Survivors ready?

Crap happens. Take a page from some savvy fellow operators and meet the challenges with our Survival Guide.

Who would’ve blamed restaurateurs for tipping back a few on New Year’s Eve? Hurricanes, blizzards, food costs at levels usually PA’d from the cabin as “our cruising altitude.” The Olympics and election debates kept patrons at home, while the war in Iraq kept tens of thousands far from it. Yet newcomers poured into the market, heightening competition with handsome new menus and fetching, fresh designs. If it wouldn’t jack up liability costs, liberally toasting the end of 2004 made perfect sense. Wrung out by the Old, ring in the New Year and all of its possibilities.

Um, about those possibilities? Can we top off that glass for you?

Fundamental business conditions, forecasters warn, will be “less robust”—geek-speak for slightly tougher. Sales and traffic will rise, but not as much as they did last year. And margins? Did we ask if you’d like a refill?

Sales conditions aside, the industry faces tests that would make a season of “Survivor: Iraq” seem like a vacation.

Smoking bans, spaceshot insurance costs, the reality that the earth isn’t flat but growth in its supply of restaurant sites definitely is. Bunkie, you’ve got problems.

That’s why we’ve assembled this Swiss Army knife of solutions. It’s a survival kit of ideas that could work for you because they’ve been battle-tested by some of your own. In most instances, a challenge you’re confronting was turned into a reason to pop the cork. But turn the page and see for yourself. Oh, and by the way: Cheers!

Hot Wheels

Here’s one way to steer around a smoking ban.

The anti-smoking crusade has come a long way, baby. Despite howls of protest from restaurant and nightclub owners, the smoking ban has gained considerable momentum since California unveiled its historic smoke-out in 1998. In a Restaurant Business study conducted two years ago, 56% of restaurant operators said they were conducting business amidst a ban, and it stands to reason that the number is substantially higher now—and climbing all the time.

Aram Sabet, owner of the recently opened upscale New York lounge and restaurant 49 Grove, knows as well as anyone that cocktails and cigarettes go hand in hand for many of his guests. He also knows what it’s like to smoke outside in a New York winter; while not a smoker, he’d frequently join his former girlfriend outside as she chased her nic-fix.

“She made me freeze my ass off,” he recalls.

It was with the ex in mind—as well as the countless potential guests who’d opt to stay home and split a bottle of wine and pack of smokes with friends —that Sabet has been hiring a stretch limousine to park outside his Manhattan lounge, in which six to eight can sit, chat, and smoke without fear of punitive measures or pneumonia.

Throughout New York’s cold and wet season, Sabet shells out between $100 and $175 a night for the wheels (he’s got a friend that owns a limo company), then attempts to snag a parking spot in front of the place.

“It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible,” he says.

It may be a lot of grief to accommodate smokers, but Sabet, who also owns the restaurant Pacific East in the Hamptons, believes they’re a constituency that’s worth catering to. “Bars and restaurants started losing money from Day One of the ban,” he says. “If you can offer people a nice place to smoke, you don’t lose them to their apartments.” He’s not even the first in New York to offer a plush, four-wheeled smoke-shack to guests: restaurateur David Burke introduced his own smokers’ limo at his restaurant, davidburke & donatella, earlier this year.

Both words in Sabet’s so-called “smoking limo” fit right into his concept. The smoking thing works because his speakeasy-themed lounge attempts to bring back some of the hazy, boozy decadence that he believes the city has lost. And the limo fits in too, as 49 Grove, with $15 martinis and $10 small plates, VIP rooms, and a fleet of ready-for-hire luxury automobiles manned by drivers who double as concierges, is shooting for the Paris Hilton set.

The limo provides heat and music, and is staffed by an attendant, who’s happy to light up the guests’ smokes, or serve them bottled water, juice, or an energy drink. Sabet says that, besides offering a more pleasant place to smoke, the limo builds camaraderie among smokers, and encourages them to stay at the lounge longer and order more $15 martinis. Stocked with ashtrays, the limo also prevents his staffers from having to spend their time picking butts off the sidewalk, Sabet says, or him from paying fines for littering.

