Young & Hungry

May 3, 2013
BY David Snyder
Restaurateurs find solid management, innovation provide recipe for success
Ari Brownstein, 28, owner of  Fazzini’s Italian Kitchen, mans the front counter. Brownstein was only 25 when he bought the  Cockeysville restaurant.

Ari Brownstein, 28, owner of Fazzini’s Italian Kitchen, mans the front counter. Brownstein was only 25 when he bought the Cockeysville restaurant.

Fazzini’s Italian Kitchen in Cockeysville opens at 11:30 a.m.

Ari Brownstein is there at 9.

Entering through the back door, he hauls in a recently dropped-off produce order. The phone rings. It’s an employee in need of a shift change.

“Don’t worry about it,” Brownstein says. “I can work for you Wednesday night.”

In walks a delivery man carrying the restaurant’s freshly cleaned front-door rugs. Brownstein watches int-ently as he lays them out in the doorway. He looks up, and there’s someone from the laundry service. He quickly signs for the day’s linens. At this point, one of Brownstein’s counter employees has arrived. He brings over a bin of lettuce from the salad station.

“Should I use this?” he asks.

After a prompt glimpse at the lettuce, Brownstein shakes his head, “No, you can throw it away. Thank you.”

It’s now 9:08. Brownstein takes a breath.

Only 28 years old, Brownstein was prepared for the grind of the restaurant business when he bought Fazzini’s in January 2010. He had worked in various roles at nearly 20 restaurants, including his father’s Towson Deli.

Brownstein, a Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School graduate, was willing to endure the 13- and 14-hour days; he understood the importance of permanently appending his cell phone to his hip during scarce days off; and he abided by his girlfriend’s mandate that once he gets home from work, he must shower and change before parking himself on any furniture. All that was second nature.

It’s the elements of operating a restaurant that he didn’t know about that have provided the biggest challenges: weeding out employees in order to put together an optimal staff; creating an environment and an appeal aimed at building a customer base; and grasping that social-media marketing isn’t just posting the night’s specials on Facebook.

Brownstein isn’t alone.

In last few years, there have been a handful of entrepreneurs in Baltimore in their 20s who, amid a challenging economy, have dived headfirst into the sometimes murky waters of the restaurant business. It’s a daunting task, and they have a lot to learn. But youth — usually — is on their side.

ADD A Cup Of Chutzpah
Ask anyone in the business and they’ll tell you owning an eatery is the ultimate juggling act. Often, it can feel like you’re the entire circus rolled into one person. You’re a ringleader, an acrobat, a lion tamer. And, the last thing you want to do is lose control and end up looking like a clown.

Elan Kotz, co-owner of The Food Market in Hampden, says the restaurant is his baby.

Elan Kotz, co-owner of The Food Market in Hampden, says the restaurant is his baby. (David Stuck)

Recently, on a jam-packed Saturday night at The Food Market in Hampden, Elan Kotz was a plumber.

Kotz, the restaurant’s 27-year-old co-owner, was told by kitchen staff that the drain under an ice machine had completely backed up. A short time later, he was with other members of the staff, manning an industrial-sized plumbing snake in an attempt to unclog the drain.

“It’s inevitable. There are so many moving parts in a restaurant. No day is routine,” said Kotz, who opened The Food Market with co-owner and executive chef Chad Gauss in June 2012.  “I was told at a very young age, and I’ve always believed, stress only comes from not having a solution to a problem. If a problem comes up and you feel stress from it, solve it and get rid of the stress. Then you can put it behind you and move on to the next one.”

When he’s not doubling as a Roto-Rooter guy, Kotz — a northern Virginia native who graduated from Towson University — usually arrives at 10 a.m. on weekdays (seven hours before the restaurant opens) and entrenches himself in his office to begin work on payroll and invoices among other things. He’ll then examine the restaurant, carefully inspecting for cleanliness and making sure nothing is broken or chipped. Every detail counts. By evening, he’s stationed on the dining-room floor as a manager, relishing the opportunity to personally interact with his customers.

“It’s satisfying, but it’s grueling. Our business is both mental and physical,” Kotz said. “You work all day in the office and hit hurdles there. Then you hit the floor, and it’s physical — you’re on your feet the rest of the night.

“It’s time consuming. There are a lot of hours that go into it. I told myself that for my first few years, this is my life, this is my focus. It’s our baby, so I truly enjoy being here. When I’m not here, sometimes I wish I was.”

Dougie’s owner Tzvi Landau (right) works with employees on a recent dinner shift. Landau, who has a young child, says despite the vigors of the restaurant industry, he strives to achieve a work-life balance.

Dougie’s owner Tzvi Landau (right) works with employees on a recent dinner shift. Landau, who has a young child, says despite the vigors of the restaurant industry, he strives to achieve a work-life balance. (David Stuck)

One could say that Dougie’s BBQ in Pikesville is Tzvi Landau’s baby, too. Only the 21-year-old owner also has an actual 3-month-old baby girl at home. So, while he spends around 12 hours a day at the restaurant five days a week, there are boundaries that he adheres to in order to make sure he spends an ample amount of time with both his wife and child.

