Why More Double Shifts Can Lead to Better Service
If you knew exactly what would happen when you opened a restaurant, would you? Well today Doug Mathieux, the owner of Artesano, is talking to us about his experience as well as tips on staffing and customer service. Having owned two restaurants even though his expertise wasn’t originally in restaurants, Doug has a wealth of knowledge he’s sharing on today’s episode of #LocalBites.
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Artesano & Rigolo
What originally brought you into the restaurant industry?
Well, what you said in your intro is kind of true. In hindsight, I think I was probably a little bit crazy. I was more of a corporate type of person having worked in large corporations like Coca-Cola, apple computer, and such. I worked in logistics and consulting, but I always wanted to have my own business.
And my recent background, I've been in logistics. I didn't really know what to do, so I knew a wonderful local baker in San Francisco named Pascals Rigo, who had a nice chain of local bakeries and I decided to partner up with him thinking, "Hey, I'll just open a restaurant and let's see how that goes."
And if I knew everything then that I know now, I probably would've never done it because it is a difficult, challenging business. That being said, overall, I think we were fairly successful and both concepts that I opened both were popular and successful concepts. No, I feel like I was fortunate and did pretty well, and I was able to sustain and feed my family for the last 18 years in the restaurant.
That is amazing. So 18 years in the restaurant industry. And the two concepts that you mentioned are Rigolo Cafe and Artesano. Tell us about those two concepts.
So the first concept, Rigolo is a French bakery cafe. And I partnered with Rigo because he was supplying me with wonderful fresh baked goods—pastries and, and such that he made—he baked fresh every day in San Francisco and they would be delivered early in the morning. And I grew up in France.
So I have a background and an appreciation for French baked goods and cuisine. And so that's how we opened it.
There was a twist to the business, which is that my first daughter was born six months before we opened the cafe. And so my wife, you know, we were struggling with the little newborn and, and trying to figure out how to try to be good parents and such. My wife said, "Hey, well you should throw in a little kids' play area in there for people who have kids." And I thought, okay, that's a good idea. So we—and real estate's very expensive in San Francisco. It's not like you can afford to put a big part of the restaurant, tied the little kids' area, but we put a little kids' area in there.
And then lo and behold, it became the most popular part of our concept other than our good food and fresh baked goods. And all the moms started coming in and moms groups and nannies and such. So we ended up sort of improving the kids' area, making it a little bit more formal and permanent and we became known organically as the most kid-friendly restaurant in San Francisco.
And we were super popular with all the families and such. And people would come in and dump their kids in the kids' play area and maybe the moms would sit in groups and then have a glass of wine or work on their computer cuz you know. Anyways it became a key part of our personality.
It was definitely unplanned. But it was a great thing that you don't really find in San Francisco. There are not a lot of kids' restaurants that offer that kind of experience. Maybe in some markets where real estate and rent rates are lower, you can afford to put a kids' area but less so in San Francisco, certainly.
How did you come up with that idea?
Well, I wish I could claim credit for this outstanding idea, but it was definitely Laura, my wife's idea.
And it, I guess you could just say it was kind of dumb luck cuz we happened to have a toddler, a newborn child who was six months old and that's how it came about, but sometimes the best ideas do come about randomly that way. And so it was definitely a good thing and we ended up being a well-appreciated concept in the neighborhood.
Unfortunately, Rigolo, closed down in August of 2020 because the things that made it a wonderful concept for families, also made it a terrible concept for Covid. Covid pushed everyone to—we were forced to close our dining room for 16 months. And, so we tried to survive as long as we could, but after a while, it was pretty clear that the shutdown was gonna keep going.
And the concept was a hundred percent an indoor concept. We didn't have any takeout food it wasn't, it just, unfortunately, didn't make sense anymore in the world of Covid. So we had a wonderful 17-year run. And everyone was very sad when we closed. When I announced on social media on our website that we were closing the last week we were open, we were actually just packed with people coming to order because there were, so some of our customers were actually crying on that day.
I mean, it's really sad. I said, "Well, I wish I didn't have to close if you guys had been coming and grabbing takeout food, even though our menu is not really a takeout menu if you guys were coming there this much all along we wouldn't have to close." But unfortunately, it just wasn't meant, wasn't meant to be for us to continue.
