Independent Restaurant Owner Interview – Richard Taubin at Friends Coastal Restaurant in Madisonville, LA

Here is a transcript of Wil’s conversation with Richard Taubin, owner at Friends Coastal Restaurant in Madisonville, Louisiana. It’s fantastic.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] Good afternoon. It’s Wil with Schedulefly and today I’m talking to Richard Taubin. Richard is the owner of Friends Coastal Restaurant down in Madisonville, Louisiana. This place is awesome. It’s sort of a Key West meets New Orleans fusion. It’s a fun place. They’ve got a really fun crew. A great team. And I’m really excited to talk to Richard today. So Richard, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved in the restaurant business, and tell us about Friends.

[RICHARD TAUBIN:] Yeah sure thing. I appreciate it. Well you know it’s kind of funny. If you were to ask me a month before I actually got into the restaurant business, which was around 2006, I would have called you crazy. I actually had zero restaurant experience. One of my best friends growing up Chris Binnings, he worked in restaurants growing up. So I went off into the IT world and he was helping people build restaurants and so forth and learning concepts. He’s been in New Orleans there for his entire life except for about maybe a two or three or four year stint over in Colorado and Key West. Any rate, when he was in Key West he saw a lot of New Orleans in Key West. He thought it would be a great fusion. He initially wanted to call his concept Hurricane, which you know obviously after a year later into the story, you’ll see why we didn’t do that. He worked for this restaurant called Friends on the Tchefuncta in Madisonville in high school. And after Hurricane Katrina came through and essentially brought it to its knees and the owners were older in life and they more or less wanted to do a lease out on the property and have someone else run the business. And it just so happened Chris had this concept in his head. And when he came back to visit his family from Key West he ran into them and pitched his idea and they said “Let’s do it” because he spent four years of high school at the restaurant. He knows the owners very well and they like him a lot and everything. So here he is. He’s going to be a new restaurant owner after helping other people open restaurants and manage them and cook at them. He’s done everything, managing and so forth. So now he’s going to implement his concepts into what was Friends on the Tchefuncta. We renamed it to Friends Coastal Restaurant. So we kept the Friends name. Obviously calling it “Hurricanes” after opening a place after Katrina was not necessarily the best idea. The name Friends I think is a really great name for the kind of restaurant we are. And it really kind of ties in to the fact that we grew up together as best friends. All of our friends and family helped us kind of put it together and brought it to fruition after a long six month stint after the hurricane of rebuilding the place. So the hurricane was August. We opened up the following May. So we didn’t really get started until January because it was just sitting there for awhile. We didn’t even know about it, it was available.

Anyway, Chris calls me up and says hey man, I’m going to own a restaurant. I said okay. And he said I want you to help me out. Him knowing that I was on the IT side. I’ve had a website company and I’ve been the director of IT for several companies and so forth, so I had a really good foundation that I can help them with. I helped design the logo. The marketing and advertising. The website. Actually built the website myself. Got him kicked off really fast in that regard. Helped design the menu. Not the actual items on the menu but the layout and so forth. And you know the restaurant business is not completely foreign to me. My mother was in two fine dining restaurants when I was growing up for a long time. So I’ve been around restaurants before. It wasn’t completely foreign. Certainly when you own a restaurant there’s a lot more to it than people think. It’s not just about cooking good food. It’s about running a tight ship and about controlling costs because that’s only way you’re going to make money in the restaurant business. So that’s more or less how I got started in the restaurant business. Chris gets to focus on the front of the house and the back of the house staff and it’s been a great partnership. We bought that restaurant. Before we took it over, the sales at that restaurant were probably between 800,000 to maybe 1.5 million at the peak, and they’d had it for ten years. The first year we’re open we’re at 2.1 million. And we’re probably about 2.5 right now. So every year we’ve gotten bigger and bigger and it’s due to a lot of hard work. It’s due to a lot of dedication. We’re just trying new things here and there. We’re trying to shave costs and look into how we can better the restaurant and give people a better experience, good food. Of course the atmosphere is there. This place is definitely a Key West feel to it with a New Orleans flair. It’s worked really really well for our community because it’s kind of like a “vacation destination in your own backyard” – that’s the phrase Chris uses all the time. So that’s kind of how we got started. We’re going on our fourth year this year.

