Team Culture and KPIs Lead to Success
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How did Salt + Smoke start, where did the idea come from?
The idea came from essentially from my first restaurant I opened was a fine dining French restaurant where we had whole hog legs and unrefrigerated closets for a year and half, and we’d make our own prosciutto and we’d make 15 different types of charcuterie in house at any given time… and it was a really successful farm-to-table, French restaurant called Franco.
And then we opened a second location. Franco is my nephew, and Nico is Franco's little brother. We, we opened a second location, six years in, called Nico. That was a more casual version of that first restaurant Mediterranean restaurant; more broadly than French specifically. And it, it failed miserably over the course of a couple years.
We were in a busy kind of entertainment district and it just missed the mark. And over the course of two years, as I got more and more in debt and was really trying to figure out what I got wrong I started kind of thinking through all of those missteps and, and why it wasn't resonating with people.
And started working on the concept for Salt + Smoke. And it was in my head for almost year and a half, I realized pretty quickly that Nico was failure. And not until it out my head and talk to one of the chefs at the fine dining French restaurant about it… I was like, you know, Nico is, for where we're at, it's pretentious and it's not inviting and it's not welcoming and warm and a big, you know, strong hug to people. And it's not resonating. And, and I really think that I need to change it. And I think barbecue is all of those things.
And, and Hailey, who at the time had just taken a job offer at Elina - which is one of the world's best restaurants - he had accepted a job there. He lit up like a firework when I let this idea out of my head with him and he said “Screw it. I'm not going to Chicago. I'm not gonna go work at do this with you.” And so we set on kind of cementing the idea and working on what Salt + Smoke would become. And you know, because we had this great history and kinda strong skill at charcuterie and meat production, you know, we just translated that passion and skill to barbecue. From sauces to brisket, you know, and it's so many of the same concepts, but what we really tried to do is, one, make it really warm and inviting and relatable and you know, our background was fine dining, in St. Louis especially barbecue is a huge, huge part of the culture here, but it's all counter service and it's all, we're here till we're sold out and you know, it, it's very casual and meat-focused, which ours is certainly meat-focused, I don't wanna say that it isn't, but we really tried to build out the rest of what we're doing around all of the tenants of fine dining that were just part of our DNA.
So full service, not having to wait in line. Preparing enough food to get through dinner so you're not selling out at 5:00 PM, having a wonderful beverage program and wonderful service and all of those things to make it a full service establishment. And so we were open as Nico through dinner service on Saturday, June 7th.
And I was so broke, and we, you know, lost over a half a million dollars. My wife was pregnant with our first kid. We had just bought our house. We were gonna have to move back in with my parents. It was bad. We were so broke, we couldn't miss a weekend of revenue, right? So we closed after dinner service on Saturday, June 7th.
And worked five days nonstop 24/7 remodeling the entire restaurant. Pregnant wife was up on ladders, painting walls and ceilings and all that stuff we had to bootstrap it ourselves. And we opened that Friday at 11:00 AM for lunch, Salt + Smoke. And it was a hit. I mean that that first day we served 400 people, we sold, it wasn't our intention to sell out, but we didn't know what we were working with.
We sold out of everything by five o'clock. I had mailed out checks that Friday morning before we opened that. We're so far behind on payments for vendors. It was like 14,000 worth of checks and there hundred in the bank account. So if, like I screw's work or not. So we opened, and I didn't know if we'd enough money to cover those checks when they hit the vendors on Monday. The Hail Mary, you know, was caught and was a touchdown. And so it, it was a really emotional time. It was a really gutsy. There was a lot on the line and we never took our foot off the gas, right? So it worked. And then every week for three years was busier than the week before.
We started that restaurant that day with 12 employees. A year later we had 70 two years later, we had a hundred third year, we opened a second restaurant. A year and a half after that, we opened the third restaurant. Then eight months later, nine months later, in March of 20, sorry, January of 2020, we opened fourth restaurant and then Covid hit and anyway, but that disrupted some stuff.
So we just felt so grateful to have caught that tiger by the tail. And just kept on pushing.
You made the right changes, and Salt + Smoke was a hit. What were the lessons you learned in opening the first Salt + Smoke that you could make sure the next restaurants were as successful as the first?
That's a great question. And it's something that we thought about a lot. We were really nervous about opening the second one cause what we had with that first was so special - and intimate to us. But Hailey, who was the chef but is now an owner with me, you know, we were both really concerned. He was really concerned about it even more than I was.
And what I believed made it so important for us to open a second one. And the way I explained it to him was that you know, as long as we had one store, I would run the front of the house and he would run the kitchen and all of these talented great people that we had working for us at that one store.
And, and I wanna be really clear, you know, the food's great, the atmosphere is great, the barb program's great; but what we really focus on and care about is hospitality and treating people with kindness and respect and, and love and caring and being overly generous and overly vulnerable, really kind of on a constant basis.