How did your other concept, Artesano come about?
We opened Artisano nine years ago, and I guess my restaurant decisions were based on the personal experiences that I had living and growing up.
So I always had a love of French cuisine and French pastries and baked goods and fresh baguettes and such. But I also lived in the days I worked for a Coca-Cola bottling operation, I was down in Brazil, living in the agricultural heartland, and I got to learn about Latin cuisine and developed an interest in Latin cuisine.
And so I thought, wow, well, maybe I should open a Brazilian restaurant, you know? But then as I started looking into it and, and setting it up, I realized that my expertise is in fast-casual restaurants not more formal sit-down restaurants. And in a fast-casual setting, you need somebody who's gonna like the food the first time they eat it.
And I realized if I built the whole menu around traditional Brazilian dishes, then I was gonna have to do some more indigenous type dishes—dishes that are really good, but that sometimes take a little bit of a learning curve for you to get used to. I guess you have to have 'em a few times before you really appreciate them.
And in a fast-casual concept, you really need something that people will like the first time, not something that they will develop a taste for over time. And so I decided that restricting the menu purely to Brazilian cuisine was gonna make it maybe a little bit harder for it to work as a fast-casual concept.
So I decided instead to latch to launch our Latin concept, not based purely on Brazilian cuisine, but based on popular culinary themes that you find throughout Latin America, and building the menu around that. So grilled vegetables and grilled meats and black beans and rice and plantains and stuff like that.
And good wholesome ingredients. So things that you'll find throughout Latin America, but without a focus on Mexico. So there are a lot of great Mexican restaurants in the US. It's a very popular, one of the most popular food concepts. So I wanted to do something different. I didn't wanna do Mexicans.
I wanted to focus on Latin, which also includes Mexico, but not with traditional dishes that you find in most of the Mexican restaurants in the US. So that's how it came about.
How did you find a balance between making something unique and serving something familiar?
That's a great question. I mean, the biggest thing, two parts to that, first of all, is using some popular Latin American dishes that people might be somewhat familiar with, or people at least who know Latin food more. But, the second biggest part is just experimenting, having fun with our chef and the cooks in the kitchen, and just trying different things out. Experimentation is it, you come up with really great things by just trying 'em and seeing what works and seeing what people like.
So it's a combination of the two. But some dishes are kind of well-known dishes, like a lomo saltado, for example, and some come about more through experimentation, I guess.
Building A Great, Full-Time Team
Question about your experience, because 18 years of experience in the restaurant industry is a lot. What are the biggest things you've learned?
Well, I guess that there are so many learning points.
I'd say one, one of the first ones is building a good team. In the beginning, I was more focused on, "okay, someone's applying for a job. What's on their resume? What's their exact experience?" And trying to get the right type of experience.
What I've learned over time is, you're better off picking the right person who's gonna fit into your organization and someone who's gonna be able to, and be motivated to be trained and learn rather than somebody who's already learning everything.
I mean, the ideal is to have someone with a lot of experience and who's also malleable and willing to learn and adapt to reality. But the more important part is, is the latter versus you all the experience. So how do you find that good person, that great person that's the right fit, for you, for your restaurant, or for your company?
I guess it's a little bit of, trial and error, and then you learn the things I was describing to you. Then you try to discern that in the interview question and you start over time just instinctively having a feel for who might fit in based on past experience.
People you've hired that you've had success with and people you've hired that don't have success with. I mean, you want someone who's just looking you in the eye during the interview and you feel that they're being sincere and honest and that they're gonna be flexible and, has a down-to-earth modest attitude I get versus someone who's so sure of themself and, and thinks they're gonna do everything the way they want to instead of the way you need it for the business to thrive.
Preventing Turnover By Scheduling Overtime
What have you done at Artesano to deal with the labor shortage? And what strategies have you found actually work for finding the right members for your team and keeping those people with Artesano?