As a matter of fact, we decided to do Friends Fest at the end of this month. Kind of celebrate our four years and do a yearly tradition with two non profit organizations. One is Art in Madisonville and Teachers for Guitars in the Classroom. So we have music and art. We’re going to have bands, we’re going to have art booths and everything. We have four live bands and we have fireworks show at 9:30 at night on a river on a barge which is going to be really cool. So we’ve promoted our restaurant through really cool functions to give back to the community and that’s really helped us out. Certainly we get a lot of support from that and it’s just a cycle of helping other people in the community. So that’s really been our philosophy is to be engaged in the community. Chris and I both have children and we think it’s good to give back and be a real big part of the community as opposed to just sitting idle and trudging along.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] Richard, it’s a really cool story how you guys got going. You started this place – or got it reinvigorated – after a terrible storm, as the community was rebuilding. You’ve been through a very severe economic downturn. But I just wrote down the numbers that you mentioned. You guys have, depending on what years maybe they have done in the past, I mean you somewhere around doubled sales just about. You talked about top line stuff. You’re growing your sales a lot. But you also mentioned a couple of times cost cutting and saving costs so you’re focused very much on your bottom line. So you guys are savvy businessmen. Tell me about that. Tell me about what you do to grow the top lineage to drive more sales. I mean a lot of it I know you mentioned things like Friends Fest and promoting the restaurant through doing cool things like that and cool functions. What else do you do to drive top line growth and what kinds of things do you do to shore up your bottom line?

[RICHARD TAUBIN:] Well you know, we’re all in it for profit. I mean certainly there’s a love of the game. The food, the industry, the hospitality industry…it’s almost like it’s hard to pull away from it. It is a very high and a very low kind of industry where you go through a lot of highs and lows. Usually it’s something new everyday and dealing with people and personalities. We have 80 people during our peak which is during the summer months. We spend eight months out of the year and then we kind of shave it down to about 40 people average in the wintertime. The main thing for us is just it was fun for me getting into this restaurant because it was… from the beginning, it was figuring out exactly what the look and feel is going to be like, and that was me being also a graphic designer and having an eye for art. My stepfather was an artist and his father was an artist, you know really kind of played into us having a really high energy going into this. I was more the support person. But I certainly shared his inspiration for it. One of the things that you quickly learn is that you’ve got to make money. You want to be able to feed the family and you want to send the kids to college. We’re not a chain restaurant. We’re a local restaurant. We have considered possibly taking it to other places. We know we have to fine tune our processes and fine tune our operations to get it to a point where it’s definitely a feasible thing. You can make millions of dollars in sales a year but still make no money if you don’t do it right. The industry standard is typically around 30 percent for both labor and food costs. If you’re at 40 percent labor and food costs, that’s 80 percent of all the money you bring in. You’ve got 20 percent to pay all the rest of the bills and put some money in your pocket. And typically that doesn’t happen if you’re doing those percentages. So one of the things that we’ve really struggled with is a little bit of both, a little bit of food and labor costs. We’re hovering around about between 30 and 45 percent. When the sales are coming in you can get away with it but that’s when you really should be making money. And when it’s really tough during the wintertime when sales are down, you don’t have a choice.

So the biggest thing for us was to really stay consistent with the model that we have and realizing exactly what our costs are through the different times of the season. I mean we look at the weather everyday because we are a fair weather kind of place. And we tell people we’re not just your fair weather friend because we feel like we have great food and great cuisine and certainly the atmosphere. It’s hard when people associate being on the river on this big huge deck when with boats going by and it’s raining outside. So when it’s not nice outside we can just bet it’s going to be quiet. So we’ve gone through a few chefs and so forth who are managing the kitchen with inventory and so forth. We have somebody now named Travis Cabler. He’s been with us for almost running on two years. He’s done such a phenomenal job of tracking sales and tracking food cost. He puts them in all the time. He keeps the vendors on their toes with prices going up and down and so forth. It takes a little bit extra time to do those things but it pays off in the long run. And we’re able to compensate him accordingly with what he’s doing to help us save. We’ve been down to in the really good months around 26 percent food costs which is really good. Really really good. But it’s averaging probably between 20 to 30 percent. So we’re definitely in the ballgame on those.

As far as labor that fluctuates. It’s part of the daily grind of saying you know you keep people around and have bad service because you think it’s going to be slow and if you get a rush you’re going to have to deal with it. Or you keep people around and people pop in. So we have to play that game all the time and it is a daily decision. If you bring in a hostess making eight dollars an hour and they come in an hour early everyday. We don’t open until eleven, they come in at ten and they really don’t need to be there until about ten, 15 minutes before because they have a few small duties to do. I mean you’re talking about eight dollars. We’re open six days a week. So eight times six times 52 weeks. You’re talking about several thousand dollars that is right there in labor that you can save. Otherwise if you just bring in people at certain times and make sure they clock out at other times. There’s a whole management side to this. It’s just not about cooking great food or great recipes out there and great chefs and so forth. But you’ve got to have that management team behind you to make sure that you actually make money doing it. That’s one of the things that’s really tough is just to manage that.

