It’s been a year of sad good-byes in the industry, as venerable institutions like New York City’s Café des Artistes and Chanterelle shut their doors after decades in business. Yet there is a sizeable number of old timers who survive and thrive in good times and bad—for 30, 50, 75 years and longer. What accounts for their longevity? And how can you benefit from their experience? Listen up.
Zehnder’s, Frankenmuth, Michigan
82 years old
Al Zehnder, Chairman and CEO
Secret to success: Consistency of product.
Our family-style chicken dinner is unchanged since my grandfather purchased the place in 1928,” says Zehnder. “And we haven’t dumbed down service because our guests—65 percent are repeat customers—come for the tradition,” he adds.
That said, the menu has kept up with the times, thanks to the hiring of an ACF-certified executive chef. Vegetarian items join the hearty platters of chicken and roast beef. “You have to stay close to your guests, deliver what they want and exceed their expectations,” Zehnder contends.
London Lennie’s, Rego Park, New York
50 years old
Les Barnes, owner
Secret to success: Know the business inside out.
“I know how to fix a dishwasher, find good value wines, train servers and source the best fish. I still go to the Fulton Fish Market every day,” says Barnes, who grew up in a fish family and calls himself “head cook and bottle washer.” He also relishes the crazy, hectic pace. “I love getting ready for dinner service; it’s like the prelude to a performance. Then we swing into the ballet, when everyone works together and the place hums.”
It’s the neighborhood regulars who have made London Lennie’s a success, but Barnes constantly tries to attract new patrons without losing the old. To keep the menu fresh, he takes his chefs on culinary road trips. “And five years ago we looked a little worn out, so we put in new booths, wall coverings and a hipper bar,” he says. During the recent downturn, Barnes had to do something “to take away the fear of eating out. We created a $25 ‘Seafood on a Shoestring’ dinner with $6 glasses of wine. “It’s a big hit, drawing in a broad base of customers—not just the early bird diners.”
Irregardless Cafe, Raleigh, North Carolina
35 years old
Arthur Gordon, owner
Secret to success: Keep a positive attitude.
“The road to running a restaurant is fraught with peril—a compressor breaks, an employee steals, the tomatoes come in rotten. All these little things can cause a spiral downward, but you have to stay optimistic—even if everyone gets paid but you. You can’t expect immediate financial return,” admits Gordon. Humility is another key trait. “A restaurateur needs a big ego to get started, but you soon have to take your blinders off and let others shine.” Gordon’s view of his role in the restaurant has changed too. “I used to think I was in the restaurant business, but I’m really in the marketing business. I’m selling a product—food—and an experience.”
Gordon reports that “integrity” has contributed to his longevity too. The Cafe was “green” way before it was fashionable and when employees volunteer at nonprofits, he pays them for their time. “Having a heart is the right thing to do, even though my accountant disagrees.”
Galatoire’s, New Orleans
105 years old
Melvin Rodrigue, COO
Secret to success: Plan for the normal but prepare for the exceptional.
There are lots of moving parts in a restaurant and it’s essential to keep all those parts going in the same direction,” notes Rodrigue. When most of those parts are human beings—105 employees for 240 guests during service—it’s a challenge. “You go in everyday and be proactive and consistent,” he advises. Rodrique also gives a good deal of credit to his “very tenured waitstaff.” The top 12 servers have been at Galatoire’s 10 to 25 years.
Another factor—multi generations of patrons have instilled Galatoire’s as part of the New Orleans tradition, and that tradition keeps getting passed on.
Bali Hai, San Diego, California
55 years old
Larry Baumann, co-owner
Secret to success: Be community oriented.
Baumann runs this Polynesian-style restaurant with his wife, Susie, and two of their sons. They are active in the local school board, convention and visitors bureau, neighborhood association and more. “This gets us involved in many families’ lives,” he says. “One family celebrated their daughter’s baby shower, christening, 8th grade graduation, college graduation, bridal shower and wedding—all at Bali Hai.”
Although “we have to be careful about change,” (Bali Hai served its 2 millionth Mai Tai in 2008), capital improvements were necessary to keep up with the times. With the renovation came a new chef, “but our Mai Tais and coconut shrimp remain,” Baumann notes.