Well, that's a great question and it is another key learning experience that I had. The reality in a restaurant, if you're doing lunch and dinner shifts, or even regular, we had breakfast, lunch, and dinner shifts, but even lunch and dinner shifts, if people have to come set up for a lunch shift, they need to come in—you have the latest at nine in the morning. Sometimes if you got big catering orders or anything or things like that, they'll need to come in even earlier, sometimes at eight. And then when you're going through dinner and to clean up, you've got—employees are gonna be there at least till 9:00 PM so you're looking at a long range of hours.
So generally in the beginning, what I was doing is I had two shifts. I had the morning shift and the afternoon shift. and so people would work, 4, 5, 6 hours, and then the afternoon shift would come. But what happened is I essentially had a lot of employees working less hours, but these employees, most of them were working two jobs anyway.
I mean, they're supporting families, they're trying to make it in life and such, and they needed full-time work, not part-time work. So I found that a majority of my employees if they were on the morning shift, they'd leave and then have to commute across town, usually on buses or sometimes driving, although there's nowhere to park in San Francisco, so you're actually better off on the bus or for scooters now, I guess.
And then go to a second job to kind of complete their days and then they'll be working like 20 to 30 hours in each restaurant for a total of, 50 to 60 hours a week. And so what I finally decided to do, I said, well, what if I keep my employees for double shifts? I mean, they're working 50 to 60 hours anyway, so.
So I started putting less employees working longer hours and so I had to pay them overtime. I follow all the laws, the labor laws, and I don't take advantage of my employees. So I started building it into the model to have less employees working more hours, and I was able to give—let them earn a higher weighted average wage by having one, two, or three hours of overtime every day.
Which, you know, the overtime hours they make time and a half. So if they're at $15 bucks an hour with overtime hours, they're actually making $22.15/hour. And so it gives 'em a higher weighted average wage, which costs me a little bit more on average, but on the flip, I'm getting an employee who's super motivated because all of a sudden they're working one job instead of two.
And it's really a win-win situation. For them, it's much better to have one job, because they don't have to commute between the jobs. Secondly, they can really focus on that one job, and thirdly, they can actually have two days off a week because unless there's an emergency or something, I always give my employees two days off a week.
If an employee's working at two restaurants, they're lucky if they get one day off a week. Most of 'em are working seven days a week between the two restaurants.
So now they can work, maybe 45, 50 hours a week just for me, instead of, 45 to 60 hours at two restaurants and no commute time in the middle or dead time between shifts, uh, and then not having any time off. So to have two days off a week is fantastic for somebody who's got a family or loved ones or other things they wanna take care of in their life. It gives them a more balanced life.
And when I made that change, learned that—I mean, your first reaction's "Oh, I don't wanna pay overtime. No. Overtime too expensive."
But actually, when you have more part-time employees, first of all, they don't care about their jobs as much. Your turnover is way higher. There's constantly people leaving and coming back, or different people coming in. You're constantly having to train 'em, getting up to speed, and you waste so much time training a new employee essentially for a couple of weeks.
No offense or anything, but they're not very useful because they're just an extra person who is learning. When you have a well-trained employee who knows what they're doing, they're basically doing the work of a person and a half, because they're fast, they're fresh, and they know what they're doing, so you end up needing fewer people.
And my turnover, since I adopted this program, instead of having employees where, if I'm lucky, 50% dedicated to the restaurant. You had people who were a hundred percent dedicated. This was their main source of income where they're putting all their efforts. And so they were super focused and, my turnover weight dropped by like 80%.
By the time the pandemic hit, that's one thing that really helped me is that I had a solid team of people who were really dedicated, been with me for a long time, with no intention of leaving. And so I haven't had, quite honestly, I'm very lucky, fingers crossed that it continues, but I haven't had a single problem of lacking staff since the pandemic hit because I have such a solid core team and I trust them and they trust me and we work well together.
I support them. I'm very lucky to have a fantastic team.
What part of your experience is driving that creative problem-solving?
I guess I'm pretty good at getting creative and trying to find solutions for things maybe. But mainly it was just the pain and suffering of dealing with such high rates of turnover and the frustration of dealing with it, and realizing that most of my employees were working two jobs anyway.