What was became clear to me was that as long as we only had one store all of these great people were gonna have to leave us at some point. There was no upward mobility for people to continue to grow in our company. Cause that was it. And as a result, I knew that if we didn't have bigger and better members of our team, we would eventually stagnate.
And so by opening a second store, it allowed to bring more people and promote more people from inside the company to move up and get more engaged on different levels and think about the world differently, and flex their muscles and their brains differently. And in opening the second one, we really focused on providing an opportunity, and extending that culture of hospitality first and foremost. Right? Then secondly, we spent a lot of time building systems to ensure quality, right? So they have to be hand-in-hand. You can love people as much you want, but if the food or the service is crap it’s not going to make that much bigger difference over the long term.
Right. The restaurant, I mean, restaurants are insane. You have to get a thousand things right and if one of them goes wrong, somebody might write you off forever. And so we have, we dedicate a lot of time to tracking food tasting and, and logging, you know, performance and guest reviews. And one of the biggest things that we did, I, I think in terms of extending that culture, you know, we track all things that we can track - we can track terms of KPIs, but one thing that we do is that at the end of every single shift we send a survey to every single employee and ask how their shift was. Just a simple one through five rating, but also an open feedback segment. And so as Haley and I weren't on the store level every single day, every single employee still had a direct feedback channel to us to have their concerns heard, to have their struggles heard, to have their successes is as well, which is incredibly important too.
So what has happened is that as we’ve continued to grow, we can’t be one-on-one and intimate with everyone as we would like to. But that has been fundamentally important and transformative for our ability to have information flow back up the chain. Without having, you know, so often in people's jobs if you're frustrated, you might talk to your boss and your boss might bury it or not care and their concern isn't as big as your concern, you know? We have a hospitality, Director of Hospitality, that will go and talk to every single person about their feedback.
When it's not great, and not come over the top row of their boss, and facilitate the conversations.. which is so important in hospitality to feel heard, and to meet people where they're at, and let them know that we're an advocate for them in our company.
Learning & Challenging Expectations
What do you wish you’d done differently when you were growing from the second to the third?
Well, you know, we there's so many things that if we could go back in time if we could change… You know, a lot of it around the product quality and the training, you know to, to keep those things consistent. It's so much easier when I'm there seven days a week and Haley's there seven days a week to train every person and touch every table and see every dish and cut every bread, you know? Like, and so there was so much about that scaling up that we didn't know that we had to learn on the fly.
That was really hard. And we made mistakes for sure. I don't know how you would figure that out without doing it. You know, short of bringing on somebody that that has done it with a different company. But, but then they would've made it their way of doing it. And I think our way of doing it is special in only that it's our way.
Right? And we really want to make sure that it continues to be our way. Not that it's better or worse or whatever. It's just our way and we really love our way. And we try to do the best we can at it.
What were the challenges that you had to face to bring full service into barbeque with Salt + Smoke to make it work?
The challenges were mainly with perception from our guests. Barbecue in this town was casual, rustic. Counter service, no fancy server, nobody talking to you about this, you know, $70 per ounce, bottled Pappy Van Winkle, you know? And so a lot of what the challenges that we ran into is barbecue can be very pedagogic, right?
It, you work in this system, you come up in it for 20 years, and I earned my stripes doing it this way. And you guys, you. You know? I remember when we, about a month after we first opened, these four guys came in and they're big guys, and they were wearing these white button down shirts with this big patch on them that said, Kansas City Barbecue Society and the KCBS, Kansas City Barbecue Society, is the society that judges all barbecue competions.
There's another society, whatever, but like they're the most important kinda barbecue judges in the country for the biggest barbecue festivals. And they determine who the world champions are. And these guys came in. Wearing their big white shirts and we just tried to be so nice to everybody. I was like, oh, thanks for coming.
Like, so glad you guys are here. I hope you enjoy it. They wouldn’t talk to me, you know, I would over and say “How’s everything going?” And they’d say “Everything’s fine. Everything’s fine” Then they wouldn’t want to talk to me again. And then, and then they dragged us on like a Yelp review cause our ribs weren't made… they have a very specific way that you make ribs, which frankly I don't, I just don't like. It's just, These are the rules of how you make it and that's how they judge it. And they dragged us. I was like, I talked to all four of you in the face and like went over and sent you stuff and like it was nice. And then you dragged us on social media instead of talking to me face to face, which is what we tried to be all about is connecting with people. And anyway, so it was funny that they talked about how terrible our ribs were. I was like, I dunno… we have a line of people waiting hours to get in every single day. I think there's something OK with our ribs. They might not be yours. But so yeah, that challenge was kinda a lot of changing that perception of what a barbecue place in St. Louis could be in terms of functionally operating and those challenges.