Sabet says there are no insurance costs linked to the venture, and he’s been able to avoid parking tickets thus far.

“It’s the only way to legally get around the law,” Sabet believes.  

No Sick Pay

This operator pays its employees to stay well.

Just how out of control are health insurance costs? The average increase in premiums was over 11% nationwide in 2004, and few expect the number to do anything but continue to climb in 2005. In fact, the CEO of a growing chain believed one would have to be smoking something mighty strong to think those costs would be coming back towards Earth any time soon. “If you believe that, I’d say you’re smoking the good stuff,” he commented.

Such dire forecasts have pushed some operators to get creative in the way they meet the rising costs of health insurance, short of passing those costs on to guests through menu price hikes. With nearly 400 salaried employees qualifying for coverage, fast-casual chain Noodles & Co. (which ranked No. 12 on this year’s list of top growth chains) found a unique way of addressing the issue.

The company set out to keep its employees from getting sick.

No, Noodles didn’t put their staffers in hermetically sealed bubbles. But the Boulder, CO-based company did set up a program that gives employees cash incentive for staying healthy.

Introduced at the start of 2004, “Fitness Bucks” rewards employees $100 for each of the three basic wellness goals they meet. Participating staffers pledge to meet the goals—pertaining to doctor visits, exercise, and smoking—at the start of the year, then revisit them come November. If they claim to have met the goals (it’s based on the honor system), they get cash in hand.

If they’ve gotten a physical and dental exam (both are covered in full by insurance), it’s $100. If they’ve followed a regular exercise program (Noodles suggests walking, running, weightlifting, or yoga) it’s another $100. And if they’ve quit smoking—cessation programs are covered in their insurance too—it’s $100. Heck, even if they didn’t start smoking in the first place, it’s a C-note.

Noodles HR VP John Puterbaugh says the program serves many purposes. Healthier employees means better attendance and productivity. It also means fewer insurance claims (Puterbaugh says claims have been merely “marginal” during the two years of the program), which presumably would lead to reduced premiums—though Puterbaugh says that’s not happened yet.

He’s also confident the program sends the right message about staying healthy. “It lets employees know they’ve got to take care of themselves,” he says. “It’s the only surefire strategy [for fighting health insurance costs].”

Puterbaugh says the strong majority of participants made good on their pledges and reaped the rewards last year. And with just over half the eligible employees taking part, there’s certainly room to grow the program. “Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the only way to keep these costs down,” believes Puterbaugh. 

Swap Meat

Substituting one protein for a more expensive one can give a boost to the bottom line.

Figures from the U.S. De­partment of Agriculture confirm the pain: beef prices dug an 11% deeper hole in operators’ pockets in 2004 than they did a year ago. A combination of cyclically tight cattle supplies, a ban on Canadian imports, and the boom in high protein diets has pushed the price of steak and burger meat to record highs. And economists predict the upward spiral will continue into 2005. “There won’t be as huge an increase,” says Jim Robb, director of the Livestock Marketing Information Center, “but it looks like cattle prices will average 2%-5% above 2004.” Even if prices stabilize with more cattle coming into the market, another Mad Cow scare could inflict fresh wounds.

With beef demand in restaurants also at all-time highs, operators must continue to scramble to make their margins. Some have already raised menu prices, while others have skimped on portions or eliminated the more expensive cuts altogether—all of which can turn off loyal and potential patrons. Larry London, director of F&B at the Heidel House Resort in Green Lake, WI, came up with a more creative—and customer-friendly—solution.

London knows his Midwestern patrons aren’t happy unless there’s a choice of beef on the menu, but even with entree prices at $23-$27, he was losing money on his signature steaks and prime rib. While he couldn’t take these off the menu at Grey Rock, his fine-dining venue, he began playing around with proteins that would balance beef prices and keep his food costs averaging 32%. He found a lot to like in pork—and so did his customers.

