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Interview with Ryan Libert, General Manager of Tazza Kitchen Restaurant in Cary, NC

1.  Tell me a little bit about Tazza Kitchen restaurant: when was it established, the number of locations, and who are the target customers?

We grew out of another concept. Our first location was launched in Richmond under the Tazza brand and that was four years ago. From there, we opened up a location in Raleigh and then in Columbia, South Carolina and another in Richmond. And then this is the most recent build out of Tazza Kitchen. We’ll be opening up our sixth location next month in Richmond.

Our audience, we think, is people who appreciate quality food, who appreciate locally sourced ingredients, who are not necessarily familiar but appreciate craft cocktails and unique wine selections. What we do is we try to cater towards individuals that might not feel comfortable going to more of a foodie restaurant. We want to bring the culinary intricacies of different regions and ingredients to people who might not otherwise feel comfortable going to say, I don’t want to name any restaurants, but some of those more independent chef-driven restaurants. We want to make it comfortable and we want to make it very affordable. Where we could charge more for our food and beverage options, we try to keep it at a really approachable price point so that people can come here and spend as much as they might spend at Applebee’s or Chili’s and get a much better experience. The food is more intricate. The food is more quality driven and everything is scratch made in our kitchen. We want to offer that to the everyday person.

2.  How do you create product demand, or in other words, how do you recognize a gap between what people buy and what they really want?

There’s not a direct line sometimes between identifying what those needs are. I mean we certainly monitor the market and we think that quality ingredients are much more appreciated by consumers these days than say 10 years ago. I think that there is a trend in locally sourced ingredients, whereas that might not have been appreciated by our consumers in the past, I think it is now. Now those are very general and then from there those are our pillars: the best quality ingredients, locally sourced, and wood fired cooking. We think that people do appreciate that. It’s been working. We do make modifications to our menu based on our demographic in particular. Our menu here in Cary might be different than that in Columbia, South Carolina or that in Richmond, Virginia, because it depends on what the demographics of the area is. We have a plethora of recipes that have been developed and we will pick and choose what we think might be beneficial to our particular location.

A lot of that comes to just feedback that we get from our restaurant, our guests. In this area there seems to be a strong desire for vegetarian options. We do our best at this location, and I wouldn’t say that that same demand exists in some of our other regions, but in this area that demand is there. We have more vegetarian options here than we do at some of the other locations. A lot of that depends on my interactions with my guests, my servers’ interactions with the guests. We have a philosophy in our brand, in our company, which is very open to feedback. We encourage it, whether it’s good or bad or indifferent, we want to hear about it.

Let’s say Yelp and TripAdvisor and Google, and various other outlets, I think some restaurants and restaurant owners tend to shy away from because they see it as almost like an enemy. We totally embrace it because it’s a direct line between our consumers and what we do on a day to day basis. We take that very seriously. We monitor that on a daily basis and we use that information to change what we do.

3.   How do you market the restaurant? What kind of advertisement do you use to reach the right audience?

We really focus on a grassroots marketing. We want the proof to be in the pudding as they say. We don’t do a lot of print advertisement. Number one, it’s very expensive and it requires constant interaction with whatever that print media would be. So we don’t really do a lot of newspapers. Magazines we’ve experimented with and haven’t really seen a lot of return on. What we focus on is a lot of social media. We find that that is a great way to get our brand out there. And then it’s up to each location to really market to our particular region or area. We do utilize that a lot and we have one person who does that as roughly a full time job. We do think that it’s important to have somebody to curate our social media.  

Many times we will offer free food as a way of just engaging with potential customers. We call them food drops. Maybe at lunch we will take a sampling of our menu, we’ll call up a business and say, “Hey, we’d love to treat you to lunch today.” Then that’s an opportunity for us to engage with those individuals and really discuss what we do and how we do it and what we believe in, in terms of our restaurant. We found that that generally works pretty well. It’s not perfect. If I could put advertisement out in the radio or TV, that would be great, but it’s just financially not a whole lot of return in terms of the expense up front.

We have done mailers in the past. When we first opened, we did not open with a lunch concept so once we added lunch, we sent out a mailer to the area and offered basically a free lunch meal to get people in the door. The return that we saw on that was really minimal. About 4% actually came back to try. I think we sent out about 6,000 mailers and about 4% came back. So you can see the cost and reward of that was questionable, I’d say. My philosophy is that I need to get in front of people. I want to show the passion that we have for our food, for our cuisine, very much a grassroots approach.