This will sound conceited. Our challenge was keeping up with demand, right? Like we kept, like I said, we started with 12 employees and we, the first week we were like, oh my God, we, you know, this is insane. We hired 15 people over the next week.
Literally, I hired five people at like 10:00 AM. To say, can you be back here in 30 minutes? I'm gonna start training you on how to serve table, to wait tables today. Like 30 minutes after you get here. So then we'd hire like 10 people, you know, we'd be so understaff great this and then. That week we were 30% busier than we were the week before.
And we're like, shit, we're understaffed again. And so then we hire another 10 and be like, ah, God damn it, we're still understaffed. And it didn't go well. And you know, and so that kinda rapid ramp up was just, Insane. There was no opportunity to catch your breath, which is great. It's a great problem to have thrilled that it went that way and that we got through it.
But that, I mean, that was, that was the biggest challenge.
Growing Salt + Smoke
What difference are you bringing that was not part of the DNA of a counter service barbecue that is unique to Salt + Smoke?
So what we try to bring to Oh Hey - first of all, the reason why we're excited about it and, and breaking away, you know, it's not like we're pivoting away from Salt + Smoke.
We, we I can't speak specifically, but we have plans to open more of that and continue to grow that to grow Salt + Smoke. But with Oh Hey, you know, where we've always kind of been disarming in kinda the macho barbecue world is that, you know, we make everything about friendship. Kind of a little, a little goofy and, and not so serious hardcore barbecue, like, check out my motorcycle type stuff.
You know, it's like we're just a little bit more soft and, and irreverent in that. And so we bring some of that. You know, our mascot for that store is a, a rib walking around named Robert Redford. You know, just kinda outta the gate, more playful. But then that same kinda commitment to hospitality and listening to our people and growing in a way that supports both our guests and our and our staff simultaneously is really important.
And so with, Oh Hey it's a partnership a local Midwestern grocery store called Schnooks. There's, they have about 175 locations or something. A real big family owned company iconic St. Louis presence. And what they built is really incredible. And so what we were thinking about with smoke and. And partnering with them and wanting to create a new concept.
Cause it's not, Salt + Smoke. It’s not full service. It has to be a new brand because we don’t want to muddle that, cause it’s not sit-down and there’s not a huge, wonderful bourbon collection. But what really excited us was how we can continuously meet our guests where they're, and so when you are a family of four and you're getting off work at five and you get to the grocery store at five 15 and we make family meal packs that you can have ready to go in five minutes. You come order with us, you go grocery shopping, and then we have a hot running, wonderful from scratch - everything from scratch made-for-you-meal that's affordable and tasty and all of those things. It really for us, seemed, I talked about it before, just meeting people where they're at and, and providing the service and the hospitality to make their lives easier and tastier. And so that's what we really were excited about with that.
What do you do in your different brands to create the cohesion and telling the right story for each brand?
Well, so I mean, for this, for the beginning of, Oh Hey, and, and we'll see what the storyline is for that brand. You know, it was important to our partners and to us, where it, it's technically Oh Hey from Salt + Smoke, so it's, it's tied in physically.
At the moment though, we could certainly drop that as if we continue to expand that on. So there's, you know, when you look at the logo, it's, it's tied into it currently. And then part of that partnership is also, you know, we started a national shipping program and we've already created partnership with another grocer as well as Schnucks where we have prepared food that's packed and sold on grocery stores and in refrigeration and freezers and things like that. And so it's once again another way to really meet people where they're with what we think is best barbecue on the planet and finding different ways to, to make it convenient for us to, to be your choice. But in terms, making sure that those brands are connected.
You know, it's important right now, but I, I don't see it necessarily being something that I, I necessarily want to have be connected forever. You know, I'd like them to live symbiotically and separately you know, but with the same ethos running throughout.
Using KPIs as Another Set of Eyes
Why do you look at the KPI’s weekly? What is your approach to the data?
So you know, we look at the major issues, right? And, and so we've built several different KPIs and then weekly we have a call with all of the leadership and all of the, the on-store leadership where, where we present.
You know, and, and when I say weekly, it's, it's really more daily. I mean, we, we provide up to the minute tools where people could track in their performance by end the day. You know, finding out that last Tues- finding out on our Thursday meeting that last Tuesday, you missed the mark isn't really gonna do anything.
So we provide the tools that are really easy to use to track that stuff daily. But then we report on it weekly just to see where we're at and see the trend lines, you know, and we look at labor costs and food costs and beverage costs, which are all very important. Obviously business has to be profitable to continue to pay their staff more and grow, and all of those, you know.
You can't have one without the other. And so you know, the head and the heart have to work together in that format.
So, I mean the, the first fundamental KPIs that we started tracking were, you know, and this is just, I started working in restaurants the day I turned 16 and I never stopped.