So just finally it kind of dawned on me, "what if we just—do your work your two jobs here? You know, because you're taping off and a way of my good employees who are working five or six hours, for me it's like, God, I wanted 'em there, you know, 10 or 11 hours a day. So it's at the same time, I'm not gonna force anyone to do it.
It's a purely voluntary thing. But most of these employees were working two jobs anyway. I think it took me a long time to come to this conclusion. I mean I've been in the industry for 18 years and I made the switch five years ago, so it took me 13 years of pain and suffering with turnover to have what in hindsight seems like the simple genius idea.
But it did take a long time. There are other legal issues with it, and some people think, well, if someone's working that much, I wanna put them on salary if they're a manager, this and that. There's a lot of restrictions, on how you can do that in California with labor laws. If you have someone on salary, to justify not controlling their hours where they wouldn't punch the clock you need to have somebody who is doing a completely different type of work. And where they're in control and making their own decisions about, what time they come in, what time they leave, and that it's really management work. Not that they're sitting behind the cash register half the time.
So, a lot of the people that restaurants will call managers or even supervisors, they're still hourly employees and they still need to be paid by the hour legally.
Or if you don't pay 'em by the hour, they still need to punch the clock. And so that's one thing that I've also done that's a little bit unusual with my managers and my supervisors and all my employees. Everybody punches the clock, even the managers.
And managers feel like, "oh, well, I'm a manager. I don't have to punch the clock," but I still have them punch the clock because just to take care of legal requirements that we're controlling their hours, and so I put them in an hourly, even when they're paid on salary, they punch the clock, so they punch the clock based on an hourly rate, and they get the overtime based on the overtime hours.
And then I just add a bonus to bring 'em up to their salary level. So their salary level, I mean, unless it's just a crazy week where they're really working insane hours, which I can't even think the last time that happened. But generally, their salary is higher than what the hourly pay is. But, on the paycheck, it appears as hourly with the overtime, and then I put in a bonus to bring them up to their guaranteed salary amount.
So it's a way of covering and protecting myself from employees who then leave and say that they were working a different amount of hours than registered or whatnot. So it's a way to protect me legally and then give my employees the rights that they deserve and make the whole system work.
But when I first talked about that idea to my HR support company, they'd never even heard of that and thought it was, it was kind of crazy. But actually, in hindsight it's genius.
You experiment a lot with how you run your restaurants. How can other restaurant owners do the same?
I'm the owner of the business, but I never think of myself as the owner. So I don't go around telling my employees I'm the owner. So you do what I say. I feel that as the owner, I am providing a service to my employee. I am at their service because if they have a challenge that they're dealing with, I have to solve that challenge.
I have to make their work easier. I have to make it easy for them to be able to do the work that I want them to do and that the restaurant needs for the restaurant to thrive. So I don't see myself as a boss. I see myself more as a servant. I'm a servant boss. I'm there to—okay, what are the problems that you're having?
What do we need to do for you to be able to work this number of hours and put all out all these dishes that we need to put out? So I'm not, I've never been a person—I'm going around bossing people around. I'm going around asking questions and listening, and then, you know, the work that I do is to try to make it.
Possible and enjoyable, or at least reasonable for them to be able to do the work that's required to have a successful, positive business. And also for them to have a pleasant work environment. And that ends up contributing to the employees not wanting to leave. And mutual trust is important.
If you've got employees working double shifts—and I really allow them to be in charge of things until they show me there's a reason that I shouldn't. I really trust my managers and if they need to take off to pick up their kids in the middle of the day and bring 'em home or something, I don't care. Go do it. As long as the work's getting done, I actually give a lot of flexibility. That's only gonna work if you have a solid team, if you kind of give people a lot of leeway, but they're not dedicated and serious and motivated in their job, then everything's gonna fall apart.
So you need to slowly build up a team and the trust between the team to let them run and be successful in what they're doing. So I've got a wonderful relationship with my team and there's definitely a mutual trust and they don't see me as "Oh no. Here comes the owner. Oh, oh no." They're like, they feel happy.
Maybe they'll tell you differently. So maybe I'm deluding myself possibly some way but I feel like they're happy when they see me and they don't hesitate to tell me about stuff. And they're honest about challenges they're gonna have because they know that I'm not gonna be, "oh, what is it now?"