While London always offered a pork tenderloin or rack on his menu, he started experimenting with some of the lesser-known and less expensive cuts like shanks, belly, and cheeks ($5-$7/lb. wholesale). He embellished these peasant cuts with classy touches to mesh with his upscale menu and boost their perceived value. The pork belly was stuffed with dates and cardamom; the pork cheeks, cooked in port wine and served over risotto with guanciale (cured jowl); and the pork shank, braised Osso-Buco style.

“I created dishes that take a bit of time and attention, and show off the skill of the kitchen. These added-value preparations allow me to charge $17-$19 for the pork items,” London explains, adding that he tries to keep non-beef entrees under $20 to stay competitive in his location.

Customer response has been very positive. “People eat a lot of pork at home, but it traditionally trails way behind beef in restaurants,” London says. By giving diners chef-driven preparations they can’t replicate in their own kitchens, they feel like they’re getting as much bang for their buck as they would with a prime steak.

Education—both of servers and guests —has also put a positive spin on pork. To enlighten customers about its appeal and versatility, London staged a barbecue last Memorial Day weekend on the patio at Heidel House.

Guests sampled some of the most mouthwatering parts of the pig, smoked and grilled in the barbecue styles of Memphis, Texas, and the Carolinas. While the pulled pork, sausages, and ribs didn’t make it on to London’s fine-dining menu, they did turn Midwesterners on to pork’s possibilities in a restaurant setting.

Next, he worked on his servers, familiarizing them with different cuts at staff meals. “If you can’t get them to wrap their brains around pork cheeks or belly, these items won’t sell,” London claims. It didn’t take long for his servers to embrace the dishes. Along with their taste, the $17-$19 price point helped win them over. Says London, “servers like to push higher-cost items.” 

Room to grow 

Turn that spare space into a revenue generator.

Whether they’re seeking to build box stores, banks, homes, or restaurants, everyone’s throwing elbows in a rush to stick their flag into what seem to be the last remaining bits of real estate on the planet. Following a year where some thought real estate prices had finally hit the ceiling, brokers are calling for more increases in 2005.

“I don’t see anything too dramatic, but real estate should be trending up a bit in some markets, and a bit more in others,” says restaurant real estate broker Tom McCarty.

So it’s many the restaurant operator who’s scratched his head and wondered what sort of side venture could be dreamed up to bring in extra revenue to help cover his rent or mortgage. For some, the supplemental stream has come from a spare room—which has been cleaned out to sell trinkets from, teach classes in, or perhaps outfit with a bed and rent to lodgers.

That last scheme has emerged as an essential element of business at the Fredericksburg Brewing Co., a brewpub and inn located midway between Austin and San Antonio in Fredericksburg, TX. The concept is styled after the brewery/hostels that are common in Europe, serving up dishes like schnitzel, burgers, and pizza from $6 to $15, along with homemade beer at $3.75 a pint, in a 116-seat restaurant.

But what sets the “bed and brew,” as the operators call it, apart from most sudsy American counterparts is the guest rooms. Billed as an “adult retreat” (no kids), the Fredericksburg offers 12 themed guest rooms; the Bordello Room, done up in gauzy curtains and canopies, catches the eye, as does the rose-tinted Red Stallion Room. For $99 a night, the guest gets a beer sampler and a bed.

“It’s like a bed and breakfast, only with beer in lieu of breakfast,” says Chris Sullivan, the director of operations.

The operators own the building outright, and Sullivan says the prospect of turning the extra space into lodging was an option that was too good to pass up. The rooms, which are half full on weekdays and booked on weekends, take a big bite out of the Fredericksburg’s costs. “It’s a pretty significant part of our income,” says Sullivan. “Most of the bills would be covered anyway by the brewery, so we like to think of it as passive income.”