And it, they're just part of, I think, the conventional wisdom that, you know, if you have good food especially if you find something that resonates with people. And so that's what it started with, right? So it started with these food and bar taste sheets. So twice - actually it's three times a day - two managers sit and they taste every single item on the menu.
So every sauce. Salad dressing. Every side, every whatever. Just to make sure that going into lunch, going into dinner, going bar service at night, which is the third one, so with fresh juice and program and all of these things.. are we going into this at the start where everything is at least right and then we have a spot check times day. And then we have facility audits that every month two of the corporate leadership team go to every store. And we don't treat it as like a, you know, beating people over the head like, you didn't do this, you didn't do that. They just walk-through and they point out all of the things that need attention. And then over the course of the month, the staff has that month to fix everything that needs to be wrong.
And then the next month they go in and they provide the things to fix for the next month. So it's not like a, I gotcha, you didn't clean behind this thing. It's like, Hey, we're working together to see this with the same set of eyes. So, you know, there you have the food quality and the bar quality, and you have the, the atmosphere being clean and then, and then the costing has to be right as well. As is the labor costs and the labor costs. We, we really treated like we're. Often -we actually get more upset when it's too low, not upset, but we're like, oh God, the target was this and you were half of this. Which, you know, I could say, sweet, we saved that much more money. But really we're like, If you're that low, we know there were issues with people’s service. There was no way that we could have attended to everybody's needs in that way. Right?
And so those were the beginning of the KPIs that we tracked and then, and then we added on all of the guest reviews. And so we tracked for each store. You know, there might be our busiest store will get over 2000 total reviews in a given week, and so we'll track every single one of those on an aggregate level across every store and present, you know, okay - You got 98% of those were positive - or 99%, and they start dripping down to 96, 97. Okay... What's going on? Was that when all of these labor percentages were way too low? Was that when these different things were going on? And then we also track all of the shift review performance, so, okay. You're dripping down instead of 4.7 out of 5, you're down to 4.2.
What's going on? We've had two comments about this tip share process here, and people are upset about it. Let's go in and talk and figure out what are we doing here and how can we do that better, you know? And so they're all … overall. You know, and, and I, I think we're extremely fortunate to have teams that really care and so issues come up and this allows us to find out different issues based on the numbers.
Like, Hey, there might be something in here. Let's dig into it. Overall, I would say the performance is extremely consistent, which is great. Especially cuz the leadership on the store level, they know what we're tracking. They see it every day, right? And so they're to get ahead it and make it better, they, they get bonuses tied to the performance on those things.
So we all have a mutually-aligned set of goals. Everybody benefits from when they're handled appropriately. And I think it’s provided a high level of consistently great performance across all of those four things I talked about. Great space. Great food. Great service. Great value. And if you can hit those things consistently, then it should work out right.
And without us being on Haley and I being on the same store every single day, we, we needed to wrap our head around what we were really doing right? Like, I can't see what's happening.
Like a Marriage
If you were to offer one piece of advice to somebody that wants to start a new restaurant brand, what would that advice be?
I get asked this as a lot and - I don't want this to come across the wrong way - but I generally look at restaurants, like marriages, (opening a restaurant anyway, not eating at one)…
It’s a lifetime commitment. You need to give everything to it. It sounds like fun. It can be, it can be great. I absolutely adore my wife. We've been married for 10 years and it's the greatest thing that's ever happened to me. But it requires work and commitment on levels that you didn't know that you were going to have to expend.
When you go into it, it's not, it's not the honeymoon phase. Right? And so if, you know, going into it that, you know, when Nico was failing, there were seven months straight where I couldn't take a paycheck, right? I was working literally 85 hours every week for seven months, never having a day off. Could not pay myself a penny.
And still had to be committed to see it through. And so what I tell people is knowing that if you still wake up in the morning and you're like, this is the only thing that I want to do - then you should do it. But if you're doing it cause you think it'd be fun or you'll make money or whatever the, the statistics tell you you're not, it's gonna fail.
Right? It's gonna end you on the rocks, and it's messy as hell when it does. So you have to be committed to it. Like, yeah, I know this is gonna wreck me and it's still… emotionally, when I wake up in the morning, it's all I wanna do. And if you still are okay with that, then you should do it. If you're like, oh, I think it'll be fun, or I don’t know, well maybe I could be an accountant, then go be a damn accountant, please.
And not, not to actually, I mean, accountant's work crazy hard too. I'm not trying to knock that, but like, go sell insurance or go go work at wherever, you know? But like, this isn't, unless you're committed for life, this isn't, this isn't some kind of like tourist thing that you get drop in and try out.
Amin Yazdani is the CEO and Co-Founder of Craver, a fast-growing mobile platform for Restaurants, helping them gain and retains their loyal customer base.