On his rare time off, Landau said his cell phone buzzes 10 to 12 times a day when different issues arise at the restaurant. Landau opened Dougie’s in January 2012 after spending more than a decade working in different roles in his late father’s Dougie’s franchise in Brooklyn, N.Y. The business boomed quickly. Recently, he and his wife instituted a mandatory date night once every two weeks.
“[My employees] know not to call me then,” he said. “It’s important for the marriage. I’m not married
to my business. I’m married to my wife.”

Landau’s family situation may be the rarity.

Keith Scott, president and CEO of the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, said that in most cases, starting ventures such as a restaurant are ideal for younger entrepreneurs because they are more likely to be less risk averse — they may not have children, a mortgage or car payments that limit them financially. Brownstein, for example, lived off his savings for two months to invest in capital improvements at Fazzini’s.

“I really think that when one is starting a business and doesn’t have those expense restrictions, they have more flexibility and freedom because if it does succeed, great. If it fails, they can move on to the next thing,” Scott said. “I give a lot of credence and credit to people who are younger and who are saying, ‘I want to try my own thing, I want to develop my own business,’ and that they have the chutzpah to make that happen.”

Mix In Good Management
While Landau has managed to strike a balance between his work life and home life, he turns much of his attention to Dougie’s staff. Managing employees is often one of the most complicated elements of running a restaurant for any owner — much less one in his 20s.

Several of Landau’s kitchen staff are transplants from the New York Dougie’s who relocated to Baltimore with Landau. That group, most of whom are older than he, rarely causes any issues when it comes to respecting Landau’s authority.

Some of the younger employees, particularly the wait and counter staff, are another story.

Because of the similarity in age and Landau’s overall attitude as a friendly, accommodating owner, he said he’s learned when to be patient, but also when to put his foot down and threaten to take shifts away — as a last resort — if instructions aren’t followed.

“You just tell them, ‘This is what you have to do, and if you don’t like it, you can go home.’ They’ll always end up doing [what you ask],” Landau said. “The older staff listens better than the younger staff. They have more life experience. It’s not all about fun and games; they need a job that pays compared to a younger kid who lives at home with his mom.”

Scott believes the owner’s ability (or inability) to get his or her staff on board is crucial in the success (or failure) of a restaurant.

“If you’re the owner, you’ve got to show you’re the authority figure right away,” he said. “Otherwise [employees] are going to feel they can run over you, and these people can make or break that dining experience because they can do things that cause people to not want to eat there. If their negativity is going to be seen by the customers who visit the restaurant, that vibe can become cancerous throughout the store.”

Scott’s warning was a reality early in the game for Brownstein.

Taking over an existing business, he absorbed a handful of employees who were dead set in their routines. Some responded with hostility when Brownstein laid out revamped procedures in different areas of the restaurant, particularly ones that focused on heightened standards of cleanliness and service.

“I think that because I was young, some of my radical ideas or changes were thought of as arrogant, but they were just lessons that I’ve learned from all the other places I’ve worked,” Brownstein said. “You have to give orders that people sometimes don’t want to follow because they are not fun tasks, like taking everything off a shelf and wiping it down and doing that for all the shelves. It’s the owners who have no backbone … who are not going to do well.”

It’s clear Brownstein was never lacking on fortitude. For various reasons, Brownstein said he sifted through 40 employees in a little more than three years at Fazzini’s before solidifying the group of about 15 he now employs.

Brownstein admits that at times in the beginning he may have been too firm in an effort to establish his authority. Now, when instructing an employee, he is mindful to also include an explanation of why he needs something done. When a task is carried out incorrectly, he chooses his words carefully, making sure to sprinkle in praise before ultimately pointing out that more thorough work needs to be done. And, while it may sound cliché, he’s realized the true value of saying “please” and “thank you” on either end of a command.

“Ultimately, it’s just treating people with respect,” Brownstein said. “Once you do that, they sort of have no choice but to give it back to you.”

With a growing confidence in his staff, he added that it has become easier to take a night off here and there, and, at the same time, have the peace of mind that in his absence someone is there to steer the ship.

“Everybody is capable of doing the job right without me,” Brownstein said. “Are there little tiny things that may happen better when I’m here? Absolutely. But, is the overwhelming majority of things that need to be done taken care of when I’m not here? Yes. And that’s taken a long time to get to.”

Stir In Social Media
Once the internal operations are running smoothly, one has to look beyond the establishment’s four walls. For 20-somethings, that often means the Net — marketing through social media.

Kotz got some pretty strong verification that using social media the right way can have an enormously positive impact on business.

Last March, Kotz, who worked in online advertising before opening up the The Food Market, posted an image on the restaurant’s Facebook page offering 50 percent off customers’ bills the first Monday in March, as well as 50 percent off every Friday brunch that month if the post garnered more than 500 likes. In less than half a day the post surged past 700 likes.