Of course, the operators don’t get to be passive about running the side biz. Since they don’t have dedicated staff for the guest rooms, it means the brew crew has to do double-duty to run the inn—taking reservations, changing linens—on top of their regular restaurant jobs.

“It’s 24-hour service,” says Sullivan. “The restaurant may close, but with the rooms, the responsibility never stops.”

Besides that, Sullivan says the rooms are relatively low maintenance. There are no additional insurance costs, and, knock on wood, no guest has ever flooded their room after getting skunked on hefeweizen. In fact, Sullivan says the lodging is crucial to the Brewing Co.’s profitability. So much so, in fact, that the operators recently opened their second beers/burgers/beds hybrid in town: The Airport Diner and Hangar Hotel, a full-service restaurant and World War II-themed boutique hotel with 50 guest rooms.

The price is right 

At this cafe, customers pay what they wish—and it works.

Up, up, and away. Beef prices. Cheese prices. Seafood, gas, insurance. Labor costs, as states from New York to Oregon—and many in between—prepare to hike minimum wage.

With so many of their essential costs poised to reach the clear blue sky in 2005 (food costs were up 5% in ’04, with a more moderate hike expected for ’05), countless operators plan to raise menu prices in the new year; a recent survey by foodservice consultant Technomic forecasted a 3% price hike. Further indicating just how much rising costs are impacting the bottom line, the survey found that 79% of operators expect better sales, yet only 63% anticipate an improvement in profitability.

Denise Cerreta, who runs the One World Cafe in Salt Lake City, doesn’t fret over menu prices. In fact, she doesn’t even have them. That’s right, guests at Cerreta’s buffet restaurant simply toss into a drop-box what they think the meal is worth, or grab a broom and work for their supper.

An acupuncturist by trade, Cerreta used to sell coffee and sandwiches out of her extra office space. But when she grew tired of producing a set menu every day, she scrapped the bill of fare, opting to serve up whatever seasonal grub she felt like preparing. And when she grew tired of sticking needles in patients’ lumbar regions, she scrapped the acupuncture biz.

Finally, when Cerreta grew tired of ringing up sales, she got rid of the cash register and her prices.

“I tell people to pay a price we both feel good about,” says Cerreta, who adds that, 20 months after banishing prices, the percentage of guests who pay what she deems a fair share runs in the high 90s. Those who repeatedly don’t, she says, get a polite lesson on the nuances of the honor system.

Cerreta cooks up at least one veggie, vegan, and meat dish per day, along with a wide array of sides, such as vegetables in yogurt tahini and shredded beet and pasta salad. She says guests typically opt for one main and three or four small sides, and drop between $5 and $15. She also leaves a list of items, such as coffee mugs, a vacuum cleaner, and even a piano, on a board, which guests can give in exchange for food. (A novice pianist, she’s got two or three leads on the piano, she says.)

Of course, Cerreta’s arrangement wouldn’t work for most; just imagine explaining that business model to investors. But, peculiar as it may be, she says it works just fine for her. Sure, her personal goals—promoting organic food, addressing world hunger, paying a living wage (staffers start at $10 an hour)—are easily met. But then again, her 40-seat cafe isn’t exactly a soup kitchen, and Cerreta sees profitability in the near term.

“It is a business, and it’s got to float,” says Cerreta, who grosses around $350,000 a year, with zero advertising. “We’re paying the price for hiring too many staffers some time ago, but we’ll be in the black next month.”

Helping the bottom line is affordable rent and low food and (now) labor costs. While Cerreta pays full rent to live above the restaurant, the landlord allowed her to name her rent for the cafe space (she’s paying a few hundred less than market value, she says). And she keeps food costs down by cooking with local, seasonal ingredients and letting guests choose their own portion size—which typically amounts to less than what other restaurants plate.

“We have zero food waste in the kitchen, and almost zero in the front of the house,” she says.

