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01 February, 2023

Using Technology & Systems to Stay Ahead


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Want to skip through to the good parts? Find everything in the conversation below:

A Long History

Biggest Lesson

Mixing Technology & Tradition

Transitioning to Working on Your Business

Businesses Don't Go Out of Business


A Long History

Kegel’s Inn has a very long history, almost a hundred years. Why don't you start off by telling us a little bit more about it?

Well, I think the inception of the restaurant started with rebellious roots.We opened up as a speakeasy in prohibition in 1924. So my great grandpapa, I'm fourth generation, so my great grandpapa opened up this bar when it was illegal to serve food and, and beer and whiskey made in the basement. And it was to fanfare, it was super popular. And honestly, it's continued its legacy for 99 years. We have our centennial in 2024, so we're really excited to get going for that.


You took over Kegels in about 10 years ago. Was it intimidating to take it over after that long of like 89 years of history and taking the torch and continuing the legacy?

Yeah, well, it's complicated, right? With three prior generations of ownership, these were my dad's cousins that I was taking over for, and I felt like there was something suspicious about them not having kids. You know, like, why don't you guys have kids? This would be a great business for them to take over.

I grew up in a family business of my dad owned bicycle. So for us it was sort of a natural fit to like think about taking over the family business and, you know, our, our dad mentored us and showed us the ropes ever since we were young. And I was like Rob and Jim, the third generation, they didn't have kids, but importantly they were the kids of their father who ran the restaurant.

And John Junior the second generation, he was a great owner. I mean, he owned it for 35 years and he passed the duty along to his boys. You know, it's your responsibility now, it's your torch to pass. And because they had grown up in the business you know, I think they were a little bit resentful for it for that duty.

I think they had other plans with their life, but they were forced back into the restaurant business because there was literally no one else to do it. Now, if we fast forward after Rob and Jim's 37 years of ownership, we've come into the two thousands and they're like getting close to retirement. So they want to present it to somebody in the family.

Well, they didn't have kids, so now they got to start searching for cousins and nephews and somebody related to the Kegel in that could potentially feed it right and feed it energy and keep it. Because it's, you know, it's a hundred-person dining room. We do a very popular fish fry. It's got this sort of longstanding institutionalism in Milwaukee.

And I, we had a few cousins sort of briefly interested but they wanted to change it. They wanted to turn it into a nightclub, or they wanted to turn it into a coffee shop. And that would be a travesty because inside the walls of Keels Inn is this beautiful. Original to 1924, we have stained glass windows that helped onlookers, like get blocked from looking in, right?

This is during prohibition. We have wood floors that are original bars, original, and it would just be such a, it would be a sad day when the walls of Kes in came crumbling down. So to get back to the point, we me and my wife met up in Alaska. We were both adventure. For a number of years and we were looking for a more communitarian project.

Guiding is very insulated in terms of you meet 10 people every day. You show 'em the time of their lives and then you never get to see them anymore. And my degree is in community development and we wanted to just perpetuate community around us. Guiding just wasn't going to be the long-term plan. So we had heard through the grapevine.

That Rob and Jim were looking for Kegels to take over the restaurant. So we picked up our car. We were living in my car at the time. We drove all the way to, the Grand Canyon. We did a month of rafting on the canyon. That's where we got engaged. And then we had no plan after that. So we said, let's go back to Milwaukee and see what this restaurant's all about.

And fast forward 10 years, we're still in love with it, the, since the first day we got there really. It needed a bunch of work and tons of effort and a bunch of reinvestments because the previous owners were not restaurateurs. They did not keep up with the equipment of the times, but they ran it just like their dad did.

So we were lucky to be able to have a standout role in bringing new ideas, bringing fresh concepts, and really sort of staying relevant with the social media and the technology that I had been brought up with my dad's business. So that's kind of it in a nutshell.


Biggest Lessons

10 years of doing this, what are the biggest lesson that you've learned so far?

What has been the biggest lessons that you've learned in the past 10 years? There's two that are pulling up that pop up right away and one is, that when the times get hard you really have to have a great product in order to keep selling it. So all of the bookwork that needs to be done, all of the vendors that need to get paid, even if you don't like the business, you still have to do it until eventually the curve sort of goes up and you really enjoy it again.

