Book Update – Phil Roberts of Parasole Restaurant Holdings

Phil Roberts co-founded Parasole in 1997, and he’s launched one successful concept after another, including nationally known Buca di Beppo and The Oceanaire Seafood Room. Phil is bold, innovative, and knows what people want before they do. This was one heck of an interview, so enjoy some advice from a man who has proven himself time and time again.

I also left a few controversial things that Phil said out of this post. You’ll have to pick up the book to read them. And trust me, you’ll want to…

A restaurant is like a Broadway play. You know it’s kind of like staging a Broadway play. In fact it’s very much like that. The script is the menu. You’ve got the set design. You’ve got the music. You’ve got the lines. And it all has to deliver as a whole, and not as a bunch of parts. You can’t get a couple of parts right and have it succeed. It’s got to succeed as a whole.

Focus, focus, focus. You focus on where you want to be in that fine dining spectrum. You’ve got everything from a QSR at the bottom to Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athenee in Paris. And somewhere along that line you’re going to pin the tail on the donkey. And you’ve got to decide just what level you want to be at. You want to avoid being too fancy in certain locations. You want to be the place where folks can come to fuel up, or have it be the main event. You want to focus on limiting your menu so you’re not trying to do a hundred things like The Cheesecake Factory, or something like that. You want to be able to take it to a dozen things and do them really well. Consistently. Time after time after time.

Edgy marketing gets free PR. Just make sure it fits the concept. Because in some of our places, we do some very edgy marketing. To the point where it really pisses people off. Which is a good thing because they aren’t our customer anyway, but we get a lot of press out of it. Billboards is our main method of communicating for Chino Latino. I ran a billboard that said, “Wok the dog,” and of course the Birkenstock crowd went crazy. And we got on TV. And with that we probably got 50…60…$100,000 of publicity on the six o’clock and nine o’clock news, and it had about a three day cycle, with people standing in front of the billboard, protesting. So we agreed to take it down at the end of the month. And I put another one up that said, “Mommy, Mr. Whiskers didn’t come home last night.” And of course they marched on us again. But again, it wasn’t our customer. But we were getting the publicity. Our sales went up like a hockey stick! And the young people loved it. The young, hipper people, that we wanted to attract just loved it. So my point is that that fits Chino Latino. It doesn’t fit Manny’s. It doesn’t fit The Good Earth. It doesn’t fit Pittsburgh Blue. I doesn’t fit Salut. It doesn’t fit Muffaletta. But it does fit Chino Latino. So the marketing has to be tailored, and has to be in lockstep with what the concept is. However you express yourself on the outside has got to describe the promise of what you’re going to get on the inside.

Partnerships. Find a ying to your yang. You can’t do a bad partnership with good people. And you can’t do a good partnership with bad people. I was fortunate to have Pete Mihajlov, who I went to college with, and we were buddies. And Pete’s set of muscles were totally different than mine. Pete is an MBA. He’s a business man. He understands debits and credits, and I don’t. So I brought the creative side to it, and he brought the business side to it. And to be a successful restaurant operation, you better have a cookbook in one hand, and a P&L in the other. So we complement each other in that fashion.

Want to own a restaurant? You better think about what you’re getting into. Oh, I think it initially looks glamorous, for sure. And I think the logic sometimes doesn’t go any deeper than, “Gee, I sure do like to eat out, it would be fun to own a restaurant.” And I think people get into it that way. And they don’t realize that some nights you are going to have to mop the dish room floor at three in the morning because the dishwasher quit, or didn’t come in. And also you are working when everybody else is playing. And I don’t think people think it through. They don’t think it through in that fashion.

And it’s also a very, very capital intensive proposition. Not just the bricks and mortar, but the equipment. If you’re going to open a 6,000 square foot restaurant, you better figure about $300 per square foot, all in. So you’re going to spend a couple of million bucks. And you’re going to have to borrow that, or find angels, or find some way to finance it. And it’s risky. It’s just risky. And you might just miss. You could miss on several levels. You could miss on location. You could miss on the concept. You could miss on the quality of the food. You could miss on the service. You could just miss on so many levels. You’ve got to bring the right food in the back of the door, and at the right price, and have the right person cooking it, and on the right kind of equipment, and then you better have it delivered efficiently, and the servers better know their stuff, and the dining room better fit the concept, and the table top better fit the concept, and the price better be right. There’s so many steps along the way where people could trip up. Any one of those would be bad!

Agree with Phil? Or disagree? Feel free to comment on this post…