Schedulefly has been an incredible tool for us to use because we can obviously see a list of what our salaries are. We can see a list of the schedule and create a template. During the summer months this is our template. We need one hostess, one mid hostess to kind of blend between the beginning shift and the evening shift and then bartenders and so forth. We’re able to kind of really get a good visual of what our labor is going to be and we start working accordingly. When a storm comes in and it starts raining we start letting people go. Certainly that parlays into our conversation with Schedulefly, I certainly enjoy the simplicity of it and the staff absolutely loves it. And they’re telling other people. A lot of people work at several other restaurants. They’re telling other restaurants, “Hey you’ve got to get this because they can check their schedule any time the want.” So using tools like that really helps us try to streamline our costs. On the food side we’re working closely with our vendors to streamline a certain cost structure so that we don’t have these fluctuations. With the oil spill in the Gulf, we’re working really really close with them right now to figure out plan B from getting seafood at different sources because we are a seafood restaurant. So that’s going to, we have to be concerned about pricing and so forth. We have a fixed menu. It’s not something that we just change arbitrarily. It’s going to be a big decision on us to try to figure out exactly we’re going to modify that and how it’s going to impact us and how it’s going to impact other people. We’re able to bring in more business because I think we have a neater concept. We have a great staff and we have great food and of course the location is the location. I mean everybody comes there for definitely the location. It really parlays into doing poker runs with the speedboats and doing festivals the whole time and things like that. That kind of helps drive our exposure and keeps Friends in the forethought of people when they think about going out to eat.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] You’ve got to be creative, you’ve got to be engaged in the community. You obviously have to have good food. That’s a non starter if you don’t. But the staff is something I always wonder about, Richard. How do you find and retain good staff? How do you get them as excited about Friends Coastal as you and your partner are?

[RICHARD TAUBIN:] Well one of the things…it’s kind of an easy sell because the place does high volume. They’re going to make a lot of money during the summer. So we can more or less hire who we like to because we have a really neat restaurant that does high volume. I mean it’s a really cool place to work because you have such a beautiful view. Obviously you have to deal with managing a lot of people at your table and so forth and a lot of issues. One of the things that Chris and I both…as kids we were really good friends. We kind of separated for a while. I was in Texas, he was in Louisiana. Then he went to Key West for a while. We kept in touch but, you know, people grow up, they have different personalities and so forth. They have different philosophies about treating people at work and so forth. When Chris and I really touched base again on this whole project. I asked a lot of questions about how he managed people and how he felt about that and how he was treated growing up in the restaurant business.

One of the philosophies that we both have kind of taken hold of is that the employees come first, even before the customers, because if your employees are taken care of, if they’re compensated correctly, if they’re given the right tools and they’re treated professionally, that shines on the customers. So those customers are going to be taken care of. We have an open door policy. I’m not going to sit here and say there aren’t temper flares and here and there and stuff like that. For the most part we really keep it professional. We try and treat everybody with respect. You don’t necessarily get the best of people if you don’t give them the opportunities to excel. And so we try and implement a lot of training and we try to implement a lot of fair play with shifts and schedules and so forth and have an open door policy. If there’s issues you can talk directly to the owners and the managers and we’ll have to process to help you all out. And we’re very family oriented. I mean I’ll give you an example. During Gustav and Ike, which are another two storms that really put us under the weather, we paid our employees. Here we are a restaurant going to be closed for several months and all our employees have to work so they’re going to look for other jobs. So what we did is we actually paid them to stay around and help clean up and get the restaurant back on its feet. We retained our employees that way and they really loved us for that because they really didn’t have any other place to go. We certainly know a lot of them didn’t. So they were part of rebuilding a place which instills a lot of pride and so forth of, “Hey we all brought this back together.” So we are family oriented kind of people. We have helped out people that needed their paycheck right away. When their other check came in we voided it or whatever. We take care of them if we had to. And doing those kinds of things builds trust. It builds camaraderie. It builds retention. And we have some employees that started with us four years ago. I mean it’s a very transient industry. You have a lot of people in school, high school, college, so forth. Then you have some career people and that’s what they do. We’ve had some people who go thorough their entire college career at Friends. Here we are going on four years and we still have a few of those employees. I think that speaks well for us and it speaks well for how we run our operations. We’re not perfect by any means but we definitely strive to do the right thing and to make it a place to want to work. And then of course you get extra effort out of people when you treat them right. Theft is a big thing in the hospitality industry and we have to keep an eye on those kinds of things. I think you start to see less of it when you try to get a feeling that the owners are there to be with you and go through this thing together. If you go through tough times we give you more shifts or try to help you out other ways. That’s kind of our philosophy. It’s not a perfect science but it definitely works for us.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] Well you guys are doing a lot of things right, Richard. I congratulate you on your success. You have just given some really awesome perspective and great philosophies and just really wonderful insight to anybody that is interested in what restaurant owners are thinking and, more importantly, tp people that are wanting to start restaurants. I thought this was awesome. I really appreciate it. I appreciate your time. I know you’re a busy guy. So thank you. Thank you very much. This is really cool and I look forward to putting this into our series. It’s a really good one.

[RICHARD TAUBIN:] You’re quite welcome. I have to say when you asked me to do this for what you do for us and for me what kind of business you’re running there, it was a no brainer for me to help you out with doing this and certainly share our knowledge with what we have. It’s no problem at all to take some time to do that. So we definitely appreciate you and what you provide for us.

[WIL BRAWLEY:] Awesome man. Well thank you. I’ll let you get back to it. I appreciate it and I’m sure we’ll talk again soon.