Cerreta also keeps payroll down by having guests serve themselves, and hiring them to work in exchange for a meal. They can cook, fold linens, sweep, take out the garbage, or rake the yard, and are expected to put in about an hour for a meal. Even if they’re physically disabled, as one return guest is, Cerreta says they can lead a meditation group.

So far, Cerreta’s gotten inquiries from would-be operators seeking to co-opt her model in Seattle, Tucson, and Atlanta. “It may not be a big moneymaker,” Cerreta says, “but you will support yourself.” 

No slip ups 

Cutting down on slips, falls, and other accidents cuts worker’s comp costs.

Year after year, Tim Edwards, a partner at two-unit Florida casual concept Fudpucker’s (not to be confused with burger chain Fuddruckers), watched as his insurance costs took huge bites out of the company’s profits.

Worker’s comp was perhaps the biggest offender, as staffers repeatedly were victimized by what appeared to be avoidable pratfalls, and Fudpucker’s was repeatedly victimized by rising insurance rates.

Then Edwards got wise. An insurance agent who specialized in worker’s comp —and who was a regular at the beach-themed restaurant—caught his ear about a program, called a loss-sensitive plan, that gave the operator strong financial incentive for minimizing worker’s comp claims. So Edwards set about making his restaurants safer: he mandated no-slip safety shoes for all employees, and put stronger treads, effective in both dry and greasy conditions, on the stairs. He increased the lighting in the front of the house, replaced swinging doors in the kitchen, and laid down throw rugs in high-slip areas.

Suddenly, the worker’s comp claims at Fudpucker’s, which employs around 250 (with another 200 in-season), started to nosedive. “We had only one major claim in the past year,” Edwards says. “The program has saved us $30,000 to $40,000 this year.”

But Edwards’ mission went beyond making the restaurant safer to work in. He also overhauled the way Fud’s viewed and managed accidents. Managers began receiving safety training, which was (informally) passed along to hourlies. Managers were also forced to file extensive reports for each accident, including all witnesses, which served a variety of functions: The reports gave investigators more ammunition for sniffing out fishy claims (Edwards says they investigate claims with the zeal of much larger companies), they gave management a blueprint for preventing future accidents, and they sent the message that Fudpucker’s was intensely focused on making accidents almost obsolete.

“The reports really reinforce the mindset throughout the restaurant that we take accidents very seriously,” he says.
Edwards also gave managers a financial incentive to minimize claims. Instead of lumping worker’s comp in with the company’s general expenses, he moved it over to the labor column on the ledger, which directly affected the size of the bonuses his managers brought home. “If a staffer has a big accident now, it affects the manager’s pocketbook,” he says.

Fudpucker’s also minimized claims by paying a little more to keep managers on board, knowing that high turnover meant a better chance of someone attempting to exploit worker’s comp. “People that have been loyal to the company for years are not looking for the free meal ticket,” he believes.

Edwards also works with the insurance provider to run a worker’s comp history check on new hires, and root out the ones who appear to be cheating the system. He also reserves the right to drug-test employees, who know full well they might be peeing in a cup should they file a dubious claim.

“Before, we’d have an accident and say, that could’ve been avoided if we did things differently,” says Edwards. “Now we’re doing those things differently, and it’s saving us lots of money.” 

Ground Breaking

Sometimes the best place to start is all over again.

For nearly 20 years, Nora’s Restaurant operated on West Lake street in Minneapolis. The place —still sporting car ports with awnings from when it was Porky’s, a drive-in burger joint in the ’40s—did decent business serving diner-style grub.

But over the decades, the view from the dining room window changed drastically. The surrounding West Lake area saw massive development and the landscape evolved into a commercial hotbed. Up around Nora’s, new restaurants with attractive designs and fresh menus rose, and Nora’s began looking more dated than ever. Tryg Truelson, who co-owned the restaurant with his mother, Nora, says modern competitors were a huge worry.
These days, staying fresh is a common challenge. And as we head into 2005, tons of new concepts, many with fancy designers, will endanger the less-modern places on the block.