But with a boom bus business like the restaurant, you're in front of the people every day. You don't, you can't turn on this energy every single moment of every, every day and be what customers need you to be. So sometimes you just have to go back to, you know, restore mode and get yourself back so that you can be a great example for the business and offer the great products again.

So in the business it is great and it's bad, but you got to continue doing the hard work necessary to keep the business open. But that's one. The second one is how fragile restaurants really are, and the pandemic really showed that. And I think for the previous 20 years, the restaurant had been sort of on smooth sailing just like the rest of the economy.

So yes, the recession in oh eight. Altered you know, expectations of the restaurant. We still trudged it out and still got through it, but the pandemic was different. Not being able to open your doors is an incredibly challenging component of running a face-to-face business that requires close contact with people in yeah, especially with a product that is fine dining.

It doesn't exactly go well in a box out the door. So we had a, we had a few challenges and I think that ultimately, like we are now stronger because of this adversity, and that would be the best lesson I have, is that because we challenged every rule in our business, now we get to say, is this actually good for our business or were we doing this?

Because one customer who was a really great costume, they wanted it this way, but then we were losing our butts on it. So we, we had to eliminate all of that and just sort of go back to blocking and tackling the basics of the business. What's good for Kegel’s Inn, 100-year continuous future. So it gave us the power back from, from, you know, from consumers. I think hopefully other restaurant tours learn to be more bulletproof towards what's good for them.


Did you have any experience in the restaurants prior to coming in, taking over Kegel’s Inn?

I did. I had a crazy plan with a buddy of mine. I was living in Portland, Oregon at the time for five years. We started a vegan gourmet soup company that was headquarters at what's called Mississippi Food Cart Pod. So it was like an empty parking lot full of food trucks.

And we were the standalone vendor that was selling soup to go in various quantities and various varieties. So it was a wonderful lesson in, when you're an owner, you're really just a dishwasher, cuz that is the pillar of all restaurants. And if you don't have great staff making sure that your dishes come out cleaned, you end up doing it.


What were the ideas, or what were you learning, that you were bringing from your experience at the Vegan Soup Company to the Kegel’s Inn that you are now taking over?

Working on the business instead of working in the business. The previous generation was steadfast in being there all the time, so everybody who walked in the door greeted a Kegel, and that was how it was gonna be. So I knew that we needed to grow the business. We needed to work on the business, and so we basically found great staff and empowered them with great tools, good systems, good technology in order to make the decisions on their own so that I didn't have to be there 24/7 making backup calls for them. That's, you know, I think that's the. Problem we're in right now is good. People are super hard to find. And luckily we put in all that work immediately.

So we knew that we would not want to be just operators. We wanted to be owners. We wanted to grow the business. And that's a huge, huge part. It's a huge part of it. The second is, I think as a guide, you are very confident in yourself, your ability to survive, let's just say in adverse conditions outside.

The whole point of a guide is to usher people who don't have as much experience and provide them tools and use your expertise in order to give them the tricks and the trades in order to sort of succeed. And that is, This, it's a follow up to that same answer, but ultimately, us knowing that we were competent in just the operations of being a bartender or being a front of house, being a host, you know, we ran through the gamut of every position in the restaurant so that we could be super competent in knowing exactly how it was gonna go.

Most restaurants do not have the luxury of being around for a hundred years, and they don't have the systems, or they're still working on the systems. You know, there's using somebody else's systems management companies or whatever, but Kegels systems are Kegels systems because we've been in the same place, we've been in the same kitchen, we've been in the same staffing, in the same rooms as everybody for decades.

So we know exactly where, you know, the butter brush goes, and if it's not there, the whole system fails because we require, you know, this efficiency and this excellence in order to provide the same exact traditional. That my great grandma created in that kitchen. So, that's, that's very interesting.


Mixing Technology and Tradition

How do you start introducing technology, especially with the fine dining like you are, where you are mixing the new age, the technology with the in-person, face-to-face interactions? How do you do that in a way that is complimentary and not disruptive?

Well, can we all agree that QR codes are great to a point, but if they're presented as like, first point of contact for a restaurant, then the conviviality of your guests is broken by instantly staring at a screen. They don't stare at people across the table.

They don't start a conversation of how you're doing. So we actually, we have some rules with technology and we wanted to implement them with care because ultimately it has to provide a better experience for the guests. So I, I might be just old school, but I go to a restaurant, I want to see a menu, I want to need a waiter.

