson, thousands of miles away from New York City enlightenment. And so the question arises: Is hospitality any different in the Old Pueblo than in the Big Apple?

Like Danny Meyer, Sam Fox turned a single restaurant into a powerful restaurant group. With a cool mix of restaurant concepts and menu offerings, Fox Restaurant Concepts can easily serve more than 1,000 diners on any given Friday evening at the company's Tucson full-serve sites--Wildflower, Bistro Zin, North and Montana Avenue. That doesn't include any meals served at the various Sauce sites or at any of Fox's restaurants in Phoenix and Denver.

"We are a concept company," says Regan Jasper, a partner in Fox Restaurant Concepts who also serves as corporate sommelier and the Tucson director of operations. "We have 20 restaurants, and we have nine concepts. We like to re-create the wheel every time, because we're creative individuals who are really passionate about what we do. Service is an area where we like to showcase our skill sets and passion for the industry."

When Fox and Jasper create a restaurant, they focus on three areas, Jasper says. One is ambience: They want something that catches the eye, that brings people in. Two, the menu has to be progressive: fresh, created in-house and new. Third, there is an attention to detail in service, with a mom-and-pop attitude where mangers know the names of people walking through the door, and servers know the menu inside and out--and focus on making people happy.

On the other end of the restaurant scale is a Campbell Avenue place called Frankie's, which until a few weeks ago was known as Daglio's. The food is pure Philly: cheesesteaks with all the fixings, hoagies and Wise chips. Counter service is the method here, and the menu obviously favors meat lovers. However, there is still a sense of focusing on what needs to be done to make people happy.

"In business, no matter what business you're in, everything costs. The service and being nice to people are free. It's the one thing you can give to people that's free," says owner Frankie Santos. "It's the most appreciated thing."

The customers appreciate the effort to the tune of 175 to 225 sandwiches daily. "And 80 percent of that is cheesesteaks," Santos adds.

Twelve years ago, Frankie came to Tucson from his native Philadelphia to play golf with his good buddy Chuck Stopani. He stopped in a sandwich shop (which shall remain nameless) and ordered an Italian hoagie. The sandwich was served with ranch dressing (something unheard of in his hometown), and when he asked for olive oil and vinegar--two basic elements in a true hoagie--he was told there weren't any.

The result? A few years later, he and Stopani opened Daglio's. (Santos has since bought out Stopani.)

"I retired from a company called Delaware River Pilots--31 years, I was with them. We're a service-oriented business. Most of the shipping businesses in Philadelphia have a slogan: 'Service is our only cargo.' (With) the river pilots, everything is about service--everything."

Santos carried that work ethic to his small shop here in Tucson.

If you keep traveling north on Campbell and turn right on River Road, you'll find El Corral. Some say that El Corral epitomizes Tucson hospitality. There are no frills here, just outstanding beef and super-friendly, spot-on service, all wrapped up in a cozy ranch-house atmosphere. El Corral has been serving food in one way or another to Tucsonans and visitors since the late 1920s. From a small ranch house, El Corral has expanded to a sprawling, multi-room, full service restaurant. It is part of the Agro Land and Cattle Company.

"We want to make the guest happy, whether it's correcting something that was done incorrectly the first time or always providing a good, consistent, well-valued meal," says Sally Young, El Corral's manager. "Keep the guest happy."

The guests are happy if numbers are any indication. Young says that on weeknights, El Corral serves between 300 and 400 people; on weekends, the restaurant welcomes 500 to 700.

Meyer believes in developing strong relationships with his staff. He dedicates more than a chapter of Setting the Table to explaining what he looks for in new hires, how he trains them and how he ensures "the kind of healthy culture and environment in which they can thrive."

Young, Santos and Jasper all say they agree.

"I like gregarious, articulate," El Corral's Young says. She also looks for "reliability, dependability, because if they're not reliable, the person who's going to suffer is the guest."

Experience is also a must. "This is a very fast-paced restaurant. We do high volume. It's a large restaurant. It has its own quirks where things are located."

The training time for a new front-of-the-house El Corral employee is about a week, and is thorough.

"Typically, they get trained with several different people. They get a little bit of everyone, and they take the strengths of every person, and they can put it together so it works for them."

Long-term employees are a rarity in the restaurant business, but not necessarily at El Corral.

"People stay," Young says. "One of our dishwashers has been here for 18 years. We have a server who has been here for over 22, and we have another who's been here 30 years." She also counts eight or nine severs who have been at El Corral for more than seven years, and several bartenders who have been there more than 5 years.

Frankie Santos takes a slightly different approach to hiring.

"When I hire, it's strictly by personality, because I'll fit them in a position there. I'll put them in the back and let them become acquainted a little at a time. I can train anybody; you can't give them a personality."

Santos put together a training manual that teaches employees all about Philly food. It contains information on the more famous cheesesteak shops in Philly, the history of the Amaroso bakery (where all the rolls are shipped from), the history and varieties of hoagie sandwiches, and details about all the ingredients, such as Cheez Whiz--an essential ingredient in an authentic cheesesteak. He'll question employees on the details to make sure they can answer customer inquiries and so they know all about the food they're preparing and serving.

He also strongly encourages them to get out from behind the counter, like he does.

"Talk to the people. They know you. If you don't have a relationship with a person, they're not going to tell you when there's a problem."

While full-serve restaurants usually have a high staff turnover, it's even worse at small joints like Frankie's. Yet, Santos has quite a few people who have been at his place for two or three years. Santos rewards his staff on a regular basis. Nothing fancy--maybe he'll throw a birthday party once someone's been there a year, or offer a holiday party at a nice restaurant.

Jasper's philosophy for hiring and training staff at Fox Restaurant Concepts is simple: "Interview hard. Train hard. Manage easy. You put all your energy upfront."

The interview process at Fox includes a trip to the kitchen to see how the prospective employee relates to food and the frenzy of the kitchen.

"It's not so much the knowledge, because I can teach them. It's their attitude and how they feel in the restaurant," says Jasper.

"Training hard" includes three weeks of complete immersion. New employees work the back of the house so they can see what goes into the dishes and to see how the kitchen operates. They work the front of the house. They're given written tests on product and service on a regular basis.

"We put them through hell to get on the floor, so everybody's been through hell ... and everyone holds each other accountable," Jasper says.

When Jasper is on the floor, he makes contact with each and every table in one way or the other.

"This industry is all about relationships. That's 100 percent what it is," Jasper says. "There's only one person I'm working for: I'm working for the people sitting in the chair."

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