A solution is not simple. Redesigning seems like the best option, but sinking mega-money into renovation is not practical for many places. And in this ultra-competitive marketplace, that may not even be enough to keep up. “It’s hard to change your image,” Truelson says, adding that people wouldn’t just forget the old place and accept it as new after an elaborate fix-up job.

So, they decided to go for broke and start from scratch. They pulled the plug on Nora’s red neon sign that had glowed for 17 years and called in the bulldozers. The 60-year-old building was leveled, leaving a fresh patch of dirt on which to build their brand new 300-seat, 6,500-sq. ft. eatery—Tryg’s.

Tanya Spalding, a principle at Shea  Inc.—a design firm that assisted with the development—says starting from scratch was the only option. “You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” she says. “The smartest thing for the new brand was making a grand statement by tearing Nora’s down.”

And “grand” is how Truelson describes the new place that now stands on the plot. “We spared no expense,” he says, referring to the copper domed entrance, Brazilian wood floors, and state-of-the-art display kitchen.
Along with the new upscale look is a menu to match: Chef Philip Dorwart’s rotisserie and woodburning-grilled meats, like duck and suckling pig, and high-end seafood entrees ($14-$30).

With Tryg’s only open for about two months, it’s hard to say what the return on the investment is just yet. But Truelson says business is great so far. “We’re getting in a good, young crowd —exactly who we were trying to target,” he says. 

Stock in trade

Bartering can be a great way to get rid of what you don’t want—and get something you do.

A restaurateur’s New Year’s resolutions usually include a roster of projects that didn’t get done last year—or the year before. Tasks like replacing the patio floor and tiling the roof that would polish up the place, but require time, energy, and most importantly, money. And in a biz where every cent counts, profitable operators have to prioritize. 

But Rich Wohn, owner of Chicago’s Fireside Restaurant and Lounge, has found a way to get almost everything he needs, without laying out a penny. Wohn is one of a growing number of business owners who barter.

Forget about any primitive notions, where Johnny Shepherd gives Billy Blacksmith wool in exchange for horseshoes. Trading today is a sophisticated network of companies that use credits to buy and sell all sorts of services and goods.

Here’s how it works. Companies that belong to the trade association are usually looking to unload (barter) excess inventory. For Wohn, that excess is empty seats. “I have a 300-seat restaurant. The reality is, I’m not going to be full every night,” he says. Since he’s already paying the expenses for those seats, filled or not, they are considered excess inventory. So Wohn can offer those empty seats on the exchange. 

In the dining room, the bill is calculated just like a regular customer’s, only the money is trade dollars, which is put into Wohn’s barter account. Wohn will then use those credits to buy excess inventory from others in the group. Some of Wohn’s past trades include wood flooring, a tin ceiling, a color printer, vacation incentives for employees, crawfish, and even a truckload of flour.

There are tons of advantages to being involved in this, Wohn says. First, barterers sometimes get goods and services at discounted prices. Wohn once acquired a cheap load of slate, just what he needed for Fireside’s garden, from a company that would otherwise have handed it over to a liquidator for much less. Both parties won. The slate company reduced its losses and Wohn crossed landscaping off his to-do list. 

Another plus to bartering, says Wohn, is the marketing opportunity. Wohn cites a theater company that wanted to bring in a group of 20 on a Monday in January—normally one of the slowest times of the year. “So, those 20 people who otherwise wouldn’t have known about my restaurant, come in and fill seats that would have been empty anyway,” he says. “And I’m going to treat them like gold, because they are going to come back as cash customers.”

Of course, there are downsides. “Even though you can get virtually anything on trade, you still need to generate cash to run a business,” he warns. And wait times for some items are often long. “You can’t rely on bartering for essential items,” he says.