I want to have service because I can do a lot of the things myself, but I'm gonna turn that part up on my brain off while I'm out in this experience. And I want the restaurant system to take over. For me that's not every customer. Of course, I can feel like we're privileged in that, but… well.. This is just so crazy because we used to, of course, before computers, we used a cash register and it was a big clunky 1957 national cash register company.

Basically adding machine. And every bill that went into the machine had to get punched and rung and cash put in, and, and then credit cards came in way before my time in the eighties and nineties. But you know, that process. Disrupted the checkout process because you had to then create a new procedure for how checkout process was done with credit cards.

Well, fast forward to 2019. The year before the pandemic, we decided to go for it and rip off the bandaid and. Stop our analog system. We decided to go with toast. Sorry. But we we love that integration with our customers, with our online systems, our, our drive. Mm-hmm. , we have for our fish rise. And honestly, it's it's part of the reason we survived the pandemic.

And I'll piece this together because, so the summer of 2019, we go with a handheld system for toast because we opened. A very large street in front of our building for a beer garden. We worked with the city to close the road down so that we could have more outdoor space, and that was a wonderful contribution to the bottom line of the business because typically German restaurants are dark, dingy, you know, wood laden heavy food.

We want it to be bright, airy, and. So when we opened up to the outside, we needed to still provide a great service model. So we ran full service outside and yeah, you know, the first year it was handwritten tickets and then they'd go to the kitchen and hand write it again. And CR with chicken scratch between five different servers, the kitchen had to decipher what codes were what.

And it was a mess, we standardized with, with handhelds. And then we realized our wifi sucked. And so we'd need to upgrade the whole it for the building. And then, luckily we had sort of been thinking about consolidating all of our vendors our food purveyors. So we found US Foods as a great partner.

They had a substitute for almost everything that we had been ordering from 16 different vendors. We turned, you know, six hours of my life into one app transaction on a Saturday night that my chef could. So it saved me a ton of time, but that integration with toast in in the summer gave us about four months of data in order for US Foods to come through, to sync all the process and ordering systems so that by February we were ready to put in a new kitchen based on the data that we had gotten for what are our top products.

Why do we have this huge Vulcan broiler when we only use it for three things? Our number one product is a 200-product night, and we only hit, it's our schnitzel and it's all pan fried. So we needed 16 burners on the line. We had five. So like, let's transition all of these data points into real time equipment and then super haul the engine or the kitchen, or this beer garden to make it easy on us. And then, we decided, all right, let's do this for 10 days, we're gonna gut all of our equipment. We're gonna get everything out. We're gonna bring in all this new stuff. We're gonna stainless steel the whole kitchen. 10 days later, everything wraps up without a hitch, no delays.

We're open for business on Ash Wednesday, which is like the start to lent and the enormous influx of fish fries that. Being like a very Catholic immigrant state. So we're ready for land, we're ready to make some money, and then 18 days later we got shut down for Covid. Of course, of course. The story of March, 2020, like very, very familiar for any restaurant or that, that had a business there.

So, so ultimately, TE technology has been critical because as soon as the pandemic shut us down, We were still able to run all the technology in the handhelds outside. And then we were also able to use this brand-new kitchen to supercharge our drive through business which we've not looked back at yet.

So we, we still operate that every week. We still send out hundreds of fish rise just through the opening in our, in our building. That's very interesting. Two questions that I, I wanna ask again. I'm gonna ask you one by one. Now the pandemic goes over like, well, almost over. And like a lot of people are, a lot of things are going back to normal.

Which part of the changes that you made during the pandemic are you keeping, like the drive-through that you mentioned all of them and which parts of the changes that you make? So you're keeping everything, everything. Because, so the QR codes strange. I have QR codes for my feedback my customer feedback survey.

So I, I can't say that I don't use 'em. I do use them. I think that like, let's just imagine there's the bottom level risk where I go out and I don't worry about what other people are wearing, whether they're masking, whether they're too close. Like if I'm presenting myself with zero risk out into the world, I want a product offered to me for that risk level in the middle.

You know, I'm still cautious. I'm not going out as much, but there's places I trust that do it. Let's find a product, you know, that's gonna serve that customer base well. And then there's also the high-risk person who's still very afraid to go out. They're still crowd conscious, but they still wanna support local businesses, and they're sick of buy 'em gift cards, so let's, let's still provide a product for them.