You know? I'm like, oh, really? That sounds okay. Well, how can we solve this? What do you think we should do? And so there's a solid, trusting, caring relationship. It's not the boss and the subservient employee. It's a caring relationship—real teamwork.
Providing Good Customer Service
How are you building a regular customer base? What do you do to bring them back over and over again?
The first thing is the same thing that anybody will tell you is just being friendly and offering good customer service. And actually I think it's pretty easy for an owner to offer good customer service, or at least for some owners. I mean, cuz when you're the owner, you really care.
And if a customer complains to you, you're gonna listen and take it seriously. I guess maybe the really bad owners don't do that, but those are the ones who aren't gonna have a lot of success in my opinion. I think a lot of most owners would be caring and willing to listen and look at the customer in the eye and apologize when you have to apologize and make things right.
I mean, from what I've found, if a customer complains about something, if they bring it up—The worst is when they don't bring it up, and then you find out about it on Yelp with a one star review. And that happens more than I'd like, but assuming the customer's willing to talk to, in my experience, more than 99% of the time, you can solve the problem.
You can solve the problem by being caring, by listening, by looking at them in the eye, and sincerely, caring about what they're saying by apologizing and by making it right, either comping them an item or giving 'em a free dessert. Or giving 'em a gift card for their next visit, whatever it is.
Usually, you don't even have to do a lot financially. You just have to care and listen. Fix the problem, bring 'em a new dish, you know? Now that's pretty easy for an owner to do because when you're the owner, you're usually not gonna be a jerk to the customer. And as soon as they talk to you, they know that you're the owner.
Customers tend to be nicer to the owner. Sometimes some customers can be mean to the employees. So it can be a little bit easier for the owner in that. But I'm not there all the time. My employees are there all the time, you know? So the important part is that the owner's attitude as much as possible needs to be replicated by the employees.
And this now goes back to what we were talking about before, building a team environment and trust. The team that works well together. If the employees feel that you care and they really feel that they have an important part in the place running well and they're respected and cared for, it's gonna be more natural for them to take a sense of ownership in the business and for them to treat the customer.
The same way, or at least in a more similar way than the owner would, being sincere with the customer looking at them in the eye apologizing, recognizing that there was an issue, be being willing to solve it. So as much as I'm happy to be there and I have a greater than 99% success rate and all alleviating problems.
The more important part is how the employees are gonna do it because more of the problems are gonna be dealt with by the employees than by me. So the employees need as much as possible to replicate my attitude and how I'm gonna be with customers. And I think that ends up being naturally more positive when there is this solid environment and a good sense of ownership by the team. It all ties together.
A Piece of Advice
If you had a piece of advice for someone looking to open a restaurant, what would that advice be?
Probably the first one would be "are you sure you wanna do this?"
And then assuming that, they're serious, I guess I would tell them that kind of a condensed version of what I'm telling you is to really think about how to build the team. I think the team is the most important factor, and maybe they can avoid some of the mistakes I made in the beginning.
And it took me, over 10 years to learn some of these key tricks that I've been telling you about. But really focus on the team, building a positive team, and trying to pick someone for their attitude versus their experience. And then how to make a positive environment where everyone wants to contribute and feels a sense of ownership in there.
The second item, which we haven't talked about, which is very, very key is controlling costs. I mean, the restaurant industry is a low-margin business. I mean a successful restaurant might be making 10, 12, 15%. But most restaurants, even successful restaurants that stay open, that aren't large, it's changed.
I mean, they're making, maybe like 5% margin. A lot of restaurants that don't close don't even have profits. The owner takes a salary out of it and at least can pay themselves. But then there's not much beyond that. So, I mean, it's really a low-margin business, so you have to be very careful about controlling your costs.
Negotiating well with suppliers and, and pitting suppliers against each other. And it means controlling—and I don't even do this perfectly. I wish I did, but you have to control food portions very well in the kitchen cuz they tend to grow little by little. And then not having waste coming out of the kitchen as well.
And so, all these are things that you really need to carefully look at.
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.