Recipe For Success

It takes more than great food to survive and thrive in the restaurant business.

When David Irmer, longtime Marin resident and business owner, walks into Sausalito’s Poggio Trattoria once a week for lunch, he feels like he’s coming home. “Every single time I walk in the door, they treat me like family,” says Irmer, a regular at a handful of Marin restaurants. “It’s really special.”

That’s exactly what Poggio is going for. It’s one of dozens of local eateries that have managed to not only maintain a steady business, but grow it over the decades into a place with staying power. Despite the vagaries of economic climate, competition and consumer tastes, they’re still going strong, keeping regulars happy and attracting new clientele.

Running a restaurant takes tenacity, grit, foresight and luck — but most Marin restaurateurs also cite other ingredients in the secret sauce for success. Good food and atmosphere are a given, they say, but what really counts is this: make guests feel like family, treat your staff well, shift course when needed, and commit to your community.

“There are many pieces to the puzzle that make a restaurant stick around and stay busy,” says Peter Schumacher, general manager and part-owner of Mill Valley’s iconic Buckeye Roadhouse. His eatery, on the site of a former German restaurant built right off Highway 101 in 1937 — the year the Golden Gate Bridge opened — has been in business more than 26 years. Updated to feel like a modern lodge, with a meat-smoker and timeless American cuisine, it’s held on through recessions and other economic dips, on some weekends feeding as many as 400 people a night.

“There’s no low season here — there’s never even a slow night,” Schumacher says. He chalks much of that up to extraordinarily faithful patrons: regulars and repeat customers make up about 80 percent of business — a target statistic cited by several local restaurant owners. “It’s like we’ve become the home away from home for many people,” Schumacher says.

Why? Several reasons — consistency, for one: while the menu changes monthly to stay seasonal and attract diverse palates, it keeps the favorites. Regulars can rely on the classic Oysters Bingo, sesame ahi and chililime chicken always being around.

The staff remains loyal too — chef Robert Price has led the kitchen for nearly 20 years. Many Buckeye servers and back-of-house employees have been there a decade or more, valuing the Buckeye’s solid reputation. That commitment promotes a sense of teamwork, a spirit of hospitality and a special relationship with regulars only time can create.

In fact, it’s a lack of longevity that accounts for a hurdle many new restaurants face: staffing inconsistency has become one of the biggest issues plaguing food businesses around Marin. Competition for workers and diners in the county is on the rise, while the local cost of living has forced many workers out.

A solid local track record can attract good people, confirms Poggio owner Larry Mindel. “With so many restaurants opening and closing all the time, our people know that they get paid well and they’ll have a job tomorrow.” In fact, one bar manager, Tony, has been with him more than 38 years.

Still, Mindel admits to some turnover in both the back and the front of the house, and wage increases and new taxes have raised his business expense. But while bottom-line margins have dipped, they’re still in the 7 to 8 percent range (pretty high by average restaurant standards), and his revenue at Poggio is approaching $7 million a year.

“But at the end of the day, it’s not about the margins,” he adds. “The only secret to our success is the people.”

Indeed, investing in worker training and benefits like health care have been key to the success of Bacchus Management Group, whose topgrossing properties, including Pizza Antica in Mill Valley and Spruce in San Francisco, bring in $8 million a year each, founding partner Tim Stannard says. The group’s average employee turnover is six years, compared with six to 10 months for most restaurants. “In Marin, where the cost of living is so high and finding good staff is increasingly becoming an issue, that’s valuable.”

Yet even the best staff will only take you so far: “to have lasting value, you need to put a real focus on being involved and serving the needs of your community,” he says. He learned that the hard way with San Francisco’s Cafe des Amis, a Chestnut Street spot that closed after just four years. Apart from high rent, construction delays and problems with concept, “really, there just wasn’t much of a community there for us to tap into,” he notes.

Spruce, on the other hand, was very intentionally conceived for the residents of Presidio Heights, with an upscale dining room for formal meals, a casual lounge for weeknights, an adjoining cafe and massive chocolate chip cookies for the kids. “So it’s really about intentionally thinking how you can be everything for your community and have it all feel authentic,” Stannard says.

Even Mill Valley’s popular Piazza D’Angelo, the 35-year-old family-run Italian spot, had to shift course a few years in. It opened as a fine-dining restaurant with table-side service and entrees like whole fish, but in the 1990s, brothers Domenico and Paolo Petrone reconceived the menu to include more California-style Mediterranean cuisine.

“When we first bought the restaurant in 1981, it was dark, intimate, and not a place where you would take your kids out to dinner,” Domenico says. “When Cal i fornia casual became a trend, we decided to do a huge remodel and open up the space to make it brighter and create more of an inviting ambience … Marin diners are savvy eaters who look for good food, good service and moderate prices,” he notes.

Keeping up with customer preferences has also helped Insalata’s Mediterranean restaurant in San Anselmo hold strong. Opening 21 years ago, owner Heidi Krahling planned on a big takeout component and a small mezzanine. But takeout didn’t take off. “So I put all my manpower toward the restaurant,” she says; only in the past five years has takeout become a significant part of her business.

But it’s her deep local civic engagement that’s really drawn a loyal, supportive following, especially as competition among restaurants has heated up, says Krahling, who won an award for community service last year. “People support those who support them,” she says. “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t involve myself in the community in some way. And it really pays off. Being recognized for doing good drives business.”

Of course, even restaurant groups with a wide-ranging set of successful eateries don’t always get the formula right. Bill Higgins, whose restaurant group includes Bay Area landmarks like the Buckeye Roadhouse, which he co-owns with Schumacher, as well as Bungalow 44, Bar Bocce and Picco in Marin, has had to close half a dozen places for reasons that included location, escalating rents, rising labor costs and changing customer preferences. “It’s a tough business with so many variable factors,” he says.

“Inherently, doing well comes down to a true passion for doing what you’re doing with confidence, conviction and a lot of good, hard work,” he adds. “And while quality food, consistency, hospitality, location and a certain uniqueness all play a part, you have to do everything 100 percent — from the sanitation to the food. If your passion is to do all of those things better than everyone else around you, then you might have a chance.

“Might,” he stresses. “Of course, it’s easier said than done.”


Categories: Feature Story, Marin Restaurants