4.  Do you advertise more around the holidays and other special occasions?

I would say yes. Although it’s not like all of sudden we begin taking up ads here and there. It’s a lot of conversations that we have with our guests. If I’m speaking with one of our guests and I find out that they run a dental office, I may discuss the fact that we host large parties and if they might be interested in doing a holiday party. But that is a huge opportunity for us this time of year. We’ve been fortunate enough to create relationships with some of the larger companies in the area, some of the pharmaceutical companies, some of the software companies in the area, and many of them like to host their events here. Whether that be a luncheon or maybe a buyout for the restaurant to do a full on holiday party, we really encourage that and every opportunity that we have I like to take advantage of because it is critical in a time in which I lose 70 seats in the patio, I really need to bring in revenue from other means.

5.  Does Tazza Kitchen restaurant host or participate in any public events such as festivals, fundraisers on a regular basis?

Personally, yes. Each of our restaurants is operated and has its own preferences. Often the restaurant takes on the identity of whoever the partner is running it. I am a personal believer in getting out into the community. I love doing that. Our most recent one was the Bradford apartment complex across the way was having a big pool party for their residents. We took that as an opportunity to go and showcase our food and provide food and beverage for them. I love doing that. I think that that is the best type of advertising, that it’s the best type of marketing that we can do because you’re in front of people.

I’m relatively new to this area. Previously I had worked in Columbia, South Carolina and ran Tazza Kitchen there for about two years. My favorite event to do was called “Tasty Tomato Festival.” It was just all about tomatoes. There was restaurants from all over the community and they would showcase some sort of dish. I loved participating in that because the people that are there are already like minded, they love local produce, they love interesting food, they like music. It was often held at a local farm and it was just fantastic. It was a bunch of like minded people, people who I know would love our restaurant. I did that every single year and I was sad to hear that they didn’t do it this year, but I take every opportunity to participate in those events that I can. I think they’re extremely beneficial.

6.       How often during the year do you organize events?

Probably about three or four times a year. They take different shapes and forms. Occasionally it might be a golf benefit, like it might be a fundraiser in which people purchase tickets to play a round of golf. We might sponsor something like that. Any sort of festival that we can.

7.       How often do you update the menu and prices?

It depends on which part of the menu and which menu. We have three menus. We have a lunch, dinner, and brunch menu. We also have a beer, cocktail, and wine menu. I would say in general we update that menu four times a year, with the seasons, so fall, winter, spring, and summer, mainly due to produce that’s available. We do source locally and therefore some of our product … I’m only able to have brussels sprouts for basically until February. Once we cannot get them locally any longer, then we will take that off of our menu. During the summer we love to do an heirloom tomato salad that we think is great, but unfortunately you can only get heirlooms for a period of time. I would say that there’s four large menu revisions; however, we are always modifying our menu, monitoring what’s selling, what’s not selling and then making changes as necessary. It could be as often as weekly but I would say generally, the big rollout, the big menu changes, are about four times a year.

8.       How do you handle customer complaints and show customer appreciation?

Customer complaints, as I said we’re very open to feedback. Anytime we have a complaint, which fortunately we don’t have many, but when we do, we embrace it. We own up to whether it be a mistake or just maybe somebody doesn’t like something. We try to get to the root of the problem and identify whatever that problem is, own up to it, and then do our best to make sure our guest leaves happy. Whether that means comping a meal or if it means sending somebody a gift card, anything that we can do to make sure that our guest comes back. Really, at any expense, we will do everything we can to make sure that that guest either leaves happy or comes back again. We see that really as an investment rather than a loss because investing in somebody who maybe had a bad experience and trying to turn that around in some way is really important for us.

How do we show gratitude for our guests? Little things. I have a huge emphasis in my restaurant about hospitality. My serving staff is really the front line. That’s my communication between the guest and the restaurant. It’s the front line of communication. I train my servers to always be aware of situations that might be happening and to really interject between what we call the steps of service. My servers know that there are certain expectations: that they greet the table in a timely manner, that they take their order, that they bring their food, check on them, et cetera. But hospitality exists somewhere in between. Hospitality is going above and beyond, creating a memorable experience.

For instance, recently one of our guests shared that it was their anniversary. They had called ahead of time and one of my servers kind of caught wind of it and the customer had mentioned it. This was somebody who I wouldn’t say is necessarily a common regular but has been to the restaurant before, has had very nice things to say about our restaurant. My server really wanted to make it a memorable experience for them. The guest had mentioned something about having some flowers on the table, which is something we don’t normally do. I don’t have flowers readily available for me. But this is something that we really wanted to do for him, so we made sure to have flowers on the table. We did a sparkling wine toast for them and then we brought them dessert. All of that was complimentary. And really the aim there was just to make it a memorable experience.