And that's what the drive through in the online ordering still presents. So I think that for this foreseeable future, I just don't. Those high-risk levels going down anytime soon. So let's keep it all up because it's easy, you know, we might as well. Absolutely. And then the other question that I have, it's like going back to, to what you mentioned about working on the business versus working in the business.


Transitioning to Working on Your Business

How was that process of getting out of working in your business as, as much as possible, to transitioning on working on your business?

I wish I could say that I wasn't also in it because I was very much I think about six years of working every day. Yeah, but ultimately it starts with goals and it starts with intention of what you wanna see out of your life. But also, like nobody's gonna do it for you unless you compensate them. So, you know, I think creating a baby is very hard to pass off to somebody else. I know with two small kids, it's really hard to give them to a stranger, but it's really easy to give it to somebody that you love.

So if you can take that analogy and give your business. Into, you can, you can put it in the hands of somebody that you trust that's gonna do a great job. Yes, they'll make mistakes, but they have to learn from making mistakes. And that's how we not we all learn, but that's how I learned. I think that's a very effective model for change by, you know, you get caught doing something, you don't want to do that again.

So let's learn from why we got into, into the situation in the first place. What are all these red flags? In order to get myself caught. You know, let's try and analyze so that our first yellow flag, where, you know, I find myself just like, you know, heading into work again. Well, let's analyze.

Do I actually need to do, does the team that's on hand, can they actually handle it? Or do I need to push my, you know, overarching you know, superiority on everybody else and just bowl everybody over and get it done so that I can, you know, pat myself on the back. I just don't think that's a good model.

I think that's it's required in certain, certain scenarios, there's no doubt. But having the discretion to yeah, give the team what they need that's, that's a huge part of it. And then also like there's, there's. There's a million things to do, right? Like I would just consider myself a workaholic, honestly.

And so, so I don't, I, I'm a terrible employee. I don't take a break from work unless I'm purposeful in it. So like, I kind of just go at work really aggressively and I'm very involved and I want to tackle some things, and then all of a sudden, like, I'll be done and I'm be twitting on my thumbs. Like, oh my gosh, I should go for a walk. And sometimes that's like months I think, you know, or you know, hopefully I can do it more regularly. And that's just the self care that's impossible at the moment. We have two small kids, they're five and three, and they take a ton of ton of time and work. There’s no good answer, to be perfectly honest. You just, you gotta work.


Kegel’s Inn is coming to a hundred years next year. You've been running the business for 10 years. What keeps you up at night about the business?

Nothing, honestly. Oh, you're in a good place then. Yeah, I mean, not to say that I don't check my first thing in the morning to see if you know someone that's on site had a problem overnight or found a pipe leaking, which has happened, you know?

But they are much rarer these days especially since we turned our apartments above the restaurants, into Airbnbs. Our guests just treat the building lightly. They respect it, they leave it better. I, I require, You know, day-to-day maintenance on the buildings, which is fabulous. So I can't say that I don't, you know, I guess what I do, what I do, lose, lose sleepover if I can't get to bed.

Cuz I gotta work out something for some, for a staff member and I might as well just do it. I might as well get out of bed and just jot down, you know, a hundred things. Around the top of my head. And then your brain's exhausted. It's done. It's kind of like a brain dump and then you can go to bed because you'll know in the morning.

Yeah. What you wrote down is still there versus like, just trying to be like, ah, I'll think about it in this morning. I'll think about it in the morning and I'll think about it in the morning. And then you wake up and you're like, what was I thinking about last night? Like, like, just get it on paper.

Just get out, write it down so that you can, you can just go to bed. . .


Businesses Don't Go Out of Business

If you were to give it give advice to somebody that wants to open a restaurant, what would that advice be?

It's interesting because we just, we have a neighbor that's a restaurant they built out. They opened, and they had a strong initial push. They had what seemed like a great team, and I think what ultimately led to their demise was the owner was not able to work on the business. They were not able to step away, take pictures, market themselves, go to the networking events, build more clients, invite more people, you know, find new customer. He was so involved in the day-to-day business that part was actually the failure. And even though he had great success for five years, I think it just wore him out ultimately. And one of my dad's sort of all time, my favorite sayings of my dad was that “Businesses don't go out of business. The owners give up.”


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Written By: 

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.

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