restaurant boot camp

Houston restaurant titans serve up insider tips and lessons learned

Houston restaurant titans serve up insider tips and lessons learned

Tony's restaurant interior
Houston restaurant power players shared their lessons learned. © Julie Soefer/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Storied Houston restaurateurs and business and media professionals gathered last week for Restaurant Boot Camp, an event that highlighted Houston's vibrant restaurant landscape. The corporate conference center of Briggs & Veselka was aptly decorated with checkerboard tablecloths and "menus" of the event agenda.

Panelists addressed such diverse and timely topics as restaurant concepts and marketing, operations, fundraising, and employee retention. Briggs & Veselka, one of the few accounting firms with a group dedicated to the restaurant and hospitality industry, sponsored the event, alongside partners ADP, Culturemap, and NextSeed.

A panel discussion entitled "Lessons Learned" featured insights from some of Houston's top restauranteurs, including Tony Vallone (Tony's), Ben Berg (B&B Butcher), Lonnie Shiller (Shiller Del Grande Restaurant Group), and Paul Miller (GR8 Plate Hospitality).

Moderated by CultureMap and InnovationMap's parent company, Gow Media, CEO David Gow, the panel highlighted the rise of online marketing and social media. Berg pointed out that guests at his restaurant consistently take pictures of their food to post on social media, providing natural promotion of the restaurant. All cited how, in the past, they would have to wait weeks for a letter, but now get feedback from guests immediately by reading online reviews.

Vallone, whose iconic restaurant celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last month, cited the need to innovate.

"We must continue to evolve. We can't rest on our laurels," he says.

All businesses need to be well-funded. In a presentation called "Show Me the Money," Tae Mi Le of NextSeed shared how restaurants can raise capital through crowdfunding. NextSeed provides the legal and fundraising infrastructure to raise either debt or equity in small increments from a large number of participants.

As a previous CultureMap article mentions, several Houston restaurants have raised funds through NextSeed, and two new Houston restaurant concepts currently have campaigns live on the site. Even in this discussion, marketing emerged as a key topic: the fundraising effort provides visibility for the restaurant, and investors inevitably become committed to its success, developing a potentially large and loyal following.

Another hot topic: finding, motivating and retaining good people. Thomas Nguyen, chief marketing officer and partner at Peli Peli, cited how his group invests more time up front in the hiring process.

"We try to ask deeper questions to learn more about whether the person will be a good fit."

Sam Herskovitz of ADP noted in his presentation, "Attracting and Retaining People," that good team leaders are those who engage and acknowledge all members of the team. There was universal acknowledgment that the quality of the team is a key driver to providing a consistently great experience for guests.

Another interesting discussion focused on new technologies. New tools such as point-of-sale and reporting technologies have been helpful to many, but several cited their concerns over food delivery apps, such as DoorDash and Uber Eats. Though a great convenience to those who wish to eat at home, the consensus of the restaurateurs was negative. The issue: the restaurant loses some control over the dining experience.

Between serving delicious food with excellent service and using innovative marketing and technology strategies, Houston restaurateurs have a lot on their plates. Schiller summed it up best:

"Around the country, people talk about Houston food. Houston has no ocean or mountains," Schiller says. "We have to do something… we go out to eat."

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