I encourage my servers to try to do that with every table. Certainly the small things like birthdays, if we catch wind of it, if someone mentions it, we like to bring out a birthday dessert, generally with a candle. We don’t go through the song and dance, but we do like to do whatever we can. If I see a regular guest and it turns out that we have a new menu item, I love to send that out to them. Sometimes my chef will also do that. She will recognize somebody and say, “You know what, I’d really like to send this out to them” and we’ll do that, we love to do that. Any opportunity we have to really expose our guests to something that maybe they may not have tried or any sort of celebration, we love to do that.  

9.        What strategies do you use to accommodate growth in the restaurant?

Financials and monitoring sales is very important. We monitor sales on a daily basis. We track them from month to month to week to week to year to year. We get weekly financial statements, which basically tell us how we’re doing. And I think that’s something that’s very important and something that we do really well. Because, I mean I’ve heard of restaurants, especially owner operated restaurants or chef driven restaurants, they don’t do inventory, they don’t monitor percentages of payroll or labor or what they actually made after all the bills are paid. Many times. it’s just kind of bring in the sales and you pay off your food costs and wine costs, and whatever, but we monitor that regularly. So, I know if I’m up in sales for the last week or down in sales for the last week. I watch that trend.

Obviously, in our restaurant, it’s a bit unique in that we have roughly 70 seats outside. I know when the weather’s nice it’s time for me to really consider staffing levels, increasing products. In the restaurant business, good people are hard to find, so that’s something I always am looking for. Anticipating increases or decreases in sales. I know that because I am losing my patio, that even if I’m very busy on a Friday night, I only have so many seats, I have 110 seats inside. We will go on a wait and then we will be at capacity pretty quickly. However, I’m losing 70 seats outside so I can run the restaurant with fewer staff. Rather than eight servers on a Friday night, I might only need five. I’m always thinking about that.

How I identify it, I don’t know. I’ve been doing this for seven or eight years now, so it’s almost just natural to me. Anticipating the ebbs and flows. What I do have at my disposal is sales records from the past year. We’ve only been open a year; however, when I was managing a different location, we had years of data, literally three or four years of data, and often times there are trends. Especially in Columbia, which is a big college town, I knew if it was parent’s weekend, it’s going to be very busy. I could plan ahead. Or I know that when there’s a home game, there in Columbia, the day of the game is going to be very slow, but the bookends of that, the Friday night before, and the Sunday morning after, are going to be very busy. You just begin to identify trends. If I look at the sales, so if on the “x” we have month or week or day, and then sales, there are certain trends that happen. Thanksgiving, big decrease in sales. Christmas, big decrease in sales. July 4th, big decrease in sales. We do our best to plan accordingly.

If it comes to the facility and how we were to contemplate maybe building out more seats, it’s always a cost analysis, does it make sense? How many dollars do I get out of each seat per day? My average check per person is about $25. I can turn that table five times during a night, so I’m looking at $125 per night per seat. If, for instance, I was thinking about expanding this area so that I could accommodate more guests, does it make sense financially? I would do that cost analysis. And if it makes sense, based on what the cost of building that would be versus what I could make with those extra seats, then I would do it. But that’s one of those things that’s a lot more difficult, right, building out a restaurant’s very expensive, extremely expensive.

Making facilities repairs and maintenance and any changes to the facility is very expensive. Oftentimes, I will consider that but usually I try to work with what I have, the space that I have. What could I do to make this more efficient, this area more efficient? Should I break up this table into two four-tops or a two-top and a four-top? I always have that in mind. We’ve reconfigured this restaurant in terms of the layout many times to accommodate the most people that we can. But if it turns out that I’m on a wait for five hours a night, then I might consider expanding a little bit. But there are limitations. The complex will only allow me to build so far here or there and we’re in a lease in which we’ve already committed to this area, so finding a new space also isn’t really an option. Really, the focus is maximizing given the space that we have.

If we’re talking about equipment, that’s something that we sort of analyze on a weekly basis, monthly basis maybe is probably a better way of … Are we having issues with food storage? If we are, then yes, and if it becomes a food safety hazard, then yes we’re going to bring in the proper equipment that we need. We are at a position now where we kind of are at max capacity in terms of at least our refrigeration. We have so many scratch made products that need to be prepped daily, but we also need to carry all of the produce and all of the meats and seafood that we require and finding storage for all of this can be challenging at times. Actually right now, we’re thinking about purchasing some reach in coolers just to sort of spread out some of the food so that we can walk in and out of our walk in more comfortably. Because right now it’s very tight.

                         

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