But with what the International Trade Association estimates as a 10% annual growth in bartering activity, the biggest trades are yet to come. 

Back to the Future 

When it comes to menus, sometimes what’s old is new.

Innovation is written into the job description of any menu planner—from the fast-casual R&D wiz to the four-star fine-dining chef. But coming up with new menu items that will excite customers and ring up sales is a constant challenge. And the pace quickens all the time. Chain restaurants alone rolled out 825 menu introductions in the first half of 2004, according to Foodbeat, a market information company. And with today’s economy brighter and customer expectations ever higher, 2005 may see even more growth. 

Despite this quest for newness, some operators do well by changing little. At Jax Café in Minneapolis, you won’t find a tiny tapa or plate of towering food. Nor can you order any Asian-Latin fusion or low-carb dishes. But the restaurant does at least 300 covers on weekends, so who needs to pay attention to hot food trends?

Not Bill Kozlak, Jr., the third generation to run this Twin Cities landmark in the same building his grandfather bought over 70 years ago. He’s found a novel way of coming up with cutting-edge menu items—he lifts classics from early Jax menus and gives them a bit of 21st century polish.

That’s not to say the 34-year-old Kozlak wouldn’t mind injecting his menu with a few shots of innovation now and then. It’s just that his customers like things the way they are. And he listens to his customers. (Like when he wanted to remove Liver & Onions and Chicken Kiev from the menu, and they wouldn’t stand for it.)

“If you follow the latest trends, the critics will certainly come and write up your restaurant. That may get people coming for a year or so, but then you have to change the concept again when the next trend comes along,” Kozlak says. “I want to keep my customers happy—they’re the ones who keep me in business, not the critics. When my customers start complaining or stop coming, I’ll think about changing the menu.”

Many of those customers are third and fourth generation, and they crave the same dining experience their parents and grandparents enjoyed. Others are new neighbors; urban pioneers renovating old buildings in the area into chic new residences. Jax’s menu is like its surrounding neighborhood—old is chic again.

In 1933, Jax was the second eatery in Minneapolis to get a liquor license after the repeal of Prohibition, and the crowds quickly filled the place, ordering up gin martinis and stingers (25¢ and 30¢ respectively), to sip with shrimp cocktail (25¢) and beef tenderloin (50¢.) Now customers can have it all over again. The Beef Tenderloin dinner, priced today at $25.95, is still the most popular menu choice. Roast Prime Rib of Beef, served with au jus and creamy horseradish sauce, and broiled Fresh Walleye Pike take second and third place. The pike was a latecomer, added to the menu in 1954.

“We’re strong believers in serving what our customer wants, and we’re a meat and potatoes town. We can’t lose sight of that,” says Kozlak, adding that is the reason Jax often goes backward in time for ideas and inspiration.

There have been a few missteps when Jax lost sight of its core customer. Like back in the ’90s, when heart-healthy cooking was all the rage and low-fat dishes were incorporated into the menu. Or when one chef got “a little too creative,” according to Kozlak.

The present chef, Bob Foster, is content to stick to the basics—he gets his chance to be more inventive with specials and promotional events. To spread his wings, he might dress up the beef tenderloin with a garlic crust or mushroom leek ragout, or offer an appetizer special such as beef carpaccio or hickory-smoked bacon-wrapped shrimp with Asian slaw.

For a recent event, commemorating the restaurant’s 70th anniversary, Jax offered a four-course beef tenderloin dinner for two, complete with wine, for $70. In addition, one lucky table per night was chosen to order from a specially-designed historical menu, with food and drink prices from 1933, 1939, and 1954. The event not only built traffic—it reinforced the brand.

“It’s now hip to be retro,” Kozlak says. “New restaurateurs are trying to take the Jax idea and open similar places.”  So even if crispy eel with yuzu coulis makes it big on 2005 menus, there will be plenty of customers coming to Jax who appreciate the honesty and comfort of classic dishes, prepared with care and prime ingredients. 

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