Overseeing the restaurant’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, Kotz believes online users are more likely to respond to pictures than words. So, he’ll often post photos of new dishes, as well as news items pertaining to the restaurant. He’s also seen customers taking pictures in the restaurant, posting them to Instagram or checking in at the restaurant on Facebook.

“You want to keep top-of-mind awareness. People spend a lot of time on Facebook. … The average amount of time people spend on Facebook is incredible,” Kotz said. “It’s just trying to get people interacting. … It’s really awesome because we’ve been open 10 months, and we have 2,500 followers on Facebook. It’s free, and I think it’s one of the best forms of advertising.”

While Kotz said you don’t have to be young to embrace the concept of social media, he said it certainly doesn’t hurt. It also helped his ability to design a sleek website that is updated with new menu items every week.

“I think anyone who wants to learn how to do something can do it, but being that I spent so much time using the Internet and using computers in [grade] school, in college and in my first career, I think that made it easier for me to understand,” he said.

When Brownstein started Fazzini’s Facebook page, he assumed maintaining a social media presence meant simply posting weekly specials online. He soon learned he was quite wrong, and he took the necessary steps to improve his social media footprint.

“When I got into this, I didn’t know nearly how much marketing and advertising I would have to go through,” he said. “I thought that as long as I ran a good restaurant, had good food, good service, a clean atmosphere and a friendly staff that people would just come, but that’s not the case. We’ve had to be creative with advertising. That was the biggest surprise.”

Rather than try to undertake that process on his own, Brownstein contacted Main Street Hub, a national company that manages local businesses’ social media, to do it for him.

Landau said he posts on the Dougie’s Facebook page only a few times a month. Sometimes it’s to
inform readers of free delivery when it’s raining or snowing. He also will highlight new menu items. But he’s also seen, and acknowledged, the impact Facebook can have.

For the restaurant’s one-year anni-versary last January, he made one Facebook post publicizing an upcoming celebratory buffet. More than 700 people showed up that night.

Landau is a big proponent of online ordering, a service offered by few kosher restaurants in Pikesville. It helps reduce the likelihood of the classic, yet painstaking scenario of a customer calling in to place a carryout order and then, after making the call, shouting throughout the house to see what everyone wants to eat.

“We do get a lot of online orders,” Landau said. “If you can type it in yourself and look and click and play around with it on your own time, it makes life easier.”

Fazzini’s offers online ordering as well.

The Food Market, which has less of a carryout element than the other two, does not offer online ordering. It does, however, utilize OpenTable, an online service that allows customers to make a reservation from their computer or smartphone without having to talk to a hostess.

And all three owners say they are open to examining new technologies and platforms. Being 20-something, they’re a little more flexible and eager … and they are all hungry for more.

Landau, Brownstein and Kotz said they each want to continue to grow their business — and are ready to make the sacrifices necessary to do so; they embrace the grind.

“Before, I was a 20-year-old kid. Now I’m a restaurant owner,” Landau said. “It just changes your whole life. Life isn’t about jokes and games. It’s about a future, it’s about tomorrow. You don’t live in the moment anymore.”

HUBBUB

Some restaurant owners don’t know the first thing about presiding over their business’ online/social media footprint. Others simply don’t have the time to do it. Either way, Main Street Hub hails itself as the “do-it-for-you” company that can swoop in and take that responsibility off your hands.

Headquartered in Austin, Texas, Main Street Hub manages the social media pages and monitors online review sites for roughly 2,000 businesses — a good portion of which are restaurants — nationwide.

“The phrase ‘do-it-for-you’ is really important,” said David Kreitzer, Main Street Hub’s senior director of marketing. “We found that specifically for a local business owner … social media is usually one of those things that does not fall into their core skillset. They don’t have the time or the resources. We will manage their online reputation in Yelp and Google and create posts on Facebook and Twitter, constantly engaging customers.”

Each Main Street Hub client is assigned a personal account manager who receives an automated alert when the business’ name is mentioned in an online review. The manager will then craft a personalized response to the online poster, working hand-in-hand with the business owner.

“We believe firmly that [online reviews] deserve a response,” Kreitzer said. “If someone walked up to you in your restaurant and gave you praise or criticism, you would say something back, you wouldn’t just walk away. Owners were burying their heads in the sand when it came to review sites.”
In terms of Facebook posts, Main Street Hub promotes the analogy that social media sites should be likened to a cocktail party in the sense that when you want to properly engage someone, you don’t spend all night talking about yourself.

“The way social media works the best is when people engage with content, friends see that engagement, and that’s how word of mouth is spread,” Kreitzer said. “If you write a post that no one likes or comments on, only [your own] friends see it.”

Kreitzer was cautious to generalize, but he did say that younger business owners are more likely to “get” the inherent value of social media. However, he said that it’s the savvy owners, the ones who have made it for a long time, who are able to adjust with the times.

“People are amazed at the difference between the way they were doing it and doing it right,” Kreitzer said. “The differences [in posts] can feel subtle — the way you word something, the frequency, the time of day — but they all contribute to keeping the conversation alive.”

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David Snyder is a JT staff reporter dsnyder@jewishtimes.com


COMMENTS
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